Leading up to the launch of what can be argued to be the most-anticipated game of the last ten years, I was what I have come to call “anti-hyped.” The constant delays, in-your-face marketing, and exhausting discourse had me feeling more apathetic than excited. Still, I thought, with no expectations going in I would have a much better time appreciating what would surely be a revolutionary game.
Cyberpunk 2077 started – for me, at least – in a desert. As a nomad named V, I was setting out to take on a lucrative smuggling gig with my boisterous new partner, Jackie. After some prologue and a montage, you’re thrown into the thick of Night City. One disastrous heist later you’re left with nothing but a cancerous biochip containing the consciousness of anarchist rocker-boy Johnny Silverhand, and the looming specter of death.
Finding a way to disentangle Johnny’s psyche from your own is the main motivator as you spend your time exploring the city, taking on jobs for fixers, and getting to know the local talent. Side activities are where Cyberpunk 2077 shines, and they’re often well written, funny and exciting. I just wish I could say the same about the main plot.
Death is the most central theme of Cyberpunk 2077 (it is noir, after all), but our protagonist’s relationship with it rubbed me the wrong way. Avoiding it is their sole motivation for the better part of the game, and their cloying whininess as they spill their guts to everyone around them made them supremely unlikable and borderline pathetic. Rather than explicitly spending their remaining time to better the lives of others or achieve something great, these things are simply a means to an end – their survival.
While the main story falls flat, Night City itself (for the most part) delivers. It’s an open world that would’ve seemed impossible just a few years ago, with towering verticality, incredible detail, and countless interior spaces. Gone are the cardboard buildings of Grand Theft Auto V, replaced with traversable and multi-layered jungle gyms of concrete and steel. Driving around was so enthralling that I didn’t fast travel once during my 50 hours of play, instead enjoying the grand sights of towering complexes, wind farms and endless trash heaps.
When I say driving is enthralling, I mean that in every sense – except for the controls. Cars feel both heavy and floaty, which sounds impossible until you’ve felt it for yourself. There’s an abundance of awesome-looking and unique rides, but none of them overcome the limitations of the poor driving physics.
Shooting is similarly subpar, with braindead AI and so-so gun feedback. There’s a lot of looter-shooter DNA in Cyberpunk 2077, meaning you’ll be recycling guns and clothes depending on where the green arrows point as you fight and explore. I wish there was a little more permanence to gear because finding guns I was attached to became a fleeting affair as they were quickly replaced by a goon’s common item.
While combat is a bit of a letdown, the environments in which it takes place are not. From derelict grocery stores to dusty highway shootouts, the scale of the adventure you’ll embark on constantly impresses. There’s quite a bit of open world drudgery in Night City, but there are just as many captivating stories, side conversations, and optional missions. Those optional questlines are often more compelling than the main story, featuring characters whose codependence on V relies on more than his impotent quest for survival.
Speaking of V, I absolutely loathe them, or at least, him. You can customize V’s appearance and gender, and the male voice actor comes across as so forced that I found my own avatar to be my least favorite character in the game. Keanu’s performance as Johnny Silverhand is limp, but it pales in comparison to the faux gruffness of our hero.
As much as I despised their personality within the game, building my character was a rewarding experience. There are numerous skill trees relating to more basic skills like gun handling and melee damage, but there are also more unique abilities like Netrunning – the ability to coast along the environment’s software to take out enemies from within their own security systems.
Being a boring person, I specced into pistols, but even my favorite pea-shooter, when combined with rudimentary stealth skills, proved more than effective at dispatching enemies. In particular, I enjoyed the modularity of scopes and silencers, combined with mods that slot into weapons to boost their stats. It all feels very much like Destiny, but it gave me a good reason to explore the world. Almost every time I went off the beaten path I was adequately rewarded, and that’s always a great feeling.
Compared to the grand, impossible promise of Cyberpunk 2077, the game we actually got is unlikely to leave a lasting impression on most players. It’s bound to disappoint rabid fans, but even as someone who wasn’t particularly excited for it, I felt a bit let down by the end. The more I played, the more shallow the open world became. The incredible stories we know CD Projekt Red are capable of delivering felt like punctuations between incredible-looking but average gameplay. By the end of my experience, the beautiful landscapes were just there to be traversed, and all the radar blips and potential loot stashes faded from my periphery.
The characters, stories, and aesthetics of Cyberpunk 2077 carry much of the weight of the experience. It’s hard to point to an open world so confidently sculpted with a singular vision for creating awe-inspiring vignettes at every turn. I won’t harp on about bugs this late into the discourse, but I think the other issues are more fundamental. The muddled themes, subpar combat, and shallow open world ecosystem are what keep Cyberpunk 2077 from achieving greatness, not some minor visual quirks. Still, if you believe in CD Projekt Red’s initial promise and want to see things for yourself, you could do worse than to spend your time in Night City.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by CD Projekt Red.
Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to live up to the grand promises made by CD Projekt Red, but its problems stem deeper than bugs resulting from its rushed development.