Cyberpunk 2077 review — A look at the present, not the future
December 7, 2020
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Cyberpunk 2077 is a promise. But it’s a different promise to different people. For many, it’s the blockbuster sci-fi followup to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that will do everything that game did but bigger. For me, Cyberpunk 2077 was the promise of the next generation of choice, simulation, and interactivity. Now that I’ve played it myself, I think that developer CD Projekt Red delivered a big-budget thrill ride with entertaining quests in a thriving setting.

But it isn’t much more than that.

Here are the basics: Cyberpunk 2077 is out December 10 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Stadia. It’s $60, and it will also run on PS5 and Xbox Series X, but it won’t get a next-gen patch for those system until next year. You create and control the character V, who lives in Night City and is looking to make a couple of big scores to enter the upper echelon of the criminal underworld.

What Cyberpunk really is, however, is a big open-world action role-playing game. What it’s not is a look at gaming’s future. Instead, it feels like a summation of where we’ve come in gaming since the Xbox 360 generation. It feels like a game built by people looking around to see what works — like Grand Theft Auto’s open world, Watch Dogs’ hacking, Assassin’s Creed’s quest-filled maps, Fallout’s combat and character progression, Mass Effect’s dialogue system, Batman: Arkham Knight’s crime scene investigations, and every games’ skill trees.

At the same time, Cyberpunk doesn’t try much new. It feels big and expensive — and getting all of these parts to fit together seems like an impossible challenge. But because of this, Cyberpunk 2077 is a glimpse at where we are and not what is next.

Quests and characters are the stars of Cyberpunk 2077

Playing this game before most of the world puts me in an odd position. I’m torn due to a desire to answer two questions: Is Cyberpunk 2077 good, and does it live up to expectations? I think when it comes to characters and quests, the answer to both questions is yes.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the studio that made The Witcher 3 made another game with great quests. It’s arguably what the studio is best at, and that holds true for Cyberpunk. Yes, the visuals and ray tracing are often stunning. And the worldbuilding is impressive. But Cyberpunk is at its best when you’re putting together the plans for a big job with a cool cast of characters.

The game still has a small bag of verbs it puts to use within these quests. You’re primarily going to shoot and sneak. But CD Projekt Red keeps things fresh by breaking each quest up into stages that naturally build on each other while also revealing more about the world.

One quest that I really enjoyed started with me trying to track down an engineer that I needed for important story reasons. That led me to one of the city’s many fixers, the people who set up underworld jobs (and apparently also all sell used cars). But she wouldn’t give me any details until I paid her, which gave me a chance to interact with the Side Jobs and Gigs. After putting together the scratch, however, she pointed me toward my target as well as the Nomad character Panam who, of course, needed help of her own.

That involved us setting up a trap to distract a gang in an abandoned ghost town to steal back Panam’s car. She then took me to an underground tunnel for a fight and then to a motel in the California desert where she laid out a plan to help me find my engineer.

And that’s how the game goes. You talk, the characters come up with some neat plans, and then you execute them. And that loop kept pulling me in because you almost always end up somewhere cool.

The Cyberpunk roller coaster

The way you interact with the city and quests is pretty much what you expect: Stealth past enemies or shoot them. If you have hacking skills, you can use those. If you’re physically strong, you can take more damage and rush at people with a katana. But don’t expect that you’ll be able to go much deeper than that. This is not a game where you try to talk your way out of fights. You’re not going to follow a guard home, interrogate him, and then infiltrate a facility using that information.

So despite how alive the city feels due to its mind-blowing ray-traced lighting, it’s still sterile. Things don’t just happen in Night City. At its heart, Cyberpunk 2077 is a map game. You choose a quest off the menu and then go and do whatever the developer designed for you.

This philosophy filters down into the world itself and how interactive it really is. You’ll find pachinko machines and arcade games, but you can’t play them. You can scan people to reveal information about them, but I never found a use for that. If you want to have sex, two sex workers appear on your map. You’ll find empty seats throughout Night City, but you can only sit in certain designated chairs and only when the game permits it. If the game wants, you can sit back and drink a beer with a friend, but this is not something you can initiate on your own.

All of this limits the potential for emergent storytelling. You aren’t going to stumble off the main quest line and into a series of unpredictable moments. Instead, CD Projekt Red is the one prescribing all of the action.

And again, those quests are usually pretty fun. But the final product doesn’t feel like a real role-playing game that responds to your decisions.

And on that point of feeling like an RPG, the character progression is also undercooked. I feel a vague desire to upgrade to improve my strength in combat or to open a door I otherwise couldn’t, but that’s about it. The game never puts me into situations where I imagine the new ways I’ll interact with the world as I get new capabilities. Sure, my character is a tank who is good with blades, and that’s different from how your character will work. But we’re probably both going to sneak through the stealth sections, shoot our way through the battle sequences, and do whatever the companion characters need us to do to keep the game moving forward.

Buggy and beautiful

If CD Projekt Red’s core competency is writing quests, worldbuilding is a complementary pillar of the studio’s works. And Cyberpunk 2077 is more evidence of this.

Night City is beautiful and ugly in all the ways a megacity should be. Every time you turn a corner, the game reveals another startling angle of the urban landscape. And it makes Night City feel menacing and inescapable. The visual fidelity and art both contribute to this sensation. The streets are packed with people and vehicles. Giant colorful holographic advertisements shoot into the sky. Neon lighting alerts you to restaurants and sex shops.

And speaking of lighting, this is by far the best showcase for ray tracing so far. With an Nvidia RTX 3080 video card and using deep learning supersampling (DLSS), I was able to run the game at 1440p with RTX maxed out. This includes well-known RTX features like shadows and reflections, which look great. But it also includes RTX global illumination. CD Projekt Red uses a hybrid GI system that doesn’t use RTX for when light bounces off of objects and onto a second object, but all direct lighting is using ray tracing.

The difference between Cyberpunk with RTX lighting and without is massive. With RTX, it looks lifelike with lighting that brings depth to characters as their clothing creates shadows on their bodies and lighting splashes correctly over curved muscles. Without RTX, the game looks significantly flatter and more like a video game. And thanks to DLSS 2.0’s performance setting, I was able to get these incredible benefits at a steady 60 frames per second.

But the game is also undeniably buggy. I have a high tolerance for occasional funny glitches. I have high expectations, but getting a simulation of a world to behave is too high even for me. But in my time with Cyberpunk, I saw objects float, vehicles disappear, and characters drive while standing up. Also, sorting items doesn’t work properly, and I couldn’t get the context-sensitive stealth takedown to activate after dropping behind a certain enemy.

The problem when a game has so many bugs is that it begins to compromise your belief in the world. If I expect something to happen and it doesn’t, was it because I was wrong about how the world would react or did a bug prevent it from happening? That’s where Cyberpunk 2077 is at as it launches.

Cyberpunk 2077 suggests a world of possibilities, but it’s just a suggestion

I think that Cyberpunk 2077 delivers the big-budget gaming thrills that many people are looking for. But it falls short in a few key areas for me, and a lot of that comes as a byproduct of its ambition.

The problem is that the world of Cyberpunk 2077 suggests so much possibility. The megabuildings that make up the city’s skyline suggests vast interior spaces that don’t really exist. Merchants with a finite number of eurodollars suggests a simulated economy that isn’t in the game. The bustling streets suggests the potential for emergent story moments that almost never really happen.

And, of course, no game has all of those things on top of everything Cyberpunk does offer. But the point is that Cyberpunk 2077 is so ambitious that you expect more from it. And when something is missing, it hurts the entire experience more.

It’s like the food vendor that hangs out not far from V’s apartment. His stall looks attractive in that cyberpunk/Blade Runner style that makes everything in the game pop. It has steam rising off the food and nice lighting. If I were walking through L.A. and got hungry, I would want to stop and eat there. It helps contribute to the feel of the world — but that’s all it does. You cannot interact with the stall, eat its food, or even talk to the owner.

It’s just set dressing.

A lot of the game is just there to look good. And that’s fine — but it means I don’t want to spend a lot of time wandering around the world. If the environment primarily exists to look dope in the background while I’m doing the quests, then I’ll probably mostly stick to the main story, see what happens, and then bounce. It’s fine to make a game like that — for many, that’s the promise of Cyberpunk 2077. It just wasn’t the promise to me.

Cyberpunk 2077 launches December 10 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It runs on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S as well. The publisher sent GamesBeat a GOG Galaxy code for the purposes of this review.

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