In my experience, great open-world RPGs like The Witcher 3 or Skyrim aren’t defined by the strength of their main story, but that of the side missions around it. With Cyberpunk 2077, developer CD Projekt Red has taken that philosophy and built an entire game out of it. Apart from the surprisingly short but still utterly compelling central questline that draws you through its diverse near-future cityscape, the vast majority of what you can do in Night City is entirely optional but often still extremely impactful on your journey. This more freeform structure isn’t without its faults, including loads of distracting bugs, but the strength of the missions themselves – optional or not – and the choice you have within them make Cyberpunk 2077 one of the most exciting, emotional, and just plain fun RPGs I’ve played in recent years.
You’re thrust into the shoes of V, a mercenary in Night City who (avoiding spoilers as much as I can) ends up with the psyche of long-dead rockstar and anti-corporate terrorist Johnny Silverhand trapped in their head. Johnny, played by the instantly recognizable Keanu Reeves, is a wonderfully dislikable jackass – even if, to be blunt, Reeves’ stiff performance is easily the weakest of an otherwise extremely impressive cast. Even still, Johnny’s confrontational relationship with V and the eventual growth between them is the anchor of this story as they fight to find a solution to the shared mess they find themselves in.
Once I got past Cyberpunk 2077’s slow burn of an intro – it initially took me six hours to even reach the moment where the logo is splashed across the screen for the first time – I was all in on this story. That opening segment is slightly restrictive relative to what comes later, but it does an incredible job of creating a sense of investment in V’s struggle, and then keeping that going as the main quests slowly dial up the heat. Once past the intro, you can go wherever you want on the sprawling map that is Night City; certain neighborhoods may have tougher enemies than others, but generally speaking no one’s going to shoot you on sight unless you go looking for trouble – and from the early hours you’ll already have enough side quests to keep you busy for a long time.
The structure here feels very different from many RPGs I’ve played, including CD Projekt Red’s own The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. If most game structures are built like a redwood tree, with a tall central trunk that has paths branching off it as you go higher, Cyberpunk 2077 is more like a large bush: you don’t have to travel down its main quest very far at all to have dozens of tangled branches already within your reach, all competing for your attention. Most are just a phone conversation away, too: since this is the future, you often don’t even have to go looking for quest givers because people will just call to offer you a job. This does somewhat rob Cyberpunk 2077 of a familiar feeling of scaling growth, since the options available to you increase rapidly and then plateau a bit for most of your playtime, but there’s so much to see and do – and still so much not directly handed to you that must be sought out – that I didn’t mind trading in that style of discovery for one of abundant choice.
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And while the single, unrestricted urban map means you won’t get that “wow” feeling of traveling to an exciting new open world location at any point, Night City is so dense, diverse, and consistently beautiful that there are opportunities to stumble upon unexpected sights all the time within it – for example, I played for nearly 40 hours before I discovered there’s practically an entire forest hidden under one of the busiest interchanges in town. You’ll be sent through slums, fancy corporate towers, dusty deserts, lush greeneries, and even some weirder places that are better discovered for yourself. The scale and scope of Night City is simply stunning, and driving around marveling at everything it has to offer – from the massive skyscrapers to the immaculately detailed in-world advertisements that plaster them – is frequently rewarding on its own.
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In fact, while there is a fast-travel system that gradually unlocks as you visit new areas, I almost felt bad about using it on anything but the longest trips. Driving manually means you’ll never see a load screen and lets you soak in the sights along the way. There’s some real variety in the feel and design of its cars too, each with a detailed interior that matches the depth of the city around them. And while you’re constantly being offered special cars for sale, all of which can then be called to you with the press of a button, some of the coolest options I won’t spoil are unique rides only unlocked through your actions in specific missions.
Night City is the kind of place where if you move through it too quickly you’ll miss half of what it has to offer. But don’t let the first-person perspective and guns-blazing futuristic combat fool you: Cyberpunk 2077 feels like an RPG through and through. It’s frequently a slow-paced game full of rich, beautifully presented conversations and an almost mind-boggling amount of choices to make – choice in dialogue options, how to build your character, how to approach missions, and beyond. I’d frequently reload saves to see how certain situations could have played out if I’d done something different, and what I found impressed me almost every time. Cyberpunk 2077 lets your choices have a massive impact on both V’s own story and those of the characters around them.
At one point I made a recommendation to a character at the end of a mission, and the next time I saw him I found out he had lost his job as a result – that wasn’t a fail state, as there was plenty more to do with him after, but knowing that his fate might look very different in someone else’s game where they’d picked a different choice made my playthrough feel more personal. Similarly, I was shocked to discover one of my favorite missions early on wasn’t even offered to another player because of a single decision we’d made differently. I was also floored when multiple decisions I made during a mission mere hours into the story massively changed the outcome of an unrelated one more than 25 hours later. I’d unwittingly turned what could have been an all-out gunfight into a friendly conversation.
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The missions themselves are also largely delightful, ranging from hilarious to deeply emotional to thrilling to intensely dark. I don’t want to rob you of the experience of finding them yourself, but vague highlights for me range from the gorgeous parade CDPR has already shown off in trailers, to a series of gumshoe-style detective missions where the amount of evidence you actively seek out can have massive repercussions on the results (including one that was so grim it felt like playing out an episode of Criminal Minds). I don’t think I’ll forget a deeply touching scuba diving mission anytime soon, or befriending a goofy AI-controlled vending machine named Brendan. The fact that Cyberpunk 2077 is able to have deep, affecting moments alongside lighthearted goofs and blaring ads for things like “MILFguard” (itself an Easter egg pun on The Witcher’s Nilfgaard, though sex and nudity are an almost mundane part of Night City) without any of it feeling out of place is a testament to the strength of both its stories and the world they take place in.
The depth and variation available throughout most of these is genuinely hard to wrap my head around. You have to understand that in Cyberpunk 2077, just because something is a side mission doesn’t mean it’s not important to the story. This may come as a shock to anyone who has played CDPR’s previous Witcher games, especially The Witcher 3, but when I was mainlining the story it only took me around 20 hours to beat. That said, that only gave me access to three distinct endings, all of which were enjoyable but offered less control over the outcome than I would have expected. It was only after reloading a save from before the point of no return and spending another 20 hours playing through side missions, falling in love with characters, and leaving more of a mark on Night City that I went back to finish the story once again only to find my options had been massively expanded through my actions. After putting roughly 45 hours into Cyberpunk 2077, I was able to beat it seven different ways, including three drastically different final missions and five wildly different but satisfying endings after them (plus one similar one) – and I still have plenty more to do and lots of mysteries to hunt down. The more time you put in, the richer the payoff you’ll get in the end.
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This is the crux of what’s so impressive about Cyberpunk 2077. It’s not a Rubix Cube to be solved in an optimal way but with different routes to get there: it’s a Rorschach Test. It’s shorter than the epic-length quest you might’ve expected, but with an amount of variation that’s almost impossible to keep track of, so whatever you think you see in that inkblot is what you’re going to get out of it. There are no wrong answers here and nothing forcing you to play more or less than you want to. It offers you a marvelous amount of control as a player.
That said, this structure does misfire slightly in how it’s organized and presented. The mission log itself is a big messy list with no clear indications of what different tasks will reward you with or which optional jobs might be more pertinent to V and Johnny’s story than others. It’s primarily broken into “Main Jobs” that are required to progress, “Gigs” that offer amusing but quick and inconsequential bites of action and story, and a “Side Jobs” category that basically houses everything else, be it an important but optional piece of plot, a date with a side character, or just a series of bare-knuckle boxing matches. What’s frustrating here is that since all these Side Jobs are clumped together and optional, at a certain point I was at a loss as to how else I could impact the larger story and see more endings.
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Part of that confusion comes from the three percentage trackers in the main menu, each relating to different aspects of V’s journey. While they are primarily increased through Main Jobs, some Side Jobs (but not all) could also occasionally move the needle as well. These ended up being fairly misleading to me, since the first time I finished the story they were at 90/25/40%, respectively. The issue here is that they are presented like numbers that reflect my progress toward individual goals, but don’t actually function that way in practice. To be clear, I loved pretty much every single job I did, but these percentages mixed with Cyberpunk 2077’s freeform mission structure created a false and frustrating sense that I was failing to make progress even as I completed missions, with no indication of how to fix that.
Once I understood the system more clearly that frustration subsided a bit, though individual mission chains can still occasionally feel somewhat disjointed at times – like you’re playing through different movies that will then maybe affect the Avengers-esque culmination of V’s journey later on. But when taken as a whole, what Cyberpunk 2077 is doing here is pretty remarkable. Apart from a few recurring anchor points, different players could end up seeing wildly different versions of V’s story, twisting and breaking away from each other in ways that still feel entirely natural.
While that mission structure is undoubtedly the most interesting way Cyberpunk 2077 gives you control, there are also some good old-fashion RPG decisions to be made in terms of how you choose to kill (or politely incapacitate) those standing in your way. There isn’t any sort of traditional class system; instead, you invest points into five primary attributes, and then into perks within each of those for more specialized improvements. For example, if you’re planning to sneak through dangerous situations, the Cool attribute can make enemies detect you slower (I’m not sure why, but let’s just roll with it) and the Stealth perk page within that attribute is then full of additional boons to unlock, like increasing your crouched movement speed or unlocking an aerial takedown.
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What’s great about this system is that these attributes and perks generally felt like they were only enhancing whatever playstyle I wanted to lean into, not punishing me for not investing in something else. Not having enough points in Body might make it harder to wield certain heavy weapons or mean you can’t bust open a few doors, but you can still effectively use shotguns even if you don’t invest in its Assault perk to make them stronger. In fact, each perk can level up through natural use – so if you put all your points in Intelligence to be a hacking master, but 10 hours in realize you’re really enjoying stealth, your Stealth perk will improve on its own somewhat whether you’ve invested in it or not. As with most things in Cyberpunk 2077, this system is wonderfully flexible and consistently rewarding, if a touch overwhelming in just how many options you have.
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Combat itself is another aspect where you’ll largely get more out of it the more you put in. Like I said, despite how it looks in action, this is truly an RPG and not a first-person shooter. While I initially wasn’t in love with the gunplay because of its unexpectedly bullet spongy enemies and surprisingly quick damage drop-off at distance, it only got better the deeper I went. Perks let you improve those problems in statistical ways, but what really made the combat shine is when I started finding more unique weaponry and clever cybernetic augmentations that elevated things above simply pointing and shooting. Some guns can charge up and shoot through walls, and I invested in perks that made them both charge faster and hit harder. Alternatively, another player could lean into Smart weapons that cause bullets to seek out enemies. Add equippable Cyberware like the ability to slow time when you dodge while aiming, a double jump, or the savage Mantis blades, and things really start to get interesting.
I wouldn’t say that combat ever becomes overly deep in the moment, especially the fun but fairly mashy melee options, but I (once again) had so much flexibility and control that I could constantly keep things fresh and entertaining for myself. I loved opening a fight by stealthily marking enemies then going to another room to blast at their outlines through a wall, switching to a powerful pistol for precise headshots as they tracked me down, then swapping again to my Mantis Blades to rush down the last few, all the while lobbing different elemental grenades and popping healing items behind cover when I needed to. It’s not the most complex dance in the world, but it’s one I felt I had complete control over choreographing.
I also love Cyberpunk 2077’s solution for handling its unique Iconic weapons, which are generally awarded through missions and have distinct attributes and twists to set them apart from typical loot – things like the Chaos pistol that changes its elemental damage type every time you reload, the Overwatch sniper rifle that comes with a custom silencer, or… a dildo club called the Sir John Phallustiff. The clever part here is that, in addition to getting the item itself, you also get a crafting recipe for it (I rarely used the crafting and upgrade options across the 60+ total hours I’ve played, but there are whole perks dedicated to them for those who want to dig in deep). Through these, you can replace an Iconic weapon with a better version of itself as you progress, keeping your favorites relevant the whole way through the campaign. Some even have custom display spots in V’s apartment, giving completionists a visible reward even when not in use – though it is a little odd that the vast majority of the Iconic weapons I’ve found so far seem to be either pistols or katanas, causing a bit of awkward overlap.
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Between the increased number of available weapons and ability upgrades, by the midpoint of my playtime I enjoyed going loud when I had to, but almost always tried to stealth through certain situations first if I could. Cyberpunk 2077’s level design is frequently a playground of decisions to make, be that finding which hidden entrance to quietly enter or which door to kick down and start firing through for maximum effect. There are tons of valuable items to pick up tucked into hidden corners, as well as computer consoles that can be accessed to turn off security cameras, open doors, or read emails that might offer clues to other things in the area. So while the stealth itself isn’t much more complex than crouch-walking out of sight and occasionally doing quiet takedowns, I loved puzzling out the best route and then using Quickhacks to mess with guards along the way.
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Quickhacking is Cyberpunk 2077’s way of blending hacking into its stealth and combat, letting you essentially pause time to use equippable viruses that can deal damage, mark enemies through walls, or even blind or deafen them temporarily. The enemy AI is fairly easy to manipulate at the best of times, but using hacks to quietly get through tougher areas or disable a stronger target mid-fight was always an awesome feeling regardless. That hack-stealth combo was my go-to playstyle, and with it I was able to complete some missions without ever drawing a weapon. There was one in particular that would have likely been a large, bloody base raid for a different kind of character, but thanks to my V’s high Technical Ability and a hidden shortcut I managed to find I never even saw a single guard on my way in or out.
When things do get loud though, a special commendation needs to be given to Cyberpunk 2077’s soundtrack. The music here is fantastic throughout, with radio stations full of custom songs made by in-universe artists singing about the struggles of Night City like it was a real place, but the combat music stands out even in that company. It often drove the pace of firefights directly, pushing me forward and frequently making me bob my head to the beat as I leapt at people with Mantis Blades or shot them through their cover. A few choice sequences became truly memorable moments thanks to their soundtracks alone.
Bugs in the System
Unfortunately, the amount of bugs I’ve experienced really does need to be mentioned. I’ve only been able to play Cyberpunk 2077 on a PC with a GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, and as of writing this I have yet to lay hands on either the PlayStation or Xbox versions, but the issues I’ve encountered were extremely frequent and distracting. Performance on Ultra settings at 1080p with ray tracing off was largely okay for me, as you’d hope would be the absolute bare minimum on a brand-new and still-hard-to-get graphics card, generally only noticeably dropping in framerate while driving around busy areas or in certain weather conditions – but it was the routinely messed up animations, missing models, and glitchy dialogue that really got to me.
I’ve had important or emotional conversations undermined by the characters I was talking to glitching between incorrect poses, or the objects they were holding and referencing not load in at all. I’d frequently get phone calls in the middle of other conversations, causing two simultaneous discussions to overlap. I’ve had to sit through drives with my camera distractingly bobbing like I was in a run animation, and seen enemies (or even my own shadow on a wall) stuck in T-poses. And in the few important story moments you do get to see your own character model, I rarely had hair for some reason. Again, none of this stopped me from completing any significant quest (though I did have to reload saves in smaller missions a couple times due to bugs hindering progress) or from loving the stories being told, but it was still ridiculous and distracting, dampening a few moments that would otherwise have been powerful.
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A day-one patch will arrive after the time of this review, but CDPR has indicated it will focus on stability and performance – which is always good, but frankly those aren’t the issues that’ve been bothering me the most. To be fair, with its exceptional support of The Witcher 3, CDPR has absolutely earned a lot of faith that it will stick with Cyberpunk 2077 and continue to patch out these problems. But especially with that in mind, this does feel very much like a game that will be significantly more polished if you play six months or a year from now than it is today.
Just to restate, a word of warning: we haven’t been able to play the console versions of Cyberpunk 2077 at all – not on the new-gen systems or the old. While I’d wholeheartedly recommend it on its gameplay merits, given the performance issues I’ve seen even with a high-end PC GPU, I am wary of what it’ll look like running on something like a launch Xbox One or PlayStation 4. If that’s where you intend to play, I recommend waiting until we can provide you with some gameplay footage from those systems before you make your decision.
Source: IGN Games Reviews