It should come as no surprise that the team behind The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is making another rich and detailed world, but there's a huge difference between watching blades of grass dance in the wind as the warm glow of the sun emerges over distant trees, and being in the middle of a city bathed in blinding neon lights that's also screaming thumping bass and ear-piercing guitar riffs at you at every turn. In Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red trades natural serenity for the overwhelming, furious progression of technology. We're not in Kansas anymore: This is Tokyo turned up to 20.
For the sake of transparency it must be noted that my hands-on with the game was conducted remotely. I was playing over the cloud and, although latency was not discernible, visual fidelity was not the same as what it would be on a machine running the game locally.
Nevertheless, Night City was impressive to behold. It has a raw, grimy kind of majesty, and the sensory overload hits the moment you walk out into its bustling streets. It's a cacophony of chattering citizens, a barrage of lights, a constant hum of music, invasive advertising, distant sounds of gunfire, strange cars whizzing by, unsavory characters just looking for a reason to start trouble, and helpless people calling out for aid. It's a place that makes you feel completely out of sorts and instills an odd sense of discomfort, but also beckons you to unlock the potential it holds. From the very outset, as an up-and-coming merc named V, you're told that it's a city of dreams where legends are born, and that's exactly what you hope to become.
Much of my play time involved retreading familiar ground. If you've seen any of the gameplay demonstrations from the past couple of E3s, you'll have a good idea of the events that transpired: the chaotic, guns-blazing battle through an apartment filled with scavengers; pulling a high-value target out of an ice bath after she'd been kidnapped and prepped for harvesting; V and their partner Jackie meeting Dexter Deshawn and being put on the path to fame and fortune when they're asked to recover a powerful weapon from a gang called Maelstrom; visiting a Ripper doctor to install new implants; meeting a Corpo agent to cut a deal. The broad strokes are the same as what we've already been shown, even if some of the finer details of how these quests unfold have been changed.
Of course, this is the first time we've actually taken control and executed the plan ourselves and, unlike the E3 walkthroughs, I opted to take the more aggressive approach. Instead of meeting with the Corpo agent and getting the money needed to buy the tech, I chose to ignore her entirely. I took my broke self into the heart of Maelstrom territory and kicked in the door--the perfect setup to put Cyberpunk 2077's combat through its paces.
The weaponry at my disposal was fairly basic--a handgun, assault rifle, and shotgun--but each one felt rewarding to use. Unloading bullets into enemies felt weighty at the trigger pull and satisfying at the point of impact. This might not sound too exciting, but in RPG-focused shooters where numbers fly off enemies and you're chipping away at health or shields, it's not a guarantee that shooting enemies feels good. Borderlands, for example, doesn't work for me, while Destiny does. Cyberpunk 2077 is more of the latter than the former, with guns that feel empowering and feedback that proves they are.
At a distance, the assault rifle felt like a graceful way to quickly cut through enemy forces and pick off targets. The handgun was more of a hand cannon, stopping enemies in their tracks if they tried to approach. Together, these two let me duck behind cover, pop out when the hail of shrapnel paused briefly, and take down a few enemies. I also liberally employed the evasive dash, which quickly let me reposition and get the jump on people. Combined with the shotgun, it was incredibly satisfying to close the gap and fill an unsuspecting enemy with pellets.
My cavalier approach started with a showstopper as I took the local Maelstrom gang's leader hostage and immediately killed him. The consequence of this was that, unlike in E3 demos, he never reappeared armed with a powerful exoskeleton later on. Instead, the bay leading to the exit was manned by a few random soldiers, whom I decided to take out using stealth, sneaking up behind them and rendering them unconscious--my V isn't all bad, after all.
There were a few additional things that I had not seen before. For example, I got to pick a unique Life Path for my V. Life Paths are essentially an origin story, and my choices were between the Corporate, which comes from a life of privilege and is afforded high-tech cyberware as a result; Nomad, which is a clan member and begins the story on the outskirts of the city; and Street Kid, a wily, street-smart opportunist that has a few connections and is looking to make a bunch more. I picked the Street Kid and, as a result, my story began in a dive bar called El Coyote Cojo. Like most of the bars in Night City, it's a place full of seedy ne'er-do-wells tucked away in dark corners.
The bartender asks me to help him out by talking to a Fixer named Kirk and convincing him to let a debt go. During this discussion, I can choose to manifest my Street Kid background by pointing out that Kirk should show some leniency to local citizens, especially since he's an out-of-towner and the kind of person that shouldn't be throwing his weight around at the expense of Night City-ers. One thing leads to another, and I'm on my way to steal a top-of-the-line sports car to settle the debt. Of course, the gadget Kirk gives me to bypass the car's security fails and before I know it I've got someone pulling me out of the car and about to beat my ass. Thankfully, the cops show up and arrest us both. Turns out that lad that pulled me out of the car was Jackie, and that's how our beautiful friendship began.
According to CD Projekt Red, each of the Life Paths will have their own unique start. Unfortunately, due to time constraints we weren't able to try more than one, but I am intrigued to see how each of these paths bring V and Jackie together.
The other major mechanic I got to check out was the Braindance. In the world of Cyberpunk 2077, the Braindance is a form of entertainment that leverages recorded memories and emotions, which can be edited together and then experienced by anyone who cares to use a special headset. Naturally, it gets used mostly for porn, but there are more subversive ways to use it. In my demo, for example, I meet with a character called Evelyn Parker, who it turns out contracted Dex to steal something called the "Relic." Long story short, this effectively grants technology-enabled immortality. In order to get the Relic, however, V must infiltrate the home of Yorinobu Arasaka, son of Saburo Arasaka, CEO of a megacorporation that basically runs the city.
The Braindance mechanic is an unexpected wrinkle to Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay and immediately got my mind racing about future mystery adventures the game could hold in store for us
Instead of waltzing in there and trying to steal the Relic but probably getting shot, Evelyn brings in a friend called Judy Alverez, who takes a memory recording of Yorinobu's apartment and creates a unique Braindance for V to experience, allowing them to be in the apartment and relive everything that happened. The twist, however, is that Judy has included a Braindance editing suite, which means that V can not only watch back what happened in Evelyn's memory of the apartment (she bumped uglies with our mark), but detach and move around the environment, using implants and databases to hack key pieces of information, use thermal imaging to find key items of importance, break out an audio layer and listen in on specific conversations happening in the environment, and conduct a thorough investigation before starting the heist in real life. To draw a comparison to another, similar style mechanic, it's a lot like the investigation gameplay in Batman: Arkham Origins, but with a great deal more freedom and options at the player's disposal.
The Braindance mechanic is an unexpected wrinkle to Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay and immediately got my mind racing about future mystery adventures the game could hold in store for us. The narrative opportunities are exciting, as are the implications it could have on V as a character. Braindances are designed to replicate emotion too, so in Evelyn's memory, V would have felt fear when a terrifying giant robot man threatened her, and other sequences mention the lingering emotions from experiencing these memories. Who knows what could happen to V after repeated Braindances.
As I said previously, a lot of what I experienced in Cyberpunk 2077 was overwhelming. I haven't even mentioned the many skill trees that are available to players as they create and develop their V. Players will be able to improve their character's proficiency in certain areas simply by engaging in that activity. So if you want to be good at shooting a certain kind of gun, shoot it loads and you will; if you want to be better at sneaking, get to crouch-walking and you'll be on your way to becoming a ghost. But on top of that, there are attributes that points can be spent on. These include body, reflex, intelligence, technical ability, and cool. Within each of these categories, however, are numerous skill trees that get into the nitty gritty of what V can do and how well they can do it. There's an extreme level of minutia, giving players the opportunity to improve performance with specific gun types and melee weapons, or improve physical performance by tweaking athleticism or raw power. Some unlock passive improvements, while others afford new abilities. Frankly, there were too many available to really dig into, especially at the expense of actually playing the main game.
Through it all, however, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that something was missing. Sure, the bright city lights, gleaming monolithic structures, and intricately detailed streets were all dazzling, and the combat was thrilling, but it all felt a little... cold. Amidst the bewildering back and forths of futuristic jargon, heady sci-fi concepts, corporate scheming, and opportunistic power grabs, I was grasping for some humanity to anchor myself to. That is, after all, what CD Projekt Red is known for. In a sprawling fantasy epic about silver-haired monster hunters, spectres riding undead horses, and a magic-wielding teenager on the run, it was the smaller, human stories in The Witcher 3 that really struck a chord.
In my final few minutes I left the main quest behind and ventured further out of the city to a side-quest marker. Stepping out of my car, I heard the shouts of a distraught man saying his limbs were not his own. Approaching, I found that the man was a monk who, he explained, had been attacked and had implants forced on him by a gang. Unlike many of the others I met during my playthrough, the monk believed the implants desecrated the sanctity of his body. He recounted how he was mocked, told he would be upgraded like a tool, and defiled.
The gang had also taken his brother, and the monk pleaded with me to save him from suffering the same fate. "What's in it for me?" I asked, to which he only had his gratitude and the hope that the universe would repay me to offer in return. I told him that it could get bloody, but I'd do my best to save his brother.
I found the Maelstrom thugs holed up a couple of blocks away, along with their hostage. With my guns drawn, I entered the building and carved a bloody path through them, leaving only the monk's brother alive. As I approached, he recoiled in fear, assuming I would also harm him. When I told him that I had been sent to save him, he replied not with gratitude but with a defeated sense of disappointment. In his eyes, another person had committed the purest form of evil to save him, and he would have sooner died than have this happen. This one good deed could not wipe away the atrocity I committed in service of it. Sometimes, inaction is the right thing to do, he said. And in sending V to help him knowing people would die, his brother had also erred.
In a game about body hacking, corporate espionage, and the ills of a society corrupted by the promise of fame, power, riches, and even immortality, I needed a sign that CD Projekt Red still wanted to tell intimate, impactful stories; something that gives players a reason to take pause and think on a smaller but still profound scale. The side-quest, titled Losing My Religion, was exactly that, and it was one of the many side-missions available on the map at the time. As exciting as the prospect of working my way up through gangs and megacorps to become a Night City legend is, it's those little stories that I'm most looking forward to seeing more of.
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