It’s been nearly two months since “Cyberpunk 2077” launched in such a spectacular mess on last generation’s consoles that Sony removed it from its digital store and retailers announced they’d allow anyone to return the game for any reason. The dust has largely settled since then and several patches have got the game to an acceptable place on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but what we’re left with is a promising package that stumbles with its own flaws.
The promise of “Cyberpunk 2077” is an immersive open world set in the futuristic Night City located in California where mega corporations, gangs and violence all blend together into a playground for the player to explore and become a legend of their own. That’s the promise, at least.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a muddled mixture of ideas from the 1980s of what a high-tech future would look like. Think the first 15 to 20 minutes of “Total Recall” — virtual vacations, body modifications (frequently with no discernable benefit), lots of drugs — and you’ll get the idea. It’s loud, frequently tasteless and occasionally deeply offensive but it’s also a fantastical, exaggerated, neon-lit look at the future filled with bad guys, good guys and a bunch of people just trying to make a life for themselves. Like “Bladerunner,” this is much more a pulpy noir story with a few forays into high-concept science fiction with the occasional forays into blockbuster action than it is a free-ranging choose-your-own-adventure game.
And that bleeds over into the gameplay, which feels confused. As a first-person shooter, you’re set up with serviceable shooting mechanics, serviceable stealth mechanics and a serviceable hacking system where you can upload viruses into your enemies. It’s all fine, but unexciting and doesn’t do a very good job at explaining itself or showing you some of the cooler upgrades—like a double-jump that radically alters how you traverse the world and an ability to slow down time while aiming—that you could miss altogether.
It’s here where I feel the rushed development time hurt the game the most. Great games have an ability to teach and empower the player without feeling like their holding your hand. It takes time and a massive amount of testing with players to get that right, and it just seems like it didn’t happen here which is a shame because some of the most promising bits of the game might be missed if you approach it with other video games in mind.
For example, a lot of your choices in the game are contained in conversations that you’ll have with other characters, which you’ll navigate through a selection of text options. Every so often, those options will be presented with a timer and in most games that means you’ve must pick something by then but in “Cyberpunk 2077” it’s actually the route for some of the game’s most engaging moments.
Stepping back and letting your friends be the heroes in their own stories by letting them stand up for themselves instead of barging into an exchange that you just parachuted into 5 minutes ago really lets the game shine. It’s in these moments that the excellent voice acting and expressive models accomplish something great and the stories, the world and its characters feel bigger than the confines of the game.
And the characters are almost universally great. There’s the chummy Jackie Welles who introduces you to Night City; the gloomy Judy Alvarez who’s a whiz at editing “braindance” recordings and is haunted by what she’s seen; the honorable Goro Takemura, a cyberassassin bent on revenge; the stubbornly resolute firecracker that is Panam Palmer who’s split between life in the city and her family. And, of course, there’s Johnny Silverhand — voiced by Keanu Reeves — a legend of Night City who’s stuck with you throughout the game.
It’s in these characters that I see the most promise. Give them enough room and time, and they’ll spread out into living, breathing characters who are complex and faceted. Silverhand is introduced as an over-the-top jerk who runs off anger and is consumed with his self-image. But give him the opportunity, and he’ll slowly start to evolve. The self-interested brags eventually give way to a funny and begrudgingly caring character. There’s a moment later in the game, where he’s bragging about some of his exploits like he usually does when your character calls him out on it.
“That really happen to you?” your character asks and Silverhand replies, “Nah, but it could have.” And suddenly Silverhand is your goofy buddy who talks a big talk, grinning at you across a table over pizza and beers.
It’s that kind of chippy back-and-forth, a blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment that leaves me feeling frustrated that ultimately “Cyberpunk 2077” spends so much time tripping over itself in a misguided effort to be all things to all people. The game is so bogged down with extra stuff that you can just as easily spend hours clearing cookie-cutter hideouts instead of experiencing some of the, frankly, breathtakingly good moments.
And unlike the muddy graphics, that can’t be easily fixed.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Play
Game: Cyberpunk 2077
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One/Series X/S, PlayStation 4/5, Google Stadia
Release Date: Dec. 10, 2020
ESRB Rating: Mature