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Cyberpunk 2077 is huge, ambitious, and safe

A Night City too big to get weird

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077
CD Projekt Red

“Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.”

That line, from William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, helped define the genre now known as cyberpunk. The book conjures a world where today’s cutting-edge trends are tomorrow’s embarrassing cliches and where desperate hustlers can rise overnight and fade without a trace.

Cyberpunk 2077, the long-awaited game by Witcher studio CD Projekt Red, is about a place called Night City. But in its version, the past is never far away. Cyberpunk 2077 was announced in 2012, and it’s based on a tabletop series that launched in 1988. After years of work and reportedly months of brutal crunch time, CD Projekt Red has delivered on an incredibly ambitious vision: a vast virtual city with a complex narrative and roleplaying system.

It’s done that by playing all those elements extremely safe and straight. Cyberpunk 2077 is a frequently satisfying and sometimes impressive game, but despite its setting in the fast-moving future, it’s almost never a surprising one.

Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in the eponymous year 2077 and the aforementioned Night City, a California megalopolis where interlocking freeways thread between skyscrapers and street markets. (Imagine Los Angeles with mile-high holo-billboards and pedestrian-friendly urban planning.) Following a de facto breakup of America, this failed urban utopia has become an autonomous zone dominated by gangs and multinational corporations. Every street-level surface has been plastered with sexed-up ads and nihilistic graffiti, while the ultra-rich have retreated into cavernous hotels and apartments with a literally gilded servant class. Most citizens are disposable, and all bodies are malleable, ripe for dramatic cybernetic modding that blends flesh with chrome.

Your protagonist is a mercenary named V, hailing from one of three possible backgrounds: 2077’s small corporate overclass, Night City’s teeming slums, or the nomadic groups outside the city. My V was a neon-haired corporate raider, for instance, and got a short origin-story mission about being dragged into a bloody interdepartmental conflict. After this introduction, V becomes one of countless freelancers drifting through Night City’s demimonde. Then they join a heist arranged by a flinty femme fatale, and naturally, the job falls apart.

Sexed-up billboards, nihilistic graffiti, and a literally gilded service class

V witnesses a cold-blooded crime by one of Night City’s biggest power players. In the ensuing chaos and coverup, they end up with a piece of dangerous experimental technology. They also resurrect the digital ghost of a Night City legend: metal-armed punk rocker terrorist Johnny Silverhand, voiced by Keanu Reeves. While suffering Johnny’s cynical quips and frustrated outbursts, they have to figure out who built the tech and how to stop its deadly effects, appealing to criminals and corporate loyalists who will all but inevitably stab them in the back.

This is just one thread in a narrative that’s big even by the standard of most open-world games. I finished Cyberpunk 2077 in 40 hours, which covered most of the major side missions and a fair amount of cruising around Night City, but left a lot of smaller tasks undone. Every neighborhood is packed with jobs to discover, conversations to overhear, and random crimes to stop. As you get more powerful, local fixers and crime bosses start reaching out for help. (They also keep trying to sell you secondhand cars, which, frankly, seems like something a decent capo should delegate.) Beyond the divergent opening missions, you’ll find a couple of major endgame story branches, depending on where you place your loyalties.

A Night City overhead view in Cyberpunk 2077

Looking at Cyberpunk 2077’s map is an overwhelming experience, with waypoint icons packed so tight that selecting any given item requires zooming in. But the game does a great job of spinning extended side arcs from a few core missions. After its calamitous first act, you’re given multiple leads that can advance the main goal. Tracking them down requires cutting deals with new characters and contacting the heist’s other participants. These partners ask for help with their own problems, which might continue a subplot from the main story or open the door to a fresh Night City subculture. You’ll find a lot of quick one-off gigs, but also several optional sections that feel key to V and Johnny’s saga.

Modern cyberpunk is both a broad vibe and a specific retro-future setting

Unfortunately, much of this saga feels extremely rote. In the way that Dungeons & Dragons codified Tolkienesque fantasy, Cyberpunk 2077 distills the most recognizable elements from influential fiction like Blade Runner and Neuromancer. The loosely defined cyberpunk genre began as a grounded alternative to space operas and post-apocalyptic wastelands, heavily influenced by hardboiled fiction. In the decades since, it’s so thoroughly permeated science fiction that its innovations have become cliches. Today, “cyberpunk” has two contradictory meanings: tech-heavy futuristic media that feels organically grown from present-day social conditions, and a specific set of 1980s and ‘90s-influenced retro-future noir conventions. Cyberpunk 2077 is a version of the latter.

Cyberpunk sits in an alternate timeline where the Soviet Union still exists, Japan is a cultural and economic superpower, and big cities are chaotic warzones. The game is set several decades after the original tabletop release, and CD Projekt Red tones down its retro aesthetic enough to avoid ostentatious anachronism. But there are periodic flashbacks to an earlier era, creating a strangely hilarious setup where 2077 looks sort of like real-world 2020, and the fictional 2020s were actually the sci-fi 1980s, right down to vinyl records and eye-mounted camcorders.

Modern fantasy stories, including CD Projekt Red’s Witcher games and the novels on which they’re based, have distinguished themselves by subverting older genre tropes. That’s often meant producing grittier stories with more realistic social dynamics. But ice-cold, swaggering grittiness was cyberpunk’s stereotypical starting point, and Cyberpunk 2077 almost never deconstructs, examines, or builds on its basics. Corporate executives are masters of cold-blooded power games. Fixers do business from smoke-filled bars. Cybernetic escorts haunt the streets. Artists are comfortable sellouts or sociopathic geniuses, including one played by soundtrack contributor Grimes.

Parts of Night City’s future are eternally relevant

Despite being well-worn, plenty of cyberpunk tropes have survived because they ring true. Cyberpunk 2077 depicts a hyper-stratified society that rewards cruelty, exploits vulnerability, and commercializes absolutely everything, something that resonates as much today as it might have decades ago. The game’s conventions sometimes seem to help it avoid facile current-event references while still feeling contemporary.

But Cyberpunk 2077 also falls into irritating caricature. V’s partner, Jackie, is a well-developed blend of streetwise cynicism and deeply buried hopefulness, except that his dialogue is overladen with random and awkward Spanish asides. The game straightforwardly reproduces ‘80s cyberpunk’s surface-level fascination with Japan and China, arming Japanese gangsters with katanas and building Japanese characters around archetypes like the honor-bound samurai.

Like the USSR hanging together, Cyberpunk 2077’s race and gender worldbuilding can feel like an alt-history relic instead of a wild new future. It matter-of-factly lets you customize V’s voice, body shape, and genitalia separately, but nonbinary people apparently don’t inhabit what’s supposedly a weird gender-bending society, so characters will just read your voice as male or female and respond to you accordingly. And despite extreme body modding being totally ubiquitous, transgender women are seemingly still an exotic oddity.

Jackie, your partner in Cyberpunk 2077, in front of a table dancer at a nightclub.

All of these details were noted before Cyberpunk 2077’s release, and they’ve granted the game a culture war hotbed status that it deeply does not merit. As tabletop series author Mike Pondsmith has stated, building the rules of a detailed fictional society is inherently political. Cyberpunk imports social conflicts for dramatic effect, like a long subplot about sex workers — a vulnerable class of real people — trying to overthrow their bosses. But these conflicts don’t feel like successful or failed social commentary, just stock neo-noir conceits that happen to involve oppression. Cyberpunk 2077 is a particular brand of exploitation: a piece of fiction that doesn’t add much to the stories and ideas it’s borrowing, but uses them effectively to deliver crowd-pleasing fun.

And seriously — Cyberpunk 2077 is fun. CD Projekt Red has created a sprawling yet densely populated world where even meandering freeways, outlying deserts, and rows of factory-farm greenhouses feel beautifully crafted. It turns the already eerie and dystopian California road network into a veritable maze, with cross-borough trips sending you through a tangle of cement overpasses.

I can destroy you with my brain four different ways

On top of that, the game includes open-ended roleplaying and some elements reminiscent of immersive sims like Deus Ex. Scavenged or purchased clothes and weapons are supplemented by a complicated upgrade tree for the game’s key stats, which include strength, dexterity, and “cool” (which roughly corresponds to sneakiness). You can also visit back alley technicians called ripperdocs, who install bionic weapons and swappable upgrades with specific perks.

In Cyberpunk 2077, you can approach many areas by slipping past enemies undetected, or you can shoot everyone in sight. There’s a fairly clever hacking minigame that provides blanket benefits, making enemies more vulnerable or glitching out security cameras. There are also instant “quickhacks” for specific actions. On the stealth side, that includes deactivating turrets or making vending machines chirp to distract enemies. In combat, you can literally fry enemies’ brains by making their implants malfunction.

All of these systems help carry Cyberpunk’s considerable length. Instead of rewarding hyper-specialization, the game encourages versatility, mixing up firefights with sneaky sections. Quickhacks add a touch of much-appreciated absurdity to combat. It’s remarkably satisfying to infiltrate a criminal hideout, incapacitate a cluster of mooks by uploading some kind of contagious poison brain virus, wait for their buddies to notice, start a shootout with your futuristic-looking “tech pistol,” then knock the final gangster out with mind powers.

‘Cyberpunk 2077’ is a powerful machine with a million slick toggles, but a lot of them feel disconnected

Like the setting, though, most of these features feel borrowed from other, more thoughtfully constructed games. Cyberpunk 2077 areas have shortcut doors that high-tech or high-strength players can unlock, but not the clever puzzle-box design you’d find in Deus Ex or Dishonored. You can choose to kill enemies or incapacitate them, but beyond a thread of missions where you have to bring targets in alive, this option barely affected my gameplay style or character interactions. (My chosen weapon was a normal pistol fitted with a special non-lethality chip from a gun vendor, and I’m still puzzling over how that’s supposed to work.)

Similarly, your stats and background in Cyberpunk produce occasional extra dialogue choices, but they rarely changed how my conversations unfolded. Many games’ roleplaying choices are obviously crude binaries or illusions. Even so, those illusions — like Telltale’s infamous warning that someone will remember that — help draw players into a story. Cyberpunk 2077 is a powerful machine with a million slick toggles, but a lot of them feel conspicuously disconnected.

This had a silver lining for me as a reviewer, granted, because Cyberpunk 2077’s pre-release PC build was full of unpredictable bugs. One mercenary would repeatedly reappear behind me when I knocked him unconscious, forcing me to simply shoot him. Some unconscious enemies clipped through floors and exploded when I tried to move their bodies. I reloaded one intense boss fight after all participants were mysteriously rendered immortal. Oversensitive collision physics made perfect stealth almost unviable since walls and boxes would occasionally decide I was invading their personal space and push me into an enemy’s sights.

Forgiving gameplay made weird bugs less frustrating

If Cyberpunk were a game for perfectionists, I’d consider these serious problems. And I obviously hope CD Projekt Red will fix them quickly; it’s already rolled out one round of pre-release bug patches. But in a huge sandbox with a generous autosave system, they weren’t actually dealbreakers.

Cyberpunk has been hyped as a triumph of next-generation gaming, and its sheer size certainly takes advantage of modern computer and console specs. (My PC was barely powerful enough for the game’s vaunted ray-tracing options, and I mostly left them deactivated. My colleagues will be delving into its graphics after release.) I’ve been cautiously excited about Cyberpunk 2077 for years, and it’s almost exactly the game I expected: not terribly memorable, but campy and entertaining.

Given just how much crunch and controversy Cyberpunk 2077 has generated, though, I can’t deny being a little disappointed — especially when the game delivers fragments of something more compelling.

Reeves’ character Johnny Silverhand, for instance, is almost purely a leather-clad 20th century counterculture sketch. But there’s lots of potential in any belligerent idealist getting to see his legacy and mostly hating what he finds. In my favorite minor side mission, Johnny’s hologram stops to listen to a busker, prompting you to hunt down a bootleg from his old band Samurai. You get the record by finding a street vendor who’s a Samurai superfan, then reciting some trivia to prove you’re worthy of the goods. Johnny watches the whole nostalgia-drenched conversation with obvious embarrassment.

This encounter never really goes anywhere, although Samurai plays a significant role in the story. But it’s an oddly self-aware moment for a game built on capturing a bygone era’s cool factor. Instead of trying to drop players in an archetypal cyberpunk setting, CD Projekt Red could have pushed the idea further, imagining how an alternative retro-future might evolve — and it might have turned out more interesting than Cyberpunk 2077’s chain-smoking gangsters and console cowboys. But maybe this Night City was too big to get truly weird.

Cyberpunk 2077 will be released December 10th on PC, Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X.