Cyberpunk 2077 PC tech analysis: a closer look at the ultra high-end experience
Pushing the new Red Engine to its limits.
Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion around Cyberpunk 2077 but from our perspective, it's the next-generation technology powering the game that is perhaps most exciting. Since The Witcher 2, developer CD Projekt Red has focused on delivering cutting-edge visual experiences across multiple platforms but in moving away from the rolling hills of The Witcher onto the streets of Night City, we have something far beyond the scope of anything in the studio's past.
In that sense, Cyberpunk is one of those rare games that fully embraces the latest in PC technology to deliver a true leap in fidelity - a modern day Crysis, if you like. Night City is a dense, multi-tiered, vertical city built using the latest in graphics technology alongside smart visual design. But let's be clear from the outset - it's always been our contention that this is a next generation game, and our concerns have always been around the challenging but necessary base console versions. We'll be covering those very, very soon but let's be clear here: this is a demanding game that simply doesn't work well on seven-year-old console hardware. Give Cyberpunk 2077 the horsepower it demands though - and you're in for something special.
At its core Cyberpunk 2077 is powered by CD Projekt Red's proprietary Red Engine. This set of tools and technology served as the foundation on which The Witcher series was built but the shift from its previous game to Cyberpunk is one of the largest leaps we've seen. The Witcher series focuses on natural environments - rolling hills, dense forests and eerie marshland define the landscape and it's beautiful in its own right but Cyberpunk's move to an open world city demands a different approach and the team has delivered. The latest iteration of Red Engine running fully unleashed is truly something to behold.
From top to bottom, the fully realised vision of Night City delivers meticulous granularity alongside a vast sense of scale. The Blade Runner aesthetic is essentially the stuff of legend at this point but few, if any, games have managed to capture the sheer level of clutter and detail - but CD Projekt RED has delivered just that. Presented in first-person, the city offers a vast, multi-tiered design. Highways on top of walkways on top of shopping streets on top of markets - there is so much packed into both the vertical and horizontal design of the city. Each alleyway is packed with clutter and detail while thick smoke and fog fill the air. Unlike most open world cities, you can get utterly lost in the world of Cyberpunk and that is a good thing - at least in my opinion. No longer is navigation reduced to holding forward towards an objective, you'll instead push your way through these busy streets, navigating alleys and towering high-way structures alike.
The fidelity of the rendering can be extraordinary and that starts with the lighting. Light and the way it interacts with the environment remains one of the most important yet most demanding elements in real-time graphics rendering today. The nature of light in the real world is expensive to simulate - something that has yielded many creative solutions both offline and real-time. Cyberpunk takes a multi-pronged approach to this problem. On PC, you have the option to enable hardware accelerated DirectX ray tracing features including global illumination, diffuse illumination and ambient occlusion but the game retains much of its visual splendor even without these features.
The most obvious place to start then is with the largest area light of all - the sky. As the time-of-day changes, the angle of sunlight is constantly adjusted, and this sunlight has a direct impact on areas both in and out of the sun. As an urban environment, structures such as buildings and walkways often occlude the sun from view leaving shadow in its place. With ray tracing enabled, diffuse illumination is calculated ensuring that colour information is realistically captured and displayed on objects and surfaces throughout the environment. The sky is treated as a giant area light, meaning that areas in shadow exhibit realistic indirect lighting, but this also applies to emissive sources such as the city's numerous neon lights and LED billboards. When using the top-end Psycho option for ray traced lighting, full global illumination is introduced which simulates light scattering as it plays off each surface. That means, photons of light bounce off these surfaces transmitting colour information to a second surface - it absorbs and transmits this colour creating a more natural, realistic scene. It simply enhances the already excellent ray traced lighting features.
Ray traced lighting also enables proper RT ambient occlusion - basically contact and ambient shadowing that naturally occurs when objects are bathed in light. It is most evident when looking below vehicles - without ray tracing, the area beneath is improperly lit and overly bright. With RTAO, however, it's suitably darkened and realistic. Ray tracing is, of course, a key feature here but most players will be experiencing the game without these techniques. The good news here is that the game still holds up beautifully. Red Engine's approach to illumination without ray tracing is, of course, less accurate but still delivers striking results. The main drawbacks center around incorrectly lit objects within a scene which almost appear to glow but during normal gameplay, it isn't overly distracting. The key to all of this, though, lies in the materials quality. Red Engine has supported physically-based shading and materials for a while now, but Cyberpunk really demonstrates what's possible when deployed at a high level.
Ultimately, the goal of PBR materials is to more accurately simulate the behavior of light across a surface - finding the right balance between roughness and shininess, basically. This is an area where I feel The Witcher 3 was lacking. Compared to contemporaries of its day, such as Assassin's Creed Unity, the material response in Witcher 3 never felt convincing to my eyes. That changes with Cyberpunk in a big way, where even rough materials like tiles and cement scatter light across their surface in a realistic manner. When you combine these materials with the lighting engine, the result is something that can appear almost photorealistic at times.
Of course, there's a lot more to the reflections and this is another key part of the lighting discussion. Cyberpunk uses a range of reflection techniques. On the high-end, ray traced reflections are supported but screen-space reflections are still layered into the scene to further enhance each reflection with additional visual information. On reflective surfaces, ray tracing enables pin sharp reflections that are physically accurate. The way they bend and conform to each surface is effective and you'll be able to enjoy surroundings reflected clear without relying on screen-space information. The only drawback is that your character is omitted from the BVH structure used to generate RT reflections and so your avatar never appears in the shiny surfaces - aside from certain mirrors in the game that use render-to-texture to copy the entire scene into a reflective surface.
The combination of RT reflections and lighting allow even challenging scenes to display in a realistic manner but it's the use of volumetric lights and fog that truly deliver the full Blade Runner aesthetic. Night City is packed with individual light sources, each illuminating not just the scene around it but the atmosphere itself. Fog and smoke billows out across Night City and surrounding lights illuminate this before your eyes. When played in HDR, the effect is even more striking. Light pollution fills the night sky in a dramatic and realistic fashion. Beyond this, particles are also illuminated by dynamic lights and visible within reflections further bringing everything together.
Lighting, materials and volumetrics are key to delivering this next-gen vision, but there's more to it than that - what really sells this world is the sheer volume of detail and life on display. Structures are richly detailed, LOD management is handled seamlessly and the streets of often packed. The best way I can describe it is that it has the level of detail you'd expect from a hub area in Deus Ex at a much larger scale. It feels so perfectly crafted that as someone that really isn't into open world games these days, I found myself often exploring on foot just to take in the sights and sounds. It's really that engaging.
Of course, in all areas, shadows play a significant role in defining the look of the game - Cyberpunk offers a range of shadow options included cascaded shadow maps, ray traced shadows and screen-space shadows. RT shadows, when enabled, are generated from sun and moonlight while other local lights utilise alternatives. This allows shadows to exhibit variable sharpness based on the distance of the caster from the player position, allowing a nice mix of soft and more defined shadows. Contact hardening is also included and applicable - this comes as standard on RT shadows, but even without ray tracing, the effect is still delivered. Dynamic lights, such as car headlights, can also cast shadows at night.
Thus far we've focused on the city itself but this is a narrative heavy game and you'll spend a lot of time chatting with friends and foes alike. In general, character rendering is handled well - sub-surface scattering, realistic skin shading, detailed clothing and fluid animation work in tandem to bring the characters to life. Unlike the world, it doesn't set any new standards but it's effective for an open world game such as this. There's also an interesting approach taken with the player character itself. This may have proven controversial, but Cyberpunk plays out mostly with a first-person perspective.
You never see your character from a third-person camera (driving scenes apart) and instead, the game relies on camera movement and hand gestures. That's also really interesting in this case as the development team has implemented full body awareness - you can see your feet, torso and arms throughout play and this enables some very fluid first-person animation. Cutscenes and gameplay benefit greatly from this, plus there's a lot of bespoke, context-sensitive motion capture work. I think it works - it contributes to the sense of immersion in the game and it's something you don't typically see in large scale open world RPGs such as Fallout 4.
When you engage in combat, pulling up your weapon and using the dynamic cover system actually feels closer to a proper shooter than a typical RPG and it's the animation work that helps sell it. The same goes for driving - when you climb behind the wheel of a car, the first-person viewpoint is remarkably immersive but if you prefer, driving is the one area where you CAN switch to third person and that works equally well. Honestly, at this point, it still feels like I'm just scratching the surface of what's in this game from a visual and systems perspective but there are other details I want to mention, like the architecture. The detail level is high but it's the designs of the buildings that make for such an atmospheric journey. The bizarre shapes and obelisks that litter the skyline are tremendous to behold, while individual districts have their own distinct character. When exploring Pacifica, a ruined part of Night City, my love of urban exploration was ignited - somehow, it really conveys that feeling of being alone in a place that was once alive with activity.
I'm going to stress this once again for those who might feel we are overlooking the situation on consoles (we will be covering all versions, don't worry) but this is all based on the high-end PC experience. Even so, there are obviously bugs. The thing is, the extent to which the issues will affect you will vary very much on a machine by machine basis and there's no doubt that I was lucky. I didn't encounter any game breaking bugs, most of the issues were minor and typically involved broken animations or wacky physics. Sometimes sequences didn't play out as they should but by and large, Cyberpunk 2077 was solid - for me. Performance wasn't bad either, bearing in mind I effectively ran the game fully maxed out. In the video on this page, I pegged performance to 30fps for consistent playback and maximum resolution, but I've actually been playing at 4K on an LG OLED CX display at between 50 to 90 frames per second. Yes, I'm using an RTX 3090 to do so, but owing to the staggering demands of 4K resolution, scaling down to 1080p or 1440p should bring a lot more mainstream hardware into the mix. For ray tracing though, DLSS is basically essential for maintaining high frame-rates.
In conclusion, this is a next generation game but there's no doubt that to get a good experience from it, you're going to need next-gen consoles or PC equivalents. What we've seen on the old PS4 and Xbox One machines so far strongly suggests that the legacy machines are hamstrung by the lack of CPU power and storage, while the vintage 2013 consoles have to content with limited graphics power too. More on that soon, but in the meantime, I'm intrigued to see how CD Projekt Red tackles the proper next generation console versions. Expanding upon and enhancing the performance and quality options available in the Xbox One X build would be a good start, but bearing in mind how demanding this game is, I'm wondering if there'll be the horsepower available to run some of the high-end features PC is already delivering. At the moment we're also looking at delivering 'optimised settings' for PC, which aims to strike a balance between fidelity and performance - and maybe this will give some idea of where the studio can deliver the most effective enhancements for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles.
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