Cyberpunk 2077 expands the classic pen and paper game into a virtual museum of genre references: if it was in Blade Runner, Snow Crash or the Johnny Mnemonic movie, it's in here somewhere. It's a good shooter, too, with fun weapons (talking guns, tactical katanas) and hacking skills to put to imaginative use. Night City, an advertising-soaked corporatocracy on the skids, is awesome without magnificence, alive without breath. Exploring it was my favorite part of this overflowing adventure game, and I save-scummed like a champ.
You play as Valerie or Vincent, always V, entering Night City life as one of three varietals of cartoon libertarian (corporate drudge, smartest gangbanger, or Sad Max). Each "lifepath" affects dialog and in-quest choices, but only lightly flavors V's destiny. Under the bustling surface, the world's still a theme park for the chosen one, and everyone there is there for you.
Character development is a nest of attributes, skills ("perks"), cybernetic enhancements and hacks. Plan your build before jumping in. It's not easy to figure what upgrades will work for you until you've used them, and the in-game cost to re-spec is high.
Cyberpunk 2077 offers a good cinematic main quest to enjoy, dozens of hours long at a trot. V befriends a happy-go-lucky street mercenary named Jackie and together they make a terrible mistake: heisting a well-guarded data chip that turns out to contain a terrorist rock star's downloaded consciousness. Plugged into V's head for reasons, Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves, whose hallucinatory presence vastly benefits the game) angles for control of your body as your mind falls to pieces. Do gigs, take out baddies, redline vehicles around rain-soaked streets, find a romance specific to your gender and preference, and advance the plot.
Some gameplay is fantastic, some dreadful. Unarmed combat was one early headache, performance-captured combatants stomping and sliding around like toddlers at a stripmall karate club.
The braindances, though, where V explores recordings of people's memories in search of clues hidden in their peripheral perceptions, are outstanding and underused. These Technobra Dinn sequences could hold up a detective game all by themselves.
Between, there's incomplete role-playing stuff (you don't have to kill, but non-lethal methods are in need of refinement) and the unequivocally good FPS adventure it's all built around. And bugs. Overwrite your saves at your own risk.
Night City's promise of sandbox freedom is a mirage. Its mazelike three-dimensionality cultivates these expections and subverts them. I couldn't build a mental map at all; fifty hours in, I'd be lost a block from home without the GPS. You're not quite stuck thinking in waypoints (it's cool to drive) but you can hardly chill in a favorite spot. Violence is around every corner, and Cyberpunk 2077 wants you to get on with it.
Still, I found it engrossing in ways that game towns usually aren't. As focused as this game is on paying tribute (may you find a whisky tumbler here that isn't this whisky tumbler) Night City is an ambitious creation. In its crowds and alleys, its towers and seedy eateries, are interesting gradients of city living. Its grandeur comes from looming cantilevers and layered skyways rather than height or volume. Acres of blight and misdesign tell a story rather than fill space. Someone thought it through. The residential megabuildings are particularly impressive, concrete decay reclad in metal and plastic, waiting to burn down, Grenfell at scale.
Cyberpunk 2077 knows that the enticing things that used to make cyberpunk dystopias weirdly attractive are no longer particularly enticing or even futuristic. But it also knows that nostalgia is sweeter than revolution. Nothing here—politics, technology, style—is newer than the early 1990s. Its "compelling interest in information technology" is really a compelling interest in antiques and mysticism. Its aesthetic is graying meat.
In throwing in every classic cyber-profundity about mind, drugs, body and body modification, Cyberpunk 2077 also stops short of what's been said about these things since. Instead, we have body horror and dickgirl posters. It is naive of lives now lived. Our transhuman spectrum rolls from nonbinary anarchists to rationalist-community neoreactionaries, yet none will find much of themselves in the eternal 1990 of Night City. Is it foolish to want that from Big Game? I do, especially since this one is a pretty good game. And that's what's cyberpunk can do.