Thursday 7 January 2021

Cyberpunk 2077

In 2023, the Fourth Corporate War ended when a group of terrorists led by charismatic rock star Johnny Silverhand smuggled a thermonuclear device into Arasaka Tower in Night City, California, and destroyed it. Silverhand vanished during the attack and was never seen again. Fifty-four years later, this minor historical detail becomes crucially important to mercenary V when they are offered a contract to steal an advanced biochip from Arasaka Corporation. What seems to be a normal gig turns into a gruelling nightmare of high-stakes international geo-politics, existential confusion and corporate intrigue. A clock is ticking and V now has to build up a network of allies so they can save themselves and survive what is coming.

Cyberpunk 2077 has a lot of Things in it. These Things include: Sentient Waymo; a hyperactive anime girl band whose signature song could become the next "Gangnam Style" if it didn't have a swear in the title; a soundtrack of near non-stop bangers; iguanas; cats; characters you actually want to hang out with in real life; giant holographic fish; wonderful dialogue; superb stealth; Hideo Kojima playing himself; a shotgun that sets people on fire; decidedly non-cringey romances; the red bike from Akira; Keanu Actual Reeves; GLaDOS from Portal; several YouTube streamers; hard moral choices; really cringey first-person sex scenes; a rocket launcher which is also your arm; a sentient gun; Half-Life gags that dated before the game even came out; mysteriously teleporting cops; a vending machine who becomes your friend; lots and lots of freezers you can hide bodies in; inventive hacking; city blocks from Judge Dredd; cars that drive like bricks; and a slew of bugs (mostly minor, very occasionally major).

The number of Things in Cyberpunk 2077 is so overwhelming that it's hard to fully appreciate them all in one go. Cyberpunk 2077 is a towering achievement, a story-driven, open-world RPG with a gripping central narrative and a lot of player choice in how you achieve objectives. It's also - rather infamously by now - a janky game which, in order to hit its punishingly optimistic release date, has had to not so much cut corners as sear them from existence with industrial-strength flamethrowers. There are moments in this game that are polished beyond brilliance, with storytelling and character beats that, even more than the developers' previous game, The Witcher 3, contemptuously rewrite your expectations of what video games are capable of in terms of storytelling and characterisation. Five seconds later you'll be driving down the street wondering why cars are fading in and out of existence two hundred yards away and why the police only chased you (on foot!) for three yards after you accidentally ran someone over before eerily dematerialising.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that started life (way back in 2012) as an RPG but over the course of its development metamorphosed into something else: The Metagame, The Ubergame, the game that would include all other games within itself. CDPR decided that as well as an RPG, it also had to be an immersive sim like the Deus Ex and Dishonored series; a first-person stealth version of recent cult hits Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun and Desperados III; an apocalyptic collect 'em up which at times feels like a Fallout title; and an open-world, icon-hoovering action game with driving, like Grand Theft Auto V or (maybe more appropriately, given the hacking angle) the Watch_Dogs series.

At some point CDPR must have realised that the game was never going to achieve all of these goals simultaneously, but rather than manage expectations it decided to expand them. In the last two-and-a-half years of development, they released no less than 72 videos, ranging from expansive trailers to detailed behind-the-scenes development videos about the music, weapons, the involvement of Keanu Reeves and the work needed to translate the game into other languages. CDPR decided to pour petrol on the flames of hype rather than try to keep them under control. The result is a game that delights and frustrates in turn, sometimes in the same minute of gameplay.

Most importantly, Cyberpunk 2077 emerges as a good game. It's very nearly a great game, a classic ranking alongside CDPR's previous title, but the sheer volume of jank in the game and the evidently cut or compromised features reduces its impact.

Cyberpunk 2077 casts you as "V", a mercenary working in and around Night City, California. You can't choose V's name, but you can choose their gender, sexuality, appearance and background before being set loose in the city. At any time you'll have a series of main story missions to follow, which push forward the overall narrative, and a number of side-missions, mostly phoned in to you by various "fixers" who work all over the city (who also have side-jobs begging you to buy really rubbish used cars for some reason). You also get side-jobs from characters you meet in the main story missions. These side-jobs can extend into lengthy, multi-hour quest chains of their own, sometimes ending in romances or at least winning the loyalty of the character in question. On top of these, there's also a truly startling number of map icons, depicting crimes in progress (V is a subcontractor for the police, for reasons that are hazily explained), yet more side-missions, shops and sites of interest. Cyberpunk 2077 easily has a hundred hours of content in the base game, easily a lot more if you experiment with different builds and different quest choices, and more still if you're happy just travelling around looking at things.

Cyberpunk 2077 is gorgeous. Night City is one of the most gawp-worthy settings for a video game, ever, and your screenshot key (enhanced by a comprehensive photo mode) may burn out from overuse during the course of the game. If you grew up watching Blade Runner, reading Neuromancer, watching Akira or playing Syndicate, you've probably fantasised about a game that put you right in the middle of a cyberpunk city and let you just walk around sampling the sights. This year's cult hit Cloudpunk got a huge amount of mileage of that on a budget comfortably less than 1% of Cyberpunk 2077, and unsurprisingly this game takes it to a whole new level. Whether its watching the sun rise over town-sized solar collectors, the rain falling between city apartment blocks taller than the Sears Tower or homeless folk living on the toxic beaches of Pacifica, the game throws more memorable images at you per hour than most some major franchises have managed in countless iterations. Those on more powerful hardware with ray-tracing and 4K resolutions will get the best out of the game, but even those on modest hardware will appreciate the art direction and atmosphere.

The story and its attendant characters are the main draw here. V's journey through Night City's criminal underworld and corporate entanglements is engrossing. The major characters you meet - fellow merc Jackie Welles, ripperdoc Viktor Vector, braindance expert Judy Alvarez, Nomad Panam Palmer, racing driver turned barmaid Claire, Tarot expert Misty, fixer Rogue, grumpy modern samurai Takemura and, of course, the ghostly Johnny Silverhand - are fleshed-out individuals with complex motivations and intriguing backstories. Like The Witcher 3 before it, CDPR has created some wonderfully real characters you enjoy spending time with (unlike, say, almost every Bethesda game ever, with an honourable exception made for Nick Valentine), with characterisation that exceeds BioWare at their long-ago best. There are a few characters who aren't as well fleshed-out and whose stories aren't as well-done - effective arch-villains Yorinobu Araska and Adam Smasher get very little screentime, whilst a fascinating story about a mayoral candidate who's being mentally manipulated seems to peter out - but for the most part the stories and characters are excellent, with real, emotionally satisfying moments and a surprising amount of heart. Cyberpunk 2077 can be an at times cynical and brutal game, but it also has a lot of warmth in its character relationships and humour. The only weakness with the story is that your choice of opening background feels less significant than it really should, and it may have been better to have just given you one set background.

The story and characters are also surprisingly powerful in the matters of representation: the game's marketing was deliberately "edgy," with a marketing campaign that seemed intent on making the game appear transphobic (until the marketing person responsible for that was fired). The game itself is decidedly much more LGBTQ+ friendly, with straight and gay romantic relationships available and your character able to present as non-gender-specific (albeit with somewhat limited parameters, with your pronouns dependent on your choice of voice actor). Gay, straight and trans characters are present in the narrative (contrary to some reviewers, who erroneously claimed there are no trans characters in the game, which just goes to show how many reviewers didn't bother to play the full game) and presented as people, with no fuss at all made about gender or sexuality. The only iffy area in the game is some of its advertising, which feels exploitative and tawdry, but given the nature of the game's corporations, that's almost certainly deliberate.

Mechanically, the game tries to give players a lot of choice in how to advance their character, perhaps with the developers feeling that The Witcher 3 rolled back too many RPG systems in favour of being more of an action RPG. Cyberpunk 2077 has a level-based system where you can choose to upgrade stats and skills, but also an advance-by-doing system where skills can also be upgraded by simply using those skills. You can also pick up shards (datafiles) which update skills directly. It's a complex and interesting system, but one that feels like it was designed to allow skill points to be spread more evenly. If you decide to focus on stealth and hacking and pour most of your skill points into those skill trees, you can quickly become a ghost-like superhacker who can wipe out entire platoons of enemies from afar by hacking into their systems and setting them literally on fire, or short-circuiting them, or creating a localised computer virus that can do tremendous damage to entire groups with one hack (by the end of the game you can literally kill entire gangs of 5-10 enemies with hacking attacks long before they can locate you). You also have elaborate systems for armour, implants, cyberdecks and weapons mods which can dramatically increase your damage output and reduce incoming damage. This is all very cool but can get quite over-powered, and enemies cease being a serious threat by around the halfway point of the game, unless you crank the difficulty way up.

The open world is an area where Cyberpunk 2077 falters, surprisingly. Night City is gorgeous and it's fun to travel around the city and its environs, but you'll quickly discover that the city simulation aspect of the game is illusory. Pedestrians and cars fade into and out of view rather artificially (shades of the early 2000s Grand Theft Auto games on the PlayStation 2), it's almost pitifully easy to evade the police (especially since they can't chase after you in police cars!) and the randomly-encountered hostile gang members and street crimes can be dealt with with almost contemptuous ease. Shopping at street vendors and shops opens a rather functional menu screen for buying food, clothes and equipment, despite elaborate animations existing in missions for eating at food stalls, which would have been more fun to do at will. There's also a bizarrely limited number of ways for pedestrians to react to you. Pulling out a gun or causing an explosion will root everyone to the spot rather than more sensibly running away, and passing civilians whom you save from criminals will almost never express any kind of gratitude or talk to you, usually instead sauntering off (or even responding with the same automated "f--k off!" response most passers-by give you when you try to talk to them). Ten years ago, you might have gotten away with these kind of limited reactions but with not just Grand Theft Auto V but also the Watch_Dogs series (each game of which has had a lower budget than Cyberpunk 2077) and even forgotten classic Sleeping Dogs having much more realistic, immersive open city features, Night City feels a lot more disappointing. The lack of a functioning metro system (despite featuring in trailers) and the presence of flying cars and aircraft but not being able to use them feel like weird limitations as well.

This isn't helped by the fact that most cars in the game feel too heavy and unwieldy, with ridiculous turning circles and poor design (the driving model is highly reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto IV's underwhelming performance, in fact, and not GTAV's much smoother experience). Only a couple of cars, like a Batmobile-like sports car variant you find in a tunnel and Silverhand's Porsche 911 you inherit through a later mission, are really worthwhile. Much better are the motorbikes, which allow you to cut through alleys and side-streets and across the Badlands in a more dynamic manner.

Fortunately then, the game's systems in use feel very satisfying. Combat can be chunky and visceral, with a nice mixture of options. You can blow people away with a rocket launcher arm implant, get close and personal with shotguns, or stand off with sniper rifles (which are more like railguns given their propensity for popping heads like helium balloons). You can even attach a silencer to a pistol for more a violent approach to stealth. Stealth itself is reasonably solid, although a little flaky at first until you get the skill which slows down time when you're spotted, giving you an opportunity to slip back into hiding. Stealth feels more like a first-person version of recent isometric games like Desperados III, although without vision cones so you have to be more careful in how you approach enemies. Stealth takedowns are fun and you can actually move bodies and hide them in containers (unlike Watch_Dogs 2, which allowed you to knock people out and...just leave them where they fell, for other people to find), making it a very viable strategy. Hacking computer systems to turn off cameras or make turrets friendly is also enjoyable, and taking out an entire enemy squad of guards by turning their own weapons against them may make you sit back and twirl your moustache (metaphorical or real) whilst cackling in satisfaction.

In several missions, this combination of systems turns Cyberpunk 2077 into a worthy follow-up to Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, with you infiltrating elaborately-designed locations, hacking computer systems, stealth-knocking out guards of even ghosting your way through entire missions. The main game quest locations are the best for these, with slipping out of a massive hotel after an important mission goes south being one of my favourite stealth experiences in any game ever, and infiltrating a huge Arasaka compound later on not being far behind. There are also several side-missions with comparable design strengths, and the game even manages to enhance stealth by taking away one of Deus Ex's more contrived standbys, the surprisingly common handy human-sized air vents that no-one ever thinks to look in. However, the overall number of excellently-designed mission environments is relatively low, and the more optional activities, like crime-fighting, afford far less challenge to those inclined to go with stealth or hacking options, leaving you rather over-powered in those circumstances. But whilst the illusion lasts, it's a powerfully satisfying one.

It's also impossible to talk about the game without talking about its music. The original soundtrack itself is solid, if a bit underwhelming (Deus Ex: Human Revolution's soundtrack remains unmatched in this area), but the enormous battery of artists and original songs assembled for the game is incredible. Lots of other games have had as many, if not more, licensed songs, but for original tracks assembled specifically for a video game, Cyberpunk 2077 is likely unmatched, and most of them are impressive bangers, often presented in multiple versions. The music is one area this game has definitely not skimped on.

Cyberpunk 2077 (****) is an accomplished game in many key areas. Its story and characters are among the very best-in-class with some of the most outstanding story beats and quiet character moments in a video game that I've ever experienced; its RPG systems are adequate to very good; it has great combat and stealth; and its design, graphics, music and atmosphere are fantastic. Ranged against that is that its open world design is flaky as hell, and key game systems like driving, police, traffic AI and pedestrian reactions feel like they need major revisions, not to mention lingering bugs (see below) which need to stamped out fast.

Also, whilst the PC version of the game is (mostly) excellent, CDPR deserve all the criticism that've gotten for trying to release barely-functional versions of the game on X-Box One and PlayStation 4 and hiding the state they were in from reviewers. CDPR have spent thirteen years building up a formidable reputation for player friendliness and integrity and that reputation is now in the gutter, and they're going to have to work very hard to get it back again.

Cyberpunk 2077 is available now on PC, Stadia, X-Box One and X-Box Series X. The PlayStation 4 and 5 versions are on hold pending further patches.

Technical Note: I played the game on a relatively middling gaming PC (nVidia 2060 graphics card, 16 GB RAM) and experienced exactly one (1) crash. I did experience minor but relatively common graphical bugs, like flickering as new textures loaded in and occasional objects left hanging in mid-air (loot, cigarettes, weapons). Once or twice, especially in the Badlands, vehicles spawned upside down. Towards the end of the game, as I wrapped up more and more side-jobs and activities, graphical bugs seemed to increase, with street textures failing to load until I was already driving over them. These problems were rare; numerous gaming sessions failed to produce a single bug of note. This year alone, I experienced far more crashes, graphical problems and bugs in both Horizon Zero Dawn and Red Dead Redemption 2. For this review I completed the main story, every side-quest and every optional activity, which took 95 hours. I will revise the review in future should CDPR make substantial improvements to the game in the coming months.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review - I hope CDPR spends a good amount of time fixing, finishing and polishing the game before they release any paid content DLC

Chris Marcatili said...

I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. My biggest disappointment in terms of storytelling/gameplay, though, was that there was a very definite 'branching' moment toward the very end, where if you make choice A you get ending A, choice B for ending B and so on. As far as I'm aware, no matter how you played the game throughout, once you get to this branching moment you can end the game in any of 6 ways. This is a design feature common in games like this - Deus Ex in particular - and to me it really contradicts the hype from CDPR that this game was all about player choice. Choices should have consequences, and I would be much more likely to replay the game making different character choices throughout if I felt like it would lead to a story resolution I couldn't get to on my first playthrough.

Adam Whitehead said...

With regard to the ending choices, at least one ending is dependent on your relationship with Johnny. If you made poor dialogue choices earlier on or annoyed Johnny with how you resolved quests (as I did with the Delamain quest chain, which I did too early and didn't have stats high enough to get the Johnny-appeasing ending), then those decisions can block off one of the endings.

I believe you're right in that all the other endings can be accessed at will when you get to the start of the final quest, and you can simply reload the final quest to choose a different ending.