Cyberpunk 2077 Review
Tales from a city with a chip on its shoulder
How do you make a mark in this industry? Many would say that CD Projekt Red have already made a name for themselves, if not with the first Witcher title then certainly with the third. Their ability to create mature stories and deep characters, with attention to detail, has led to three sublime fantasy RPGs. One way to cement their reputation would be to make a shift: from third-person to first-person, from fantasy to science fiction, and from mutant monster hunter to cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Set in the backdrop of a stunning futuristic metropolis, Cyberpunk 2077 is like an open-world Deus Ex mixed with some hacking mechanics from Watch Dogs. It reinforces CD Projekt Red’s skill with story, and the detail in the world is unreal, but technical issues and some missing pieces become roadblocks.
Night City is your playground
Players begin by creating their own custom character named V, with one of three possible origin stories: Nomad, Street Kid, or Corpo. Each background will result in vastly different beginnings, where you might start alone in the desert, or in the underbelly of the city, or in a high-rise tower. They all eventually lead to meeting a character named Jackie Welles. Bizarrely, the game skips forward in time six months, showing a silly montage of Jackie and V doing tasks around a fictional west-coast metropolis, Night City. They are mercenaries for hire, looking to become the top of the food chain in a futuristic city with endless dangers. While the game insists the two are best friends, Jackie’s friendship takes more time to earn, which is why it is good that the introductory act develops over about seven hours and features Jackie as a frequent companion. All they need is one big job to become legends.
The big job involves stealing a fragile biochip from the Arasaka corporation. The plan seems flawless, but things go sideways and the only way to stop the biochip from degrading is for V to insert it into his or her own head. Unbeknownst to V, on the biochip is the digital reconstruction of Johnny Silverhand, a legend who died more than 50 years ago, and the chip cannot be removed.
Johnny Silverhand is the voice in your head, the devil on your shoulder, and sometimes your guardian angel. He’s a selfish rebel with a huge ego, and he hates corporations, especially Arasaka—he dropped a nuclear bomb on them fifty years ago and now wants revenge for what they did to him. Players will get to revisit some of Johnny’s memories first hand which provide more context and character backgrounds. These are a bit like Ciri’s parts in The Witcher 3, and they often involve Johnny’s iconic pistol to rapidly dispatch enemies. Johnny lived his only life to the fullest, but now he’s alive again, just in your head.
Johnny will appear often to give his two silver cents
Johnny Silverhand appears to V regularly, even during minor side missions. It’s always a delight when he reemerges, no matter what he has to say, and Keanu Reeves delivers his sarcastic lines quite well. Johnny often has personal knowledge of the situation because many of his acquaintances are still alive—life expectancy is high in the Cyberpunk world for those with enough wealth. But there is a problem: Johnny’s biochip is slowly killing V and the two personalities are mixing. Is this digital construct risking your life by trying to enact revenge from beyond the grave? Is agreeing with him going to speed up the degradation? The urge to defy Johnny is strong and this creates great banter. V’s goal is to explore Night City and find a way to remove the neural nuisance.
Night City is enormous, detailed, and once the game world is fully opened, overwhelming. From a distance it looks like a real city with huge residential blocks, solar powered arrays, and digital advertising boards as big as skyscrapers. Up close, it is more impressive with alleys crammed with detritus and dilapidated tenements crawling with people struggling to survive. Outside the city limits is a massive trash pile (the cost of decadence) and the desert badlands which are populated by gangs of outcasts. The city has an edge to it, with police acting just as aggressive as the crime gangs. It is also divided socially, with memories of the elite becoming ‘braindance’ virtual reality simulations for those with enough money to momentarily escape their miserable existence. The setting of Night City is one of the best in gaming.
The large size of Night City is reinforced when you open the map and see so many icons that you might think you have stepped into a Ubisoft game. Fortunately the swathe of icons is somewhat deceiving, as some are just car purchase locations, food vendors, or bars that you won’t need to worry much about. Gang encounters are minor threats you can choose to ignore too, although their rewards are usually worth the small amount of effort. Filters on the map cut away the excess fat and a journal keeps track of the important quests. Aside from cruising the streets in any one of the awesome vehicles, it is enticing to mosey down a random lane and see what lurks—often the beginning of a side mission.
Side quests will consume most of your time in Night City. Although the biochip is slowly killing V, you can wander about doing odd jobs; the ticking time-bomb only ticks during the main story. The side quests should be undertaken because they feature some of the most interesting quest chains. There are many substantial interactions that build layers of narrative. You can work alongside a cop to explore a hidden nightclub and then track a serial killer’s victim by diving into a braindance memory. A prominent pop star, whose great music you hear on the radio, will ask you to find out whether her lover is cheating. And the candidate for mayor wants to know if the old mayor’s death was an accident, but his memory issues prove more enticing.
Most characters have lengthy arcs and interesting stories
And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg in a city that has so many good characters. Many you cross paths with during the main arc will branch off with their own great missions, like a nomad who cares about her clan but struggles to understand the current leader’s decisions. A braindance editor fights her own inner battles in a city where the hits keep on coming. Every character has a complex history, with goals and idiosyncrasies, which makes it worth listening to every scrap of conversation. This means dialogue choices, which alter responses and can sometimes change outcomes, in particular who you fight and where. Additional missions for characters are often expected and the player must wait a day or more for them to make further contact. And when you get the call it is a quick u-turn and race to the destination. Between the great story moments is when you should busy yourself with menial tasks.
Gigs are smaller optional missions that usually have a simple objective. You might need to rescue a netrunner who is trapped in their chair, or kill/incapacitate a target and take them to a waiting vehicle. Some cybernetically enhanced individuals have gone insane too, posing a danger to the city, and they need to be put down. Gigs have a predictable scope but that does not mean their design is redundant. They are all hand-crafted mini-stories. The target locations can be anything from warehouses to office buildings, consisting of multiple levels, several entry points, and various types of guards on patrol. They’re a bite-sized example of the core gameplay and they help V build a reputation that unlocks more similar tasks.
When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of completing objectives, V is usually free to engage with either combat or stealth. Some missions encourage the sneaky route, either because characters recommend it or because you’ll get bonus rewards if they’re completed without detection or murder. And to counter this, there are moments where full assault is required.
Some weapons are suited for close range
The first-person combat is rather enjoyable and while it might not match pure shooters, it exceeds that found in the new Deus Ex games. There are many different weapons that feel good to use. Precision rifles can use charged shots to unleash more power, smart submachine guns will lock onto targets, and shotguns will knock enemies off their feet. Better quality versions have mod slots to increase damage and most have scope customization. If you’re morally inclined, a non-lethal mod can be installed as well. When you’re in combat, you can take cover behind obstacles and peak out to shoot, or use various blades and blunt weapons from close range. If you lose too much health, a quick stim injection will get you back in the game. With a plethora of grenades and explosive canisters scattered about, the action certainly gets loud.
At first the stealth gameplay appears basic because there are not that many covert tools. A pistol with a silencer is a must, since it provides bonus headshot damage to make one-shot kills a reality. Knives can be thrown when you unlock the ability. Getting close behind enemies is the most reliable method as they can be grabbed and either killed or knocked out. Bodies can be hidden in crates although some later missions lacked hiding spots and therefore incursions were clumsier. In fact the stealth is a bit jittery and frustrating because the AI is inconsistent. Reloading a save was common because of how often things go wrong, although that’s not too unusual for a stealth experience. What is unusual is that AI seem to detect bodies that have been hidden; they appear to see through walls at certain angles/distances. They also enter alert states and never return back to normal, or ignore you and get stuck on chairs. But when these AI issues are not present and you utilize the few tools effectively, sneaking in and out is rewarding.
Quickhacking improves both combat and stealth. V can enter the quickhack mode at any time and remotely compromise a target within direct line of sight. Time slows when hovering over enemies, which helps in full action. When the bullets are flying, it is not immediately natural to consider using quickhacks. But if you’re adept at multi-tasking then hacking will allow for quicker elimination of groups and some entertaining moments. Disable a sniper’s weapon so he is useless for a minute. Cripple a dashing melee enemy to land easy headshots. Or if you get tired of all the carnage, make an enemy forget they were in combat so you can go back into stealth.
Quickhacks make you more efficient in stealth and combat
Stealth transforms from merely decent into good with the quickhack system. Like in Watch Dogs, you can take control of cameras and cycle through them to gain situational awareness and mark targets. A call-for-backup hack will lure an enemy to your location, where you can use a nearby electrical device to distract them so they turn around and can be grabbed. A simple ping will temporarily highlight all targets through walls, avoiding situations where you stumble upon an enemy that was not spotted via the camera system. When using stealth and hacks concurrently, such as blinding one enemy and shooting his buddy, the covert style reaches a level that will have you coming back for more.
And how you play depends somewhat on where you allocate skill points. You can be a jack of all trades and upgrade tech (crafting), intelligence (hacking), body (strength), cool (stealth), and reflexes (blades/critical). Or you can specialize and reap the advantages. Certain routes will become accessible if you have enough points in the right skill to break open backdoors. The best thing about leveling is how it is self-reinforcing: playing a particular way unlocks perks within each skill and grants passive bonuses that make you better at that specific play style. The individual perks increase proficiency too but they are generally bland statistical upgrades.
Cyberware implants differentiate play styles further. You can upgrade your body at ripperdoc clinics around the city. These can be standard improvements to health, armor, or carrying capacity. It gets more interesting when you talk about upgrades that add gameplay possibilities. Leg muscles that let you jump high are incredibly useful because you can enter through upper-story windows and easily climb over rooftops to run circles around opponents. Forearm mantis blades allow you to leap at targets and slash away until the blood stops flowing. If you prefer to keep it simple, upgrades to V’s operating system will expand the number of quickhack slots available.
With all the upgrades, weapons, and skills, there is a smorgasbord of gameplay options that provides a lot of replay value. Like Deus Ex, it’s the type of game where you may find some new technique after many hours of play, even beyond the ending. And there is good reason to go back. The conclusion mirrors how the game started, with choices between multiple substantial endings featuring different locations, characters, and action. And despite finishing the game after 50 hours, there were several missed side quests that had more appearances by Johnny Silverhand.
Technical issues can jump out of nowhere
Technical issues also make frequent appearances across the campaign. Most of them are visual distractions: phones floating in the air, UI items breaking, lips not moving when people talk, and pedestrians walking through cars. More heinous ones break quests—typically characters refuse to talk and the mission grinds to a halt. Reloading a previous save always fixed the game-breakers but it is not always clear whether anything has broken. In addition to some issues with the AI, there are many strange bugs. One enemy was crushed under a burning vehicle and insisted that he’d “take me” while his hair smoldered and his weapon had been looted. It might take a few months before the technical issues are not so persistent.
Performance is mostly consistent across Night City. The test PC was adequate on med-high settings with only a few drops in heavy combat, but nothing to unplayable levels. The world certainly looks good enough to justify the processing power needed. High resolution textures are everywhere, vehicles look great inside and out (with damage modeling), and character models are quite detailed. While extra performance might be squeezed out in the future, it is likely that the game will always need a beefy PC. Although the technical side might be improved, there are some deeper systemic issues. Vehicle combat is a huge letdown. The developers may have realized this because there are only a few story moments where you must lean out the passenger window and clumsily shoot at pursuers. When you explore the Mad Max style badlands, the lack of decent vehicle interplay is a gaping hole. In addition, the city itself never feels affected by V’s actions. Given the various gangs across the city, it would seem obvious for there to be power struggles that V could influence.
Night City does not have enough leisure activities either. Gambling dens will not take your money, arcade machines cannot be played, and bars are mostly just for show. There is no point going back to your apartment unless a quest tells you to. The only car races happen during a lackluster quest involving an irate widower. There is nothing like Gwent from The Witcher 3. Players cannot even change their character’s initial look, via hair styles or tattoos. And as good as the characters are, their follow-up content seems to be missing, with too few lines of dialogue when you call one back after their arc; a romanced character basically forgot how to speak after the relationship was established. When so much is ‘work’ and so little is for pleasure, the dazzling persona of Night City gets knocked down a rung or two.
Take a ride in Night City and see where it leads
Despite some technical glitches and general flaws, Cyberpunk 2077 is still an awesome game. It gives the player control of their experience via satisfying gameplay customization. Interspersed in the amazing city are characters who need help and V is just the one to provide it, for a modest fee. V can complete tasks through enjoyable shooting or rewarding stealth, with many substantial options within each style via quickhacks, cyberware upgrades, and a self-reinforcing skill system. In a few months the developers should have fixed most technical issues, but certain qualities will remain out of reach until a sequel or expansion comes along. Until then, the story in Cyberpunk 2077 will serve as a reminder that CD Projekt Red can worm their way into your head and make you care about what happens next.