‘Cyberpunk 2077’ review: a brilliant role-playing experience that rises above its controversial marketing

Despite all the controversy surrounding it, Cyberpunk 2077 offers a surprisingly heartfelt role playing experience – even if it doesn’t change the face of gaming in the process

Cyberpunk’s Night City is as murky as neon-soaked dystopias get. Ruled by corrupt corporations who earn a living exploiting their workforce, for many of its denizens there’s only one way to survive 2077’s brutality – by becoming the stuff of criminal legend.

Be it making it big as a street racer or pulling off that legendary heist, one dream unites this cybernetically-enhanced populace: burning out in a blaze of gunfire and glory. Why? Because in Night City’s deadly dystopia life is harsh and fleeting, but legends never die.

You might wonder what experience CD Projekt Red, the acclaimed Polish studio behind the Witcher series has with such nightmarish capitalist dystopias. Yet for many of its 500 plus employees, they’re arguably living in one. In the eight years it’s taken to develop Cyberpunk 2077, this highly anticipated title has made headlines for its gruelling mandatory work hours, with its largely unsung creators forced to crunch six day weeks in the run-up to release.

Much like Night City’s desperate residents then, it feels as though CD Projekt Red are also striving to burn out in their own blaze of glory – wanting to be a part of a job that goes down in history.

If the questionable working practices behind it didn’t taint one of the medium’s most anticipated releases, the journey to Cyberpunk’s launch has also found itself embroiled in another controversy – allegations of transphobia. Thanks to a series of questionable tweets and controversial in-game adverts, it’s fair to say that CD Projekt Red’s attitude to the trans community has been less than enlightened.

Just when the world thought that they could begin to enjoy this game in peace, the developer recently threatened a swift take down notice for anyone who receives Cyberpunk early and dares to excitedly share footage online. At this point then, it seems CD Projekt Red has become the living embodiment of everything Night City has to offer – both a team of fame-hungry mercs and the kind of overbearing corporate entity its fictional protagonists tirelessly fight against.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

Remember when video games were just fun and didn’t cause online culture wars? Ah, simpler times. Still, on the plus side, it looks like CD Projekt Red’s first-hand experience of corporate cynicism has paid off – because 2077’s deadly dystopia feels nothing short of authentic. Despite all the headache-inducing discourse surrounding Cyberpunk 2077, make no mistake – this is an incredibly well-crafted video game. From the sheer number of unique citizens wandering Night City’s neon-soaked streets to the Hollywood-quality script, Cyberpunk 2077 is a momentous, if flawed, achievement.

The game is simultaneously a bug-ridden mess, a best-in-class interactive narrative experience and an impressive, if familiar-feeling, shooter – yet it’s consistently worth your time. After pouring 40 hours into the final product, what surprised me most about Cyberpunk is that this Blade Runner-inspired opus isn’t quite as mean-spirited as you may expect.

Underneath CD Projekt Red’s edgy, transphobic marketing lies a game with surprising heart, held together by phenomenal characters, a brilliant sense of place and some of the best role playing I’ve ever experienced in a virtual world.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

Cyberpunk wastes no time in letting you make your mark on its murky metropolis. Throwing you straight into an impressively detailed character creator, unlike the unchangeable Geralt of Rivea, CD Projekt Red’s latest lets you create your own futuristic avatar.

From tweaking your outlaw’s eye size to pondering which of the 39 hairstyles you want to rock, it’s immediately clear that protagonist ’V’ is going to be your character. And that’s before you even get to picking your avatar’s background, adjust the size of their virtual genitalia or assign their skill points. Yes, you read that correctly, customisable genitalia. Next gen has finally arrived.

Interestingly, despite the recent accusations of transphobia, it’s worth noting that Cyberpunk is one of the few games where you can actually create a trans protagonist of your own – and even if some of the representation is arguably problematic, this still feels like an important (if imperfect) step forward for the medium.

What impressed me most about Cyberpunk is that the many choices you’ll be making for your character here that aren’t just aesthetic. Players will want to pick their character’s background just as carefully as their dick size, because depending on which of the three origin stories you select (nomad, streetkid or corpo) you’ll find yourself playing an entirely different prologue.

It’s the first sign that unlike many of its RPG peers, in Cyberpunk your choices genuinely matter. While it might not revolutionise open world gameplay as such, Cyberpunk consistently wows with the variety and depth of its dialogue choices. Whether it’s the small conversation divergences that genuinely affect your relationships with those around you, to the accidental dialogue choice that fundamentally alters the way you and your partners in crime approach the next mission, where Cyberpunk really feels ‘next gen’ is in the wide range of options it gives you in its role playing.

Still, despite all the potential to mould Night City and its inhabitants around you, the first six hours of Cyberpunk are a surprisingly linear affair. While there are elements of freeform exploration and a smattering of side missions, what essentially serves as Cyberpunk’s prologue has more in common with a tightly scripted Call Of Duty campaign than the vast world you’d expect. Yet, even early on, it’s clear that this is a story that will keep you engrossed. Why? Because of its surprisingly brilliant dialogue.

Johnny Silverhand
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED.

When I first saw Cyberpunk demoed at Gamescom 2017, the characters lines elicited more cringes than looks of awe. Coming from the same writers behind the visionary The Witcher 3, expectations were high – yet, this early chatter felt like listening to a 15-year-old repeating all the swear words they’d overheard in the playground.

Thankfully, the script has been drastically improved for the final game. For a story set in a crime-ridden hellhole, Cyberpunk, of course, features its fair share of expletives, yet it’s a credit to CD Projekt Red that throughout the game’s many, many hours, its impressively cinematic conversations feel just as naturalistic as the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Speaking of Hollywood, I’d be remiss not to mention Cyberpunk’s casting of movie mega star, Keanu Reeves. With the vast majority of video games attracting voice actors specific to the medium, the inclusion of a massive celebrity in a game can often feel cynical – like a cheap gimmick to attract mainstream attention.

Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from what you get from the Matrix hero. While I don’t want to give too much away, Keanu Reeves plays an utterly integral role in Cyberpunk – and gives a brilliant performance throughout the 30-hour-long story. Playing the role of Night City’s most infamous rockstar, Johnny Silverhand, this mix of punk bad boy and hardened freedom fighter helps add some real character to CD Projekt Red’s sleazy narrative of warring gangs and political intrigue.

As you delve into Silverhand’s past, this once rebellious rocker cliché slowly reveals himself to be a surprisingly complex (and likeable) character – a far cry from the one dimensional stereotype teased in the game’s marketing. In fact, Silverhand’s surprising likability rings true of Cyberpunk as a whole.

In the run-up to release, the messaging around the game has been intentionally brash and antagonistic, often opting for a 4chan ‘2edgy4u’ style voice. Yet underneath all the murder, sex and betrayal, Cyberpunk 2077 hides a story with a real heart – housing multi-layered characters who love, grow and ultimately are searching for meaning amongst the chaos Night City throws at them. While Reeves steals the show, all of the voice acting is absolutely stellar throughout – no mean feat considering the sheer number of characters you encounter.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of your time here will be spent pumping street gangs and corpo suits full of lead. Thankfully then, the shooting here feels phenomenal. As you take protagonist ’V’ from scrappy merc to fully-fledged badass, you’ll find yourself armed with a wide array of different firearms. While how you choose to level your character up will mix things up, the moment to moment gameplay here will feel incredibly familiar to anyone who’s ever played Deus Ex.

Aside from a few cinematic exceptions, most missions follow a similar format. Find an enemy-filled base, track down a target, and get to them by riddling guards with bullets or by sneaking and hacking your way to your objective. Yet, while I initially opted for hacking and stealth, it quickly became apparent I needn’t have. For a lot of the game’s missions I could run in all guns blazing, even when the narrative was suggesting that I was attempting to ransack an impenetrable fortress and should use stealth. It’s a shame that the poor AI ruins the role-playing experience a little, but thankfully, the shooting underpinning everything is enjoyable enough that many won’t really care.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

There’s another glaring issue here – this is hands down the buggiest game I’ve ever reviewed. Despite being announced in 2012 and falling victim to countless delays, it’s hard not to feel like Cyberpunk could have done with a little more time in the oven. From odd glitches preventing me from turning in quests to a final boss fight where a once fearsome cyborg became pitifully trapped in a wall, I had to go back and reload an earlier save more times than I can count. This is, of course, a massive and incredibly ambitious game, and glitches are to be expected. Yet, while I’m sure many of Cyberpunk’s game-breaking issues will be patched out eventually, it’d be remiss not to highlight how often my enjoyment was affected by serious bugs.

Speaking of performance, Cyberpunk is a hugely demanding beast. With only PC code available for review, I experienced this visually striking game running on an RTX 2070. Despite this being a modern graphics card, Cyberpunk really put my setup through its paces, running the game at Ultra at the last gen resolution of 1080p, varying wildly between 40 and 60 frames per second. With a high end gaming laptop only just getting this level of performance out of Cyberpunk, it doesn’t bode well for those exploring Night City on the aging PS4 or Xbox One consoles.

Yet, for all the murky background behind it and its litany of game-ruining bugs, Cyberpunk’s Night City is undeniably an exhilarating place to explore. In fact, there’s so much happening at any given time in this dazzling dystopia that roaming through Night City is often an overwhelming experience.

From the constant hum of chatter emanating from the crowds to the unrelenting chime of neon-drenched adverts, sometimes it feels like there’s almost too much detail to take in. This is undeniably a world that begs to be explored, and it’s one I found myself returning to long after the credits had rolled.

Cyberpunk 2077 is now available on PC, Google Stadia, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S.

Our Verdict:

Despite all the controversies it’s found itself embroiled in, this is a game with a surprising amount of heart. While The Witcher 3 redefined what players expect from an open world, this RPG eight years in the making pushes modern gaming to its limits rather than forging a bold new future.

Cyberpunk is essentially Deus Ex meets Grand Theft Auto – a familiar feeling experience with one element that separates it from its peers, its unparalleled role playing. Thanks to the freedom afforded by its richly crafted dialogue choices, its consistently brilliant voice acting and the sharp script, Cyberpunk excels as a narrative-driven video game – even if it may not be the medium-redefining classic many hoped for.

Pros

  • In the quest lines and writing Cyberpunk consistently impresses
  • Assuming your machine of choice can run it, Cyberpunk is gorgeous
  • Keanu Reeves (and the other voice actors) are consistently brilliant
  • One of the best realised dialogue-based role playing experiences in video games

Cons

  • Features some of the most frustrating bugs I’ve ever experienced
  • Stealth gameplay feels largely redundant
  • Driving is pretty poor
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