Disclaimer: This game was reviewed on a PC using maximum settings. Performance and visuals may differ for console gamers.
The open-world game has been a staple of video gaming since the days of GTA 3. The biggest selling point of the genre, something the open-world adventure offers gamers like nothing else is the freedom to do what you want. Cyberpunk 2077 is based on the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk, created by Mike Pondsmith, and CD Projekt Red have taken the spirit of tabletop RPGs and attempted to apply as much of it to a video game. Much like the open-world adventure, the core value of tabletop gaming is freedom of choice.
That choice starts with your character, V.
Cyberpunk 2077‘s character creator is insanely detailed. You start by picking a body type, masculine or feminine, rather than a gender. From there, you select a voice, again masculine or feminine. You choose your hair from a wide selection of styles, you choose your hair colour, you pick what sort of your genitals you have, their size, and can even your preferred style of pubic hair if that sort of thing matters to you. If it does not matter to you, you can move along, the important thing is you have that choice should you want it. The options are vast, and everything looks good. We have seen plenty of character creators for great games that produce ugly looking people who don’t fit into the world surrounding them. Cyberpunk 2077‘s character creation system it would take some real determination to make someone look unpalatable here. The two characters I created using this system looked great.
After you have set up V’s look, and allocated their starting character points, you choose their backstory. These are “Life paths” and you have three options: Street Kid, Nomad, and Corpo. You can be someone who rose up through the rough streets, someone living out in the badland wastes as an outcast, or as a top-flight executive. These different paths offer you unique advantages through dialogue options that can provide unique solutions to scenarios that won’t be available for other life paths. Also, somewhat akin to the classic Dragon Age: Origins, they also provide their own unique prologues to play through before syncing up with the main story.
While you do get to create your own personalised V, most of the game is viewed through the first-person perspective, aside from the option to go third-person when you are driving, but you do get to check out your characters look whenever you come across a bathroom mirror. The first-person option is a departure from CD Projekt Red’s previous games but this is important to immerse you in your character, it removes the wall of separation that exists with a third-person camera, you share V’s eyes and ears. It makes V your own just as much as the character creator.
That extra degree of immersion is crucial for the next important element of the open-world adventure: The world around you. You need to feel like you belong to that world. In this regard, CD Projekt Red has nailed that feeling. Night City is alive in a way few other video game sandboxes have achieved. Good design is so important to these games, every square inch of a map needs to feel distinct. You need to be able to look at your surroundings and, in time, know where you are in relation to somewhere else on the map. Rockstar has always excelled at this, Ubisoft has always flopped, and CD Projekt Red have proven themselves on Rockstar’s level – perhaps even exceeding them.
The entire layout of Night City has its own lore and follows a logical development process. Every sector has its own feel, its own history, told in the way the buildings are designed. Some look like masterworks of engineering and architecture, some look like they have been cobbled together from whatever materials were available at the time because the city has left these buildings to rot, some buildings are simply unfinished because the city abandoned them. You can easily track where you are in Night City at any given time, it makes travelling around a lot easier, the longer you spend in the city, the less dependant you become of the GPS. Each part of Night City tells a story about Night City. It is a city of staggering inequity; a perfect microcosm for modern-day America. Another interesting element to the design of Night City comes in how it is built up, not just out. Other games may have bigger maps but Night City has staggering levels of verticality, there are layers and layers of city to explore, it is easily the most complex open-world city design ever committed to a game.
And it all looks and sounds incredible. Night City is built from some beautifully detailed textures, ‘texture’ being the operative word as every surface of the city has a tangible quality to it. Cyberpunk 2077‘s use of advanced ray tracing brings the entire thing to life. The neon reflecting on the rain-slicked, unforgiving concrete and asphalt, the light pollution hanging over the city centres at night, the way the sunlight catches the glass exteriors of massive skyscrapers. Day or night, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 looks vibrant and alive. The ambient sound is key, too. Little things like the way sounds echo through the high rises, so you can hear arguments travel up several floors as you walk to your apartment, or the feeling of a muffled bass reverb through the walls of a night club back room where you are making a shady deal. It all adds to a sense of realism and immersion. The soundtrack from an array of contemporary superstars (including Run The Jewels and Grimes) and the score from Marcin Przybyłowicz, P. T. Adamczyk, and Paul Leonard-Morgan also enhance the mood of the world and the story itself.
Your main form of travel around Night City will be in your car (or someone else’s, I guess) or motorcycle. The sign of a good open-world game is when you will opt to travel from A to B rather than using fast travel. I did it for The Witcher 3, I did it for Red Dead Redemption 2, I do it with Cyberpunk 2077. Driving the streets at night, in particular, Night City brings to mind genre classics like Blade Runner and especially Akira while feeling distinctly its own. It all begins to feel so lived-in and tangible. It feels like something you can reach out and feel under your fingers, somewhere you could exist. Part of that is the incredible technical achievement, part of that is how realistic the design concepts are, it may be distant future technology but it feels like something with roots in our world. It feels like a world that could be possible.
And while driving will be the main form of travel in Cyberpunk 2077, sometimes just walking around Night City is rewarding in itself. The city is so well designed and the ambience is so all-encompassing, you feel like part of the city as you stroll through the streets. Day and night each offer their own distinct vibes and they’re both richly detailed. The streets are densely populated with a surprisingly large variety of NPCs; coming in all shapes and sizes and augmentations. After 50+ some hours of play, I was still finding faces I hadn’t seen before. The way the sun catches different parts of the city, the way the neon and glare of massive holograms transforms the streets, the bustle that surrounds you and seemingly shifts in mood with the time of day. Simply being part of Night City is an experience that I savoured. At one point in the game, I was unconsciously driving back to my apartment at night to get some rest. That environment felt like home, somewhere I should be. I was completely immersed in this reality.
Having an incredibly detailed, stunningly realised sandbox would be useless without something to do within it and, unsurprisingly to anyone who has played a CD Projekt Red game before, they have you covered.
The core story is incredibly compelling, perhaps the most personal stakes of any CDPR game so far. There will be no spoilers beyond what we have already seen in the marketing; V is a Night City merc who finds themselves stuck with the digital spirit of a dead rocket/anarchist called Johnny Silverhand stuck in their head. I won’t get into the core conflict that drives V and Johnny’s story, nor will I specify any missions because that sense of discovery as the game unfolds and grows before your eyes deserve to be done at your pace. I will say it is an expansive, emotionally layered story with many twists and turns as you navigate the complex ecosystem of Night City’s underworld and corporate empires. Your decisions do matter, the loyalties you forge and the enemies you make will be dependent on your decisions rather than what the game forces on you.
The core campaign is much, much shorter than The Witcher 3. I did a lot of side quests and then hit a streak of main quests and I was at the endgame in 30 hours. The main quests seem permanently locked into a medium difficulty while side quests range through easy, medium, hard and very hard difficulties, meaning you have to work your way up and level up for the side quests but the game won’t level gate you out of completing the story at any time.
There are a lot of multi-part side stories to dive into, on top of the main campaign. If you’ve played The Witcher 3, you know the level of writing offered is consistent from the main story to side quests – The Bloody Baron remains one of the best RPG quests of all time and Cyberpunk 2077 has a lot of quests of that calibre; both main and side. There are no half-measures here, everything matters. Every side quest is an engaging micro-story.
If you don’t want to jump into a heavy investment narrative at any given time, there are also side gigs. These are a series of different types assigned to you by local fixers that will earn you extra money. These are your more typical RPG grinds but CDPR still try to mix things up with new locations and backstories to add flavour to hit jobs or fetch quests. There is a lot of game to be played here, you just get to decide on how your game will be paced and how long it will last. Cyberpunk 2077 is a rare open-world game that will reward the 20 to 30-hour player as much as the 100-hour gamers.
There is a broad range of stories to throw yourself into outside of V’s Johnny Silverhand problem.
But what a problem to have!
Johnny Silverhand, as you almost certainly know by now, is played by Keanu Reeves. This is an absolutely fantastic performance by Keanu; sarcastic, disdainful, righteously angry, reluctantly sympathetic, Silverhand contains multitudes, and they are delivered with a level of conviction that is not always seen by the beloved actor. It is clear Keanu was intrigued by the storytelling possibilities it presented him, I have not seen him this engaged by material in a long time. Some of the most stirring video game sequences of the year involve V and Johnny conversing, exchanging barbs, or just quietly contemplating each other’s existence and their fates. This is just great work.
Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand is not the only fascinating character you will encounter on V’s journey, there is a wide variety of characters to encounter in this game are interesting. All brought to life with some top-class voice acting, detailed character renderings, and some amazing facial animations. After years of flat, dead-eyed NPCs in games like Fallout and Skyrim, Cyberpunk 2077‘s characters are bursting with life and personality. The sort of character animations usually reserved for smaller, linear games.
V is also a great character. I primarily played a female street kid and the performance by Cherami Leigh was nuanced and endearing, Leigh was more than up to the task of taking her V on whatever path you choose to take her, she alternated between fun, fierce, or forlorn and everything in-between. Frequently entertaining, often reflective, always making the journey worth your time. My secondary playthrough was as a male Corpo and Gavin Drea was just as compelling; a smartass at one moment, a pained loner at the end of the line in others. This is not a Mass Effect scenario where one voice actor is clearly superior (FemShep for life), both V actors are incredibly good; offering plenty of emotional range for V’s experiences. Every direction I took V, the performance made sense, and I bought into the chemistry with every character they met.
It was so important that the V voice actors captured the open-ended philosophy of the game; that energy is integral to the entire gameplay experience.
Cyberpunk 2077 is built around a fluid class system, meaning you can pretty much play this game whatever way you like. All styles are welcome here. The initial RPG systems are very much like The Witcher 3, particularly in terms of inventory, gear and modifying said gear. The character progression system, however, has been massively expanded on. You can level up 5 core stat blocks (body, reflex, intelligence, technical ability, cool) and upgrade a vast selection of key perks within those individual blocks. You are never locked into a specific style, you can start out prioritising hacking, switch to building melee or stealth, whatever you want. All you have to do is start applying your upgrade points into a different stat block and alter your play style to suit your needs.
Additionally, there are cyber mods that can be applied to different parts of your body to unlock different skills and abilities (such as firing rockets out of your damn arms!), and there are 20 slots open with a lot of mods within each slot so you have a lot of room to experiment. On top of your standard level progression, there is a bonus progression line called Street Cred, a type of Night City renown earned by completing side gigs for different fixers and citizens. As you progress through Street Cred you will gain access to new gear from vendors and more lucrative gig opportunities from your local fixers.
This is a deep, deep character progression system and the game rewards your choices with systems to complement them. I chose a combat-heavy route in my first playthrough and Cyberpunk 2077 rewards that investment with a combat system that was robust, whether I went for gunplay or melee. Gunplay is quick and responsive, the shots have a nice impactful feel, once you get into the groove you will be running and sliding around the battle area, taking down bad guys like an action hero and it will feel slick as hell. I favoured guns, future plays I intend to lean into swordplay and the game allows for that. The times I used swords or other melee weapons, it all worked surprisingly well. A lot of first-person games struggle with melee combat but this felt like it was taking the right cues from the Dishonored series, it works really well.
I also started to put points into stealth and hacking, and the combination of those skills stealth worked well together for sneaking into buildings and distracting/disabling guards. Hacking in stealth works really well, hacking in combat was possible but initially a little trickier, but you can pour points into extending the hacking time.
Driving, the play style you will likely use the most, makes the smart choice of taking its cues from GTA. No other open-world game has done driving as well as GTA. Getting around Night City is tight, responsive, but quite forgiving when it comes to collisions. A lot of the smaller structures on the street will give way for you, thankfully. It even uses compressing the right thumbstick to look behind you, something a lot of other games mess up completely and ruins the flow of a car chase. You need to enjoy driving around a world map, it needs to feel intuitive or you will spend half your time thinking about where your thumb is going next. In Cyberpunk 2077, it feels great to get behind the wheel.
The RPG progression system incentivises you to do side quests and grind at gigs and vigilante missions. It motivates you to spend more time in the game to earn more money, buy new cars and new gear, upgrade your character in new ways and access new tech so you can be the best gunslinger, stealth ninja, or street racer (to name a few things) that you can be. Even jacking cars on the street is level-gated. You need to have a certain level of ‘body’ to successfully jack a car, different cars in different areas require different levels to succeed, so don’t think this is going to be some mindless GTA affair. If you get stuck without a ride and need to make a good quick getaway and there are no cars around to steal, you better get creative and start running.
Those feet, or those wheels, can take you to some surprising places in Cyberpunk 2077. Even after all this time, there is so much left for me to discover. This is how a great open-world game should be; you want to spend as much time as possible in these worlds and you need to feel like that time is going to be rewarded with new discoveries. Not every open-world game knows how to make its world worthy of your time, even beloved games like Skyrim ask you to find your own fun in a lot of ways. Sticking to the script will leave you with stilted storytelling, clunky mechanics and limited options.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a playground of ideas and possibilities by design. The open-ended approach to play, the fluid RPG systems, the finely tuned gaming mechanics, the top-class technical prowess bringing unprecedented levels of immersion, and writing from the best RPG storytellers in the industry. Everything Cyberpunk 2077 does, it does exceptionally. They have now set the bar.
No longer do gamers have to settle for poorly implemented game systems as a trade-off for having a massive sandbox to play in, CD Projekt Red has crafted a technically impressive game while also being on the scale of a Fallout game. This is the new standard that Rockstar, Bethesda, Ubisoft and every other studio playing in this genre need to follow or risk becoming obsolete.
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