Cyberpunk 2077 Review – Welcome to Night City

Reviewed December 16, 2020 on PC

Platforms:

Xbox One, PS4, PC

Released:

December 10, 2020

Publisher:

Bandai Namco Entertainment

Developer:

CD Projekt Red

Public perception and Cyberpunk 2077 have a complicated history. For quite some time, this was arguably the most highly anticipated video game release around. It was the next epic RPG from the developers who had previously given us the generation-defining The Witcher 3. It was a game that was always shown off to us in highly controlled environments and built up to be something monumental, unlike any other video game we have seen previously. People became fans and defenders of the game long before they ever had an opportunity to play it for themselves. It was always going to be next to impossible for CD Projekt Red to meet those lofty expectations.

I’ve had my hands on the game for a week now. I’ve completed the main story and many of the more substantial side quests. I’ve upgraded protagonist V with expensive implants and I’ve even watched as he found love within the harsh streets of Night City. Safe to say that my overall experience and feelings towards the game are as complicated as the public’s perception. But I’m ultimately very pleased to have checked it out.

Cyberpunk 2077 is an ambitious game. It brings in the crime-ridden open world of a Grand Theft Auto complete with carjacking, gangs, sex workers, and a police “wanted” system. Add a healthy dose of Deus Ex where you upgrade your character through cybernetics and can approach combat encounters stealthily or through tried and true first-person gunplay. Splash in some intense and focussed narrative akin to, say, The Witcher, and you start to have a pretty good idea of what makes up the DNA of this title.

You play as V, a character whose backstory, appearance, and gender are shaped by the player but who ultimately finds themselves mixed up in a dangerous and oppressive world. Night City embodies the theme of Cyberpunk to a tee. Rich corporations and families run the world, protected in their high towers by wealth and power. Everybody else finds themselves on the streets, battling against a corrupt world that’s stacked up against them. Crime runs rampant through Night City and you can’t rely on the system to protect you. V isn’t an overly complicated character. They are driven by their desire to leave an impact on the world. They are constantly mixed up with dangerous people and have had to develop a thick skin, independence, and street smarts. Your role as V starts with a basic introduction to the shitty world you live in. But after one job involving a family-run megacorporation and the heist of an incredibly important implant, you find yourself at the core of something much bigger than you ever anticipated.

Cyberpunk 2077 can feel overwhelming at times. It somehow manages to tell its story in a way that’s both slow and detailed yet quick and unrelenting. The epilogue of the game alone can easily take 6-7 hours yet that 6-7 hours is filled with a huge swath of action setpieces, narrative cliffhangers, exciting highs, and crushing lows. It’s almost unrelenting in its approach to narrative because when it hit it hits hard and it doesn’t let up. I found myself exhausted at times by the rollercoaster of story beats that never really gave the player much of an opportunity to take a breath and relax. This is one of Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest achievements. If you’re hooked by the narrative and attached to the character of V, then you’re in for a wild ride.

On the flip side, however, the unrelenting nature of the game, especially during that epilogue and other moments throughout, meant that the game demanded the player’s attention for prolonged and sometimes unnatural periods of time. It was strange. No other game I’ve played before has paced itself quite like this. Moments of dialogue would linger and even sequences that involved the admittedly very cool ‘Braindance’ mechanic could go on for a surprising length of time as you rewound, rewatched, and looked for clues within a virtually recreated space. It’s not something I’ve ever really considered before but at times I wondered when CD Projekt Red wanted me to take a break. Like sure, you could pause the game and take it at any point. But there were so many occasions that left me waiting for a natural stopping point that just never arrived. I’ve never had this problem with other narrative games. The player is usually considered when it comes to the pacing of a game. Even plays have an intermission. Yet it’s almost as if CD Projekt Red didn’t want the player’s natural need for a break to get in the way of their artistic vision. As if that was a sacrifice too great. And I still don’t know whether I’m impressed or frustrated by that choice.

The narrative of the game can be pretty gripping, although that also comes with some sizable concessions. I won’t give much away here but your character V isn’t truly alone all too often throughout the game. You’ll have sidekicks and partners in crime for a lot of your missions including the former rocker and always anarchist, Johnny Silverhand, performed by the much loved Keanu Reeves. The narrative of the game is driven by some pretty high stakes with an ever-looming ticking clock that gives the character urgency. Character-driven narrative moments aren’t uncommon either as the dangerous megacorporations of the world fade away and bring moments of heartbreak, despair, loss, betrayal, and revenge to the forefront. Ultimately it’s a fairly compelling story overall. It’s an against all odds tale involving a constantly revolving set of side characters set in a fairly well-realised Cyberpunk backdrop. It’s a good ending too. The kind of ending that leaves you feeling after the credits have finished rolling and you step away from the game. Obviously I won’t be spoiling anything here but it’s worth knowing that you as the player have agency. There are decisions to be made in those final quests and characters you met along the way who play a role. Perhaps it’s only an emotional role rather than something more pivotal, although the callback is still nice and reinforces the idea that the game is capable of having both world-changing narrative moments as well as meaningful personal tales.

The game’s narrative as a whole is quite satisfying and well worth experiencing for yourself. Although when you isolate certain elements and examine them under a microscope they don’t always hold up. Some characters seem better written than others and I can’t shake this feeling that both V and Johnny Silverhand aren’t particularly great characters. V comes off as slightly milquetoast and bland, which I know is common amongst playable characters in RPGs, but even so it’s a little disappointing. Johnny on the other hand just doesn’t really have much range. I can’t pinpoint if its Keanu or the way the character is written but their role as a selfish, anarchistic rocker doesn’t provide much nuance. I wanted the character to breakdown, to emote, to show the vulnerability that must be lurking underneath, to evolve. But every time Johnny approached one of these moments it was so internalised that the emotional impact was dampened.

“…all of the themes and ideas that have been explored throughout the history of the Cyberpunk genre felt very surface level here.”

I also can’t help but feel that the Cyberpunk setting wasn’t fully utilised within the narrative. It made for a cool backdrop, no doubt, and I’m still pleased to see such an ambitious project set within a Cyberpunk universe. However, all of the themes and ideas that have been explored throughout the history of the Cyberpunk genre felt very surface level here. The characters you meet, their ideology, their worldview – it all felt like it could have existed in any other type of fiction. In a strange way I’m glad that tropes of the genre didn’t show up again here. I don’t need another piece of fiction to explore the idea of transhumanism and how much humanity you lose when 90% of your body is cybernetics. But to gloss over everything made it feel like CD Projekt Red wasn’t confident in the genre. That they’d rather use it as a fun and edgy backdrop and not anything with meaning or depth.

I had also hoped more queer themes would have been explored. There’s clear and apparent links that have been made between Cyberpunk fiction and the role of trans identity in the past, with a Cyberpunk setting facilitating body modifications and supporting the ideology that you can be whoever you want. Cloudpunk, for instance, was a Cyberpunk game I reviewed earlier this year and it didn’t shy away from exploring this very idea. Yet queer themes seemed almost eerily absent from Cyberpunk 2077 altogether. There was some fear going into this release that the topic wouldn’t be broached sensitively, initially sparked by a poster found within a promotional video. I shared that fear going into this game. A lack of queer themes doesn’t mean a lack of queer characters though. A few meaningful queer characters show up during your time in Night City including braindance technician Judy Alvarez (who appears in a lot of the game’s promotional material) as well as rockstar Kerry Eurodyne, both of whom are romance options if you selected their preferred body type and voice. There’s also Claire, a bartender who sets you off on races around Night City who you later discover is trans. All three characters felt well written but they also felt normal. It was nice to see this horrible depiction of a corrupt and dangerous future where a character’s queer identity wasn’t the cause of any problems. With that said though, there was still plenty of ways for the game to be more progressive and forward-thinking. One particularly heinous, queer coded villain felt off-kilter, those fetishizing posters were still littered all around the place, and the way gender and sexual preference are tied to voice and body type could have certainly been implemented more thoughtfully.

You also can’t ignore the glitches that have a real habit of undercutting the game’s narrative moments and tone. Whilst patches have already been deployed that do a good job of addressing some of these issues, many more linger and it won’t be abnormal to come across glitches within the game. Some were innocuous enough. Characters standing in T-poses rather than animating, or objects that are supposed to be held in a character’s hand are floating around detached instead. Although some are more problematic. I still can’t conclude a side quest because for some reason every time I load into the quest, dialogue that is supposed to trigger won’t trigger and I’m instead locked into a staring contest where nothing happens until I quit out. At one moment of the game, during a particularly harrowing emotional climax, a gun was floating around aimlessly, clipping in and out of my character’s vision and through another character’s head. Suddenly a moment that was intended to be emotional came across as funny and there’s no getting that moment back.

You can’t help but feel that Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest problem is that it needed more development time. Not just because of the frequent glitches, but because other shortcuts were clearly made that should have been addressed prior to release. There were certain voice lines that clearly needed to be re-recorded and certain bits of dialogue that should have been re-written. There were continuity errors in the dialogue where choices I had made clearly weren’t written into the game. This ranged from big things such as my character being accused and admitting to killing a character he in fact did not kill, to small things like characters responding to my prompts in a way that was clearly¬†intended as a response to the other dialogue choice I did not pick.

On the topic of glitches, it’s well worth noting that I played the game on a high-end PC. Whilst I experienced some notable glitches, the problems I encountered sound nothing like the issues other platforms are facing. In fact I didn’t really have any performance issues with the game whatsoever. At no point did my game crash and at no point did my framerate dip to noticeable levels. For all intents and purposes, Cyberpunk 2077 ran like a dream. It meant there was no barrier for me to experience the compelling narrative and explore the game’s vast open world. Gunplay was fast and fluid, and all of the mechanics introduced worked smoothly and effectively.

The game’s open-world provides heaps of additional content not tied to the main story. You can venture out into the world by foot or by car and soak in the flashing neon lights and the over-sexualised billboards of this Cyberpunk metropolis. Night City is divided into districts and each has its own ‘Fixer’, a well-connected individual who acts as a middle-man and sets you up with ‘gigs’ you can complete for monetary reward. These gigs function as good filler content, nothing extraordinary but certainly better than the kind of procedurally generated, ambient questing found in other games of this type. Side quests are also available and these can be really solid bits of non-mandatory narrative content. You meet some likable people within your travels around Night City and it’s worth pursuing their quests to allow those bonds to deepen. Hell, maybe you’ll even find love.

The game’s open-world is quite engaging to explore. It won’t be long before your journal is filled to the brim with active sidequests, gigs, story missions and more. Sometimes it can get a little overwhelming and you can easily forget about what should be an important quest because you’re bombarded with so much other information. But ultimately it means that players who want to spend tens if not hundreds of hours within the game can do so. If you’re looking for more RPG elements within Night City though you may find yourself disappointed. Whilst I was delighted at the range of clothing options for V, I was surprised to not find any hairdressers or any way to change your hairstyle after you leave character customisation. I was also surprised by the lack of potential romantic partners or even just the lack of sex workers you can engage in physically. There’s like two in the entire city. Some of the character customisation just felt surprisingly limited too. Why is it that I can choose my penis size but I can’t alter my muscle tone, height, weight, or age? I can’t help but go back to my previous statement and discuss how if this game had more development time, basic features like this that have been in plenty of other games in the past could have easily been implemented in Cyberpunk 2077 before release.

8

Great

Positive:

  • Compelling narrative moments
  • A big, ambitious, and unrelenting game
  • Some great characters and side quests
  • A huge amount of content

Negative:

  • Glitches galore
  • A lack of depth in Cyberpunk themes
  • Some areas that could utilise more development time

Cyberpunk 2077 is an exciting game. It’s very easy to put a huge and ambitious title like this under a microscope and point out all the ways it could be better. But at the end of the day, I enjoyed my time with the game and found some parts that I really did love. I can’t help but feel that if Cyberpunk 2077 was a more focussed game that didn’t try to do so much it could have been a better experience that was more achievable for the developers. Although in its current state there’s no denying that some elements work better than others. Ultimately though there’s no regrets in checking out Night City. If you have a powerful PC that can run the game comfortably then I have no problems recommending this daunting yet engaging experience. In fact, I might just have to jump back in myself to see what other secrets Night City is hiding.