The following review contains minor early game spoilers
“Valerie – the kind of name that’s meant to make you fill with dread whenever you’re ID’d. Kind of name I’m meant to hate. Truth be told, I never minded it so much, it was more that no one on the street was gonna call me that. V’s now on me like a bad rash, just like Night City.
Born and raised in Watson, I scrapped enough eddies together to make it to Atlanta a while back. Found out the hard way that a ticket outta’ the city is useless, ’cause there just isn’t anything out there for someone like me.
I’m not gonna come back to Night City just to die for some Fixer’s scraps though. I wanna make a name for myself like anyone else in this city, but where’s the glory in flatlining? I’m ‘gonna make it. All I need is that one good gig to give me a leg up, then it’s away from living under everyone. Chooms might have their idea of fame – mine is fuckin’ living long enough to see it yourself. No matter how long it takes.”
Eight years of development, numerous delays, multiple crunch controversies, thousands of fans, and a boat-load of goodwill. After what feels like an eternity of unsustainable hype, with the highest expectations of any game in recent memory, Cyberpunk 2077 feels unsurprisingly underwhelming.
After everything that happened – Cyberpunk 2077 is little more than a fairly good game.
And you know what? There are many good games released every year. Think of your Assassin’s Creeds, or your Watch Dogs – the kind of game you have fun with for a few weeks, then put it down again. Maybe come back to it when you just want to mindlessly explore an open world. Cyberpunk 2077 is just like that: cheap, hollow, seven-out-of-ten fun, which has made for a good way to pass the last week before the holidays. And if that’s what you want, it fits the bill.
The problem is, that’s not what we were promised, is it? Cyberpunk has the attitude (and even the potential) of a genre defining hit, but is continuously pulled back from greatness by missed opportunities, and the inescapable feeling of a rushed product. Just as there’s a glimmer of depth in either the story or gameplay, you snap back to the reality of a gorgeous, but un-interactive open world.
Case in point: when we decided to split our Cyberpunk reviews into three – one for each Lifepath – that was under the assumption that it would have a meaningful impact on how we view the game. Axel, Jess and I got to work planning the different Vs we would roleplay in the vibrant world of Night City, but talking to them now, it sounds like we all got the same experience: a lot of style, a scrap of substance.
And yet the point remains: I’m having fun. I enjoy the characters, I’m engaged in the story, and I even love my streetwise V. That makes for a lot of fun, but can I in good conscience recommend a game that softlocked me six hours in? That blatantly neglected those of us playing on last-gen hardware? I think I can, albeit cautiously. Because Cyberpunk 2077 hits the mark in so many ways, you just need to adjust your expectations far differently than what we all had going in.
We’ve Got a City to Burn
Going in, I chose the Streetkid lifepath. What better way to experience the neon-drenched landscape of the cyberpunk genre than to be in the beating heart of it all? As a Streetkid, your story starts, fittingly, in a bar filled to the brim with cyber-enhanced patrons, as you mend your broken nose. You chat to the bartender, who tells you he’s in a whole heap of trouble over some eurodollars (or ‘eddies’, an in-universe currency) he owes to a local big-bad. You go to square things up with the guy, and he agrees that he’ll write off the debt if you steal a car for him.
After some well dumped exposition about how you’ve been out of town for the past few years, you’re very organically introduced to how it all works in the criminal underworld. Fixers run most of the neighborhoods, and the cops seem to be more of an unreliable-but-brutal nuisance. Your driver, Jackie, ambushes you to steal the vehicle you’re after for himself, only for the two of you to get caught by the police, who take great pleasure in looking down on you both. This relative lightheartedness is interrupted by our next faction – a Corpo – who crashes the mood down by ordering the cops to chuck you into the river. You escape your brush with death, with Jackie doing a 180 and inviting you over for lunch. The lesson? There’s no rules here. You’ll have to be fast on your feet.
Right off the bat, my expectations for Cyberpunk 2077 were through the roof. Here I am, in a small bar, drowning in neon lights, having to stand up for myself against a local crime boss, but one who’s a small fish compared to the rest of the city. What starts as a small-gig heist gets us briefly dragged into police corruption and corporate authoritarianism. This kind of microscopic look at the individuals who make up Night City is exactly what you’d expect from the biggest entry in the cyberpunk genre for years. When we think of cyberpunk, we often imagine one guy, just trying to get by in a hyper-commercialized city that barely notices them. This is what the Streetkid intro promised.
And CD Projekt Red do a good job of conveying that throughout the rest of the first act. You feel it in the conversations in bars, talking about police brutality and corrupt politicians. You feel it in how you and Jackie (your first companion, who you met earlier) desperately try and get your names known in the city, getting paid meager wages for your dangerous work.
However, after a stellar first act, Cyberpunk 2077 goes on to neglect this throughout the rest of the game. It has the look of the genre well enough – with advertisements assaulting you at every turn, and the tall buildings blocking the sunlight on the poorer residents – but that’s about it. I said it before, and hell, Axel’s review even had a section on it, but Cyberpunk 2077 can oftentimes be the epitome of style over substance. Don’t go off the beaten track, you won’t find much.
To V, or Not to V
After the first act, you’re propelled into celebrity status, and every Fixer in town (quest-givers who assign less than legal tasks) is calling you up to run errands for them, with the whole of Night City open as your playground.
This is where the cracks begin to show. At times, I forgot this was meant to be a futuristic dystopian city, and it felt indistinguishable from Grand Theft Auto. Picking the Streetkid path, this wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m walking around Corpo Plaza with the same confidence I would have in Watson. The gangs don’t have anymore respect for me than they would have if I had gone for the Corpo or Nomad route. This all speaks to the larger problem surrounding the game: the lack of roleplaying.
Sure enough, the Streetkid Lifepath makes you more knowledgeable on, you guessed it, the streets. In real terms, this means that sometimes you can namedrop some local legend who died a while back, or tell a Fixer you used to go to his gigs. “I know some lore and like to party” is hardly groundbreaking roleplaying, especially when those are your only Lifepath specific lines. As you could tell from my character bio, I wanted to play a V who wants to make enough to scrape by and live. Some early dialogue choices let me express this, but these are few and far between. When you’re dealing with a setting which is in many ways topical, it’s a shame we couldn’t explore the Lifepaths with more depth.
But what Cyberpunk lacks in depth, it makes up for tenfold in heart. In both animation and writing, the main characters you run into feel real. Jackie oozes charm, and it’s near-impossible not to fall in love every time he calls his mama to let her know he’s okay, or when he gets all excited planning a future with his best friend V, and his girlfriend Misty.
Characters such as Jackie and Judy (a member of The Mox gang who looks after sex workers) are reminders that the people who fall into gang life are still people. Jackie just wants a better life for his friends and family, and hell, for people to actually know who he is in such a massive city. Judy wants to make sure the most vulnerable in the city have at least someone looking out for them. A criminal and vigilante life might not be the morally right thing from your point of view, but there’s no denying that these two come from a good place.
And how have I got this far without mentioning Keanu Reeves himself, Johnny Silverhand? Reeves gives a brilliant performance as Silverhand, a Night City legend who died decades ago, only to now have his consciousness trapped inside your brain through a chip. The glimpses into his backstory give heart and soul to a literal eco-terrorist, and show just how quickly Night City can snuff out your bright flame.
Unfortunately, with such brilliantly crafted characters all throughout the narrative, it only make it even more crushing that whoever worked on the gameplay didn’t get the memo about gang members being people too.
Depth For Me, Not For Thee
Look, I get it, we need some generic respawning enemies to shoot. A lot of the promotional material was about all the cool gadgets we can use to slaughter our enemies, so naturally, we need some people to test them out on.
But it does feel a tad tonally inconsistent that the “morally neutral” way to test these weapons, or farm for experience and eddies, is to drive around Night City, and kill some gang members because the cops told you to. Doesn’t really scream punk to me, and certainly isn’t what I had in mind for my Streetkid. More thoughtful RPGs, such as Fallout: New Vegas at least give their generic enemies a reason to shoot on sight – one gang is made of highwaymen, which will only attack when you travel by road, another are on so many drugs they genuinely don’t know what’s going on. The main characters are treated with enough respect that they’d need a good reason to want to flatline you. It’s shame other gangs weren’t given this treatment. Why can’t we pick sides in this conflict?
However, it isn’t all wasted potential. The “gig” system has Fixers call you to perform more specific tasks. Take out a named character, steal something from a base, etc. It’s not groundbreaking, but it at least gives Night City some desperately needed life.
As for the much hyped fighting mechanics – those too are quite simply “alright”. The shooting itself is absolutely fine, and melee weapons can be a whole heap of fun. However, quite possibly the dumbest enemy AI seen in a long time ruins any sort of challenge in your encounters. You can take things directly (guns blazing) or covert (stealth). Either one will rarely give you any trouble, as enemies opt to stand directly in the line of fire while reloading. Alternatively, if you fancy a bit of subterfuge, you’ll find that everyone in Night City went to the Stormtrooper school of “executive protection,” as they fail to detect you when blatantly crouching behind them, knocking over an entire desk on your way there. If they spot you dead on, just hide behind a corner for a second or two, and they’ll forget you exists. Thankfully, the devs did put some challenge in, and will sometimes clump enemies so close together you have to be strategic in using hacking abilities to distract them, and where you hide the bodies. But more often than not, you can count on the fact that every gang members in the city needs a hearing test.
What’s a Bug, What’s a Feature?
Okay, fine, we’re at the real reason you’re here. After all, I played this on PlayStation 4, so let’s get in to the performance issues.
Cyberpunk 2077 is not unplayable, especially after update 1.06. But that’s about the only praise in that department, because there’s a whole lot of inexcusably immersion breaking mistakes left in.
One of the worst offenders was when I had a moment of immense sadness in the story ruined by a dead character… springing back to life in a T-pose. They then proceeded to awkwardly flail until they clipped out of the car we were in. Other lowlights include tutorial pop-ups never disappearing, taking up a quarter of the screen. Right now, any sort of pop-up is to be avoided – changing the song in the car can grind the game down to a halt for a good ten seconds, and even just entering one once was enough to cause a crash.
Accumulating, this leaves you wonder what’s a bug, and what’s a feature. For example, sometimes I hear a scream, and see an NPC falling in the sky to their death. Is this a commentary on suicide? Or did the poor AI really just make them do that? Are the ads framerate and texture quality meant to be glitching out like that? Is everyone meant to be a goddamn awful driver?
But it all goes back to what I said at the beginning – Cyberpunk 2077 is a fun game. And If I’m managing to have fun on a base PlayStation 4 which I bought second-hand from CEX in 2016 (and sounds like its going to burn my house down when I play Spongebob Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated) then the average gamer can indeed have a good time here. The only thing close to a deal breaker I encountered was the aforementioned soft lock, in which I called Jackie on my phone… just for him to disappear from the game world entirely, making main story missions impossible to complete. Reloading to a previous save lost me around two hours of gameplay. It may now be patched out, but the fact it was in at all adds credence to the concerns.
Cyberpunk 2077 is too big for its boots. Thematically confused, and technically average, it’s nevertheless a worthy game for your collection for its good story. You can almost feel the writers frustration as bigger points on police brutality, gender expression, and corporate greed, are contradicted by a mission system that sees you forced to help Corpos and cops for money, and the decision to have your Vs pronouns tied to their voice. Casually selling out to authority, Asian characters portrayed as honor-obsessed stereotypes, and getting called “chica” because your voice is high-pitched? That all doesn’t sound very punk to me.
If you expect nothing more than a good, fun, seven-out-of-ten experience, I cannot recommend Cyberpunk 2077 enough. Night City may not be very interactive, but it is nevertheless gorgeous, and is a stunning backdrop to a genuinely touching story. Bugs will very understandably put many off, but if you are able to adjust your expectations accordingly (and after this week, that shouldn’t be too hard), what you’ll find is a flawed piece of work, which wants to pour out its heart, but keeps getting too shy.
Rhiannon reviewed Cyberpunk 2077 on PlayStation 4, using a personally purchased copy of the game.