Beep. Something's brewing in Poland and the crowd goes wild.
V. Jackie. Johnny. A game is shown and the crowd forms virtual relationships with its characters.
A familiar face takes the stage. "You're breathtaking," he says, and the moment is one for the ages.
CD Projekt Red has somehow already managed to imprint its upcoming game Cyberpunk 2077 and its characters into the cerebral cortex chips of gamers since its reveal and it's not set to release until November of this year. That in itself is impressive, but, of course, there are reasons as to why this is the case for the Polish studio. The Witcher series, and especially its third entry, has truly demonstrated the competence of its developers, both from a technical and a narrative perspective. This, however, is putting pressure on the studio to truly wow its ever-growing fanbase and outshine the phenomenal fantasy title and its expansions. Will that be doable? Is it even possible?
I was lucky enough to play CD Projekt Red's upcoming title Cyberpunk 2077 for four full hours earlier this week and the game definitely holds its own. I can confirm that the gameplay (usually typed out using quotation marks) shown at the previous demonstrations shows the true game. In fact, Cyberpunk 2077 looks even better today than it did when no-one had tried it out yet and many were questioning the studio's usage of the word "gameplay". I've checked in on the studio's ongoing efforts multiple times ahead of playing it and have got increasingly excited with each new look. I didn't expect what I saw though, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Nothing prepared me for creating V from scratch, tweaking her voice, her hair, her skin, her attributes, and her life path (or background story), essentially creating my own perfect being. Nothing prepared me for the bonds I'd form with the game's characters in a mere four hours. Nothing prepared me for the amount of detail in Night City - its people, its streets, its regions, its crowds, and the way the crowds change when the sun goes down.
When I went in, I went in with a clear plan. I was going to be a street-smart, book-smart street kid who could talk herself out of trouble. After creating my female V to absolute visual perfection (going through a vast variety of customisation options), it was time to assign attribute points to 'Body', 'Reflex', 'Intelligence', 'Technical Ability' and 'Cool', all of which would then have separate skill trees - and boy did I make a mistake when doing so. As a fantasy RPG veteran, mental stats to me mean "smart", "charismatic", "manipulative" and "capable with magic". Intelligence in Cyberpunk 2077 feeds into the former, for sure, but the rest? Not so much. Hacking is the game and, in all honesty, I should have realised that. I'm not complaining though, because it actually let me become a tech genius. New perk paths unlocked and I could hack more advanced tech. However, with few points put into 'Body', 'Reflex' and 'Cool', I wasn't super efficient in the combat to come and I tried my best to sway enemies with my charm in dialogue and in combat, but they weren't having it.
Starting out as a Street Kid, I came to life at El Coyote Cojo in Heywood. The bartender slid me a shot of whiskey to numb the pain of setting my nose, which had been severely broken. I didn't drink it and a crack could be heard as V looked into the mirror by the bar, letting me view my creation - "I'm a badass" I thought, and I still think that's true for my V.
The bartender, Pepe, who's seemingly a friend of V's, talks about his debt to fixer Kirk, a shady (presumed) small-timer and loan shark sitting upstairs in his booth. I let the bartender know that I'll sort his debt for him and move upstairs through the grimy, neon-clad dive bar. Kirk offers me a seat by his goon Big Joe, who eyes V menacingly whilst eating a burger. To clear the debt, we need to swipe a rare car from a parking garage. Sounds easy enough. A key able to bypass locks and personality systems is given to us in advance and we're dropped off at the garage by our escort, Padre, an old-timer who's most definitely not popular with the 6th Street Gang. In fact, one of the gang members stops the car to threaten him real quick before letting us proceed on our journey to get the fancy sports vehicle. The way the different characters interact with each other is quite breathtaking and the relationships between them, good or bad, bring life to Night City. This sets the tone really quickly when you enter a new area or meet new people, and it's crucial to pay attention to one's surroundings.
Interestingly enough, once there, the mission goes as planned until none other than Jackie, the burly and loveable companion shown in previous gameplay sessions, steps in and tells you to get out of the car as he has scoped it out first. Looks like ol' Jackie isn't friendly to start off with - at least if you're a street kid. Lucky for me, however, Night City PD was waiting outside the parking garage, presumably due to fixer Kirk's chip tripping the alarm in the car and, even though they're not friendly by any means, they don't throw us in jail (or in the river) for our crimes. Interestingly enough, the Jackie you'll get to know is different depending on what life path you choose for yourself. If you're a 'Nomad', you'll get to know Jackie on the job. If you're a 'Corpo', he'll be your friend from the get-go up in your high-class fancy crib. If you're a 'Street Kid', he'll try to screw you over, go down with you, and wake up in the actual gutter with you - now that's how you craft a bond with someone.
Once out of the gutter, Jackie's ready for some grub and if you checked out the reveal back in August of 2018, the entire sequence of that reveal gameplay clip followed. I visited my ripper-doc friend to get my eye replaced and my palm modified and left Jackie getting his heart chakra cleansed. I went to meet with the extravagant Dex with his golden cybernetics (and was in awe throughout the entire car ride with him due to the stunning visuals during our drive, especially the smoke from his cigar moving through the car, particles being lit up by passing street lights), I spoke to Militech, went into the All Foods Factory to try to do things peacefully and get a bot I needed, however, I failed miserably, to the extent that I was even shot in the face mid-dialogue at one point due to me not choosing to grab my gun OR pay the extortionist some extra money. I secured a female body kept in a tub of ice and met perhaps the most hostile team of medics in existence. If you really want to, you can find footage of all of the above directly from CD Projekt Red, however, don't watch the clips assuming that's what the game will look and play like - it's already better than that.
The vertical Night City is one of the most stunning and varied in-game cities I've ever visited and it was hard to resist exploring it even when I was in the middle of a mission. Not only is the game graphically stunning (we were playing through a stream link, so undoubtedly there was a monstrous PC working hard down in Poland), more so even than what's been shown previously, it's so varied and so alive - it's hard to differentiate it from an actual town. There are different districts such as an upper-class central metropolis with billboards covering every inch of real estate that it borders (a specific ad for an adult film titled 'Milfgard' was my personal favourite, prompting me to point my finger at the screen, laughing at the thought of how Emhyr, the Emperor of Witcher 3's Nilfgaard, would have reacted had he seen it), to neon-clad streets crowded with night clubs that in turn borders trade areas and industrial sites and slums - the list goes on. What's so impressive is how the different areas house different types of people.
The entire city changes at night and some missions are time-specific. Luckily, you have the option to either pass the time using a menu prompt or you can simply explore what looks like a phenomenal city. Hell, the people walking around can share information or just fun conversations like one I had with a conspiracy theorist street preacher, who was telling people that cybernetic modifications let "the man" and "corporations" spy on you through your own body. I almost left him, thinking he was just one of those NPCs with a dialogue loop, but as I was leaving, I could interact, fully, using dialogue options to find out more about him.
Now, granted, I didn't realise you could call your car to your location until very late on, so that's most likely the reason for this, but I walked the streets in absolute awe and the transitions between one area and the next were so fluid. Different gangs roamed and plagued different districts and I intruded on hostile turf more than once while exploring. Across the map (which is in 3D to show off the verticality of the city), you'll find a variety of points of interest. Fast travel markers (which work as those in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, i.e. you get into close proximity to one and it'll unlock), shops, jobs, NCPD gigs, bounties etc. If you want a side hustle, there's plenty of them to go around. Some fixers will even send gigs directly to the messaging app on your phone for easy access.
I haven't really touched on combat much and combat is, of course, a huge part of Cyberpunk 2077 (well, it doesn't have to be - you can actually go through the game non-lethally if that's how you want to play it). The reason for this is the fact that I was unprepared for combat. While not really hard in and of itself, there is a lot to keep track of in combat, especially if you're tech- and intelligence-based. You have to scope your surroundings, scope possible escape routes, scope potential enemies, and even when you do, there's plenty of room for error. Of course, there's such a thing as sneaking and attacking, and I used that plenty since I didn't have many points set into the physical abilities.
Thankfully, a tutorial is available for those wanting to try things out and, in reality, all of the combat and stealth mechanics are rather simple. However, there are so many options that it was hard to keep track of what was possible - especially when hacking. Thankfully, hacking would slow time down when prompted, but it'd also drain energy so regardless of what I wanted to do, I found myself messing things up by not thinking ahead. I think a non-lethal approach, which is what I usually go for when possible in games, will be hard - very hard - at least at the beginning before you're truly accustomed to all of your abilities and how they're all used. Hacking is really useful though and you can use it offensively or defensively. Abilities can even treat you to new dialogue options, as can life paths and information gathered.
Combat is heavy, guns feel somewhat weighted and are separated into three different weapon classes: 'Power', 'Smart' and 'Tech'. That translates into pure firepower, guns using smart technology such as heat-seeking projectiles, and electrically manipulated firepower.
Apart from a tutorial showing us how to fight (with or without weapons), sneak and hack, one brand-new aspect that had not previously been shown was the concept of a 'braindance'. A braindance is essentially a way to have a virtual out-of-body experience. You traverse various memories and scripted scenarios via a special headset that renders the user unconscious. We got to experience this with the help of the dame who ordered the bot we got for Dex. Evelyn - who is seemingly a higher-up member or perhaps even the leader of The Mox, a gang led and operated by sex workers - and Judy, a Mox techie who made sure we had a safe trip. Our mission was to gather intel collected subconsciously by Evelyn whilst being a "guest" in a corporation-owned penthouse. We learned that we could either experience the memory as the person who recorded it or as an outsider looking in via the braindance editor. Here, we essentially had a ton of options when trying to solve mysteries; checking scenes in 3D by listening in on various conversations, checking heat profiles, and viewing visual clues while rewinding, fast-forwarding and pausing the scene. Apparently, as we noticed via V's reaction to the setup, a raw braindance (meaning non-altered, non-limited) can be mentally overwhelming.
Whereas CD Projekt Red showed what happened when giving the bot to Militech, we offered it to Dex as promised, which led us to the Afterlife, the club for high-class mercenaries. As I grabbed a drink at the bar with Jackie, I asked him to get us both something of his choice, whereby he ordered two Johnny Silverhands, which was a lovely hint about a character I wasn't able to meet during my time with the game.
Cyberpunk 2077 looks absolutely incredible and it plays phenomenally (and mind you, I played it remotely via streaming software). Night City truly is alive and you can really connect with the characters you meet. It's snappy, it's funny, it's heavy, and it's varied. Sure, CD Projekt Red still has some work to do before it lands on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on November 19, but once the game is ready, I think those eager to play it will be blown away by what has been achieved. It managed to blow my mind, and my expectations were already high.