After 40 Hours, Cyberpunk 2077 Is Still Completely Overwhelming

After 40 Hours, Cyberpunk 2077 Is Still Completely Overwhelming
Image: Cyberpunk 2077
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In my first night with Cyberpunk 2077, I sat down in V’s apartment to watch an ad.

This was a part of the original preview build back in July. I’d skipped it then, because preview sessions are such compressed experiences. There’s no time for filler.

But this time was different. I was at home, nobody was watching, and I had total freedom. So I grabbed a drink of my own, and watched V sit down.

There was a panel show on one channel, unpacking the promise of immortality. It was about the same chip that V hunts down later, and the talk was something you’d expect to read in The Conversation, or other university academia.

“We can create new consciousness,” one of the panellists said.

“But I ask you why — what does that give us? Are we as a people on this earth any happier for it,” a futuristic preacher asked.

Perhaps a little too perfectly, the host then asked viewers to text in who “won”.

After that, a second live interview played. Styled like the US comedian talk show host interviews — Kimmel, Colbert and so on — an expert in cyberpsychosis came on.

I switched the channel to see Cyberpunk’s equivalent of digital noise. I saw an ad for Moonchies — snacks for the super high. There was a courier service offering Johnny Mnemonic-style storage in your head. Is 80GB enough?

An ad for Mr Stud played. Then a shot of a ripped male body, lying on a bed before hands made of light reached out. “WET DREAM. Be the dream or the dreamer,” it said, advertising “ultimate sexpolitive experiences” through braindances.

You’ll see a lot of ads like this in Night City.

After that was something that almost looked straight out of Attack on Titan. “DO YOU HATE YOUR MEAT,” the screen read, as a naked body pulls the skin off its face.

It was an ad for body implants.

Next was a tiger biting into some kind of invitro meat product. A gigantic burrito hovering over the top of some skyscrapers, the same burrito I’d seen in vending machines going up to my apartment. Another braindance ad played for something called FOREIGN BODY; a character looked like they were fighting to avoid stabbing themselves, a battle within their own body.

Ads started to double up now, so I turned off the TV.

I’d been watching virtual TV for just over 7 minutes. Over 7 minutes of what most studios would consider filler, a virtual replica of the background noise that, in this day and age, many younger generations never see. Because they don’t watch TV. YouTube, Twitch maybe, on-demand services like Netflix or Stan, but nothing that forces content on you the way traditional TV does.

It’s almost quaint. We’re in a world where you can relive someone’s death, virtually experience their sexual encounter, trawl someone’s personal and professional data with a literal blink of an eye, but you still have to flip through TV channels like it’s the ’80s.

It makes all the time spent on these the ads, voiceovers, animations, sound effects so strange. Many players may never turn on the TV in V’s apartment, or pay attention as they play in the background of an elevator ride. But someone had to script these panel shows, storyboard fake products, picture the fashion, imagine the set design.

And this was just what was in V’s apartment. There’s other news bulletins. World news. Local news of nearby NCPD deployments. Stories about the homeless. Gang warfare.

So much content, content many players would likely never see or care about in any other video game.

Image: Kotaku Australia

Like Rockstar or a Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red has filled Cyberpunk 2077 with an extraordinary amount of detail. Even while NPCs have full-body experiences with vending machines and others occasionally glitch and reset on the street corner, the sheer volume and variety of Night City’s inhabitants walking past is a treat.

It’s symptomatic of CD Projekt’s approach. Rather than refining every glitch and every quirk, Cyberpunk responds with more. More to do, more sounds to absorb, more to loot, more to read.

And there is plenty to read. 73,789 separate lines of dialogue; over 590,000 words, and nearly 8,000 separate dialogue choices. That’s how much CD Projekt Red has jammed into Cyberpunk 2077. For perspective, that’s more than War and Peace, Les Miserables, Atlas Shrugged, any of the Game of Thrones novels. It’s not anywhere close to the most amount of words in a video game — Planescape Torment had around 950,000, Baldur’s Gate 2 topped 1 million, and Cyberpunk’s word count is a fraction shy of Knights of the Old Republic.

But it should be plenty for most. And much of it, like large sections of Cyberpunk, isn’t immediately presented to the player. Thousands upon thousands of words you will only stumble upon by chance, like the odd conversations you might hear NPCs having around a bar, or a chat between colleagues in a hotel lobby. Much of it isn’t even in the game’s main story.

But Cyberpunk’s strongest language comes not from quest dialogue, or the delivery of a particular line — although Cherami Leigh’s turn as the female V has a consistently excellent bite, with the right degree of anger underscoring how atrociously unfair life is. It hovers on that balance of adrenaline, anxiety and seething rage, and because Leigh straddles that line so well, it left me wondering what could been accomplished with a subtler, less openly direct script. (Due to time restrictions with the embargo, it was simply impossible to complete, or even attempt, a second playthrough with a male-sounding V, voiced by Gavin Drea.)

Leigh actually shows up the game’s biggest star, Reeves, by some considerable distance. Reeves’ performance is fine for the most part, but for a large part he sounds disinterested, almost like Silverhand hasn’t bought into the circumstances around him. Canonically, Silverhand died over 50 years ago. People don’t get reborn, not in Cyberpunk 2077 or anywhere else. There should be more urgency, more energy, but Reeves’ doesn’t really offer that.

It’s also not helped that Night City is unabashedly aggressive, and that ruthlessness feeds into the general discourse. Silence, forgiveness, subtlety: these are all signs of weakness in Night City’s world. But unsurprisingly, the game’s stories and performances are at their best when afforded given a minutia of contemplation. Cyberpunk 2077 is a slow RPG, and like The Witcher and others of its ilk, the lives of its characters are all the more compelling when we’re given a moment to consider it all.

The constant bustle of the main story, and just the sheer relentlessness of how much stuff Cyberpunk 2077 throws in your face, left me searching for a little more humanity. I wanted to know more about the lives of characters like Susie, who rose up to run the famous Lizzie’s Bar that became a safe nexus for the city’s women and its sex workers. I wanted to know more about Judy; I wanted to know more about Johnny Silverhand, and the origins of his hatred.

As you play through Cyberpunk, you’ll likely have similar questions of your own. But while the search for that humanity carries on, you’ll be bombarded with what could easily be described as the most lavish sci-fi detail porn in video games today.

It’s the best beneficiary of CD Projekt’s approach: more is more. Night City, for all its creaks, frequent pop-in of textures, and the occasional shimmer as details sharpens into focus, is an extraordinary sight.

The amount of detail in the smallest spaces can be overwhelming. Take one moment, where V’s asked to attend a bar in a nearby district. The exterior sits across from a street, buildings bathed in white, orange, aquamarine. There’s less neon throughout, commensurate with the more down-to-earth nature of the area compared to the inner Night City bars.

The brighter palette against the daylight leaves more room for graffiti. Slogans against the NCPD, religious murals, constant scribbles in clashing colours. Residents in crop-tops and neon-red mowhaks stumble past; some occasionally look you in the eye as they down a can of something.

Sometimes that can glitches in the person’s hand. But these streets are less crowded too, so there’s less collision quirks. Occasionally you’ll see someone’s position tweaked in real-time, like they’ve put a foot wrong and the controllers of the Matrix are gently helping them on their way.

As you slowly walk into the bar, the screen goes bright white as everything loads into memory. You’re then bathed with the deep, blue light and a ceiling fan, before the neon reds, yellows, greens and purples illuminate the bar in front. There’s a small cubby to the right, with the wall and pillar filled with newspapers and covers of the Night City Journal. Posters for what looks like B-grade sci-fi adorn the wall nearest to the left — ELECTRONIC MURDERER, THROWAWAY: See The Truth and, in a homage to the old Blade Runner font, CRIME and PUNISHMENT and ZOMBIES.

Different booths and different parts of the wall have their own character. A slightly torn flag, some speakers and a blue, yellow and white skull occupy once section, with tears of blood running down the skull and into some scattered graffiti. Vending machines for smokes, burritos sit in another corner. There’s arcades, not all of them working. A brighter area with a couch has a touch of blue from the lights of an insect zapper, sitting next to a signed flag and the soft candles of a religious shrine.

This is just the first floor; the stairs, covered in its own green hue, are adorned with more skulls and roses. “POR LA FAMILIA VIVO,” one reads. Bigger booths on the second floor sit next to two TVs, playing ads for megacorporation rifles and shotguns and the hypersexualised Mix it Up shot with the transgender model.

Set in concert against advertisements for shotguns and “Watson Whore”, it feels deliberately tacky.

You know the wings would be good here.

Underneath the TV, there’s a nearby data shard. It’s an election pitch, a Bernie Sanders, AOC-esque candidate promising to curb megacorporate influence in politics.

It’s a good pitch, deep within the wood and brick backdrop of this bar.

The rest of the top floor has more murals, more clippings, more occasional posters and bits of life plastered throughout. The bar isn’t full — it’s empty for a function — but it’s the kind of place I’d immediately hit up on a Friday night, grabbing hot wings after work, ciders, definitely tequila.

This is just the environment of one bar, remember. Stepping out the back has even more colour, more detail, and more life.

How long must it have taken people to work, and pour over all of this? How long must it have taken to finalise the engineering necessary to ensure any of this even loads on modern systems? How long must it have taken to establish the unique art directives for each district, and then the entire process of segmenting those districts into chunks that were inevitably fine-tuned, repeatedly, by hand?

Equally striking, if not more so, is the visual effects that connect the player — and V — to the cyberisation of Cyberpunk 2077‘s world. Reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell, everyone exists with some degree of mechanical additive. Sometimes it’s a commercial performance enhancing booster; sometimes it’s a simpler oculuar implant that searches publicly available databases. And sometimes it’s just that hypersexualised, hyper-aggressive thrill seeking of Night City, jacking into a braindance like Neo to relive someone’s memory.

It’s these transitory moments between the real and the virtual, that players will remember most about Cyberpunk 2077. It’s the diagnostics on the screen as your implants reboot after an operation. The transition of the HUD elements as you sit through a virtual briefing for the next mission. The bleeding effect that overtakes the screen when you’re on low health, as it blends in with the noise and detail of the city in the background. There’s the falling blue blocks, cascading down the screen like millions of LEDs, as your augmented vision restarts and then slowly fades away as you focus on the world around you. There’s the hacking, the transitions back and forth during combat. The merigold, almost burnt orange LED visualisation of your car in the dashboard, the dials of your motorcycle.

At every moment, Cyberpunk 2077 is visually busy. You’re constantly plugged into Night City, literally or figuratively, and the sheer amount of activity is often intoxicating. It’s not unlike Marty McFly visiting Hill Valley for the first time,  overwhelmed by the sheer volume of how much there is to take in.

If Cyberpunk 2077 was playing on a retail TV in the window of a shopping mall, passers-by would happily stop to watch.

The game doesn’t go full Alita as much as you might expect, but it’s neat when it happens.

That’s probably the best way to experience Cyberpunk 2077, since you never have to deal with the inevitable friction of actually interacting with Night City.

Once that escapism and sheer overindulgence of, well, everything wears off, you have what is fundamentally a very traditional video game underneath. The process of shooting, a quest log a mile long, inventory management.

All the things that, regrettably, are very last-gen in their function.

Let’s start with inventory management, because it’s the most egregious in so many ways. Take V’s outfit. Because the game is bursting at the seams with junk, you’ll also never run out of a litany of options for V’s look. Some of these won’t necessarily match — a crop top with a samurai menpo, neon green hi tops and cherry bio-silk slacks is certainly A Statement. Not one that bothers anyone in Night City, and certainly not the loudest or most forward set of options you can make. You can wrap yourself in bloody bandages and sweat pants; nobody comments.

So given the lack of feedback, players will naturally start to min-maxing their stats at some point. This is an RPG, after all. But why can I sort my weapons by their DPS values, but I have no similar option for sorting my armour? There’s six separate slots for clothing, each of which has their own base armour values, with their own modifiers and bonuses. Sorting them matters too, especially once you get into crafting.

Why can I only craft one item at a time? There’s a direct mechanic that ties your XP into how much you craft items.

It’s just a hassle to sort through your inventory one entry at a time. And yet given the amount of focus on so many smaller, emergent parts of the game, doing something as simple as sorting out your weapon loadout, picking through your clothes and sorting your modifications is painfully laborious.

Other traditional video game rituals have been scrapped in other places — fast travel points, for instance, are added to your map as soon as you drive or walk nearby. No manual activation necessary.

I ditched the menpo quick smart, but you can be damn sure I kept those green high tops for as long as I could.

But things will always slip through the cracks in a game of this size and scale. Bugs, after all, can be fixed post-launch. And annoying inventory design will be tolerated far more than, say, a hard crashes to desktop.

And most of the bugs, at least with the PC version I played — console codes were not available prior to launch — were largely visual. Sometimes, I’d interact with a dealer, but the prompt wouldn’t register and I’d have to ask twice to enter their store. Another time, I walked into a small bar and one character was just standing, arms stretched out, frozen in the middle of the couch. More often, items would present themselves for looting, but I’d run too quickly towards them and have to shuffle V back and forward until I was allowed to pick it up.

None of this is game-breaking. But it is frequently there, rising to the surface enough to shatter Night City’s illusion just a fraction.

For instance, I had a key plot discussion with Johnny Silverhand. It was a crucial plot discussion, but it was harder to appreciate Keanu Reeves’ delivery, or the seriousness of the discussion. Why? Because a cigarette dislodged itself from Johnny Silverhand and hovered, mid-air almost at chest level, for the entirety of the cut scene.

If that sort of glitch gives you Fallout vibes, then you’ll find plenty more company where that’s from. Much of the gameplay loop is loot-driven: disassembling it, selling it, equipping it, finding it. So the screen regularly fills up with little white and green cubes. It fits Night City: if it’s not bolted down, it’s fair game.

The dialogue feeds into the Fallout comparisons, too. Like every open-world game that has to factor with the randomness of player behaviour, characters don’t always remember or acknowledge the relevant circumstances with which the player finds themselves.

One fixer, in a simple instance of this, called me and asked to settle up my debts. I drove over and paid her a visit, only to be directly asked: “Why are you here?”

It’s a tiny thing, but the way the bike’s dashboard lights up gives me that sweet, sweet sci-fi dopamine. Whoever worked on all the contextual UI for the vehicles in first-person: good job, because you killed it.

Again, this isn’t a problem specific to Cyberpunk. After all, it’s merely a big budget open-world game following in the footsteps of other similarly enormous big budget productions. Everyone pushes the boundaries where they can, but there are always limits.

Cyberpunk’s combat won’t surprise to fans of other shooters or action-RPGs, either. Melee has a floatiness to it, a necessity to accommodate the block/parry/dodge loop underpinning it all. Ranged weapons fire and feel similar to guns from the Fallout series, and they improve over time as your perks and overall character build slowly comes together.

Eventually, you’ll also unlock some more creative weapons. Blasting enemies through 10 inches of solid steel and rock with a sniper rifle never gets old. But similarly, you could just shoot in the air and have bullets bend towards your targets. It’s almost as if CD Projekt Red were secret fans of EA’s Syndicate reboot, and when it works, you feel like the Terminator.

It works. You have to buy into the system and make an active plan about how your version of V will tackle fights — an all-around approach, dipping points into a bit of everything isn’t the way to go. Commit, and you shall be rewarded.

The commitment applies to your regular skills, too. Using more quickhacks offers more perks, makes future hacks faster, increases your RAM (capacity for more advanced/complex hacks), and unlocks even more perks. And it goes the other way. Imagine a cyber-ninja, equally adept at hacking as they are with critical sword slashes. Distance is obviously going to be a problem, but not so much when you unlock perks that gives you bullet time as soon as an enemy detects you, lets you dodge without stamina penalties, and massively stacks up your evasion and damage resistance with every enemy killed.

Cyberpunk is a slow RPG, to be sure, but if you want to go full sci-fi Hanzo, slicing up Night City like a DOOM level? Then go right ahead.

It’s this web of combinations that will likely feed speedrunners, YouTube guides, playthroughs and countless forum debates well past Christmas. Cyberpunk’s perk system isn’t endless by any means, but the combination of min-maxing certain actions, backed with certain perks taken at certain times (and clever attribute point investment) will keep fans busy for months.

That’s especially true as you go up the difficulty trees. I started my corpo character with bonuses to handguns, envisioning a Johnny Silverhand-style character who runs around delivering one bullet sandwiches to their enemies. The quantity of loot also means you’ll never run out of health packs, and you’re never dealing with so many enemies at once that you won’t be able to quickly heal. I found the Hard difficulty to be better balanced, especially once my character’s bonuses and perks started to really kick in. That said, the situation might be vastly different on a controller or someone going for a melee/hacker combo.

But much of Night City is about the ride, not so the fight when you get there. I mentioned before how the initial prologue took me around 5 hours of playtime. And in the last set of previews for Cyberpunk, most reviewers were given 16 hours (across two days) to work through the first couple of acts.

By the time I finally saw the Cyberpunk 2077 title card, I’d almost clocked 10 hours of gameplay. Once the second act began, I was already up to 12 hours.

It’s easy to get lost in Night City.

Another emergent moment. Here, someone is copping a beating from a thug. You can walk away, stand by and watch it happen, or intervene and save them from the robbery. I intervened, and ended up getting a text message later in the game from the person I saved.

While the language and corporate messaging is aggressively over the top, Cyberpunk 2077 has lots of smaller touches that can go completely unnoticed.

In one instance, I returned to Lizzie’s Bar to meet up with the braindance editor Judy. I needed her help down the road, but given the nightmare of what unfolded with the previous operation, V wasn’t exactly welcome company.

Upon nearing Judy, I caught her mid-conversation with the boss of the bar. Judy had been recommending Lizzie’s to other women — homeless, downtrodden, out of home for whatever reason — as a safe space to work.

“Stop tellin’ every joytoy you meet to come here,” the owner yelled. Lizzie’s wasn’t a shelter, there was no guarantee they could pay their way, but Judy argued they were worth a chance.

The conversation eventually petered out and I entered the fray. But after a bug using Photo Mode — which locked out my dialogue choices — I reloaded to the most recent quicksave. This time, I walked into the room straight away, which changed the conversation completely.

“If you’re so concerned about strays, go take care of your guest,” the owner spat, walking out of the room immediately.

It’s the degree of minutia only found in the most expensive of productions. And there’s countless blink-and-you-miss-it moments throughout Night City, a glimpse into the lives of the characters that shape your journey the most, potentially ruined by an accidental thumb press or a push of the left stick one inch too far.

You can, of course, pester Judy with questions afterwards. But she offers little detail. It’s the unguarded moments that are worth catching. But it begs the question: if this kind of emotional colour is worthwhile, why didn’t the developers make it mandatory viewing for the player? There are plenty of cutscenes and set pieces where the player stops and watches V to absorb the essential dialog of the moment.

The counter-argument is that giving the player freedom to experience the stories of Night City their way ultimately leads to a better experience for them. But I can’t help but wonder how much time had to be spent iterating, coding, testing, and retesting to work out all the different instances of what would happen if someone stood at coordinates X, Y and Z, at what point, and so on.

It’s this detail that helps make — and break — Night City. But it’s also hard to enjoy without thinking about how that same detail may have also broken the people who brought it to life.

Speaking of life, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the game’s photo mode for a little bit. Photo modes aren’t new, and as nice as Cyberpunk 2077’s version is, it’s also not that surprising. AAA games of this scope and size should come with a photo mode: fans love it, and it’s an essential part of a game’s word of mouth marketing.

But if you can put the more corporate, insidious take on photo modes aside for one minute, the photo mode actually adds an essential quality to Cyberpunk. Thanks to the way the game is engineered, you’ll notice almost a constant hum of activity in the visual presentation. Most of this is noise to some degree, some of it’s pop-in, and some is just the nature of textures streaming in as the camera pans around.

Photo Mode puts that on hold, and gives you the cleanest, best possible shot of everything in Night City. It’s by far the best way to appreciate characters close up, since the game isn’t constantly trying to denoise details in hair or facial models when everything’s paused.

But crucially, it’s also the best opportunity to appreciate your character in third person. People wondered what the point of the character customisation was if you wouldn’t actually be seeing your character all that often.

The answer is that you can see your character generally whenever you want. If you’re in a cut scene and V can move, then you’ll be able to take a third person shot of your V, too. But if your character isn’t in the right position, the Photo Mode has options for shifting them around, which can help in instances where the rotating camera can’t quite get into the perfect position.

Photo Modes have been pretty good in the past, and they’ve supported filters, stickers, poses and the like. But they haven’t usually given you a degree of control over the player character’s positioning.

And that alone is pretty wild: how much work must it have taken to code, test and implement?

Meet my V. I didn’t choose the outfit — this is from the beginning of the game — but holy shit it works.

As I was working my way through the main plot, I stepped out the back of a building near the city’s red light district. I’d stopped to write some notes on my laptop.

Directly in front, two thugs started arguing. They were disagreeing about the cut from a drug deal.

“I ain’t dealing with Pablo; I’m dealing with you,” one yelled. He reckoned that he could simply paint the streets with his blood, but that wouldn’t resolve the financial trouble.

“You wanna try? Go on son,” the other NPC goaded.

So he did. He pulled out a pistol, sending one bullet to the brain. The nearby crowds scattered, and the remaining NPC pulled out a cigarette.

They continued smoking as I walked over, looting the dead drug runner’s corpse.

Ray tracing is one of Cyberpunk’s big selling points on PC, although its effectiveness depends on your PC and also the environment. I found indoor settings were the most effective for the lighting and reflections. This is ray traced reflections and lighting maxed out…
… and this is with ray tracing disabled. I’ve included a shot of Nvidia’s Frameview, their real-time performance analyser, in the top. Just note this was on an earlier build, however, so don’t read into the figures for benchmarking purposes.

A question that continued playing on my mind was what Cyberpunk 2077 wanted to say. While Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the Cyberpunk RPG games, has been consulting on the project from the start, there was also concern from one of cyberpunk’s strongest original influences.

If cyberpunk is a warning, then what warning did Cyberpunk 2077 have for everyone in 2020?

Take one mission, where I discovered a public database about the city’s red light district that was riddled with malware.

After a simple hack, Night City’s red light district’s true underbelly was exposed Tips on how to get dolls for “actual” sex once they leave the club. Ways of gaming the automated doll algorithm (by watching “something hardcore” before connecting at reception). There’s regular nightclubs in the area, but also clubs featuring cloned cows on site. Slaughtering costs extra, of course. Another one “organises trips to the Amazon basin to hunt formerly extinct species”. Those animals are cloned and grown in a lab for up to six years before they’re let loose in the wild.

Want more visceral experiences? The world advertises braindances for operations without anaesthetics. A live cyberpsychosis episode. “Exclusive torturer” footage from the Spanish Inquisition, featuring iron maidens, whipping and nail-pulling.

These clubs don’t exist as places you can walk into. That would be staggering. Similarly, when the choice becomes available to buy braindances featuring “NO LIMBS PORN”, or the deleted scenes from “ACID BATH”, they’re not episodes or clips you can watch.

Night City isn’t ashamed of this. It advertises it at almost every moment, through the TV, the news reports you read on the city’s computers, or the random gunfights on the street. Everyone is ripe for exploitation, Cyberpunk says. But the parts of the city that you’ll actually interact with lacked that genuine threat, that cyberpunk bite. It felt more edgelord than edgy, and that wasn’t helped by the city’s brand of aggression and freedom, either.

You might not want to blast Cyberpunk at full volume to your neighbours.

But eventually that emotional depth and consequence starts to develop. There are some genuinely, cracking good missions and setups that would put a smile on the face of any Deus Ex fan. Not the recent reboots, I mean the original Eidos Deus Ex. And there’s plenty of interesting plot threads left to the side quests. The ones I experienced were genuinely good missions, some of which I’m surprised weren’t made mandatory.

Of course, there might be even more than what I’ve experienced. But it’s hard to say, given the amount of time we’ve had.

40 hours can be a lot, but in the context of Cyberpunk, I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface.

One of the many overt ads around — or in this case, outside of — Night City.

Every now and again, Cyberpunk 2077 does something so casually cool that it leaves you awestruck.

I was sneaking into a warehouse, scouring level by level for information on a target. The whole warehouse had a surveillance system, but while I could access the earlier levels, I didn’t have full control — and it wasn’t permanent in any rate — over the lower cameras.

If you’ve ever played the stealth game République, you’ll know what this loop is like: hack into the camera, use that to hack another person, or trigger a door, turret, distraction, you get the idea.

But once I’d gotten into the lower levels, I needed to hack another computer. That was fine; my technical ability was high enough. But the terminals were right in front of two enemy NPCs, and they could very clearly hear and see me if I was standing at the PC.

The telltale stealth alert sound played and I immediately ducked for cover. Things calmed down, and as the NPCs mulled around, I went to use the PC again.

But the mouse cursor changed. I was still crouched, hidden behind the desk. But the game was letting me navigate through the menus, while crouched, like you would if you were actually trying to sneak around for real.

It’s such a neat, emergent little feature that you don’t see on any tutorial, any gameplay trailer, or any tooltip. It’s one of those video game things: every game should obviously have this. It makes logical sense. But implementing it in practice is such an enormous time sink that most developers cheat, setting a flag so that NPCs can’t see or react to you while you’re using a PC/terminal of some kind.

Normal game development would cut a feature like this. But for Cyberpunk’s world, features like this are essential.

And you can’t talk about a game like Cyberpunk 2077 — at least not honestly — without acknowledging the process behind it.

For those concerned about what Cyberpunk 2077 has to say, or its less technical elements, the review period barely left enough time to answer most of those questions. There was a six-day lead time from keys being distributed to the initial embargo that’s allowing you to read these sentences now. Console codes weren’t distributed, although thanks to leaked videos from users who got their retail copies early, PS5 and Xbox Series X owners shouldn’t be concerned.

In comparison, the embargo period for the next-gen consoles was around a fortnight. For a more apples to apples comparison, Death Stranding and The Last of Us 2, equally high profile games in their own right, were available under embargo for around three weeks.

Another local writer put it bluntly:

I had a similarly abrupt experience. I was staying up late on a Sunday night, squeezing in every possible hour. Eventually, the light from my monitors proved too disruptive for my unfortunate partner, who tearfully questioned the sanity of letting work encroach upon our personal lives to the point of physical distress.

It’s a question you imagine individual developers and their families must have asked themselves many times over the last year. It’s the same conversation we keep having, and year after year, the consensus is that the end result is worth it, that this level of quality simply cannot be obtained without great sacrifice.

Personal impact aside, just remember this. Any review you read of Cyberpunk 2077 today will leave an awful lot on the table.

Never. Gets. Old.

Here’s a small thing. But it’s awesome, so I have to mention it.

Upon running another mission, I lined up a nice headshot with my pistol and went to fire. Maybe through some combination of the software running, or just the game couldn’t deal with two enemies copping it at once, but it caused the game to crash to desktop.

No matter, I thought. Fire up the most recent checkpoint and go again.

But before entering the next room and restarting the fight, I went back to my inventory. It was the first time I’d had a sniper rifle — I’d completely forgotten I’d even picked one up.

So fuck it, I thought. I’m not being subtle in this fight anyway.

I went around a corner, and saw an outline of an enemy through a wall. So I lined up the enemy, through two enormously thick walls, and fired.

Critical headshot, Cyberpunk 2077‘s UI read.

“That’s pretty fucking cool,” I said out loud, to nobody in particular.

Another surprisingly neat moment: during the middle of a key plot conversation, I get a phone call. I thought it was a bug, at first, but then the game simply paused my conversation with Judy until Wilson got off the line.

Cyberpunk 2077 has lots of little mechanical or visual moments like that. The braindances. Watching the city blanketed in gray and watery reflections as the rain falls do. The blue, Matrix-like hue that shimmers over the screen as your cybernetics fail or adjust to Johnny Silverhand’s well timed intervention in your life.

There’s the moment you get hit by a car for the first time, knocked to the ground, vision shaking. Don’t run in the middle of the street, you fucking idiot, Cyberpunk says. And the little ways you interact with computers, vending machines and objects in the world, the Star Citizen-esque method where a little icon just replaces your crosshair. It feels like you’re intuitively calling the elevator, or pushing a button for that can of BOSS coffee. I wish you could see it in motion.

Just walking down the right street at the right time can be jaw dropping. I actually kept a controller plugged in just for this. Most of my playthrough was on mouse and keyboard, but when it came to driving especially, I wanted to ride around a little slower, a little more smoothly. The jerkiness of keyboard driving controls ruined the joyride experience.

It’s the kind of vibes you expect from, say, Euro Truck Simulator or Microsoft Flight Simulator. Not Cyberpunk 2077. And yet, I had that compulsion to slow down, so often. I can’t remember another open-world RPG that left me feeling that way — the only similar memory I can think of was in The Witcher 3, when the wind and light in Skellige combined in just the right way to give that sense of a cold, chilly winter’s day.

But then there’s the other side of Night City. Moments where you’ll casually and logically swap out a katana for a dildo, because it does twice the damage.

Or you’ll be walking down a street, only for a random NPC to be frozen, arms spread eagle. A car will come barrelling through the middle of that NPC, only to hit something else and reverse right back through them. The Night City resident, eventually, emerged stunned from their stupor, fleeing to resume their daily business.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a rollercoaster like that.

Even some of the lower res models — you can see the lack of texturing on the finger nails here and some serious lack of anti-aliasing because of the DLSS technique — still look great in places. Sure, the earing is clipping too, but for a character I met once, this is pretty good.

It’s been thousands of words, and I haven’t told you about many of the small things. Like the way major dialogue options will open up if you work your way through all the filler options. Or the anti-capitalist group that messages you from the beginning, sending you reminders of their subversive existence every several hours before you’re eventually given a location to investigate.

Why are there so many studded dildos everywhere?

The way going from Normal to Hard completely changes your approach to fights. Lower difficulties let you hack basically anything, but on the harder modes, the game warns you if a device isn’t connected to power or the nearby network — and you’ll have to target something else.

It’s clever. It’s logical. Of course you can’t hack something without power. It completely changes your strategy to a fight. But it’s also yet another Thing That Just Happens, one of the million things in Night City that are just exists without forewarning. It’s cool if you discover it, but if you don’t find it, no big deal.

I haven’t spoken about the radio stations. The sex scenes. The differences in the sex scenes. The street races. What it’s like to drive. Driving bikes versus cars versus the vans. And I’ve avoided it because of spoilers, but I’ve mentioned nothing of the relationships you form with characters like Judy, the braindance editor; Viktor, the ripperdoc who patches you up from the beginning; Evelyn Parker, whose face has defacto become one of the most common sights for Cyberpunk 2077 online; the quick witted, and quick tempered Panam, who also serves as a nice homage to the original Blade Runner; or Takemura, whose revenge opens up the door to an unlikely friendship.

I’ve barely touched on the range of cyberware, which many would (rightfully) consider to be a cornerstone of any cyberpunk fantasy. Or the crafting mechanics, an equally essential part of any RPG. Or the fact that there appears to be a sixth attribute, one shimmering between intelligence and cool. Does it unlock when you finish the game? Is it being reserved for future content?

Blade Runner fans will never get tired of the hacking and scanning interfaces.

There’s — and I’m not completely sure about this — the way the game also seems to consider the amount of times you die. Out of stubbornness, and just for fun, I took on a particular fight in an especially gung-ho fashion. I died, and naturally respawned just before the fight began. But once that happened, V began coughing up blood, and the screen began to shake, warning of a relic malfunction.

It happened earlier in the game, a similar instance where my recklessness had forced a restart. Does the amount of times you die matter? I don’t know, and the game doesn’t openly say. Relic malfunctions are common and often a precursor to a cutscene. But I can’t help but wonder if the player’s performance is somehow being tracked, too.

I haven’t mentioned how dark a lot of the game is. That’s fitting for a dystopian sci-fi game, and a city whose best stories live in the darkness. But for those playing on PC, where proper HDR support on gaming monitors is half a decade behind what’s available in TVs. The detail lost in that darkness — not to mention what you lose in the brighter highlights of Night City’s neon signs — is a true shame.

Even if you do have access to good HDR on PC, it’s not a great experience: you have to manually set the maximum brightness, paper white base luminance and the tone-mapping midpoint, all with three sliders that can only shift by half a point/10 nits at a time. Hell, just the process of getting some TVs to display HDR on Windows properly is miserable enough to turn some people off PC gaming for life.

Even Cyberpunk can’t save Windows from itself. So if you’re double guessing where you should be playing Cyberpunk 2077 on, and you’re not wedded to the idea of mouse and keyboard, keep that in mind.

Misty has a heart of gold. She’s into tarot and auras, a bizarre occurrence in a cyberpunk world, but she also brings some much needed heart to proceedings.

I wish I could show you more of Night City, both its strengths and its weaknesses. It is a technical marvel in many places. It’s the first game I’ve played on PC that seems to genuinely benefit from an NVMe drive. Fast travel is actually fast. If you skip a quick ride with a character, it’s generally a few seconds. Going from one part of town to another — completely different districts with their own art styles, basically — takes a little longer, but never more than 9 or 10 seconds on my system. It’s impressive. (If you don’t have an NVMe drive, or even an SSD, never fear: there’s a “Slow HDD Mode” in the settings.)

The game has a delightful way of doling out more content, and it does so at a really satisfying rate. As your street cred improves, you find yourself getting more calls and text messages. Fixers you’ve worked for reach out: V’s the only reliable solo in town. And other missions go back to your past. Playing as a corpo, someone from my Arasaka HQ days recognised me — the first person I had a proper conversation with upon playing Cyberpunk 2077. Over 30 hours in, they needed help. It was enough time that I’d forgotten about them completely, but not so far into V’s dilemma that I didn’t have enough time to pull on that plot thread.

But you can mainline the story without doing any of these, if you feel so inclined. I chose not to do that, saving the ending for a later date because a world like Night City is pointless if not explored. Games like Cyberpunk 2077 were not designed to be binged on the first run. They’re meant to be savoured, appreciated, and taking that extra time to listen and investigate also reveals more of the city’s true character.

Not all of Cyberpunk 2077‘s character, though, will appeal to everyone. If you’re looking for a city that lives up to the true ethos of cyberpunk, Cyberpunk 2077 might lack some of the maturity in places for your taste. Cyberpunk‘s world certainly advertises brutality for all, but I haven’t enjoyed the way the game’s core missions — and the biggest side quests presented in my run — dolled out that brutality almost exclusively to women. There’s a logic here: it’s the cities sex workers, the homeless and the poor that are always ripe for the most exploitation, but I’m still waiting for Cyberpunk to say something meaningful about it all, instead of leveraging their misfortune as set dressing.

cyberpunk 2077 4k
The Photo Mode is truly excellent, giving you control over V’s positioning – not just the camera placement.

Even making a statement like that is troublesome though, because there simply hasn’t been enough time. Potentially by design, but more probably by necessity. I’ll keep playing, which is ultimately the key test for any video game, but I also owe it to you all to let you know exactly what brand of Cyberpunk you’re in for.

But what, however, if you just want pure escapist entertainment? What if you’ve been waiting for Cyberpunk all year, and you’ve had to deal with the litany of bullshit that 2020 has thrown everyone’s way — lockdowns, catching COVID or dealing with others who have, the instability of work, a lack of infrastructural or emotional support, and just going stir crazy as many of us deal with one of the tumultuous years of our lives?

Well, Cyberpunk will keep you entertained. The mechanical and technical underpinnings, through some of the funnier glitches that arise but also the surprising interactions that quietly emerge, will easily keep people transfixed for weeks. If you preordered, and figured the prospect of a sci-fi GTA was just what you needed to round off the year? It’s a reductive analogy, but for many, it works well enough. You’ll be happy. You might not like all of it, it might crash on you a bit, but you’ll have fun.

But as I sit on my living room floor, experiencing a fraction of the exhaustion and fatigue that its creators must have endured for months, if not years, I’m still no closer to answering the only thing that matters.

Was it really worth it?

I don’t know. But after less than a week, could anyone properly answer that question?


Cyberpunk 2077 is out on December 10 for PS4, PC and Xbox One, with backward compatibility support for the PS5, Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.

Comments

  • i skimmed a fair bit as i mostly want to go into this game blind. but sounds like a good game to play in a couple of months time when the bugs have been ironed out and 3080’s are available for purchase.
    the american site should have just used your article. you talk about the game where as the american article is 90% focused on transexuals.

    • I went and read the American write-up to see if your comment was a bit unfair.
      It was and wasn’t. Your % quoted certainly was some hyperbole but your overall comments stands – they should have used this article as theirs is certainly in bad faith. Nothing more than a whinge-session than actual journalism or insightful overview for their readers.

      • I’m not going to reward the US team by clicking on their nonsense but i’m not surprised.

        *MILD TRIGGER WARNING* I think it’s pretty likely that when the Cyberpunk universe was created in the 80’s the mixed gender characters where probably intended to create a picture of a disturbing, twisted dystopian future in line with the rest of the thematic devices.

        I saw the Gamespot review complaining about a poster of a lady with her veined member showing. I don’t think that’s intended to be a stunning and brave coming out story of acceptance- that’s there to make people think the future is f*cked-up.

        People are just morons who focus on these hysterical social issues cause it’s great for clicks. In this case it’s a really unfortunate distraction. The ironic part is i’m sure the focus on these issues is a huge cause of abuse towards actual trans people.

        • I think that’s a bit too blase, but I do want to say that the US absolutely has a point — and it’s one I’ve made here as well.

          It’s a similar charge that gets levelled, rightly, against Ubisoft every now and again. There’s a difference between leveraging the themes and imagery of a dystopian future and actually engaging with it. If anything, Cyberpunk’s biggest failing — from what I’ve experienced so far anyway — is that there’s too much window dressing, and not enough courage in tackling the hypercorporatisation, the late stage capitalism, the wholesale abuse of body and soul.

          But yeah, it’s a much bigger conversation. And I don’t have that lived in experience, so I’m definitely not well placed to talk about it.

          • Great writeup Alex!
            You made the comparison to ubisoft in the comments who tend to ONLY do window dressing, Is it AS BAD as their approach to it which tends to have no substance whatsoever, or is it more the case of bad world is bad and doesnt give the answers you want in terms of “we have to fight the oppressors and they wont let me”?

  • Great read, Alex! I can only hope we’ll see more articles like this down the line as you work– uh, play your way through this behemoth.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever play the game itself, but I think I’m gonna enjoy reading about it.

  • Seems like someone needs a weekend to recover from the weekend? The writing certainly conveys the exhaustion.

    Probably thematically appropriate, getting in the spirit like that. It could just be my advancing age, but I’m sensing exhaustion in all the discourse I have the patience to view, these days. Exhaustion with inequality (both wealth and social) with conflict (both physical and cultural), with the looming apocalypse and our individual helplessness in the face of it, under the rabid demands of runaway consumerism and the commodification of seemingly everything human but breathing… so far.

    At an individual level in my experience, after a certain accumulation or intensity of that exhaustion you might turn to stimulants like caffeine to survive. Perhaps in unhealthily escalating quantities, so that it feels like you’re living on that razor edge of electrochemical brain-fire that’s all sharp, raw edges and noise and you have to ride it like a electrified zipline or fall… and if you do it long enough, it gets to feeling like it has always been this way and always will; just don’t look down. (This is, it happens, the feeling that caused me to take up and then abandon an exceptionally lucrative and exceptionally unhealthy 70hr work week lifestyle in my early 20s.)

    It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that should civilization be forced to endure that kind of response it might end up presenting as a certain interpretation of Cyberpunk; a metaphorical laugh/cry/scream-emitting rave of criss-crossed tightrope walkers pretending to be a society.

    Overwrought poetry aside I’m now pretty glad I’ve got copies preordered for console and PC so I can switch between them to get either benefit. 😀

  • Great article. I was going to wait for the PS5 version to release before grabbing this, but I’ve got that itch at the back of the neck that generally means I’ll cave and probably grab this sometime next week.

  • I had to skim the article (spoiler phobia), but that looks like a good summary Alex.

    I’m going to keep waiting for the next gen versions with the ironed out bugs (and maybe some DLC too). Super excited though it looks great.

  • “If you’re looking for a city that lives up to the true ethos of cyberpunk, Cyberpunk 2077 might lack some of the maturity in places for your taste. Cyberpunk‘s world certainly advertises brutality for all, but I haven’t enjoyed the way the game’s core missions — and the biggest side quests presented in my run — dolled out that brutality almost exclusively to women. There’s a logic here: it’s the cities sex workers, the homeless and the poor that are always ripe for the most exploitation, but I’m still waiting for Cyberpunk to say something meaningful about it all, instead of leveraging their misfortune as set dressing.”

    Damn. This was exactly what I was worried about. Like with the ‘mix it up’ controversy it’s all well and good to show exploitation and the gross stuff that crops up in a hyper capitalist hellscape, but I don’t trust that they’ll actually say anything about it.

    It looks like the ‘Cyberpunk’ media people think of when they hear the name – neon lights, rainy nights and cyborgs, but I get the feeling it doesn’t have the heart of the Cyberpunk texts I’m into at all. The first real warning sign was the line used in some marketing material ‘become a cyberpunk’ which just seems so infantile and lame next to the works that make the genre great.

    I’ll still pick it up because I’m a total sucker for games with character creation, but this isn’t the higher budget version of Deus Ex I would love to see (and what a world we live in if Mankind Divided ends up looking subtle or mature next to 2077). Those comparisons to Fallout 4 do not bode well for me at all and I suspect it’ll leave a bad taste in the mouth when all is said and done.
    I really hope I’m proven wrong.

    • I’ve had similar concerns about the way they’re using ‘cyberpunk’ – as it being limited to just, like you said, ‘neon lights, rainy nights and cyborgs’. I hope there are explorations of motifs in other great cyberpunk works: like posthumanism, corporatocracy etc.

      By the way, Alex, this article is fantastically well written, thank you.

  • For @m2d2:

    The true answer is: I’m not sure yet. Because there’s more story to discover, plus whatever the (plural) endings offer, I’m still holding out hope for a satisfying conclusion that does something to the fabric of Night City. Characters whine and moan about the influence of megacorporations, and the seedy toxicity of the city’s police, how it treats its citizens and exploitation all around, but then … nothing really changes. Occasionally, I’ve been able to punch someone in the face and resolve matters that way, but that’s forced and I’m yet to see any real consequence or improvement as a result of V’s intervention. (Edit: Something a friend pointed out to me was that Cyberpunk seems to adhere very authentically to a particular brand of cyberpunk, which complicates things too, because not everyone has the same vision of what the genre is. So that’s gotta be kept in mind too.)

    Structurally it might be a bit much to expect wholesale change, especially since game is designed to let you carry on doing factional missions, side gigs and more once the main story (which is shorter than the Witcher) is done.

    Ubisoft’s classic problem is that they never commit to their source material. Cyberpunk 2077, so far, absolutely commits to the look, the sound and the feel — but I’m still searching for that rebellious streak.

    • Yeah, the cyberpunk genre is a bit vast, so that might be something to think about.

      Also, i could be wrong here, but ALOT of games that give agency/player choice to controlling the greater world, seem to always stop short, or just end so you can never see if your actions do cause change. I dont remember a single BIG game since ive started playing video games that really offer anything more than subtle nods, a line in dialogue or the occasional random event to show off a choice has been made.
      Hell, ive seen a lot of video games where even in the sequels, they dont offer much proof that anything has changed from choices.
      It might be a ‘video game’ problem rather than a cyberpunk 2077 problem.
      But as someone who obviously hasnt played it yet, ive got no idea. hahah

  • Thanks for the great write-up.

    The short time they gave you sucks, but on the other hand it’s so refreshing to see a review embargo lift a couple of days before launch. Seems like nobody allows that any more. Looks like CDPR still does *some* things right.

    • I’m not sure restricting footage and screenshots reviewers can publish to developer selected materials, and only allowing them to review the PC version counts as doing pre-release reviews right.

      What we now have is the majority of reviews giving a lot of attention to the wealth of bugs, yet no way to meaningfully communicate this visually. They’re also not letting what is probably going to be their largest demographic (previous gen console owners) get a good impression of performance and stability, but rather letting the no-doubt-better-performing PC version be the one up for scrutiny. It’s a weird situation…

      I mean, I’m still super excited to play it, but the review situation has me a bit concerned.

      • To be fair, CD Projekt haven’t done anything different here. Last of Us 2 this year: very similar deal, could only use pre-approved screenshots for the initial embargo, until the full embargo lifted a few days later. Death Stranding wouldn’t even let you take your own screenshots for the PC re-release.

        • Oh, I’m not saying other developers/publishers haven’t got it wrong before, just that CDPR didn’t get it particularly “right”. I’m just worried about the nature of the platform embargo as I suspect that they were worried their review metrics would bomb if they let people review the previous generation console versions, which isn’t exactly good transparency. I could be wrong on the reason, though.

  • Waiting for the games industry media to write a deep dive into themselves and the culture of review crunch and the demands it places on the employees……

    I expect no less then 2-3 articles a week and I expect all articles written to include all references to any games media with poor social records.

  • Fantastic write up Alex,

    I just made a Kotaku account purely to comment on this article and let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and thought your review was excellent, Can’t wait to play the game

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