Takemura hangs out with some coffee in Cyberpunk 2077 in a futuristic retro diner.
Games

'Cyberpunk' Is Several Different Games, and You Choose Which One to Play

You get a lot of options about what kind of character and play style you want to create, but here's what you should know upfront.
December 10, 2020, 2:00pm

It took me 14 hours to get to the opening title screen of Cyberpunk 2077. So believe me when I tell you that my path through the game has been a slow, meandering one that taught me a lot about how this game is ultimately supposed to work, versus what I assumed at the start and I think some of those lessons would have made it a more enjoyable game right out of the gate.

First, I played on Hard and honestly I think that was a good decision, even if it made progress slower. Cyberpunk doesn't go so far as to say there's a difficulty level where it's "meant to be played" but instead indicates that higher difficulty levels require using more of the game's skill and perks in order to survive, while lower ones will allow less dynamic approaches. So on Hard, the stealth aspects of the game were made a lot more interesting because even small mistakes would get me spotted far faster by guards and cameras. The gunfights actually became pretty exciting because there was almost never a point where I could just tank fights and shrug off incoming fire. Mind you, I think I could have rendered most of those battles trivial if I'd fully embraced more aggressive attributes and perks (and I'm not sure that's a good thing at all) but on the other hand I wouldn't have had access to the crowd-control and stun abilities that made those fights manageable in the first place.

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This choice is not as momentous as it appears, however. The difficulty selection screen makes it sound like you're locked into your decision, but you can actually change difficulty any time. So one way or another, you will never be "stuck" in Cyberpunk. If you want to tough-out a higher difficulty, you can always go grind experience doing missions for fixers and lower-level side-quests, though it will make the game take way longer. I enjoyed spending that time with the game but it was a lot of time. If you don't have the patience to do a lot of plot-free, throwaway missions, I'd probably steer clear of Hard, even though I think it's a better game at that difficulty, or I'd be more proactive about lowering the difficulty level on some of the missions.

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I also made the game harder for myself because I didn't really see how the skills trees would work in practice, nor how experience would work, which brings me to my second point: Cyberpunk is way more fun if you hyper-specialize at the start and use later levels and perk points to expand your repertoire later.

And I mean hyper-specialize. I thought I was specializing by focusing on two attributes of the five, but even that diluted my character a bit and made the opening of the game less fun. That's because each attribute in the game has a couple perk webs associated with it. You start at the center and work your way outward as you get more perk points and higher attribute points. Pretty normal stuff, but the thing I'd stress is that your character starts becoming way, way more interesting and fun to play as you get to the outer edges of those webs. 

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At the start of the game, you can't really be min-maxed. You're only allowed to allocate up to six points to an ability, and you can't drop any of them below three, so you're forced to be a well-rounded character at the start. If you continue to develop by spreading your points evenly, Cyberpunk 2077 will play like a combination of a middling shooter, a middling stealth game, and a middling looter (though with all the shooting that still entails, perhaps there's a pithy portmanteau that could better describe what the game turns into if you embrace the technical attribute and its loot-centric crafting options).


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But it's the more advanced perks that allow really interesting tactics and choices, and provide the kind of odds-evening powers that you need to get through the tougher missions without living and dying by quicksave. If I'd committed to hacking at the start, I'd have been pulling tons of money from my cyber-thieving, the cost of using my hacking abilities against enemies would have been far lower, making it easy to use them more, and I'd have had been able to shut down entire squads of enemies and entire security networks with just a few hacks. Stealth and combat changed drastically once I had these abilities, and I would have had those cool experiences a lot sooner if I'd committed early.

Mind you, I was able to get there eventually with my more all-purpose build. To my point above, there is always more experience in Cyberpunk 2077 and you can eventually be pretty strong across a few attributes and their skill webs. But the path would have been way more fun and felt like less of a grind if I had gotten a few high-level abilities and perks early rather than a slew of low-level ones.

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I can't blame myself for not knowing that because it's not clear, until you've played more, what all these trees and abilities really mean. There's a lot of in-fiction language used to describe abilities and mechanics and until you've played a fair bit, it's tough to know what a "daemon upload" means as opposed to a quickhack.


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If I had to boil down what Cyberpunk's different character options mean for the kind game you're playing, it'd say it falls broadly along four lines.

Cyberpunk 2077 turns into a tactical shooter if you concentrate on the Reflexes ability and the Cool ability, and put your perk points into the weapon perks for Reflexes and into the Cold Blooded perk tree for Cool. Cool is a weird stat: it basically means how calm your character stays and it's tied to the Stealth perk web and to the Cold Blooded perk web. Despite the fact they're both tied to cool, they're useful for diametrically opposed types of play. Cold Blood is all about going to killing sprees, basically letting you become more efficient, lethal, and hardy as you become more heavily engaged. It's very useful if you're mostly going to be shooting your way through this game, but it's also entirely about stacking bonuses, so it's less useful if you're predominantly going to be sneaking around.

But if you want it to be a bit more of a run-and-gun experience, or perhaps even something like a brawler, then the Body stat is your friend. Reflexes are where guns live, but Body is where tanking and melee abilities live. I don't think I'd recommend this as the way to play—melee combat is interesting one-on-one, but the game is too fluid and chaotic most of the time to prevent it from turning into Vermintide-style flailing—but it's probably a decent way to just plow through huge parts of this game if you're in a rush.

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Cyberpunk 2077 also has a lot of loot-centric options. Again, I don't think this quite plays to the game's strengths and keeping these options open probably forces a lot of boring inventory management on people who don't want to mess with that stuff. But if you're that kind of sicko then the Technical ability and the crafting skill web will let you make the most out of the loot drops you get, and let you upgrade your gear so that you can keep a perfect itemization relevant farther into the game. Technical ability also lets you get a lot more value from grenades and consumables, which can really crank up the action-RPG vibes of Cyberpunk as you tank loads of damage by draining heal items and engage huge crowds of enemies by showering them with the powerful grenades you can craft at will. 


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My caution is that if you think Technical skills are going to open up a ton of options in terms of approach, you might be disappointed. A few locks will require a high technical skill to pick, but most clandestine approaches are going to be tied either to Intelligence skills or to Cool's Stealth tree.

Which is how I ended up playing most of Cyberpunk 2077 as a stealth game. My primary stat became Intelligence, which is tied two useful skill trees: quick hacking, which basically means "magic spells" using your cyberdeck's selection of powers, and Breach, which is more about getting into systems, applying long-lasting debuffs to enemies, and getting tons of other bonuses from various hacks. My secondary ability was Cool, but I leaned hard on the Stealth tree to make it easier for me to stay hidden and to give myself massive damage bonuses if I attacked people from concealment. If I'd wanted to go full Hitman, I'd have inverted that approach. The Stealth skills are all about murdering people with silencers and knives from the shadows, whereas the Quickhacks and Breach skills are about making it so that you probably don't have to fight or kill anyone at all.

But what I really like about Cyberpunk is that most of these lines of play provide some interesting options as you move further along their skill webs, and eventually you'll probably be able to blend approaches quite a bit. At the start, however, I'd decide which of these sounds like the most fun and focus on that for a while. At least until you've seen the opening title screen. Then you might finally have a sense of what you want this game to be.