It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s why I never expect frozen pizza to taste like a slice from Famous Ray’s in New York City. It’s also why I was initially thrown by sci-fi first-person, open world action / adventure game Cyberpunk 2077 (Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC, Stadia), which I expected to be a gun-based action-packed role-playing game like Borderlands 3, The Outer Worlds, and especially Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but enjoyed much more when I realized it was actually a futuristic Grand Theft Auto V.
A video game adaptation of the iconic table-top role-playing game Cyberpunk (of which I have no experience, and thus cannot offer further comparison), Cyberpunk 2077 casts you as a criminal named V who’s recently returned to Night City, looking for work. But when a heist goes bad, and you wind up dead, only to be resurrected by a computer chip in your head that has someone else’s soul stored in it — a soul fighting yours for dominance, by the way — you have to do whatever you can to survive.
Given that Cyberpunk 2077 is made by the same people as The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, you might expect that this would be similar. Save, of course, for the change in perspective from third to first, and that it’s a sci-fi game, not a fantasy one. And in some ways, it is. It has a similarly epic scope, real-time combat, and a staggering amount of depth when it comes to customization, upgrades, weapons, and missions.
Cyberpunk 2077 also has all of the familiar role-playing game mechanics. You spend a lot of time talking to people, driving around town, and looting containers as well as the bodies of people you killed, even if it is only to sell off those stolen items for things you really want. Which, of course, not only includes weapons and ammo and other items that come in handy during combat, but also clothes and other things to make you look pretty or handsome or super freaky, yeow!
There are also, of course, side missions as well as ones that drive the story, a leveling up system that gives you a chance to improve yourself and learn new skills or improve the ones you have, and all the other mechanics you’d expect from a modern action-RPG.
All of which is driven by a rich, layered story set in a vibrant, detailed world, one that isn’t totally original, but does have a uniqueness nonetheless. While the video screens and neon and mood lighting of Night City makes it look like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the unnamed city in the live action Ghost In The Shell, the people who live there have the same kind of visible cybernetics and punk rock aesthetics as the residents of Neo-Gotham in Batman Beyond and the Prague of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
But it’s how the residents of Night City treat you that makes Cyberpunk 2077 play more like Grand Theft Auto V than Fallout 4 or The Division 2 or any of the RPGs I mentioned earlier. Specifically, how everyone isn’t constantly trying to kill you. You’re not just walking from one gunfight to the next. Most of the people in Night City are just going about their business, trying to survive in the big city just like real people. Sure, some are jerks, and will open fire if you interrupt them while they’re committing crimes, but they’re the exception in this game, not the rule.
Cyberpunk 2077 is also Grand Theft Auto-esque in that the part of Night City you inhabit is the seedy underbelly, the part of town where life is cheap, the drugs are cheaper, and everyone overcompensates for their insecurities by cursing way too much and wearing way too little. You can even carjack people, with vehicles steering as badly as they do in G.T.A.
Cyberpunk 2077 also mirrors Grand Theft Auto‘s approach in the wide variety of criminal acts you can engage in. In one early mission, for instance, you’re hired to steal a computer chip. But while Hitman 3 would have you just sneak in and do it, and Call Of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War would have you shoot your way in and do it, this has you first examining a video for clues like you’re Batman in Arkham Origins, then hacking security by sneaking in a small robot like you’re playing a less structured version of Deus Ex Go, and then…well then you sneak in to do it, and shoot your way out after you’ve done it.
Where Cyberpunk 2077 deviates from the typical Grand Theft Auto approach — again, beyond being first-person and dystopian sci-fi — is how story-driven it can be. This is most noticeable in just how much time you spend talking to people. And not just to get a new mission; sometimes talking to someone is the mission. And if they go badly, those conversations can get you killed.
Cyberpunk 2077 is so story-driven, in fact, that it often feels like another G.T.A.-ish game: L.A. Noir. And not just because there’s lot of mood lighting and unsavory characters. Though it also feels a bit like a classic adventure game, one where conversation is the main mechanic. Which is not to say this is an interactive movie like, say, Detroit: Become Human. It has a lot more action than that (and is also way more fun and more interesting and just better all around).
That said, when you do get to shoot someone, Cyberpunk 2077 works as well as any of the action-RPGs I mentioned earlier. Not only are the controls fluid and intuitive, but your enemies really test your mastery of them by being good shots who can take a couple themselves before they die (though never so many that we’d liken them to sponges). Hence why you need to shoot from cover like you do when you play Gears 5 or The Division 2.
Though you can always go the sneaky route, and do what you’ve done in a lot of shooters lately: use stealth to thin out the herd before accidentally alerting your enemies to your presence and having to switch to guns-a-blazin’ mode.
And then there’s the whole thing with you sharing your headspace with that other person’s soul. Or, as they’d refer to it in Ghost In The Shell, their ghost. Unlike disembodied voices in other games, the one in Cyberpunk 2077 — Johnny Silverhand — ain’t your brother, ain’t your partner, and ain’t your friend. Which is why, unlike Cortana in the early Halo games, Johnny doesn’t offer you helpful advice or words of encouragement, even when he does give you a fun side mission.
He also looks really familiar…
Cyberpunk 2077 also (thankfully) avoids some of the problems common in these kinds of games. While there is a stamina meter that kicks in when you run or get into a fist fight, it doesn’t drain very quickly, and it refreshes at a good pace. Y’know, because it’s always so much fun to be winded and not be able to move or defend yourself.
Also, your character can carry a good amount of stuff, and can dismantle unwanted items on the fly, which saves you from constantly having to run back to home base or a nearby store to empty your pockets of all the guns you’ve found.
Together, the depth, attention to detail, variety in activities, exciting combat, and compelling story and setting so well together that Cyberpunk 2077 does actually end up being like Borderlands 3, The Outer Worlds, or even Deus Ex: Mankind Divided in one very important way: it’s just as effortlessly fun. Granted, it is easy to get overwhelmed — Night City has so much to do, so many distractions — but it’s the good kind of busy, that kind that has you sitting down to play for just half an hour, only to realize it’s actually been four-and-a-half hours and where the hell are my pants?
That said, while Cyberpunk 2077 may be effortless, it’s not flawless. And no, I’m not talking about the game’s well-documented technical issues that have rendered the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions virtually unplayable. (For the record, I played the Xbox One version, but on Xbox Series X, and save for one bad guy getting stuck in the floor of an elevator, making him an easy target, most of the glitches I saw were the funny kind, like when a chip in my friends’ head was a gun, which made him look like Opie from Family Guy.)
For starters, with the exception of the VR combat training you go through early in the game, Cyberpunk 2077 is bad at explaining itself or easing you in. It decidedly feels like it was made by people who assume everyone’s played similar adventure games and knows how these kinds of deep systems work.
The console versions of Cyberpunk 2077 also makes the same mistake as Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Destiny 2, and other games that have you navigating menus with a loose cursor you move with the thumbstick like it’s a mouse. It’s as frustrating and inaccurate here as it is in those games.
Cyberpunk 2077 also has a problem so common that I basically just cut and paste this paragraph into every relevant review: some of the text is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your TV — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading the menus and some of the conversation prompts. The irony being that the game lets you adjust the size of the captions and their background opacity.
As annoying as these issues may be, though, they’re hardly deal breakers. (Well, unless you try to play this on Xbox One or PlayStation 4; I’d wait until they patch the game a couple times before buying this.) Sure, it’s not what I was expecting — or, to be honest, hoping for; I prefer my cyberpunk to be more combative — but once I realized what was going on, why the world worked the way it did, and why that guy from The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run kept showing up, I came to really appreciate Cyberpunk 2077 for the futuristic Grand Theft Auto it was trying to be.