As I crane my head around in Dex DeShauwn's back seat attempting to see what's causing the gunshots that we're speeding away from, I know that the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is going to live up to the expectations that CD Projekt Red set with The Witcher 3. The chaos playing out in a corner of Night City's Haywood district is none of my doing, but rather something that was happening organically. I'll never know exactly what was happening back there, but I know it takes some serious world-building to distract me from a major story beat that's happening in the backseat right next to me.
CD Projekt Red has come to be known as master world builders in the gaming industry. Since The Witcher 3 debuted in 2015, we've had plenty of games that have come close to emulating the organic worlds that CD Projekt Red has created. But, from games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin's Creed Odyssey, to Rockstar's own epic Red Dead Redemption 2, none has come close to emulating the way CD Projekt Red's worlds seem to exist regardless of you - not just because of you.
From this very first hands-on with Cyberpunk 2077, which saw me play through the opening four or so hours of the game, it's clear that CD Projekt Red isn't shying away from building a living world once again, but this time it's doing it on a bigger scale than ever before with Night City. This is a bustling metropolis oozing with neon and danger that has its own rhythms and life outside of what you're doing as V. I spent a little too much time watching civilians meander down the street (with a refreshing array of realistic body types, I might add) and staring at strangers having conversations that I could interrupt if I so chose, or just wandering around watching various side-missions, bounties, and other activities pop up like some kind of urban acne breakout.
Bright lights, city living
But like any good open-world game, there's a huge focus on player choice, and that starts right at the beginning. Before the game's even started, you're given the choice of one of three backstories: Nomad, Street Kid, or Corpo. The opening mission that follows will be completely different depending on which of those you choose, and from then on many of the game's stories and much of the dialogue can be influenced by your backstory too. The way you behave, talk to people, and eventually make decisions will no doubt be influenced by how you choose to roleplay V - and also by knowing where they've come from.
"What I also think is very interesting about the life paths, even after that point, when they all converge, is they still have lighter influences," explains senior quest designer, Philipp Weber. "Sometimes, you just roleplay… but it can also have bigger influences over quests throughout the whole game, up until the ending of the game."
"So as an example, if there are quests that are more based around corporations, where you, let’s say, might take part in a board meeting. If you have the corporate life path, you do, of course, now get options. Because you know how to talk in a situation like this. And it’s the same with Nomads. If you’re out in the Badlands, you might meet a Nomad clan. Of course, if you have a Nomad life path, now you do have more options. You have more knowledge. And we actually try to keep that roleplaying aspect throughout the rest of the game."
For this playthrough, I chose to follow the Corpo route, intrigued by the lure of an Arasaka body tricked out with top-of-the-line, military-grade cyberware. It all feels great at first, wandering around the shiny Arasaka tower en route to meet my boss, but things quickly turn against me, eventually forcing me into a little apartment in the Haywood district working with Jackie. It's here that the three individual stories would join up, the Nomad having found its way from the Badlands into the city-state of Night City, and the Street Kid returning to their neon darkness birthplace after spending two years away somewhere else.
But, like The Witcher 3, the decision making won't stop there, and everything you do becomes part of a huge web of decisions that may or may not have immediate or long-lasting effects on the people you interact with. Even in the first four hours, you meet so many interesting characters that you're immediately wrapped up in Night City's world. Your immediate cast ranges from the hulk that is Jackie and the hacking pro T-Bug, who form your crew, to the fixer Dex DeShauwn and his client Evelyn, the latter of which who you chat with at Lizzie's Bar, while a holographic stripper undulates gently on a platform nearby.
Dreaming in neon
The opening four hours are a colourful barrage of drama that include a fall from grace, several double-crosses, sex, and a whole lot of violence. Cyberpunk 2077 isn't afraid to drop you right in the middle of things. But, interestingly, each mission has so many layers that you'll seemingly be rewarded for leaving no stone unturned, or at least exploring more. An optional objective early on involving some Corpo shills opens up an entirely new dialogue path, and a story thread that would have ultimately been left dormant.
The same goes for discovering clues. In the Batman: Arkham-esque Braindance sections, you use a kind of futuristic VR device to relive recorded memories and moments, with the ability to rewind, fast forward, pause and probe the footage to find clues and information. Switching between visual, audio, and heat signature layers makes for an interesting gameplay mechanic, which when combined with the options for incredibly satisfying gun and melee combat, along with stealth and hacking, means there are plenty of avenues to explore in the way that you play.
Of course, this idea of optional extras in missions was something explored in The Witcher 3 too, but Cyberpunk adds that additional layer from the backstory choice you make before you've even started crafting your V. Additional dialogue is unlocked depending on whether you've come from the streets or the corporate highrises, giving you new info and potential storylines that would otherwise be inaccessible. I am already foreseeing a second (and potentially third) playthrough in my future to see just how different V's story could be depending on their background.
There are also plenty of dialogue options available depending on where you've spread your skill points. With five core attributes to bulk out - Body (physical strength), Reflex (speed), Intelligence (smarts), Technical (hacking), and Cool (stealth and street smarts) - and multiple perk trees within each one, the RPG levelling is a seriously creative business, and really lets you dial in on exactly what you want your V to be like. Perks have serious range too, from increased proficiency with specific weapons, to a selection that will make you basically a cyber ninja. The layers of RPG levelling available to browse through from the off are almost overwhelming.
"I think people sometimes said that in The Witcher, they would have liked to see more of these perks. So we just tried to compensate for that," laughs Weber about the density of the Cyberpunk 2077 RPG system. "We actually want to give you lots and lots of choice there. Even within those perks, some of them might be percentage-based, number-based... But other perks actually give you new abilities. We also try to mix and match them, so you have multiple options when choosing your perks. It was really important for us that we have this fluid class system."
From dreams to reality
Thankfully, that level of freedom and creativity is reflected in the character creation tools, too, as Cyberpunk 2077 might actually resemble the first time true human diversity is reflected in the options a game gives players for building their character. You're provided with a choice of body type rather than being male or female, for instance, and can opt for a female or male voice regardless.
I opted for a female body, and after working my way through hairstyles, piercings, eye types, cybernetics and more, I was presented with several options for how my nipples should look, including the choice not to have any at all. But then, much to my surprise, the camera pans down and I'm presented with a fully naked V. Genitalia options are next on my list, including a jiggling range of penises, a vagina, or simply nothing at all. Vagina applied, lightning bolt bush shaved in, and I was ready to play, but left with the lingering awareness that finally, a healthier diversity of audiences can be physically represented in-game.
"In Cyberpunk 2020, from 1990, in this pen-and-paper RPG – back then, when you created a character, you actually had this freedom as well, and it was part of a system," explains Weber. "We thought that we would do it a disservice if we wouldn’t offer just as much freedom to basically inhabit the kind of character that you want to be. We want to tell many different stories that might fit many different player-characters."
It's clear that this is exactly what the game was built for. CD Projekt Red has merely given us the tools with Cyberpunk 2077 to create our own stories in amongst that of their own. I just can't wait to see what else Night City has to offer.
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