Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t necessarily what’d you expect as the follow-up to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt Red’s next big release is still a role-playing game, of course; and from what I saw during a 50-minute hands-off demo at E3 this week, those RPG elements are incredibly deep. But it also fuses that structure with with a first-person shooter, and a dynamic open world that’s primed for Grand Theft Auto-style mayhem.
CD Projekt Red describes Cyberpunk 2077 as a “narrative-driven RPG.” It takes place in an alternate-reality version of Northern California, in a sprawling mega-city filled with augmented humans. The demo opened, as most role-playing experiences do, with a character creator. You can choose your character’s gender, pick a look, and assign skill points to better suit your playstyle. But Cyberpunk 2077 also goes a step further, and lets you craft your own simple backstory. You can choose from childhood events that shaped your character, and these in turn will influence how people perceive you in the game. It’s a nod to the game’s history, as it’s based on a pen-and-paper RPG called Cyberpunk 2020.
The demo then shifted to a quest, in which V, the main character, and her partner are searching for someone in a dingy apartment complex that’s home to scavengers who harvest technology from augmented humans. In these moments Cyberpunk 2077 plays like a straight-up first-person shooter. You have to duck behind cover to avoid fire, and you can pick up new weapons from downed foes.
But given that this is the cyber-enhanced future, there are a few twists to the gameplay. With the right augments, you can see enemies through walls, or bounce bullets off of surfaces to take out bad guys behind cover. V also has an inhaler she can use for temporary enhancements. In the demo it was possible to slow down time to nail the perfect headshot or hit someone’s weak spot. You can also hack your opponents; during one point in the demo, V managed to infect an enemy with malicious software that made it possible to jam up the weapon’s of him and his crew.
While the core action looks very FPS, CD Projekt Red were quick to point out that, even during the shooter moments, the game is built around choice and offering different ways to complete objectives. A later quest involved getting a stolen military robot back from some extremely augmented technophiles. You could go in guns blazing and try to steal it, or earn the money necessary to buy it and avoid violence altogether. During the demo, V instead went another route, and met with an executive from the military corporation the robot was stolen from, and convinced them to offer up the necessary funds for buying it back. There was quite a bit of dialogue in the game as well, which should assuage the fears of RPG fans; while you’ll be doing plenty of shooting, the role-playing elements still appear to play a significant role.
As cool as the action looked, by far the most interesting part of the demo was the world itself. Night City doesn’t necessarily look all that distinctive; the neon lights and rain-slicked streets of cyberpunk are everywhere today, and I didn’t see much that made Cyberpunk 2077’s setting stand out. And even the tiny bit of the game I saw was littered with cringe-worthy moments, like characters saying “I have news as big as my balls” or “I’m cleaner than a cunt at a convent.” But what lacks in originality, it makes up for in sheer depth and detail.
Night City looks positively alive. As V walked down the grimy streets, she ventured past boxers training with robots and taped-off crime scenes being investigated. She was pestered by pan-handlers and walked through restaurants filled with dozens of patrons, all focused on their meals and conversation. She could scan holographic ads, and they’d then direct her to whatever they were selling. The level of detail was astounding.
Particularly impressive were the citizens, who all moved about naturally, as if they had their own lives going on. CD Projekt Red says that each non-playable character has their own day / night cycle, so that they behave differently depending on the time of day. They can also behave differently depending on what you do in the game. During one scene, V was driving a retro-futuristic car to a mission, only to be attacked by a van full of scavengers who were angry she killed some of their friends. The ensuing gunfire-filled chase felt ripped out of GTA.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that this was a small slice of the game played in a very closed environment. There’s a good chance that the final product won’t look or behave quite so impressively. But it’s hard not to get excited by the sheer ambition of Cyberpunk 2077. The Witcher 3 was one of the finest role-playing games of the last decade, and CD Projekt Red seem intent on creating a worthy follow-up — even if it takes the genre in some very different directions.
Cyberpunk 2077 is coming to the PC, PS4, and Xbox One, though there’s no word on a release date yet.