If you’ve been on the internet in the last year, there’s one thing you’ve read about. And it’s not Cyberpunk 2077. But if you’ve read about two things … okay, maybe it wouldn’t be Cyberpunk, either. 2020 is a lot. But if you’re even remotely interested in video games, you’ve heard about it, and you might be wondering, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that it’s a game that’s been in development for the better part of a decade, and has been delayed multiple times. So, there’s a lot of anticipation built up. But it’s more than that: Cyberpunk 2077 is an extension of a long running but somewhat niche franchise, it’s developed by one of the hottest and most beloved game developers on the planet, and it’s promising some pretty incredible gameplay.
If you’re looking to get caught up on the basics in just a few minutes, read on. This isn’t a review, but it’ll probably tell you whether you might be as excited about Cyberpunk 2077 as everyone else seems to be.
It’s Set in a Sci-Fi World with Decades of History
It’s possible that you’ve heard “cyberpunk” before, in a context that’s not connected to the game that just came out. “Cyberpunk” is something of a generic term: It’s a sub-genre of science fiction, with representative entries in novels, films, comic books, video games, and pretty much everything else.
Arguably, the first fully recognizable cyberpunk fiction was Neuromancer by William Gibson, which borrowed elements of the school of Cold War sci-fi from writers like Phillip K. Dick. The book features a lot of the mainstays that you’ll recognize from later examples: humans augmented with cybernetic hardware and brain-enhancing software, advanced AI that can “think” like a person, enormous omni-powerful corporations ruling over an oppressed serf class, a heavy societal dependence on the internet (even before the internet as we know it existed!), and street-level crime that makes use of new technology.
All of it was wrapped up with the structures and attitudes of noir fiction that was popular in the mid 20th century. Think Sam Spade meets Inspector Gadget. But if you want a single idea to point towards for cyberpunk, it’s this: what happens when technology progresses, and society doesn’t?
Cyberpunk as a sub-genre continued to evolve in novel form, with recognizable works like Snow Crash and Altered Carbon included in the mix. But cyberpunk has been even more influential in visual media, with the unquestionable standout being Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner. Itself based on a proto-cyberpunk short story, Blade Runner‘s dystopian nightmare of “future” LA (2019, as imagined in 1982), its story of genetically engineered human-like robots, its frequent references to bioengineering and digital memories, and above all, its eye-popping mix of science fiction wonder and bleak oppressive capitalism influenced both cyberpunk and science fiction as a whole for decades.
Cyberpunk has been told in comic books (Judge Dredd, Ronin, Transmetropolitan), anime and manga (Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel Alita, Aeon Flux), and plenty of Hollywood movies, from Robocop to Hackers to The Matrix. Naturally, video games weren’t far behind: Beneath a Steel Sky, Deus Ex, and Final Fantasy VII are all good examples of games that adopted the cyberpunk style. Cyberpunk fiction is varied and flexible, but it generally falls back on a few common themes: advanced technology both good and bad, the mixing of humanity with tech in both body and mind, a pervasive and sometimes terrifying version of the internet, and a dystopian society in which gigantic corporations rule over most of the city/country/planet.
One medium in which cyberpunk as a genre took specific hold is in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, played with paper character sheets, dice, and miniatures. That’s where the Cyberpunk franchise (note the capital “C”) started, in 1988. The first version of Cyberpunk was written and designed by Mike Pondsmith. It took the conventions of the novels and movies and used in the tabletop roleplaying setting where Tolkien-style fantasy was the standard.
Cyberpunk the role-playing game plays the hits: mega-corporations, cybernetic body augmentation, internet and digital hacking, and a grungy noir-inspired setting. Like D&D, Cyberpunk has evolved over the decades, with stories and rule changes coming from the publisher, and players making up their own stories and campaigns. There have even been unofficial “clone” games using similar ideas and systems in their own modified settings. There have been several updates and revisions from the publisher, R. Talsorian Games: Cyberpunk 2020 (the most popular version, and generally a shorthand for the series), Cyberpunk 3.0, and this year’s revision, Cyberpunk Red.
After 30 years of stories set in the Cyberpunk RPG universe, the setting is finally rendered in full vitality in Cyberpunk 2077. The game borrows its most notable location, Night City, as its playground, and bases many of the people, places, and factions of the game directly on the role-playing series. Notably, Hollywood star Keanu Reeves (himself a veteran of the cyberpunk genre in The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, and A Scanner Darkly) has been cast as Johnny Silverhand, a major non-player character from the Cyberpunk tabletop world.
It’s from One of the Best Developers Around
But the story and its lore-steeped setting aren’t the only things that have gamers excited. Cyberpunk 2077 is developed by CD Projekt Red, a Polish game studio. CDPR has made a name for itself with games in The Witcher series, specifically The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, which is one of the best-selling video games of all time. Gamers fell in love with its fluid combat, deep story, open world, and almost unbelievable levels of quality and visual fidelity.
The Witcher game series is a role-playing game based on a series of Polish dark fantasy novels, focusing on dark themes and subversion of established tropes. The books were popular on their own, but the game series has pushed the awareness of the franchise to all-time highs, culminating in an ongoing live action series on Netflix starring Henry Cavill (DC’s latest Superman).
The success of The Witcher has propelled CDPR to the top of the game development and publishing worlds in just a few short years. The company has shaken up the industry, too: In addition to a focus on quality output over quantity, and eschewing such modern excesses as online multiplayer and pay-to-win microtransactions, CDPR is the owner and operator of GOG.com. GOG (previously known as Good Old Games) focuses on DRM-free distribution and archival of games as a medium and art form. Today, it’s a small but vital and growing sales platform.
An established media franchise, a dark setting, a big, sprawling role-playing game … notice the parallels here? The thinking among gamers and video game media has been that CDPR is the ideal team to tackle an adaptation of Cyberpunk, and it’s an excellent sci-fi counterpoint to its Witcher series. A sort of Fallout to its Elder Scrolls, if you will.
We should note that, while generally well-regarded, CDPR is not without its controversy. Former employees say that the company’s fanatical devotion to quality has made it an abusive place to work, with excessive overtime and “crunch” more or less throughout the development of the Witcher series. CDPR made promises that the final months of development on Cyberpunk 2077 would be adequately planned, and no forced crunch would be necessary … but then backtracked, saying that developers would be forced to work overtime to make the game’s release date.
It’s Making Some Big Promises
If the pairing of the Cyberpunk RPG world and CD Projekt Red isn’t enough to get you excited, then the game’s omnipresent marketing might be. Cyberpunk 2077 is a mix of first-person shooter and RPG, in the vein of Deus Ex (another cyberpunk genre staple) or Fallout. And in and of itself, that’s nothing new. But promotional materials for the game paint a picture of something that pushes the boundaries of visual fidelity, gameplay design, and interactive storytelling.
Years of promo videos paint the Night City setting as a vibrant open world, where both characters and factions interact with the player and each other dynamically to create unpredictable and setting-appropriate situations. The player can choose to focus on combat abilities, stealth, or hacking to achieve their goals, in a break from The Witcher‘s more focused action and a nod to the tabletop RPG’s main archetypes. While there is a linear story, players can go through it or explore Night City for seemingly endless sidequests and smaller contained narratives, or simply focus on upgrading their own weapons, skills, and equipment.
The game’s visuals are heavily emphasized, and not without justification. Cyberpunk 2077 looks beautiful, at least in its carefully curated trailers, and it’s only helped by the cohesive (if derivative) visual design of the setting and characters. Console players will see the game push the limits of their hardware, and PC gamers might need to invest in some upgrades to play it at all. (Incidentally, this might be a good game to try out on a service like Stadia or GeForce NOW.)
But CD Projekt Red isn’t limiting the innovation angle to game design. From the quests to the NPCs to the custom character creator, Cyberpunk 2077 is trying to cultivate an air of progressive interactive storytelling that pushes the latest trends in Hollywood. This last point has caused some friction even before its release, and initial impressions are less than glowing.
And It Took a Really, Really Long Time to Get Here
Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced more than eight years ago in May 2012. The first anyone actually saw of it was a visually stunning but uninformative teaser trailer a few months later. Full development appears to have begun after CDPR published the last Witcher III update in 2016, and the hype train has been off the rails for the last two years after the first gameplay trailers were released.
Here’s the original teaser trailer, from January 2013. (Or expressed in game development terms: seven Assassin’s Creeds ago.) It ends with the prescient declaration, “Coming: when it’s ready.”
Eight years is an eternity in game development, and even longer in game marketing, where players expect new releases of major franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty every year. But on top of that, the game has been delayed no less than four times: It was first planned for a release back in April of 2020, then delayed to September, then November, and finally December 10th, when it made its official debut.
Game delays are extremely common, but the combination of CDPR’s relatively late delays and restless gamers waiting out the COVID pandemic has driven anticipation to a fever pitch. A marketing blitz is increasing that demand, for better or worse: Everything from special edition consoles to shoes, to official art posters, to furniture has been emblazoned with the official colors and logo.
Hilariously, NVIDIA released a customized Cyberpunk 2077 version of its RTX 2080 graphics card … and the game’s releasing well after the newer RTX 3080 hit shelves.
The fact that you could buy a Cyberpunk-branded Xbox and use it as a shelf for your Cyberpunk Funko Pops while you lean back in your Cyberpunk gaming chair to sip on a Cyberpunk energy drink, and do it all months before you could actually play the game, surely didn’t help wait out those release delays.
Can Cyberpunk Live Up to the Hype?
So, was the wait worth it? Initial reviews are mixed. While reviewers praise the game’s visual fidelity and its smooth action, there are reportedly plenty of bugs (as with all open-world games) and a sequence that might be dangerous for seizure-prone players. The main quest seems to be far less interesting than the setting itself (another staple of open world games!).
Add on top of that the all-too-predictable backlash from gamers: Cyberpunk’s most vociferous pre-fans are already attacking critics for giving the game less-than-perfect reviews. This was inevitable—similar childishness is seen for almost every major game release now—but it’s putting a pall over what’s been an otherwise exciting game launch.
I’ve been playing the game on Stadia (with a review copy provided by Google’s PR team). While I’ve seen plenty of bugs and glitches, some of the more frustrating problems reported by players on older consoles and lower-power PCs haven’t materialized. I’d call Cyberpunk’s gameplay “Grand Theft Auto with a Deus Ex skin.” It plays well enough and the game world is massive and interesting, but some of the sci-fi innovation is just a way to label existing game elements—like an “optical implant” that lets you see the radius of a grenade’s explosion, something I’ve seen in shooters for years.
It’s impossible to get an accurate indication of the quality of such a big release so soon after it’s unleashed on the world. But if I had to hedge on my initial impressions, I’d say Cyberpunk 2077 looks like a solid game from a reliable developer that oversold on its innovation. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad—in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single early review or impression that said so. But expecting this game to usher in a new chapter of interactive entertainment might be a bit of a stretch.
If you’ve been looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 for years and hanging on every word of the press push … well, you’re probably not reading this article. You’re probably playing the game right now, and having a blast. But if you’re wondering if you should run out and buy it … maybe?
If you’re already a fan of open world action games—Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and particularly The Witcher—you’ll probably enjoy the gameplay of Cyberpunk 2077. If you love a dirty, grimy vision of a corporate future—Fallout, Blade Runner, pretty much everything Neil Blomkamp has directed—you’ll probably dig the setting and story.
If you don’t fall into either of those camps, you can probably afford to wait for a sale or some impressions from a friend who’s playing the game. Because odds are pretty good that you have at least one friend who’s playing the game.
Cyberpunk 2077 is available on PC, Xbox, and PlayStation, as well as Stadia. It costs $60.