It was back in 2012 when developer CD Projekt Red announced Cyberpunk 2077, an action role-playing game based on the work of tabletop role-playing game designer Mike Pondsmith. At the time, the studio had its hands full with the third entry in its other beloved game adaptation, The Witcher 3. Eight years later and after a series of delays, the game is finally seeing the light of day. Needless to say, it has had a rocky development cycle, and it shows in several areas.
Cyberpunk 2077 is set in the year 2077 in the retro-futuristic Night city, where technology has taken center stage, opening avenues and creating an obsession for cybernetic augmentations and body modifications. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not; the game does a convincing job of hammering this sentiment across via its world-building. You’ll come across billboards promoting commodities like real water, which is considered a luxury in Night city.
You assume the role of a character named V, a human mercenary augmented with cyberware enhancements. There are three possible life paths to choose from i.e. Nomad, Corpo, and Street Kid. Each of them gives you a distinct backstory as well as unique dialogue options and potential quests during the course of your playthrough. Outside of that, the impact of life paths is minimal and largely serves as the means to add some sense of immersion and identification with your choice. A character creator lets you determine how you’d like your character to look and sound, but the pronouns used to refer to you are forcefully tied to your chosen voice pitch. Additionally, there’s no non-binary option either, further limiting the seemingly robust character creator.
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Cyberpunk 2077’s characters are its main course. The game is structured around them in a way that you’re often given opportunities to engage and spend time with them. By far the most interesting one is Johnny Silverhand, a defiant mercenary who is voiced by and modeled after none other than Keanu Reeves. While he died many years ago, his personality lives on in a microchip that V ends up installing in his cyberware. As a result, Silverhand is often present in V’s thoughts and vision, adding some much-needed character to the main story.
The storytelling and dialogue are straight from the 80s, which doesn’t necessarily go in the game’s favor despite the retro-futuristic underpinnings. It often comes off as too teen-centric and juvenile in places. While it does have some worthwhile moments, there’s no thought-provoking message hidden beneath the plot here. Some of the more interesting cyberpunk concepts like transhumanism are glossed over with no meaningful implications. Meanwhile, the interactive dialogue system itself feels like a perfect fit for the first-person perspective, allowing the player to retain control of V for a majority of the time.
Side quests are generally a mixed bag. You’re often bombarded with random phone calls from people offering jobs with little to no context. A lot of these jobs come off as filler content and are rather mundane in execution. However, quest lines involving characters that you encounter during the main quest are well-written and worth pursuing, if only to be able to spend more time with them and learn more about them. One particular side activity that stands out as enjoyable involves tracking down several AI-powered taxi vehicles that have become a threat.
Engaging with side activities becomes a hindrance to the main quest’s pacing, which in itself feels like an unevenly paced experience. Despite the character creator suggesting otherwise, you’re living V’s story as opposed to shaping your own. As such, the narrative urgency associated with many of the main story missions is at odds with your freedom to explore Night city at your own pace. Taking on a side quest amidst a pivotal moment in the main quest takes away considerably from the emotional impact that the story tries to build towards. Perhaps it’s for the better, then, that the main quest is quite short – it can take up to 20 hours or so to finish. The main quest is best experienced linearly, leaving all the side content for the endgame, which is pretty unusual for an open-world game. Between this and the limited implications for life paths, the pen-and-paper role-playing aspect of the source material has been dialed down significantly in a favor of a more controlled experience. If the intent was to create an immersive sim experience, Cyberpunk 2077 leaves a lot to be desired.
The Witcher 3 had raised the bar for world-building in an open-world game back when it was released in 2015. Five years later, CD Projekt Red accomplishes the same to an extent with Cyberpunk 2077 by creating a futuristic metropolis that’s rich in culture and aesthetic. Each district of Night city features buildings with unique architecture and gangs with fleshed-out backstories. Other parts of the world-building, such as the offensive portrayal of marginalized communities in adverts, are problematic, as they don’t serve a meaningful purpose in the game’s storyline. It’s tough to shake the feeling that the game is in a thematic conflict with itself, as cyberpunk concepts like body modification are all about inclusivity.
Where things get immersion-breaking, however, is the world often doesn’t feel lived in. The streets of Night city are usually empty, with limited NPC and vehicular activity. Some areas do indeed fulfill the promise of a densely populated city, but those are fewer and far between. The reactivity of NPCs themselves is also disappointing, as they don’t have much to say outside of repeating the same one line. Taking a page out of GTA’s book, CD Projekt Red has also incorporated a half-hearted ‘Wanted’ system, whereby the NCPD shows up to take you out in case you wreak havoc and break the law. There’s hardly anything to distinguish between the different tiers of your ‘Wanted’ level, as the police either ignores you or wants to take you out. There’s no middle ground here that sends you to jail like in the GTA games.
Large open-world games tend to suffer from some jank, but Cyberpunk 2077 takes it to another level of bad. World interactions are awkward and the physics are jarring. It’s easy to find yourself stuck in environmental geometry during traversal, and frustratingly having to reload a previous save state. Vehicles lack a sense of weight and behave awkwardly during collisions, often comically sliding over each other. To make matters worse, physics collisions, in general, are pretty rough – environmental interactions can randomly hurl you into the distance. On top of that, there’s a shocking amount of bugs and glitches – certainly for a AAA release that’s been in development for half a decade – that reminds me of the fabled Mass Effect Andromeda debacle. The NPC glitches are borderline scary; it’s almost as if the AI is trying to break free from the mundane routines the developer has destined it with. As of writing, most of the bugs encountered are still present on the latest available update version 1.02.
The same jank extends to its melee combat, which is simply not fun. Besides throwing a punch, you also get to wield melee weapons, such as a katana. These weapons improve your melee range, but the interactions are unwieldy. Mantis blades, which you have the option to acquire, later on, are comparatively more effective in close-range combat. Shooting is a more viable option to quickly take down a group of enemies with minimal resistance. While not nearly as good as dedicated first-person shooters, it’s serviceable enough to not get in the way of your enjoyment. Weapons pack a punch in terms of sound but visual feedback on enemies is severely lacking until weapon stats are improved.
The bullet sponge effect is never fully eliminated, however, and combat encounters begin to feel repetitive rather quickly, partly due to the awkward and exploitative NPC AI. Playing on Hard mode (the game’s highest available difficulty setting), enemy behavior is fairly basic and not reactive to your actions. They don’t attempt to flank you and often lose sight of you fairly quickly, making them an easy target. They do carry some decent firepower, however, and will occasionally run up towards you for a melee strike. Melee attacks are easily avoidable, as they’re preceded by a lengthy startup animation, which further makes the AI seem clumsy and unreactive. As a result, combat encounters, including the awkward boss battles, aren’t enjoyable and feel like a mundane task. Quickhacking and stealth scenarios are more interesting, but also a lot more time consuming compared to simply shooting your way through an area. Some of the more interesting abilities shown off pre-release, such as wall running and hanging across walls using your mantis blades, are sorely missing.
Besides Reeves’ portrayal of Johnny Silverhand and the quality of writing in some of the side content, Cyberpunk 2077’s other notable strength lies in its plethora of upgrades. There are some skill trees that offer a large variety of skills and attributes for you to acquire using experience points gained from completing quests. Though, plenty of them are just stat boosts and not actual new skills. Similarly, the game also features a slew of cyberware upgrades that enhance your cybernetic abilities. It’s also possible to craft new equipment, however, the game gives you no real incentive to do so outside of wanting to have a rarer version of your favorite weapon in your arsenal for collection’s sake. The equipment looted off of enemies is usually good enough to give a decent boost to your character level.
Cyberpunk 2077 is too ambitious for its own good. It attempts to do too much at the same time and, as a result, falters in the execution of many of its individual components. It’s an unusual mix of Deus Ex, The Witcher 3, and GTA 5 that doesn’t reach their highs, and instead serves to elevate one’s appreciation of them. A jack of all trades but a master of none, then. That said, it’s better than the sum of its parts and might be worth checking out for fans of action RPGs, provided some of its glaring issues can be overlooked.