Cyberpunk 2077

Keanu Reeves and the color yellow made Cyberpunk the most hyped game of the 2010s.
Loved the setting and characters, plus solid game mechanics, good command of Cyberpunk tropes

Let me start by saying that I have a low bar to clear for anything that happens to be in the cyberpunk genre. A Bladerunner poster in our computer room growing up captured my imagination. I thought it had to be another Star Wars movie, because there was Han Solo. It looked .. different though. I finally watched the movie in highschool. I loved its violent, pulpy nihilism and its characters’ goofy posturing. But more than that, it felt like it was “about something.” I could feel Deckard's weariness and loneliness as he looked out from his balcony.

Deckard on his balcony.

Cyberpunk 2077, like so many games and movies in this genre, continues in the well-trod visual tradition of the “Bladerunner city.” It draws even more heavily on Gibsonian cyberpunk tropes such as data fortresses, mercenary hackers and dangerous AIs. If you want, you can trick out your regular melee attack to be a monofilament whip. There’s a “Hate your meat?” advertisement that appears near Ripperdoc cybernetics shops around Night City. Gibson’s ideas are all over the place, as they should be.

Hate your meat? This comes from a phrase used by the hacker Case in William Gibson's Neuromancer.

Let’s get some other things out of the way. First, I played this on a PC with an RTX card from 2019. It runs well at 1440p. From what I hear, don’t try to play Cyberpunk 2077 on last-gen consoles. Also, Cyberpunk developer CD Project Rekt strained its relationship with fans and press through a number of controversies. I recommend doing some research on your own. Without getting into specifics, my take was that while some staff at CDPR expressed some attitudes that did bother me, it did not cross my personal threshold to where playing the game made me feel uncomfortable. Different peoples’ mileage will vary here.

Controversies aside, Cyberpunk overwhelmingly succeeds as a game. The story, the world and the characters drew me in immediately. The combat and hacking mechanics took a bit longer for me to figure out, but once things clicked, I started having a lot of fun with encounters.

Despite it having a very different game setting, Cyberpunk 2077 most resembles Fallout 4 in terms of combat mechanics. Like Fallout, guns are fun and high-impact, but ultimately your effectiveness comes down to the quality and level of your gear. Lots of games have this aspect, such as the Borderlands and Destiny series, but I chose Fallout as the comparison here because Cyberpunk’s hacking closely resembles the V.A.T.S mechanic from Fallout. Quickhacks let you slow down time, and your cyberdeck’s RAM capacity is analogous to action points in Fallout. Quickhacks are a little bit different than V.A.T.S though, and a common complaint is that they are game-breakingly overpowered. This is definitely true if you find certain legendary quickhacks and aren’t trying to play stealthily.

Quickhacking slows down time while you decide upon a nasty surprise for an enemy or a piece of infrastrucure.

If you didn’t like Fallout 4’s combat (I didn’t), you should still give Cyberpunk a chance: everything is snappier and dialed up.

Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto formula also makes up a big part of Cyberpunk 2077’s open-world DNA. One area where this succeeds is the desert vs city split. This is ripped from GTA V, in which Rockstar did a great job of defining two “zones'' that one could traverse to get a very different aesthetic and story experience. I do wish that CDPR had done a better job of building traffic and driving mechanics in the same realm of quality as GTA V. Cyberpunk’s traffic system fails pretty spectacularly at times and the result is deadlocked traffic, when you’re trying to get to an objective. The fast-travel substations are more reliable and this takes some of the fun away. I did like the cars a lot in Cyberpunk. So far my favorite is the Javalina.

The Javalina: rugged and quick.

I’ve gone over some of Cyberpunk’s mechanical influences, but what about its heart and soul? To me there is no question: it is the spiritual successor to CDPR’s last project The Witcher 3. Having said that, I do think it falls short of the Witcher 3 in terms of character development and role playing. As I’ll explain in the next few sections, it goes in a different direction and tries to pull off something more complex. Some things work; some things don’t.

Who is V?

V is the name of the player character, and really, V is you. When you start Cyberpunk, you choose a Lifepath, which is your background and defines which opening mission you get. While this is a cool foundation for the game, it means your context for being in Night City is pretty thin. The game does a pretty good job through the first act of giving you “ties” that encouraged me to roleplay rather than powergame, but this wears off quickly as well .. stuff happens. V is not the same as Geralt from the Witcher games, a character who, from the outset, is firmly anchored within the stories and legends of the game world. I would guess that CDPR went in this direction deliberately - consider the choice to call the player character simply “V.” Having V as a blank slate with no history offers an interesting juxtaposition when a certain plot element comes into play.

Like many RPGs, dialogue trees power Cyberpunk’s roleplaying system. Cyberpunk features a cast of compellingly voice-acted characters with memorable traits and agendas. It has been a while since I assumed the role of Geralt-jockey, but I don’t remember the characters in The Witcher 3 being as good.

Your buddy Viktor, the friendly ripperdoc.

So what are some issues? Let’s start with the character creator. I am a web developer and we often talk about the “MVP” when we are building sites or web applications. This stands for “Minimum Viable Product.” It means the set of features needed to let our clients do business with, and be satisfied with the application that we deliver.

The character builder in Cyberpunk is not MVP. You almost never see your character’s face or body outside of the inventory screen. Also, your character almost always looks stupid because of the motley assortment of gear you have to wear to get decent stats. I feel bad saying this because developers put a lot of effort into the character creation tool, and it turned out well.

Another thing is that as soon as you start driving around Night City, a bunch of random “fixers” (quest-givers) start calling you. It’s an expedient to set the stage for the open world loop where you look at your map, find a dot and drive there to kill/sneak around folks, get stuff, and rinse/repeat until you feel like doing a story quest. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it would have been worth figuring out a way to pace things more evenly.

Finally, the Cyberpsycho fights (think monster contracts from The Witcher) were not tuned very well. Some of them had a fun atmosphere but largely they rewarded cheese/glitching strategies.

The unlucky Alec Johnson: soon to be former Cyberpsycho

Best parts of the game

Cyberpunk 2077 is a fully realized cyberpunk combat and story simulator. Mechanically, it checked a lot of boxes for me: over-the-top FPS gunplay, a well tuned progression system and a satisfying open world loop. Night City itself is a major milestone in open world games: I can’t think of a game before this where developers and artists had created such a large volume of high-quality assets. The branding and styles of Night City show you more about the world than all of its lore data pads can tell.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the best thing about Cyberpunk was just how packed it was with Cyberpunk tropes. I talked about these at the beginning a bit - but let me emphasize - they’re pretty much all here. Hacking, identity crisis, megacorps, body-horror, “biz,” you name it. If that makes you go “meh,” Cyberpunk 2077 will probably not wow you. If that sounds like the greatest thing ever, then you’re really going to like this game.

WARNING: Spoilers below




Let’s talk about Johnny Silverhand, and the end of Cyberpunk 2077 a bit.

Johnny takes the stage at the beginning of Act Two, after your heist to steal the “biochip” goes sideways and all your friends get killed, and you get shot in the face by the fixer who set it all up. Johnny lives as an “engram” on the biochip that you stole. At one point in the heist, you stuffed the biochip in your head-port, and now you have Johnny Silverhand in your brain.

Johnny Silverhand is voice-acted by, and rendered in the appearance of Keanu Reeves when V hallucinates him. He has a silver hand (hey you’re reading the spoiler part) and he drives a Porsche 911 that looks like it is from the 1980s. Johnny is an anachronism. He’s always mad at the corpos, and likes to bust V’s chops at every opportunity.

Johnny is kind of like Siri from the Witcher 3 in terms of his prominence in the story as someone who matters to you, the player. In Cyberpunk 2077, the big choice is “who gets to keep V’s body?” The game telegraphs this from pretty early on, but it still works as good drama when the moment finally arrives. I chose to let Johnny stay, and for me it went back to V being such a blank slate, while, especially if you do certain quests, Johnny comes across as a real person with memories, personality and regrets.

I liked that the game made me think about who was more real - the avatar whom I piloted through 70+ hours of open-world carnage and dialogue trees, or the NPC frenemy with a compelling past and the face/body of a real actor. It was sad when I realized that after playing V, I didn’t really care much about him and was ok with consigning him to oblivion.

As I mentioned earlier, V is not Geralt. I’m ok with the V-as-cypher design choice. I think it comes down to how you approach “roleplaying” in games: I like characters who, like the replicants from Bladerunner, are grounded with memories. Geralt has memories, Johnny has memories, but V .. not so much, unless you are counting what happens as you play the game.

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