So here we finally are, in Night City. Almost a decade after it was first announced, CD Projekt’s massively ambitious role-playing game has launched into a swirling maelstrom of hype and controversy that befits its salacious, histrionic setting. Like the technological MacGuffin at the centre of the plot, Cyberpunk 2077 is highly advanced and ingenious, but also bug-ridden and irresponsible.
You play as V, a cybernetically enhanced street hustler looking to make their name on these squalid, vicious streets, taking infiltration and assassination jobs for the gangs who’ve carved up the criminal underworld. While attempting to steal a cutting-edge biochip from a powerful corporation, you implant it in your own head, unknowingly infecting yourself with the digital ghost of dead rocker and anarchist Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves, essentially playing Theodore “Ted” Logan’s asshole brother). If you don’t get him out of your brain, you’ll both die.
From here, you’re on a hot-wired muscle-car joyride through cyberpunk trope city. There are shady corporations, raincoat-clad hackers and robotic sex workers; there are futuristic penthouses to raid and hi-tech facilities to infiltrate. In the main missions, you ricochet through a complicated plot awash with interesting characters – hitmen, backstreet cyber-surgeons, ruthless club owners – and there are genuinely moving moments along the way as you form relationships with allies and enemies alike.
You can play Cyberpunk 2077 as a stealth game, keeping conflict to a minimum by hacking cameras and security droids. But that would be a shame, as the array of weapons, from old-school revolvers to smart rifles, is delicious and the gunplay is excellent. One scene, taking place around an astonishing dashi parade complete with giant holographic fish, feels like a Christopher Nolan sci-fi assassination movie. There’s another, set far out in the dusty wastelands, where you raid a power station in order to set off an ECM pulse that will bring down a passing aircraft. As the vessel begins to lose altitude, you pursue it to its crash site, zooming cross-country on motorbikes – a rip-roaring chase sequence that contrasts wonderfully with the claustrophobic feel of the city.
There’s nothing new here, though. The game is heavily based on the Cyberpunk tabletop game by Mike Pondsmith, but the writers have also taken every idea they can from The Fifth Element, Strange Days, Neuromancer, Robocop and, of course, Blade Runner, which has been well and truly stripped for architectural and existential themes. I’ve seen things you people definitely would believe.
There are also elements of the genre-defining cyberpunk role-playing game Deus Ex. Like that classic title, Cyberpunk 2077 relies on a vast web of character upgrade and customisation options, which unfurls as you progress. Unfortunately, considering how much time you spend on these screens, actually using them is a disaster. Menus are cluttered and confusing, and comparing weapons or sorting out cybernetic buffs is only ever a chore you get better at rather than a pleasure. In an age where battle royale and collectible card games have made inventory management intuitive, seamless and enjoyable, there’s no excuse for such obtuse design.
Night City itself is a pulsating, seductive neon hellscape, part Mos Eisley, part hyperreal satire on failed 1960s urban housing projects. Concrete and steel megastructures rise out of the stinking streets, their exteriors glittering with advertisement screens the size of football pitches. Beneath these corporate monoliths, the masses live in techno shantytowns where neon-lit smog hangs in the fetid air and there’s a fight or a deal under way in every alley. Interacting with things – picking up objects, or frisking downed enemies, for instance – is finicky, but this is a captivating and exhausting place, so thoroughly conceived and dense with activity that, sometimes, you feel like you’re really there. This world is an extraordinary achievement that must have required as much time, effort and sheer will as the construction of a medieval cathedral. God knows the toll it’s taken on the staff, who have been working overtime for most of 2020 to get the game out.
Amid the excitement, there are many troubling aspects. How unoriginal of the writers to posit that a technological dystopia will inevitably involve the misogynistic commoditisation of female-presenting bodies, with android sex dolls, gyrating holographic lapdancers and ads for X-rated TV shows with titles such as Watson Whores playing out on every screen. Furthermore, the representation of the powerful Arasaka family as elitist Japanese colonisers revolted by the American way of life recalls the dehumanising “yellow peril” sci-fi of the early 20th century, without ever really interrogating it in a convincing way.
As for the bugs we’ve heard about from early reviewers who experienced crashes and character animation freakouts, post-launch updates have calmed the situation a little, but the PlayStation and Xbox versions are still a shameful mess that CD Projekt has rightly apologised for. Ingenious technical tricks conceal some of the shortcomings, but they can’t hide them all. I’m playing on a high-spec PC and, for the most part, it is running smoothly with all the visual settings at high or ultra, but I’ve still seen characters float through walls, and my V spent several minutes with her arms thrust out in front of her like a zombie. I’ve also had side missions that just wouldn’t finish or allow me to pick up a reward, because somehow the end point hadn’t been triggered.
It speaks of a game that was absolutely not ready for release – but then, maybe it never would have been. Perhaps the only answer to Cyberpunk 2077’s constant delays was to get it out there and fix it on the fly – a broken business model the industry cannot simply accept. Canny players should wait a few more weeks before diving in, especially on consoles. Even on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X there’s a lot of room for improvement.
When it’s working, Cyberpunk 2077 is at once extravagant, ridiculous, sophisticated, silly, hateful and joyous. As an action-packed role-playing game for people who are happy to view the cyberpunk genre as something about robots and hacking and cool guns, it is exhilarating. It tries to have something to say about the corporate dismantling of democracy and the systemisation of our lives as we become slaves to invasive devices and their creators, but never quite manages; it also attempts to explore themes of sexuality and gender in a transhumanist landscape, but in the end that amounts to littering the city with dildo shops and allowing you to romance a couple of same-sex allies. Like a schoolboy studying The Handmaid’s Tale, it shows a vague understanding that dystopias are bad and sexist, but it can’t help giggling at the rude bits anyway.
Does Cyberpunk 2077 live up to the hype? Is it significantly deeper than Watch Dogs: Legion or Yakuza: Like a Dragon? Is it as good as Grand Theft Auto V? The answer to all of these questions is no. The sheer size of the world, its astonishing architecture, its set-piece battles, its stylistic bravado – all are testament to the efforts of a talented workforce. But you have to play by its rules, accepting Night City’s xenophobia and misogyny as unavoidable fictive components. Unlike Los Santos, this is not a multifaceted sandbox where you’re free to create whole new activities unforeseen by the designers. You’re there to do missions and side-missions, and the world only yields thus far. You’re always a tourist, never a citizen.
In this way, Cyberpunk 2077 resembles a vast, futuristic Las Vegas. You come here and have a hell of a week, but then you wake up one morning feeling jaded and complicit, and you realise that the glitzy signs lead nowhere, the noise is meaningless, and when you look beyond the strip, there is only desert.