The expectations for Cyberpunk 2077 could not have been higher. Developer CD Projekt Red had fans on the edge of their seats in the build-up to the open-world game, creating expectations that were impossible to live up to. That led to a particularly messy fallout that left some fans blindly misdirecting their anger at reviews that didn’t declare it the greatest game of all time.
While the hype was perhaps unrealistic, it’s easy to see what sparked it. Just five years before the game’s launch, CD Projekt Red dropped what many consider to be one of the greatest action RPGs of all time, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The game provides crucial context when it comes to understanding where fans find themselves today in Cyberpunk 2077’s aftermath.
For those who have yet to play, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is currently available via Xbox Game Pass. Console and Ultimate subscribers can play the game for free on Xbox One, Series X, and Series S.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt tells the story of a monster-hunting bounty hunter named Geralt who embarks on a quest to find a powerful lost child named Ciri. At a quick glance, it doesn’t look much different than most open-world RPGs. Geralt hacks enemies, loots everything in sight, and takes on more side quests than a desperate freelancer.
While the gameplay isn’t exactly groundbreaking, one element pushes the game to radical heights: storytelling. The Witcher 3’s world is incredibly dense, packed with rich lore, internal politics, and a cast of fantastic characters. Each mission builds on the game’s sprawling story, while side quests play like the best episodes of a “Monster of the Week” style TV show.
That strong narrative threads helped create one of the most fully realized RPG worlds since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Even if the gameplay mechanics weren’t groundbreaking, it was hard not to get totally lost in Geralt’s journey, pit stops and all. Many quests involve a series of smaller decisions that have a direct impact on what the outcome looks like. If Geralt leans towards violence or compassion, that will influence the world around him in nuanced ways.
That strength placed CD Projekt Red on a particularly high pedestal going into Cyberpunk 2077. Within months of The Witcher 3’s release, the studio went from a niche RPG maker to a development powerhouse. If this is how good one of their games was in 2015, imagine how much better their next project would be in 2020.
Reflecting on the ungraceful jump from The Witcher 3 to Cyberpunk 2077, I’m reminded of HBO’s True Detective. The show’s first season was a tremendous hit with fans hailing it as the next great TV classic. But when director Cary Fukunaga left the show following its first season, the second season took a quality nosedive despite writer Nic Pizzolatto remaining on board. With one piece of the equation gone, it became clear that Fukunaga’s contributions were inseparable from the first season’s quality.
The same feels true here in a way. The Witcher 3 wasn’t carried by CD Projekt Red’s development chops alone. The source material played a massive role in the game’s success, elevating a solid open-world RPG and paving over some of its unflattering elements. Cyberpunk 2077 keeps a lot of the same gameplay ideas as The Witcher 3 intact, but the Geralt sized hole in its script is too big to cover the game’s flaws in the same way.
Luckily, Cyberpunk’s odd rollout doesn’t take away from The Witcher 3’s legacy. It remains an open-world classic that other games in the genre aspire to emulate. It’s True Detective with Cary Fukunaga.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is available now on Game Pass for Xbox consoles.