Cyberpunk 2077 is a game about excess. There's the hedonistic excess of a society that's disconnected from its humanity, seeking artificial intimacy, or thrills at the fatal expense of others. There's the capitalistic excess of a world where corporations have essentially replaced the government, and everything is up for sale. There's the survivalist excess of people needing to replace their body parts with cybernetic enhancements, to get a sense of power they can't achieve from their station in life. In a much more immediate sense, however, it's about the corporate excess of CD Projekt Red. Even setting aside the ethical issues of mandatory crunch or the litany of technical problems that have plagued them since launch, in its best, most functional form, Cyberpunk 2077 is a sprawling testament to CD Projekt Red's self-indulgence. That's not to say there aren't a lot of good ideas in here, but there's just a lot of ideas, period, and more of them fail than succeed.
Take, for example, the crafting system. Throughout Night City you'll find oodles of components you can use to craft new equipment or upgrade your current stuff. It's a fairly common system for open-world RPGs nowadays, but the implementation reduces it to little more than busywork. While you're inundated with components, you'll also get a lot of junk items that need to be broken in order to serve any purpose. (One of the first perks I got was one that automatically broke down junk items for me to save myself the annoyance.) But breaking down junk items or the low-level equipment you get off enemies only yields common components, which aren't good for making much. There's plenty of basic equipment you can craft, but since items don't degrade, you have no reason to ever want to have a bunch of low-level equipment on hand, and so these items and schematics become pointless clutter. The only worthwhile equipment is the epic or legendary stuff, but trying to craft them has its own set of issues. Finding item schematics is pretty hard in general, let alone finding good ones, so you'll have a paltry selection to choose from, and even when you manage to track down a legendary item that aligns with your playstyle, you need to put an absurd amount of points into a specific skill tree before you can actually make it. Of course good equipment should be hard to make, but I was showered with epic and legendary items from looting corpses at missions or buying them, so it made the crafting system seem like a terrible return on investment for the amount of time it takes. The only time the crafting system was ever useful was to produce more bullets, and if your game can be streamlined by removing an entire system and upping the drop rate of bullets, then it wasn't a very well-designed system.
But, I can see why CD Projekt Red wanted to include it. It fits the setting perfectly, of people on the lower rungs of society scrounging and scraping together what they need to survive. Given more focus, it could have done wonders for immersing you in your environment and reinforcing the oppressive social structure created by the rich mega corps. Instead, it ended up being just one thing thrown into a giant heap of systems, and amounts to little more than an annoyance when you’re trying to clear all the junk out of your inventory.
It’s too bad it wasn’t used to organically build the world, either, since the world-building could really use the help. Most of the characters you meet (especially after the first act) are po-faced and melodramatic, ranting about the evils of corporations, which makes them feel like theme delivery vehicles as opposed to real people. There’s an astonishing amount of detail, but any amount of interaction shows how shallow it is. As I explored Night City, I came across countless police shoot-outs, gang wars, muggings--and a lot of the dialogue that accompanies these appears to be unique. It really makes the city seem alive, but once you introduce yourself into these scenarios, that facade falls apart. If you, for example, interrupt a mugging by punching out the mugger, the NPC who you saved will just stare at you blankly, or calmly walk away, nonplussed. Of course it would be a monumental undertaking to make every street activity react dynamically to your actions, but it's still hard to see the city as alive if it doesn't know how to handle a living, breathing player interacting with it. It basically turns all of Night City into a zoo exhibit; I can watch these little plays from a distance, but if I so much as tap on the glass, I'll scare the animals away.
Unfortunately, the missions don’t do much to help build the world either. There are four types of missions: story missions, side missions, gigs, and petty crime. Petty crime involves stopping gang activity or other small crimes happening in the area, and there’s usually not much more to it than eliminating a few troublemakers. Gigs are jobs from fixers, middlemen that serve to connect mercenaries for hire to their customers. These usually have a unique mission structure and setup, but very little story, since anything personal is being filtered through this middleman. This is disappointing, since there are some interesting premises here. One had me track down two men who killed a twelve-year old boy, the son of a televangelist, and recorded the murder to make what is essentially an interactive snuff film. Being able to speak with a man of God who turned to a seedy assassin to handle the evil that took his boy away would have been interesting, but instead it plays like any other mission; you infiltrate a building full of bad guys and either fight or sneak your way to the endpoint to retrieve something. The only thing that felt unique to this mission was that, after retrieving the tape, I found out the two guys running this operation were a father and son, so I decided to kill the son, just to give the father a taste of his own medicine. The fact that there was unique dialogue for this extremely minor character to bemoan the loss of his son is a fantastic attention to detail, but without a more substantial story to enhance, little details don’t make an engaging world.
So, unless you’re only looking to kill time with something mindless, you’ll spend most of your time with side missions and story missions. The main story is mostly fine, but doesn’t do much to stand out from other cyberpunk fare. The main issue is the pacing, as many scenes are bogged down with lengthy dialogue scenes badly in need of a trimming. Your storylines are also split for the majority of the middle section, so you’re running back and forth between stories as you wait for different leads to turn into something. It’s nice that you’re offered these chances to get some breathing space from the main story and try some side stuff, but being forced into it does major damage to the flow and urgency of the main plot. As mentioned, a lot of the characters are very gruff and similar, which means it’s hard to form real personal attachments to them. Like a lot of noir stories, your missions will bring you to a lot of different corners of Night City and meeting a lot of different people, which makes it even harder to grow attached. Some characters you meet in the main story will get side mission questlines, where you follow them through a series of missions to conclude their story, and possibly romance them at the end. These generally fare very well, as there’s a nice personal engagement with the character and usually a decent variety to the mission types. Aside from these, there are a few miscellaneous other side questlines, like eliminating enhanced enemies who’ve been driven mad by their cybernetic enhancements, or tracking down fragments of a fractured A.I. These work well at switching up the type of work you normally do in these missions, but sort of trail off from a story perspective, leaving you with no real answers. That’s likely meant to give players something to ponder and chew on, but with so little solid information, there’s not much to get emotionally or intellectually invested in.
To add to this, so much of Cyberpunk's world seems to be borrowed from other cyberpunk sources. There are lots of references to famous cyberpunk works, like the red and blue pill from The Matrix or the Akira-style motorcycles, but there’s not a lot of fresh ideas, and the ones that are novel don’t seem to explore new themes. Take, for example, the Dolls—prostitutes that use a chip in their head to take on the personality that will most please the customer, both to enhance the customer’s experience and to protect themselves. It’s a very cyberpunk idea. It takes a high-tech concept and applies it to the lowest levels of society, it comments on people's habit of satisfying the need for a personal connection in the least personal way, and it demonstrates how depraved this over-stimulated population has become. But that's all present elsewhere in the genre. Hyper-realistic androids being available for the exploitation of our darkest desires isn't a new idea, and the Dolls aren't so much a twist on it as an artificial ratcheting up of the intensity. It doesn't have anything new to say, it just says it louder.
Cyberpunk as a genre has always focused on the seedy underbelly of society--sex, drugs, violence--but does so to comment on how, as technology makes our basest desires more readily available to us, we'll overindulge and need to become more extreme in our outlets in order to get that same satisfaction. Most cyberpunk stories avoid going into real detail here so that they don't become exploitative themselves. Cyberpunk 2077, however, revels in the lurid details of its world, specifically in the weird, first-person sex scenes. Between these, the aforementioned Dolls, the interactive snuff films, and the drug runners, the world can be a bit overbearing in its seediness. It makes the whole experience feel less like an eighties cyberpunk movie, and more like a dirty, cheap exploitation flick from the same era. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of fun to be had with those movies, but there's a reason Vice Squad or The Exterminator weren't the biggest movie of their year or came in off eight years of hype. In the lack of real thematic weight, Cyberpunk 2077 seems to try to lean on shock value and its novelty as a videogame, which can’t support a title that asks so much of its players.
Despite all this, Cyberpunk 2077 seems to cruise by on the reliability of its solid gameplay. (If you’re playing on a high-end PC, of course…) There are issues you can point to with the driving or how much of a chore inventory management can be, but for the most part things are enjoyable, if a little underwhelming. The gunplay is a lot of fun, with each weapon feeling substantial and impactful. Combat in general is always a delight--movement is breezy, the A.I. are pretty competent, and there’s a great variety of enemies that need to be dispatched in different ways. The stealth also works really well, striking the right balance of meaningful consequences without being totally unforgiving.
And of course, this is where the high-tech, cyberpunk stuff really feels like it pays off. There are smart weapons that connect to your optical sensors, helping you line up headshots easier. There are a range of body enhancements you can get to increase your health or carrying capacity, add a double jump, or even give yourself bladed arms. You’ve also got quickhacks that let you mess with any kind of technology from afar, even the tech implanted in your enemies. You can distract enemies by activating a TV to help stealth, or you can turn off their eyes to initiate a sneak attack. There’s a lot of options here, and it makes some of the more tedious parts of RPGs, like shopping and equipment management, really exciting, as you salivate over a new toy or save up all your money to get a really cool-looking enhancement. They enhance everything, gameplay and story, in an organic way, and give you freedom to choose your method of approach in a way that feels unique to this world.
Still, there’s something that feels very cyberpunk about Cyberpunk 2077, and not in the way intended. It feels less like a game of this genre, and more like something that would exist in a cyberpunk world. It boasts the most impressive technology, marketing hype, huge celebrities, and purports to be a thoughtful, moving story so it can draw people in. But the only part of it that sticks with me, that I really enjoyed, was when I disengaged from the story, and played it as a mindless killing simulator. There’s nothing wrong with that--plenty of great games are mindless killing simulators--but given the themes and lofty goals of Cyberpunk 2077, it ends up feeling a little incongruous, like the game is chastising you for playing it.