E3 was pretty cool. There were, like, video games and stuff! I’d only ever seen it through a computer screen, so finally being able to push through the LCD screen barrier and appear physically at the convention, like some Silicon Valley-based Samara of The Ring, was quite a treat for me. Honestly, I hadn’t even been out of the Central Time Zone in fifteen years. Stepping into the place where video games become real was out of this world.
Speaking of this world, many of the games shown off featured different takes on our current living space. There was Watch Dogs Legion, which showed us 1984 if it was set in 2034 instead, with drones, hacking, and authoritarianism, which doesn’t seem to change all that much with the times. There was also the cute world domination sim Evil Genius 2 by Rebellion, which showed us a world where villains are both intimidating yet oddly adorable.
Then we have Cyberpunk 2077, a game set in the future, the year of which I am not sure of, for some reason. This is a world where cybernetic modifications are the norm, as is dirty, dangerous violence. This is CD Projekt Red’s follow up to The Witcher 3, which are some huge boots to fill. However, after sitting down for the hour-long gameplay demo, led by the developers themselves, I believe the footwear has been filled, and then some. Someone call a cobbler!
So, from the cinematic trailer, we know that Keanu Reeves is present and accounted for, playing the role of a cyberghost named Johnny Silverhand, a mythologically cool rock star/freedom fighter. During our demo, we learn that Johnny is locked inside our main character V’s head, via a chip implant. He’ll appear whenever, and wherever, spouting a quip or two for good measure. His character seems to be a balance to our lead, who doesn’t appear to have a flair for the dramatic or theatrical dialogue like Kenau does.
The demo opens on the Cyberpunk 2077‘s character creator, which has the requisite physical features. It’s not particularly robust, but it was also clearly unfinished. I don’t think the looks are the most important part of the creator, though; that’s gotta be the background. Depending on which you choose, such as a street rat or a corporate figure, your dialogue changes throughout the game, sometimes drastically. While talking business, for example, if you’ve chosen the white collar background, perhaps you could work out a better deal, or impress someone with your knowledge of the industry. It seems like it’ll add a whole other level of replayability.
We quickly segue into gameplay, which has our stealthy, built-for-hacking V looking for a gangster by the name of Placid, who knows the location of a missing woman named Brigitte. He runs The Voodoo Boys, a mysterious cabal of Creole-speaking Haitians, who live in the Pacifica district of Night City. After entering a church and pushing his way through a dense crowd, V gets instructions to go to a butcher shop, which is where he finally meets Placid. The two make a deal to cooperate and help each other out. What V has to do to get the knowledge he needs is simple: clear an enemy gang from an abandoned shopping mall.
As a sign of trust, we have to let Placid and his gang link into our system. The playtester chooses to jolt back, before allowing the link to happen. Now, with Placid able to see what we see and freely communicate with us – with an added bonus of defense against enemy hacking – V heads down and gets on a futuristic crotch rocket, equipped with a jammin’ sound system playing 2077’s latest contemporary hits.
It’s even possible to listen to Johnny Silverhand’s band, Samurai, in-game. So, you rock out on your way through this run-down, drab district. It’s full of abandoned, half-finished skyscrapers, home to, well, the (technically) homeless. Military helicopters unleash a torrent of missiles and gunfire into one of the blocs in the background, the sound of the explosions slightly delayed. It’s immersively depressing because of how realistic this seems.
We get to the mall, where we meet two Voodoo Boy sentries who tell us about a back entrance we should probably use, being stealthy and all. As we sneak and scope out the enemy gang – who are called The Animals due to their reliance on a strength-enhancing drug – we see various opportunities to put hacking to good use. With a high enough level of skill, almost anything can be hacked, even enemies themselves. While making his way through a gym, our playtester hacked cameras to be sneaky, a weight machine to be deadly, and a boxing training robot into a lethal one-hit KO machine. It was all so organic and felt very natural. The sandbox approach to gameplay has been fully realized.
To emphasize that feeling, the playtester used a dev-only mode to switch over to a fully-made female V. This one’s a bruiser, with all of her points put into strength and gunplay instead of hacking. This time, instead of hacking and sneaking through a corridor to take a long way around, muscly V just rips a door off of its hinges and bypasses the gym entirely.
We also now get our first taste of combat proper. This stronger version of V quickly encounters an Animal and just as quickly dispatches him with some brutal, juicy melee attacks before dumping the sap in a garbage chute – the sound of bone-crunching will make any fighting fan happy.
In the next room – the main entrance of the mall we snuck past earlier – there isn’t just one Animal this time around. Not afraid to just jump into the fray, V quickly turns the gang’s defenses against them by ripping a turret from its mechanical restraints before turning it on her attackers, unleashing a barrage of high-damage gunfire that almost clears the room. Our playtester pulled out a shotgun and split the last guy in half.
We then go through the whole thing again, but this time going back to Mr. Hacker V. He utilizes submachine guns and heavy pistols that tear Animals to shreds. He uses the multifaceted nanowire, a neon, glowing string-like device that both hacks and slashes enemies. It’s kind of like a lightsaber whip – literally cutting dudes’ arms off. It’s so rad, though hacking enemies also has a bit of a darker undertone, as you can hack enemy implants and make them shoot themselves. It’s grisly, but also so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh a bit.
The whole thing culminates in a boss fight with a gigantic slab of meat named Sasquatch, the leader of the Animals. She wields a massive ax and is jacked up on her juice (read: steroids). If you’ve played any of the FPS RPGs out there, like Deus Ex, you pretty much know how this boss fight played out. In an oddly-scripted moment during the early part of the fight, Sasquatch charges V and sticks some sort of hacking device on his head, basically turning this into a timed boss fight.
After dispatching the gang leader, we get the information we need out of a van parked close by before trailing a NetWatch Agent – one of the governmental workers tasked with tracking down cyberpunks like us – into a movie theater. Here, we’re presented with an opportunity to pursue drastically different takes on the story. We could choose to trust the narc and turn on Placid, we could kill the agent and return to Placid like promised, or we could go our own way. Well, the playtester, against the room’s protests, chose to knock out the agent. Things go awry, as they often do in crime dramas, as Placid fries V’s internal chip system, in a moment of betrayal.
However, Johnny Silverhand helps V survive, luckily. The Voodoo Boy sentries, visibly anxious upon our emergence from the shopping mall, begrudgingly take us back to confront Placid. He relents and shows us to Brigitte, who takes us into this world’s version of cyberspace. The demo wraps up here with a sizzle reel, which is unnecessary because my mouth is already watering.
The character customization was (due to time constraints) glossed over during the demo – when I say “hacker” class, I’m overgeneralizing. You can create your character however you want, with a huge, branching set of skills you can upgrade, or specific attacks you can equip on your nanowire. Freedom of play is hugely emphasized in this game, and CD Projekt Red seems to be putting a lot of work into it. From dialogue, to background, to playstyle, to hairstyle, it looks like everything will go the way you want it to. It’s, like, the Burger King of video games: have it your way.
Cyberpunk 2077 is shaping up to be one of the must-own titles of 2020. I’m grateful I got to see the game in action because it’s an absolute beaut. What a fully realized world – nothing seems half-assed about this experience, from what I’ve seen and heard. CD Projekt Red appears to have another stellar title on their hands, and I can’t wait to make my own V in March.