Friday , January 22 2021

Videogame Review: ‘Cyberpunk 2077’

It is late, I have a hell of a hangover and Johnny will not stop talking to me. Is this what going insane feels like? Voices? Head throbbing like it is about to explode? Or is it just the damn biochip slowly melting my brain?

Well, going onsane is the least of my problems…”yes Johnny, I know, I know this affects both of us.” The least of BOTH our problems. This heist at Arasaka was supposed to make me a legend. Now it will kill both of us.

As Johnny likes to remind me, there is no time to lie down, just take a drink pull up your pants and get to it. Night City has the answer, she always does. A fixer can hook me into some preem intel and get me on a path to get this over-the-hill Rockerboy out of my head.

“Ouch, Ouch, I know Johnny, I know, your problem too and I will stop the name calling.” Johnny Silverhand, infamous Rocker and Anarchist, my guardian…whatever in my head to lead me down a path to either nowhere or to become a legend.

Buckle up Samurai, time to jack in and see where we go as I try to just stay alive and maybe make a few eddys on the way. This city of crime, chrome and glitz may be hell to some, but here is where my problems started and where they will end, one way or another.

The tale of Cyberpunk 2077 started way back in 2013 with a glitzy announcement from CD Projekt Red. The title was quietly in development for years and was not brought to the forefront until all the Witcher 3 expansions were completed.

Once the core teams were free the main thrust of development began and it was far from seamless. From cut features to multiple delays and finally console versions that are nearly unplayable, the game was finally released in December 2020.

I had the good fortune to play the PC version of the game, which is by far the most stable, and while there were bugs, few caused anything more than a small annoyance. Therefore the crux of my look at Cyberpunk 2077 will be focused on what the game does right and does wrong instead of looking at the launch or console issues.

Those issues are well catalogued elsewhere, but is the game a good experience when it is playable? That’s what I really want to examine. The simple answer is hell yes. Cyberpunk 2077 has its flaws, but the overall experience is something magnificent to experience.

The Good

Night City: The beating heart of Cyberpunk 2077 is Night City and it is more nuanced and real than even the best NPCs in the game. From distinct Burroughs to elaborate architecture, lighting and environments, this city is vibrant, alive and both ugly and beautiful.

On nearly every corner there are distinct buildings, billboards, lights, sounds and narratives. In the poorer districts the lights flicker and have a greasy glow, the streets are filled with trash. In the richer sections everything is shined clean with bright storefronts and ads on every wall.

This is a look at the futuristic ultra-capitalistic societies so deftly explained by author William Gibson. He may not have created the Cyberpunk world this game is based upon, that was Mike Pondsmith, but walking through Night City I could finally see what I pictured in my head as I read novels like Neuromancer or Idoru.

The city is teeming with people, and while the AI of the game makes them do odd things at time there is enough magic under the hood to make it feel real. I overheard random conversations, saw business deals traded in bars and back alleys and heard people gossip about happenings in the city.

There was obviously an insane amount of work poured into the world of Night City to make it feel real and alive. News broadcasts, ads on billboards, data logs, the buildings, roads and people all make it hum. In the game of Cyberpunk 2077 the most important character is the city and boy does it shine when explored, warts and all.

The Personalities of Night City: While the city is the star of the show and adds so much nuance to Cyberpunk 2077, the people I met as I explored are a close second. From random encounters to main Non Playable characters there were so many memorable character beats as I ran through the game.

Odd side characters like Brendan the sentient food machine, the Taxi AI Delamin and even a zen master who teaches enlightenment are highlights that show the depth CDPR went to in creating this world. None of these is necessary to follow up with, but they add such a great dynamic to the world of Night City that it would be a shame if they were missed.

The Fixers in Cyberpunk 2077 hand out jobs or Gigs as well as gather information. All are interesting, ranging from a sleazy data broker to a Padre running a portion of the town, but some shine more than others.

Rogue Amendiares who was an old contact of Johnny Silverhands plays a key role as well as assigning Gigs. She has a deep and conflicted role in the story and is the most prominent fixer. Others like Wakako Okada and Dakota Smith add a little color to their neck of the woods. When Okada started describing all her dead husbands I had to laugh and press on with her story.

Major characters like Jackie Wells, Panam Palmers, Judy Alvarez, Evelyn Parker and others are incredibly nuanced and well represented. It is rare in a game with so many characters to enjoy literally every one of them, but that is something Cyberpunk 2077 does so very well.

Lastly I would be be remiss in not mentioning Johnny Silverhand voiced and performed by Keanu Reeves. He is the other star character of the game after Night City, dead and gone for 50 years but now part of the lead character’s psyche and along for the ride the whole way.

Reeves adds a world weariness to Johnny as well as a gruff awareness of how crazy the situation is. Johnny is crazy, unpredictable and argumentative but all the while captivating and a pleasure to watch. I found myself itching to see him pop up and make a snide comment.

In a brilliant move, the developers did not just have Johnny on hand for major story events; instead he appears often during Gigs, side missions and even when weird sites are encountered. These moments where Johnny pops in add so much continuity and narrative weight to the experience. It is frankly brilliant how it was done.

The Gear, Technology and Skills: I recently finished playing Assassins Creed Odyssey after a long hiatus and was reminded how overwhelming loot was in that game. Literally every encounter had piles of items that are slightly better or different. It was often distracting trying to get through the inventory system.

In Cyberpunk 2077 there are also tons of weapons, items and gear after every encounter, but thanks to a great crafting/upgrade system and plenty of iconic items it never overwhelmed. It was always easy to see what gear I wanted to keep or upgrade and what I would quickly sell or dismantle.

Selling is possible at kiosks all over the map as well as at the numerous merchants. Dismantling gear happens very quickly (so as to make it painless) and many skills enhance the benefits of taking apart unwanted gear.

The many weapons offered from sniper rifles and pistols to Katanas and clubs all work amazingly well and I found myself veering to a style quickly: pistol for precision shots and shotgun for messy action. A trusty Katana was always available when I needed to get up close and personal.

The crafting system was tough to use due to tough-to-find parts and the need for high end skills, but upgrading was easy and effective. This let me stick with a cool set of weapons and upgrade them to my satisfaction. I really enjoyed that aspect – being able to add mods to the weapons also allowed them to be customized to my exact specifications.

Skills and cyberware are also handled exceptionally well with many options available to customize the experience. I tailored my character as an elite hacker with high end pistol and blades skills and I loved that build.

Entering an encounter with this loadout let me quickhack cameras and enemy units and quickly take them out face to face as needed. The ability to switch some weapons via mods to non lethal allowed encounters to be handled in different moral ways if desired.

The Little Touches Everywhere: So many little nuances litter the world of Cyberpunk 2077 it is sometimes just great to wander around and observe the world. Spotting Hideo Kojima early on in the game and a BB unit late in the story were amazing bookends demonstrating the immersiveness of the game.

Passing couples squabbling at a bus stop and Johnny popping up to complain about the dump we we were exploring were two of many examples. Passing by an alley I spotted a dead body and it let me discover a gun with an embedded AI named Skippy that I used most of the game.

Skippy seems blatantly patterned after Microsoft’s Clippy assistant from an old version of its Word application. Helpful and annoying, he hums while the gun is being reloaded and apologizes if a shot misses. Both annoying and endearing, Skippy is a great gun, plus it leveled with me so it was always effective.

Other things like crowds gathering outside of bars, street kids hustling passersby, and dance competitions in alleys made me stop and pay attention. Trauma teams working on injured people, guards closing off crime areas, and netwatch agents shutting down businesses all made the world just seem real.

I know I have not even scratched the surface of all the comings and goings in Night City but trust me, just wandering is so worth it. It is one of the few games where I spent a great deal of time on foot or driving instead of quick travel just to see what was going on.

Photo Mode and the stellar graphics on a high end PC: I know this is not really gameplay, but the Photo Mode in Cyberpunk 2077 deserves special mention. It is so fun to use and there is always something cool happening that could benefit from a staged photo.

The ability to shoot in first person or drone mode is very cool as are the many different poses available for V. Various lens, aperture and filter effects give tons of options to get a near perfect shot.

Graphically, on a high end PC this game is frankly stunning. The visuals are a neo-noir futuristic buffet of delights. The Badlands have a Mad Max vibe while the city centre evokes the best elements of Blade Runner.

Neon lights and billboards dot the cityscape, rundown warrens are filled with graffiti and refuse, while the city centre is shiny chrome and mirrored surfaces. Every visual of this game is what I imagined when I closed my eyes while reading a great William Gibson or Neal Stephenson novel and that is the greatest compliment I can give.

The Bad

The Difficulty Curve: Or rather the lack of one. While I always found combat and encounters enjoyable there really was no challenge once I got my gear tuned high enough.

I chose to sneak and be subtle often, but I could literally storm in shooting everything that moves and with a few health doses and dodges I was able to end battles easily. I found this to be a little odd as other aspects, like the boxing side mission, are so tough without the brawling skills leveled, way up but I could literally kill everything that moved.

It reminded me of late game Skyrim where I could end whole villages by myself but certain characters had dialogue options not allowing conflict. This happens here as well, but end bosses were easily dispatched without breaking a sweat.

It would be great to see CDPR add a scaling difficulty level to add some challenge to the game. I still found the encounters enjoyable, but head-on battles were laughably easy.

The Fashion Faux Pas: Cyberpunk 2077 is a first person game, but there are plenty of times I saw my version of V, either in photo mode or when driving, and the gear she was wearing was often hideous. There are tons of cool looking clothing, but I often found myself wearing gear with far better stats that just looked awful.

Helmets that completely obscure the character, MC Hammer-style pants and ugly tank tops were some of the worst examples. For some crazy reason there is no hide headgear option, which is beyond basic in these types of games.

Ultimately I found upgrading outfits not as effective as the weapons so I was always switching to these odd clothing combinations that just looked generally terrible. My dream scenario is an AC: Odyssey style customization option where clothes could be visually changed but retain bonuses of the original items.

That will probably be left to the modding community, but it is unfortunate since there are crazy cool clothes, they just seem to be weaker stats wise. I would love it if CDPR could add color switching and stat retention with visual swaps. It would make the photos and driving sequences extra amazing.

The Sometimes Hilariously Bad AI: For every clever scene with people chatting there are two or more that had me scratching my head. Folks walking back and forth on a street, people cowering when there is no violence around or alert states that never end caused the AI to sometimes feel broken.

In combat or encounters I found that, although easy, the enemy AI was generally pretty smart. Enemies took cover, found dead bodies and pursued me pretty doggedly. As mentioned I found it odd that alert states never ended and once I started a gunfight even folks in other buildings far from the original area were in high alert.

This made re-entering stealth mode nigh impossible, but at least going guns-a-blazing is super fun in Cyberpunk 2077. It never broke the experience, but a way to end alerts or alarms would have been appreciated to try a quiet approach after one mishap.

Out in the streets odd behavior rarely broke the experience but I often found it odd to see people cowering when I did nothing, but walking around normally while I brandished a Katana or shotgun. People wandering randomly or in pre-canned states that were not appropriate also popped up occasionally but due to the denseness of the city it was never overwhelming or consistent.

The Driving Mechanics: From the first time I hopped in a car I realized that this was no Forza. Driving is incredibly slippery and inconsistent. I see what the developer was going for, some cars handle better, some bikes maneuver smoother in the badlands, but in the end for half of the game driving was just not fun for me.

Once I was able to afford a high end motorcycle, got Johnny’s tricked out Porsche (purely optional, but so worth it) and a good off-road vehicle I could enjoy the various roadways. Prior to that I was sliding, crashing and missing turns left, right and centre.

There is a large multi-part side mission based around street races and I was avoiding it. Once I began I noticed the AI was designed to let me keep close, and if I crashed I could literally see the other cars stop moving. This tells me the developer knew the driving was not optimal as implemented.

I think a more forgiving arcadey approach to driving would have made it far more accessible and less frustrating. As it stands the driving mechanic left me cold until I had more money to buy better vehicles as mentioned. Luckily the city is fun to run or walk through and fast travel stations are literally everywhere.

The Bugs: You cannot mention Cyberpunk 2077 without discussing the buggy state the game launched in. As mentioned I was fortunate to play on a high end PC so my experience, while not bug free, was very playable and enjoyable.

Despite this I did see some odd bugs such as being bald when looking in a mirror or in a vehicle. Very rarely enemies where stuck in an idle pose for a second, but always reset to normal movement, and the AI as mentioned acted oddly at times.

As far as game-impacting bugs I only had one really bad issue falling through a highway after I got hit and some weird graphical artifacts that never left the screen. This was very rare in my 70+ hours of playing, but caused me to reload a save six or seven times.

The Final Word

Cyberpunk 2077 is an incredibly ambitious game with a ton of content that can be missed which is unfortunate as that is where the beauty of the game truly lies. The side missions and Gigs are where the really quirky characters and missions are discovered.

In these side alleys and far corners of the badlands is where the funny sights, odd conversations with Johnny and cool scenarios play out with style and panache. The magic of Night City truly enveloped me as I explored all the game had to offer and I found a true experience I wanted to keep exploring.

The main narrative is great and I enjoyed the ballad of Johnny Silverhand and his vendetta against Arasaka I was forced to join in on. The expanded narrative however is what I fell in love with.

The atmosphere enveloping all of these varied stories further brought me into the experience in the best of ways. The striking visuals, excellent music and score, and cool characters voiced by excellent performers enhanced the adventure and brought me into this world in a way few games before have accomplished.

No one can deny Cyberpunk 2077 launched with flaws and should not have launched on consoles until it was as playable as on PC. But playing it as I did on PC provided an amazing experience that should not be missed.

About Michael Prince

A longtime video game fan starting from simple games on the Atari 2600 to newer titles on a bleeding edge PC I play everything I can get my hands on.

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