CD Projekt Red, the Polish studio that’s also behind The Witcher series, turns its attention now to neon-drenched futurescapes and body modification. Cyberpunk is a vast role-playing game that favors exploration and an open-ended approach to charting your course through the world.
If you want a quick and dirty comparison: It’s Blade Runner meets Strange Days, by way of Skyrim. And if you want the longer version — which you should, given that you’re here already — then keep reading.
So you want to be a cyberhero
The setting is Night City, a hedonistic and distinctly American wonderland of diversity and deep contrasts. It’s a place where the poor and downtrodden find ready escapes from their misery in the abundance of mind-altering substances and physically augmented “joytoy” sex workers, while an elite corporate class (“corpos”) reaps all the financial rewards.
We’ve seen this kind of dystopian future fiction before, of course. In fact, Cyberpunk 2077 is based on a pen-and-paper roleplaying game of old created by Mike Pondsmith. I’ve never played the original, but from the little I’ve read about it, CDPR sticks fairly close to the source in terms of how the world is realized.
You play as an empty vessel named V, though you’re given the opportunity to fill in some blanks almost immediately. In addition to selecting your look and gender (male/female only; no non-binary options) during character creation, you also choose a background — wasteland-dwelling nomad, streetwise city kid, or ex-corpo who left the high life behind.
That choice influences how and where your story begins, and also some of the dialogue options that pop up throughout the game. They’re more about adding texture to the player-authored side of the plot than they are about conferring specific, tangible advantages. My own version of V is a woman who left the nomad life for the big city, and that choice of background brought more depth to conversations anytime I talked with a fellow nomad or had work to do on the outskirts of the city.
Regardless of which choice you go with, it inevitably leads you to a Night City slum and the life of a freelance mercenary-for-hire. You survive day-to-day by finding work with local “fixers” (which is Cyberpunk for gang leader/crime lord), but that existence turns upside down when a particularly cherry job goes sideways.
This is where I get hazy with the specifics, to avoid spoilers. Events transpire from there that leave V sharing her brain with the consciousness of a long-dead terrorist named Johnny Silverhand (played by Keanu Reeves). And unless she can figure out how to reconcile her split self, it’s an eventual death sentence.
Needless to say, there’s a big story here. The plot spends a lot of time forcing you to think about identity and self, and there’s some inescapable dissonance in that choice given Cyberpunk‘s light, almost nonexistent treatment of non-binary and transgender perspectives. The original Cyberpunk RPG first released in 1988, and it often feels like CDPR’s video game take is mired in the kind of dated, late 20th century thinking that still ripples into IRL trans issues today.
It didn’t completely ruin the game for me, but it’s something I thought about frequently as a player in 2020 who tends toward a compassionate view of the world. I’m not sure how a trans/NB player might respond to the game’s almost total non-address of our expanding awareness of identity, but it sure feels like a big whiff in the midst of a story that’s so steeped in such things. (If you want to know more, this excellent look at the game’s “edgy” marketing campaign from Polygon is a great place to start.)
Welcome to Night City
As any fan of games like the Elder Scrolls series or CDPR’s own The Witcher 3 will tell you, the world itself is a star in its own right. That’s absolutely true in Cyberpunk 2077.
Night City is a massively impressive creation. It’s a sprawling futureworld metropolis of soaring towers and multilevel streets, with the city’s grit and grime becoming more apparent as you delve down lower. There’s a story behind every street and alleyway, inscribed into the cracked asphalt, the graffiti-strewn walls, the gleaming corporate towers, and the crowded market stalls.
The presentation is more than a little gratuitous. Virtually every billboard you see involves sex, mind-altering substances, or body mods. There’s an invisible layer of sleaze complementing Night City’s visible filth. Sex work is absolutely work in our real world, but Cyberpunk 2077 makes it all feel seedy and exploitative. Joytoys for hire are stationed all throughout Night City and the sex montage you’re treated to when you visit one is pure cringe.
The city is also littered with discarded “studded dildos,” to the point that it feels like some kind of statement. Why so many? And why am I finding them in places like a grimy crawlspace above an office in an abandoned warehouse that sits on top of an underground drug lab? I found hundreds of sex toys as I played, many more than the ashtrays, paperwork, and other, more typical detritus you can collect and break down into crafting materials.
It can also be a confusing space to navigate, with seemingly close locations often taking extra time to reach because of all the ramps and interchanges connecting different levels of the city (at least until you start souping up your cybernetics). It’s a little like trying to get around Los Angeles in that way, only there’s much more neon lighting.
And hey, let’s talk about that lighting. I played on PC using a machine I built in late 2019 — in other words, hardware that was more than equipped to showcase the best of what Cyberpunk 2077 has to offer, including an Nvidia 2080 Super that plays nice with ray tracing. I can honestly tell you that this is the first game I’ve played where the new-fangled graphics feature actually feels transformative.
Cyberpunk 2077 is the first game I’ve played where ray tracing feels transformative.
Without getting into the deep technical dive, ray tracing offers vastly improved lighting effects. This manifests in a number of ways. Stroll by a window and you’ll see the surrounding world accurately reflected back at you. The same goes for the way ambient lighting touches and moves across cars — Night City is filled with nifty-looking futuristic cars — while you’re driving. It also gives everything from smoke effects to sunlight glinting off the pavement a more realistic look.
Once Cyberpunk gets its “next-gen” upgrade post-release (no date set for that yet), people who own a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series S/X will also get to enjoy the benefits of ray tracing. And I have to say: It has such a dramatic impact on how you perceive the game world that you’re better off waiting for the update to arrive if you want to play on one of those machines. And if you’re on an older PC, this is the kind of game that merits looking into some component upgrades.
It’s not just visual splendor that makes Night City worth visiting. The streets are also buzzing with life and activity. Some of it is mundane, like the heavy foot traffic you encounter when you wander into a street market. But the inherent lawlessness of the city makes itself known again and again, with police activities and gang violence cropping up on virtually every corner.
These aren’t just static encounters, but rather events that spring up in a living world. You can get involved or not. Sometimes, you’ll even land in the middle of a conflict you had no part in starting, just because you were running away from something (or toward something) and took a wrong turn. And while the illusion may not be perfect — for 35 hours, the same two cops had the same perp handcuffed and lying on the floor outside my apartment — it’s convincing enough.
There’s also the cast of more fully developed characters, the people you spend time with as V takes on jobs and builds her reputation in Night City. Cyberpunk suffers from the same issues as other games like this, where the animated performances miss tons of emotional nuance and only rarely match up well with whatever the character is saying.
It’s at least getting better. You’ll occasionally catch someone breaking into a sly grin or tilting their head in just such a way as they’re making a point. For a game this large, with so much going on, that kind of attention to detail is both impressive and welcome. But the stilted animations still far outweigh the nuanced flourishes of emotion.
That puts more weight on the voice performances, and here Cyberpunk delivers. Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand is of course a huge piece of your journey. He’s not quite an antagonistic figure, but he’s no ally either. That makes his near-constant presence in your day-to-day doings the game’s strongest characterization outside of Night City itself.
That doesn’t mean he’s the only one, though. From a rough-and-tumble outsider nomad to a salty, guarded “ripperdoc” (person who installs cybernetic implants) and the lively AI proprietor of a local car service, there’s a hefty supporting cast helping you feel connected to the world. There’s a lot of technojargon and futureworld lingo for you to decipher, but once you get past the bumpy stretch of opening hours, Cyberpunk‘s unique speech rhythms start to settle in.
Playing your role
Everything you do on the gameplay front in Cyberpunk 2077 is guided by the choices you make for your own version of V. The RPG-style leveling — which consists of assigning attribute points and unlocking perks — is preposterously deep. But it doesn’t have to be if that’s not how you want to play.
The top-level attributes govern your key capabilities: “Body” determines your strength, health, and stamina; “Cool” governs stealth; “Technical” is for crafting; “Intelligence” is for hacking; and “Reflex” is for gunplay and agility. You boost these once per level, with the numbers dictating which gear you can use, which doors you can open, and which terminals you can hack.
Then there are perks. They’re found in submenus tied to each attribute, and every attribute has two or three pages worth to unlock. Some perks increase damage with specific weapons, others increase your health or stamina, or unlock different hacking skills. It’s so much. In my 35-hour playthrough — the full story plus a healthy amount of optional sidequests — I never ventured more than one page deep into any the perk options.
The RPG-style leveling is preposterously deep, but it doesn’t have to be if that’s not how you want to play.
For people who want to dive deep and commit to spending 100-plus hours in Night City, that kind of depth isn’t a bad thing. The same goes for those who want to really get into a particular role-play approach. If you want your V to be the absolute master of all things hacking, ignoring guns and stealth and the option of a deeper health pool or greater carrying capacity, you can do it. It can be fun and even rewarding, especially for a game that, to me, felt a little too easy on its default difficulty.
And if you just want to breeze through the story and only dip a toe into the character leveling, that’s totally possible. The deeper you dig into each page of perks, the lower the impact those perks tend to have. It’s a sharp approach that gives committed players something to chew on without leaving the less invested crowd at a disadvantage.
The more dramatic character tweaks you can make tend to come from your cybernetic enhancements. These are often pricey things to buy in a world where jobs don’t always pay well, but they can also change the way you play. You can boost your jumps or upgrade to double jumps; unlock the ability to take full advantage of smart weapons and their homing bullets; and even equip yourself with new, powered arms fitted with retractable blades or hidden guns.
In practice, all of these separate pieces can be tough to manage in the moment. There’s a steep learning curve in combat, for example, if you want to play as a hacker first, gun-shooter second. These deeper systems aren’t ever explained very well, despite the presence of an entire, optional tutorial mission. By the time credits rolled on my game, I still wasn’t 100 percent clear on how the RAM budgeting that governs your in-combat hacking actually works.
Cyberpunk 2077 is nothing if not forgiving, though. The default difficulty felt most challenging to me when I took on the (rare) bosses, but basic combat against weaker enemies is a good place to experiment. And you can always ratchet up the difficulty if you want a stiffer challenge.
The only spot that really tripped me up is driving. Pretty much every car or bike I got to drive handled like it was on lightly salted ice. On more occasions than I can count, I had to spend extra minutes getting back to the road — or just ditched my ride entirely — because walking was plain easier. I can’t tell you how many times police gunned me down for accidentally mowing through a crowd during a particularly sharp turn.
The big picture
All of these pieces come together around a game that, at launch, is technically unsound and dogged by controversy. CDPR is releasing a day one patch that will hopefully fix the worst of the issues. Some of that patch went live during the review process, and it brought some fixes. But don’t expect a totally stable and perfectly tuned game even after the full patch is live. Work will surely be ongoing for months after launch.
The fact still remains that for a game of this size and scale, and one which has already been delayed several times because it wasn’t quite ready before, there’s virtually no way to ensure a smooth experience at launch. Call it “early access,” call it coming in hot…however you think about it, the result is a game that feels like it’s in rough shape on day one.
There’s a larger conversation to be had there about how the industry works with major game releases like this, of course. In recent months, quality reporting has revealed that CDPR workers put in an unhealthy number of hours to get the game done on time. And let’s be clear: Cyberpunk 2077 is definitely not done. It may be playable, but it’s not running smoothly and likely won’t until we’re a few post-release patches in.
What’s more, there’s also been a late-breaking revelation that the game in its launch form presents a seizure risk. As of Dec. 8, a couple days before launch, CDPR has acknowledged the risk and promised that work is underway on adding a warning. Keep your eye on the studio’s social feed for more info.
None of these factors completely torpedo the value of Cyberpunk 2077 as a gaming experience, but all of them together make it tough to recommend at launch. Not that it will matter for some. If you’ve been following every twist and turn of development, every preview and early look, then I’m not going to change your mind and I never was.
For everyone else, tread cautiously. I enjoyed my time in Night City, and I’m looking forward to diving back in to run through the story again as a street kid or ex-corpo. But I’m not going to bother until the game is in better shape, and I’d recommend the same for anyone else. Much like it was with The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077 won’t be its truest and best self until months after its release.