Being dropped into Night City feels like getting slapped across the face. Fierce and provocative, CD Projekt Red’s virtual city of towering technology isn’t just the setting in which Cyberpunk 2077 takes place; it’s the game’s main character. Bright lights paint the buildings and alleys, what seems to be hundreds of citizens crowd the streets, the noise is only rivaled by the sheer smorgasbord of things to do – it’s all too much to take in. These are elements that might be a turn-off for some, but they are the beauty of what CD Projekt Red has accomplished here.
Have you ever actually been to a major city like New York City or Chicago, as opposed to seeing them on TV? The feeling of opportunity can be inspiring, but skyscrapers and crowds can also induce a hint of anxiety. Night City captures this sensation perfectly, even if Cyberpunk 2077’s world is more extreme. The dense population and cluttered streets (on PlayStation 5, at least) will have you looking over your shoulder; it feels like you can smell the sweat of passersby.
You’ll quickly learn that some hostile enemies will gather in alleys or on street corners, and if you choose to walk too closely or look at them the wrong way, it might land you in the middle of a shootout. My playthrough once saw me stopped by a blockade of burning cars all because I was driving in the wrong part of town. If you’re not paying attention to your surroundings when beginning the game, you’ll find yourself on a quick road to a game over screen. Random encounters are not a feature unique to Cyberpunk 2077, but when you’re bombarded with Night City’s assault on the senses, it’s easier to get immersed in the brutal picture CD Projekt Red has painted.
If there is any doubt of the developer’s intention to create a city that induces anxiety, one need look no further than the world map after you’re set free following the first few missions. The small portion of Night City seen below shows dozens of activities and diversions, and of course, the onslaught of icons rapidly grows as you travel through the town.
One of the game’s opening missions, The Rescue, sees you raiding a Scavenger hideout, where people’s bodies are harvested after being “plucked” off the streets. As scripted as it is, there’s something remarkably visceral about hauling a limp body out of a tub of ice, with their only chance at survival being your ability to keep cool under pressure.
This city is mad – and I mean really mad – at you, and the volatile nature of its citizens even comes through in optional objectives. Trying to cut a deal with Meredith Stout in The Pickup, another mission in Act 1, will get you jumped by one of her crew. If you watch your mouth, though, the rest of the mission might go smoother for you. Likewise, maybe a subsequent business deal is interrupted by the military, or maybe the deal itself goes south and you end up in a fight with the bloodthirsty Maelstrom gang.
These are scenarios you could be presented with only an hour into your adventure. By the time you hit the streets, the handholding is mostly gone, as if CD Projekt Red helped you through the door and left you with a foreboding “good luck!” Cyberpunk 2077 was the first game in a long time to make me forget I was holding a controller, and it’s thanks to the developer’s keen awareness that it is making a role-playing game above all else.
CD Projekt Red’s concoction of early-game immersion sets itself apart from others in its genre with hyper-in-depth world-building. The lengths the studio has gone to in order to breathe unbridled life and history into Night City are astounding, with narrative explanations for things like being able to see the amount of ammo left in your guns or why you can suddenly gain a double jump. You meet Scavengers and other gangs like Maelstrom early on, so you know what you’re getting into the second you’re on your way.
It’s science fiction, but the technology of the future is often utilized in reasonable ways, too. One of my favorite little details is the animated crosswalks present in certain parts of the city because they feel like a logical inclusion. There is also a library of stories to read through, even in the first few minutes, adding to this feeling that you’ve stepped in an alternate reality where Keanu Reeves is a mind terrorist.
The background dressing is by no means airtight, but for anyone entering the game’s finely crafted world for the first time, it’s easy to find yourself getting lost in the details of its lore rather just in moving from icon to icon on the mini-map. The best part is that the unpredictability, world-building, and sense of discomfort implant themselves so early on.
Others might disagree though.
Cyberpunk 2077 can be an uncomfortable experience, especially in the beginning. Conscious lack of direction aside, Night City’s uncanny likeness to real-world cities, which can be downright oppressive or rid with claustrophobia, may not be an appealing feature for you – and that’s okay. Millions of gamers play games for that sweet sense of escapism, so wanting something less real might be exactly what turns you away from the game. Pure activity density is an aspect many criticize games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for, and some might perceive the same issue in Cyberpunk 2077. It’s also probably safe to say that many of the elements that slap you in the face are present with the specific intention of making you feel uncomfortable. Who wants to feel uncomfortable in a video game?
That feeling of uneasiness might be Cyberpunk 2077’s most special ingredient, though. CD Projekt Red has mastered the art of pulling your attention away from the game itself, focusing you on the thick layer of city that sits on top of the foundation. Sure, wrinkles of tedious game design show up as you progress through Night City, but the game’s early efforts to rip you out of your comfort zone challenge you to keep surviving in its jungle for dozens of hours.
Of course, the game’s myriad technical problems will probably become apparent by the end of Act 1, which might challenge immersion at times, and there’s no excusing what CD Projekt Red management has put its development team through with crunch. Nonetheless, the game’s development team has still turned out some of the best opening hours seen in a video game. Passion seeps through Night City’s walls and alleys; it’d be a disservice not to praise the positive qualities that still shine through in the game.
Cyberpunk 2077 rears its cybernetic hooks early on. CD Projekt Red slaps players with an immersive discomfort that only a true RPG can offer, and not everyone is built to enjoy that. For many others such as myself, though, the game’s engaging opening act joins a shortlist of experiences that I will always wish to experience again anew.