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Ripperdocs, rockerboys, braindances, screamsheets. Highriders, hotdoggers, and hydro. Eddies and gonks, choombas and rollers. Edgerunners, jainas, and joytoys. Such is the slang that seethes through Cyberpunk 2077, the new game from CD Projekt Red. The setting is Night City—a bright babel of steel and smog, located on the verge of the Pacific, under the rays of a scalding sun. We are a long way from the fertile hills and forests of The Witcher, the series that made CD Projekt Red into what the citizens of Night City might call a megacorp. And yet, even here, amid the metalheads and the netpigs and the ICE, the spell remains the same.
No other developer is as adept at adapting the work of writers—at wrangling the fully formed visions of the page and coding them into colour and form. If this counts as a lack of imagination (the studio has yet to conjure a fiction from scratch), it’s more than made up for by the airtight seal of its worlds. The source here is Cyberpunk (and its subsequent editions, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk Red), the tabletop role-playing game written by Mike Pondsmith, whose lore is rich in lingo. Dropping into Night City for the first time, I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s dystopia, which was spiked with a Russian-flavoured dialect, called Nadsat, that locked us into its landscape of despair. As was the case with The Witcher 3—with its tempest of names and its slow-trickling accounts of regional trouble—the early hours of Cyberpunk 2077 feel like a wild hunt for footing. You’re plunged into the stab and chop of its streetspeak, and plied with tomes of cyberhistory.
This could make for a muffled proposition: an enticing fantasy behind a firewall of chewy mythology. And I’m pleased to say it isn’t so. As one character muses, “Perhaps only a true outsider can appreciate the beauty of its fractal architecture.” In other words, “Don’t worry about the reading, get gawking.” Playing as a Corpo—one of three available life paths, the others being Nomad and Streetkid—the gawking began for me at the headquarters of the Arasaka Corporation: a bruising, rain-grey citadel housing a comb of cramped offices. The hero—if such a term can survive in a place like this—is V. My V started his adventure in a bathroom, wearing a black suit, puking into a sink, and staring into the mirror, queasy with doubt. Something big was about to go down, and this was the qualm before the storm.
Sure enough, after a champagne-stocked ride in a flying car—a moment like the opening of BioShock, with its descending bathysphere and its fathomless city, infused here with the dry fizz of cynicism—V falls from grace to the livelier grind below. A six-month montage of crimes and misdemeanors establishes us in his new felon-for-hire routine, and we’re set loose in the streets. It’s a fascinating metropolis, one of gaming’s great cities. On foot, you’re locked into a first-person camera, adding a few volts of vertigo as you crane your head upwards to catch a sliver of sky between the buildings. When you’re driving (the playable vehicles are all earthbound, unfortunately), you can pull back into third person, and I recommend doing so; it’s the best way to soak up the mood, which is adrift in the throb of neon and the thrash of contaminated downpour.
Indeed, the mood, and the depth of your submersion into it, is the most important part of Cyberpunk 2077. As you look back after finishing it, you realise the flimsiness of its plot—a coiled and corporate affair, aflame with notions of revolution and a vague thirst, in V, for infamy. Far more engaging are the folks at ground-level—both your friends, who regularly buzz your phone, and the fixers, who offer you jobs. These entail theft, cyber-attacks, protection, street races, assassinations, and much more besides. The map is heavily scattered with points of interest, but the game’s most interesting point, as well as its most potent draw, is the choice of style and strategy at your disposal.
As with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—a game to which CD Projekt Red owes much—stealth, shooting, and hacking are all viable options, along with body augmentation, which grafts on new gifts entirely. Take the Mantis Blades, for example: a pair of gleaming spring-loaded knives that fold neatly into the flesh of V’s forearm—useful for combat situations, but the sort of thing that you pray doesn’t accidentally go off in the bedroom. I was heartened to find that, for the stealth—an uncluttered brand of line-of-sight sneaking—CD Projekt had borrowed the Soliton Radar, from Metal Gear Solid, complete with enemy vision cones. The shooting, meanwhile, has a convincing crunch. Just like with Mankind Divided, you get the sense that none of the playstyles are composed of enough oomph that they could comfortably furnish a game of their own, but that they gel joyously together, and don’t feel spread thin.
Where you may wish for added substance is in the breaching of enemy software. Depicting hacking in games is, traditionally, as dishonest as showing the act of writing is in movies—usually, a blizzard of pages and blurry keys, before a rosy manuscript is plonked down on a desk, ready for publication. This is how it should be, too; we wouldn’t wish to see, in our entertainments, the sweaty, coffee-driven truth. The hacking here is a simple number-sequence minigame, your success with which is influenced—as with all areas of play—on the points that you pool into various categories. This may count, given the subject matter, as an anticlimax. However, the surrounding texture is sublime: watch as V pulls an ethernet cable from his palm, with an impatient tug, and note the blood-red progress bars and blinking readouts that spill across his retinas. We’re in a future where technology isn’t just taken for granted; it’s installed, without a hitch or an itch, to our bodies, and the stream of life buffers on.
None of which is new, for games, movies, or books, but what sets Cyberpunk 2077 apart is that such a future should appear, so dreamily, like the past. Following a botched heist, V slots an experimental chip behind his ear, and is then haunted by the digital ghost of Johnny Silverhand, who, in turn, is haunted by the physical body of Keanu Reeves, who provided motion capture and voice-over for the role. Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, wouldn’t have a problem with this situation. Reeves is one of the few actors whose consciousness is capable of squatting in your skull and not making the place seem crowded. The trouble is that Johnny’s personality is overwriting V’s (not a mammoth challenge, it must be said). “I’m like mold on fruit… creepin’ into you,” he says.
The echo is of Johnny Mnemonic, the 1995 film—based on the short story of the same name, by William Gibson—in which Reeves, as the title character, plugged information into his head, like a human USB stick. That movie, set in 2021, has now gathered a thick coating of kitsch, and there is a streak of its naff ’90s charm in Cyberpunk 2077: in the appealing clunk of the way the future was imagined then. Stranger still, I detected a faint trace of Thomas Pynchon about the game. It’s there in the names—V, Johnny Silverhand, Alt Cunningham, Panam Palmer—which seem to teeter knowingly on the brink of a pun. And in the dashes of liquorice-dark humour; I got a particular kick from the AI-controlled taxi, who, mid-breakdown, laments, “Shrinks hate vehicles… we don’t have mothers.” In short, if you like your sci-fi weird, this is for you. As the narrative surges on (the main quest line runs to around the 20-hour mark), V becomes increasingly cracked. “It’s literally driving me crazy,” he says, to a kidnapped bioengineer. “None of that’s on the billboards I saw. Not even in the fine print.”
Unfortunately, that sentiment has also been simmering outside the game. Since its release, last week, CD Projekt has issued an apology for only showing gameplay videos that were captured on next-gen hardware or high-end PCs. Those who bought it on last-gen consoles have found it in especially rough shape, with a faltering frame rate and a litany of bugs. I played it on a PlayStation 5, where it unreeled at a robust 60 frames-per-second, and I noticed very few visual glitches. I did experience three crashes, none of which—thanks to the autosave function—cost me any progress. This is a great shame, compounded by the lengthy development period (it was announced in 2013) and by the reportedly long hours and life-devouring overtime needed to get the game out on deadline. The troubled launch and the shoddy state of the last-gen versions will hurt nobody more intensely than the artists and developers, who may well have come to resemble the characters of their own creation—frazzled, fused to their computers, and wired into the limbo of non-stop work.
My guess is that time, and a series of hefty updates, will patch CD Projekt’s reputation and cool the conversation around Cyberpunk 2077. Whether or not it should cool is another matter. In the meantime, we have a game unlike any other. Though its urban playground is just as jostled by sin as those in Grand Theft Auto (what is Night City, after all, but a tech-infested version of Los Santos?), it lacks Rockstar’s soul-souring pessimism. There is a shard of something hopeful here. “We’re bankin’ on the human factor,” says Johnny, concocting a plan to save himself and V. And so it rings true. The scenes that have lodged most deeply in my memory are not those devoted to the chases, the shootouts, or the narrow squeaks, but those possessed of a quiet empathy. Sifting through the belongings of a departed friend, for instance; or the consolation offered by a sex worker, who downloads a share of V’s thoughts and dampens his fears. The moment is transactionary, love is not in the air, but you still leave with a lighter spirit. “Feelings be damned,” one character says. “This is pure biz.” But you don’t believe her. You’re banking on the human factor.
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: CD Projekt
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S / X, PC, Google Stadia
Release Date: December 10, 2020
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