Cyberpunk 2077: The Kotaku Australia Review

Cyberpunk 2077: The Kotaku Australia Review

As I watched the credits on Cyberpunk 2077, my eyes couldn’t avoid being drawn to the bottom right corner. As the hundreds, maybe thousands, of names rolled over 39 minutes and 30 seconds, a single line of dialogue remained.

A line of dialogue from almost an hour ago.

It’s both the smallest and most perfect representation of the Cyberpunk 2077 experience. As was the case over a week ago, when I first captured the essence of CD Projekt Red’s love-letter to the original Cyberpunk tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk 2077 is literally bursting with ambition.

It’s not just the case on the base PS4 and Xbox One, where the performance is so deficient that CD Projekt Red issued an apology less than a week after the game’s release. It’s also true on PC. I’ve invested over 60 hours into the game there across multiple characters, as well as a bit of time with the game’s prologue on Xbox Series X for a brief comparison. (Other colleagues on Kotaku Australia have spent time with the game’s PS4 version via the PS5’s backward compatibility mode, and that’s relatively stable now after several patches.)

cyberpunk 2077 review
At night, with the right hardware and the right mix of NPC density, rain and neon lighting, the effect can be truly astonishing.

The quirks that remain after Cyberpunk‘s major patches are both minor and cripplingly major. I’ve had NPCs attempt to charge my position, only to quite literally fall in front of me as they fail to navigate a body. Loot will be littered across a level after a fight, but some of it will remain left behind, because the game refuses to let me pick it up. I’ve had the game some determine that I’ve committed a crime despite not touching a nearby civilian, causing police to immediately spawn behind me, like they’ve just emerged from a secret closet ala DOOM. Some have been more convenient, but immersion breaking, like mini bosses and higher level enemies frozen in position or stuck to the floor.

Others were more aggravating. What’s replaced them has been no less fun: I’ve had to restart hours of gameplay because of quests that couldn’t be resolved. They were earmarked as side quests, but it wasn’t apparent until later the finale that I needed to complete those quests to unlock some of the game’s alternate endings, endings much more befitting of V, Johnny Silverhand, and the time I’d spent with the game.

Some break the game’s visual appeal. One quest saw an NPC get up from a chair, triggering a malfunction of the biochip in V’s head that causes Johnny Silverhand’s consciousness to bleed over. But occasionally, a blur effect would be applied the entirety of the screen that wouldn’t fade once the relic began operating more normally, necessitating a restart. Other quirks are more minor and funnier: NPCs floating through the air chasing a vehicle they’re supposed to be sitting in, character’s penises protruding through their clothing, models T-posting while stuck inside objects, cars occasionally launching into the air, NPCs stuck in animation loops, floating guns, collision errors, straight up teleporting, and your character stripping mid-ride. Even the credits aren’t immune from crashes.

How much it interrupts the experience depends when and where. The game’s been more stable in my experience since the day-one patch and subsequent hotfixes. But at the time of writing, every major mission or side gig I’ve played has been hit with at least one bug that’s impacted the experience. It’s either been severe enough that it’s necessitated a restart. Gameplay has sometimes been affected via UI glitches, like objects that wouldn’t let me scan them, or characters that I couldn’t speak with to move the game forward. And combat would often run into AI and collision errors, like characters freezing in place mid-fight, failing to recognising V’s presence.

Note: from this point forward, I’ll be including some light story spoilers both from the main plot and occasional side quests. Given that it’s impossible to really communicate the experience without at least mentioning the existence and importance of some characters and events, I will be mentioning a key plot point from the game’s first act. If you’d prefer to remain in the dark, please read our substantial spoiler-free impressions instead.

kotaku spoiler warning

cyberpunk 2077 review
This is about a third of the game’s districts from a playthrough about 40 hours in. Every single exclamation mark is a separate side quest. Image: Kotaku Australia

There’s an awful lot to talk about with Cyberpunk, but it probably helps to outline what it is.

On a mechanical level, it’s easiest to think of Cyberpunk 2077 as a cross between the scale of Bethesda’s Fallout series with a heavy dose of the modern Deus Ex games. Most of your time will be spent within Night City, ferrying across from one part of the city to another, unravelling various missions, jobs and “gigs”. Similar to the latter franchise, you’ll always be given a relatively straightforward path for resolving these missions, but occasionally your choices — either through dialogue or lifepath, but most commonly through your character build — will open up multiple paths of attack.

Most of these involve clearing out an area or retrieving some kind of object, evidence or intel from a guarded location. These spaces are generally pretty large, but early on you’ll be restricted to rudimentary stealth, hacking and some fairly functional gunplay.

Your options might initially be restricted to hacking a vending machine to distract a nearby guard, letting you sneak up to thin out nearby numbers. You could also adopt a more all guns blazing-type approach, or some hybrid of the two depending on your preference.

By the end of the game, your choices ramp up significantly. There’s cyberware that vastly increases your critical damage, enables double jumps, or just allows you to brute force certain doors, unlocking different pathways that might not have been available. You’ll be able to craft (or buy) hacks that force NPCs to commit suicide, while also having enough attributes and perks to quickly refuel your RAM (your stamina-equivalent meter for hacking).

Weapons become astronomically powerful. You can scan one enemy and ping them, revealing the location of all other enemies connected to the same network. Cybernetically enhanced optics then feed that information into your weapon, enabling the ability to track and kill enemies through thick barriers of steel and concrete.

It’s hard to imagine other games giving you the freedom to headshot enemies from literally impenetrable positions. Cyberpunk 2077 does, because that’s part of the cyberpunk fantasy.

Similar to the ethos of Night City, Cyberpunk‘s skills also grow exponentially. Each major attribute comes with its own perk lines and a skill, the latter of which levels up as you perform certain actions. The Assault skill, under the Reflexes attribute, gains XP as you kill enemies with assault rifles. Breach Protocol gains experience the more you hack objects and humans. Taking out enemies from behind improves your Stealth.

All of these unlock more perks and more bonuses over time. It creates this snowball effect that results in, even on harder difficulties, missions going from challenging to a complete cakewalk, depending on your approach. There are occasional missions where quest givers will necessitate a particular resolution. But otherwise you’re free to tackle things as you see fit, and the mission areas offer enough space, cover, verticality and hackable objects to enable ranged, melee or netrunner-centric paths.

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Your quest log, very quickly, becomes a mess of unorganised names only separated by a basic “danger” rating. Image: Kotaku Australia

The last-gen consoles were naturally the largest — and most deliberate — oversight in Cyberpunk 2077‘s notoriously short review window. But an equally bigger failing of the game’s review period was the disservice it did to the structure of Cyberpunk 2077‘s story, and the fabric of Night City itself.

In interviews promoting and leading up to Cyberpunk 2077‘s release, CD Projekt Red made a point of noting how V’s main story line would be shorter than The Witcher 3. Not enough people finished Geralt’s grand quest, despite it being the apex of a franchise and the story being the main — some would say only — reason to buy the game in the first place.

So the story in Cyberpunk 2077 progresses relatively quickly. It can be dispensed with in 25 hours or so, although you’ll be losing essential plot twists, and in some cases, access to the better, more faithful endings if you rush.

It’s especially detrimental in the game’s first act, where V meets up with Jackie and begins running missions for fixers around the Watson area. The game is quick to bombard you with options and side quests, and it’s easy to become immediately overwhelmed. Simply driving into a new area — as some missions dictate — prompts a call from the fixer overseeing that region, instantly filling up your phone with messages.

Your street cred level rises as you complete these gigs, unlocking further missions that are immediately added to your map, or calls from various characters demanding V’s immediate attention. Sometimes they’ll do this while you’re mid-conversation with another NPC, prompting a bizarre moment where one set of dialogue options are greyed out until you finish the call. It feels like a workaround, as if CD Projekt Red couldn’t find a way to prevent fixers and NPCs from calling you as soon as mission requirements triggered.

The missions appear in your quest log in an unorganised, haphazard fashion. There’s no way of sorting the missions by difficulty or importance whatsoever. They’re not even organised alphabetically, or distance from your current location. It’s a disaster of a UI, and a deliberate roadblock that masks some of Night City’s best characters.

cyberpunk 2077 review
The game will advise you of weaknesses when in hacking mode — although given how overpowered your V can become even in the mid-game, you can take on most firefights without ever thinking about this.

Cyberpunk‘s obtuse menus don’t just impact the story, but also your experience with some of the game’s key systems. The inventory management is completely undercooked. There’s no simple method for organising your armour by its actual armour value, for one, making for a painstakingly manual check of your items to determine what to sell or scrap.

Your weapons are a little bit easier to organise, but it’s still far below the standard for any blockbuster RPG or action game. It’s a visual design akin to the Assassin’s Creed series. But it quickly buckles under the sheer volume of junk, crafting materials, consumables and weapons Cyberpunk 2077 throws at you.

That constant feed of consumables in particular works against some of the game’s core systems. Crafting, one of the game’s main perks and skills, is rendered effectively worthless because of this. You can invest a stack of attribute points (which can’t be respec’d later on) and perk points into crafting. But when you’re constantly picking up new weapon types, better weapons, or enough items that can be sold to upgrade much faster, and more quickly, it’s hard to justify the investment.

V’s weaknesses also aren’t punished nearly enough. A natural downside of netrunner or ranged/stealth builds should be a lack of health and strength. But it’s hard to feel threatened when the game literally provides hundreds of health items that instantly repair a quarter or almost half of your health, regardless of the difficulty you’re playing on.

That lack of consequence cuts at the heart of Night City. Cyberpunk 2077 is pitched as a lethal, heartless dystopia, but like other video games, its citizens and corporations are quickly brought to heel under the weight of its ’80s power fantasy.

It’s important to mention the ’80s, because that’s where so much of Cyberpunk 2077 draws its roots from. The game is deeply steeped in the lore and ideals of the original Cyberpunk tabletop RPG, and narratively it exists within the same universe as well.

That results in a brand of cyberpunk that is openly dystopian, but also a style of dystopia that’s a bit removed from the last 5 or 10 years of what most cyberpunk games have envisioned.

Cyberpunk 2077‘s world is, in design and effect, a practical warning. The hyper-corporatisation, the sexual set dressing and the overtness is a signal. If society doesn’t get its shit together, Cyberpunk suggests, this is what you can look forward to. Everything is a commodity, especially the poor, particularly women, and definitely any and every part of your body.

The base idea extending from that is supposed to be a seething, uncontrolled rage against society and the megacorporations responsible. You’re meant to hate Night City and what it represents, not ogle at it.

But it’s in the side missions — the unorganised, chaotic mess of gigs that aren’t even arranged by alphabetical order — where the game’s soul truly resides. Apart from the alternate endings, it’s the side gigs that also unravel not just the city’s humanity, but its deeper failings that give you the emotional impetus to burn it all down.

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Cyberpunk has a lot of little background details like this, a string of arcades with rolling 30 second loops of gameplay.

One particular quest, which unlocks as part of a broader narrative arc for one of the game’s romantic choices, has you searching for a lost nephew. A quick search of their things and tracking down their whereabouts quickly discovers a disturbing trail of messages and emails. It’s perhaps not on quite the same level as the Bloody Baron questline from The Witcher 3, but it was substantially better paced and written than the vast majority of the missions from the main arc.

There’s a heartfelt story about a NPC who lost their close friend, and is struggling to deal with the grief. There’s a wonderful little arc involving Johnny Silverhand’s attempts at living one last time — outside of the impacts of the biochip — that spawns a great little montage and an equally enjoyable arc of its own. I’d recommend doing everything related to Judy, the braindance editor you meet in the game’s prologue, who adds one of the more heartfelt and touching notes to Night City’s savagery.

These characters, especially the trans bartender Claire (whose background only emerges through her own side quests), the brief appearance from Grimes as Lizzy Wizzy, Rogue, Judy, Panam and River, should be essential worldbuilding for Cyberpunk 2077. The fact that they’re not — and that the game was offered under a review period that made it practically impossible for many to properly explore these stories — means players can experience V’s journey without the necessary impetus and rage that makes the cyberpunk genre tick.

It’s not the fault of the player that Cyberpunk doesn’t properly advertise what it has to offer. If anything, Night City is screaming in your ear about how many jobs there are to do. Cyberpunk 2077 is just structured in a way that you have no way of understanding the value or difference between all of them.

It’s a critical failing of the game’s UI, and hopefully it gets a substantial rework over the coming year. Night City has more to offer than the dildos, hypersexual ads and violence it constantly broadcasts.

cyberpunk 2077 review
The Photo Mode could offer a little more freedom with the radius on the drone mode, but you can get some outstanding shots regardless.

For all the occasions where the AI, level design, hacking and gunplay come together, or the moments where the story truly shines, there’s also a lot of flaws under the surface.

The game’s police presence is fundamentally broken, but Night City’s gangs also don’t seem to really carry much weight either. You’ll occasionally come across groups of enemies hanging about on the streets — occasionally, one or two might be beating a random civilian, and you have the option of stopping them or passing by. Sometimes two gangs will be caught up in a firefight, and you can join in to collect some extra credits from those killed.

But none of this seems to factor into anything. No matter how many random gangsters I put down, or gigs dispatched in a certain area, it didn’t seem to have any impact on that gang’s approach to V. Unlike other open-world games, where your decisions and performance in missions might have some impact on gang affiliation and your reputation, nothing you do appears to have any long-lasting affect. All that happens is that V continues to gain street cred — even if you apprehend or kill wanted criminals on behalf of the NCPD, which doesn’t really explain why the “street” would reward you for helping the cops — and fixers, or affiliates of fixers, offer you more jobs.

And while Cyberpunk‘s open world is constantly filled with bits of detail and life, it’s also missing a lot of critical interactivity. You can’t go and sit down at a vendor for a meal. The game talks up its sex, and makes a big deal of the customisations, but outside of narrative quests there are only two vendors who you can actually sleep with. You can steal cars, but you can’t save them. Very few NPCs in Night City will have conversations with each other, with most only having one or two basic prompts when you ask. Even just standing still on a street corner you’ll see occasional NPC double ups, and sometimes they’ll run into each other, sometimes falling over.

Why can I look at myself in a mirror, but I can’t get a haircut? What’s the benefit of swapping out optics and other physical implements if I then can’t make cosmetic tweaks on top of that? It’s certainly fitting with the in-game world — hell, Cyberpunk 2077 is constantly showing all the ways people do customise their bodies. They’re just not available to V.

It makes you wonder how much time was spent on details like genital customisations, or other parts of the worldbuilding, when other areas of Cyberpunk 2077 clearly needed more attention. That’s not just a criticism of the game’s performance either: Night City’s world is expansive, but as far something you can actually interact with, it’s deeply deficient.

cyberpunk 2077 review
Image: Kotaku Australia

The game has plenty of touches of brilliance despite this: the natural way you can interact with computers and technology, the way conversations can silently go in vastly different directions, or the way you seemingly discover new ways of resolving older missions you’ve played just through chance or a understated discovery. That’s a neat bit of cyberware, you might say, and if I get that then I can take this route instead of doing this and then… 

Navigating that contrast of Night City’s constant noise — visual and otherwise — against the silence of the city, where its heart truly lies, is probably the simplest way to describe the Cyberpunk 2077 experience.

Your appetite for that navigation, however, will vary. On a high-end PC, with the beauty of softly lit neon signs and rain bouncing off the pavement in front, the simple act of wandering can be a treat. Just getting onto a bike, or some of the higher end cars in the late game, almost feels like a Back to the Future moment. The clarity dials, the retro-future design of the dashboard, is a dream for fans of the cyberpunk genre and the original Cyberpunk tabletop games. For people with the hardware, and those with decades of nostalgia for what this brand of cyberpunk would look like, it’s hard to imagine how CD Projekt Red could have nailed the sound — especially the soundtrack, which is fantastic throughout — or aesthetic any harder.

If you’re not on a high end PC — and even to a degree on the next-gen consoles, where the visual quality is lower until an optimised patch ships next year — being drawn into the city is more difficult. It’s not helped by some woeful base HDR settings — or the menu to change them is almost purposely unhelpful. There’s also smaller blips that might spoil the ride. The aim assist on controllers, in my experience, was nowhere near as helpful as what you’d find in a Fallout, a shooter like Destiny, and most other first-person action RPGs (The Outer Worlds comes to mind). The default acceleration curve for controllers is pretty bad too, but fortunately the menu offers enough options to rectify the problem. But the fact that users have to think about fixing it at all is more of an issue: it’s not a huge issue with every other major action-RPG or first-person shooter, but in Cyberpunk, it’s just one of a long list of teething issues.

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The bikes are easily one of the best parts of the game.

For my money, the bugs didn’t stop me from enjoying my time with the game. The immersion was certainly broken, almost repeatedly so, but I’ve also played a lot of other games at launch that were vastly more troubled. I had a much easier time with Cyberpunk 2077 than Fallout 76, and I certainly ran into far fewer quest-breaking bugs here.

What really harmed the experience was the world’s interactivity, the failure of the police to provide an actual meaningful presence to the in-game world, and the horrifically designed menus. They’re systematic issues that need a redesign, rather than a simple patch, and that’s applicable regardless of whatever platform you play on. If those don’t seem to be a problem, you should have no issues playing Cyberpunk 2077 today, especially on PC with decent enough hardware.

The situation on consoles is a little more dramatic. The Cyberpunk 2077 PS5 and Xbox Series X experience is much better at handling the game’s texture streaming. You’re missing out on a chunk of NPC density, however, and that’s a big blow to the believability and liveliness of Night City. The game’s performance even on the mid-gen refreshes is also unreasonably choppy.

As a whole, Cyberpunk 2077 is a solid base. It was never pitched as an early access game, but as of today that’s functionally what it’s become. By this time next year, the game’s systems, performance, UI and handling are all likely to be substantially updated, reworked or revamped. Other oversights can be corrected simply too, like tying the character’s gender to their voice, rebalancing of the perks to make them more functional, quest-breaking quirks, a reorganisation of the quest log and as we’ve seen this past week, a redesign of the game’s braindance sequences and strobing lights. Things like enemy AI, or making the citizens of Night City walk and drive around in a more believable manner, will take much longer.

It’s clear that Cyberpunk 2077 should not have launched in December. A January or February release would have been vastly better for both the developers and the game, but what’s done is done.

The only question that matters to you is whether it’s worth waiting. I’d ask you to explore your memories with similar games that have had rocky launches. But also, you need to ask yourself what you value most in an open world, what you value most from a cyberpunk setting, and what it is that you actually want Night City to achieve.

I’ve enjoyed my 70 hours with Cyberpunk, as fraught with hiccups as it was. The game all too frequently gets in its own way, fumbles opportunities to showcase the best of its work, messes up in representation, or sometimes just straight out falls apart. But it also has some beauty, humanity, and some core technology that genuinely feels like the Cyberpunk tabletop world has been brought to life. That feeling often only lasts for a few seconds until a car goes flying, a NPC clips through a wall, or some other quirk spoils the show, but it’s there.

Cyberpunk 2077 is very much V’s story, and the stories of those pulled into V’s orbit. Night City doesn’t always know how best to tell those stories, and in some cases the design actively tries not to. But the most important part is that those stories have true heart, and some real weight. Whether you discover them today, in six months, or two years, those stories aren’t going away.

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