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Cyberpunk 2077 Review: Gameplay Impressions, Videos and Speedrunning Tips

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2020

CD PROJEKT RED

Cyberpunk 2077 carried more expectations on its shoulders to release than arguably any game in history.  

On the back of goodwill garnered by Witcher 3 developer CD Projekt Red, Cyberpunk was announced in May of 2012, promising a first-person RPG/action-adventure game with a breathtaking, futuristic open world. 

Years of development, delays and additional promises made later, including the onboarding of Keanu Reeves as rocker Johnny Silverhand, Cyberpunk has arrived as one of the most jarring releases ever. 

While CD Projekt Red is already offering refunds because of poor performance on PS4 And Xbox One, the game is a stunning, immersive trip to a different world unlike anything gamers have experienced before. That is, if gamers can stomach the litany of issues at launch, regardless of platform, and some glaring deficiencies. 

If they can, the positive experience Cyberpunk offers has no equal. While it sets the bar for gaming as a whole in some areas, Cyberpunk 2077 also throws out a warning sign about so much more. 

      

Graphics and Gameplay

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Cyberpunk is unlike anything released before in terms of graphical immersion. 

It's quite clear the bulk of the effort went into this area, as everything about Night City and its multitude of distinct gang-controlled zones feels painstakingly handcrafted. Just taking a walk down pretty much any block in the city is an immersive experience. 

One five-minute stroll can produce so much wow factor it's almost hard to describe. From the sheer number of NPCs organically walking through an area, vehicles on the road, transports in the sky, police crime scenes, kids throwing rocks at broken-down defense turrets, ads squawking at the character from walls and benches, ads scrolling up the side of skyscrapers—the examples are endless. 

It's something players will have to experience to believe, albeit only on higher-end systems. None of that even mentions the areas outside the city, which include sprawling auto-running farms, monstrous dams and a mountain-range style trash heap, to name a few spots. 

Everything pushes the limits of what we've known to be possible. Characters—especially those in main and prominent side quests—are stunning. It's easy to think you're viewing concept art or still stuck in a cutscene sometimes, and that's not an uncommon occurrence when a conversation ends. There are no flaws in the eye movement, lip-syncing or anything else when it comes to the main characters. 

It helps that the sound design is also superb, as expected. The soundtrack is splendid with its techno-infused musings and the radio selection in cars is diverse but fitting. Even the advertisements while riding an elevator are well done, as are the talk shows and news broadcasts that provide a little context to the world. 

Night City itself is something no game developer will match for a long time. There's a stunning amount of verticality and parkour opportunities. That doesn't mean every building is enterable by any means, but this isn't a "drive across this dirt road for 1.2 kilometers to get to the next mission" type of game. Every bit of traveling that isn't fast is a level of engagement where the player really has to think about how to navigate the city block, be it a market littered with customers or a multilevel shantytown, for example. 

Unfortunately, the touted immersion noted above is just surface-level because it's as paper-thin as it gets with interactions. Only a few of the countless vendors in the world seem to allow purchases. When trying to speak to NPCs, they say a random, often nonsensical line. In general, it all just feels like a backdrop that isn't meant to actually be interacted with in favor of the main story. 

Walk past a guy shadowboxing the air on the way into a club, exit the club a little while later and a different NPC is doing the same thing. Visit that club multiple times, the same two police officers are arguing; one about taking down the owner simply because she won't let them in, the other discouraging that because she runs the city.

When players choose to hop in a vehicle is when city navigation becomes a struggle. Vehicle controls just aren't where they need to be, as everything feels too floaty. A minimap that inexplicably won't zoom out often leavers the driver missing turns, trying to brake and quickly correct and spinning out or, even worse, mowing down pedestrians. 

The same love-hate relationship exists in combat, too. Gunplay itself is actually very weighty and most guns manage to feel unique with different recoil patterns. But it's a little jarring to have this almost Call of Duty-feeling dedication there—while pumping rounds into enemies, especially early in the game. 

Maybe it's the color palette, speed of gameplay, busy HUD or a combination of the three, but it's very hard to tell where damage is coming from at times. Helpfully, the A.I. is generally bad at taking cover. Melee enemies will rush the character and grenades will fly, but what feels like outdated A.I. removes most critical thinking the game and its many systems could have asked of players. 

The same goes for stealth. It feels like an archaic game of "avoid the vision cones" with enemy NPCs. Hacking cameras and other items in the world to create distractions can be done, but it is a time investment.

As good as everything feels, nothing is ever as simple as just running and gunning. Cyberpunk is the type of game where players have to do the work to make other routes of engagement feel fun and actually worth it. And by the time that investment is made, the player ends up feeling overpowered. 

In a testament to the city design itself, there are actually a jaw-dropping amount of ways to tackle one mission objective most of the time. In one early example, there's the standard "dump enough points into a skill to get past a door" route. There's the sneaky route. Observant players in this one little objective can also walk halfway down the block, find a way up to the roofs of adjacent buildings and parkour to the objective building, infiltrating from above. 

The gameplay tries to do so much at once that the result comes off feeling like a mixed bag. Gunplay feels good, but the enemies don't. Traversal and climbing works well enough, as does swimming, but driving can feel like a mess. 

Luckily for Cyberpunk, the main narrative and the beefy sidequests are good enough to make it all forgivable.  

      

Story and More

Players assume the role of a mercenary known as "V" and dive right into the world of Night City after customizing looks and early skill tree distributions. 

V wants to hit the big times in the city and work their way up the proverbial ladder. V can be compassionate at points depending on player dialogue choices, but more often than not is grating and can surprise even the player with his harshness in what seem like reasonable dialogue choices. 

Along the way, V happens to get Silverhand's consciousness stuck in their head. There are some jarring, quick developments that make it feel like players are missing something that was cut out of the game, but it works. 

Johnny Silverhand, on the other hand, is one of the most interesting characters largely because he's...not a great person. He harms people, abuses substances and people, and generally is antagonistic toward V most of the time. And yet, Reeves' performance is so good, he's still sort of endearing, and his presence commands attention every time he shows up to talk. On paper, that's exactly what another person living in a main character's head should be—and his presence and commentary made even mundane decisions suddenly tense. 

The story's best moments unfold off the main path. Some of the main sidequests are so good it's a shame they're not part of the main storyline. 

In those side paths, V encounters unforgettable characters with lengthy storylines. They're varied, memorable and play a part in the greater effort, so to speak. 

The main story itself isn't anything too uncommon for the genre at most points and goes to some very uncomfortable places in visceral detail. A part of the story is very time-sensitive to create urgency—until one of the first missions right after this reveal asks the player to wait while something happens off-screen.

Those wanting an in-depth look at the implications of tech advances and the impact on individuals, governments and even religion will have to do some deep reading. There's overt in-your-face stuff at times, but the real good stuff will require some reading. 

The big killer for the narrative? It's absolutely devastating to see the type of life choice that players make at the start of the game—picking Corpo, Street Kid or Nomad—just doesn't seem to matter all that much. Every choice starts the player in a different locale, but only very briefly before all three are shoved into the same storyline. For the most part, the only callback players ever get to actually making this choice at all is dialogue options that don't really further conversations. 

It's hard to shake the feeling something big and impressive got cut or scaled-down here, especially once players watch a montage of cool things happening to V and friends before a big-time skip. This was especially poor for the Nomad track, which starts well with an in-depth conversation with the sheriff of a small town out in the desert, only for V to arrive in Night City, get to know people, find a home and establish an ecosystem of friends all off screen via that montage.

Actual roleplaying is very difficult, which is strange given that the source material is a tabletop RPG. In Mass Effect, everyone had their version of Shepard they could at least somewhat craft, whereas here, V seems to have a narrow range of outcomes. 

V's reputation, which levels up as he goes, doesn't seem to matter much either. Different gangs still seem to attack on sight no matter what the player has done in the past, and fixers seemingly affiliated with those gangs don't seem to care V has harmed their operations. While V spends a good chunk of time musing about being legendary, the world doesn't seem to react to them all that much. 

Part of that problem is the lack of customization for your character's appearance once the full game begins. The initial character creator isn't anything too wild, besides the unnecessary ability to craft genitals. 

It's weird that a game which stresses style has no way to change up hairstyles, looks or vehicles. This isn't a lack of something complex like weight gain due to a bad diet like, say, GTA San Andreas back in the day—it's the complete inability to show up at a barber or tattoo parlor and make any changes at all. It's the inability to drive to a chop shop and customize a ride—all things a city such as this one would seem to have.

Similarly, the game makes a big deal about cybernetics early on. V receives new eyes in an amazing cutscene. So is the futuristic apparatus he puts on V's arm to give him a hand implant. But going to a ripperdoc out in the world is just a menu transaction. 

Which brings us to braindances. Strapping on a piece of equipment and observing a recorded scenario in real time, bouncing out of the person's head and scanning around, rewinding and fast-forwarding while looking for clues sounds incredible.

But it's really not something that hasn't been done before and doesn't feel too different from something found in a Batman game or even The Witcher 3. And it's a bummer that V even receives one of these headsets as a reward, but can't use it outside of quests. There are even braindances V can purchase from vendors...but they aren't compatible with his or her software.

It's very strange that the company that dreamed up Gwent has a lack of side activities, whether it be just playing a card game or jumping into a street race. Even fast travel isn't hopping in a self-driving car (there's an entire, lengthy sidequest about those, too), having V's car self-navigate or jumping on a tram system or subway—it's just walking up to certain marked kiosks, bringing up the map and picking another one to jump to. 

Not helping matters are several other thin systems. The economy, for one, feels a little busted. Vehicles and cybernetics are expensive, but it doesn't feel like working through many sidequests and the main story ever make those reasonably affordable. That's in stark contrast to the rollout of skill points and perk points, which have V morphing into an assassin quickly. 

The loot system is also questionable at best, throwing endless amounts of junk and wearable stuff at the player with minimal stat increases. It's a Destiny-stylized system where donning the best armor means looking absolutely ridiculous—early on, some lootable short shorts and a tank top had more armor than a bulletproof vest, for example.

The current loot system makes crafting feel a bit irrelevant, too. By the time V has enough materials to craft something special, items picked up off the ground had similar or better stats. Keep in mind, there's also an inventory burden to manage. 

The UI is generally a mess. It's a chore to dig in and find where cybernetics actually are and which items require you to pop open V's backpack or something else. Using the phone is also problematic because it has multiple screens and odd controls, as does the map. 

Cyberpunk throws an incredible amount of stuff at the player over the first few hours, which function as a tutorial. It's an endless barrage of new mechanics and never-ending phone calls and texts popping up on screen that sometimes overlap one another (V can't decline a call, apparently). Some of the calls happen because fixers in certain areas call V as soon as they enter their region. But with the wealth of information the game tosses at the player, it's understandable if they get overwhelmed and forget how to perform hacks of where to find cybernetics in the menu, for example.

Cyberpunk's biggest problems are the outright poorly-implemented features and the aforementioned paper-thin interactions when trying to become fully immersed in the world. 

Around every corner are immersion-breaking problems, even on PC. The majority of non-essential characters' mouths don't move when they speak. There are floating cigarettes and cellphones. The day and night cycle doesn't seem to impact anything, and skipping time doesn't change up where NPCs are.

Some side activities encountered (a gang fighting the police) just feature the police blasting the enemies, who stand still and take it. One prominent sidequest couldn't be completed no matter how many times the game was reloaded. Major story areas can't be re-entered while free-roaming. 

By far the most egregious, immersion-ruining issue is general A.I. at launch. NPCs two blocks away from where V fired a gun just crouch and cover their heads. Getting out of a car in the middle of the road causes a traffic jam for blocks because the NPCs can't navigate around it. 

Then there are the police. Cyberpunk features a GTA-style wanted system to keep the player in check when they commit crimes in Night City. Except police, for the most part, don't drive cars. They spawn close to the player instantly after committing a crime (even atop a skyscraper) and just start blasting. Driving a few blocks away instantly removes the wanted stars and things go back to normal. 

Players going into Cyberpunk expecting a GTA or Red Dead-styled open world might be disappointed. But the A.I. in the game feels like a placeholder feature at best and is missing core elements found in games made more than a decade ago. 

Similarly, there are unique, creative arcade systems and food vendors everywhere but none of the former and few of the latter are interactable. So far, it doesn't even seem like V can take a seat anywhere outside of scripted story missions. 

Through it all, Cyberpunk's shortcomings aren't enough to make it something players are likely to put down once they get invested in the story, especially thanks to some of the all-too-human characters V meets along the way. But the wealth of issues and barebones systems in key respects do the overall experience great harm. 

     

Speedrunning Tips

Games like Cyberpunk always make for brilliant speedrunning fodder with what projects to be a vibrant, long-running community.

The open world, ability to customize different gameplay styles and the bountiful ways to attack objectives make it an appealing challenge to tackle for runners and a fun, variable viewing experience for onlookers. 

Early runs around the game's launch are sure to be best served by focusing on the gun skill trees. Merely plowing through the opposition with a strong arsenal will produce the best results, especially when perks start to unlock, such as extra damage behind cover and headshots reducing recoil. 

Which isn't to say runners won't end up finding viable strategies with other subclasses over time. Surely, hacking a system of cameras, turning them friendly and blinding enemies who happen to discover the player during infiltration of an area will make for quick work, too. 

It's important to note that cheesing certain enemies very early in a run can produce incredibly overpowered weapons that make combat trivial. We won't get specific for the sake of spoilers, but runners are sure to quickly uncover these sorts of loopholes to produce incredible times. 

Besides some gritty details like the above, plus mission structure and world memorization, the usual things like skipping dialogue, cutscenes and fast traveling as much as possible apply. That's universal to any runs. 

     

Conclusion

Cyberpunk is likely going to go down as one of the most oddly-remembered games of all time. It seemed to over-promise and has under-delivered at launch. 

After repeated delays, Cyberpunk was supposed to fiercely trailblaze the way into a new console generation and on high-end PCs. And it does in some regards—the bar has been fully reset through the roof in terms of a living, engaging, vertical open world that is a joy to explore and demands players pay attention at every turn. 

But it will also likely go down as a cautionary tale—for gamers and game-makers—one offering a warning about when to announce a concept for a game, how to hype and market it and whether to believe it all. That doesn't take into account the decision to straddle multiple console generations while still promising a "next-gen" update, free DLCs and even multiplayer down the road. 

As it stands, Cyberpunk has a gripping story and some excellent sidequests. Night City is captivating, if not jaw-dropping for its design and diversity of locales and inhabitants. The city itself and a handful of the characters met along the way are a marvel and makes it a fun, unique ride, though perhaps one best experienced at a later date. 

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