As the hero of Cyberpunk 2077 stabs a hypodermic needle into the naked chest of comatose woman, Pulp Fiction style, it's clear that we're a long way from the fantasy world of The Witcher 3. Cyberpunk 2077 might be the work of the same team, but an in-depth gameplay demo proved that CD Projekt Red is ready to deliver something very different.
Despite wailing, blackmail, and bribery, the studio wasn't ready for anyone to go hands-on with the game at E3 2018 - so instead we got a 50-minute roller coaster ride of gameplay from what seemed to be an early section in the game. We met our hero, V (a sort of violent TaskRabbit for the influential folks of the world), found a missing person with the help of our burly sidekick Jackie, got some upgrades, and took on the Maelstrom, a 'psychogang' fascinated with cyberspace that had stolen a bunch of military tech. It was like having a cyberpunk novel injected directly into our brainstem, but only getting the first chapter.
One of the first things you notice - and something that caused quite the kerfuffle online - is that the game is first-person. You still get to create a character with an embarrassment of of customization options - appearance, stats, backstory - but you'll only benefit from the visual ones during cutscenes. The perspective choice made sense once we were engaged in a shootout with scavengers to rescue the aforementioned comatose girl - our hero is an urban mercenary, after all - and the action is much more shooter than RPG. The pace is manic, as we're gaining an edge with a performance-enhancing 'reflex booster', and this is before our character is even fully kitted out with all the cybernetic enhancements that are on offer.
Upgrade your eyeballs for Cyberpunk 2077
It all looks perfectly on point, too. There's all the Blade Runner-esque neon you'd expect from this kind of world, but instead of being shrouded in fog, it's all washed out with California sunlight that shows every burning car wreck, graffiti tag, and trash bag infecting the industrial landscape, in clear detail. This is Night City, in Northern California, part of one of six regions that will exist in the game world. The team is working to build a seamless world with no loading screens, and even at this early stage, the city looks packed with areas we want to explore. There are people walking around in robes that look like they could be from some sort of religious sect, there are vendors selling weapons and cybernetic upgrades, and CD Projekt Red says that earning street cred with side missions will open up new vendors and additional dialogue options. Another nice touch is that in this near-future world, advertising has really come a long way from the days of YouTube ads. Interact with a glowing advertisement for something - a delicious soda, perhaps - and it'll give you a waypoint to the closest place to buy the item. It's something I could definitely use for managing my Red Bull addiction in the real world.
One of the vendors we got to see in action during the demo was a 'ripperdoc,' a specialist vendor who deals in cyberware upgrades. After agreeing to pay up the 'eddies' - Euro dollars - at a later date, we went for an eyeball upgrade and a transdermal hand implant. The Kiroshi optical scanner will grant you Terminator-like powers, giving you extra information about people and objects. Think of it as a built-in heads-up display, which a man had to ram into your eyeball in his dingy basement office. Worryingly (given his hygiene standards) the ripperdoc we saw was above board but, later in the game, you'll have access to black market professionals selling illegal but higher-grade items, including military technology.
The upgrades were sure going to come in handy for a very important mission, bestowed on us by Dexter DeShawn, a Night City 'fixer' that could hook us up with lucrative contracts. Some serious tech had been stolen by the Maelstrom gang, and Militech agent Meredith Stout wants it back. As a woman I'm always excited to see my fellow sisters in positions of power, but Stout is a Grade A hellbitch, plugging me into a lie detector before she'll even talk missing tech. The fact that we're just watching this part makes it hard to know if choosing different dialogue options could've saved me from this civil rights violation, but it certainly hints that cyberware and upgrades make life in 2077 a lot more complicated.
Meeting the gang is a lot more fun. The character design is fascinating and a little upsetting, with a lot of the Maelstrom missing huge parts of their faces, a series of bright lights where their eyes should be. It all seems to be going well while we're about to purchase a (frankly adorable) military spiderbot - until a chip that Stout gave us to pay for the purloined tech turns out to be riddled with malware. Alarms sound, the gang goes on the attack, and we get to watch our hero in full combat mode. Again, it's just a hint at the variety we'll see when it comes the run-and-gun sections, but in just five minutes we watch a ricochet ability where bullets bounce off walls, a rare smart rifle where the bullets arc out and then home in on enemies, and the ability to jam our attacker's weapons by grabbing an enemy grunt, hacking into his brain internet, and scrambling the gang's firepower through his connection. It's fast and dazzling and makes your own grey matter twitch in anticipation of getting to play it for yourself.
The only bad news? We don't have any real release date for Cyberpunk 2077, and it seems like the sort of project that needs time and attention and detail to get just right. Financial reports from the company from June 2016 suggested June 2019 could be a possible release date, but it feels much further away than that. And with The Witcher 3 still selling, Gwent bringing in cash, and GOG.com - which the studio owns - making money, there's no need for CD Projekt Red to rush. Here's to hoping we get it before 2077, though.