Polish studio CD Projekt Red finally delivers the most-anticipated game of 2020.
Descending upon Cyberpunk 2077‘s Night City is much like setting foot in New York City for the first time. Times Square’s brightly-lit LED screens, the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle, and the dazzling neon signs are impressive when viewed through photographs. But as soon as you get close enough, it’s hard not to notice the layers of grime caking the impossibly bright lights. The dirt doesn’t completely block the dazzle. It just makes it harder to see the light.
The same can be said of what is, arguably, the biggest game of 2020. After reaching critical levels of hype thanks to a massive marketing campaign and a development cycle lasting nearly a decade (at least from conception to completed product), Cyberpunk 2077 is here. As such, it’s had nearly impossible shoes to fill as gaming’s next big thing, in terms of storytelling, gameplay, graphics, immersion, you name it.
The game does hit several high notes where it counts. In many ways, it feels like a triumph of open-world games. In others, however, it’s a frustrating step backward riddled with glitches, bugs and confounding design decisions that can routinely dampen player enjoyment.
Protagonist V is the star of the show, a character you can mostly customize to your liking in terms of gender, voice, eye color — even the genitals.
Diving right into Cyberpunk 2077 is like being doused in ice water. The game is, in a word, gorgeous. It truly feels as though you’re immediately plunged into a living, breathing world, regardless of which life path you choose from the beginning: Nomad, Streetkid or Corpo. This sense of overwhelming awe is a thread that carries through much of the game as it slowly reveals itself to the player. Each life path contains its own narrative to follow, as well as other differences later on, but the unique prologues are short enough that you can try each one before committing.
V is a mercenary who works a variety of jobs alongside friend and fellow merc Jackie Welles. When one heist goes awry — an attempt to steal a chip believed to grant immortality — the pair find themselves in possession of said chip and more than they bargained for on their hands. V soon becomes entangled with iconic Samurai band leader Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves) as they work through a very disturbing predicament: slowly but surely, their life is converging with Johnny’s in a way that’s best experienced in-game.
As such, you’re placed on a main campaign path that you can follow to the letter or diverge as you see fit. Once you have free rein of Night City and you see the world open up before you, it’s hard not to be impressed. It’s a gritty metropolis with a disturbing penchant for self-gratification, kitsch and the call of cybernetic implants on nearly every street corner. Braindance recordings, or BDs, let you experience a person’s last seconds of life, intimate moments, even mundane conversations.
Experiences are a commodity, just like the body, best exemplified by the existence of “dolls,” sex workers that shut off their brains and let an algorithm go to work through their body for clients. It’s all about automation, indulgence and hedonism, and you feel these threads through every part of the city.
The amount of content in the game is absolutely dizzying. Opening the map in its entirety can be daunting. There are so many points of interest (side jobs, shops, bars, fast-travel points, you name it) that figuring out what to do next becomes a game all its own. In addition to your main quest as V, diversions range from dropping a clown with a grenade for a nose off to handle his business to wrangling wayward sentient cars known as Delamain taxis. You can choose to do as little or as much as you want, though the more you do, the more cash you’ll have on hand for cybernetics, clothing and other goods.
You’ll complete most of these quests with Johnny Silverhand at your side, or at least in your head, as your ever-present companion. He isn’t exactly personable to begin with, offering up his opinions when no one asked for them, remaining as self-absorbed and obtuse as anyone as the two of you are forced to figure out your newly symbiotic relationship.
He’s easy to dislike, which speaks to Reeves’ prowess as an actor, but over time grows into a much less insufferable presence. His input across various missions goes from annoying to “What would Johnny do?” and turns into something I genuinely appreciated.
Reeves being in the game will undoubtedly be a fun perk for many, though he’ll take some getting used to as Silverhand. For lighter fare, there are a variety of Easter eggs to be uncovered as well. From the easily spotted — like the song titles assigned to each quest (“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “Disasterpiece,” “Automatic Love”) — to the obscure — Portal‘s GLaDOS spouting lines as an automatic taxi — it’s clear CD Projekt RED knows its audience well.
Missions can usually result in knock-down, drag-out gunfights that feel fantastic, much like a Call of Duty was transplanted into a first-person RPG. It’s satisfying to pull off a headshot or set someone on fire every time you do it, and your bullets, samurai sword or just your plain mitts (thanks to a “Gorilla Arms” customization) feel as though they’re really connecting with their target. Because of this, it feels less like a chore to chug through missions because you get the one-two punch of advancing a genuinely interesting narrative and enjoying the shootouts as well.
You can opt for stealth too, and hacking will be an important part of these segments. Like most games that feature hacking elements, Cyberpunk 2077 makes a valiant effort at standing out, but ultimately falls a bit short. Quickhacking lets you tap into your environment in ways that feel a bit derivative by now since we’ve seen it done in a similar fashion in games like Watch Dogs: Legion, but it can be exciting to hack into tech dotting the world. First, you must match a code to break in, then you can use your cyberdeck to scan machines, enemies, and parts of an environment like, say, a security system.
These actions come into play several times over, whether you need to guide a spider-like robot drone to a specific area or you simply need to shift attention away from yourself during a stealth mission. You have plenty of options for a nonlethal operation where hacking is involved, and the tech is cool enough — but on its own, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
What is interesting, however, are braindance scans. You can enter a scene and manipulate it in real time, whether that means rewinding, fast-forwarding, moving throughout a 3D environment to find voices and sounds, or scanning items. You’re typically looking for a certain number of clues to progress, but this is a genuinely interesting way to get players to sleuth out what happened during a scene somewhere recorded by someone else — typically one of V’s contacts or compatriots.
Unfortunately, the inventory system is in dire need of reorganization. When you’re carrying too much, you become overburdened and V trudges ahead, weighed down by the items on their person. There’s no quick way to sift through items and decide what to get rid of in the field (though admittedly you could take care of this elsewhere). Similarly, an “optimize” button to help you cut through the lesser equipment in your inventory and use the best, would have been useful. It’s already impossible to coordinate an outfit that looks any semblance of stylish due to the fact that you must choose the clothes that offer the best stats — and you can’t preview clothing before you buy it.
Another letdown comes by way of intimate relationships. While there are multiple characters to romance, some are locked to “masculine” or “feminine” V, so you won’t have very many to choose from if you’re in the game to find a partner. You can always romance a “joytoy” or sex worker in Night City, which culminates in a sex scene, but the first-person sexual encounters feel like little more than late night cable TV and hardly the adult, cutting-edge romps that it felt we were promised long ago.
Since the sexual scenes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (and all but waste the effort that went into rendering genitals), there is at least solace to be had knowing that there are organic paths to forming what feel like real, lasting relationships with the characters you meet along the way. Companions like Panam, Judy, Meredith, Kerry and River make for intriguing romantic partners, and you really feel like you’re making a connection.
But it’s difficult to immerse yourself in terms of relationships or the overarching narrative of this massive world when you’re constantly fighting to remain there. Cyberpunk 2077 is positively riddled with glitches and bugs in every shape and form, many of which can simply cut the game short or kick you out of it entirely, at least as far as the PC version is concerned.
From the beginning to 60 hours in and beyond, the game suffered from mere annoyances like floating guns to game-breaking bugs that halted progress entirely. During one of the first pivotal braindance experiences, a companion character simply didn’t trigger when needed in a scene, instead disappearing seconds after entering the building.
Without the NPC, the game couldn’t continue, and going back to older saves didn’t offer a resolution. For many, this would require a complete restart. Later, V’s health zeroed out during a scrap, but this didn’t result in death. Using restorative items couldn’t boost her health, and she remained effectively “immortal” for a period until a half-hour later, when she randomly perished while exploring Night City, forcing a restart.
Although there was a day-one patch issued following Cyberpunk 2077’s review period, many of the bugs that made traversing Night City occasionally nightmarish persist. It remains to be seen whether the game will continue to improve through additional iterations, but as it stands, it’s something of a hot mess, at least for PC players. It’s a shame, because there’s so much to love and appreciate here, but when you can barely stay in the game from time to time, it’s hard for that love to endure.
In the end, a visit to Night City still like that first fateful journey into the Big Apple. The neon lights are blinding, the skyscrapers breathtaking, and the sights can be astounding. For the most part, it’s everything you thought it would be — but the city’s seedy underbelly undermines that in ways that leave you feeling more than a little disillusioned. It’s a city you desperately want to love, if only it would stop breaking your heart.