Cyberpunk 2077 review – surviving the future
The most anticipated video game of 2020 is finally out, as the creators of The Witcher 3 create a beautifully ugly sci-fi world.
Not since No Man’s Sky has so little been known about so big a game before its release, which is particularly strange given how many people have convinced themselves that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be one of the games of the generation. It is not, in our opinion, quite that good but despite its issues – some technical, some conceptual – it’s the perfect game to end the outgoing generation on, as it offers a fascinating recap of the last seven years and an inspiring hint at what we might be able to expect in the future.
The strange thing about Cyberpunk is that despite there having been virtually no hands-on previews, with console review copies only being sent out three days before launch, it’s been in development for eight years. Most of the technical problems are simply because the day one patch wasn’t ready in time for reviews, as the game only made its pre-Christmas release date by the skin of its teeth. Coronavirus is obviously to blame for most of that but it’s a shame, as complaining about bugs just gets in the way of what’s actually interesting, and disappointing, about Cyberpunk.
Just in case you missed the memo, Cyberpunk is the latest game from CD Projekt Red, creators of The Witcher 3. There are nominal similarities between the two games, in that they’re both open world action role-players, but you’d never guess any connection if you didn’t know it wasn’t the same developer. For a start, the setting is much more than a cosmetic difference, with Cyberpunk’s world being far more cynical and exploitative, where life is cheap and there are no heroes at all.
One difference between the two games that has been somewhat overstated is that in Cyberpunk you don’t play as a predetermined character, which isn’t really true. You play as ‘V’ and while you can customise how they look to a degree, and whether they’re male or female, they do have a pre-defined personality and backstory – just not ones as detailed as Geralt.
At first it doesn’t seem like this is going to be a problem, until you begin to notice an increasingly wide disconnect between side missions – where you’re generally free to do and act as you please – and story missions which are much more controlled and where you frequently find yourself not wanting to pick any of the proffered dialogue options because it’s obvious the illusion of choice is pushing you down a pre-set path.
With most games you’re either playing a pre-existing character or your own custom avatar but Cyberpunk takes an awkward position between the two, that doesn’t seem to offer any benefit. Things start off well though, with each of the character types getting a different intro, with the option to play V as someone from the societal elite, someone from the opposite end of town, and a sort of Mad Max loner that’s never been to the big city before.
These first moments are hugely impressive, as the full glory of Cyberpunk’s graphics are revealed. Although we’ve not had time to complete the game on PS4 Pro we’ve played enough to see that the visuals are almost equally impressive there, with superb facial animation and a gigantic open world city that really does feel like you’re exploring a more violent version of Blade Runner’s L.A.
It’s the level of detail that impresses the most, from the jewellery and cybernetic implants of everyone you meet to the building interiors that are filled with bric-a-brac you can pick up or interact with. The map itself isn’t that big but the density and interactivity of every location is far preferable to another barren, open world map of the sort you’ve seen dozens of times before.
The story is divided into acts, with the first taking a while to get into gear but ending in impressively shocking style. By this point you realise that Cyberpunk is much more of an action game than previously imagined, so it’s a good job that the first person action is very good and lightyears beyond fellow first person role-players like Fallout.
The gunplay isn’t exactly Destiny – it’s just a little too flat at times – but it is precise and satisfying, with the huge range of different guns all having a different purpose and tactility. The melee combat is also good fun, especially given how difficult the first person perspective makes it to judge distance. Fisticuffs feel weighty and thoughtful, while the streamlined control system ensures you can wield baseball bats, samurai swords, or just your own two fists with equal elan.
All of this would be good in any game but the cyberpunk aesthetic underlies everything, since in almost every situation you can choose between several hacking options, whether you’re blinding an opponent’s cybernetic eyes, setting off the grenades hanging by their belt, or using background objects, from gun turrets to explosive barrels, to aid in combat.
This works equally well when you’re trying to be stealthy, when the game borrows ideas from the earlier Watch Dogs titles in terms of hacking cameras so you can then hack other cameras so you can get a bead on a computer or enemy you otherwise couldn’t see. However, stealth is the only action element that feels unfair without special augments, especially the one that can slow down time, to put the odds more in your favour.
Mechanically there’s almost nothing to complain about and while this wouldn’t fly if it was just a straight action game – the gunplay is good but not that good – the wide range of options for every encounter, including just talking to people, gives an empowering sense of freedom and control.
Cyberpunk is a role-playing game though, with a fairly standard set of stats and skill trees for you to work you through and a crafting system that allows you to improve your weapons and equipment with collected resources. At times this can feel a bit too much like Fallout style rubbish collection, as you pick up everything that’s not tied down, but most will appreciate the added depth it gives you and if you can’t be bothered you can always buy or steal weapons that are almost as good.
Where the game falters is in how it tries to pull together the action, the storytelling, and the role-playing elements. As in The Witcher 3, the side quests are frequently the most enjoyable parts, with a wider range of, occasionally less serious, objectives and more time to get to know the various side characters.
However, this non-linear approach is at odds not only with the more restrictive choices present in the story missions but also the fact that the main plot is implied to be a matter of great urgency – even though you spend most of your time wandering around town trying to earn enough money to have a pair of retractable swords grafted into your arms. That’s a problem with all open world games to a degree but the way the main story is presented seems to almost purposefully make things worse.
Either way, the writing is generally very good, as you’d expect from the makers of The Witcher 3, and most of the characters, including V, are much more sympathetic and relatable than the game’s obnoxious marketing would have you imagine.
Strangely, one of the key exceptions is Keanu Reeves’ cyber-ghost character, who on paper is pretty objectionable and only made bearable by Revees’ performance. Despite that, he’s a welcome addition to the game, as his constant jibes and unwanted advice provide a different perspective to each encounter and ensures V always has someone to talk to.
There is a problem with Night City itself though, which is portrayed as a dystopian nightmare, controlled by corporations who encourage vapid consumerism and a dog-eat-dog mentality. Everything can be bought for a price and yet human life has been rendered almost worthless. It’s heavy stuff, in theory, but most of the time it just comes across like Grand Theft Auto without the satire.
Rather than thoughtful sci-fi, the tone of the game is often puerile and distasteful, as if CD Projekt let a bunch of 15-year-olds design all the hyper-sexualised advertising and body horror grossness and left the grown-ups to write the dialogue.
There’s been a lot of controversy over CD Projekt’s portrayal of transgender characters and it’s hard not to agree with those who complain about the fetishised posters that are dotted all over the city, given there are no obviously transgender main characters. Especially as you’re given a choice of genitalia in the character creator but you don’t get to pick the gender, which is tied to the seemingly arbitrary choice of whether your voice sounds masculine or feminine.
CD Projekt brought up the subject – it’s not as if these are standard options in every character creator – and yet their unwillingness to engage with transgender issues in terms of storytelling seems undeniably exploitive. And if you were already arching your eyebrows at how the Voodoo Boys were portrayed during one of the pre-release gameplay videos you should be warned that things have not changed in the final game, with other non-white characters also portrayed in a worryingly stereotypical manner.
The final issue is that while V’s personal story is compelling, as you explore traditional cyberpunk themes of transhumanism and identity, the criticism of corporations and capitalism comes across as curiously toothless. Perhaps CD Projekt is embarrassed by the accusations of them exploiting their own workforce with forced overtime but it’s disappointing that the game can be so in-your-face on some subjects and yet so timid on others.
Whatever else you say about it, Cyberpunk is a stunning technical achievement, even if it will take a while to iron out every bug (but then The Witcher 3 wasn’t exactly bug-free when it launched). From a design standpoint Cyberpunk has one of the best open world environments ever seen, the action is better than any comparable game, and the side missions are a wonderful mix of poignant, thrilling, and outright bizarre.
The problem with the game is that it doesn’t have a strong enough narrative to tie everything together, to the point where it almost feels like two sperate games: one a linear adventure where you have only nominal control over your destiny and the other a much more interesting open world exploration game where you can do and say whatever you want.
Perhaps future DLC can meld these two disparate parts together more convincingly, and reduce the more distasteful elements, but even with its problems Cyberpunk is still one of the best games of the year and one that is certain to remain relevant well into the next generation.
Cyberpunk 2077 review summary
In Short: A stunning achievement in open world gameplay but one whose tonal inconsistencies and weak narrative undermines what could have been an all-time classic.
Pros: An incredibly detailed game world, filled with choice and consequence. Great combat and stealth for an action role-player, with a generally good script and excellent voice-acting. Superb graphics.
Cons: More formulaic than it first appears, with most of the ideas having been done before in various similar games. Story missions lack meaningful choices and the tone can often be obnoxious.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Release Date: 10th December 2020 (TBA next gen)
Age Rating: 18
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