At this point reiterating the backstory of Cyberpunk 2077 feels like beating a dead horse. Suffice to say if you’re into games it’s likely you already know everything there is to know about this particular title, warts and all. So instead I’ll give you my history with the genre, the game and other related stuff before I dive into the review proper.
I did not come to Cyberpunk as a genre by choice; it was thrust upon me by an enterprising english teacher when I was in college who saw my interest in sci-fi and tasked me with reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I loved the book and it spurred a whole host of conversations with her around technology and its impacts on humanity. I wouldn’t say it spawned a keen interest in the genre though, more it just made me aware of this particular brand of sci-fi and incorporated a lot of its vocabulary into my lexicon. This meant that when I saw the first trailers for Cyberpunk 2077, way back in 2013, I was certainly excited especially as I had recently finished The Witcher 2 and rated CD Projekt Red as a developer. Once I was sold on the concept though I began my usual low information diet on it but even with that I was keenly aware of the drama surrounding it.
The resulting game is a gorgeous disaster of epic proportions. No other developer could achieve such levels of hype, craftsmanship and depth whilst simultaneously ruining the experience with bugs, irrelevant mechanics and designs by committee. In some respects it feels like 2020 has imbued itself into this game as it has all the trappings we could want from something great yet it is marred by the harsh reality it finds itself in.
You are V and (if you played the game like I did) you’re a corporate agent at the height of his game. This all goes sideways on you quickly when one of your superiors orders you to take out one of his rivals in the corp, effectively sending you on a suicide mission without any means to get it done. The rival catches on however and you’re exiled from the corp with nothing much more than the clothes on your body and a wad of cash you were given to complete the job. So you turn yourself into a free agent, running jobs for fixers to make ends meet with a view to becoming one of Night City’s legends of the street. One day you get the kind of job you’ve been dreaming for: a snatch and grab job from the heir apparent to the world’s largest corporation (and your former employer): Arasaka. This job sets you on a path that you could never have dreamed of and what you make of it will be determined by the choices you make, the people you befriend and the betrayals you deem necessary.
There’s always one game that makes me realise it’s time for an upgrade and Cyberpunk 2077 is most certainly it. The optimised settings that the game chose for my rig are…decidedly tame although nowhere near as bad as some of the screenshots and videos I’ve seen for previous generation consoles. Even at those meagre settings the game became a slideshow quite often, especially in any outdoor area or in places where there were more than a half dozen enemies on screen. It’s definitely playable but I wouldn’t call it the most enjoyable experience. It’s a real shame as even as it is for me currently it’s an exceptionally beautiful game, one that’s brimming in detail at all levels. The 4K videos I’ve seen from others with cutting edge rigs shows clearly what I’m missing out on too and this is probably one of the few games I’ll find myself revisiting a bit next year, even if it is just for a couple hours to enjoy the eye candy.
As you’d expect from an extremely large budget, AAA, open world action RPG title Cyberpunk 2077 is bursting at the seams with all sorts of interwoven mechanics. So many that the first few hours of the game are likely to be a dizzying experience as you try to figure out which stats you want to max, what build you want to go for and ultimately how you want to engage with the game overall. Thankfully though the game is, for the most part, well crafted enough to cater for your specific choices, even if you happen to do things it’s not entirely expecting. Most things follow standard RPG tropes for the most part so once you’re comfortable with the basics everything else just kind of flows in around it. One piece of advice I can give to new players is that whilst the game is absurd in its complexity and scale the good (or bad news, depending on your take) is that not all of it matters. So the best thing you can do is focus in on what you enjoy most and go for that. The rest of it is there if you ever find the desire to chase after it.
Combat seemingly has 2 speeds: ridiculously easy or absurdly hard. After the first few hours you’ll likely settle on the start of a build which allows you to lay waste to pretty much any enemy you come across except for some select ones which are way above your pay grade. How do you tell those two apart? No idea! I had several encounters where I’d jump into what seemed like one of those small optional objectives, figuring I could pop a few heads and then get back on my way, only to be met with street thugs who were apparently wearing the latest generation wetware that made my weapons completely useless. For gigs and side missions you will know this going in if the danger level is high, but for random encounters or anything else you could randomly end up hitting a brick wall of an enemy without knowing it. I’m not sure what goes into this as I thought most things would’ve been generated “at level” for me, so to speak, but given the pervasive jankiness that this game has I could easily put it down to yet more rushed work that wasn’t given the attention it deserved.
Stealth is done quite well, with you given a wide variety of mechanics to aid you in sneaking about and manipulating enemies into positions so you can bypass them or take them out. One thing I really like about the games insane amount of customisation is that you could easily build out a rig that is all focused on enabling you to sneak about and take out enemies silently. I didn’t choose this path since, well I always do that in these kinds of games, but the fact that I came across various mods, weapons and other stuff that’d make an almost full non-lethal playthrough a possibility I was quite impressed with the level that they went to enable it. Of course there’s still some gotchas with the system, like NPCs randomly finding bodies even if none of them have patrolled there or everyone in the entire floor being alerted to your presence the second one person spots you. Again, just like with everything else in this game you’ve got some of the best mechanics and their implementations I’ve seen anywhere right alongside bugs, glitches and other rustyness that you don’t really expect from an AAA developer.
Thanks to the multiple progression paths you’ll see steady progress over the entire duration of the game although like any other RPG the first dozen or so levels are the most impactful with the later ones feeling a lot more like window dressing. There’s 2 main progression paths: your level and your street cred. The latter works exactly how you’d expect it to, giving you a point to spend in the various talent trees each time you level up, which is done mostly via missions and side objectives. Street cred works similarly although some actions seem to preference giving you street cred over regular XP and vice versa. Street cred also limits what jobs and items are available to you, the idea being that the more notorious you become the more people want to be involved with you. It can be a little annoying to have some of the games more iconic things (like mantis blades) hidden behind this stage gate but, honestly, once I actually tried to grind street cred for a little bit it didn’t take long to get the required levels I needed.
There’s also minor progression systems attached to the talent trees of each of the main attribute trees which level up independently from everything else. For instance taking out enemies from stealth levels up that particular tree, crafting items levels up crafting, etc. These most serve to either enhance that particular way of playing, I.E. if you do more stealth kills you’ll unlock perks to make it easier to do more stealth kills, or giving you more currency to spend in unlocking other talents. It’s worth noting that past the first few couple levels for each of these you’re likely going to have to spend some time grinding them out if you want to unlock their higher tiers. Crafting for instance will take a good chunk of time and materials to max out, so much so that I shudder to think how you’d go about it without making use of some of the infinite money/XP loops that are still in the game as of writing. However as my play though demonstrated you can pretty much ignore all these minor progression systems and still become something of an unstoppable force of nature, brick walls of progression notwithstanding.
Vehicles and driving are…interesting as there was definitely a lot of effort spent on ensuring they were done well enough to make sure that their inclusion wasn’t seen as an afterthought. However they’re one of the few things in Cyberpunk 2077 that you can’t modify in any way, you can only collect a bunch of different ones to drive around in. I personally didn’t use my car at all for the first 10 hours or so of the game anyway, the fast travel system being available enough to make sure that I could basically just walk around to wherever I needed to go. It was only when a mission sent me way outside of the city limits did I end up retrieving it and even then, whenever an objective was more than a kilometer away I’d look for the closest fast travel station. Part of that is because driving around isn’t particularly fun when it’s mostly a slideshow although I’m not sure I would’ve enjoyed it much more if I was at a stable 60 fps.
Even with the benefit of almost a month’s worth of patches on the game Cyberpunk 2077 is still an incredibly buggy game, running the whole gamut from funny/silly things all the way through to hard locks and crashes that’ll delete any progress you had from your last checkpoint. Even as I capped off my last hour in the game today I experienced the following: Dialogue lines not triggering, hard lock when trying to loot something during combat and NPCs glitching through walls. Most of these issues aren’t game breaking and even if you get turfed out to desktop you probably won’t lose much in the way of progress but it still serves to pull you right out of the world that they’ve built up and remind you that you’re playing something that’s still somewhat undercooked. To be sure it’s getting better over time, and I’m sure that one day it’ll be the slick experience that everyone wanted it to be but as of today it’s just not there. It’s a right shame too as every moment of brilliance that this game has is almost always tarnished right away by some glitch or bug. I really feel for the developers on this one, not only for the horrendous conditions they faced in making it but being forced to put something out that was most certainly not up to the expectations they’d placed on themselves.
MINOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The narrative reflects this same dichotomy: serving up numerous moments that drew me right in which were then completely upended by trash that either slipped in or wasn’t noticed when it was integrated in. I can remember the encounter at Clouds with the doll, the idea being that they could see directly into your needs and bring them to the forefront. I felt every moment of that, the connection between V and the person delivering this experience, and that’s when my initial ambivalence to the game’s story started taking a turn upwards. But after that, when I started trying to hunt down more moments like that I was severely disappointed. Even my chosen love interest’s story, Panam, was marred by some rather ham fisted dialogue that could’ve been done a whole lot better.
Keanu Reeve’s performance feels a little flat at times which is only made worse by the muddled nature of its delivery when you do things slightly out of order. Like when, after spending hours doing his side missions, one of the main missions had someone asked me how Johnny and I were getting along and V responded (without a choice option for me) that it wasn’t so great. What the fuck? He’d just given me the dog tags of someone who’d given their life for his a symbol he’d stay true to his promise.
This kind of thing runs rife throughout the game unfortunately as it was clear that the developers were simply not given enough time to flesh things out to completion. I had multiple missions where I was told to “go in quiet” only to not do that and not suffer any negative consequences. Although, strangely, when I’d get to another critical point in the mission my character would still pretend like I’d done everything quietly. Like, honestly, either fail the mission if you don’t want me to play it that way or account for the fact that players will take advantage of whatever systems you give them.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Cyberpunk 2077 is for me, equal measures of enjoyment and disappointment. It is so readily clear how much effort had been put into the game to get it to this point as the breadth and depth of the game is simply astounding. Equally as obvious though is the amount of time it still needed to see it through to completion and that, unfortunately, would’ve not seen that game in our hands before the end of next year (at my best guess). The good news is though, for gamers who decide to wait, you’ll likely be able to play the game in the way it was intended, free from all the things that detract from the experience. For us now though? The ones who’ve decided to play it today? It’s a real mixed bag, one that’s likely to leave you feeling wanting for more that the game cannot give you right now. I’m not sad that I played it now and indeed, I think I’ll give it another whip around in the new year when I build out my new rig, but until then Cyberpunk 2077 remains firmly in the “good, but not great” camp of games we saw this year.
Cyberpunk 2077 is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 24 in game hours and 25% of the achievements unlocked.