Kotaku UK is reporting live from the Gamescom show floor this week in Cologne Germany, and most of our experiences with games are hands-on — but a few especially anticipated titles are able to get away with hands-off demos.
One of them is CD Projekt's Cyberpunk 2077. I've just finished watching an hour of this firstperson open-world futureshock, and I'm exhausted. I say it was exhausting because, by the end, the constant bright lights, cluttered neon, endless scanning overlays and augmented limbs made it feel like I'd been rushing through a bustling city: I could happily have spent multiple hours soaking it all in, and still felt overwhelmed.
Cyberpunk 2077's open world is intensely beautiful, and if the full game is consistently as rich as this demo, this could be another benchmark for content-dense open-world design.
Though the demo was hands-off, I was able to direct the nice man playing the game on my behalf to make whatever choices I liked. This build opened up with character creation, which post-E3 has been updated to include gender selection between two nude base models with their modesty protected by tasteful visual glitches. Customisation begins with questions about personality, things like who your childhood hero was, and these go to form your character's 'ideals' and personality. This is followed by visual customisation which includes a snazzy blue hair option I highly approve of, as well as the option to tweak some starting stats. There is no class selection at this point, as class skills are handled on a case-by-case basis during the game itself.
On jumping into the world, the game initially looked like any other first-person shooter set in a dystopian future. The player was tasked with tracking down a woman whose tracking chip had been disabled, with the suspicion being that scavengers had taken her to harvest for parts and organs. Pleasant!
This led to a fairly by-the-numbers shooting section with a regular old gun and some dark corridors. At this point the only cyberpunk-y element was the realtime language translation happening in the HUD, though the world's flavour began to seep through once the initial battles are over. You find the woman, but she's already been harvested and partially dismantled, and is surrounded by other examples of the scavengers' work.
All is not lost, however. You've still found the target and, once the scavenger-installed virus that's disabling her tracking chip is removed, her automatic health insurance kicks in — a backup voice comes from her 'corpse', offering a helicopter pickup in under three minutes thanks to her premium payment plan. A happy ending! With a little twist of the knife, too: in spite of her being a crime victim with top-class insurance, the voice emphasises that she’s only covered for 90% of her medical costs. Such story beats may have more chance of shocking the European audience than the American one.
After this the demo opened up considerably, and Cyberpunk 2077 started to really thrill me. We moved from the protagonist Vie’s apartment down to street level, got into a car, then drove across town at speed (the whole game is in firstperson, but while in a car you can also use a thirdperson camera). There wasn't a single hiccup or loading freeze as this hugely detailed and neon-saturated world flew by.
I wanted to look at an advert for energy drinks but, after examining it rather too closely, Vie’s HUD was updated with directions to the nearest vending machine. I gawped at doctors willing to replace eyeballs, or offering palm implants that would interface more effectively with weapons, or even brain chips to add holographic elements to how you perceive the world. The characters bustling by me never seemed to repeat, all visually diverse and distinct and bustling onwards to wherever they were going.
The next mission we handled involved a stolen military drone. The most interesting thing here, as opposed to the opening shootout, was the number of ways available to approach different parts of this quest, and how the player can change plans partway through. There were several choices to make during this mission's stages. We began by talking a stressed-out military contractor into giving us a load of money, which we promised would be used to either buy the drone or hack the sellers and take them out. We avoided a fight with the sellers by offering them the money but being honest about it being tracked. The sellers then 'cleaned' the money and, once this was done, handed over the drone. At which point we betrayed them and blew them away. We ended this mission with a load of clean money we got to keep, and a drone which was returned to the (very appreciative) military.
A good day's work, but there were all sorts of other ways this could have played out. Not least if you're more interested in the criminal element of this world, and would rather be screwing the military over...
An especially impressive aspect of Cyberpunk 2077 is the variety of weapon types, and this demo showcased some inventive ideas about futuristic combat tech. There's a katana which can be held up to create an electromagnetic field which 'catches' bullets, allowing you to rush and close the distance for melee combat, alongside a gun that fires visually irresistible bullets that bounce off walls with laser tracking overlays. At one point we installed a body tracking mod and paired this up with a shotgun that specialised in penetrating cover. Now we could see and shoot through walls, and popped some pills to slow down time just to make things really unfair. If you're gonna murder, do it in style.
The sheer scale of this world, the density of content, and variety of options in this hour-long demo was stunning. At the end I pretty much had to scrape my jaw off the floor.
I did come out with a few lingering concerns. There wasn't much about real-life body modification, or analogies for real world issues, which is where many cyberpunk stories live and die. This week the official twitter for Cyberpunk 2077 tweeted a transphobic joke and a half-hearted apology, after which I was curious to see if that attitude permeated the game itself. Trans people often engage in soft body modification, from hormones to surgery, and how a cyberpunk game incorporates real-world groups says everything about its world. Consider the difference between characters born with disabilities in Cyberpunk 2077, for example, and characters who choose augmentation for vanity or power.
This demo focused on the action rather than the texture of CD Projekt's future vision, and in that context it looked spectacular. But whether this is a good cyberpunk story, and whether it says anything about our times, remains to be seen.