Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cyberpunk 2077 Review – Brilliant, but Bleak

Let me tear the plaster off straight away – Cyberpunk 2077 does not live up to the hype. Then again, how could anything that’s received such buzz, for such a prolonged period of time? Remember, this is a game that was announced in 2012 – three years before the release of The Witcher III, which itself went on to become developer CD Projekt Red’s biggest success to date and setting sky-high expectations for its successor. Players have spent nearly a decade devouring every trailer, screenshot, and nugget of information surrounding the game, often building themselves into a frenzy of excitement that nothing could match.

However, that doesn’t mean Cyberpunk 2077 is a bad­ game – far from it, in fact. It’s a phenomenal creation that almost meets the stratospheric heights of its ambition. CD Projekt Red has crafted a rich and complex world practically unrivalled in its depth and detail, but that complexity also creates some problems for the game, both practically and, almost, morally.

Nice wheels. Steal them. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

Based on the pen-and-paper Cyberpunk RPG, 2077 sticks close to the original material, only updating a few key dates. Set in Night City, a megalopolis on the west coast of the New United States of America, players take on the role of V. Precisely who V is is up to you – first you’ll choose their background, whether they’re a hardened Streetkid from the dirty streets of Night City, a vagrant Nomad from the Badlands outside city’s secured borders, or a Corpo, embedded in the upper echelons of Night City’s megacorporations. The choice results in wildly different opening chapters, but also impacts key elements of the game’s progressing story, including dialogue options and how other characters will respond to you.

Then you determine who V is, individually, with one of the most in-depth character creator suites you’ll encounter. There are a few presets for male or female V, but almost everything about them can be modified, including their voice and genitals. Understandably, this facet of the game has attracted a lot of attention from LGBTQ+ players, particularly our trans siblings.

Maybe he’s born with it. Maybe it’s advanced cybernetic surgery and bleeding edge tech implants. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

We’ll be having more commentary from authentic voices on this aspect (and how Cyberpunk 2077 represents trans, non-binary, and intersex people in a wider sense) on Gayming Mag in the near future, but speaking mechanically, the creation tool provides a reasonable – though not flawless – way to create a body for V that matches players’ identities. A male-presenting V can have a vagina, a female-presenting V can have a penis – and any build with a penis can choose from two shapes and three sizes, making for perhaps the most meticulously crafted dicks in gaming history – and voices can be used either way.

The one big omission is that choice of voice impacts gender – pick a male voice, and other characters will refer to V with male pronouns, and vice versa. There is seemingly no option for non-binary options, or use of they/them pronouns. Hopefully, a later patch can address this, although with the sheer amount of spoken dialogue in the game – which could require recording new lines – perhaps not.

These upgrades will cost you an arm and a leg. Actually, just two arms. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

Beyond character creation, whichever life path you choose for V – my main game has been as a male Street Kid, though I’ve also checked out the opening hours for Nomad and Corpo – you soon find yourself down on your luck and taking ask-no-questions jobs from Night City’s underground elements. The core of the story find V pulled into a vast conspiracy that could dismantle the corporate hold that chokes the world, or render it unstoppable.

Achieving either of those ends – or any other in the wildly branching narrative – sees you running around one of the largest world maps on record, building a rep as you navigate that conspiracy. In many ways, 2077 lives up to its promises of being able to play your own way and tackle missions or problems as you want. Making life hard for myself, I’ve chosen to pursue a non-lethal route, emphasising communication where possible and stealth where not. Whatever approach you choose, your skills are customisable thanks to the cyberbetics that practically everyone in the world has embedded.

We can rebuild them. We have the technology. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

This is where Cyberpunk’s customisation really goes into overdrive, as by visiting a “ripperdoc” – shady cyber surgeons – you can modify almost everything about V. You may want to boost physical attributes to improve your melee abilities, mental traits which might boost marksmanship or computer-related skills, or even your biolgical systems, which can reap benefits such as better stamina or higher resistance. How you use those skills factors into the multiple ways in which you’ll level V up – lots of silent takedowns boosts your stealth level, but overall character level is increased by gaining experience from completing missions, while your street cred is elevated from side missions earning you respect, in turn making NPCs more likely to give you info or sell you rarer items.

That’s a lot to juggle just on character levelling, and it’s a recurring irritant that everything about Cyberpunk 2077 feels just slightly on the wrong side of complex – there’s a hell of a lot to follow on every level. Even hacking, which you’ll do a lot of throughout the game, is overcomplicated, with weighty jargon of uploading iceDAEMONS to bypass certain enemy features or having to engage in a code-matching mini-game when doing certain types of hacks. Part of that is the natural downside of a world as fully detailed as the one CD Projekt Red has created here, where the lore and ‘rules’ are deeply embedded in every aspect of this virtual society, but it still results in information overload for players.

In some ways, Cyberpunk 2077 proceeds as the open-world RPG genre dictates. You have your core quests that will move the main story along, all of which are fully ignorable if you’d rather go off and follow side quests or explore the world. You can pursue romance, or even one night stands – and yes, that includes queer relationships, from the serious to meaningless hook-ups – although for the most part, sex is just another product in the world, be it gay, straight, or anywhere inbetween. It is an astoundingly impressive world to explore though, packed with fanciful side characters (speak to Garry the Prophet early on, preaching in an alley about the evils of cybernetic  implants and the wonders of aliens from Alpha Centauri) and ridiculously intricate environments packed with secrets to uncover.

Whoa. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

It is, however, also an extremely depressing world. Yes, grim techno-noir is part and parcel of cyberpunk as a genre – although Neuromancer author William Gibson, credited with helping pioneer the genre, recently said he felt his work was actually optimistic, simply for positing a future for humanity at all – but this feels like a world stripped bare of hope or positivity. It’s a world brought low by arch-capitalism, where everyone is forced to the dark side by the institutions that govern everything.

Perhaps that’s the point though – maybe CD Projekt Red is trying to make a statement on how the corporate path we’re on in the real world only has this dismal future as an outcome unless we change course. Cyberpunk 2077 definitely dabbles in philosophy and theology, with background characters or in-game TV broadcasts discussing if cyber-modification has gone too far or if humans have killed God with their technological hubris. But nowhere have I encountered something that makes that possible satire into even subtext, let alone a definitive statement. Often, the rank commercialism and entrenched cynicism just feel to be there, extensions of our own world, with no greater statement. Maybe that is the point, a nihilistic “nothing matters”, writ in neon signs and adware popping up on your brain implants.

Don’t take the gun personally – this is as friendly as Night City gets. (Image ©CD Projekt Red)

I can’t remember the last time I was as conflicted about a game as I am with Cyberpunk 2077. As a game, I want to play more – I want to master its systems, see if I can finally get to grips with its hacking rules and myriad abilities. I want to try different character builds, focussing on strength or gunplay rather than stealth. I want to explore the vast, labyrinthine world of Night City and its surrounding locales, and pursue different story tangents just to see how they pan out. Yet I also don’t particularly enjoy spending time in the world, drowning in its bleakness – perhaps because its vision of an oppressively dystopian future full of corporate atrocities, casual commodification of everything from sex to bodies to soft drinks, and capitalist excesses taken to their extreme isn’t terribly far removed from the real world. In fact, it’s nightmarishly close in some ways – for American players in particular, elements such as the lethally privatised healthcare system in Night City is a daily lived experience already.

There’s no denying that Cyberpunk 2077 is, mechanically and structurally, a masterpiece of world building and game design, even if it’s a slightly over-complicated one. The question is whether it has depth beyond the intricacies of its systems, a real depth of theme and concept – and short of offering a dark reflection of our own excesses, I’m still not sure it does. One thing is for certain though – for better or worse, people will be discussing CD Projekt Red’s latest for years to come.

The Verdict: 4.5/5

Cyberpunk 2077 is available from 10th December on PC (version tested), PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia.

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3 thoughts on “Cyberpunk 2077 Review – Brilliant, but Bleak

  • Hi! Thanks for the analysis! I wanted to ask you if there are few options to have an encounter with men playing a male V?

    • With all the hype of the game I was expecting multiple same sex opportunities for male players but it looks like there’s just one. That’s a big huge step for CD Project Red, so I guess I should be happy about it. There are 2 male romance options total in the game. One gay, one straight. No bisexual romanceable males. 5 female romance options. 2 bisexual, 2 heterosexual and 1 lesbian. Straight males have the greatest variety of choices, per usual. Ah well. Baby steps for CD Project Red. In addition there are male and female prostitutes called “Joytoys” that are all bisexual that you can have sex with.

  • Fun fact. Garry the Prophet is actually twitch streamer CohhCarnage.

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