Cyberpunk 2077: A belated look

Cyberpunk 2077: A belated look

May of 2012. The first hints of hype were seeded that month, the hype that over the years, would swell to insurmountable expectations. A game that was promised to us to be the future generation of storytelling. A game so large, vast, immersive, and complex that it would make any RPG that came before it a kindergartener’s math equation. Cyberpunk 2077. Since that announcement, I’ve been through 2 tumultuous relationships, completed my health and fitness studies, worked in the health and fitness industry for over half a decade, heck I’ve even stepped on stage in nothing but tighty whities SEVEN TIMES! I’ve grown as a person through the 8 years of anticipation, but can the same be said about the game? A 10-page “review” of the years leading up to the release of the game could be made, with the amount of drama surrounding the project. But this is not a review of the hype, this is a review of one particular PC gamer’s experience with 100+ hours of the released version of the hotly anticipated role-playing “holy grail” of a game.

Be warned, this review contains various spoilers and tidbits covering some aspects of the main story and several side quests.

Presentation – 8.5

Before tackling the nitty gritty of story and gameplay, it would be appropriate to set a stage for the technical woes and wonders of the game to set realistic expectations from a PC perspective.

For context, I am running an NVIDIA 1070 gtx, 32gb of RAM and an Intel I7 3.4ghz cpu with SSD storage (can anyone say “bottleneck”? Lol) . With this setup I am able to run the game on mostly medium settings WITHOUT RTX (card unsupported) at a steady ~50fps and ~30fps in dense inner city areas. Throughout my playthrough using both the 1.03 patch and the 1.04 patch (which was released a couple of days post launch), I have only encountered game breaking crashes whilst under the 1.04 patch. Aside from random crashes to desktop, my time with the game has been about as smooth as the initial release of Witcher 3 on PC. 

Let’s be frank here, this is a VERY pretty game, IF, you have the rig or platform (next gen consoles) to handle what the game demands. Even without RTX, the complexity of Night City’s architecture and geometry are truly next-gen. Towering skyscrapers, bustling neon-lit markets, seedy, smoky, graffiti-worn back alleys, and vast, sunstruck arid deserts are but some of the environments in which you’ll get to walk and breathe through. No two corner shops are the same, the level of detail and artistic scrutiny that went into crafting this city has never been seen before in any other game, and believe me, I’m no stranger to Ubisoft open world shenanigans. Night City is to Witcher 3’s Novigrad as Jupiter is to Earth.

Cyberpunk is based on an upgraded version of the REDengine, the engine was responsible for the vast and open spaces of Witcher 3, and we can see that here, with expansive horizons, impressive skylines and breathtaking screenshot opportunities. Cyberpunk stretches the possibilities of what the REDengine can do, and the stretch marks in said engine are now clearly visible.

Once I started looking a little further under the hood, the bells and whistles slowly faded, much to my chagrin. I started to notice a lot of the “life” in the city was very much just set dressing. NPCs were empty, lifeless 3d models that seemed a far cry from what we saw in Witcher 3. I am willing to assume a lot of this NPC lifelessness can be attributed to some form of procedural crowd generation, whereby masses of crowds are generated with very minimal AI associated with them. This, I feel, would be a fair compromise. The NPC’s that did feel more alive were usually ones with unique passing dialogue amongst themselves, but alas, this illusion was quickly shattered when I loaded into the same area at a different point in time, only to be greeted by the same unique dialogue, played on repeat.

Witcher 3 avoided most of these issues simply because it was attempting this on a much smaller scale. There were repeated ambient dialogue and AI quirks amongst the villagers and townspeople, but those are fondly remembered and welcomed into fond meme memories. Cyberpunk’s issue lies with the game’s attempt at creating life into a city of millions, using tech and AI stemmed from a game whose cities probably peaked at a few thousand at most. It bit off more than it can chew.

Other less noticeable bugs included object clipping, teleporting cops, slingshotting (character objects being thrown around at random) and other niggly issues. Combat AI was also of particular note, enemies would stare at walls, stand out in the open and generally are the least concerned with their own sense of self preservation during firefights. These issues personally did not irk me as much as it did others, but they are compounded by the steep rig requirements for smooth running of the game.

All in all, a visually superb world held back by an ill-fitted engine and various odd bugs and glitches.

Ok I want to make a quick right turn here and briefly discuss the music in this game. In short, amazing. In length, BLOODY AMAZING. The discordant, angry, synths perfectly convey the time and setting of the game. It also further cements us in the perspective of V and his outlook on life, a “troubled soul in a troubled world” is how I would describe the feel of the in game tracks. Each district has a distinct sound associated with the gang that rules that part of town. For example, the Maelstrom gang are tied to frenetic, “Deathcore” EDM sounds. While the 6th Street gang (your friendly neighbourhood gun toting, MAGA rednecks) have smooth, slick electric guitar riffs leading the futuristic synth sounds of the game. I haven’t even mentioned the sheer number of talented up and coming musical artists that shared their repertoire through providing the HUNDREDS of radio station songs, perfectly encapsulating the varied musical genres and adding a spice of futurism to them. As of writing this review, Lakeshore Records, the records company responsible for publishing the 3rd party radio music, are slowly uploading all of the radio tracks onto Spotify, highly, highly recommend a tune in.

Mechanics – 7

Discussing gameplay, I will be covering the various different aspects of the gameplay as a whole and then analyse them as a sum of its parts. Cyberpunk’s gameplay facets borrows from a number of inspirations in and around the industry. On its surface, Cyberpunk presents itself as a first person shooter, with slick weapon design, fluid combat animations and impactful shooting. The two shooter inspirations I would attribute the FPS mechanics to would be a mix between Borderlands 3, with its RPG-like number spitting hitmarkers, and Wolfenstein: The New Order, with its fast and frenetic FPS animations. Critics so far have lambasted the shooting mechanics of the game, but I personally adore the slickness and style of sliding into combat, revolver primed, ready to decommission a group of scavs. Essentially living my own Matrix fantasy. I cannot overstate the amount of effort and detail that’s been put into each weapon. Each pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, smg and others, have multiple reload animations, chamber checking animations and firing animations. Each weapon archetype has sounds so frighteningly powerful and impactful, perfectly befitting of a weapon found in 2077.

Melee combat’s closest inspiration that comes to mind would be FatShark’s Vermintide series, a Warhammer co-op series priding itself on impactful melee combat. Cyberpunk’s melee is simple, intuitive, impactful, and gory. Tying into the perk system (which will be covered later), your V can build themselves into an absolute monster of a blademaster, dashing into combat, Deadpool deflecting bullets with their katana, and finishing off goons in one or two lethal strokes. Melee combat works by way of light and heavy attacks, killing an enemy with a heavy attack locks you into a brief, but highly satisfying “synchronized kill” animation, which, after performing thousands of times now, I still have not gotten tired of. Other melee weapons do exist, with varying levels of contextual detail placed on them, for example, lead pipes do not feel as impactful or satisfying as  a katana.

A rudimentary but competent stealth system is also found within the overall gameplay systems. Enemies work on a visual cone basis only and are essentially deaf, although I do believe this may be a bug. Much like any other FPS stealth systems, enemies take some few seconds to detect you within that cone, and during that time, you can maneuver out and behind your target to position yourself for a sneaky chokehold. Once in that chokehold, you have the option to kill or incapacitate the target, depending on mission requirements, outcomes may be determined by the living state of your target. Perks can fundamentally change your effectiveness and angles of approach to stealth, allowing you to do aerial takedowns, and other types of stealth specific specialisations. The stealth works, it’s not Dishonoured level of intricacy or polish, but it does allow you to live out a cyber ninja power fantasy should you desire.

Over a dozen drivable vehicles exist, ranging from teeny eco cars like the Makigai Mai-Mai, to sharp 80’s inspired sports cars like the Quadra Turbo-R, to futuristic hypercars like the Rayfield Caliburn, and everything in between (including bikes!). Not stopping there, I might add that each of these vehicles contain a fully modeled, functioning interior, that flips, zips and shines depending on the state of the car (at park or in motion), and boy, are these interiors sexy…

Vehicle handling differs from model to model, but in general, is quite rudimentary. You can slam the gas, you can brake, and that’s about it. No afterburners/boost function, or any other special function other than getting you from point A to B. Was this a missed opportunity? Maybe, I’m just damn happy we got car interiors, something sorely missing from the GTA series.

On the topic of RPG mechanics, Cyberpunk borrows its systems from other established shooter RPGs like Fallout and Outer Worlds. V is given a pool of 5 attributes they can put points in, which in turn, govern perk trees that V can place points in that will fundamentally alter the way V plays through the world. These attributes are; Body, governing the perks Athletics, Annihilation (shotgun/LMGs) and Street Brawler. Reflexes, governing the perks Assault, Handguns, Blades. Technical Ability, governing the Crafting and Engineering perks. Intelligence, governing Breach Protocol and Quick-hacking perks. And the “Cool” attribute, governing Stealth and Cold Blooded perks. Might sound like garbled word salad to you all, but i guarantee, once you actually play the game for yourself (either on a PC or next gen console), things will all make sense. The sheer number of perk combinations can turn your V from a gun toting Terminator, to a cool headed knife throwing Splinter Cell ghost. My point is, the perk system really is something to behold. For a game with Call of Duty-esque gunplay and Grand Theft Auto level of world density, it really is a treat to find a very competent and satisfying skill system built in.

Item progression is where I feel Cyberpunk really dropped the ball. Gear progression has taken the “inch forward” approach of Borderlands, where your inventory is just flooded with salvageable trash quality arms and armour from 30 minutes of playtime. This has an effect of stunting one’s fluid gameplay experience with minutes of inventory trash management. Being a connoisseur of quirky RPG mechanics, this doesn’t phase me one bit, in fact, there’s a feeling of catharsis I get from seeing a clean and empty inventory after scrapping 300lbs worth of guns. This does present a glaring problem when it comes to acquiring Legendary or Iconic equipment in the game. Because gear that you find is scaled around your current level, if you happen to farm high tier, end game weapons and armour right off the bat, you’ll be hit with the problem of your sweet yellow loot not progressing with you as you get stronger. They effectively stay at the same power level as you found them, unless you use expensive upgrade material to inch them up slowly, level by level (materials which multiplicatively become more expensive, the more you upgrade the same item over and over again). For us PC gamers, I have no doubts that the modding community will gallantly swoop in to overhaul these systems with better, more intuitive ways of gear progression. Heck, it’s exactly what happened with Witcher 3.

Back onto summarising gameplay components. Like I mentioned earlier, the various bits and pieces of gameplay string together to create an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a whole, the full gameplay experience serves to soften the blows of the quirks and niggles of the inventory system, the shallow driving experience and the occasional janky bugs during stealth and combat. The perception of like and dislike will ultimately fall onto the subjective opinions of the audience, and judging from the response from the wider community so far regarding this aspect, opinions are split. I myself, find the overall experience enjoyable enough to warrant 2 full, 70 hour playthroughs. Your mileage may vary.

Narrative – 8

Before tackling the behemoth that is the story and everything around it, I want to take you on a tangent and discuss the themes presented in the game, as well as compare the themes here to various other dystopian future worlds in other IPs I’ve personally consumed. When I think about the theme of this game, the most obvious and prevalent notion comes to mind, and that is “corporate overlord-ism”, the notion of megacorporations and shadowy organisations gripping the world with a suffocating iron vice is certainly nothing new in the realms of dystopian science fiction (see Blade Runner, Deus Ex, Ghost in the Shell and quite literally every other piece of sci fi work out there). But I want to delve a little bit deeper than that and go below the layer of corporatism and explore the emotion that is used as a vehicle to convey the themes. With Deus Ex Human Revolution, I would describe the primary emotion as being a sombre sense of despair , evident in the music, aesthetic, and even the voice and attitude of the main player character Adam. For Cyberpunk 2077, the closest emotion I would associate it to would be anger, a manic, loud rage-against-the-machine attitude that is perfectly captured in all aspects of its presentation; music, vibrant colour palette, crazy fashion, and the zippy attitude of its protagonist V. Both games have a clear theme of exploring totalitarian capitalism, both games drive said theme in polar opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. I find that very, very fascinating.

If you do not wish to read on regarding story and potential spoilers, my official, completely biased verdict for this game would be that the quality of this game is akin to an unrefrigerated custard pie. Custard pies are bloody delicious when cold, and this particular pie could have sat in the fridge for a wee bit longer to really bring out the custardy, squishy goodness. It’s a must buy if you are hungry for rich, immersive storytelling and IF AND ONLY IF, you have a pc capable of running it smoothly at a stable framerate, OR, you have a next gen console. Even still, be prepared for the odd bug to prop its head up now and then. 

From this point onward I will be discussing aspects of the narrative, I will do my best to keep spoilers at a minimum, but spoiler discussions may be unavoidable to fully understand the pros and cons of CD Projekt Red style of quest design/implementation.

The best way to describe the quest structure of this CD Projekt Red magnum opus is, take the base Witcher 3 quest structure, multiply side quests by a decent amount, put it in a future sci fi setting, and voila, you have the world of Cyberpunk 2077. That was meant to be a compliment, not a detraction. Witcher 3 had some of the most impactful, heart wrenching, funny, action packed, wholesome quests in any RPG video game ever created. And like I said earlier, I’ve played A LOT of RPGs throughout 20+ years of gaming.

Opening the map screen, I was greeted by a cringe inducing amount of icons and quest markers, reminding me of vapid Ubisoft open world-ers with the same amount of world map density. The difference comes from the depth and context of those quest markers. Where quest icons in  Ubisoft RPGs only serve as padded collect-a-thons, designed to lengthen play time by pushing players to perform empty tasks of traversal to grab a doodad. CD Projekt Red quest markers hit you with mystery, intrigue and a sense of narrative discovery as you stumble across a unique, hand crafted scenario that straps you into an emotional rollercoaster.

Take my experience of walking into a diner in the Santo Domingo district for example. A standard yellow quest marker that signified something interesting to discover in the area. V walks in, orders a strawberry milkshake (because my V is a non-smoking, sober, gun toting one man army with military grade cybernetics). Before the waiter can even prep the order, 3 scuffed out street chooms barge in, weapons drawn demanding the tills be emptied and money handed over. I was caught in the middle of a classic hold up. From this point, my V was given a number of options, 3 yellow dialogue options (yellow dialogue meaning clicking these will progress the dialogue tree), 1 white dialogue (white dialogue meaning clicking these will NOT progress the dialogue and only serve to flesh out or gather information regarding the situation), and an option to simply draw my weapon and begin a good ol’ Sunday shootout. One of the yellow options was only available if I had 20 attribute points invested in Body. 20 being the maximum, and which I did have at the time. That choice had my V go on the most outrageous self-gassing intimidation speech of all time, something I would never ever recommend anyone try and do should they ever find themselves in an armed robbery in real life. The sheer delivery, conviction and sense of power Gavin Drea (male V) put in his performance made me believe that these 3 tweaked out goons would turn tail and run for their lives after listening to V’s story.

Most, if not all quests and dialogue presented to the player contain these choice-based decision making  gameplay tied to it. Going by my 2nd playthrough, I can confirm that most choices do have an alternative (if not, multiple) outcome depending on responses you choose. And unlike Mass Effect choices, these choices are organically presented through the text, not colour coded or blatantly signalled to the player.

Onto the topic of “life paths”, boy was I disappointed. Touted as a significant component in V’s overarching story, it was supposed to provide nuance and different attitudes to V’s personality according to the life path chosen. Nomad V was meant to have a bright-eyed, almost childlike appreciation of Night City, as an outsider and a stranger to it all. Street kid V was meant to have a massive chip on their shoulder, having fought for every scrap of good and fought simply to survive, street kid V was loud, proud and obnoxious. Corpo V was  paranoid, high strung, tweaked out on performance boosters and on the edge of it all. We get hints of these aspects in the initial 20-30 minutes of prologue gameplay along with specks and sprinkles of each within various specific dialogue choices strewn throughout the main storyline. V otherwise, defaults to a more street kid demeanour by default, which is mostly fine, but disappointing in the grander scheme. This is a Dragon Age Origins approach, albeit done on a bare bones level. Dragon Age Origins “Origin” stories were substantial, meaty, and full of late game consequences. Prologue characters and choices would continue to haunt the character all the way to the final quarter of the main story. Cyberpunk life paths by comparison are anemic and lacking in consequence, a far cry from Witcher 3’s focused titular path which followed Geralt of Rivia and his quest to find and save his ward.

If I were the head of the most ambitious gaming company in Eastern Europe, I’d propose to cut out the life path nonsense and focus on a single prologue and narrative. That of the corpo background, I find this to have the most potential of fleshing out, as the main concern and theme of the game is the burgeoning oppressiveness of the Arasaka corporation and their petty family squabbles. Hear me CDPR? Get rid of your life paths, take the corpo background, add 10+ more hours of story into the first quarter that introduces and adds weight to the characters that we barely get to know in the base game (Jackie & his family, various fixers etc) of the game and completely do away with the lazy “6 month later montage”.

I want to bust low level goons with Jackie beside me more, I want to meet T-Bug for the first time, I want to greet mama Welles and have family dinner with Jackie & co as I finally earn his trust and respect, and I want to buy that apartment with the hard earned eddies in game myself instead of just being given it right off the bat. Give us weight, give us impact for the consequences that are made in the base first quarter of the game.

As a whole, the story and narrative of Cyberpunk 2077 is light years above and beyond any triple A RPG that is currently on the market, but that’s a low bar to settle. The issue of Cyberpunk’s narrative comes from the unmet expectation and hopes I had of the original scope and vision. A case of Icarus flying too close to the sun but not quite plummeting all the way. Is it good? Yes, is it great? Yep, can it be improved and fleshed out? Hell yes.

Other

Before closing things off I just want to briefly touch on the believability of Keanu’s performance. Strap your seatbelts in, because this probably isn’t going to be a popular opinion. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy Keanu’s brash, tough guy attitude at all. Maybe that’s because of how his real life persona is the complete polar opposite of how his character is portrayed in the game. Or maybe his performance is just not convincing at all. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. Not a deal breaker at all whatsoever, just an interesting observation.

Conclusion

Cyberpunk 2077 is a culmination of 8 years of hopes and dreams. Very few things in life warrant 8 years of emotional investment, video games certainly do not fall into that category and this game proves that sentiment true. Ultimately a satisfying game of grandiose proportion mired with technical faults and some questionable narrative decisions. One that must be experienced, savoured and re-experienced with each guaranteed addon CD Projekt Red releases.

8/10

Johannes Young
Johannes Young
Host, Writer & Fitness Expert

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