Cyberpunk 2077 has, to put it lightly, a lot going on. This is a highly-anticipated game that has been through several delays and a fair number of controversies. The virtual skyscrapers of Night City have been casting long, dark, unpleasant shadows for a long time, and now we can see if all those labor hours, virulent social media interactions, and that time Keanu Reeves called us breathtaking were worth it.
So, after all of that, is Cyberpunk 2077 a good game?
The answer isn’t easy to parse. For much of my time with the game, Cyberpunk 2077 has been a lot like how I manage to drive one of its in-game vehicles: Mostly smooth sailing, occasionally thrilling, and just as occasionally disrupting when I (and the game) crash for no clear reason.
You start with a character creator for your protagonist, V. To be honest, the game’s character creator is a bit of a letdown, the endlessly customizable promise of a cyberpunk future where human bodies are ripe for artificial tweaks boiling down to a set of presets, predominantly in the face. You can choose from four sets of teeth and a few dozen cool eye colors, but you can only choose from the menu that’s provided.You also cannot alter your character’s body type — no matter what, V must be buff and slim.
For a game about body customization, this is a strangely limiting way to start off the experience. You also better like what you choose, because you cannot edit your appearance for the rest of the game. Then again, the majority of the game is in first-person, meaning you rarely see your avatar anyway. This is the first of many contradictory design choices, moments where Cyberpunk 2077’s systems and ideas collide.
On the topic of this limitation of choice, when creating your V, you can choose either a masculine or feminine form, and also choose a voice independent of your appearance. However, V’s pronouns are linked to the voice you choose — a binary choice of ‘Masculine’ or ‘Feminine’ with no nonbinary ‘they/them’ options available. It may seem negligible to some people, but again, this is another example of the illusion of customization. Additionally, the game’s touted genital customization is uneven: the ‘male’ type has far more customization, implying some things about who CDPR’s intended player base is. This high-tech cyberpunk future has fewer pronoun and gender options than the most recent Call of Duty game.
After character creation, you then choose from one of three ‘Lifepaths’ to determine their backstory (which really just frames the first mission and some occasional dialogue choices). I chose the ‘Streetkid’ path, meaning my version of V had lived in Night City all her life and was already familiar with certain members of its criminal element. After a lengthy introductory section that starts with an opening montage, segues into gameplay, and then leads into another unrelated montage, Night City finally opens up.
But, is Cyberpunk 2077 a good game?
In the moment-to-moment gameplay, Cyberpunk 2077 is indeed really fun and engaging. The game’s advertising has promised constant action and neon-and-chrome firefights. There are plenty of these, sure, but Cyberpunk’s greatest surprise is, as an action-RPG, how much it leans toward the role-playing side of things over the action. How you build your character, focusing on physical power, intelligence, reflexes, or pure charm will give you different ways to interact with the world, solve mission objectives, and talk to other characters.
I can’t talk about moment-to-moment gameplay in Cyberpunk 2077 without acknowledging the game’s well-documented performance issues. Cyberpunk 2077 is full of visual detail — and those details don’t exactly look great. As you can see in my screenshots here from my PS4 Pro, the game is often muddy and blurry. Texture pop-in and choppy framerates are prevalent, especially when trying to drive through the city. Characters will stop animating and T-pose, sometimes in the middle of a cutscene or mid-combat.
Unfortunately, these bugs are more than cosmetic. I have yet to play a session without the game crashing at least one time. I once was climbing a stairway only for the whole building I was in to disappear, causing me to fall to my death. My progress in a few missions has also been halted by being unable to interact with NPCs and key items, forcing me to reload my save file and hope against hope that I’d be able to interact with the missing person or item. Reloading once was often enough to fix the problem, but not always.
I personally have a high tolerance for jankiness in games, and can even sometimes find it endearing, but brokenness of this magnitude, in a game so publicly beset by worker oppression and public crunch on its developers, means these bugs are even more frustrating. Cyberpunk’s bugs are extremely aggravating and obstruct any sense of immersion or progress, reminding the player of the high-stress environment it was built in, and that’s just the honest truth of the game at the moment.
So from a performance perspective, it’s impossible to say Cyberpunk 2077 is a good game at all. But underneath that, when the game is actually functioning, what is there?
As Cyberpunk 2077 is an adaptation of the Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game by Mike Pondsmith, the game’s focus on roleplaying and specific character skills feels very much in-line with its pen-and-paper, dice rolling roots. V’s misadventures in the sprawling metropolis of Night City put you in the position to make plenty of decisions the way you want to make them, which makes the game’s plot more engaging as a result.
At its heart, Cyberpunk 2077 has a much more specific identity than just ‘open world game where people have robot parts.’ As V takes on bigger and riskier jobs, they get in deep with extremely powerful criminal elements, as well as egotistical anti-capitalist freedom fighter Johnny Silverhand (played by Keanu Reeves). As the grander conspiracy involving immortality chips, brainwashed sex workers, and rich and powerful warring families unfolds, Cyberpunk’s noir roots shine through.
This detective story DNA shouldn’t be a surprise. Cyberpunk stories, from Blade Runner to Ghost in the Shell to Neuromancer, have often been about small people caught in the gears of massive schemes, conspiracies that just might go all the way to the top — stories about advance machines means said advanced machines have to be built by someone, and the money it would take to make a cyberpunk world means someone, likely someone devious, has to have gotten rich off of it all.
Cyberpunk 2077 follows this formula, and as a detective story, it’s very effective. V and Johnny Silverhand make a compelling odd couple duo as they try to solve the mystery that’s united them, and the game’s writing treats every twist and turn with style and aplomb. Night City as a setting is at its best when you feel the impressive awe of its monstrous skyscrapers and endless barrage of candy-colored advertisements, and at the same time feel the dread of knowing people who know more than you and can do more than you could be lurking around the corner.
But, given the glib tone of its promotion and all of the controversy in its wake, is Cyberpunk 2077 a good game?
Cyberpunk 2077’s writing is less nuanced when it handles certain identities within this larger narrative. The game doesn’t feature many prominent trans characters unless the player makes V trans, so its primary in-universe representation of trans bodies is in a fetishistic ad plastered all over the city. There is one prominent trans character in one of the game’s side mission branches, but it’s, again, a cosmetic detail. In a world where bodies can be hacked and repurposed in any way to fit a person’s image, no one in Night City seems to be using technology to alter their gender presentation. It’s not openly transphobic, but it does reduce gender and body autonomy into nothing beyond aesthetic concerns.
While its insight on gender is nearly nonexistent, its insight on race might have been better off similarly mute. There are a number of Japanese characters in the game’s main story, and these characters are all very tired, shallow tropes, depending on ‘honor and loyalty’ stereotypes that really should’ve been left behind by 2020, let alone 2077.
The game rarely goes beyond skin-deep in its analysis of its own cybernetic themes and ideas. Relatively recent games like Deus Ex and the first two Bioshocks have plenty to say about how technological advances can push people’s bodies and minds to breaking points, and how ruling classes use these tech advances to further dehumanize workers and exploit labor. By contrast, Cyberpunk 2077 ultimately doesn’t bother itself too terribly much about the ramifications or more thematically complex parts of its world.
So what is Cyberpunk 2077 actually about, if not the ‘cyber’ part of its name? If the game has any central thesis, it’s likely on the danger of being too beholden to the past. Characters are frequently defined by their past glory days, unable to admit their era has passed, locked in an ideological struggle with their parents, and seeking success by using the tactics and beliefs of bygone eras. ‘This is the future,’ Cyberpunk 2077 seems to say, ‘and people need to start acting like it. The old ways won’t deliver meaningful change — they’re what brought us to the current moment, after all.’
That’s a bold, exciting theme to build a futuristic RPG around. So it’s even more curious then when Cyberpunk can’t learn its own lesson. There’s a certain pervasive sameness to every neighborhood though, like all of Night City is still trapped in the 1980s, which is old fashioned to us now, let alone in fifty more years. Most mission titles come from 20th century rock music, further proving Cyberpunk 2077 can’t quite stop looking backward. So much of Cyberpunk 2077’s style and look feels like it’s been pulled out of a time capsule: culture hasn’t evolved or progressed so much as it has curdled, as if Ready Player One was a city planner. Remember Blade Runner 2049’s neon wash? Remember the diesel and desert of Mad Max? Remember the motorcycles in Akira? Cyberpunk 2077 certainly does.
Of course you can only appreciate the mixed design principles of Night City if you can see it. While visibility was never much of a problem when navigating the open world, any time the game requires V to go into an enemy base or journey underground, the game gets inexplicably dark. Not just thematically, but literally: I couldn’t see where I was going or what I was supposed to interact with, and the game doesn’t offer any kind of flashlight item or similar tool for illumination. This problem is even worse when enemies are involved, as they can fade into the inky blackness of shadows and leave you bewildered, swinging and shooting at shadows, just hoping for the best. Even V’s advanced cybernetic eyes can’t contend with the game’s overly-brooding lighting design.
That’s how it looks, but how does it play? Is Cyberpunk 2077 a good game?
In more well-lit scenarios, Cyberpunk 2077’s combat, stealth, and hacking elements adequately do the job, especially if you’re a fan of Borderlands’ or Fallout’s gameplay. Sneaking around and discreetly picking off enemies with your cyberdeck (the game’s fancy word for your list of hacking-based special attacks) rewards creative, patient, outside-the-box problem solving. Going in guns (or katana) blazing lacks finesse, but will accomplish your objective much sooner. There are comprehensive skill trees for combat and hacking for cultivating your own personal playstyle, but unless you’re playing on the Hard difficulty, you likely won’t have much trouble just blasting through any enemies you see.
In addition to the skill trees that stem from your base attributes, you can also buy additional ‘cyberware’ upgrades for your body, such as modifying your legs to carry more weight, or giving yourself ‘Gorilla Arms’ to punch enemies into a fine red powder, among other upgrades. The game is also eager to shower you in cash and skill points to help you craft V into whatever build you want, again leaning into the role-playing aspect.
There’s also a robust crafting system, letting V cobble together everything from health items and hacking programs to actual firearms. Crafting is another system that has its own levelling and skill tree, though the interface for doing so rarely goes deeper than holding down a button to craft. It’s a fine system with a wide array of possible options, but again it lacks that elusive next-step to really stick out.
These avenues of customizing your playstyle are exciting and deep, but it’s a shame the game itself doesn’t give you more varied scenarios to force different combat strategies. While I’d occasionally indulge in using all my tools to diffuse a squad of enemies, more often than not I’d just equip the gun with the highest number next to it and blast everyone away like I was a bright blue-haired Terminator, an experience that sounds like it should have been more fun than it actually was.
So, with all that in mind, is Cyberpunk 2077 a good game? Well, what is “good?” Successful? Ethically right? Morally, does the game have something to say that needs to be heard? I’m not sure. Did I enjoy my time with it? More than other games I’ve reviewed. Will I keep playing it after this review? Does the game accomplish what it seems to want to accomplish?
I think I do have to say, yes, it is, on a gameplay level, good (whenever it’s actually functioning), but it’s not much else besides good. The action and stealth gameplay is serviceable, if not actually exciting or engrossing. The game’s world feels vivid and flashy, but not three-dimensional or lived-in. As an open world game, it feels stuck in the past, with a world that feels cluttered but not full, lacking in signs of life. The game’s writing is compelling in its own right, but it too often ignores its own most interesting concepts in favor of something safer, more predictable, or more “edgy” to justify a big action set-piece.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a dependable source of adventure and diversion (or it will be, once they patch it and it stops crashing randomly), but by no means is it the herald of a glittering, high-tech new era in gaming. Its successes are compelling, but its missteps are impossible to miss. Cyberpunk often tries too hard to be too many things at once. In the game’s own terms, its skill points are too erratically spread out — there can be no specialization when a game tries to be everything to everyone everywhere.
A PS4 key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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