Cyberpunk 2077 very much has a presence at E3 this year – but it’s also very much the same as it was the year before. Cool Keanu aside, there wasn’t much new in what was shown to the public in the Xbox conference, and there wasn’t any gameplay at all.
There’s still no availability for an actual hands-on with the gameplay here but, at least, there is another near fifty-minute demo we were able to see behind closed doors. It was played live by someone from CD Projekt Red, and much of what we’ve come to know about Cyberpunk 2077 already is clearly evident. It’s still beautiful and vast, still a technological marvel, at least to my layperson eyes, still extraordinarily detailed.
And we still have questions, namely about its themes – does it know what they are? And its tone – does it have anything to say? Here’s what we saw, regardless, and if you’re wondering about an interview don’t worry, we’ll have ours with you soon, too.
This Cyberpunk 2077 demo took place a little further along into the game than the previous one. We still opened with a character creator, where our in-the-room narrator was very keen to point out that one of your character stats, alongside the usual Intelligence and Body categories, is a stat for “Cool”. You could do worse than taking that for a really quite obvious metaphor for where we’re at with Cyberpunk at this point. It is deep and complex and vast, and also utterly obsessed with making sure you know how good it looks while being so complex and vast. Also, if you could just tell it that it looks cool every now and then that would really help.
We played as a male V to start with here – although we actually swapped between genders and character builds a few times in the demo thanks to a spot of developer magic, just to show off what was possible. There was a fleeting mention of something about the way you look, including your skin colour, affecting how people perceive you in the world. There were also some silly haircuts. CD Projekt chose the default white male with short back and sides.
The first thing we saw in this demo after that character creator, though, was probably the most interesting – and not just because it’s Keanu Reeves. His character, as you’ll know, is Johnny Silverhand, a musician-turned-warrior who is indeed very cool. He’s also a “ghost”, and he’s haunting your brain. At last! Cyberpunk!
This is a video game though so your brain-ghost appears as a helpful NPC who chats to you now and then and maybe occasionally points the way. (I don’t have a singular takeaway from this demo but if I did, it would perhaps be the fact that Cyberpunk 2077 is, indeed, a video game – which feels astonishing in light of the ambition; but also just a tiny bit disappointing, given the layer of magic to last year’s super-slick demo, and the fact that in shaping up as a real game it’s still bound by the same laws of nature – and recurring tropes – as the rest).
There’s also one other quick thing established here, before we dive in: you’ve got a damaged biochip lodged in your skull that might be the key to immortality. No big deal, got some thugs to find anyway.
We go and find some thugs. This time it’s in the Pacifica region of the city, a vast once-resort zone that crumbled into destitution once the Corporations and the government pulled funding during an economic collapse. The population is now largely black, and the major language is largely Haitian Creole. We’re here to meet a man called Placide, of the Voodoo Boys gang, for a mission. We search for him in a nearby church, and an NPC, named as “Poor Man”, comes up to us. There is some questionable dialogue – or rather, questionable subtitling – where the man’s thick Creole accent is also written out in the subtitles, “they” as “dey” and “the” as “da” or “de”. This is the same for nearly all of the Voodoo Boys and people of this area, and actully after you unlock a chip in-game that translates launguage for you, your software presents it as such – “la” in a foreign language still “da” in English. Later on, Placide mentions “they are coming”, or something of that ilk, and our white male character asks “who is “dey“?”.
Back to the present, and Placide’s found chopping meat – a delicacy in Night City now – in the back of some derelict building, and takes us through the area as an attack helicopter eviscerates an entire floor of a high-rise building in the distance, with not a remark from him or anyone nearby.
Inside another building we’re forced into a very quick decision about whether or not to accept Placide “jacking in” to our own brain with no explanation. It’s a classic hand-over-your-gun gang-trial moment; snap our outreached hand away and he gets angry, submit and, as it was put in the presentation, it’s leaving your mind’s door unlocked for this stranger to come in and do what he wants. We accept – it seems it’ll play out this way one way or another, at least if we want to do this mission – and he inspects our brain to find that biochip, but can’t really figure out what it’s for. We pass whatever test that was and it’s off to go find some people to probably kill, over a defunct Grand Imperial Mall (referred to by Placide as some sort of pantheon of greed and avarice for the people who came before).
When we get there it’s time for some actual combat, and we can approach it however we want. Stealthily, technologically or guns blazing, depending on how we’re kitted out as a character. Our current build is a Netrunner which means stealth and hacking are the weapons of choice. We sneak past some enemies – another gang, called the Animals, who sort of worship a kind of mega-steroid that makes them tougher in combat and look like walking, vascular thumbs with mohawks – and distract others with Netrunner skills. We hack into a sparring robot one was watching and it near enough punches his head off, then we drop a full, network-connected rack of weights onto someone’s neck, repeatedly, until bits of blood start to splurt out (which is grim, and also a key reason why I will never have a “smart home”), and then we set a billboard flickering and use a Nano Whip, which looks like a glowing orange cheese cutter, to slash the two grunts investigating it almost in half, from behind.
Shortly after we take a moment to sneak up on a final guard to grab him in a neckhold from behind. There’s an on-screen prompt to use a takedown or a non-lethal takedown. We choose non-lethal and dump him in a nearby trash disposal unit, and then we’re told that the entirety of Cyberpunk 2077 can be completed without killing a single person! That’s an astonishing claim for a game of Cyberpunk 2077’s size, but I also wouldn’t tell it to the chap you just non-violently punted into a multi-story bin.
There’s a door which is too strong to punch open which is a shame (there are options like this everywhere in Cyberpunk 2077, it seems, where a little tooltip might say 3/4 netrunner or something to that effect to show whether or not you’re levelled up enough in that kind of skill to complete it – an indication of its “fluid” class system in the works). We hack it instead, finding a box on the wall and prying the door open with our big old cyber mind. There’s a hacking mini-game which, hands up, I found totally incomprehensible in the two or three seconds it was on the screen before the tech whiz playing it solved the problem. It’s a grid, maybe five-by-five, with letter-number combinations on each square in that grid, and then you have to select certain ones and put them down the bottom. Complete some extra puzzles in the allotted time, somehow, and you get added bonuses, like the ability to upload something to the security system.
At this point we switch characters (you can’t do this in the game obviously) so we can take on the sandboxy area up ahead, on the central ground floor area of the derelict mall in the most violent manner possible – because the cheese slicer was not enough, dammit! We’re a female V with metal arms now who can indead punch and pry open some more big doors. Some faces are punched in during an entirely melee combat sequence, someone pulls a knife on us and we take it and lob it into their face, and we slash someone up with a broken bottle, of all things. It seems you can carry on slashing and punching long after NPCs are dead if you find that entertaining, because we then hop into some gunplay and blow off every limb in sight!
We grab one ‘roided up grunt – the same takedown / non-lethal takedown prompt appears – and use him as a meat shield to get up close to a mounted turret. The tooltip very soon disappears. We use our cyberpunk arms to rip the mounted turret off said mount and proceed to blow apart every chunky boy nearby into smaller (but still quite big) chunks. There’s lots of “I think he’s dead now!” banter from our narrator as the Animals use their stimmed-up dashing abilities to try and reach melee range before getting caught in the hellfire. It’s incredibly hard to say without actually feeling it, of course, but the gunplay here did look a little stiff.
We also replayed that section again, back as the Netrunner male V, and instead chose the much less brutal option of hacking the same turret into doing the work for us; and then hacking into an Animal grunt’s arm to make it blow himself up with a grenade; and then hacking another’s arm to take his pistol and blow off his own head. The crowd roars. Take that downtrodden addicts of Pacifica! Cyberpunk!
More combat next: this time a boss fight, of sorts, which is an interesting twist that calls back, a little, to the larger single-enemy fights of The Witcher 3. It’s against an Animal gang “alpha” called Sasquatch. She wields a massive sledgehammer, and we scan her first to reveal that – to my astonishment! – the glowing area on her back is actually a weak spot. A spot of dodging and gunplay – after a clever bit of scene-setting with pop-up cyber signs telling us to GET OUT ends in Sasquatch leaping through one into our face – results in the glowing spot being blown up and us taking the hammer to the Sasquatch, as the old saying goes. When she’s on the floor defeated, there’s still a choice as to whether or not you want to kill or leave them – we shoot her in the head.
Next, the Agent, who is a Netrunner himself, and a good one. We confront him in the building’s cinema. The projector is playing a western, on loop. We find him in the projectionist’s room and have a chat, because it seems we might have been duped: the Agent, who works for some other shady organisation, tells us that actually the Voodoo Boys are just using us: we’re what they call a floor rag, to be used and disposed, and once we’ve got what we’re here for (in all honesty I’ve long forgotten), they’ll dispose of us. There are several dialogue options, available with different character backgrounds (Street Kid, and so on) or class types. We opt to ignore him, as we are indeed a Street Kid and so our alignment is naturally with the gang. It turns out he was right – after bludgeoning the Agent we and everyone else on the network related to this mission are killed. Only, we wake up – just as we woke up in that cinematic trailer in the Xbox conference, only still on the bloody theatre carpet – and our pal Johnny Silverhand, brain ghost, is standing over us. There’s a suggestion it was the biochip in our head but it’s brushed over in our demo and we head outside, to go pay Placide a visit.
The two thugs outside are spooked – we should be dead – and fearfully offer to fast-travel us back to him in exchange for their lives. Getting into the car, we meet the only loading screens you’ll find in the game, apparently. The entire city is traversable – by foot or vehicle – without a single loading screen, we’re told (take that next-gen). It’s only when we fast travel at times like this that we’ll meet one.
This is also a good time, just quickly, to mention the fantastic-looking driving in the game. At one point during all this location-hopping in the demo we hop on the back of our bike, set the radio (seems like the music is a choice between punk, cyberpunk, punky cyber or punk punk, but it’s also all very cool, to be honest), and we set roaring off in first-person, vast city and skybox in our sights – we toggle into third person for a bit just to show off and look at the cool Samurai logo on our jacket, which gives us a plus-something in something stat boost (probably in Cool?). There’s a very strong Grand Theft Auto vibe to travel, basically. It looks great.
Anyway back to Placide, who we punch. His boss Brigitte walks over and we negotiate. She’s a little more appreciative of the fact she’s talking to someone who is apparently immortal and figures there’s probably something good in knowing a person like that. We get her to take us to someone called Alt Cunningham, one of the “most legendary” Netrunners in the city, seemingly as we try to untangle the thread of our brain ghost Keanu and this invincibility chip.
She takes us into… Cyberspace! Cyberpunk! In a backroom through a now-destroyed, long-forgotten international rail system (think the Overground but with investment), we get into a bath of suspicious ice. Keanu – sorry, Johnny Silverhand – is all “yeah whatever” about it and we are less so. We wake up in actual Cyberspace and Matrix-y figures made of ones and zeroes and other cyber things indicate the people in the room. Approaching cyber-Brigitte we’re warped through time and (cyber) space to what she calls the Black Wall. It’s red actually, but it’s still as ominous as it sounds. No one’s ever ventured through to the other side and come back. Alt Cunningham reckons they’ll be the first to. There’s a suggestion maybe it’s got something to do with brain ghost Johnny. There’s a massive, dubstep-wubbing bulge to the red Black Wall, and with that our first proper look at the true themes of the cyberpunk genre – transience (someone actually said it at one point!), humanity, identity, self. I’ve had a mental vomit break from all the limb chunking – talking to others who saw the presentation I think I might have had a particularly stab-ho demonstrator – and am way, way back on board. It feels more real, but by the end of demo it still, for the most part, feels just as astonishing.
The logo: Cyberpunk! 2077!