Reviews

Well, Night City is on fire — now what? — Cyberpunk 2077 review in progress

I remember seeing the first trailer of Cyberpunk 2077 and thinking to myself, “This is finally the Neuromancer remake I’ve always wanted”. Seeing the reveal of Johnny Silverhand as your brain-slotted ever-present companion reminded me of Dixie Flatline from Gibson’s novel. Finally seeing the game in motion a few years later confirmed everything I had hoped — this was the cyber-dystopian game I had wished for over the years, and it would finally be brought to life by a team worthy of the task. A delay, more hype, more delays, more hype, leaks, more hype, Night City Wire, more hype, but we are finally here. As I’ve only had access to the game for a short while, I’ll be taking my time to really coalesce my thoughts before rendering final judgement, but based on what I’ve seen so far…yeah, it lives up to the hype, and yeah, it was worth the wait, but I can’t help but feel like we should have waited a little bit longer. This game needed a little more time in the oven, choomba.

As always, I’ll do my level best to be as light a touch with spoilers as I possibly can be. I will not reveal anything that would compromise your enjoyment of the game or ruin story twists and turns. That said, let’s get into it.

Cyberpunk 2077 - First 45 Mins of Corpo in 4K on PC [Gaming Trend]

I’m tackling my review of Cyberpunk 2077 on PC, running on an Intel i7 10700 processor, 32GB of DDR4 at 3600Mhz, a GeForce RTX 3080, and an NVMe drive, it should be a top end example of how this game performs. I’ll be doing additional analysis of how the game performs on other cards and adding it to our benchmarking suite, but for my first playthrough, that’s the specs involved. David is tackling the game on the Stadia, which is running some level of the PC version built for streaming. Your mileage may vary, but as it stands, these two versions are currently the best way to play Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk 2077 is the story of V, but who V is ends up being the sum of your choices both large and small. The game starts with four difficulty levels to choose from — easy, normal, hard, and very hard. These affect the amount of weapons and tactics enemies employ against you, as well as their general toughness. The game states on Normal that “only enemies at a higher level will prove a challenge”, and that stays fairly true throughout the game. The beginning hours were the most difficult, with little equipment and enemies all higher level than you. After that, the main quest will provide a decent challenge while still feeling fair. Once you reach the endgame though, with tons of unique and powerful weapons from side quests, combat becomes trivial with only the rare cyberpsycho posing any challenge. It may be worth bumping up the difficulty once you finish the game to avoid this.

With your difficulty selected, your next choice is to decide your “life path”, Nomad, Corpo, or Streetkid. Streetkid is precisely what it sounds like — you were raised on the streets by the people of the streets. The Nomad folks are raised outside the city, priding themselves on being away from all the noise and light, and somehow ending up better raised (if not a little more poor) as a result. Corpo types are cold as steel and armed to the teeth. They embrace their wetware, they embrace their ivory towers, and they are as ruthless as they are rich. Surprisingly, these three choices converge almost immediately, meaning no matter where you start, in an hour or two, you are all in the same place. This reduces the importance of this origin story down to dialogue options that you might not otherwise have. In Witcher III style, choices made today can directly impact the options of tomorrow, and the permutations are seemingly endless, though they are not nearly as deep or impactful as the run up to release suggested. For those who like to roleplay they serve their purpose with frequent dialogue options in different situations, but aside from a few quests exclusive to each life path and starting equipment they all feel very much the same.

Cyberpunk 2077 Street Kid Introduction - Stadia [Gaming Trend

With your background chosen, you’ll now create your own V. Choosing from male or female, you’ll be presented with a wealth of options, including several presets if you aren’t overly concerned with this sort of thing. Options like voice tone, skin tone and type, hairstyle (we’ll get back to that), hair color, eyes, beard style and color, cosmetic cyberware (lines on the face, usually), facial scars or tattoos, nose, mouth, eyebrows, piercings, nipples being turned on or off (uh..what?), nails, teeth, and even the size and shape of your sex organs (Only one type of vagina though, and no options for body type like removing breasts on the typical female body or adding them to the male), though you can disable the latter entirely if you wish. It’s a hell of a lot of detail for a game set in first person, with only the briefest of moments showing off your V avatar. You can even adjust the color and condition of your teeth. It’s crazy how detailed this ended up being, though there’s obviously room for options like non-binary. Still, it’s a step forward, infinitesimally small as it is, and I’m not going to ignore that — representation is important, even if it doesn’t affect me directly. Unfortunately, the game has some missteps around identity, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Cyberpunk is an RPG to its core, and given the pen and paper roots, that’s no surprise. As such, the next choice you’ll make is attributes. Attributes in Cyberpunk are sliced into five categories: Body (overall health, melee damage, etc.), Intelligence (your Cyberdeck RAM capacity, quickhack damage, and duration), Reflexes (reflexes, evasion, increased crit chance, damage from Mantis Blades), Technical Ability (unlocking doors, using Tech weapons, armor), and finally, Cool. Cool raises your overall critical hit damage, controls resistances, increases stealth damage, reduces how fast enemies spot you in stealth, and increases the damage done by your monowire. While this might seem like where you’ll want to spend a great deal of time, ultimately these are more gateways to other things. Having a high cool skill might get you past a conversation with a bouncer. Reflexes might let you dodge an incoming punch. Technical ability might open a hatch otherwise sealed. These aren’t just stat checks, but more drive the storyline in directions you’d expect from an RPG. It isn’t as deep as you might expect from the excessive pre-release buzz, but it offers a few otherwise inaccessible branches, as well as some additional specialization along the way that we won’t spoil here.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Official Gameplay Trailer

If you liked the Hairworks implementation of the Witcher III, you’ll like what’s on display for Cyberpunk 2077. Night City is filled to the brim with NPCs, and with every color hair and style you can imagine. A lot of games will “paint” on hair, leaving it close cropped on the character model to reduce the hit on resources. Well, that ain’t Cyberpunk 2077. Here you’ve got short dreads, man buns, massive afros, bouncy curls, spikes, crew cuts, Karen hair, braids of every length, brush cuts, shoulder length, ponytails, high and tight, and many more. Those curls bounce, hair reacts to movement, and let light flow through them to create realistic shadows. There are 78 hairstyles alone, unfortunately split between the two supported genders- 39 for male and 39 for female. While it’s unfortunate that you can’t mix and match, hair is so varied and gorgeously rendered that I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find at least one you like. Make sure you’re happy with your version of V though, because as far as we know there is no way to re-customize them once the game’s started. It’s a strange oversight considering how much the game focuses on body modification, and I should be able to buy a new gender from a vending machine, dang it!

Ray tracing in Cyberpunk 2077 is dialed up to 11, and it manifests in several different ways. Ray traced reflections are the most obvious, with character models, cars, buildings, and more reflected in water pools and off shiny objects like cars. Complimenting this is ray traced shadows that lets light cast across objects and drop a realistically distorted shadow underneath. This can be a character model standing in the hot sun, but it also manifests at night when overhead lights bend and shift around moving objects like your motorcycle as it zips through the streets. You really see this in neon-soaked hallways as players disrupt the direct light sources. This leads directly into ray traced direct lighting (RTXDI). With RTXDI, every light in the environment is able to cast shadow, and RTXDI tells the game’s rendering engine precisely where to send those rays. This is part of the magic that lets developers bring as many lights as they wish, allowing both the light and shadow to render in real time.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Official Trailer — The Gig

Ray traced global illumination is one of the areas where ray tracing is most noticeable, though you may not realize you are looking at it. With global illumination turned off you get very dark shadows, despite strong light sources sitting just off to the side, creating artificial shadows. Global illumination creates soft lighting and soft shadows, allowing the light rays to bounce realistically through the environment. It creates the difference between a little shadow and a lot, and lets the developers differentiate and use them both accordingly, and in real time. Seeing a stack of money being slid across a desk, and recognizing that the light is causing the shadows to curl up at the edges due to the angle of said light really reminds you that you need to stop and smell the flowers a bit. What’s on display here is magnificent.

The last RTX goodie under the hood for lighting is ray traced ambient occlusion. This technology is a vast improvement over previous technologies like screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO), allowing reflected light to bounce to other surfaces, creating a perceived direct brightness from something that is essentially “out of frame”. In Cyberpunk you see this when you enter a club and the purple neon bounces off of the environment, making the white chairs appear purple on only the side facing the light source origin as light shouldn’t simply ‘bathe’ an object and turn it purple. Instead, you’ll see the light on the surface, the shadow underneath darkening gradually, and the purple fading completely as you move under the chair as light doesn’t reach there. It’s a LOT to think about, and that’s just one light of a great many. With RTX enabled, this is accomplished throughout the entire scene, with the developers able to tune the intensity, how many lights, how much noise it casts into the scene, how far that penetrates and much more. Who knew shining a light on a chair could be so complex?

When you combine all of this together you get amazing Blade Runner-inspired moments where a room that is gold from top to bottom reflects every light in the environment, sure, but also casts over the characters walking through it, creating realistically distorted reflections of the high-poly character models. The smallest imperfections in the flooring further distort the image. It’s impressive just how much detail the team has packed into single scenes. I cannot for the life of me imagine playing this without RTX on — once you see it enabled, there’s no going back. The Stadia version of the game appears to have RTX on as well, in both performance and visual mode, which makes it a great alternative if your PC rig can’t quite run the game at peak performance.

Cyberpunk 2077 oozes with detail that soaks into every part of the world. One example might be fashion and vehicles. Styles in Night City fall into four categories, and you see it heavily reflected as you encounter certain individuals — a visual representation of what the residents of these areas, and where their interests might align. Kitsch is what you might consider how the “regular” folks dress. Flashy for sure, and neon-soaked no doubt, but Kisch places style over function. It’s the Final Fantasy of fashion, with extra belts, shiny chrome everywhere, and ultra bright colors. Entropism is how the “people with jobs” dress. For the folks living hand-to-mouth out in the wastelands, fashion isn’t their primary concern. Maybe it’s clothes from the last decade, or perhaps it’s the grimy coveralls they need for work, people in this category just want to live their lives. They drive what they can afford, with their vehicles being cobbled together from scraps. You’d call them the Working Man. Neomilitarism isn’t all camouflage like the name would suggest. No, these are the dark shadows that you know are behind you, but you don’t see until it’s too late. Blended with the highest high-end tech and sleek corporate fashion, Neomilitarists are upward bound and don’t have time for the likes of you. You see this reflected in their massive tank-like armored vehicles — they are more function over form, as long as that function comes in black. Neokitsch feels like a blend of Mike Tyson’s crazy mixed with high-end couture runway and a dash of elitism for color. These are the upper crust folks who chase the brightest stars, drive the flashiest cars, and drink at the best bars. Ultrarich, these folks live in a completely different world than you and I. The complaint, of course, is that it’s all window dressing. If you chase the stats, you’ll end up looking like a circus clown in sequined hotpants. Options to look cool are few and far between if you want the other stats on your equipment to actually matter.

Cool has less to do with how cool you are (though that’s still part of it), and more so how well you can keep your cool. Basically, how “together” your character is, just like in the tabletop game, though with the attractiveness stat rolled in for good measure. Cool isn’t the only stat for those who would rather talk than start a gun fight — every stat and skill has their chance to shine. One moment you might be hacking a credit chip to remove a virus and not make the group you’re paying off angry, the next you could be ripping a door off its hinges to open an alternate route past some guards. There are myriad solutions to most problems Cyberpunk’s quests will present you with, and while the differences in what actually happens next plot-wise can sometimes change very little the sheer wealth of options has me already wanting to dive back in with a completely different build.

Before we get further into this review-in-progress, I want to pause and commend the team on an absolutely phenomenal soundtrack. No matter what kind of music you like, there’s something here for you here. Don’t take my word for it — check it out on Spotify for yourself.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Behind the Scenes: Score and Soundtrack

Quests in Night City will test your skills in all manner of ways. Quite a lot of these merc missions are just talking to people, which is a nice change of pace. One I really enjoyed sees V consoling a former member of the NCPD, who quit the force after his friend died and hasn’t left his apartment since. How you talk to both him and his friends can drastically alter his fate, these little moments are some of the best parts of the game. The main quest is good enough in its own right, V and Johnny Silverhand’s (read: Keanu Reeves) interactions are especially interesting, but its length doesn’t allow your choices to have the same weight. Your decisions only come into play right at the very end, and even then it only affects the final mission; the actual ending is a completely different choice. This makes me wonder if we even need main stories in open world games like this, when the side quests are the greater highlight. The amount of choices and how they change the ending here is nice, but I found they end up feeling a bit flat with the story going exactly how you expect. Heck, the most interesting ending (aside from the secret ending, which we could not get due to Johnny’s poorly explained approval rating) skips the finale entirely. Personally, I would have preferred a single, strongly written conclusion rather than multiple, weaker ones. Writing and voice acting are, however, excellent across the board, even if I do have problems with the former we’ll get to in a bit.

In the first hour of the game I spotted three people in T-pose, one guy eating an invisible hamburger, and bizarre hyper-speed running NPCs. Sometimes people you shoot square in the forehead will lay on the ground like you simply punched them in the stomach. Let’s be clear here: this game is not finished. You are almost constantly fighting against bugs like NPCs who won’t talk to you, keep running into walls, or contradict the story by being in two places at once. Hopefully the developers will continue to patch the game (after a well earned break and in better working conditions), but the question is how much can they fix with patches and how many of the problems are simply baked in at this point? You can probably fix your character’s dick falling off in romance scenes, but what about Night City’s lack of a gang problem? If this city is so dangerous, why is it that there are never any non-scripted gang fights, corpo assassinations, or literally any crime at all outside of my lack of road safety? How about that promise of each weapon becoming better as your character uses it more? What about the fact you can’t leave combat without running far, far away? The fact straight female characters have a single romance option, and that isn’t likely a valid choice for most players, or the jenky-ness of melee combat? Only time will tell if 2077 will become the game that was promised in the marketing, but the base is there; it just needs a little love, care, and a whole lot of time. Stability and performance should obviously be the priority here, but are they willing to go the extra mile and make this more like Deus Ex but with fancy graphics?

Cyberpunk 2077 — Official Launch Trailer — V

There are a lot of things that frankly haven’t come together in the final product versus what we were pitched. Night City Wire promised a deep interaction between the various gangs of Night City, suggesting that somehow making one angry will make the others come after you, or that cops would patrol the city, giving you additional scrutiny if you aligned with one over the other. None of that happens in any meaningful way outside of a handful of quests. Most of the time the people walking around the city, gang member or hapless citizen, are simply wandering from here to there, or sitting there waiting for you to shoot them. NPCs feel lifeless, and the vast majority of shops are window dressing. See that awesome looking neon-soaked noodle joint with the fancy sign beckoning you to come in and sample some version of Night City tonkatsu? Well, you can’t interact with them or the thousands of other people. For as packed as Night City is, it’s also somehow a ghost town.

As fun as Cyberpunk 2077 is, it has many, many issues that are just inexcusable. For one you can’t rebind most of the controls, like the interact key F, ESC to close menus, and all of the keys to open any menu. The accessibility options that do exist are less than the bare minimum, such as color blind modes and turning on subtitles, you can’t even change the font size or change aim down sights to a toggle. Some dialogue simply doesn’t have subtitles either.. There’s also the issue of the game causing seizures with flashing white and red lights before every single braindance sequence, as well as flashing, glitchy visuals happening randomly as you progress in the story and sometimes it just glitches out with the whole screen flashing white for a few seconds. Even as an able bodied person, these moments were hard to look at. Frankly, I’m astonished this game got through certification, someone completely failed to do their job and Cyberpunk should not have been released in this state.

Cyberpunk 2077 — Official Trailer — Johnny Silverhand

Furthermore, there are several thematic issues present in the game. Cyberpunk certainly has the “cyber” part of the genre down pat, but the “punk”? Less so. There are so many times where the game comes so close to having a message, saying something, anything about our present day world but always shies away from it so as not to piss anyone off. While the game places a lot of focus on the vices of sex and violence, they function entirely as set dressing. There are sex workers everywhere in Night City, but they only serve to titillate the presumably straight, cis, male player. While there is nudity, which can be disabled in the settings, the game will only ever show you female nudity outside of your own character. In several story quests, the game comes inches away from saying sex work should be decriminalized to combat poor working conditions, pay, and abuse, but chickens out in favor of shock value or simply allowing the player to ignore it. In these same quests, at least one of the major antagonists is heavily queer coded, presenting as a man with feminine mannerisms and dress. The game attempts inclusion by allowing you to choose body type and genitals separately, but for some reason pronouns are tied to the voice you choose. This is shameful for a game so heavily focused on body modification and freedom of expression considering I have only found two positive portrayals of a queer character. There are a few optional notes and conversations about the healthcare system and capitalism, but these are mostly used as jokes. The game feels hollow with no message anywhere, outside of not wanting to be forgotten when you die, and I wish it would say something, even if it makes me mad. I don’t want to be preached at, but I do want what is otherwise great writing to have more depth to it. Night City is supposed to be a cruel mistress, but what we find here is merely neglected, or at best, disaffected in its current state. It’s not that the city doesn’t care about you, it’s that it seems to exist in some sort of sterile minimally-interactive state that neither endangers, enrages, asks a meaningful question, or somehow pushes the envelope. If games are truly art, we should hold them to a much higher standard than this.

We also can’t in good conscience write this review without bringing attention to CDPR’s crunch problem. While it’s hardly unique in this industry, with good planning and project management, crunch should not be a necessary part of game development, because no game is worth it if it takes human suffering to complete. The marketing surrounding 2077 has been misaimed as well, to say the least. The controversial Mix it Up advertisement is everywhere in the game with essentially no commentary aside from simply shoving it in your face constantly, ‘cuz capitalism. This would have been an opportunity for Cyberpunk to point out how a corporation would use a shocking visual or a mixed metaphor for exploitive sex work, but it does neither. Thankfully the contest winner’s cosplay (who is a cis woman) is not present in the game as far as we can tell, and the game overall is less “edgy” than the marketing would suggest. While the game is rated M and has a warning for photosensitive people at startup (which it lacked at initial launch), there are also a few other things which deserve forewarning. Enemies like to use the word “cunt” almost constantly, some sidequests contain depictions of suicide, police brutality is frequent and randomly generated across the city, there is one sex scene the player is forced to sit through as part of the main story, glitchy visuals including flashing lights before each Brain Dance sequence, and finally the game depicts some horror scenarios such as loss of sense of self. Originally we were going to write up a list of trigger warnings on a quest by quest basis, but these topics are so frequent and spread throughout the game that players who are sensitive to these themes should keep them in mind during play. Games such as Ikenfell do a fantastic job of warning the player about potentially disturbing themes before a scene and Cyberpunk could use something similar, albeit with a toggle to turn that warning off so as to not spoil any upcoming story elements for those who prefer it.

In the end, Cyberpunk 2077 is an absolutely gorgeous game in search of a soul, which is ironic, given the duality of the protagonist’s situation. The developers worked extraordinarily hard on what’s here, polishing it to an absolutely gorgeous shine on PC, delivering stunning visuals…when they work correctly. They also delivered a game that is a great deal of fun at some moments, and bafflingly broken the next. With over 30 GB of updates since launch, this game needs more time in the oven. Sure, it’s better on PC, but that’s cold comfort when it’s hardly functional on other platforms. What’s clear is that this game is no more ready for release than it is for review. Major patches are already slated for January and February, and we’ll revisit it at that time to score it. Right now, buyer beware. There’s a fun game underneath all this, but only if you are playing on PC or Stadia.

I don’t know what it’ll take for publishers to realize that this is not healthy. It’s bad for the people involved (who will be crunching over their holidays and well beyond instead of enjoying time with their families), it’s cost them over a billion dollars so far, and it has damaged the long-term faith and trust of a willing audience. This game could have been a late-entry Game of the Year, but instead it’s just meme-bait in its current state. You promised we’d burn the city. Well, congratulations — it’s on fire. Now what?

This review-in-progress was co-authored by David Flynn and Ron Burke. Stay tuned for further developments, news, and an eventual score in the future right here at GamingTrend.com

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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