Editor’s Note: We initially decided against running a review of Cyberpunk 2077 upon initial release, due to the severity of the technical issues that have forced digital storefronts to remove the game from stock. However, further internal discussions led to a consensus that this game, like any other, is more than the sum of its glitches, and must be reviewed on its merits as is. If and when substantial updates are made to stability and performance, such that it would merit further analysis, we will re-assess the game again at that time. Our first priority is to giving our readers the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions.
For the purposes of this review, Cyberpunk 2077 was played on PC, with Hotfix 1.05 applied, on a machine that meets or exceeds all recommended specifications, with settings turned to High/1080p. All media presented in this review was captured by PSXE for this review, and was not provided to us via press kit.
The 1980s were such a weird time in history that, if you didn’t grow up in/live through that decade, it can be kind of hard to properly describe it without sounding like a crazy person. It was an era so wholly defined by rampant materialism and insensate greed that it created an explosion of entertainment media about how utterly awesome it is to… work yourself to death for big corporations? When Michael J. Fox wasn’t busy traveling back to the future, he spent his days on Family Ties as a college Reaganite who worshipped money as a deity, and his nights filming movies like The Secret of My Success, in which he plays a college Reaganite from Kansas who moves to New York and will consider himself an abject failure if he does not one day own his own Fortune 500 company.
With mainstream culture defining the decade by our mad scramble for cold hard cash and the subservience to corporate America that it required, it was no surprise that the counter-culture of the day would respond with a surge in cyberpunk. These days it is ubiquitous in pop culture, with movies like The Matrix and Blade Runner 2049, shows like Altered Carbon, and more, but it was back in the 80s when cyberpunk defined itself against the backdrop of materialistic insanity. So it made sense that CD Projekt Red, in developing Cyberpunk 2077, would take inspiration from one of the hallmarks of 80s cyberpunk – Mark Pondsmith’s appropriately-named 1988 table-top RPG, Cyberpunk.
BEHOLD THE NIGHT CITY
Cyberpunk 2077 tells the tale of a low-level street mercenary named V, and their quest to become a high-level street mercenary. In pursuit of this, V eventually takes on a gig that has her robbing Japanese mega corporation Arasaka to relieve their CEO of a mysterious “relic” chip. When things go sideways and the bullets start flying, V eventually winds up buried alive in a garbage dump, the relic chip now stuck inside her brain and, along with it, the digital psyche of legendary punk rocker-turned freedom fighter Johnny Silverhands, played by cyberpunk legend Keanu Reeves.
Having long since gone out in a blaze of glory while fighting Arasaka and its minions, Johnny’s not too happy to wake up inside your brain, and he wants out. Unfortunately, removing the chip containing him would almost certainly kill V, and this is the primary motivation for the remainder of the story, as the unlikely pair is forced into mental co-habitation while both desperately seek a means of terminating the connection.
One of the unique things about Cyberpunk 2077 is that the star of this game is not your character, V. In fact, unlike CD Projekt Red’s previous franchise, The Witcher, you don’t even play as a pre-defined character, instead creating your own version of V. The star isn’t Reeves’s Johnny Silverhands, either, much fun as it is seeing Keanu once again dabbling in the genre.
That’s because the real focus of Cyberpunk 2077 is Night City, itself. The design and vibrancy of the city will be the first thing you notice, and it’ll likely take your breath away; not only is it massive in scope, it is also a technological and design feat few games have ever pulled off. Unfortunately, it’s also about as deep as a puddle.
Night City looks amazing from the many vistas you can stop at, and has a gritty realism to its slums and back alleys and sex shops. The physical edifices themselves are as impressive and convincing as any I’ve ever seen in a game. The problem is that nobody real lives here. The world itself is populated by thousands of NPCs, but you can’t even talk to most of them, and outside of specific characters central to the story, none of them who do talk have anything interesting to say. The only way to ensure a reaction from any NPC is to commit an act of violence in their general vicinity, at which point every NPC in the area will immediately react, in perfect unison and using the same exact animations, as they cower in fear and then run away.
This, of course, will instantly draw the attention of the police, and I do mean instantly. To summon police to your area, all you need to do is shoot someone you’re not allowed to shoot and police will instantly spawn in your area. They don’t drive up in cars, or rappel down from a VTOL, or use the subway or something. They will simply and magically teleport to your exact location, even if you’re on the ledge of a skyscraper.
The reason for all this is simple – there is no proper AI to direct NPC behavior in this game. Police can’t drive to the location of your crime because there is no AI instructing them on where to go or, more importantly, how to get there (this is true for all driving NPCs, in fact, which is why you can stop your car in the middle of the road and leave it there, and just watch the traffic pile up behind you). It’s why they also will not chase you if you flee. You can massacre a mall full of innocent people, wait for police to teleport to your location, and simply walk around the corner to escape; breaking line of sight is all it takes to evade justice in Night City.
To be clear – this is not the byproduct of a bug, or technical glitch. These are not things that can get ironed out in stability patches. They’re part of (or not part of) the bedrock design. There is, of course, no excuse for any of this. Rockstar created a massive open world in Grand Theft Auto V, also with thousands of NPCs, all programmed with AI that made them behave at least somewhat like believable people. That was 7 years ago.
In Cyberpunk 2077, the citizens of Night City feel like plastic props, and I felt like Will Smith talking to mannequins in I Am Legend. The people are shiny and they look nice, but the façade falls apart the moment you try to interact with them in any way. A smaller city, with fewer people (who actually behaved like people), would have been really gone a long way to creating a more believable, interactive, organic world, instead of one that feels fake at every turn.
Cyberpunk isn’t just about crazy technology or cool set pieces. It’s also about the little people, the ones who are left to reckon with corporate greed run amok. Those who are, essentially, the price the wealthy are willing to pay for their techno-opulence. It is for this reason that the Deus Ex games are still the high-water mark for cyberpunk in this industry. Human Revolution and Mankind Divided didn’t have worlds nearly as big as Night City, but they were densely populated with real people, who felt like they actually lived that world and could tell you about it. You could talk to almost everybody, and while a lot of them might not have much to say that affects the story, every single one of them could tell you something about that world, and how they lived in it. CD Projekt Red would have been wise to take note. Instead, they opted for style over substance.
Understanding the roots of cyberpunk as a response to runaway capitalism is important in understanding not only cyberpunk as a genre, but Cyberpunk 2077 specifically. In fact, CD Projekt Red has defended some of its more questionable design decisions in this game with that very reasoning, such as its inclusion of a hyper-sexualized and objectified transgender model in a soda ad that is plastered all over the game world to a, quite frankly, insanely disturbing degree. CD Projekt Red has justified this and other decisions with the declaration that the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is meant to be taken “as a warning, not an aspiration”.
That’s all well and good, but the heart of cyberpunk is about a rejection of corporate and technological dystopia. Not only is that missing from Cyberpunk 2077, the game often has your character running the other direction, as you gleefully skip around town picking up side quests that aid massive corporations at the expense of everyday people. One such quest begins when a glitching automated driver for a taxi corporation tries to murder you in your car, and you simply walk over to company headquarters so you can file a complaint, are reimbursed about 1/10th of the value of your car, are granted a tour of corporate headquarters as a “reward” for your understanding, and are then contracted to help Delamain Taxi Company eliminate all evidence of the automated cars that are rampaging around Night City murdering people. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever rolled my eyes quite so hard while playing a game.
I’M JUST HERE FOR THE ULTRA VIOLENCE, I GUESS
One of the reasons I’m usually such a sucker for this genre is that it’s so rich with narrative possibilities, limited only by the imagination of the studio’s writers. Since that’s not the case, here, I had to find other reasons to stay vested in Cyberpunk 2077, and I found it in the combat, which is surprisingly fluid, stable, and precise in a game that is otherwise compromised at every turn. In fact, the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is about as good as you’re going to get within the confines of an action RPG. The wonderful gunplay is augmented with “quick hacks”, which are various technology-based attacks with a wide variety of functionality. You can remotely hack an enemy’s grenade so that it blows up while still attached to their belt, or “wipe” their memory so they instantly forget they were even fighting you, or simply blind them, or… The options aren’t endless, but they’re expansive enough that I didn’t get to try them all. You’ll also have to reckon with enemies trying to hack *you*, which can usually only be countered by putting a bullet in their brain. Or, more likely, causing it to explode, as Cyberpunk 2077 features violence on a level few games outside the horror genre ever approach, with enemy heads exploding into misty clouds of blood and goo with remarkable regularity.
It’s also possible to equip melee weapons if you want to get more up close and personal, including Mantis Blades that are built right into your cybernetic arms, which are a lot of fun if impractical. It’s not often you find yourself in a one-on-one firefight in this game, and when you do it’s usually against a highly powered enemy from whom you want to keep your distance at all costs. On the rare occasion when I could make good use of Mantis Blades, however, they were a joy to use.
You can also upgrade various parts of your body with new technology, much like the Deus Ex games, so that you can run faster, jump higher, see better, and just generally be more awesome. This can be done either through leveling up and unlocking new passive skills and perks, or visiting cybernetic surgeons known as Ripperdocs, who will splice new hardware directly into various parts of your body, which you can later swap out at will. There is an impressive amount of granularity in the upgrades you can select, and combine with other upgrades, to create a truly unique V that is all your own.
I BRAINDANCE ON YOUR GRAVE
One of the more interesting mechanics that provided some much needed depth to the gameplay is Cyberpunk’s stand-in for “Witcher Sense” from CD Projekt Red’s previous games. At various moments during some missions you will need to uncover clues that guide you to your objective, and doing so requires examining holographic recordings of previous events, known as Braindances. These recordings, which could have been left by the victim of a crime, or recorded specifically as part of a briefing for one of your gigs, can be edited in real time by special Braindance editors, and then viewed by you to extract information.
There are three “layers” to each Braindance (Visual, Thermal, and Audio), and certain clues only exist within certain layers. You can play each Braindance at your pace, rewinding and fast forwarding as needed, switching between these layers as you go and new hints are discovered. It’s a more complex and rewarding investigatory mechanic than Witcher Sense ever was, and its free-form nature means it’s possible you’ll never view a Braindance quite the same way as someone else.
A WARNING, NOT AN ASPIRATION
There are a lot of good ideas in Cyberpunk 2077. Unfortunately they are buried under a mountain of lazy design, rushed development, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes for good cyberpunk. Brushing aside the technical issues of the game, it still ultimately feels like something that was developed by people who really enjoy cyberpunk without really understanding it.
As CD Projekt Red has stated publicly, this game is intended to be “a warning, not an aspiration”. What they mean, of course, is that the world this game presents is not something that humanity should strive for, but something that we’ll end up with if we’re not careful, if we continue to let corporations exploit people for profit, treating their employees like slaves and their customers like witless sheep.
Unfortunately for CD Projekt Red, they’ve sent that exact message, loud in clear, in the worst possible way. This game’s existence, as it is now, is one of the strongest indictments of corporate exploitation and abuse in modern mainstream history. Cyberpunk was created by hundreds of employees who were abused and exploited, forced to work thousands upon thousands of hours of near non-stop crunch despite the studio’s initial promise that it would do no such thing. It was released to the unwitting masses months before it had any right to ship, solely to meet a holiday sales deadline regardless of actual quality. It then was marketed with one of the most deceptive ad campaigns of all time, one that never once provided footage of PS4/XB1 versions despite the company knowing full-well those versions were broken to the point of being unplayable. Worse, CD Projekt Red refused to provide review copy of those versions to any media outlet; only those critics playing on PC were allowed to preview this game ahead of its launch.
Cyberpunk 2077 is definitely a warning, not an aspiration. If we do not change the culture of game development in this industry, if we do not hold developers and publishers accountable for how they treat both their employees and you, the consumer, then Cyberpunk 2077 will be the future of games and game development, and the world will be lesser for it.