Along with around 25 other members of the press, yesterday I checked out the first full gameplay demonstration of Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 2018. Fresh off the back of the cinematic trailer shown at Microsoft’s E3 conference, my intrigue had reached an all-new peak. You know how these things go, though… sometimes big expectations lead to big disappointments. Thankfully, CD Projekt RED didn’t let me down. On the contrary, Cyberpunk 2077 promises to deliver a role-playing experience unlike anything before it. Over the course of 50 minutes, I had my brain completely rewired as I discovered an open-world with an astonishing level of detail that would appear to completely blow its contemporaries out of the water.
Night City is dank, dangerous, and alien, but equally, it’s on track to realize the most immersive and gorgeous urban environment ever seen in gaming. Indeed, even for an alpha build, Cyberpunk is stunningly attractive and feels wholly unique from The Witcher’s graphical engine. Skyscrapers plastered with decadent neon advertisement boards tower over its seedy streets, but this isn’t your typical cyberpunk aesthetic – it’s an in-your-face somewhat flamboyant imagination of William Gibson’s sci-fi subgenre with one foot firmly placed in retro 1980s style. Think somewhere between Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell – dystopian and hopeless but vibrant and alive. I adore it.
CDPR’s reputation and fanbase have been hard earned over the course of fifteen years of successful fantasy role-playing games. Witcher fans are warned, though: Cyberpunk 2077 couldn’t be any less similar to Geralt’s adventure if it tried. It’s a polar opposite, and well beyond just the disparity in style and setting. The difference in perspective is an obvious place to start, particularly because CDPR have already had to reassure disappointed fans expecting another Witcher-like design. But trust me when I say that Cyberpunk is all the better for switching things to first-person. In the incredibly dense, almost claustrophobic clutter of Night City, soaking up its ambiance definitely felt more immersive with the camera right up in the action.
Our gameplay demonstration started with a character creation menu, introducing us to a male or female version of V, our main protagonist. We’re able to shape our character’s appearance and attributes, but also her (our playthrough opted for a female lead) mannerisms and attitude according to which snippets of dialogue we match to her background – “in town to see an ex-lover,” for example. There aren’t strict classes, but players can choose to shape their build around either Netrunner, Techie, Solo – or a mix of the three, with each offering different abilities and stats. As a cyberpunk, we play the role of mercenary taking on dangerous jobs that nobody else will. That means cutting bargains with the corporate elite that rule Night City and extort its poor underbelly, us included. We’re pawns in a bigger game, squabbling for petty cash amongst the city’s thieves and gangsters trying to get ahead.
We watch a main story mission unfold for around 30 minutes, and I’m immediately struck by how organic every NPC interaction feels. Is the demo a scripted, fairly linear path that the developers have played for months leading up to E3? Probably, but there’s a genuine sense that exploration and discovery uncover quests and activities within this open world in a completely dynamic way. Remove quest markers, contract boards and obvious quest-giving NPCs from your mind right now – that isn’t how Cyberpunk’s open-world operates. It’s fluid and believable; a generation beyond today’s tired design template.
The shift in structure from The Witcher 3 permeates to other aspects of Cyberpunk’s design. Most notably, combat and traversal. CDPR was quick to remind fans that this is a first-person RPG not a FPS, but my gosh did the shooting look great. Cyberpunk features “hundreds” of weapons, most of which are customizable or at least feature different modes of operation. Combat is intense, and exhilarating to behold, especially when V boosts her performance by taking deep breaths of an inhaler that seems to up damage and speed. Each discharge of the inhaler triggers a sharp noise of breathing, temporarily blurs her vision, and then sends her adrenaline shooting through the roof. It’s visceral, scintillating stuff.
During later combat sequences – including a boss fight – we saw V use a pistol, shotgun, and various automatic weapons. Frequently she calls on special ‘cyberware’ – skills granted by her augments, which can be upgraded and installed for a price via black market dealers dotted around the city’s six districts. Abilities depend on your chosen class-type; in our case, our V was a Netrunner, and she’d upgraded her skills to include the awesome claws we first saw way back in 2013 when Cyberpunk was revealed. Using one to climbing a wall and hold herself in place, she disables one enemy’s weapon before pouncing on the other and decapitating him. Yes, Cyberpunk’s traversal looks very smooth, indeed, and there’s plenty of verticality to the level design.
Night City is far too vast to navigate on foot exclusively, though. That incredibly bad-ass car you saw in the CGI trailer is, in fact, V’s Roach equivalent. Vehicular driving was perhaps one area that Cyberpunk didn’t feel particularly polished. As slick as the car looked, it seemed rather stiff to control. These are early days, however, and I was more interested in the level of freedom afforded to players when driving. Night City is connected by a road system that resembles a freeway. What we saw was essentially a track between areas, but there was some urban driving around city streets reminiscent of contemporary open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto V. You can drive in either third or first-person, and since Cyberpunk features motorbikes, that means you’ll also get a decent impression of your character as he/she speeds along, if you care about that sort of thing.
I arrived at CDPR’s Cyberpunk booth expecting the game would leave an impression on me. It certainly did, but not at all in the way I imagined. There’s no question that drawing on the experiences of The Witcher 3 has been pivotal in the developer’s ability to produce such an ambitious project, but the DNA isn’t at all obvious at a glance. Cyberpunk is an entirely different animal; a bold new direction for the CDPR that seems destined to push the boundaries of video game design. Right now the only comparison I can draw between the two franchises is that just as The Witcher 3 pushed open-world RPGs into the next generation, Cyberpunk promises to reinvent the wheel in exactly the same fashion.