The Verdict: Cyberpunk 2077

You can tell this is an authentic Slavic game — note the heels are touching the ground in V’s “slav squat”.

When I took the above screenshot in Cyberpunk 2077’s Photo Mode, I didn’t realise that I had unintentionally captured the essence of the player experience. A beautiful vista, irrepressible style; but closer inspection reveals a certain lack of fidelity, and the word “broken” in graffiti. Cyberpunk 2077 is fundamentally a great game, with a lot of redeeming qualities. But it is also a deeply flawed game that has a long way to come.

Cyberpunk 2077 is an Action-RPG set in the world of Mike Pondsmith’s 1980s tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk 2020 (the most recent edition is called Cyberpunk Red). As the name suggests, the genre is “cyberpunk”, a sub-genre of science-fiction most readily associated with movies like Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Akira and to some degree movies like The Matrix, Robocop and Judge Dredd. William Gibson’s 1984 book Neuromancer is generally recognised as the birth of the genre, but it was Phillip K. Dick whose work laid the foundations, with his numerous novels and short stories such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for Blade Runner), A Scanner Darkly (also a film), and The Minority Report (yet another film).

Moments like this capture the feel of cyberpunk incredibly well.

Cyberpunk is probably my favourite fiction genre, for many reasons. It is dystopian and grungy, with a generally retro-futuristic 80s vibe, almost as if the Cold War never ended. It is also a deeply introspective genre, and constantly challenges preconceptions about the nature of what it means to be alive, to be human, to have a soul. A common theme is artificial intelligence achieving sentience, and often the argument is: if it walks, talks, acts, reacts and responds like a human — then does it deserve to be treated like a human?

Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t stray far from these genre conventions, and it is clear from the outset that CD Projekt Red have created a love letter to the genre, and the work of Mike Pondsmith. Cyberpunk is a relatively uncommon genre compared to others in the videogames industry, but the few good games have had a huge influence. The question is — does Cyberpunk 2077 deserve to be named in the prestigious line-up of titles such as Syndicate, Deus Ex, RUINER and Beneath a Steel Sky? Well, read on…

I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 on the next-gen Xbox Series X as well as on a Dell Inspiron 15 7577 gaming laptop (Intel i7-7700 3.8GHz Quad Core, 16 GB DDR4 RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060 Max-Q). The significant disparity in hardware between these two platforms has given me a fairly solid indication of how Cyberpunk 2077 performs. And given the controversy around this topic, that’s exactly what I’ll address first.

There are no shortage of moments when you’ll stop and just say “wow” — as long as you’ve got the hardware to run it.

The Xbox Series X comfortably runs the game on what is probably the equivalent of “Very High" settings, while my laptop can run the game mostly on “Medium" with a few tweaks. In both cases, the game looks great, and the overall graphical quality scales quite well. However, performance is sometimes inconsistent, and you may experience frame rate drops in some places, often without any obvious source.

The performance dips are not particularly noticeable on the Xbox Series X in 1080p resolution. However, after playing the game on a 4K display, I noted that in many sections performance felt sluggish, with frame rates in the low 30s. Definitely playable — once upon a time frame rates in the 30s were considered good — but after playing on a 1080p display with frame rate somewhere in the high 60s, it’s hard to go backwards.

On the Xbox, your graphics options are limited to “Quality” or “Performance”. Quality mode will run the game in 4K if available, and enable all the graphical bells and whistles. Performance mode predominantly focuses on prioritising high frame rate. The most noticeable difference is that the game runs in 1080p resolution (upscaled to 4K if you have a 4K display), but there are also a slew of minor graphical details that are disabled. If you’re playing this game on a 1080p display, I would recommend the Quality option, as the frame rate hit is negligible compared to the small details you gain in fidelity.

A rough comparison of PC (left) versus Xbox Series X (right). As you can see, the overall fidelity scales quite well. Resolution scaling on PC is invaluable in giving you some extra frame rate while retaining graphical detail at the cost of having to deal with a bit of image fuzziness from resolution upscaling.

On my PC, the situation is much more complicated. There are dozens of options to tweak the graphics, so I’d recommend following a tweak guide to see which options have the most impact on performance. On older hardware, the performance drops are significantly more pronounced. But as I’ve said — even on lower graphics settings, the game still looks great; however, after experiencing the PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2, I’m often left thinking that it could look better.

It’s a comparison that many have made and continue to make: Rockstar versus CD Projekt Red. Clearly, CDPR is angling to claim a bit of Rockstar’s open-world turf, but I don’t think the comparison is fair. Rockstar is a massive company with decades of experience in this sort of AAA development and design. For CDPR, this is their first real AAA release (The Witcher III bordered on an AA release for most of its development), and only their fourth game. Rockstar is almost triple the size of CDPR, with probably as many QA testers as CDPR has permanent developers.

That said, it’s hard to deny that CD Projekt Red botched this release. The debates over how and why it happened will probably never be resolved, but their lack of transparency over performance on previous generation hardware is unconscionable. I have a friend who was forced to refund the game after buying it for the original PlayStation 4 due to the console crashing every hour. You might argue that this is a next gen game that requires next gen hardware — but, CD Projekt have been making assurances for a long time that this game would run on previous generation hardware.

Lighting and reflections are used to excellent effect.

If you’re still on a previous generation system, or a PC older than 2018 specs, I’d recommend holding off for a while until CD Projekt can hopefully refine the performance a bit. You’ll also be more likely to avoid running into any of the next issues with the game — bugs.

I don’t want to bang on about this point too much, because it’s been brought up by so many others. But Cyberpunk 2077 is a buggy game. 90 percent of the bugs I’ve encountered have been minor - clipping items, odd animations, or getting stuck in dialogue. A few have forced me to reload a save. However for the most part, I’ve found that the amount of bugs I’ve experienced has been significantly less than I expected based on reading the gaming press. A few loud voices have disproportionately inflated the scope of the problem.

It is worth noting, however, that the incidence of bugs seems to be higher on my PC than on my Xbox. I’d hypothesise that performance drops on older hardware are probably having an impact on things such as scripted scenes properly executing, or collision detection correctly registering. So be aware, if you’re running this on older hardware, you might have additional bugs to deal with on top of the performance issues.

On a positive note, bugs can be fixed. We’ve seen many, many games over the past several years launch in shockingly glitched and broken states, only to make a spectacular recovery due to post-release support. With CDPR’s reputation, I’d wager it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of Cyberpunk 2077’s bugs will be patched in the coming months.

Something that often can’t be fixed through simple patches is poor design, as many core elements of a game’s design are embedded in the source code. Thankfully, for the most part, Cyberpunk 2077’s underlying systems are solid and well executed.

Character design, particularly of the Maelstrom gang, is spectacular.

I was a bit concerned about how the gunplay would feel, given that CDPR has precisely zero experience in this area, but the shooter sequences feel suitably fluid, and all the weapons have a real “meaty” feel to them. In one particular mission, you get to play as Johnny Silverhand (the highly publicised role undertaken by Keanu Reeves) and wield Johnny’s revolver — or should I say, “hand cannon", thanks to its satisfying ability to blast enemies to pieces.

The RPG mechanics and character progression seem daunting at first — V has five core attributes (reflexes, body, technical, intelligence and cool), and each of those attributes has two or three associated skill trees for a skill related to the attribute. Intelligence, for example, influences your hacking skills, while reflexes influence the skill trees for handguns, rifles and swords. It might seem daunting at first, especially if you’re not familiar with RPGs. In reality, most of the skill trees have a fairly small impact on your overall gameplay experience, and there is always the ability to respec if you want to change or optimise your build.

The user experience (UX) elements such as the interface, HUD and menus are a mixed bag, and I’d say a mostly subjective topic. On PC I found myself occasionally frustrated with the elements designed with consoles in mind, while on console, I was occasionally annoyed by the elements designed with the PC in mind. Such is the nature of cross-platform releases. CDPR seems to have given at least some consideration to PC players in the UX, which means a lot in an industry that always seems to prioritise the experience of console players.

The HUD is fairly standard fare.

Two elements of the UX in particular have irritated me immensely. When accessing the menus, you are presented with a cursor that you control with the mouse/right stick. So there’s a cursor, cool.

Then why do I have to scroll through dialogue options with the mouse wheel on PC instead of select them with the cursor.

It’s not a major issue, but it’s one of those things that, as a PC gamer, you come to expect as a standard, and it takes some time to get used to. The Witcher III had a mouse in conversations, so why not this game? I’m nitpicking here though, and some PC gamers will probably have no issue with it.

The other problem I have is the control binds. There are some noted departures from “industry standard” bindings — on Xbox, the car handbrake is the A button, when everyone else in the world seems to use B. On foot, the button to toggle crouching (the universally recognised “stealth mode") is the same as the button for skipping dialogue. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve accidentally skipped important plot dialogue because I was trying to stand up. However, the thing that elevates this from “minor annoyance” to “infuriating travesty" is that there is no way to change your control bindings.

That’s right. This is a 2020 release with no alternative gamepad schemes, and on PC, no way to change keybinds. It’s utter madness, and from an accessibility point of view, a pretty glaring omission. Hopefully this can be addressed in an upcoming patch.

Overall, Cyberpunk 2077’s design is solid and mostly well thought out, but nothing ground-breaking. They’ve retained a lot of The Witcher’s DNA, and have stuck fairly closely to established industry standards, with some noted departures. But then again, if its not broken, why fix it?

A critical part of any RPG or open-world game is the worldbuilding, and the authenticity and reactivity of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City was a key part of CDPR’s pre-release hype. So how does the worldbuilding hold up under further examination?

I can’t imagine what practical purpose those fans serve, but they look suitably cool.

Cyberpunk 2077, viewed from a distance, looks exceptional and feels exceptional. There have been so many times when I’ve just wandered the streets of Night City, soaking up the atmosphere. I’m constantly blown away by the staggering scale of the game, and I’ve spent a lot more time in Photo Mode than I expected that I would have, taking the screenshots in this article.

However, after spending some time with the game, it eventually becomes apparent that a lot of that worldbuilding falls down under closer inspection. The streets look and feel busy, but many scenes on the street are nothing more than that — cosmetic scenes. Apart from some canned dialogue, the denizens of Night City aren’t particularly reactive to V’s actions. The world is quite static. Police cordons around a crime scene will remain unchanged throughout your playthrough. The red light district is populated with the same characters walking up and down the streets. Cyberpunk 2077 captures that “cyberpunk” feel incredibly well, but the realism and detail in the world is not much of a leap forward from 2015's The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

It’s also quite obvious where content has either been cut, or simply wasn’t completed on time for release. There is a monorail track running through Night City, and several stations along the route — yet no monorail. This North Haverbrook-esque situation seems like it might have been intended as something more, such as a fast-travel method. Instead it is nothing more than an underutilised prop. In its place are fast travel points peppered throughout the city that appear as “tourist information” booths. It stinks of something that was thrown together at the last minute to replace an intended feature that was cut to meet Cyberpunk 2077's oft-delayed release date.

It’s a recurring theme in this game — at a glance, everything presented incredibly well, and is unabashedly “cyberpunk”. The world feels amazing to walk through and soak up the atmosphere in. But under closer examination, it lacks the details that are the icing on the cake in an open-world game. You can’t sit at some street-side food stall and eat ramen. You can’t try on new threads in a clothing store. You can’t sit at the bar in a nightclub. All these locations look and feel excellent, but the player is constantly kept at arms length when it comes to interaction.

One critical element of a good cyberpunk setting is the saturation of advertising, the intent being to highlight a rampant, runaway capitalist society. Cyberpunk 2077 really nails that, and you are constantly barraged with billboards and adverts that, in true cyberpunk style, are questionable in their ethics and hyper-sexualised. One of these billboards was the source of a great deal of controversy in the lead up to release — the infamous “Mix It Up” billboard that uses the image of trans character in a rather exploitative way in order to sell a product. I think people have misread the intent here — portraying something does not mean the developer approves of it. I think the intent is to show a world that will exploit anything and anyone in the interests of consumerism. In the words of Mike Pondsmith:

“‘Cyberpunk’ is a warning, not an aspiration.”

Cyberpunk settings are often hyper-sexualised — it is a key element of the genre, intended as a commentary on the hazy morals of this dystopian world, where an exploitative sex industry takes advantage of the downtrodden working class. That feature is constantly on display in Cyberpunk 2077. There is no shortage of sexual ads, strip clubs and “braindance lounges” (virtual reality programs that are often used for sexual experiences). Yet despite the saturation of sexual themes throughout the game (and most notably, a game with genital customisation in character creation), the game is quite prude. You can’t actually go into any strip clubs or braindance lounges. The red light district had no shortage of exotic dancers in the street-facing windows — but they are all fully clothed, often awkwardly so; there’s nothing erotic about a business suit.

In the future, tracksuit pants with socks and sandals is erotic.

I suspect it might have been a design decision made with ratings in mind — perhaps CDPR was nervous about the game being refused classification in countries like Australia , where we are notorious for banning games — but it is yet another element that breaks immersion. Hyper-sexualisation is one of those key, confronting elements of the cyberpunk genre.

The same can be said for many of the other themes of the cyberpunk genre. Police brutality and corruption is definitely apparent in Cyberpunk 2077, but interactions with police leave a lot to be desired. The police seem to have been added to the game as an afterthought — commit a crime and they’ll briefly chase you before giving up. No attempts at extortion, no heavy handed tactics. Just a brief armed pursuit and then — nothing.

Sexualised advertising is, in classics cyberpunk style, everywhere; but is completely at odds with the places you visit.

The game seems to portray itself as mature, but shies away from making any real statements on the core themes of cyberpunk. It’s disappointing from a developer who has previously shown themselves capable of tackling very complex issues remarkably well, such as with the BAFTA-nominated “Bloody Baron” quest from The Witcher III: Wild Hunt being a prime example. Providing genuine commentary on complex topics is difficult and risky, but unforgettable when done well.

The bars look and feel great — but there’s nothing to do in them.

To summarise, the world looks amazing, feels amazing and the intricate details in Night City will constantly leave you stunned with their grungey, cyberpunk beauty. But I can’t escape the feeling that something is missing. Night City and its surrounding wastelands are huge and expansive, and at a glance, it looks like a living, breathing city, yet it’s missing those critical elements that exist in open-world games like Red Dead Redemption 2 that make it feel like a living, breathing digital playground. There are disappointingly few interactive elements that, trivial as they are, serve to heighten immersion. You can’t eat at street stalls. You can’t catch a monorail. You can’t drink in a bar. Night City is peppered with incredibly well-designed bars and nightclubs, but apart from a generic dance action, the player is prevented from engaging with the world. Immersion can make or break an open world game, and Cyberpunk 2077 walks that line very hesistantly. Here’s hoping that the post-released support adds some greater depth to the open world.

Normally, a game’s music might not warrant its own section in a review, but Cyberpunk 2077 is the exception. There are a few different ways you’ll encounter music in Cyberpunk 2077 — on the in-game radio, and during cutscenes and missions.

The in-game radio stations, of which there are eleven, all follow a slightly different flavour. Whether it’s the dark techno beats of Nina Kraviz on “95.2 Samizdat Radio”, K-pop on “98.7 Body Heat Radio”, or the punk and hardcore of “96.1 Ritual FM”, the music all fits the world perfectly, and much of it has made its way onto my Spotify playlists.

The in-game cutscenes are exceptionally well put together, combining classic orchestral cinematic music with “cyberpunk-y” electronic flavour. The real standout for me, however, has been the contextual mission music. The mission music has three distinct “moods” — stealth, alert and combat.

While moving through a mission undetected, the music is subtle and moody. If you alert an enemy, the music seemlessly transitions to an elevated state, while combat kicks it into the next techno-grunge gear. The Heist by PT Adamczyk is a perfect example of the sort of crunchy, grinding industrial techno that accompanies scenes like this, and it meshes incredibly well with gunplay that has no business being as fun as it is in an RPG. Cyberpunk 2077 is an aural treat from the very beginning.

This is probably the most subjective part of this review, as is the case for most games. But, from my perspective, the writing, characters and story, as well as the artistic direction are all on-point. Yes, the characters and dialogue are often edgier than a 16 year old My Chemical Romance fan, but if you’re not doing “edgy” in cyberpunk, then you’re not doing it right.

A lot has been said about V, the games protagonist. Some hate him, some love him. I’d say I’m in the latter camp. Initially, V comes across as a bit of a generic tough guy edgelord. But the longer you spend playing as V, the more you discover that he’s a protagonist with depth, quirks and flaws.

Jackie Welles is an absolute highlight.

I say “he”, because that’s the biological sex and gender identity that I’ve chosen for V in my playthrough. Character creation in Cyberpunk 2077 is about as in-depth as you’d expect from an open-world RPG, and one of the features of the character creator is the ability to mix and match your sex, genitals, pronouns and masculinity or femininity of your voice. You can even choose to not have any genitals. Before you get triggered and start whining about “wokeness”, remember — this is a cyberpunk game. The cyberpunk genre has been playing with concepts related to gender, sexuality, transhumanism and post-humanism since its earliest days.

What I like about V’s character is that, regardless of his background, he never came across as an infallible character lacking any flaws, like so many game protagonists do (Commander Shepherd — I’m looking at you). Videogames frequently drift into power-fantasy territory, out of a desire to make the player feel special. But characters lacking any flaws are boring, as are tediously righteous characters. V is neither of these things. You’re just another denizen of Night City, trying to get by in an unforgiving world. Your character isn’t driven by some moral crusade — they just want money and fame, and eventually, they’re just trying to stay alive. You can play V as honourably or dishonourably as you like. The great thing is that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t force any particular path on you.

Jackie’s girlfriend Misty — quite obviously influenced by Pris from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

V is a good character, but the real highlight are the other characters you meet along the way. Jackie Welles plays the part of your “best buddy”, and your frequent interactions with him really do an excellent job of highlighting the friendship you both have. After the opening mission, there is a montage showing how you became close friends over several months, and it does feel like maybe this was cut content. I would have loved to play a series of missions showing their developing friendship, and I hope this comes as an eventual DLC or expansion. Regardless, every interaction with Jackie feels genuine, and you’ll develop a real affection for this gentle giant.

This mission with Judy is one of the games softer moments, and a real highlight for character development.

Other highlights are Evelyn Parker and her close friend Judy Alvarez, Panam Palmer and one of my personal favourites, Goro Takemura. Each has their own distinct, unique personality. And then, of course, there is Johnny Silverhand, played by none other than Keanu Reeves.

Johnny Silverhand has drawn mixed reactions. Personally, I’m a fan of Keanu Reeves’ deadpan non-acting, so I’ve enjoyed his depiction of Johnny Silverhand. Johnny comes across as an arrogant asshole, which is entirely intentional; yet there are several moments when I could empathise with the character in spite of his attitude. Given the narrative reasons for your relationship with Johnny, this is another example of some excellent writing — I won’t get into spoilers, but empathising with Johnny will have you wondering whether or not his influence is becoming dangerous.

Another highlight of Cyberpunk 2077 is something that is often cringe-inducing in other games — romances. The player has four opportunities to develop a romantic relationship in the game, with the four options catering to four predominant sex/gender configurations in the game. The romantic writing is mostly well done, certainly better than the rather juvenile writing in BioWare games like Mass Effect: Andromeda. But what stands out is the way in which V can be rejected. Judy Alvarez, for example, is not attracted to male/masculine characters. If you decide to flirt with her, she gives a subtle rebuke, with a joke to lighten the awkwardness. But if you push it — she makes it clear that she’s not interested, in a way that is assertive and feels real. It’s a nice change, one that shows maturity in the writing, as opposed to BioWare games where all you have to do is constantly compliment people and they all fall in love with you no matter what.

On the whole, Cyberpunk 2077’s plot is nothing particularly ground-breaking, but I don’t believe it aspires to be. This is a well-written, well-directed neo-noir tale in the greatest traditions of the cyberpunk genre, and it never really gets worse than “very good”. You can churn through the main plot missions if you like, but that would be a mistake; some of the best writing I’ve encountered in the game so far has been in the multitude of side quests peppered around the city.

The true highlights are the deeply emotional moments, and there are several points along the way that really tug at the heartstrings, especially when you become so attached to the characters because their portrayal makes them feel real.

Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t all grim and edgy; there are plenty of light-hearted moments to lift the tension and make you laugh as well. I particularly enjoyed the quest for the AI taxi driver Delemain, and there is one short sidequest related to a malfunctioning genital implant.

Another highlight is Night City’s “streetslang” — denizens of the city have a specific way of speaking, and terms like “preem", “choom" and “nova"pop up in almost every line of dialogue. It’s not easy fabricating a language and using it in a way that doesn’t feel ham-fisted, but streetslang never feels out of place, and is used so naturally that in most cases, you’ll understand the meaning of a word based on context. It’s a testament to the realism of streetslang that certain words have already entered the actual gamer lexicon.

Cyberpunk 2077, undoubtedly, has many glaring issues. The development and release has been a complete debacle, and the game is a long way from what was promised in the pre-release hype. You will almost certainly experience bugs, and depending on what platform you’re playing on, performance is inconsistent to say the least.

The world is lacking some polish that makes it stand-out as a true digital playground, and while it looks and feels great from afar, you will eventually start to see that certain sections of the game notably lack depth.

Yet, in spite of all this, I’m still really enjoying the game. There are issues, yes. But the things that Cyberpunk 2077 gets right are the parts that really matter, things that make you want to keep playing and make you want to keep coming back and trying something new. The audio and visual aesthetic is an absolute treat, and really nails the feel of the cyberpunk genre in a way that fans will appreciate, and a way that few other games have done so well. The writing is not revolutionary, but it is almost always great, and very consistent — no love was spared on side quests, and CDPR maintains their reputation in this regard. The characters feel real — I empathised with their ambitions and values, and felt genuine sadness for the friends I lost along the way.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a hard sell. It’s got so many issues, yet at the same time, it’s one of the better games I’ve played in recent years. If anything, I’d say it’s a perfect example of why you can’t look at any single element of a game in isolation. There are so many games that do different elements of the genre better. But, taken as a package, the aggregate Cyberpunk 2077 experience is likely to be one that will stay with you.

If you’re sitting on the fence, I’d say that it’s best to wait. If the modern games industry has taught me anything, it’s that there are rarely benefits for early adopters. Give the game 12 months and go play something else, and I’m pretty confident that by the time you pick the game up (probably with a discount), you’ll have much better experience.

For those running older hardware or a previous gen console, I definitely recommend waiting until you either upgrade your hardware, or until CDPR patches the performance.

However, if you’re a diehard cyberpunk fan with a next-gen console or beefy PC, there is probably no better looking game on the market right now, and this will really scratch that cyberpunk itch. The game will only get better, so it’s an investment that will only improve with patches and post release support. Whether you pick it up now or in a few months time, you’re going to have a great time with this classic that is still in the making.

Does it hold up to the bar set by other cyberpunk classics like Syndicate and Deus Ex? That’s hard to say, and I probably won’t be able to answer that question for a long time, when Cyberpunk 2077’s legacy becomes a bit clearer. But it’s definitely on the right track.

At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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