Cyberpunk 2077 review impressions: Night City's ray-traced neon streets feel alive

We've spent over a dozen hours with Cyberpunk 2077, and we're in love with Night City's ray-traced neon streets.

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Brad Chacos/IDG

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Cyberpunk 2077 has a lot to live up to.

We called its grand E3 2018 reveal “the most mind-blowing demo we’ve ever seen.” Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red’s previous game, earned a prime spot as one of our favorite games of this generation. Witcher 3 actually usurped Deus Ex as my personal favorite game of all time, so CD Projekt Red working on a first-person cyberpunk role-playing game is as close to a “dream game” as I could envision. Add in Keanu Reeves and a star-studded custom soundtrack that includes a banger from Run The Jewels—my favorite musicians of this millennium—and this hype train couldn’t possibly be more stoked. There’s almost no way a game could live up to this level of expectation.

It does. Cyberpunk 2077 launches December 10th on PC and console, with preloads available sooner. I’m only about a dozen hours in, but so far, Cyberpunk 2077 absolutely nails it in every way. This game is amazing.

Living and dying in Night City

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You play as V in Cyberpunk 2077, a cybernetically enhanced mercenary who winds up hosting the AI ghost of legendary rockstar-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves) in your brain after a series of thrilling events. But the real star of the game—at least so far—is Night City itself.

Night City is a sprawling, dystopian mega-city set somewhere in California. Its dense urban jungle and teeming streets were what wowed us in that first mind-blowing demo. Here’s what my colleague Hayden Dingman said at the time:

“Listen, I’ve played a lot of video games in my life. Almost 30 years of them at this point. I know what a ‘city’ looks like in video games, and I’ve watched that definition evolve over the years. I remember when Morrowind’s towns seemed bustling, and Oblivion after that. I remember watching a trailer for the original Assassin’s Creed and being stunned how large and crowded it was. I remember driving around Grand Theft Auto V and being in awe of the traffic and the number of unique pedestrians.

So I’m deadly serious when I say: I didn’t think Night City was possible. Not yet, at least. I literally didn’t think the technology existed. What I saw during CD Projekt’s demo was astounding.”

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That incredible vibrance, that sense of life, managed to make it into the final release. Night City is a world of towering skyscrapers and dark alleys and streets lined with ragged storefronts and neon signs. CD Projekt Red did a monumental job of world-building here.

I haven’t made my way to all the various districts yet, but the ones I’ve visited each offer a unique feel. The intertwined paths and verticality of Watson make way for straighter lines and heavier graffiti in Heywood, while the desolate Badlands stand in stark contrast to the city’s hustle and bustle. Different types of people populate the districts, and every area comes with its own fully voiced fixers—local middlemen who assign your jobs—to add to the ambiance.

The sheer density of the crowds amplify the lived-in feel of Night City. When I saw an in-person demo at Gamescom in 2018, I tweeted that there was no way this game launches on the current console generation (something the Cyberpunk account poked fun at). I still stand by the core idea. Cyberpunk 2077 includes a crowd density setting, and I’ve been on an overclocked 5GHz Core i7-8700K system with an over-the-top GeForce RTX 3090 with the crowd size maxed out. It does impact the frame rate, but the teeming masses add so much to this game it’s worth losing a few frames for.

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People curse when you shoulder past them, or ignore you completely while carrying on their own conversations. Drunken sleepers and pettable cats line the edges of alleys. Crowded marketplaces offer vendors, leads, and private security that you do not want to cross. Cars pack the streets in GTA-like fashion, though Cyberpunk 2077 features more intelligent driver AI that actually tries to stay out of your way. Missions pop up when you turn new corners. Scanning the crowds can reveal wanted criminals you can apprehend. Everywhere, there’s an underlying hum and bustle, giving the packed streets a sense of life even in the darkest hours of night—except in more affluent sections of Night City. There, the lack of people and their constant sounds help drive home just how privileged these people are. 

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And it’s all so dense. I used the word “sprawl” to describe Night City earlier, and it’s appropriate, but that sprawl is vertical as much as it is horizontal. Pretty much anywhere you are, you can look up and down to reveal balconies, winding streets, foot bridges, fire escapes, and everything else you’d expect to see in a megalopolis—and in many cases, you can reach them. The unrivaled, meticulously thought-out density adds an immense sense of improvisation to the game that makes any character build feel viable in a way that I haven’t felt since, yes, the original Deus Ex.

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Don’t have the keycode for that locked door? Maybe you can pick it with your technical ability, or find a central control panel that opens it. Maybe you’ve invested in biomods that let you rip the door off its hinges, or perks that let you talk neighbors into sharing the secret. If all else fails, you can usually find a way up to the rooftops above your target, or the winding streets below it, and tip-toe your way across air conditioners and shutters until you find a back way into your goal—though sometimes it’s fiendishly hard to find.

Finding these options never feels like a hackneyed, bespoke solution like they do in the more modern Deus Ex games. Instead, you feel like you’re cleverly using Night City itself to your advantage.

V for varied

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CD Projekt Red grants you immense flexibility in character design. There’s only one male and one female voice actor for V, but beyond that, you can mold the mercenary to your vision with a detailed character creation tool that’s so deep, it includes genital options. (Warning: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a game for kids.) You can also choose whether your V was a street kid, a corporate agent, or a nomad clan member from the Badlands, each of which unlocks unique dialogue choices in some parts of the game.

It’s the RPG customization that really shines. Your character revolves around five core stats: Reflex, Cool, Technical Ability, Intelligence, and Body. Those stats are tied to various skills; Reflex controls handguns, rifles and blades, netrunners (hackers) will want to dump points into Intelligence, Body controls health, shotguns, and melee damage, and so on. Your skill level can’t exceed the level of the controlling attribute, so if you want to become a world-class lockpicker, you’ll need to stock up on Technical Ability.

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The perk tree under the Reflex attribute’s Stealth skill.

The perks you can unlock at each level are the star. Perks are passive, reactive, or activated special abilities that exist in a tree under each skill. If you’re specializing in stealth, for instance, you can select perks that automatically dilute time when you’re spotted, increase critical damage when you attack from the shadows, or let you perform a non-lethal takedown when you drop on an enemy from above. Perks let you truly customize your character to feel like your own, and you can invest perk points into any skill tree, not just the ones you’ve specialized in.

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Cybernetic modifications available at ripperdocs offer even more specialization options, for a price.

I started Cyberpunk 2077 with the plan of being a stealthy sniper, like I am in most games, so I invested heavily in Reflex and Cool while creating my V. Once I walked into the Night City streets alongside charismatic companion Jackie, however, I discovered that the urban density made finding sniping spots difficult. I also discovered that blades are badass.

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Because rifles and blades both rely on Reflex as their governing attribute, I switched gears to become a stealthy cyber ninja that sneaks into the midst of enemy territory, then tosses a handful of grenades to soften up enemies before bursting from the shadows in slow-mo time to slice-and-dice them—if I can’t maneuver past totally unseen, that is. Investing in choice perks in the Technical Ability skill trees helps me harvest more scrap from disassembled items, which lets me make more grenades. Another Technical perk reveals the blast radius onscreen, keeping me from blowing my own legs off.

The combat in this game feels great, especially once you’ve invested in some useful perks, as does the stealth. Each weapon (and car) handles differently, so be sure to experiment to find your favorites. Cyberpunk’s normal difficulty isn’t especially tough though. I haven’t died yet, but got real close a couple times when my cover was blown in especially hairy situations.

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Bang bang

My particular V can’t perform tasks yours might be able to—I’m a terrible hacker. I’ve already seen dozens of situations where alternative builds could take different (and often much more straightforward) paths. Even if you plan on specializing in specific areas, though, consider investing a solitary point in every attribute sooner than later, as you’ll be blocked from some basic tasks with the default 3 points each receives. If you have fewer than 4 points in Body you can’t hijack cars without murdering their occupants, for example, and you can’t pick basic locks without 4 points in Technical.

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I won’t get too deep into the story to avoid spoilers. But it’s exciting, touching, and incredibly well produced—every signficant mission feels like you’re starring in a movie. I’m emotionally invested in the story and can’t wait to learn more. The actors who play the people you meet in Night City sound authentic and fit their roles perfectly, though CDPR leans a bit heavy on character tropes. The facial motion capture is second to none. CD Projekt Red invested heavily in a technology called JALI (for “Jaw and Lip Integration”) for Cyberpunk, and it pays off.

“[JALI] allows us to procedurally generate emotion-driven lip-syncing and facial animation, and we use it for every NPC in the game,” the company’s reviewers guide states. “It works with all supported VO languages in the game, and is highly customizable. This means that, whatever language a character is speaking in, the facial expressions and those small touches—muscle twitches, eyebrow movements—feel natural and authentic. JALI allows us to bring lip-syncing and facial animation to the entire open world, something that would be near impossible using other techniques such as keyframe animation or full facial capture.”

PC details

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Pssst. There’s a netrunner vendor hiding in there.

Even though I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 for a few days, I can’t state too much about the PC port’s performance. The review copy I received isn’t a true final build, and it’s loaded with DRM that won’t be present in the retail version. Both CDPR and Nvidia warned me that any performance benchmarks captured with my build won’t necessarily be correct with the final version, and cautioned that even tweaking visual settings on my prerelease version could cause performance issues. Look for a PC performance guide here on PCWorld once my copy flips over to the retail version.

That said, I still flipped some knobs without blowing up the game and have initial impressions I can share.

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First thought: “Can it run Cyberpunk?” may eventually replace “Can it run Crysis?” This is a drop-dead gorgeous game, and if you crank all the eye candy to the max, it’ll make even the beefiest systems sweat. Running the game at Ultra settings with no ray tracing at 4K resolution makes even the $1,500 GeForce RTX 3090 hover just around 60 frames per second, dipping below in some scenes—especially those involving driving.

Turning on the game’s extensive ray tracing effects hammers it even harder. Most games aside from Control support only a single ray tracing effect, but Cyberpunk crams in ray-traced shadows, ray-traced reflections, ray-traced ambient occlusion, ray-traced diffuse illumination, and ray-traced global illumination. Phew. When you use the game’s “RT Ultra” preset in my prerelease build, the RTX 3090 still hovers around or just below 60 fps, even with DLS S 2.0’s frame-boosting Performance mode active, and plummets all the way to 30 fps to 40 fps while staring directly into a mirror.

It’s worth it though. Cyberpunk 2077 looks beautiful even without ray tracing on (which is good, because it won’t support Radeon ray tracing on day one). The cutting-edge lighting effects add a delectable extra visual layer to the game. Check out the reflections in the marble in the screenshots below, the way the entire room is reflected in the window of a skyscraper, the way the neon glows in city streets and tiny bars:

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To quote Mr. Reeves, it’s breathtaking.

DLSS 2.0 is mandatory to keep the game running under the weight of all those rays—which may be bad news for Radeon GPUs that lack a DLSS rival—and it doesn’t detract from the experience. The technology’s aggressive Performance mode doesn’t hit visual quality hard by my eye, aside from the odd shimmery edge that I only noticed when the scene was frozen in the game’s wonderful Photo Mode. Pressing N on your keyboard (or both sticks in on your gamepad) summons the Photo Mode instantly, and all the fancier pictures you see in this article were taken with that—they’re not CDPR-supplied bullshots. Like I said: This game is beautiful.

It’s also been refreshingly bug-free so far. The only issue I’ve had with my prerelease build is that weapons from dead enemies sometimes float in the air, rather than falling to the ground like they should. It’s immersion-breaking, sure, but not game-breaking.

Our forthcoming performance guide will dive deeper into how the game runs on various graphics cards, but Cyberpunk 2077’s PC requirements are surprisingly modest, so it should scale up and down well. The game includes plenty of nitty-gritty visual options that enthusiasts can tweak to fine-tune performance, too.

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Just some of the many graphics options available in Cyberpunk 2077.

The audio experience is just as exemplary. The busy sound of the city adds immensely to the game’s vibe, from the bustle of crowds to honking horns to sizzling meats to the robotic DON’T WALK, DON’T WALK blaring at crosswalks. Cyberpunk’s music fits the game to a T (though I wish that radio station names were displayed when you change channels in vehicles). CD Projekt Red thoughtfully included a “Streamer Mode” option in the settings that disables tracks that could prove troublesome for copyright reasons. Turn it on and avoid those DMCA strikes, y’all.

Bottom line

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CD Projekt Red had the weight of the world on its shoulders, but Cyberpunk 2077 delivers. I can’t think of a single significant complaint.

The game looks gorgeous, sounds luscious, and hits you in the feels just as hard as Witcher 3. The deep and incredibly flexible character customization options should provide ample replayability—something you couldn’t say about Witcher—especially when paired with the wide array of meaningful story decisions you can make.

As much as I love my V and his merry crew of hardened cyber-mercs, Night City itself is the real star here. The megalopolis feels like an authentic, lived-in place, a dense and impressive city unrivaled in games. Yes, GTA V’s streets are packed with people, but in Cyberpunk, the streets themselves feel alive.

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Again, I’m only about a dozen hours in, so my feelings about the story itself may change the more I play. Witcher 2 and 3 nailed their endings, though, and the real draw of this game—for me at least—is simply existing in Night City. Taking in the neon lights and petting cats while waiting for a fixer to call with a job offer, then using my smarts, skills, and connections to navigate the dense streets and crowded skyscrapers.

Even if the main narrative somehow stumbles at the finish line, it wouldn’t take away from that sublime core gameplay experience. After a dozen hours, I haven’t come close to exhausting the available activities in just the first of Night City’s six districts and surrounding Badlands. No matter what happens with V, I can’t wait to discover all of Night City’s secrets. I’m in love.

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