I can’t easily recall a game that’s been marketed quite as heavily as Cyberpunk 2077. From the first teases nearly a decade ago, to the ‘breathtaking’ E3 reveals and consistent media buzz it’s been near-impossible not to take notice. And it seems to have worked, with the game by all reports making its money back on pre-order sales alone.
It’s jarring then, to be in a post-Cyberpunk 2077 world and not see the masses in the streets, flying flags of Pantone 3945C and declaring an extra month in 2020 so the game could qualify for GOTY.
Cyberpunk has launched with not a roar or a whimper, but the energy of a sports star popping the champagne bottle and jerking themselves off at the podium before the camera pulls back to reveal they’re only at third place. With all of the hubris of Icarus and his wax wings, it’s seen the highs of an initial wave of Metacritic acclaim and record-breaking sales and come crashing down amid cries of shoddy base console performance, deceptive practices and mass refunds.
Putting all of that aside though, after having spent significant time playing the game to completion (and then some) and giving it some critical thought I can finally say with certainty that Cyberpunk 2077 is just fine. Occasionally even fairly good.
Based on Mike Pondsmith’s classic tabletop role-playing franchise, Cyberpunk 2077 is a stark departure from developer CD Projekt Red’s work on the very well-received The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and yet it shares a lot of the same DNA. Despite the urban setting, this isn’t a far-future take on Watch Dogs or Grand Theft Auto, but a full-blooded first-person RPG a la modern Fallout with a heavy emphasis on player choice in both gameplay and narrative. V, the game’s protagonist, is only loosely defined from the outset with multiple ways to shape their physical appearance, personality and backstory.
Whether your chosen origin story sees V as a Street Kid making their way in the world, a Corpo doing the dirty work for a megacorporation or a Nomad banking on one last job to get them out of the badlands for good, your Life Path becomes the catalyst to a series of events that kicks off the game’s story proper. First impressions are important, and this prologue section (the Nomad path for me) doesn’t make the best one. For all the talk about these three different ways of starting the game it’s jarring to find that they’re over in a flash, quickly giving way to a (admittedly entertaining) montage that moves things months forward in time. It immediately feels like something that was planned to be vastly more involved but was left on the cutting room floor, a notion that the rest of the game struggles to shake.
Once your version of V is established in Night City and events begin to unfold, the game’s central narrative shows its face, along with that of one Keanu Reeves. Aside from being the poster boy and marketing meme fodder for the game, Reeves’ plays deceased rocker-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand, who in a turn of events winds up with a virtual construct of his psyche embedded in V’s brain. It’s hard to say much more without essentially spelling out the entirety of the game’s critical plot, thin and predictable as it is, but it’s an enjoyable enough series of events once it gets going that it hardly matters. Between Silverhand and a menagerie of other key players, CDPR’s best storytelling trick is to almost always have a second face along for the ride to make up for V’s less immediate personality.
It’s the lack of any real ‘punk’ in this Cyberpunk game that hurts the most
Now, I can only speak to the experience of playing as V with a ‘masculine’ voice (despite physical attributes being gender-neutral your in-game gender is unfortunately tied to the binary voice selection), but my God are they unlikeable. Of course it’s largely going to come down to taste, but I’m personally sick of angry American dude man protagonists. Keanu’s flat delivery of Silverhand, a character that feels like he was written by one of those screenplay bots that only had access to the IGN comment section, doesn’t help matters either. There are moments, fleeting moments, where the pair show a glimmer of humanity and nuance, but they mostly just yell and complain about women.
It’s the lack of any real ‘punk’ in this Cyberpunk game that hurts the most. As with the majority of Cyberpunk 2077’s issues, a lot of this feels like it stems from conflicts of interest within the studio, or from too many fingers in the one pie. Sometimes it seems like it’s on the right path, too. You’ll see it when one section of the game goes out of its way to genuinely address the genre’s obsession with Japanese culture, and then five minutes later you meet your fourth blatant stereotype and all that hard work is undone. The biggest issue is that the worst of it is on the surface level and you really have to dig to find the nuggets of genuine care and attention, as if CDPR didn’t trust the masses of 4chan flag-flyers that bulk out their fanbase with anything that might upset their fragile worldviews.
I’m also not blessed with the perspective of anyone outside of my white, cisgendered and bisexual self and so writing this review well after release has absolutely challenged my values when playing and covering (and by proxy supporting) a product like this. Being online and seeing the conversation from marginalised people who’ve been hurt by the game’s content, or marketing, or the attitudes of CDPR staff and leadership, should make it difficult for anyone with a conscience to play Cyberpunk 2077 completely guilt-free. Not every game can be everything to anyone and I don’t think anybody is asking for that, realistically, but what’s disappointing here is that so much of it is deeply and pointedly exclusionary at best and almost intentionally damaging at worst. Those sweet, warm pieces of actual good aren’t going to be touched by anyone who would have benefited from them when they’re buried under six feet of blatant phobia.
Thankfully, once you start to meet some of the more interesting faces in the game and all of the edgelord nonsense starts to fade into the background, things fare better. Though you can play through Cyberpunk 2077 in a swift 20-25 hours doing just the mainline missions, you’d be completely missing the best that it has to offer. From smaller side hustles to bigger, multi-step questlines the game’s supporting cast is universally more entertaining than its leads. There are some genuinely hilarious and heartfelt side quests to be found in Night City, including a personal favourite involving some rogue autonomous driver AI, but it’s the ones that influence the game’s ending, and feature characters that V can form lasting bonds with that have the most impact. A quick glance at Twitter is enough to tell you that fans are very much on board with the Nomadic badass Panam and Judy, the tech genius with a job curating pornographic virtual experiences.
But while the content of these lovingly-crafted outings is mostly great, the way they’re paced and presented – and the way the game and its open world are in general – feels half-baked. Night City makes for impressive set dressing, but it isn’t quite the impossibly-dense urban playground that CDPR might have alluded to – there are more locked doors than not and you’ll rarely ever leave street level outside of predetermined locations. Very little happens organically in the game, you’ll mostly come across new things to do just by entering a general area and receiving a phone call or message from a stranger (where are all of these people getting my number?) that adds the quest to a running list in the main menu. After that point, no matter the level of urgency, the world will simply wait in idle for you to fumble through the (very unhelpful) quest log and go do the thing.
Night City definitely looks the part, though. A huge portion of CDPR’s efforts have clearly gone to selling its world, even if those efforts aren’t always enough. The neon-drenched and rain-slicked streets downtown, the dilapidated but sunny foreshores and the arid and dusty badlands all exude atmosphere and showcase painstaking attention to detail. The variety of interior and one-off locations you’ll visit during missions all look phenomenal as well with even stronger lighting and effects, every single item intentionally placed and more bespoke elements in one mission than some entire games.
Perhaps the biggest highlights are the game’s characters. From starring roles to nameless nightclub patrons, CDPR has clearly spared no expense on crafting high-quality models that animate and converse more convincingly than I’ve ever seen thanks to some incredible talent in both the recording booth and the mocap studio.
Cyberpunk does this fantastic thing where cutscenes are always in first-person and almost never static. When talking to other characters you’re usually still in complete control to look and walk around, and the same goes for NPCs. They’ll move around the room, shift positions, get up in your grill and look only slightly uncanny doing it. In a nice touch, when there are multiple NPCs in a conversation and the game’s dialogue trees offer the chance to choose who to talk to, it’ll shuffle the list to prioritise whoever you’re looking at in the moment.
I was lucky enough to experience all of this on a PlayStation 5 console, where the game generally looks fantastic. Great lighting, slick textures and a very solid 60fps in performance mode make next-gen consoles the best place to play if you don’t have a beefy PC rig. That said, as the internet has vehemently highlighted in the time since launch, if you’re rocking a base PS4 or Xbox One console it’s going to be a decidedly less positive visual experience.
Great lighting, slick textures and a very solid 60fps in performance mode make next-gen consoles the best place to play if you don’t have a beefy PC rig
The thing I did cop a ton of on the PlayStation 5 was a shopping centre food court’s worth of bugs. From small, unintentionally hilarious things like drivers T-posing in their cars or my V’s hair disappearing in cutscenes to more egregious and progress-halting issues like mission-critical characters being dead before I could even talk to them. Even after the most recent (at time of writing) 1.05 update, my game continues to crash at least once an hour. Thankfully there’s a pretty forgiving auto/quick save system in place, but it’s still a bit of a fucking nightmare. No game of this scope is immune to issues, but given the aforementioned consoles performance and the breadth and depth of problems across the board it’s a pretty bad look for a game as high profile as this, not least one that’s been subject to multiple, lengthy delays.
If it seems odd that we’ve gotten all this way and barely mentioned how Cyberpunk 2077 actually plays, it’s because it’s probably the game’s least remarkable element. Taking cues from a plethora of other first-person RPGs and action games, there’s not much here that feels unique to this game. That’s totally fine of course, and what’s here works, it’s just not particularly inspired.
Aside from casting your first sprinkle of attribute points during character creation, your V will gain most of their experience through the actions they perform. Using firearms versus melee weapons or pure stealth, hacking doors versus forcing them open or vaulting over, the more you lean towards particular methods the more related points and perks you’ll unlock. It’s a decent enough system, and one that’s forgiving enough that you can switch playstyles on the fly and still find yourself progressing. It’s a shame though, that at the end of the day it all feels a bit inconsequential.
Most encounters or missions go for the Deus Ex approach with multiple ways around each problem, but the RPG systems are too undercooked to back it up, and the environmental logic is inconsistent. There’s no telling what skills you’ll need until you’re faced with a problem, even something as simple as locked doors and the skills required to get through them seem to be picked at random from one area to the next. Rather than build my character the way I wanted and having the game react naturally to my playstyle, for maybe the first half of the game I found myself just banking my points until I came up against an obstacle and applying them to suit.
For all the time and sweat spent on developing to the most minute of details there’s an equal number of odd and immersion-breaking missteps. Like when a character tells me they want nobody left alive to report my deeds during a heist but I’m still free to take the bad guys out non-lethally. Or the numerous times that partner characters would break stealth to start a conversation or yell at me about being stealthy. Of everything, the massive deficiency in the ‘I’ part of the enemy AI is the least of the game’s offences. These guys are dumb as hell, and stealth is a game of ‘follow the obvious path of hackable objects and conveniently placed body bins’ but it’s still strangely engaging and makes stealth a viable option for those who lack patience but want something more engaging than stock standard shoot-outs.
The recurring theme here is that every facet of Cyberpunk 2077 is brimming with potential that feels lost in its development woes and left on the cutting room floor. It’s a little upsetting to know that very few of the choices you’ve made along the way have any bearing on the game’s various possible endings. With a couple of very small exceptions, it doesn’t really matter how you played the game, just how much of it you played. Given how short of an RPG it is compared to something like The Witcher III, I’d hoped that the Life Path you chose, the characters you decided to help and the way you played would make for a unique enough experience that multiple playthroughs would become rewarding. Instead, it pretty much boils down to checking off the requisite quests to unlock every possible final choice and then picking the ending you want to see. Reload save, pick something else, repeat.
The only reason to go back and play again would be to play your character differently, but even then if you played enough to properly ‘finish’ the game you’re likely a bit of an all-rounder anyways. Here’s hoping CDPR gets the chance to at least flesh out some Life Path stuff and/or end-game stuff in the coming months. Though I’d wager most of the studio would rather take a well-deserved holiday first.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a game with a lot of ideas, some of which are executed fairly well, but scant few of which come close to being groundbreaking in any way. Aside from the breadth and depth afforded by a protracted and intensive development it barely feels like it belongs in 2020, let alone 2077. That said, the moments where CD Projekt Red’s more successful, more heartfelt and more entertaining efforts appear it’s easy to forget its shortcomings. There are glimpses of a brilliant game here, they’re just sandwiched in between bits of a middling one. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the majority of my time in Night City but for every step forward, the game takes one or two back. And then clips through the floor, and blames it on a woman. And then crashes.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- CD Projekt Red
- CD Projekt Red
- PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / PC
- December 10, 2020