Cyberpunk 2077 is a game about dreams; the dreams of the fictional inhabitants of Night City, the dreams of the flesh-and-blood video game developers who announced this project eight years ago, and the dreams of players eager to experience the most anticipated game of 2020.
The dystopian setting of Night City is a place very different from our world, but still relatable. It is not hard to imagine that this alternate reality, the creation of tabletop role-playing designer Mike Pondsmith, could exist.
It is a place where corporations have taken the place of governments, where technology has changed the way we interact with and relate to other people and our own bodies, where violence is always around the corner and where the divide between the ultra-rich and those struggling to put food on the table could not be wider.
This is the world you step into as the player character, V. After customising your appearance and selecting your fictional background, which affects the opening parts of the game and also presents unique dialogue and other options later, you are let loose in Night City to realise your dreams of making it big. How you try to do that, and how you deal with the challenges and people that would stand in your way, is up to you.
Unlike Polish developer CD Projekt Red's previous magnum opus, the generation-defining The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Cyberpunk 2077 is played with a first-person view, all the better to make you feel more connected to the body and world you now inhabit.
Looking at trailers, it may be easy to think that this is merely an action game. But while there certainly is a lot of action of all imaginable kinds, Cyberpunk 2077 is a proper role-playing game through and through.
This means that how good you are at anything in the game – running, shooting, hacking – is affected by how you choose to assign points when your character levels up and which skills, perks and abilities you choose to learn. The five core stats you can choose to invest in are body, reflexes, intelligence, technical ability and cool. There is no right or wrong way to do this, and it all depends on how you want to play.
Do you want to run in guns blazing? Or are edged weapons more your thing? Perhaps you prefer to take out your enemies from a distance, before they are even aware of your presence. Or, do you use your implants to hack objects in the environment, and even the cyberware inside your enemies' bodies, to achieve your end? Maybe you abhor violence, and instead use stealth and subterfuge to succeed. It's up to you.
But no matter how peaceful an approach you want to take, make no mistake: this is an incredibly violent world, and Cyberpunk 2077 has an age restriction for a reason. It is not a game for children or those who cannot stomach graphic violence and disturbing themes. Night City is a proper dystopia, where desperation for survival, dangerous technology, the search for ever-more extreme forms of entertainment, overwhelmed law enforcement and vast economic inequality create a deadly combination.
This is a game that gives you an incredible amount of freedom, but it does not mean that the story suffers as a result. Describing the genre, the game’s story director says that “cyberpunk is a magnifying glass that exposes contemporary problems, and a video game is the perfect way to provoke someone into thinking not only about the future but also about the present – and sometimes even the past”.
As with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the developers expertly walk the tightrope between player freedom and a focused main story. And, as has also become a tradition at CD Projekt Red, the side quests and stories are often as engaging and entertaining as the main plot.
All dialogue is voice acted, and the facts and figures about the script and dialogue are mind-boggling. There are 73,789 lines of dialogue in the English version, and the voice-overs for all supported languages are 466 hours long. The developers point out that the script for Cyberpunk 2077 has 590,480 words, more than JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and more than Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged – a more apt comparison, perhaps, considering the dystopian themes.
But it is not only the word counts that are impressive. The artistry and technology on display, in what is the most lifelike depiction of a city yet in a video game, is truly something to behold. You could easily spend hours just driving around the different areas of Night City, or exploring them on foot. CD Projekt Red created four art styles for the game that find expression in different ways throughout the various parts of the city: Kitsch, Entropism, Neo-Militarism and Neo-Kitsch .
This incredible attention to detail can also be seen in the character designs, which are amazingly lifelike while being appropriately futuristic. When you walk around the city and encounter a man practising guitar, and see that his hands are moving realistically as he changes chords, it becomes obvious that no detail was overlooked.
Playing Cyberpunk 2077, you can't help but feel that you are experiencing the future. Not, hopefully, the future of the real world, but the future of gaming. It was developed during the previous console generation, with all the limitations that came with the comparatively weak processing power of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But this is a game that pushes at limitations at every opportunity, whether it's gameplay, graphics, story or, more significantly, the ideal integration of all three.
It all results in a game that is not quite like anything else out there, that is more ambitious than its predecessors. The result is not perfect – a few bugs are to be expected in a project of this scale, but a patch is already waiting for release day to clear up some of these. And judging by CD Projekt Red’s track record, we can expect that they will not rest until any imperfections have been polished out.
Cyberpunk 2077 is not a game for everyone. It has too much of a singular vision to be everything to everyone, and games that try to do that inevitably end up to be unremarkable experiences. But if you can handle the mature themes, enjoy dystopian settings and appreciate stories told with nuance and without simple messages, it is an experience you should not pass up. If you play it, you may even find Night City showing up in your own dreams.
Cyberpunk 2077 releases on December 10 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and Google Stadia and via backwards compatibility for Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5