It simply isn’t possible to enjoy the privilege of a cold first impression of Cyberpunk 2077. After eight years of development, well over a year of frenetic marketing, and facile pre-launch discussion beaten to within an inch of its life, this is a game that’s been stamped onto the gaming community’s collective conscious through controversy, questionable company decisions, and its promise of unparalleled adventure through a hedonistic depiction of Night City.
Update 29th December: This is now our full review of Cyberpunk 2077 on PlayStation 4, having tested the game on PS4 Pro.
I won’t be the first to point out the fact that this is a game built on the foundations of a dated historical genre, and I’m not the last to define it as an experience born from a Gen-X perspective, thanks to its roots in the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop RPG. Dragging cyberpunk into the realms of 21st-century AAA game development is a foregone conclusion, and as a result, V’s Night City is tinted by a very specific rose-colored set of mirrorshades.
Others have made apt comparisons to Grand Theft Auto for a good reason – CDPR’s particular flavour of cyberpunk is laced with street bravado and petty crime. At least for the street kid campaign (and to a certain extent, the nomad and corpo introductory quests), the roleplay aspect is brain-smootheningly straightforward – chew gum, kick ass, take names, and get famous. Or, you know, die trying. It can be fun for the most part, if Cyberpunk 2077, as a whole, hadn’t been doomed from its premature launch.
Night City has an enormous reach and it’s an absolute pleasure to jump on a bike and ride it from one end to the other – janky traffic AI aside. The city is undoubtedly far more of a main character than either V or Johnny Silverhand. One of my greatest pleasures in the game was a series of side quests involving the sentient Delamain cab company, trying to reunite the fragments of a fractured AI personality. It wasn’t just a charming bit of writing, but a welcome reprieve from the constant hustle of the street kid campaign I’d chosen, featuring a nice little cameo from Portal’s GLADoS. Night City at its best meant gunning it out to the Badlands at sunrise with my radio set to Royal Blue FM, a lovely bebop/old-school jazz addition to the lineup of hard rock/EDM stations.
Having now finished the game playing on PlayStation 4 Pro, most of the experience has been painfully, almost predictably generic – this is, of course, aside from the veritable cornucopia of bugs that have plagued its launch.
Cyberpunk 2077 ticks all the boxes for an AAA title. It’s got a lot to do, and a lot of places to do it in, and for a certain subset of people with the right hardware, it’s a visual feast. For a game styled as an immersive playground, it’s incredibly frustrating to be so consistently and frequently jarred out of that experience by relentless glitches.
There were relatively harmless Bethesda-level derps like watching NPCs levitate their drinks with the backs of their hands and people floating in the air. There was a relentless bug that forced me to slow-RP walk until I rebooted the game, a bug where quests glitched out until I rebooted the game, a bug where scripted sequences wouldn’t load until I rebooted the game… you get the idea. An NPC cycled through canned flavour lines during a particularly sobering play-on-rails segment. “Pick it up, okay?” she repeated as I embarked on a high-stakes rescue mission at Arasaka HQ that ended in tragedy. There were also smaller inconsistencies like Mayor Rhyne’s death plastered all over the news but the radio anchor still discussing his next term.
Hacking follows the tried-and-true matrix system that felt marginally more rewarding in Shadowrun, and even though I initially built myself out as a netrunner/tech, the baseline quickhacks didn’t feel like a worthy investment. Reboot optics were useful for the mandatory stealth portions, but a spray-and-pray approach seems more in line with the street kid bravado and determination to make a name for themselves in the city. Combat feels appropriately chaotic given the context of Night City’s burgeoning criminal culture, and even with all the other options – stealth, hacking, etc. – nine times out of ten, the game leans hard on fighting your way out of a situation.
What 2077 does well is expand on its roots from Mike Pondsmith’s original creation, which is unabashedly style-over-substance and belongs squarely in its decade of birth for a reason. I’ve written at length on the historical nature of cyberpunk as a genre, and while there’s nothing particularly sacred about it, 2077 has taken a very particular set of historical aesthetics and social paradigms and watered them down into something as puerile as it is comfortably, mind-numbingly addictive. Do I want to collect all the cars? Do I need all the clothes (I definitely don’t need the “BURN CORPO SHIT” pants)? Not really, but there are a million other things V can do to kill time and make easy money from finding tarot graffiti around the city or checking in on a troubled neighbour, and generally working on their street cred. The glory of making a name for oneself in Night City is the main thrust of the game and it never lets you forget that.
The game’s treatment of gender and culture is, unsurprisingly, not great, which isn’t news for anyone who’s paid attention to CDPR’s botched portrayals of transgender people, especially the in-game ad for ‘Chromanticore’ (which is still, of course, plastered all over Night City). For all of cyberpunk’s association with transhumanism, this is a game for kids who still get their kicks from seeing a dildo. Sure, sex is supposed to be ubiquitous in the future, but 2077’s hypersexualized cuddle puddle isn’t even interesting, and for the trans community, it’s just plain demeaning. Boiling it down to a choice between penis or vagina is the most insipid take on future transhumanist possibilities ever, but 2077 would have you believe you’re on Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.
Then there’s good old Takemura, the Ghost of Cyberpunk that nobody wanted. The cryptic eastern riddles that he sends V are probably meant to be satire, but CDPR probably aren’t the right folks to pull that off well. The Alt Cunningham treatment is also a fairly tired trope, as a ghost in the machine and wronged ex rolled into one easy way out. I’m not even sure whether I’m on board with Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand – he’s found the magic formula for just the right amount of abrasiveness and swagger while still remaining very much a background fixture in V’s landscape. The sex scenes with Alt, though, were objectively unwatchable, and it’s an absolute blessing that no-one decided to incorporate quicktime events into that whole situation. This, from the studio that gave us the magic of Geralt and Yennefer on a stuffed unicorn and made it work.
Perhaps if CDPR had leaned hard into embracing the glitchpunk aspect of the genre (beyond the recurring faulty issues with V’s Relic during combat) and dug into all of the creative possibilities that opens up, that would have offered a more compelling way to refresh such a dated world aesthetic. There are certainly interesting ways to build a world using cyberpunk tropes, which CDPR has faithfully avoided in favour of trying to create one gargantuan, sprawling example of ARPG’s greatest hits. There’s a little bit of crafting (which I barely touched, to be fair), some rote driving-on-rails sequences that felt like a mechanical afterthought, byzantine skill trees, and so on. The map was also a huge sore point, an absolute hell on the eyes, and with no effective filtering tool to sift through the icons splattered across it. It took a long time for me to realise I was experiencing a bug after figuring out that an entire category of amenities weren’t showing up for me.
That being said, 2077 isn’t terrible. It’s fine, but it definitely deserved more time in the oven. For consoles, maybe it deserved to build a whole new oven from scratch. It’s just okay enough – a very particular brand of successful mediocrity – to be spun as a win for folks who are determined to hold it up as some kind of gaming gold standard. Of course, if you’re running it on a top-of-the-line PC, you’re probably scratching your head about the fuss console players are making. It might seem absolutely fine for those gamers, and if you’re extra lucky, you’ve only run into a smattering of memeable bugs. I can’t say the same of my experience playing on a PS4 Pro.
Personally, I’m living for the small lowkey moments where V actually gets to explore their heritage in Heywood. Going to an ofrenda for a close friend, for instance, was a nice slice of humanity that departs from the baseline adolescence of the game’s world. V’s relationships with characters like Judy and Misty are some of the stronger moments of writing and character development. The latter is still one of the most disjointed aspects of the game – even the intro storyline where I was getting to know my street kid V felt shallow and rushed. All roads lead to the same place though, regardless of whether you choose nomad or corpo, and none of them are substantially more interesting or better than the other.
Even after hitting the point of no return, I found myself wondering what I was even doing in Night City. In trying to deliver such an over-sold experience, CDPR shot themselves in the foot (and by CDPR I mean their management). The small windows of time where I felt a sense of momentum and freedom – often during side quests, cultivating friendships, and exploring the city – were hampered by tedious cutscenes straight out of the Kojima playbook. In retrospect, I probably spent as much time in Night City as I did simple because when it looked good, it looked good.
Mike Pondsmith has talked at length about how 2020 and 2077 aren’t meant to be prophecies, but cautionary tales, and what’s now clear is that CDPR wasn’t quite the right studio to pull off a cautionary tale of this scope. Their poor labor practices have made a laughable parallel with cyberpunk’s roots in the rise of neoliberalism. So yes, there’s promises of improvements coming to the game in 2021, but that can’t paint over one of the biggest clusters in game launch and labour history.