Reader, I often tire quickly of the bangs. The shooties. The click click booms. I think it’s because damn near every action game has guns, but not many developers make shooters really bloody good. And indeed, I agree with Matt that, at least from what we’ve seen so far, the guns in Cyberpunk 2077 look mostly like floaty number generators.
And yet, as was pointed out to me by a developer, Cyberpunk 2077 is not a shooter. It is an RPG. Having seen this year’s hands-off demo, though, I think you can make a pretty good case that it’s actually a stealth game.
The almost-an-hour video of CD Prjoekt Red’s upcoming cyber-bonanza is much better than last year’s. Even though the hands-off demos are still very clearly tightly rehearsed performances, this time it feels much less cinematic and closer to what it might be like to actually play. This is in part because it shows off contrasting ways of playing. You can choose backgrounds and skills for your version of protagonist V that shape not only potential dialogue options (a street kid background might give different options when chatting to gang members, for example) but also your approach to the levels.
The demo switches between a netrunner hacker type with a corporate background, and a punchy shooty strong girl with machine hands that can rip off doors. Whatever about the latter, to be honest. But I do not mind that a big turret machine gun bastard has the same impact as a pistol.
See, a lotta games can have a strong character build that can rip through walls and hit hard, and are really good at shootin’ stuff, but high-tech future dystopia settings open up cool options for non-combat combat. So why wouldn’t you want to do that? In the demo V is sent to an abandoned mall that is not so abandoned, and sneaks past gangsters by making an automated robot sparring partner punch too hard. By causing a computerised weightlifting machine to crush the person using it. By sending cans of soda rattling out of a vending machine.
That’s pretty cool and all, and I like the imagination of this way more than pointing and pulling a trigger. But those are sleeker, more advanced variants of stuff we’ve seen before, even with the hacker flavour. But when V first connected to the mall’s local network to force open a locked door, they also triggered an alarm for an enemy netrunner who was already in the system. This netrunner started running interference. They started trying to get in V’s head. Oh, yes.
Then, right at the end, we saw a bit of cyberspace realised as a place your mind can inhabit and, well, sort of walk around in. Imagine the possibilities! Duelling with other netrunners as screaming lines of code. Creeping around a building hacking as few things as possible to try to limit access to a rival’s network. Yes, yes, plug it into my technologically enhanced veins, you bastards.
My feelings here may be affected by the fact I played a hacker character in my Shadowrun pen and paper RPG. Another player was my best friend – a troll called Biscuit – who carried me around in a sort of giant baby sling while I was fully jacked into the network. I digress.
I know I am getting excited about a thing that’s existence is, at best, only half supported by what we know about Cyberpunk 2077 right now. But the fact remains that the stealth and hacking looked far more accomplished and creative and interesting than any of the shooting and punching, or the big boss who telegraphed her slow hammer attacks. Possibly because that sort of fully integrated hacking of things, and dicking around in minds made of computer, is something few games can have running through the bone marrow of their setting.
It’s also fair to say that players respond really well to options, and to games that reward their creativity. Think of the Swiss cheese level design of Hitman, places full of different holes leading you to different bits, or the way reactions can chain into more reactions in Original Sin 2, doing things that you didn’t even know you could, but that the game allows for. Giving players robust tools and asking them to build a weird sculpture of their own design.
So I hope that Cyberpunk does actually do that. I hope that levels have more than one way to do hacking and stealth, more than one way to brute force. Because if not then it’d feel a bit like painting by numbers trying to pass itself off as some kind of masterpiece. And they may as well have made it a really bloody good shooter instead.