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Here’s something weird about Cyberpunk 2077: You’re not allowed to be ugly.

That’s ugly by the game’s very narrow definition, mind. You can’t have one wonky eye, or fish lips, or unusually large hands; you can’t be overweight, underweight, muscular, shorter or taller than average; your skin must be one of the eight-or-so approved human colours; you can have rude bits, as long as they are big, small or default. Characters must be symmetrical, they must conform to some variation of the two genders, their scars must be aesthetically pleasing.

Some of these are likely design limitations (everyone being the same height makes it easier to program character interactions, a small range of model sizes prevents collision detection issues, etc.), and NPCs get to select from at least one other body type, but when you start creating a character in Cyberpunk there’s an immediate feeling of being constrained. Invisible walls erected to keep you from making anything unacceptable, anything that isn’t cool enough to let you hang with the many cool NPCs in their cool future clothes, standing in overwhelmingly cool neon-soaked environments.

Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077. We’re in the bathroom, and we just threw up. For my class… uhhh background? Upbringing? Oh right, LIFEPATH. I’m a Corpo, which basically means one of the bad guys by all logic of the cyberpunk genre. Arguably the bad guys by present day reality as well. Please enjoy this biting social commentary I’ve just made, which surpasses anything you might spot in the opening of the game.

“Corporates are the Armani-wearing, Machiavellian mega-yuppies you see in the RoboCop films. Being wealthy and persuasive, they can muster favors and resources beyond what most people can even hope.”

That’s what the wiki for Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper tabletop game 2077 is based on, has to say about Corporates. Their special ability in 2020 is RESOURCES, using their vast reserves of cash and influence to get things done. In 2077… well, let’s have a look.

What strikes me about this is how it says… nothing. It feels like it was written for someone who already knows what being a Corpo entails. Be either a winner or a loser, something about secrets, be a bastard of some description. But it also reads like a knowing wink to the fact that this high-flying corporate lifestyle won’t be a concern for very long. Maybe something awful is going to happen that renders our character’s background choices mostly meaningless. I don’t know, just a feeling.

Anyway we were in a bathroom. The Arasaka building, where our V works in their role as part of counterintel, looks exactly like you might expect. All clean lines and soulless interior design. It’s a little too cool, to be honest. Like, it seems like an interesting place to work, if you’re an asshole. Which sort of ties back into what I mentioned earlier about the character creator: Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that wants to be cool, and wants to give you the opportunity to be cool. You do not have a choice in the matter. You’re going to look awesome and say clever, pithy things; people will want to be your friend; your office will have futuristic cyberwalls and you’ll stick glowing USB sticks into your cyberhead. So of course the bad guys (this particular set, anyway) work in an outrageously stylish mega-skyscraper. It feels too nice. Too inviting. My head expects an environment as repellent and dead inside as the corporation. Something like the TV station from Detroit: Become Human, Neo’s office from The Matrix, or the distressingly clean and bright dystopian interiors of Mirror’s Edge. Empty, emotionally draining; dark and oppressive capitalism, rather than dark like the inside of an expensive liquid-cooled PC. Much of cyberpunk as a genre is concerned with the idea of rebellious elements dragging themselves out from under the boot of crushing capitalism, but this makes the space under the boot seem pretty comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the point, though, that it gets comfortable under there; or maybe I’m giving CDPR too much credit.

V heads upstairs, her boss is angry about something, her boss’s boss is a bad person. Blah, blah, blah. He kills a bunch of people with remote computer powers while you watch, because he’s evil. He complains about his boss, and of course that means you have to kill her. Or facilitate her death, at least. 

The NPCs, in the prologue at least, are not particularly reactive. They tend to offer one piece of information or flavour only once V pays attention. This person discusses the disasterous job in Frankfurt, another talks about how the media will react to the aforementioned computer assassinations. My boss asks me to take a seat, and if I refuse he pauses for a while before asking me politely to take a seat. And if I still don’t then he really loses it and asks me to take a seat. Sir you are willing to murder half a dozen human beings to make a few cyberbucks, I don’t think you should accept this sort of employee behaviour. Characters just sort of… stand around, like participants in an amateur production of Waiting for The Main Character. There’s no sense of life to the world in here, everything is happening for my benefit. In fact, the only people you properly meet in this opening sequence are folks directly related to V in some way: her assistant, her coworker, her boss, this guy called Frank. We met during Icefall.

Side note: running is a lot of fun in this game. The combination of the sprint animation and the satisfying pounding of my expensive shoes makes me want to run everywhere. I noticed this while sprinting past Frank as he repeatedly called me rude.

Sorry, Frank.

The whole prologue is on rails like this. Conversations pop up as if we’re a movie character turning on the TV at the exact moment the news is discussing our brother’s arrest. It’s fun, it just feels staged. An odd choice, forcing the player through a very linear opening to introduce a game that purports to be all about choice and living your dream cyberpunk lifestyle. A good opening sets your expectations for the rest of a text. Think of pushing the broken-down car with your boyband friends in Final Fantasy XV, navigating a guard-filled dock at the start of Metal Gear Solid, or dashing straight out Peter Parker’s window and swinging across the city in Spider-Man. The start of a memorable game is often a microcosm of the game itself, and players are subconsciously aware of this.

Cyberpunk’s Corpo prologue mostly means being told what to do and then doing it. You get told you can use the car outside so you go and use the car outside, you head to a bar to find your friend because your friend told you to, you get betrayed by the corporation, of course, and forced into a life of cool crimes for cool people.

Not that you care about losing your job, of course, since you only found out about it 10 minutes ago and V already hated it. The lifepath deal feels like a stab at the Dragon Age: Origins style of bonding a player to their character by investing in their past, but it’s so fast! When I played a city elf in Dragon Age I was given a whole district to explore and a complex mix of intrigue, racism, sexual assault and forced marriage to pick through; in Cyberpunk your boss asks you to do something and then some goons tell you not to do that thing.

Oop, hold on, we’re doing crimes now. Or stopping crimes, I can’t tell. Mainly this section is designed to teach you how the action sections of the game work. We need to sneak up on this guy and decide whether he lives or dies. Then we have to kill everyone else, which is a little confusing. Why are we given the option for a non-lethal takedown on this one poor shirtless mook, when the game knows full well we’re about to murder six men in the next room? As teaching moments go, it’s poor. Despite being a tutorial, it says nothing about WHY you might want to use a non-lethal option, what the benefits might be versus the downsides. The only upside of keeping this one alive seems to be the idea that he’ll wake up later inside a freezer and quickly discover all his friends are dead.

The shooting feels good, so far. Weighty enough, and enemies don’t quite take so much damage that you wonder whether they’re immortal. There’s a decent flow to battle when you use your hacking powers to distract people, lob grenades and make use of cover. It’s just a taste, anyway. A sample. A dead body did lodge itself in a doorway, which doesn’t seem planned. Also, a still-living enemy flew out the window and kept shooting at me from inside the window frame. And if we’re talking about bugs, I feel obliged to mention that my breasts burst out of my shirt for a while.

At this point in the story we find the infamous woman in the bathtub and save her life, the ambulance-cops turn up to lift her away, and we’re left to drive home. This is absolutely just a chance for the game to show off its fancy city at ground level and tease some new things you’re likely to come across later. There’s a car chase which ends with an explosion, some people get gunned down by Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of SWAT, there’s rain, there’s more neon. And you arrive home at your apartment, which is entirely too big and too nice to make sense for your character at this point in their lives but HEY, gotta be cool. Narratively, the prologue ends at a weird point where the start of something has happened but there’s no indication of the shape of things going forward. Basically you’re just this badass who was betrayed and now you… do jobs. Nothing says punk like agreeing to carry out tasks for folks in positions of authority.

SPEED ROUND: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have Even More Thoughts

  • I like that you can shower in your clothes for that true Overwhelmed By Life feeling.
  • Tutorial via holograms is a strangely common technique in video games these days and it’s a really boring design choice. Then again, at least they let you skip it.
  • The TV so far comes off like it’s trying to be GTA-style satire but it’s not wild enough to be funny so it just feels like a satire of Cyberpunk 2077.
  • Making it so you can only look into mirrors when you log into them is actually a neat and sneaky way to avoid having to render reflections constantly.
  • You can buy an extra-large burrito from a vending machine in this future so how can it be bad?
  • When you look at a sink it says “flush” instead of “activate” or “turn on” and that means every water source in 2077 is a toilet.

My goal for this playthrough was to stretch the game by playing contrary to the rules on purpose. Sadly, the prologue doesn’t offer much opportunity to do this, and wants you to stick to the path quite rigidly. Hopefully that becomes less of an issue now I’m headed into the open world. Now excuse me while I lie down sideways on my cyberbed and have some cyberdreams.