Cyberpunk 2077 review – intoxicating potential, half undermined, half met

Technology

Exceptional characters, heartfelt storytelling and enjoyable action threaten to be engulfed by endless bugs and hasty, uneven design.

It’s been a little over eight and a half years since Cyberpunk 2077 was announced. For the majority of the time, developer-publisher CD Projekt told us we could expect it when it’s ready, and not a moment sooner. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Cyberpunk 2077 has finally arrived, thunderous and yellow, after months of reported ‘death march’ crunch – enforced overtime extended repeatedly to shifting deadlines – and sadly it shows.

Even putting the human cost aside, it is an enormous shame. As much as the excitement has been at times irresponsibly over-fanned, Cyberpunk 2077 is a game of vast ambition. It’s driven by a core of characters wonderfully written and performed, a story of genuine layer, momentum and depth, a technical feat of immersive decision-making, and pumping, sim-inspired action. But the undeniable potential is drowning under the tidal wave of little issues. An uncharacteristic carelessness to the finer points, some pervasive immaturity of thought, and distracting, recurring bugs leave Cyberpunk 2077 as a game in conflict: a world of unmatched detail, in dire need of attention.

But how I love it, nonetheless. Cyberpunk 2077 follows CD Projekt’s trend for adapting its games from the grittier kinds of genre fiction. As The Witcher games drew heavily from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Polish fantasy novels, Cyberpunk 2077 does from Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk, a 1988 tabletop RPG. The result is a strong emphasis on immersion at all costs, a slightly of-its-time tone, and far greater choice in what you can do and how you can do it than in any of the studio’s previous games.

You play as V, starting with a choice between three ‘life paths’ that dictate your background and what happens to you in the first four or five hours of the game, as well as providing you with occasional life path-specific dialogue prompts throughout. It’s a neat idea, but the real consequence of it is hard to tell – for me, playing V as a woman with a ‘Corpo’ life path, it served as a fun jump-off for some very light, conversational role-playing as a once-vicious power broker now fallen from grace (think Luv, of Blade Runner 2049, if Wallace gave her the boot), but that was about it. The role-playing is focused, sticking to depth of choice through your personality, your decisions, and your plan of attack, but notably not the breadth of things to do – no guilds or playstyle-specific pseudo main-quest stories like those of The Elder Scrolls, or an MMO.

You also begin with a deep, if somewhat overcompensating character creator. The customisation is equal parts fantastic and ridiculous, and a good look at CD Projekt’s conflicted approach in microcosm. There are wonderful, microscopic details to hair and fingernails and scarring – and also half a dozen penis options, choices for breast size and the diameter of your areola. There are just the two genders, mind, and, in the game’s words, the pronouns people will use for you in-game are dictated by your voice – an oddly prudish and self-defeating decision, that’s clumsy at best and sits at odds with the world itself, making for one where everyone can modify their limbs and eyeballs and sub-dermalogica membrane at will, but god forbid anything else.

The world CD Projekt has sought to create with Cyberpunk 2077 is everything, of course. Few games in my memory have sparked such intense and interesting discussion of genre, and in cyberpunk dystopia is inseparable from the genre itself. And what a beast Cyberpunk 2077’s dystopia is. Night City is a monster. A putrid, monolithic, contemptible, shrieking hellhole and monument to maximalism, the temptation is to view it in isolation as just that: a horrible world created as a kind of hyped-up, GTA-style pastiche (and there is a lot of GTA here), lampooning somewhat accurately but also peevishly, the kind where everyone’s the target and easy nihilism is the goal, sporadic and facile.

It doesn’t exist in isolation though, far from it. Night City is Cyberpunk 2077’s nemesis, your character’s foil. It goes beyond the easy parodies, the insufferable talking heads, the insipid advertising boards. The sounds are masterfully aligned: humming neon, buzzing flies, whirring motors, screeching horns, yelling passers-by. In missions it’s the same, the world tinged in perennial high-alert red, with a piercingly shrill noise that sounds every time you’re even half spotted, or clip the wrong pedestrian on another chaotic ride. Cyberpunk 2077 might have GTA’s five star ‘wanted’ system, but it doesn’t work the same – you’re obliterated in an instant when you get to four – and it might have denser crowds, in some places, but they’re even more hateful here. The point of it is its hostility. Night City’s an unlivable, unbearable place where you feel relentlessly watched and on-edge, where V, performed with superlative nuance by Cherami Leigh, can barely keep it together.

I’m reminded of a deeply sensitive moment that will stay with me for some time, where the story leads V to a brothel in search of a lead and, given the uneven tone, you brace for the sordid. Instead, what followed was a moment of intense intimacy, a conversation that picked V apart, dismantling her paper-thin guard, even as she knows it’s this person’s job to do that, that there’s no sincerity to the words at all. You end up lying, foetal and afraid, on the bed in this womb-pink booth, looking through the eyes of a character now deconstructed and absurd. “Don’t make me go back out there,” she says, and I don’t want to either.

In fact, everyone in Cyberpunk 2077 is barely keeping it together. The plot is some straight-up Paul Verhoeven – late ’80s edge, future dystopia, gore – and through the cloud of guts and technobabble it sizzles and cracks with raucous momentum. It’s paced impeccably, balancing the techno-action-crime-thriller narrative with an uncanny ability to slow things down. There’s a narrative game buried in Cyberpunk 2077’s noise in fact, as it becomes clearer with each lengthy, intimate conversation between the carnage. Where other games of its kind would give you a minute or less for the perfunctory heart-to-heart, Cyberpunk gives you hours, talking over childhood and life as you stake out some joint for a heist. Talking belonging and personhood and the homeliness of love in the desert. Talking identity with yourself, Keanu Reeves cast ingeniously against type as an atomic arsehole stuffed into the back of your head, loveable and vile.