It's difficult to know what to say about a game as complex, as large, and as controversial as Cyberpunk 2077. It's a game made off the backs of overworked developers, helmed by management that seemed, if reports are accurate, bound and determined to release the game before the end of 2020 no matter what shape it was in. It's a game that is not even available for sale on the PlayStation Store right now due to an unusually high volume of game-breaking bugs and instabilities in the existing release. Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red's latest, is a lightning rod for nearly every major issue plaguing the video game industry in 2020. But that description does little to explain how the game actually plays in its current state. We know what Cyberpunk 2077 represents. But what is it actually like?
It is, in a word, underwhelming: shot through with small bits of excellence, Cyberpunk 2077 is nevertheless overwhelmed by dozens of small problems that pile on top of each other, many of them clearly the result of the hostile conditions in which the game was made. Playing Cyberpunk 2077 is an exercise in relentless, small frustrations that pile up to the point of overwhelming the final product. This problem won't get you, and maybe the next one won't either, but experiencing them all is exhausting—and after a while, nearly unbearable.
Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in Night City, starring a protagonist of your chosen gender named V. V is a mercenary, called an "edgerunner" in the world of Cyberpunk. Based on Mike Pondsmith's seminal tabletop setting, Cyberpunk's Night City is the source of a lot of what makes the game compelling. The setting is sprinkled with some well-trod but effective character archetypes—the shady middlemen, the burned-out revolutionaries, the savvy hackers—and they make for a comforting enough cast, interspersed with a handful of honestly interesting characters. Keanu Reeves's Johnny Silverhand is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the game's highlights, a burned-out AI version of an old revolutionary punk who slowly reveals himself to be both more horrible and nobler than he initially appears. One of the voice actors for V, too, Nier Automata's Cherami Leigh, does a stellar job, imbuing the player character's perspective with an enthralling (if not inconsistent) sense of perspective and energy.
As for the experience of being an edgerunner, it's remarkably similar, in rhythm and tone, to being the protagonist of a Grand Theft Auto game. You drive around town, listening to anachronistic licensed radio tracks, taking jobs from various bosses across town that typically involve some manner of shooting, sneaking, and/or stealing from a variety of colorful characters. Sometimes you have an NPC buddy, sometimes you don't. For all the hype surrounding Cyberpunk 2077, the degree to which it pulls its solid ideas directly from older open-world games is striking. Clever as they can be at times, few of the game's tricks are new.
Nevertheless, a few of its ideas are compelling. The Quickhacking system, which allows you to use your implants to remotely hack into electronic systems—including but not limited to the implants in your opponent's bodies—is well implemented and legitimately engaging. At higher levels, the system can be integrated with stealth, letting you turn off an enemy's ocular implants or freeze them in place in order to sneak by unseen. It melds less effectively with gunplay, but can certainly be useful in more aggressive encounters as well—like a neater, more mechanical form of magic.
Unfortunately, Cyberpunk 2077's few virtues contrast heavily with its dazzling number of problems. To wit, Cyberpunk 2077's quest design is largely half-baked—so much so that it beggars belief that this was made by the same developers as Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. The quests in Witcher 3 rarely unfold exactly as expected, often surprising you with some sort of reversal. Cyberpunk 2077, by contrast, has few twists—things in Night City are usually exactly as they appear.
The writing has bigger issues, too. It's tonally inconsistent, and occasionally severely culturally insensitive. The gangs in the game are sharply racially stereotyped and portrayed as, largely, Other to V and her world. The Japanese characters are obsessed with honor and filial piety. The Black characters are usually menacing and duplicitous. Sex workers are treated as props, or victims, or worse.
Even if you can get past the content of the quests, their presentation is lacking, too. They're all linked to an in-game cell phone that can't be turned off and constantly harangues you with offers to buy used cars. The entire system feels cluttered, confusing, and stressful. The phone call interface can even interfere with other parts of the game, occasionally overlapping with ongoing conversations, breaking the sequencing on both.
It would help if the conversations were more interesting to listen to, but they're generally not. The broad arc of Cyberpunk 2077 makes sense on paper: grow in skill and ability by climbing a skill tree and purchasing new augmentations for V, while going on an adventure through Night City that embroils the entire city in a conflict with large implications for both the physical world and cyberspace. The game starts, in proper neo-noir fashion, with a job gone wrong, forcing you to pick up the pieces and figure out what went wrong. A major figure in Pondsmith's original Cyberpunk lore, Johnny Silverhand's journey intertwines with yours, as you both try to figure out how to survive with identities intact as the implants you've been forced to wear meld your minds together.
It's a story that has its moments. There are some good side characters, and during play you might occasionally be struck by a segment that just works, where the story and the play align to make Cyberpunk 2077 feel like it's supposed to. In those moments, the game feels like a psychedelic techno-dystopian thriller set in a world of big questions and big characters.
But the issues, big and small, constantly sabotage that feeling. Both gunplay and driving are exceptionally loose. Enemy AI seems to jump between being far too aware of your presence and stunningly idiotic during stealth sequences. Dialogue options regularly vary in tone so sharply that conversations feel constantly jittery, oscillating between friendly and aggressive, tense and relaxed.
And then there are the bugs. Many of these may be fixed, in a month or a year, but I feel a responsibility to record for posterity just how broken this game is. Cyberpunk 2077 in the week after its launch is the buggiest game I have ever played. USGamer was given PlayStation 4 code upon the game's release, which I played on the PlayStation 5 in the hopes of obviating some of the performance issues. It barely helped, stabilizing the frame rate and absolutely nothing else. The game crashed once or twice an hour throughout the entire review process. Once, I lured out an enemy from his perch on a couch in order to take him out with a stealth chokehold. Upon being knocked unconscious, he got up, walked back to the couch, and slumped back into it to watch some TV while comatose, Weekend at Bernie's style. Another time, I had a mission-critical conversation from an entire floor beneath the other characters. Dialogue frequently skipped. Objects were culled by the game prematurely, in ways that rendered the game's illusions paper-thin.
None of this is to say the developers at CD Projekt Red should have been working harder or better. So many of the issues facing this game are clearly the result of mismanagement, forcing developers to work under conditions that are bound to produce poor work. It's a monument to the triple-A development model pushed to its most exploitative breaking point. Worse, while the bugs can be fixed,the foundations of the game are full of flimsy fixes, bad ideas, and ill-thought-out systems.
Could Cyberpunk 2077 be a passable curiosity, in a year or two, when the bugs are ironed out and some new systems are welded on? Maybe. But that ideal version of Cyberpunk 2077 still won't be good, and it still won't be worth the pain that went into its creation. Nothing could be.
Playing Cyberpunk 2077 is like suffering a death of a thousand cuts. If the bugs don't get you, the bad quest design, the insensitive writing, or a million other small problems will. All told, Night City might not be worth the visit.