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Cyberpunk 2077’s demo at E3 was a vivid, drug-huffing first-person romp of guns and butts

The future looks good

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Yup, the neon future of Cyberpunk 2077 is a first-person RPG shooter. You can create your own character, drive cars through the streets, shoot gangster’s legs off in slow motion, hack their guns, and shag your fellow cyberpunks, among other deeds. All this is based on the 50-minute demo shown to press at E3 yesterday, a demo of asymmetrical haircuts, exposed buttocks, golden prosthetics and plentiful drugs. A demo of street life and futureslang. It was impressive stuff, and it left my brain feeling very fizzy. I’ll run through it below in as much detail as possible.

Firstly, an important caveat: this remains a demo. Any slice of game that looks as wild as this one did needs to be examined soberly. There will be endless hype about Cyberpunk from this point on, but let’s remain cautious. In the games industry, as in dystopian futures, you can’t always trust your own eyes.

The demo followed a girl called V. She was a girl because the showrunner of the “hands-off” demo (one of CD Projekt Red’s staff) decided she’d be a she in the character creation screen. Here you can choose your gender, skin colour, body shape, characteristics and attributes, displayed on a screen reminiscent of a criminal background file from some ancient police department computer. You also get to choose a background, which is a story that’ll follow you with “consequences” arising from whatever that past might be (CD Projekt Red aren’t spoiling any of those details right now though). Although classes exist – Techie, Netrunner or Solo – you don’t pick one straight away. It’s more flexible than this, they say.

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With the creation screen out of the way, V is dropped into the game proper. Almost as soon as we’re introduced to her, she is firing a machine pistol at people who do not like her. She deals with this like any good cyberpunk: by immediately huffing a big canister of drugs. These are like asthma inhalers, but full of more sordid chemicals. This one is something called “Reflex Booster”. It lets her slow down time when she shoots, and she can also flash from one position to another at high speed, like the Blink skill of the Dishonored series, but without having to precisely aim.

When V isn’t shooting bad men who want her dead (making numbers moult from their bodies, Destiny-style) she is shooting at the walls they’re hiding behind, which crumble to the ground. It’s not clear if that’s pervasive to the game or specific to this aging apartment block, but I didn’t see the same level of destructibility for the rest of the demo. Then again, there was a lot of other things to be looking at. Things like V’s pal Jackie stomping through the room and slamming the last bad guy against a wall. Things like the two naked bodies lying in a bathtub full of ice.

This is why V is shooting. She’s here to rescue a girl from an organ harvester, and retrieve something from the data chip in said damsel’s skull. She jacks into the woman via a cable and orders an ambulance, and a translucent credit card transaction appears on top of our vision. We see V picking the woman up in her arms and bringing her outside, where a flying medical van floats down. It’s Cyberpunk’s Trauma Team. Part SWAT, part paramedic, they appear to be frighteningly good doctors, and they take the woman into their care at the point of a submachine gun, flying off without acknowledging V’s sarky request for a lift. It’s a moment of humour and strangeness that feels like a good introduction to the Cyberpunk universe for anyone, like me, who isn’t familiar with the tabletop RPG source material.

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During this whole exchange of bullets and bodies, the HUD appears classically gamey. You’ve got your compass up top, Fallout 4 style, and a health bar to one side that (as we’ll later see) can be replenished by huffing some more drugs. There’s also moments in which things in the world become surrounded in a red square, as if in Robocop-vision, and that’s because an off-screen helper is hacking or highlighting things on your behalf, allowing you to flank enemies during fights with newly-opened doors, for instance.

After the rescue, we take a break, and the demo flips to a cinematic. You and Jackie are having bants in a lift. He’s a big lad, Jackie. He can lift a car with his hands. But that’s a detail for later. Now, we cut to V’s apartment after an unseen night on the tiles and a one-night stand with some bloke who picks up his trousers and slinks away before the action can begin again. It’s suggested a couple of times in the demo that V is a heavy partier. Later, for example, Jackie will wince at the idea of “another three nighter”. Given that Geralt’s most human moments in The Witcher 3 were when he was absolutely shatterblasted, I am fine with this. Although cinematic fleshing-out like this and pre-set responses do make me question the depth of the roleplaying. If V is our hero, she often seems to already have concrete personality traits, even if the choices and chat options are yours. She also has a bum, which the cinematic really, really likes to focus on.

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Anyway, Jackie has called and he’s got a job for us. “Bring your iron,” he says. This is another thing: the world is full of quirky future language. Money is “eddies” (or officially: “Eurodollars”), back street surgeons are “Ripperdocs”. Inhaling drugs is “whiffing”. At one point, I could have sworn a gangster also used the word “gungoons” to describe some unsavoury men. But I might just be tired. The point is, the dialogue in this demo was true to the genre. Silly, playful, and fond of outlandish compound words. This made the criminal enterprise that followed somewhat difficult to follow, but it was still no more convoluted than a Deus Ex quest, and it was certainly more colourful.

V headed out with her leather jacket on (it has +5 ‘street cred’, we’re told, and that gets ya better vendor prices). We’re back in control now, seeing things from first-person, and she steps out into the hustle and bustle. This was the grand introduction to Night City of North California, complete with Game Title floating above the crowd. The final game will have six sectors, each differing in tone and atmosphere. Westbrook is a wealthy area filled with corporate aristocrats, for example. Pacifica is a nigh-abandoned gangland eroded by poverty, and there are others in between. The industrial Santo Domingo, the neon-lit City Centre, the bazaars of Watson, and the suburban housing of Heywood. Travelling between these sectors will be seamless, says CD Projekt Red. And at some point you will be able to invest in property.

Seamless or not, this city does look stunning. It seems almost GTA-like in its ambition. The crowds are large, and the amount of detail is almost overwhelming. At a glance it brings to mind the Prague of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided but seems more open, colourful, bustling and noisy. Bars are full of drinkers slumped over the counters, markets are busy with food stands, street cleaners block the pavement. At one point, we see a holographic police “caution” tape, cutting off a crime scene from the public. I think: “Oh yes, I’ve seen this in movies.” But then we also see a holographic reconstruction of the crime itself, a brutal assault (or murder?) playing out behind the tape for the benefit of the investigating cops. And look, I know, it’s a demo, it’s an E3 demo and they are choreographed and fine-tuned and designed to be flawless often at the expense of being truly representative of the finished thing. But MAN ALIVE, THIS CITY.

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For a good chunk of the demo, absolutely no shooting or fighting occurs. Good. V meets a big lad called Dex in the back of a car, who wears red sunglasses and a has gold prosthetic arm. He gives her a mission, the details of which are absolutely lost to me amid the slang-o-chat. But the gist is that we need to meet some nasty gang lads and buy a military grade “spider bot” off them.

I briefly wonder if we can romance Dex, but he is probably not that sort of wheeler dealer. Nevertheless, I had a chat with a developer after the demo (more of that in a separate post) who confirmed that romancing is still very much a thing, that the romantic characters have set tastes of their own, and that some are straight, some gay, and some bisexual. With BioWare getting really into jetpacks, it’s good to have somebody carrying this torch.

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But our girl V has no time for this. She’s off to a “Ripperdoc”. This doctor of flesh and steel is good at plucking out our girl’s eye and leaving it on a tray so she can see her own body from three feet away. Yeesh. But he also installs an upgrade. When he’s done, V can now scan things to see what threat level they are, and what attack types they might be vulnerable to: fire, electricity, and so on (this elemental damage stuff was largely left unaddressed, but it isn’t hard to imagine how it’ll be used). It also gives her gun an ammo count, further explaining away bits of the HUD. He also gives you more drugs to huff. Hooray!

Then she goes and meets a big corp lady. I’m not sure why we meet her, but it’s another tense moment with lots of good-looking environments and zero shots fired. Her goons grab us and install a lie detector in our cyberbod, trying to suss out if we’re trustworthy. At this point, the player is given a few options to choose from, and some seemed to be based on skills you might have. We could have grabbed the goon’s weapon for instance, but instead the developer wanted to hash it out. They seem to be emphasising the importance of talking down a conflict, over getting into a shoot-out all the time (although, trust me, the shoot-outs aren’t a small feature).

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Now that Miss Corporate is happy to get involved, she hands V a credit chip with 50,000 eurobucks. I’m not following anyone’s reasoning at this point, but I’m happy to go along for the ride. And that ride is happening in the driver’s seat of a fast car.

Driving can be done in two different views. In first person, it reminded me a bit of Far Cry’s car trundling. In third-person there was a strong whiff of cruising around Los Santos to it all, although I can’t tell you just how much freedom there is to this. The developers did bump into some bollards and fences as they went from one objective to the next, but they rudely neglected to run over any pedestrians. We are told there’ll be about twelve miles of roads to travel on, though, and you will be able to steal cars. During my post-demo interview, I asked if these cars will have an auto-drive feature like Roach’s ridiculous path-finding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The answer I received was non-committal.

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But, look, here comes a van full of nasty men. They’re annoyed we killed their boys at the start of the demo. At this point, Jackie takes the wheel and V gets to indulge in some on-rails shooting along the freeway. Before this, while driving I noticed a bit of “fade in” but it was hard to care when there’s so much to look at – trash heaps, adverts, graffiti. Even the roads and open streets of this world felt very detailed.

Anyhow, we’ve blown up the van and arrived at the gang’s hideout. Remember, we’re here to buy a “spider bot” for a man with a gold arm. Keep up. This gang are called the Maelstrom. They’re a “psychogang” of course, obsessed with technology and the internet. Their hideout is decked out with turrets, so Jackie and V decide to go inside and chat, rather than fight their way in. The Maelstrom boyz are skinny, glow-eyed punks. One of them has a philosophical disagreement with Jackie about the benefits of being sedentary (“Sit the fuck down,” he insists) and Jackie disagrees, leading to some chest-puffing from both of them. It’s another moment of tension, but V dissolves it by asking Jackie to sit. Now chill, the Maelstrom lad is kind enough to offer V some drugs to huff. Which she does.

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Seat fan Bright Eyes is so happy with his spider bot it’s honestly endearing. He is reeling off all its specs and features, and is about to sell it to us. But then he’s interrupted by the boss, who doesn’t like any of this suspicious transaction. A Mexican standoff occurs, guns pointed everywhere. Just when it seems to calm down, and the money changes hands, a Maelstrom boy’s head gets fried. That chip full of eurobucks the corporation woman gave to us – it was spiked.

There’s a lockdown and the duo have to fight their way out. It’s saying a lot for this gargantuan, dense-with-drama demo that I want to glaze over the action the most, having already written 2000 words about sucking up mind-altering chemicals through an asthma pump. But this last big battle is what CD Projekt Red have been building up to. They’ve even given our girl a “tech shotgun” that can blow through obstacles, and some new superpowers, just to demonstrate what an awful person she can be when you really put your attribute points to it.

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V goes on a spree, showing off all her levelled-up skills. Did you know she has spikey, spidery robo-arms? Did you know she can double-jump? That she can hack into a terminal and a human man in quick succession and use the data to jam another man’s weapon? Did you know she can dash to the side, quick-sharp? And wall-run? Did you know she can get a Smart gun that has homing bullets? Did you know she can ricochet bullets off the bloody wall? It’s true. A little dotted line appears that let’s her see the exact trajectory of the bullet as it will bounce off the wall. Have you ever played a rubbish top-down snooker game on easy mode? It’s like that but with bullets. Fun trigonometry.

It’s all very “Deus Ex stealth run gone bad” at this point, mired in combat, right down to a final boss battle with a Maelstrom honcho in a big mech suit (this is the part where Jackie lifts a car with his bare hands, and uses it as cover). For V’s part, it looks more fluid than Deus Ex, more nippy. And less start-stop than Dishonored or Prey’s radial wheel juggling. There’s no way to tell if this is truly the case, however, until I can grip this game in my own robo-claws and suck down all those stimulants for myself. But this whole demo is certainly making me impatient to do so.

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At the end of it all, we get our spider bot. He’s a good boy and he follows you everywhere, shooting things, just like his mum. Jackie and V emerge from their flaming mess and meet the corporation diva once again, who tells them, in so many words, that “the corp always wins”. Then she takes off to whatever wealthy neighbourhood it is she lives in. Jackie and V get back in their super car and drive away, happy to have completed a quest, earned a paycheck, and shown a room full of games journalists a good time.

And I did have a good time. However, that sense of caution must remain. Remember: I was just watching someone play a highly polished fragment of an unfinished world, purposefully sculpted for this crowd. The absurdity of this most E3 of demos was clear when we were told: “Imagine if the choices we’d made were different!” Because, of course, if CD Projekt Red were really keen to show us the range of possibilities and branching storylines, then every write-up of this demo would be different. But I’ve yet to hear of any journalists who saw the same demo witnessing a male V who never puffed a single methamphetamine in his life, who righteously grabbed a gun off the corp diva and went into the Maelstrom den, metal spider arms akimbo. As such, it remains to be seen how much branching there will be, and how that will work.

As a demonstration of intent, however, it was an absolute romp, a wonderful showcase of a dirty, flashy, inviting cityscape, full of detail. I almost wish it had been less exciting, because now the final 50 million gigabyte download we see on release will have to live up to this promise. And it probably can’t. But even if it comes close, Cyberpunk 2077 could be astounding.

Check out our E3 2018 tag for more announcements, trailers, news, and goodness knows what else.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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