Bottom line: Cyberpunk 2077 is an ambitious, open-world game, and Night City feels alive, but it's often contradicting itself on its core aspects and often does the basics to get by.
- Night City is gorgeous
- Skills and attributes system allows for unique play styles
- Great story elements, including small character details
- Runs overall well on next-gen consoles
- Treats marginalized groups poorly
- Elements often incongruous with themes
- A lot of performance issues on older systems
At the start of Cyberpunk 2077, your character wants nothing more than to get to Night City. Through marketing materials, we've been taught that it's a bright behemoth, sprawling and unobtainable thanks to controlling corporations and general dystopian rot. However, when my V, a nomad, entered Night City chased by border patrol, it was tough to take in. You're stuck in a car, shooting at officers, and all the while driving through industrial parks and barren wasteland underneath billboards. When you finally get to experience Night City — like, really experience it — it's through montage. You finally cut to six months later, and that's where the game really begins.
This introduction changes depending on which backstory you choose for V, but it still represents the core issue with Cyberpunk 2077: it doesn't know what it wants to be. There's a gigantic open-world to explore in Night City, with a variety of NPCs, storefronts, and culture clashing, but you don't get to enjoy it for the first hour. It's a game about cyberpunk and all that entails — neon, transhumanism, capitalistic excess, body modification, hacking — but also isn't about any of it. A lot of it works as set dressing for an ambitious game that never seems to get to where it wants to be without shortcuts.
Before we delve in, we want to note that this has been a strange game to review. Reports over the past few months have illuminated what working conditions have been like at developer CD Projekt Red, and it's been racked with mandatory crunch and long hours. This is contradictory to promises that the company wouldn't be crunching employees, but delays partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic only sought to make the situation worse. It's also been plagued with some marketing controversies, including one over the depiction of a trans model in-game. All of this, along with the bugs and performance issues players have reported at launch across platforms, it's tough to judge the game on its own merits.
That being said, this is arguably the largest game to release in 2020. It was announced in 2012 but only started to feel real in 2018. It's been a long time coming from a studio that struck gold with The Witcher 3. The anticipation is real, and a game of this size will only continue to have an impact on video game culture for the foreseeable future.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a lived-in, inconsistent world
|Developer||CD Projekt Red|
|Publisher||CD Projekt Red|
|Game Size||110GB (patch included)|
|Play Time||20+ hours (so far)|
|Players||Singleplayer, with multiplayer coming at a later date|
In Cyberpunk 2077 you play as V, a nomad, street kid, or corporate goon (depending on what you choose during character creation) as they start making a life for themselves in the technologically-advanced world of Night City. Here, they go on jobs for "fixers" throughout the city, getting embroiled in gang drama and drawing the ire of the corporations that run the show. It starts open-ended with some essential quests mixed in, but then a job goes wrong and you end up with malware in your brain — and that malware is Johnny Silverhand, a former rockstar turned terrorist played by Keanu Reeves.
The juicy plot elements don't kick in for a few hours, which could be longer depending on if you decide to hop around sidequesting or even just exploring. The game purports to be an open-world game first though, so even once the plot kicks into high gear, you can still wander around Night City taking on side gigs to build your street cred and earn money (called Eurodollars), which you can save up for new gear like weapons and cybernetics. I say "purports" because the game is strongest when it comes to that main questline. There are moments of real stakes and sadness as you go through the story, even if the pacing is slow. Each of the main characters, V included, have traits that make them feel heavy and lived in. Jackie Welles, your right-hand man, might be a Mexican stereotype in some ways, but he has a family, friends, and wants that move him forward to take on jobs with you. Judy Alvarez, a braindance editor you meet while on the job, tinkers with robots in her spare time and deeply cares about the people in her life. While V can be played any number of ways, they're still a person that can put up a fight and make you feel the weight of why they even bother.
Some strong writing definitely aids in this, but there are small touches that add flavor to the character presentation. Jackie, when he's nervous, will bounce his leg up and down. In close-ups, the characters' eyes will shift around and change. Seeing people's weird habits and ticks, and how they respond to stimulus is just another step towards making Cyberpunk 2077 feel realistic.
Despite all of this, however, Cyberpunk 2077 is an open-world game. The map is gigantic, the city feels lived in, and the amount of diversity you see in NPCs is staggering, at least at first. As the technology behind games becomes more powerful and efficient, this becomes less unique. The work put into making Night City feel like a real, grungy metropolis pays off in the beginning, but as you explore you start to see the seams. There are unique storefronts, but you can't interact with most of them, for example.
Even the sidequests you're tasked with doing become standard over time and repetitive. Often fixers will have you find a person or steal an item and you have to drop it off somewhere. Sometimes you'll run past a crime in progress and can help the police to get a reward. There are supporting story encounters that are more complex than the gig sidequests that are more enjoyable and offer twists on the world, but they're not as plentiful. This might be a futuristic dystopia, but the goals and quests are all still the same. Night City looks expensive and unique, but underneath, it's business as usual.
Even if all the quests are basic, it's how you go about solving them that changes the game up. You can build your character as a stealth ninja, an arms master, or even as a master hacker, and all are viable strategies for beating your enemies. You just have to put all of your points into the correct attributes, which can frankly get complicated if you're not familiar with the TTRPG it's based on. You can also upgrade yourself with cyberware, but so far, there aren't a lot of options after the first few hours.
Cyberpunk 2077 doesn't seem to understand its core themes
For all the good CD Projekt Red did to make Cyberpunk 2077 look flashy and play well, it seems to have missed a key element to making it all come together. Since this is a complex game, there are a lot of details to consider, and a lot of them are either dissonant from each other or stick out in horrendous ways.
For one, the character creator is both exhaustive and lacking, putting the focus on elements like hair color, scarring, eye type, and tattoos, but missing out on a breast slider, more than one vagina option, no general options for larger body types, and others. The marketing made a big deal about how extensive the creator was going to be, which is on-brand with a lot of the basic themes in cyberpunk as a genre, so to find it lacking feels like a missed opportunity. The lack of options available for anybody beyond the typical cis, able-bodied male but still offering the illusion of them is alienating, especially for women or trans people. The game does allow you to choose a voice that doesn't match your genitals, but there's no nonbinary in between, nor does it allow you to choose your pronouns (those are assigned based on the voice you choose). If you are a trans player and wanted to play a trans character, it only goes halfway and marginalizes a lot of players in the process.
Outside of the character creator, the way the game treats these groups only gets worse. While you can play a female V, Cyberpunk 2077 ensures you understand that this world doesn't treat women well. The way it treats women is outright violent, with most female corpses you find being brutalized and naked. In one of the game's first major quests, you have to rescue a woman, who you find naked and nearly dead in an iced bathtub. As you carry her outside, her bare breast fills your vision, her nipples thrust up against the screen in an unnecessary and dehumanizing move.
As you wander around Night City, you'll notice NPCs also treating women poorly, but you're not allowed to intervene. Instead, I had to watch, in one instance, when a man was attempting to drag a drunk woman off somewhere to rape her. You can shoot anybody in-game, but Cyberpunk 2077 gives you no reason to engage with these random NPCs. Women still make up the bulk of sex workers, including exotic dancers. In one club, they're put in tubes filled with liquid and forced to dance. Despite touting a futuristic world, it seems little has changed over a full century.
Even worse is how trans people are treated. Throughout the world are ads for products with heavily sexualized photos at their center. The most prominent is for a product called Chromanticure, which was featured in early marketing material. The model is a trans woman with a visible penis, but otherwise, they have zero representation in the main story, even if you play V as trans. They're things to be ogled at, and nothing more.
While you can make the argument that this is all in service of building a gritty and dark world, it's become a tired excuse. When a huge percentage of your player base is from some marginalized group, creating scenes where they're constantly brutalized or reduced to sexual objects is an act of violence in itself. Walking around I was constantly reminded of how much I didn't matter, how much my body mattered before anything else. It's not in service of a story; it's in service of an edgy tone that's just exhausting to see in 2020. Sex, from penis customization to dildos on just about every corner, is one of the key aesthetic choices beyond neon, and at this point in my playthrough, it has no reason for existing, or any payoff, beyond just ensuring you understand that this world is for adults.
On top of all the sexualization, the objectification just doesn't fit in with the themes of cyberpunk, especially the ones the game has adopted into its own. Cyberpunk 2077 wants you to think about transhumanism, what the soul means in conjunction with the body, but can it do that when it treats the body so poorly and so unequally? Even having the character creator be the final look of your character seems incongruous, since the whole point of cyberpunk is being able to constantly change your appearance. You can upgrade your cyberware, but it only provides tweaks to your look. Considering all of this is in a genre that's about how the body has no meaning, it sure puts a lot of emphasis on all the different ways to destroy and sexualize it.
We're dealing with some old-fashioned views here. Isn't that the least cyberpunk thing of all?
Cyberpunk 2077 has some performance issues on consoles
When the press received the first Cyberpunk 2077 codes, they were for PC only. Reviews, including the one from Windows Central's Jez Corden, noted that it was riddled with bugs and other performance issues, although that a lot of them had been fixed in a pre-launch update. The 1.01 update also looks to fix many issues, including instability and performance.
Consoles are a slightly different story. We weren't able to receive a console code until the day before launch, but it did come with an approximately 40GB update. We still encountered many performance issues while playing, including characters clipping through each other and screen jittering. However, the biggest problem we encountered — we played the PS4 version on the PS5 — were infrequent game crashes. Through my eight or so hours of game time, I encountered four crashes. Luckily, the robust autosave system meant I never lost too much progress, but where I respawned was inconsistent. This meant I could respawn at the beginning of a section or in the middle of combat.
Otherwise, the gameplay was smooth, as you can see in the clip above. I saw very few framerate drops on my PS5 and on occasion, I could hit 60 FPS. There isn't a performance mode here like there is on the Xbox — it defaults to 60 FPS on the PS5. Players on the Xbox Series X can choose between hitting a 60 FPS target or a higher resolution.
Meanwhile, the game on previous-gen consoles seems nearly unplayable, if the anecdotes online are any indication. There are reports of low framerates below 30 FPS, poor texture quality, asset popping, and, of course, crashes. It's become so bad that CD Projekt Red is offering refunds for anybody who bought it on PS4 or Xbox One. The company is also focusing on improving the game across platforms for the foreseeable future.
Things are slightly improved on the Xbox One X and the PS4 Pro thanks to those consoles' more powerful internals, but it's not a total fix. The PS5 and Xbox Series X|S have faster internals, including NVMe SSDs, which assist with loading times. This becomes even more important with the sheer amount of assets that go into just one scene in Cyberpunk 2077.
Beyond just performance problems, however, are the missing elements that make playing on console a more pleasing experience. There seem to be very few options to tweak the visuals beyond a colorblind mode and the typical sliders for things like motion blur. There aren't any ways to change the size of the text, for example, which is a key accessibility option. When you're playing on PC, you're often up against the monitor. However, playing a game on a TV means often sitting across the room, which means the text is harder to read. I found myself squinting a lot at the screen as I played, trying to figure out if it wanted me to hit LB or RB. Subtitles are sized appropriately, but NPC dialogue, which appears above their head as they walk, was indiscernible. Along with the bright colors, which can sometimes blend together in a sea of neon vomit, and some flashing lights, I found myself nursing a headache after just a couple of hours.
Larger games like The Outer Worlds have implemented accessibility options like the ability to change text size during later updates, so hopefully, this is something we'll see as Cyberpunk 2077 continues to improve.
Cyberpunk 2077: Should you buy?
Cyberpunk 2077 was marketing itself on the future. It was a next-gen game that took place in the far-flung year of 2077. It promised one of the biggest open worlds in a game to date, along with freedom of choice and great story elements. This was a game that wanted to make an impact at the start of the next generation, but it's proven to be possibly too ambitious for its own good. While it puts the onus on its huge open world and the versatility of Night City, it fails in depicting a cyberpunk world that feels accessible to all players.
3.5 out of 5
It put in the effort to allow you to create trans characters, for example, but didn't go far enough to truly depict the vast uniqueness of sexuality and didn't incorporate any meaningful trans characters. It allows you to play however you want thanks in part to the Cyberpunk RPG's skill system, but doesn't change up the side quests enough to make you want to use them. Like the montage at the start of your life in Night City, it's about doing the minimum, taking shortcuts, and hoping that'll be enough. It's also unfinished, which is unacceptable even if it's become standard for a lot of big games, and maybe that's also a part of this metaphor.
Cyberpunk 2077 will hopefully be the game it wants to be one day, but as of now, less than a week after launch, it's just a pale imitation.
Cyberpunk 2077 is out now on PC, Xbox One, Stadia, and PS4. It's also playable on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and PS5.
To the future
An ambitious title
Cyberpunk 2077 is a game filled with contradictions, but it's certainly ambitious. Play as V and live your life in Night City as best you can. Just try not to succumb to the weird malware inside your head.
Updated Dec. 14, 2020: Revised final review after more hours played.
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