"At its core, Cyberpunk 2077 promises a choice-based narrative fused in equal parts neon, grit, gunplay and intrigue."
CD Projekt Red, without a single doubt, knows role-playing games and how to make them great, both narratively and mechanically. With a successful and completed story in The Witcher trilogy, a studio now famous for top-notch, choice-driven quest design is taking new steps in an entirely different world with their upcoming title, Cyberpunk 2077.
A group of people, including myself, were fortunate enough to see a 50-minute uncut gameplay demo, showcasing a small introductory mission, various parts of the world, and a single quest, set near the beginning of the game. Steeped in the runtime were the nuts and bolts of what Cyberpunk 2077 wants to be: an FPS open-world RPG, drenched in neon, grit, gangsters and a healthy dollop of violence.
You play as V, taking on the mantle of a cyberpunk — a mercenary taking odd jobs, hardened by merely existing in the setting of the game: a towering, sprawling metropolis known as Night City. We open on an extensive character creation screen, allowing players to choose to be male or female. Fully customizable with hairstyles, builds and various accents to their body (such as tattoos or scars), your V will be intrinsic to you from the get-go. Reinforcing this ideal, players will be able to choose a specific background for what their character has gone through up until the beginning of Cyberpunk 2077.
As with any RPG, statistics are front and center, with six main attributes taking the forefront: Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, Reflexes, Tech, and Cool. Each dictates a different path that players can take, in upgrading their cyberpunk, to create a fluid mechanical vision of what they want their character to be. CD Projekt Red confirmed that the game would be classless, the choices made leading to a distinct class archetype in time, whether that is focused on augmentation or social exploits.
With that, the female V is selected, and immediately we are dropped into the narrow, ruined alleys of an apartment complex, with NPCs shouting dialogue at both V and her accomplice, Jackie — a foul-mouthed, bitingly witty bulk of a man who is skilled at gunplay. The first mission races by, with V and her backup running through the ruined and permanently in-construction halls of a crack house in pursuit of a missing person, taken by a gang known as the Scavs — harvesters of augmentations, both legal and illegal.
Aesthetically, Cyberpunk 2077 shows us that the cracks and crevices of Night City aren't friendly places; they are narrow and claustrophobic from a first-person point of view. As V and Jackie breach the beginning of the house, into a bathroom laden with jagged medical equipment sunken into tiled walls, a body lies in a medical chair, stripped of augmentations in a gory display. In this, we see the first of many seamless integrations of HUD and gameplay, with red pop-up displays cycling through information, superimposed on the screen, as V checks the identity of the corpse. Though seemingly scripted, I believe it adds a sense of immersion to the idea of you being more than human, and it stylistically blends a mixture of 80's IDM visuals and the futuristic aesthetic found within contemporary cyberpunk, such as the film Blade Runner 2049.
Moving on from the medical horror show, we are given our first look at combat: a frenetic, bloody shootout between V, Jackie, and a number of Scavs. Armed with a pistol, V's movement is tight and clean, with gunplay as smooth as any AAA FPS, allowing both iron sights and hip firing. On successful hits, numbers burst out of the augmented Scav bodies, as expected of any game with RPG combat. Aim at the head, and logically, we see bigger numbers explode; critical hits land with ease. The small rooms, scattered with tables and objects, provide ample cover space, and interestingly, have an element of environmental destruction; wooden walls splinter and crack from bullets striking them, revealing hidden enemies.
With the Scavs blown away, V and Jackie discover another room, holding a bathtub with two bodies on ice, in full nudity. With this, CD Projekt Red highlights that Cyberpunk seeks to portray a world without censorship, where human bodies are on full display. Juxtaposed against the themes of augmentation in cyberpunk, I felt this worked with the slice of narrative seen, showing someone at their most vulnerable and in a state of extreme distress. Handled with tact, I believe the idea of the body, and its relevance in a dystopian world, is something that Cyberpunk has the chops to take on, and I hope CD Projekt Red can deliver on the execution of this subject matter.
Turning one of the corpses over, V "jacks" into the neck of the body via a slot and cable produced from, presumably, her own neck. Information and personal data flashes again on the screen, and trauma reveals itself, the body damaged severely by the Scavs' treatment. Narratively, through the jack, something called a "shard" blocks any legal interference or rescue for the missing person, and V immediately takes it out, freeing the channel for a paramilitary paramedic organization known as the Trauma Team to come rescue the individual.
The player is given the choice to either carry the missing person to where the Trauma Team is set to land, or to cover Jackie doing the same thing. In our demo, V opts for the former, and another brief firefight takes place, with Jackie's AI making short work of the Scavs that remain. V travels out onto a balcony, and an imposing, armored ambulance hovers into view, landing astride it. Doors open vertically, and a squad of sky-blue armored figures fan out: the Trauma Team.
With guns raised, the squad curtly demands that V place the body on a stretcher that automatically folds itself out. I personally thought the mood and animation here were fantastic, with wired, multi-eyed visors staring out from bulky helmets, sub-machine guns hovering between the immediate focus on potential threats, and their simultaneous formation to protect and cover the two members racing away with the stretcher. This was the first 15 minutes of the demo, and it ended with V sarcastically asking whether the Trauma Team could give her and Jackie a lift — a request met with silence from the squad, and jet engines roaring away. My chuckle was echoed by almost everyone in the theatre.
The screen cuts to black, and in neon letters, shows us that three days after finishing the job, V finds herself in her apartment, rousing from sleep with a paramour leaving her bed. A cutscene plays, showing V in third-person viewpoint during these story beats. Serving as a potential hub, the apartment shows us three notable things: a gun room to store new weapons (where a modified shotgun with two firing modes was showcased), a coat rack where players can equip armour that has resistances and bonuses to enhance your reputation in the world, and a song playing in the background by Johnny Silverhand — a distinct connection between Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk 2020, its tabletop source.
Suited up and ready to leave, we're treated to an elevator ride going down through a vertical mega block of apartments. The idea of vertical exploration is something that CD Projekt Red is inherently focused on with quest design in Cyberpunk 2077 — a condensed area filled with quests, NPCs and interactions for V to encounter, reaching skyward.
As V weaves her way throughout a section of Night City — showcasing a dynamic crowd simulator, replete with varied NPC designs ranging from suit-wearers to neon-helmeted gangsters — she's contacted by three notable NPCs that, in all instances, demonstrate different hallmarks of game design that CD Projekt Red is known for: dynamic storytelling and choice.
The first NPC is Dexter DeShawn, an augmented individual known as a "fixer" in Night City: a person who holds a marked amount of sway within his domain, giving illegal contracts to those willing to do the work. We're treated to a car ride, skirting the narrow, crowded streets in a vehicle filled with smoke spiraling from DeShawn's cigar, further hammering home the point that this world is dense in its make. In our demo, Dexter needs V to hijack and retrieve an illegal piece of technology, called a spider-drone, from a group of thieves known as a psycho gang: people who invest and augment their bodies in the most dramatic of ways. Mechanically, this information is delivered via another "shard," which V slots into her head, and in front of her, the schematics of the place she needs to infiltrate flicker into existence in lattices of lines and wires, creating yet another visual keystone of what Cyberpunk seeks to deliver tonally.
V accepts and is let out of the car, then no less than a couple of minutes later, she is contacted via a communication device by the second NPC: a corporate agent, later identified as Meredith Stout. Vitriolic in temper, Stout bids V meet her at a particular location in regards to the spider-drone, which is connected to a corporation known as Militech. The conversation ends, and V goes to meet Jackie and the third NPC, a ripperdoc known as Victor, relaying all that's happened in the interim.
Jackie is found quickly, and an assistant directs V to see Victor, causing the cyberpunk to find herself in a narrow alleyway, walking down some steps leading into what could only be described as a lair strewn in tech and ambient lighting. After an exchange laced with familiarity, Victor gives us two options: a subdermal hand-grip, and a new eye implant. This tech, alongside statistics, gives players the ability to upgrade their character with distinct mechanical benefits, via the bartering of Eurodollars (the game's currency).
After a rather intense cutscene showing various medical implements doing rather unsavory things, the subdermal grip is shown to give V the ability to read her ammo count and steady her grip for a tighter control on weaponry during firefights. The eye implant, on the other hand, gives her the ability to zoom in at will and analyze the threat level (the level of your enemies, in a traditional RPG sense) of various NPCs or objects, detailing any resistances and weaknesses they might have. Options like this, which reconceptualize the game mechanically, are a huge draw for me. It shows that the transhumanist themes present within Cyberpunk 2077 are baked into the core DNA of the game, and I'm excited to see more options in the times ahead.
In all of these interactions, and in the meeting with Meredith Stout (which we'll get to shortly), dialogue trees are given, varying in choice and moods that the player can take, whether to specify information, to be aggressive, joking, or pacifistic. After seeing the moral implications and writing quality that CD Projekt Red is known for, in our current AAA space, Cyberpunk 2077 looks to hold to that key standard: bringing choice as the forefront of game design for the player. The developer leading us through the demo stuck to the critical path, barring a few exceptions, but outlined the choices that could have been, such as halting aggression by holstering a gun, getting into a firefight with corporation soldiers far beyond the demo V's current level, and a myriad of other decisions.
Leaving Victor, V and Jackie head over to where his car is parked, your companion giving you the chance to drive behind the wheel. Before V gets in, we see a man slamming his feet against the chassis, and when yelled at by Jackie, he pulls a device out of his pocket, putting it to his mouth while walking away. The story beat resumes, and both cyberpunks remark on that not being a coincidence.
They're completely right.
The viewpoint shifts from first-person into a driving HUD. V takes off, driving down a narrow road in a stylish, neon-lit car. CD Projekt Red has confirmed that driving will be an essential part of Cyberpunk 2077, and that it will allow players to traverse between the different parts of Night City quickly and efficiently. But, as we saw in our demo, it also lends itself well to my favorite part of the experience: emergent consequences. Due to the obliteration of the Scavs at the beginning of the demo, the driving goes from peaceful to thrilling; a yellow van pulls out in front of V and Jackie, presumably filled with members of the same gang or organization. Travel switches into something cinematically akin to a film car chase, where V climbs out the window and exchanges obliterating levels of firepower with the occupants of the yellow van. It's 90 seconds of thrilling, tight-knit gameplay, and it showcases something I admire in gaming and choice-based media: consequences to actions that feel natural to the experience at hand.
The van is blown to high heaven, and both cyberpunks continue forward to the meeting point requested by Meredith Stout: a drain gulley. We're treated, in no uncertain terms, to events that operate out of what the V in the demo knows, resulting in a tense standoff between Meredith, her far more powerful operatives, and V. Mechanically, V is given a debuff in the form of an invasive "jack" that serves as a lie detector. As previously mentioned, each point of this conversation gives players the ability to opt into aggression, pacifism, deception or information gathering; in our demo, V sticks with pacifism, due to the jack stopping any fibs short, and this scores an alternate path to the mission DeShawn placed us on. V is given a credit stick, which will allow her to have the chance to negotiate a successful deal with the psycho gang for the spider-drone, rather than going in guns blazing. Both V and Jackie are freed, and they continue onwards to the location where the deal is going down.
With 20 minutes of the demo left, things go into overdrive, mechanics wise. V and Jackie find themselves in front of a factory, beeped in by an intercom. Inside, V walks along the stairs leading to the meeting area, and she notices mines beeping from their hiding places in various nooks and crannies; they are visually denoted from red to green, hinting at trap gameplay able to be harnessed by players and enemies alike.
The two cyberpunks reach the meeting area and are greeted by moldy couches and gang members sporting augmentations that comprise of multi-eyed visors, subdermal implants attached to rifles, and cables snaking through skin and heads. After a terse exchange, the spider-drone is brought out and the leader of the gang, known as Royce, becomes aggressive; gang members immediately pull guns on both V and Jackie, leading to a tense standoff until the credit stick is brought out. It's deduced that the stick holds a virus, which detonates, shorting out augmentations and circuitry throughout the whole factory. V takes the "shard" that controls the spider-drone, and it begins to follow her; this has been confirmed by CD Projekt Red to be a literal upgrade available in the game.
A firefight begins and doesn't let up for the last part of the demo, and with that in mind, abilities are enhanced and activated for our benefit. A HUD upgrade allowed the player to see the trajectory patterns of every shot fired, allowing V to ricochet bullets off walls with unerring accuracy. Arm blades, like what was present in the first Cyberpunk 2077 trailer many moons ago, slide out of V's limbs, allowing her to scale walls and leap; every enemy she reaches is bisected in half or stabbed brutally. A non-lethal takedown allows V to jack into a gangster, showcasing a quick hacking system where every enemy connected to the jacked person's network could have their augmentations disabled. At the very end, a boss fight against Royce in a sunlit garage is the crown set piece. V and Jackie face off against a literal ten-foot frame mech-suit, hiding behind pylons that get subsequently destroyed with every round fired by Royce. A tense two minutes later, with every single bullet fired, the suit explodes, leaving Royce debilitated, and V and Jackie scot free.
Meredith and Militech vans are waiting outside, and the demo ends with a terse exchange between V and the corporate agent, highlighting another faction and relationship that could be useful in the future. Dexter DeShawn is satisfied, and we, as a crowd, feel the same vibe; the demo ends to raucous applause.
My biggest takeaway from the demo is the almost overwhelming number of systems that can be present within a single video game, even a AAA-funded one, and have them all be working in impressive sync with each other. Firefights, dense dialogue, car chases and angry faces — this title seems to have it all, in copious amounts. At its core, Cyberpunk 2077 promises a choice-based narrative fused in equal parts neon, grit, gunplay and intrigue. Players will have a lot to look forward to if what I saw is anything indicative of the final product.
And I can't wait to take on that adventure, guns blazing.