“Cyberpunk 2077” wants to be the “Witcher 3” of crime dramas, and it very much hits that high bar in almost every regard. The writing is an engaging thrill ride that’s going to leave you wondering what’s going to happen next. Conversations flow with natural pacing, emotion and wit to stay entertaining and grounded. And they all take place in the evocative sheen and grime of a cyberpunk world. I’d leave a bar in Night City and feel like I spent some actual time in a smoky, low-lit environment for the last hour, having cigarette smoke blown in my face and smelling like whiskey. In its design, it is to 2020 what “Red Dead Redemption 2” was to 2018.
And yet, despite that praise, it will be hard for me to say anything definitive in this review — at least for now. In the time I’ve had with the game so far, I know I’ve missed out on a lot of the core experience. I only received the game last Monday night, which gave me less than a week to try to complete this game. I reached the end of the main story after 15 hours. But I also deliberately ignored the game’s many side activities, including mercenary work and interacting with the world’s side characters. My experience with the game has been limited, a narrow slice of what the title offers, with dozens of unexplored activities left for me to finish.
What makes matters worse is that this game is boiling over with glitches, particularly toward the game’s climax. As the game neared its end, every main character of the game was touched by some hilarious, scene-breaking glitch — including the very final shot of the story before the credits rolled. Whether this world holds together is a question I just can’t answer yet. My early impressions come with many caveats.
It’s a good thing “Cyberpunk 2077” gets so many details right, because in its current prelaunch state, it’s … what you’d expect from a launch CDPR game. Before “Witcher 3” became the darling of the industry, it was released in a famously buggy state. “Cyberpunk 2077” continues this tradition despite seven years in development, several delays and worrying reports of overtime crunch.
A conversation between two riders on a freeway was interrupted when one of them started to freak out and rotate in circles on his motorcycle axis at a high-speed rate. A key character would continue to spout their “idle” game chatter during tense life-or-death negotiations. “Pick it up OK?” she’d casually say, as an urgent scene unfolded in front of my eyes. Despite the delays, it’s clear the game needed more time in the oven.
Just about every story beat is experienced through the eyes of V, the voiced-character hero of the tale. Often times, my sessions would end up feeling like an extended playthrough of Prodigy’s infamous and controversial first-person music video. Because of the hurried pace of my first playthrough, I spent much of my time as a male V tearing through Night City as a pansexual, trigger-happy, short-tempered murderer, wearing a beanie and a pink Kevlar vest, because it was the only outfit and armor piece I could grab before heading out the door for another rushed job. I was a complete disaster of a character — though I became a real sharpshooter.
The more you use your skills, like stealth or shooting or punching, the more proficient you become, and the more you gain access to the copious amounts of skills to unlock. This is where my regret for this first run comes in. This game gives you a clear path to play as a cyber-saboteur a la “Deus Ex,” but I just didn’t feel like I had the time to experiment. So I’ll talk about the experience I did have.
The gunplay just feels right. Shotguns pack a wallop, pistols feel clean while submachine guns feel messy with a wild amount of recoil, some of which can be offset with powerful mods and upgraded skills. If you’ve ever wished a game like “Destiny” offered a deeper, proper role-playing experience, “Cyberpunk” can feel like the shooter hybrid you’ve long waited for, at least in terms of weapon feel. Cover gets blown away, while some bullets can punch through hard surfaces, giving combat situations an ever-changing and dangerous dynamic.
The artificial intelligence here likely factors into the overall jank of the game. Enemies and allies alike have no discernible combat tactics besides point and shoot and die. The boss encounters fare even worse, becoming a mess of mechanics as they flip around and do all kinds of things you wish you could. Just as “Witcher 3” didn’t set the world on fire with its battle mechanics, neither will “Cyberpunk 2077.”
But then, I meet a Ripperdoc in the story who recognizes me from earlier in the game, when I wandered into his clinic with a few thousand bucks so he could work on making me move faster in combat. He looks at me and recognizes me as a past customer, something that does not happen if I hadn’t met him earlier. The attention to detail in “Cyberpunk” is always going to keep surprising.
This element of surprise and mystery continues into the main story line, which I dare not spoil here. It’s best to enter this experience with no expectations of what might happen. While the story may seem like a cut-and-dry petty crime drama at the start, it kicks into high gear with no uncertainty. The forced first-person perspective lends itself to tense moments. No other first-person game has ever immersed me quite as well, compelling me to “look around” a room, admiring romantic views of the city scape (a must in any cyberpunk fiction) and following the trace of fingertips during a moment of intimacy.
It’s hard for me to describe now exactly how your character’s decisions in key story moments might affect the overall experience. I can say with certainty that my experience is wildly different than that of my colleague Elise Favis, who is also covering the game. For example, I can’t speak to many sexual moments in the game, since I only experienced one. My pink-clad V had no time for nonsense like emotional or sexual intimacy. He was too busy being a neurotic mass murderer.
It’s notable, however, that despite my run-and-gun approach to the game’s missions, I had play sessions that ran as long as two hours without a single bullet shot or punch thrown. The story still asks you to navigate conversations, find people, and work out locations; It feels like a proper role-playing adventure, and not just a shooter with a story.
Keanu Reeves, known as Johnny Silverhand, is the one constant in every “Cyberpunk” playthrough, and probably the game’s best hook for its story. Reeves steals every scene he’s in, and dominates the game in ways I once again won’t dare spoil. Cyberpunk’s most objectively great quality is that it contains hours and hours of an extremely committed and multifaceted performance from Keanu Reeves. His starpower and presence is not wasted here.
That’s not to say that the city doesn’t shine in its grime. This is hands down the most believable location I’ve ever experienced in a video game. As someone who grew up in a red light district, some of these locations feel nostalgic. To me, its most realistic locations were its most normal, like the steps just outside of the nightclub, Afterlife, where people loiter and smoke under a dim green neon light. Or when you’re riding shotgun with a friend and driving around the city, noticing new things about the same old places because you’re not burdened with taking the wheel. To log into “Cyberpunk 2077” always felt like jacking in to a living experience.
The game is filled with whip-smart characters with plenty of opportunities to showcase the writing’s ability to handle emotional intimacy. Characters like Judy, a skilled technician of “braindances” (this game’s version of virtual reality experiences) are handled with great care and nuance, especially when they have to deal with troubling circumstances.
And still, other characters are brutalized in ways that feel mean for meanness’ sake. It’s notable that the creator of the original “Cyberpunk” tabletop game, Michael Pondsmith, worked closely with CDPR to retain its authenticity to the genre and the source material. That’s where some of the narrative problems start to seep in.
While “The Witcher” was based on a novel series that pulled mythological inspiration from CDPR’s native land of Poland, “Cyberpunk” is a vision of a much broader, more diverse world, one that CDPR seems less equipped to depict. That’s not to say that this story and its characters aren’t engaging, but that it relies on giving virtual life to caricatures drawn by the original board game. A Latino character leans too heavily on overused Spanish swear words in normal conversation. Sex workers are given little nuance to their characters beyond the parameters of their chosen profession.
And for years, trans activists have shone a light on why its depiction and seemingly willful ignorance on gender can create damage for a marginalized community, even within the game’s context of capitalism objectifying humanity for gain. In its narrative, CDPR chose adherence to a known and problematic formula over upending the cyberpunk genre. This might be an insurmountable hurdle for some — and understandably so.
That’s the power and danger of what CDPR has achieved here. A game hasn’t made me feel like this since “Grand Theft Auto 4.” That title really made me wonder about the responsibilities of creating mirror worlds sketched from reflections of our own warped understanding of real life. I’m going to need more time to wrap my thoughts around this gargantuan experience. But to play “Cyberpunk 2077” is to engage in an intoxicating virtual reality where everything can feel real — and maybe just a little overwhelming so.