Cyberpunk 2077 Review
Cyberpunk 2077 is an astonishing piece of work - but not because it does anything particularly new or exciting. It is so because of its scope and breadth - bringing together things we have seen before, but in wildly different games. It is a composite game. The all-game. For better or worse, it’s a little like every video game at once. Where games are a fascinating, wonderful vehicle for storytelling, fun, and escapism, Cyberpunk is exemplary. Where video games are often ugly and immature, Cyberpunk is likewise.
The best way to understand Cyberpunk 2077 is to examine its lineage. It takes liberally from its direct predecessor, The Witcher 3. It shares an engine, many presentational aspects, a dedication to hardcore RPG mechanics in a mainstream-oriented game, and a general development and design philosophy. In The Witcher 3, CD Projekt RED created one of the best games of recent times. They knew that approach worked, and so much remains unchanged.
The world of Cyberpunk is a very different beast, however - and so DNA from other titles has been spliced in. The three frontmost inspirations are obvious. The first-person perspective, open-ended problem solving, and the way you root around buildings for clues and loot are straight out of immersive sims like the thematically similar Deus Ex. While The Witcher 3 embraced some BioWare-like story elements, the switch to a player-created character embraces that further: V is very much an echo of Commander Shepard. Finally, there’s the open world itself. A city is far more intense than meandering the wilds of high fantasy - and in terms of pace and feel, moment-to-moment on the streets of Night City feel uncannily like Grand Theft Auto.
How all these elements mesh is Cyberpunk 2077’s greatest triumph. Many of these elements are disparate, but you can’t see or feel where they have been sewn together. You can go from driving around the city at high speed to tight, shooter-like gunfights that’d feel at home in a full-blown shooter. Next, you might be in stealth, sneaking around an enemy base gathering intel.
None of this feels out of place, and only one element, stealth, falls a little short of the games Cyberpunk is channeling. It all clicks, which means the game feels natural and leaves you able to focus on its narrative and setting.
The Worst Place to Live in America
Night City is a nightmare. In 2077, the world is a morally bankrupt, institutionally corrupt mess. You play V, a character whose direct background is determined by a choice between one of three origin stories at the onset of the game. Your origin will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of the game, but all three ultimately end up in the same place: V will be a mercenary turned loose on Night City, a blade or gun for hire.
After the prologue, V ends up with a life-threatening problem. After slotting an experimental chip into their head, a digitized copy of the personality of long-dead radical and terrorist Johnny Silverhand is downloaded into their mind. Silverhand, played by Keanu Reeves, is slowly overwriting V’s personality and taking over their body. The chip is also malfunctioning, causing physical ailments that could possibly destroy the body, killing both V and Silverhand. After an auspicious and conflict-filled first meeting, V and Silverhand together decide to resolve some of Silverhand’s 50-year unfinished business and find a way to remove him from their mind.
It’s important to talk about Silverhand, because in many ways he represents the heart of Cyberpunk 2077. On one hand, this is a genius video game story mechanic. Once Silverhand is in your head, he is your permanent sidekick. V has visions of and can converse with him, and Reeves has seemingly recorded more dialogue here than I’ve seen from major Hollywood talent in any video game. Silverhand has something to say about everything - story quests, side quests, the occasional random NPC interaction. He’ll pop up and pass commentary or advice in the back seat of the car as you drive to a quest objective, or behind the bar as you meet a quest-giver over a beer. Silverhand’s presence enriches the experience and gives V somebody to bounce off even when working alone.
On the other hand, which is silver, Johnny is crass and unlikeable for much of the game. He’s an example of what I feel likely to become one of its most divisive aspects - the world of Cyberpunk has no filter, so neither does the game. Johnny uses some of the most loaded slurs to describe women. He boasts about the size of his dick. He has little empathy, and less remorse. He might be morally opposed to the corporations that make it tick, but he is also representative of everything wrong with Night City as a place.
This all seems deliberate. Cyberpunk 2077 feels fairly apolitical in that it doesn’t seem interested in offering a more direct critique of its ruined future in the same way Deus Ex games have tackled transhumanism, for instance. Johnny does mellow and become more likeable over the course of the game, but Night City does not - it’s an immersive and fascinating place to visit, but remains a total horror, presented warts-and-all.
In the run-up to release, much was made of an in-game billboard depicting a trans person. There was concern, especially in light of the decision to couple V’s pronouns to your choice of voice and other actions by CD Projekt outside of the game, that this billboard was specifically exploitative and insulting to trans people. In the final game, that billboard is one of many. There are similarly crass advertisements all over Night City. There’s an ad that depicts a wide-eyed man eating ass, and an ad for medication which asks ‘Getting Close?’ next to the image of a businessman with a gun in his mouth, ready to end his life.
CD Projekt has argued that this is the point. Night City has no chill. Everything is turned up to eleven all the time, and that includes the exploitation of sex and sexual identities for corporate gain. There are sex shops on every corner, while prop dildo items that you can pick up and break down into crafting materials are so common in even the most unlikely of places that it actually feels like parody. Like Johnny, the city is deliberately crass and abrasive. But as a blank-slate character, V isn’t particularly interested in criticizing any of these things. Many dialogue options lead to a ‘fuck you’ to Johnny, or a roll of the shoulders and a line that basically says ‘this sucks, but this is how the world is.’ Being open-ended, you can of course in many instances side with the organizations that this imagery allegedly lampoons, too.
Despite that flippant ‘Getting Close?’ ad, suicide is more carefully depicted within some quests, and to devastating effect. Despite the troublesome ads, some characters you meet in the story are trans, but you’d never know unless you take the time to get to know them, because why should that piece of character history matter to V? When one character you’ve known for hours casually mentions her years-prior transition (albeit in a slightly unnatural-feeling way), V doesn’t even see fit to comment.
Potentially problematic imagery and themes are common in Cyberpunk because it is an image of a future gone wrong. Cyberpunk’s ‘Joytoys’, augmented prostitutes, are basically straight out of Blade Runner. The 1980s trend of Japan-phobic Techno-Orientalism is likewise laced into the very bloodstream of the genre, so it is present here. With that said, I’d argue that the best of the genre has the wherewithal to examine the world it presents in more full detail and offer at least a coded critique of the world and values presented. Cyberpunk 2077 often falls flat at this, which leads to the more insensitive imagery it uses looking like it’s simply there to be edgy and cool.
In many ways, this Cyberpunk vision is reminiscent of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a series which was entertaining, trashy, and fun, but in some ways fundamentally misunderstood the genre greats. Regardless of the quality of the actual game, it’s fair to say that Cyberpunk 2077 lands in a similar sort of place. I wish it had more to say, but the fact that it doesn’t isn’t a barrier to this being a fun, fine game.
Amidst all this, Cyberpunk frequently gets other things right. Night City itself is staggeringly detailed and the level of density is bewildering at times. It’s a multicultural melting pot, and the themes of the setting are frequently used to its advantage. I love that characters speak in their native tongue, represented on-screen and in-universe within V’s mechanically-enhanced eyeballs as subtitles in that native text, which then flicks over to your chosen language as if being auto-translated by your augments.
Alleys cut between buildings and fork onto overpasses which face out towards three level highway interchanges that a squad of lowlifes clusters underneath. Building interiors are fleshed out with multiple rooms and exterior staircases along with the occasional punctured wall. The degree of asset variety keeps locations easily identifiable and before too long - innately familiar. City districts are perceptually distinct but at the same time don’t feel overly segmented when driving from one end to the other.
The absurd level of detail is also woven into all sorts of clever and believable ways in which V interacts with the city’s inhabitants. For instance, shopkeepers often have a few lines of unique dialogue just to set the various merchants apart and provide a level of artifice when they could have easily just been treated like pure game mechanics. If you return to the location of a minor quest, V might note what has changed, and an NPC might explain what happened. These minor, self-contained nuggets of storytelling are everywhere.
Friendships Make It
Many of Night City’s stand-out residents are women. Despite the world they’re in, Cyberpunk 2077 is packed wall-to-wall with brilliant women, many of whom are major drivers of the game’s narratives. Fans of Yennefer and Ciri will find similarly compelling, and in some cases flat-out better, characters here. I particularly love that you get time with Johnny’s revolutionary friends from 50 years prior. Johnny might now be an ageless construct, but they are not - so you get to take up arms with these older, more experienced characters, like fellow anti-corp warrior Rogue. The ravages of age aren’t as brutal in Cyberpunk’s world, so these characters look more in their forties or fifties than seventies, but we still don’t get enough characters like her in gaming.
Most of those characters are introduced in the main story, but fleshed out through side content. When you’re not progressing the primary questline, available side content is broken into a few categories. NCPD quests are basic distractions - pull over at a blue icon to take down some criminals with next to no narrative justification. Gigs are one-shot side missions that fall into a number of literal classifications like Gun for Hire, where you must assassinate a specific NPC, or Thievery, where you steal an item via stealth or force. These quests are almost absurdly over-categorized in that they are neatly organized by both quest type and district in a way that most openly exposes the video game lying beneath Night City.
To their credit, Gigs still often have unique dialogue and story and typically have multiple approaches you can take. Better, the quest givers will often react to how you tackle a mission. If you sneak in and ghost a thievery mission completely undetected, the quest-giver will acknowledge that and be more pleased than if you dash in guns blazing. In some cases the game will tell you outright that a better reward is in order if you manage to carry out a task stealthily, or without killing anyone. In others, the outcome is only reflected in the dialogue only, which is appreciated all the same.
Last and most important, however, are the Side Jobs. These are your meatier side quests, and this is where that Bloody Baron Witcher lineage comes in. Side Jobs are often tied to one NPC - so super-cool tech wiz Judy’s story sees you helping her to overcome recent trauma with a bit of revenge while learning about her past. Night City cop River needs help with a case that quickly turns personal. Nomad Panam is trying to patch things up with her tribe.
These aren’t one-shots, but quest lines that you’ll keep returning to - you’ll finish a mission, then go off to do other things. A few in-game days later, Judy or River might call with news - and that kicks off the next phase of that quest. Sometimes, completing one side job will introduce a character that leads to another. These stories are often significant, and are arguably the best of Cyberpunk 2077.
At one point, I got a phone call from a character saying they needed my help. This kicked off the next phase of their quest, and I could go to the mission marker at any time. But I was so attached to that character’s story that I dropped what I was doing in a heartbeat, spun my motorcycle 180 degrees and sped to their location as fast as I could. That’s the power of these stories when the more crass elements of this game are left behind, with a more tender humanity allowed to show.
It’s a good thing, then, that the side jobs seem to make up the lion’s share of the game. You’ll be able to hit the main story’s point of no return in around 20 to 25 hours, but the game is really designed to encourage you to pepper story advancement in between taking on lots and lots of gigs and side jobs. This doesn’t seem like a shorter or smaller game than The Witcher 3, but the balance of content has shifted so that more people will be able to see the end of the story in a timely fashion. Those who want to fully immerse themselves for hundreds of hours shouldn’t have a problem, however.
Naturally, every quest and job you take on has rewards. You’ll earn new items and gear, and occasionally unlock new vehicles to cruise around the city in. Some even pay off in the main story, unlocking new options that can lead to different endings. Of course, every action also adds to your character progression - which is a huge part of the game.
Yeah, it’s still a proper RPG
CD Projekt is a company that appears dedicated to its RPG roots. At one trade show, all its staff wore shirts that declared ‘Play your role’; they’re dedicated to the genre. Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk is also a true, full-on tabletop RPG - so the chops are here for a full-blown RPG experience. That, mercifully, is what you get.
There are loads of stats to think about, but the primary ones are your character level, street cred, and attribute points. These all feed into each other. Street cred indicates how well-known you are, and the more famous V is, the more quests will come their way. Character level determines base stats, but each level up also rewards an attribute point that can be spent on Body, Reflexes, Technical Ability, Intelligence, and Cool - stats that raise V’s attributes and unlock perks.
There are hundreds of these perks, some of them with multiple levels, all with cool little icons that reference everything from Blade Runner and System Shock to the NES Power Glove. There’s also a Skyrim-style system in place where the more you do something, the better you can become - so use assault weapons a lot and eventually your assault stat will level up enough to unlock a high-end, end-game assault perk.
Gear is also a vital part of your RPG progression. There’s the traditional color-coded loot, and V has a few slots for equipping gear including six for clothing & armor, two for quick access to vital items like grenades, and three weapon slots. There’s a good variety of weapons including some non-lethal options, plus variety within guns: a power assault rifle will handle very differently to a tech assault rifle. All enemies drop their weapons, so there’s a constant flow of new stuff for you to experiment with. When you fall in love with something, you can then use crafting to upgrade your favourite weapon or create a new one of a similar style and spec - if you’ve made the necessary investment in crafting skills.
I’ve not even mentioned Cyberware yet, the transhuman body modification at the core of this universe. This is another twenty-some equipment slots with various effects. For example, circulatory system mods are generally built around improving health and stamina use, but mods to your hands, arms or legs can actually grant new abilities like double jumps or new forms of powerful physical attacks.
All this is to say that there’s a whole lot of role-playing here. You can build your V out in a truly unique way. I started the game as a fairly standard assault-and-pistol gunslinger, but I ended up with a burly hacker build that would sneak around in stealth until detected, then I’d whip out a katana or my bare fists to shatter enemies with sheer brute force. For ranged emergencies I carried a tech rifle that could lean into my hacker skill set.
There aren’t many shortfalls in this system - it allows for excellent character creation and specialization. RPG fans will be pleased. With that said, the menus are an uneven, mixed experience depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, and are particularly sluggish to navigate on a controller. Additionally, there are actually so many options here that it’s initially slightly to the detriment of Cyberpunk’s design. It’s hard to choose a path early on, so until you figure out what works for you early points might be misspent, and respecs are expensive. I can’t wait for a second play-through where I can spec in a more specific direction from the start, however.
Hop over to the narrative side of role-playing and things are a little more simple. Dialogue options are constantly thrown at you, but they’re generally just for flavor more often than not - it lets you define your V a little bit, but you’re influencing the story less often than the game would like to trick you into thinking. In a lot of ways, it makes some sense considering the similar implementation found in The Witcher 3. As V straddles the line between being a player avatar and a bespoke character, it’s not unexpected to have a few incongruencies here. While dialogue choices may not be demonstrably consequential, being able to shift the protagonist’s characterization in this way has merit in its own right.
There are a few instances, however, where a timed and seemingly high-stakes dialogue option presented itself and I found myself incredibly curious at the resulting permutations, only to reload a save to learn that these situations, too, often had no measurable consequence. In these cases I did find myself somewhat deflated, admittedly.
The story does branch, however, and as previously noted, characters often acknowledge decisions you’ve made and how you’ve played. This leads to a satisfying marriage of the narrative and play sides of the experience: you choose how you want to play and the narrative pretty much always acknowledges it, even if in story terms most choices don’t have major consequences.
Bug in the System
The roller coaster disaster that is 2020 was not kind to Cyberpunk either. The constantly shifting schedule of release date is not news to anyone, but it also means that when the game was delayed three times within a year - once after going gold - discovering some unevenness with the final product in hand is perhaps not surprising. Even during the review period, patches and game-ready graphics card drivers were still rolling in.
To be clear, there have certainly been big-name RPGs that have released in a worse shape than Cyberpunk 2077. It is not a pariah of bugs. But there are also problems abound, even when playing with the day one patch in place.
The least egregious of issues that I ran into were animation hiccups and rigging issues. These could range from characters not positioning themselves properly for an animation (ie, sitting in mid air), or having a weapon in hand when they were supposed to be handing V an item in a first person cutscene. This is the sort of first-person jankiness that has historically been associated with Bethesda RPGs; in one case I had an NPC seemingly unable to decide whether they wanted to sit or stand, alternating between the two for the duration of a several minute conversation. While these sorts of blemishes are sure to get ironed out with some time, they do stand at odds with how the whole package is so astonishingly well-presented at its best, and are distracting when they do pop up.
There were also issues with stuck UI elements, where things like boss health bars, dialogue subtitles or item pick-up widgets would remain on-screen for hours at a time or until a reboot. Similarly, one story quest NPC was missing his voiceover - but a reboot also fixed that.
The more damning issues I encountered were the ones more intrinsically linked to the gameplay or progression systems. Some centered around item-management, such as issues trying to sell or scrap numerous grenades or upgrades, and having the game fail to update the inventory screen appropriately or simply lock up outright. I also had issues with quest flags, in a few cases ending up with bugged quests that I now can’t complete.
These issues combine to make clear that CD Projekt had to triage under the unusual conditions of the year, leaving some cracks in the veneer in spite of the significant, much-reported development crunch. The circumstances of the game’s development are relevant, of course - be that the ongoing pandemic or reported workplace issues at the studio - but in a vacuum, one can only describe the game as what it is: currently, buggy. CD Projekt is a studio that has a history of generous free updates and patches, and one hopes that over time these issues will be smoothed out, free-of-charge and without placing additional undue pressure on the development team. It’s clear they worked very hard, as the game is mind-boggling in scope - but it is equally clear that they ran out of time.
A City to Burn
It’s not entirely possible to divorce a game such as this from the circumstances around its release. The crunch, the social responsibility of developers - these are real and important questions. But some of you no doubt simply want to know: divorced from all that, is it a good video game? Cyberpunk 2077 absolutely is.
The city is often the star of the show, in spite of its inherent character sometimes having the subtlety of a sledgehammer. When Cyberpunk's grim setting and mix of gameplay systems land, it is a powerfully impressive experience - sprawling, dense, clever, witty, and most importantly damn good fun. Other times, it has all the charm of a moody, edgy teenager.
It is also imperfect, like so many of Night City’s inhabitants. In some places it just teeters into going too far. In other places, the opposite is true. This imbalance sometimes takes the shine off, but the real problem is the bugginess of the experience as it stands. Consider we played the game on high-end PC hardware - I dread to think how it might run on the PS4 and Xbox One. We haven’t had the opportunity to test any console versions.
Right now, Cyberpunk is therefore a game that ultimately falls short of the heady heights CD Projekt RED set for itself with The Witcher 3 - though that is mostly down to clear struggles with the source material and the previously-mentioned raft of bugs and issues. Hopefully these are fixed in time. It remains a mind-boggling achievement, however - and a game whose influence is likely to be felt for years to come.
Addendum: after publishing this review based on the PC version of the game, we finally got to test the console version - and discovered it is of significantly worse quality at launch. If you considering playing on console, consider reading our Cyberpunk 2077 console review addendum. [December 13, 2020]