It’s frustrating that the first chance to play Cyberpunk 2077 is not in the flesh but remotely, streamed from somebody else’s PC. But there’s a pandemic so a press event can’t happen, and this is what we’ve got. And you know what? The tech’s not bad. The video image is compressed but it’s still a stunning game, and while there’s a bit of input lag, it’s negligible. It’s surprisingly playable, and so I play for four hours from the very beginning of the game.
You’ve seen some of what I play in the gameplay video already released, but I also do things and meet characters you haven’t seen. More importantly, I get a chance to just be in the world and feel what it’s like to be there. I nose around, talking to people. I look through my inventory and pore over my character development screens, fantasising about the kind of Cyberpunk hero I’ll be. I get a sense of what it’s going to be like spending hours and hours here.
And I tell you this: there’s a lot more going on in Cyberpunk 2077 than The Witcher 3. Night City is an overwhelming place. There are no quaint little villages like White Orchard with gentle rolling hills on the horizon to ease you in. There’s one big city stuffed with huge buildings, and the labyrinthine alleyways and the dirty streets beneath them.
Quite how Cyberpunk manages to pack so many people in I don’t know. They crowd the streets and alleyways as well as the clubs and hallways inside. Even by my apartment there are people banging on vending machines and shouting things. I frequently barge past people to get to places, and it makes my day to hear a boy say, “You’ve got a big dumb face. Hahaha!” because I know the cheeky personality I loved in The Witcher 3 is here.
People come in all shapes and sizes (I’m so glad there are bigger body types) and colours, and are tattooed, body-modified and punked. The hair is some of the best I’ve seen. It can be wooden in games like these but here it has body and bounce. Consider there are more than 30 haircuts to choose from, not to mention implants (metal balls under the skin), zany eye-types (I opted for swirly black and white hypno eyes) and all kinds of futuristic metal facial adornments, and you begin to imagine what an exotic spectacle the people can be.
Night City needs it. These people inject life and energy into an otherwise still concrete world. But though it is concrete, Night City isn’t drab. Every effort has been made to decorate the city to reinforce an 80s vision of the future. Walls are not bare but plastered with posters and graffiti. Lewd advertising boards blink at you as you climb litter-strewn stairways, garish TVs pump ads at you even as you ride elevators. And though the underbelly alleys of the city are gloomy, they glow in a kaleidoscope of colours emitted by neon signs. Accompanying it all is the hubbub and chorus of a city full of people, stylish synth sounds, and a stack of radio stations of music. This is a touchable city, a metropolis of substance and depth. It feels alive.
But Night City is impenetrably big to begin with. It’s only with the help of the breadcrumb-trail mini-map I find my way around. Almost immediately, I meet Jackie, the friend you’ve seen in the gameplay videos, who begins to guide me around. Depending on which background story you choose for your character – Nomad, Street Kid or Corporate – Jackie can be introduced in various ways. I’m a Street Kid so I meet Jackie while trying to steal a car because he wants to steal it too, then the cops turn up and things start to go wrong. Pretty soon, he’s driving while I’m leaning out of the window shooting and we’re firm friends.
Jackie, like the other characters you’ll meet, is well drawn. A lot of effort has gone into how they look, how they move and how they sound. I particularly like how Cyberpunk 2077 moves characters around in dialogue so they’re not stuck in one place. It gives the sense character performance has progressed a level. You’re also free to move around in dialogue; you’re not locked into a dialogue camera angle. Dialogue occurs fluidly (apart from in set scripted moments). Walk up to someone and dialogue choices appear, walk away and they disappear. Think of how much time this will save in the long run, especially when you’re whizzing around trying to get things done.
It’s CD Projekt Red showing its open-world experience. The mobile phone is a feature along the same lines. You don’t always need to visit people in person because you can video call them instead. Press the d-pad to answer or, and I love this, send them a quick text. Video calls have dialogue options like face-to-face conversations, and you can use the phone to send data and files to complete quests. It’s very handy.
Then there’s the car, which you’re given early on. You don’t need to remember where you parked it because you can call it to you, like Roach in The Witcher 3. Press the d-pad and the car magically appears, like Kit from Knight Rider. Driving, though, feels a little bland. The car looks nice, with a pointy front and winged doors, and pumps little jets of fire from the exhaust pipes when you go up a gear, but it – I don’t know – lacks detail. It feels a bit thin, a bit lacking in substance. Bombing around doesn’t have quite the same thrill as in a game like GTA.
Like GTA, you can ‘take over’ other people’s cars, but I didn’t meet the requirement for this and I’m not quite sure what it was. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to do it easily. You can also earn yourself a police wanted status, triggering them to come after you, their determination and strength rising depending on the severity of your crimes. You can help stop crimes too. This is one of the new ways of populating the open world. You’ll come across crimes in progress and be able to help in return for a reward from the police.
Combat, like the city you arrive in, is also a lot to take in. Really, it’s three games in one: shooting, stealth and hacking.
Shooting doesn’t need much explanation because it works the same as in most other games, albeit with a cover system which doesn’t stick you to cover but allows you to crouch-shuffle around. Generally, it feels good – there’s clearly a lot of gun geekery going on – with lovely damage numbers popping out of people’s heads.
Stealth is also familiar. You crouch-walk behind people to take them down, lethally or non-lethally, it’s up to you. You can hide bodies in nearby containers, or if your enemy is standing next to a container to begin with, you can take-down-n-stash in one nifty move. A slight differentiation comes in with the tech you can employ (and implant). This allows you to scan environments and mark enemies, allowing you to keep track of where they are, even behind objects, and which way they’re facing. If they spot you, an alertness gauge begins to fill so you have a bit of time to try and hide again.
Then there’s melee. It’s almost identical to The Witcher 3, especially when boxing, albeit in first-person view. You can strike (right trigger), block (left trigger) and dodge (B), either striking in quick succession or charging a big hit to break an enemy’s guard. But watch your stamina because if it depletes, your guard will drop. You can also time a block perfectly to launch a counter-attack.
There’s one annoying quirk: dodging. Given how central it was to The Witcher 3, I expected the same here, but it’s awkward. It requires a double button press, and the button required is also bound to crouch. Not only does it make dodging tricky pull-off in the heat of battle, it also leaves you crouching when you least want to be. I saw no option to remap buttons but I hope it’s there in the full game.
Finally there’s the quintessentially Cyberpunk ability to hack and quickhack. Quickhacking seems to be what you do at a distance whereas hacking requires plugging into a terminal. (There’s a mini-game for hacking by the way. It’s based around matching number-letter pairings. You select them from a grid but not freely. You can only choose from what’s highlighted, and each time you choose, the highlighted area changes. The puzzle becomes planning your route around the grid.)
To quickhack you scan an area (left bumper) to reveal interactable objects then press quickhack (right bumper) on them. You can hack cameras, TVs, ceiling fans, turrets – many things. What you can do to them depends on what programs you’ve uploaded to your Cyberdeck and how much Memory (a kind of mana resource) you have to spend.
At the beginning, the most I can do is quickhack a security camera and then use that viewpoint to quickhack two security guards. I quickhack one to create a distraction to pull the other guard over, then overload that guard’s cyberware to blow them both up. It’s very satisfying. But doing this exhausts a lot of Memory so it’s not a tactic I can use often. Most of the time, all I can do is quickhack to create a stealth-helping distraction.
Underpinning all of this is a character customisation system to salivate over. You have your clothes and equipment but you also have a separate Cyberware loadout screen. This has 11 separate body parts to upgrade, some with multiple slots. You can upgrade your brain, your eyes, your internal systems (immune, nervous, etc.) and your limbs. Some will be passive upgrades but others will be active, such as blades in your arms, or new legs to give you a double-jump or silent running. It’s here you’ll find your Cyberdek too, in the Operating System slot.
The only experience I get of upgrading is visiting a Ripperdoc, who changes my faulty eye. It was chucking up a load of glitches on my HUD and my new eye seems much clearer. It can also better scan my environment and enemies, telling me more about them.
Underneath is a deep and broad perk system, grouped into trees associated with each of the game’s main attribute types: Body, Reflexes, Technical Ability, Intelligence, and Cool. The perk trees have cool names like Annihilation and Street Brawler, and affect all areas of the game from combat to hacking to crafting. There are easily over a hundred perks and you’re free to pump points into any of them. My current favourite is Cold Blood, a Cool attribute tree. It’s a kind of berserk, activating when you reach roughly half health and triggering buffs depending on what you’ve unlocked in the tree. You can become quite the beast.
Consider all of the combat approaches and related abilities, and all of the Cyberware upgrades and perks, and you begin to see what I’m getting at: it’s both a lot to take in and a giddying amount of potential.
Incidentally, there are signs of intelligent enemy life. I only face early encounters which aren’t designed to be hard, so some enemies politely stand facing the other way, but others blindfire from behind pillars (I jumped when an arm shot out from the side of one) and shoot away the cover I’m crouching behind, making combat feel active and intense. I hope CD Projekt Red can manage to balance all encounters for all approaches.
But Cyberpunk isn’t all about combat. Your attribute scores (and your background) also contribute to unlocking special dialogue options, which appear with little icons next to them. One appears for me while talking to a lady called Judy Alvarez, who’s about to introduce me to Braindances (which I talk about below). I have a high Technical Ability so I’m able to ask her about the tech she’s running in her computer den. We hit it off and she warms to me, and says come visit her again.
I don’t get much of a sense of the overarching story while I play. Sadly I don’t meet Keanu Reeves and I don’t find out anything about the mysterious chip V gets implanted in her (or his) brain. That hasn’t happened yet, as far as I can tell. At the moment I’m running missions to get in with the big players and earn street cred (a kind of experience point) and they’re already asking me to do things behind the others’ backs. The phone rings and people tell you to do things, then you do them. You don’t have to look hard. I’m sure much more choice comes into it later on.
The wider world is populated with various events I barely have time to try. The one I try is called a Cyberpsycho event. It’s basically a mini-boss in the world somewhere with a bit of narrative padding around it. These are people pushed over the edge by having too many implants and enhancements. It’s your job to investigate what happened to them and then deal with them, either lethally or non-lethally, it’s up to you.
There are gang outposts to take down, which I bet is tough, and there are also something called Street Stories. These are contracts given to you by people called Fixers, and they ask of you a variety of things. One might ask for someone to be extracted from a gang area whereas another might be a simpler find-and-eliminate task. But again, how you do it is up to you – you don’t have to kill people.
There are also hidden stashes (hidden treasure) in the world you’ll find by uncovering various clues.
But a big thing I hadn’t seen before – and which is getting attention at the moment – is Braindances. These are recordings beamed into your brain which put you in the body of a character within them. Usually, then, they’re used for porn. But they’re also used by people to record memories of situations, and you soon get the ability to manipulate them. You can float out of the person’s body and look around the scene, seeing things they couldn’t. You can also isolate noises, scan the environments and play with thermal imaging to uncover more things.
After a brief introduction to playing around with Braindances, I get a lady’s memory of visiting a crime lord to investigate. Combing over it takes me a while, rewinding and forwarding, applying different filters, until I find the hidden chip we’re looking for. It really reminds me of reconstructing crime scenes in Detroit: Become Human. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
Four hours, then: it sounds like a lot but it’s nothing in a game like this. Cyberpunk 2077 is a game about being in a world and gradually colouring it in, populating a map with people you meet and the places as you meet them. It’s a playground rife with opportunity and a playground I can’t wait to get back to in November. It’s a game about deciding who you want to be. It’s not written, it’s open. Who will your V be?