The moment I fully grasped the danger of my situation in the opening few hours of Cyberpunk 2077, I had just opted to take a hit of a particularly dodgy illegal substance. The drug came from a junkie gangster with a spider-like face full of red cybernetic eyes. His name, he insisted, was Dum Dum.
As a street kid, my chosen “life path” in the game, I recognized the name of the aerosolized adrenaline-booster and was able to chat cordially with our frightening host about it. Had I come from a corporate background or been a wandering nomad type passing through Night City, I might not have known. But I thought showing off my drug lingo and agreeing to inhale might relieve the tension in the room as we tried to square away a deal for the stolen military tech on the table.
I thought wrong. As soon as I tried to tell our pal’s boss, the aggressively cyberized Maelstrom gang leader Royce, the gear was already paid for, guns were pressed to our faces. In a split second, I had to make a decision: pull the trigger of my own firearm or try to defuse the situation and hand over the card with the money I promised would cover the cost. I tried to calm Royce down, but it only continued going south from there.
The credits I handed over weren’t actually money at all, but a tracking chip from the megacorp Militech, which wanted retaliation against the gang for hijacking its goods. I thought cutting a deal with Militech earlier in the day might produce a useful alliance. But in the moment, it almost got me killed. Thankfully, by the time the shooting started and Militech backup arrived, the high had worn off.
If this all sounds like a dizzying shitshow of a situation you’d see in a violent and pulpy sci-fi movie, that’s what developer CD Projekt Red appears to be going for. Aesthetically, Cyberpunk 2077 at its best feels like a mashup of Blade Runner and John Wick with healthy doses of Ghost in the Shell sprinkled throughout. (Helping in that formula, of course, is Keanu Reeves as a mysteriously central character, first appearing later in the game to the best of my knowledge.)
But that sequence with the Maelstroms — part of the opening four hours of the game I played yesterday afternoon and a centerpiece of the original 2018 E3 gameplay reveal — also highlights the depth and scope of choices CD Projekt Red wants to give players. Above all else, Cyberpunk 2077 is a hardcore roleplaying game that wants you to revel in the freedom to do or say whatever you like and watch it meaningfully affect the game world and its various storylines.
For instance, I later learn that had I pulled the trigger on Royce, he wouldn’t have shown up as a boss in the escape from the gang hideout. Had I decided to start shooting my way into the building from the beginning, I could have stolen the military gear without wasting my time with a tense negotiation that was doomed to fail. I also completely missed an optional path in which I could have stumbled on the betrayed former Maelstrom leader Brick, whom I would have been able to free from his cell and let loose on Royce. Instead, I teamed up with Militech, which ended up making me an ally of agent Meredith Stout, which I’m told will have some narrative consequences down the line.
After playing a small slice of Cyberpunk 2077 — approximately four hours, including the opening character customization and the in-game combat tutorials — that’s my big takeaway: this game has an almost preposterous amount of freedom of choice and customization. You can look however you want, talk and act however you want, and pretty much handle any situation in a half-dozen different ways, to the point that making any one decision can feel very overwhelming.
Yet, that combination of depth and scope will be the undeniable strength of what CD Projekt Red has produced here. This game has all of the staples of a polished action RPG like Square Enix’s excellent Deus Ex or a classic Bethesda title, and fans of Grand Theft Auto will feel right at home exploring Night City by car or motorcycle. But it combines all of that with the Polish studio’s world-class writing any player of The Witcher 3 will recognize, achieving what’s shaping up to be an unprecedented hybrid of RPG genres in a context far away from the typical fantasy or post-apocalyptic settings you might be used to.
I started from the very beginning of the game, customizing my character, V, as a bright pink-haired street kid who just returned to Night City from a disappointing stint in Atlanta, looking for a better life and, presumably, a less dangerous job. But I find myself roped right back into the criminal underworld, which seems to sit more on the surface of daily life in the city rather hiding in the shadows.
There are at least seven gangs and three giant megacorps throughout the city’s various districts. Each district has a culture, a dominant gang presence, and even — as CD Projekt Red tells me — art style pegged to a certain time period between the 1990s and the 2070s. These styles, with names like entropism and neokitsch, influence everything from the architecture to the interactive advertising, but they’re mostly indicative of the wealth of the area you’re in and the people who reside there.
When giving V his life story, I went with the street kid profile. But there’s the option to be a corporate agent with the monolithic Arasoka, the undisputed corporate leader of Night City. You can also choose the nomad path, which starts you out in the Badlands on the outskirts of the metropolis.
Picking that introductory life story will have significant narrative consequences; I’m told the beginning of the game is totally different depending on which you choose. In addition to that, you have starting attributes in five different categories, each with its own massive skill trees. CD Projekt Red is also stressing its so-called fluid class system, so you don’t have to pick just one way to play the game, but you can mix and match styles for unique combinations.
On top of how fully realized and rich the world and its inhabitants are, CD Projekt Red has also just gone above and beyond in its conception of the technology of the future, in particular the cybernetic implants and other augmentations you can use to upgrade your own body. Cyberpunk 2077 refers to these as cyberware, and there’s a deep customization system separate from your attributes that lets you augment everything from your eyes to your circulatory system. You can also turn your body itself into a deadly weapon, filling your arms with blades that fly out or attaching a fiber optic wire that can be swung like a whip to slice through metal and flesh.
Even just passively in the background or in small narrative sequences, you can tell the creators have conceived of a deep and interesting (if often hellish and dystopian) vision of the future. When I’m first being interrogated by Meredith Stout of Militech, one of her goons jacks into me to run a live lie detector as I answer her questions. When you hack into the brain of a kidnapping victim to try to restart the chip in her brain during the game’s first real mission, you inadvertently catch a kind of neural virus that you have to have your resident ripperdoc forcibly remove.
One of the more fully realized inventions in Cyberpunk 2077 is braindance, a technology invented shortly after the turn of the 20th century that becomes a pillar of life in the future. CD Projekt Red refers to it as the most popular form of entertainment in the game’s world. It allows people to experience the memories and emotions of a recorded experience from someone else’s point of view, but with the added benefit of being able to analyze it after the fact. As you might expect, it’s used mostly in Night City for pornography, but also for far darker forms of entertainment like capturing murders live and selling the memory on the black market.
The game puts V through a braindance scenario early on as a form of intel-gathering, letting them fast-forward, rewind, and even float around in a third-person perspective to try to pick out clues and eavesdrop on phone conversations for a planned heist. It’s like playing through a flashback and analyzing a crime scene at the same time. It’s a stunning bit of worldbuilding, and it seems poised to be a vital part of the game’s story in exciting ways.
Just as my demo time was wrapping up, I had hit the more open-world section of the game’s intro. I had my smart car unlocked and callable with the push of a button so it zoomed down the street and stopped in front of V. The main story was just starting to really pick up after I had acquired the military tech I needed to pull off the heist of a mysterious, experimental technology from the megacorp Arasoka. And the Night City map was filled with random quests, explorable locations, and new gear and upgrades to find. I felt hooked.
It’s hard to say right now whether this game can live up to the immense hype surrounding it. CD Projekt Red has the near-impossible task of following up arguably the best RPG of the last decade in The Witcher 3, doing so at a time of uncertainty both for an industry that’s about to switch hardware generations when Cyberpunk 2077 launches this November and in a world dealing with an unparalleled moment of uncertainty.
I demoed the game on my home computer, using Nvidia’s GeForce Now service because the pandemic means demoing the game in-person and on top-shelf hardware was firmly off the table. (While GeForce Now had a few stutters here and there, the game still managed to look stunning, and I suspect it will match or exceed the graphical gold standard set by games like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II.) It can’t be an easy task finishing and shipping a game of this size under the current work-from-home pressures the studio is experiencing.
But with expectations as high as possible and another delay announced earlier this month to give it time to polish, CD Projekt Red is taking a gamble that Cyberpunk 2077 will be worth it. With its abundance of choice around playstyles, character personality, and narrative, the game wants to offer a bit of everything to everyone. It’s a slick action title, a deep and meaty narrative RPG with consequential decision-making, and a wildly immersive simulation of daily urban life in the far future all rolled into one.
After my brief time with an experience that feels worthy of dozens if not hundreds of hours, I’m willing to believe CD Projekt Red may have actually pulled this juggling act off.
Cyberpunk 2077 will launch on November 19th on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Stadia.