Cyberpunk 2077, the first game by CD Projekt Red since 2015’s triumphant The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, delivers perhaps the most ambitious open-world facade to date. Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto to Watch Dogs are just facades, after all—giant virtual theme parks that try to get gamers to suspend their disbelief and buy in to fully inhabiting a new world.
CDPR’s Night City—its retro-futuristic take on Los Angeles—is a triumph of speculative urban, architectural, and narrative design. It’s a truly stunning imagined city of the future that doesn’t feel like a scaled-down virtual compromise. Just existing in this space is a joy, whether you’re eavesdropping on the citizens going about their day or diving deep into the city’s criminal and technological underworld.
But the more you start poking at that facade, the less convincing it seems. The smoothness of the presentation makes it all the more glaring when you run into major holes in the game’s simplistic combat, encounter frequent glitches, or reach confusing moments when the conversational or plot paths break down. More often than you’d like, Cyberpunk 2077 leaves you scratching your head.
It’s the uncanny valley effect, just extended to an entire city. Cyberpunk 2077 gets so close to utter believability that you can’t help but pick out all the inherent video game imperfections.
Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t throw you into the deep end of its world so much as it simply treats your character as a well-established part of it from the jump. Whichever of three archetypes you choose for the protagonist, simply named V (I went with the rough-and-tumble hard-luck “Street Kid”), that character is already broadly familiar with the avalanche of names, tech concepts, and futuristic slang that other characters sling with confidence. There’s a minimum of overbearing tutorials explaining how to do every last thing, and the game offers almost no pedantic expository dialogue breaking down the rules of the world.
Slowly, you piece together how Night City works through context. Some facts, like the extreme gulf between rich and poor or the personal integration of cybernetic implants in pretty much every single citizen, are apparent just from observing the carefully crafted people and architecture. Other facets, like the outsized role of corporations or the internecine battles between the city’s criminal factions, come out more organically through conversation. A full picture of Night City unfolds quite slowly, and the game rewards you for paying attention as it does.
Night City is a sprawling city-state unto itself, designed with an attention to architectural detail that borders on obsessive. It’s a crowded, messy place, full of neighborhoods that feel like they’ve slowly accreted new buildings and slum-like enclaves over decades of semi-unstructured growth. The city wraps around itself, extending vertically into raised market stall platforms and crisscrossing walkways and descending into glittering underground pleasure clubs.
More than that, Night City feels crowded and alive in a way many video game cities often don’t. A ridiculous variety of character designs and outfits fill the streets when appropriate, and they mill about in small isolated groups when it’s not. Most of them won’t respond with anything interesting if you try to engage directly, but just listening in on random conversations adds a lot of flavor to the world.
Back to the retro-future
This is still a very ’80s vision of the future, as is only appropriate for a world based on a tabletop RPG first released in 1988. Everything is drowned in neon and dayglo colors that come across as almost quaint here in 2020. Music still comes through the radio, ads talk about TV shows with set broadcast times, and news is still delivered on broadsheets with animated images. And while the game’s gas guzzlers can be auto-driven to your location at your command, almost everyone still drives those cars themselves.
Anachronisms aside, Cyberpunk 2077 does an admirable job of integrating its imagined technology into the everyday life of its citizens and the functioning of the city itself. The game takes pains to dive into the societal and philosophical effects of elements like mass-market body part replacements or “Braindances” that can let people truly experience someone else’s life, or even the role of the individual in a corporatized society where everything is for sale.
While the treatment of these issues never gets much beyond the surface level, sharp writing helps integrate these heady topics into everyday conversation without ever seeming dry or academic. Everything flows naturally, thanks in large part to excellent vocal and motion-capture work that adds important nonverbal cues to even simple conversations. And while it can get a bit tropey if you’re familiar with similar sci-fi stories, it’s handled with such style and grace that it’s hard to care too much.