Zach Wilkerson
E3 2019: Cyberpunk 2077 Continues to Impress
I'm here for more than just Keanu.
06.22.19 - 11:31 AM

The gaming community has been clamoring for more information on Cyberpunk 2077 for years now. Gameplay footage has been scant, especially for the general public, but almost everyone who has seen it in action, including our very own Trent Argirov at last year's E3, has been blown away. The seamless blend of different gameplay elements, stunning world design, and the pedigree of CD Projekt Red made Cyberpunk 2077 arguably the most promising upcoming title going into this year's E3. On top of that, we got two new pieces of information about the game at Microsoft's E3 press conference: it will come out April 16, 2020, and (national treasure) Keanu Reeves will play a major character. Needless to say, I was excited to see the game in action when I entered a dark theatre to watch a pre-recorded hour-long demo.

Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077

What I saw was so much more amazing than I could have imagined.

Cyberpunk 2077 is an open-world, first-person RPG that is inspired by and set in the same world as the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk 2020, only 57 years in the future. It takes place in Night City, California, a dystopian wasteland where everyone has a biochip installed in their brain, and virtually everything is networked together. There are six different districts in Night City to explore, each with its own distinct flavor that trickles down even to the items you can purchase in shops. You play as the character V, a mercenary who can customize their body to specialize in things like melee combat, shooting, and hacking.

Our demo took place in an area called Pacifica, a region in Night City that was meant to be developed into a high-end residential district, but after the global economy crashed, every investor pulled out, and now it's a dystopian wasteland. Huge empty buildings are covered in ash, and it's so dangerous even law enforcement stays away. The world design and detail of Pacifica is a true wonder to behold. Everything — from the dilapidated skyline and outdated billboard advertisements to the truly different look of each building and the ambient noise of the city — is genuinely jaw dropping. We even watched V ride around Pacifica on a motorcycle and take in the sights. CD Projekt Red uses a proprietary graphical engine to make all this look even better, allowing them to create crisp detail in lighting, shadows, fog, and other weather elements. All the while, Johnny Silverhand (Keanu Reeves's character) works like an AI in V's head, commenting on what's happening, often sarcastically, and pulling up necessary data and other information. There is so much happening in the environment at any given moment that it's impossible to do it justice it here, but it appears CD Projekt Red has achieved a staggering level of immersion.

The streets of Night City in Cyberpunk 2077

Further enhancing the feeling of immersion is the storytelling in this demo. To start, V goes to meet with the Voodoo Gang, the group who largely run Pacifica, for a job. During his meeting with their leader, Placide, V is asked to eliminate the Animals, a rival gang who are obsessed with modifying their bodies and using a substance called Juice to become incredibly buff. After Placide hacks into V's biochip, V agrees to take the job and goes to the Animals' compound to destroy them. Along the way, the characters he interacts with have a variety of personalities, dialects, and appearances that make them burst through the screen with life. The story is told naturally, revealing parts of the world through the characters without resorting to lore dumps.

Before this meeting between V and Placide, a presenter from CD Projekt Red showed us the character creation screen. As he walked us through the process, he explained that there would be more options later, but what is there now is already impressive. There are options to change virtually every physical feature of your character, including gender. The presenter also showed off some of the costumes V can wear later, and appropriate to the Blade Runner-inspired aesthetic, the outfits had a cool steampunk vibe.

More important to building your character than physical appearance, though, is your personal background, called a Life Path. The build we looked at offered a choice between a Nomad, Streetkid, or Corporate Life Path. The choice you make here will have an impact on how you're able to interact with the world, notably in the dialogue options you have while talking to various characters. For example, if you're a Streetkid, you can likely handle things with common sense and toughness. Additionally, other skills you can unlock throughout your playthrough will allow for even more options in dialogue trees. We got to see this in action as well, and the variety and precision of the responses, along with how much the different options impacted how characters reacted, were truly astounding. Late in our demo, for example, V was presented with the option to kill an agent of the government or let him go. The presenter assured us that this choice would have far-reaching implications on how the rest of the game played out. Many games promise choice in how you interact with the world, but few fully deliver. So far, it looks like CD Projekt Red is going to do just that in a way no developer this side of Rockstar can.

V has something to say in Cyperpunk 2077

The most important part of building V is the different skill builds and the effect they have on how you choose to play the game. There are two ways to think of skill builds in this game — attributes and the classes you create based on how you allocate attributes. So you can choose to place a lot of points in intelligence, for example, and it will help you become a Netrunner, a class that focuses on hacking. Other classes they showed in the demo include Techie, which focuses on machinery, and Solo, which focuses on combat. The presenter went on to explain that these builds will help determine how to engage with enemies and challenges throughout the game.

He wasn't kidding. The most impressive part of the demo was watching V run through the Animals' compound and take out enemies in almost innumerable ways. At first, V stealthed his way through the compound as a Netrunner. He came up on an enemy from behind and put him in a chokehold. At this point, V was given an option: he could either knock the enemy out and let him live, or he could toss the body down a nearby trash chute to hide the evidence of his entrance. Apparently, one way to play Cyberpunk 2077 is non-lethally — you can choose to kill no one throughout the entire game. That's not the direction V went in our demo. Instead, he hacked into the system and took enemies out by causing weights to fall on their bodies and crush them or making robots who were meant to be friendly punch them. My favorite part, however, was V's utilization of an orange nanowire that can slice enemies apart or be used to attach to their biochip and hack into them, causing them to take themselves out. The audience gasped, cheered, and applauded at the sheer variety and audaciousness of this sequence, and my mouth was agape the whole time.

You've got a lot of cool toys at your disposal in Cyberpunk 2077

Then the presenter showed us something even more amazing: he ran through the same area, but this time with a different build that focused on guns. It felt like we were watching a totally different game, but with the same world design. This time, V took out enemies with a variety of different weapons, including assault rifles and pistols. While I didn't get to test out the shooting mechanics personally, they looked almost as smooth and refined as a Call of Duty game. We stayed with this build through the boss battle at the end of the demo, which utilized a number of different mechanics, such as traps and weak points, along with some others that I couldn't quite identify. Rather than introducing a lot of different ways to play but making it clear that different areas are easier with different tools, it looks like Cyberpunk 2077 allows and encourages different playstyles at all moments.

I walked out of the demo of Cyberpunk 2077 awash in the glow of knowing I'd watched something special. I've barely even scratched the surface of everything I saw in a mere 50 minutes. Frankly, it's difficult to comprehend how so many things are working together in concert to create such a dynamic experience here. If it was anyone other than CD Projekt Red, I probably wouldn't believe they could pull it off. Maybe they can't. But the Cyberpunk 2077 I saw promises to be a dynamic, choice-driven game, the likes of which we've never seen. Hopefully, when April rolls around next year, we get just that.