From the time that it was revealed to the drip-drops of new footage, art assets, and fricking Keanu Reeves, Cyberpunk 2077 has raised countless questions about its themes, concerns, or controversies.
That’s all well and good and, as another highly anticipated game like Death Stranding demonstrates, stirring up these conversations can be endlessly fascinating. But sometimes I just want to know how a game will actually play: you can have the deepest themes and storytelling in the world, but if it handles like a rusty old banger I’m out. This probably explains my ambivalence to other much-loved open-world RPGs like Skyrim, Fallout 4, and even CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 (come on, if you don’t get pissed-off with riding Roach you’re lying).
It doesn't inspire massive confidence that Cyberpunk 2077's presentations continue to be hands-off affairs (the game is due for release on April 16 next year), but a lengthy look during Gamescom nevertheless persuaded me that playing as V will be one of the slickest and most immersive experiences achieved in an open-world RPG: provided you’re fine with its propensity for ultra-violence.
The demo has V taking on a mainline quest to meet with Brigitte, leader of The Voodoo Boys, a feared-stroke-respected Haitian gang who control the rundown district of Pacifica. First you have to go through her second-in-command Placide, who tasks you with dealing with a rival gang who call themselves The Animals, holed up in an abandoned shopping mall in town.
We’d already seen from last year’s demo that you can get around Night City in a car, so to change things up this time you’ve got new wheels in the form of a motorcycle. And of course it’s bright red, a particular hue that immediately calls to mind Akira.
Once you’ve reached the mall it’s time to figure out how to get in and the usual choices apply: sneak in through the back or go all-guns-blazing through the front? Fortunately this presentation showed both ways with the build rewinding and fast-forwarding to demonstrate how V handles the mission based on the kind of cyberpunk you want to be. Increase your strength for example and not only can V send enemies flying with their fists, but can force a door right open. For a game where body modification is a major part of many of its citizens, there’s an immersive physicality to your first-person actions. Even something as seemingly standard in a modern FPS like running and sliding is realised with heft and clever camerawork.
Essentially Cyberpunk 2077 is an open-world RPG that absolutely nails the presence and traversal of a fast-paced FPS, putting it light years ahead of Bethesda’s clunky combat or even the slightly awkward first-person/third-person hybrid of the rebooted Deus Ex titles.
And let’s say you do go in blasting. In that case shooting looks slick and as far away from something like Fallout 4 as you get: if there's a head in your crosshairs, then pulling the trigger results in a headshot and not some RNG-determined number. The gun skills give finer control over your aim or better recoil handling.
When given a choice between lethal and non-lethal takedown methods, I often find myself inclined towards the challenges of the latter. Thinking back to the seminal Deus Ex, hacking and stealth defined my play style. A close equivalent in Cyberpunk 2077 would be the 'Netrunner' build, but where things differ is that even if you can hack your way out of trouble, you still have tantalisingly violent choices available.
There’s the nanowire that on one hand is used for hacking into machines (and which at the beginning of this mission Placide uses so that he can jack into your brain as another voice to guide you.) But it has even more versatile and deadlier functions, such as for choking enemies like a garrote or using a makeshift whip to slice up skin.
Again it brings to mind Deus Ex playthroughs where I’d routinely use hacking skills to open up doors or shut down security cameras and turrets. That’s elementary stuff in Cyberpunk, and you can also hack from a distance, but here things go much further: you can hack into the brains of enemies, forcing them into suicidal situations like pulling the pin from their own grenades or shooting themselves in the head.
Essentially a Netrunner’s combat options are just as bloody, if not more so, than direct combat.
If that sounds like I'm getting carried away with bloodlust, there are of course options for the peace-loving hippies. Erm... kind of. You can incapacitate enemies without killing them, although the example shown here is far from non-violent: grabbing a guard from behind then chucking them down a rubbish chute. Meanwhile, when it comes to a boss fight against the especially brawny Animals leader Sasquatch, you do have the option to spare or kill her, but that comes after battering her down to a near-finished state first.
This emphasis on ultra-violent combat may be disappointing for people expecting more variety and nuance of play styles in Cyberpunk. Yet I can also understand that fetishing its violence is probably because that kind of visceral detail is simply easier to showcase: why wouldn’t you show off your toys? It had me re-evaluating the non-lethal and non-violent approaches I’ve made in past similar games. Perhaps I preferred those approaches not because I was acting as a better human being but really because, if we're frank, the combat in those games wasn't exactly tremendous to begin with.
It would be disingenuous to get all hand-wringy over Cyberpunk’s combat when at roughly the same time I was playing demos of other RPGs (including Final Fantasy VII Remake, Trials of Mana, and Code Vein) built around pyrotechnic and sometimes gory action. The only difference with Cyberpunk 2077 is that, in motion, it barely seems like an RPG at all, so smooth and impactful is the moment-to-moment combat.
Storytelling is of course part of what's made CDPR’s previous work so beloved, and I still look forward to finding out more about Night City. But if the traversal and combat feel as good as they look, the story could be about Spot the Dog and I'll be there loving it anyway.