Diving Deep Into The First Hours Of Cyberpunk 2077
Few games of recent years have garnered the broad and unrestrained sense of anticipation enjoyed by Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt Red, the same team that brought us The Witcher series, has earned a well-deserved reputation for sophisticated storytelling, strong world-building, and mature themes, all set within a strong framework for gameplay. Likewise, the Cyberpunk setting is richly crafted from a tabletop RPG that has been growing for decades, and its themes of rebellion and pushing back against government and commercial authority seem especially timely for many potential players. There’s also just the reality that, over years of seeing it teased, Cyberpunk 2077 simply looks enthralling. Set within a bleak dystopian future city, the game’s mix of role-playing narrative loops and first-person combat and exploration seems novel and exciting.
Until now, even with the bubbling enthusiasm that surrounds the title, it’s been challenging to understand a full picture, or get a perspective on the gameplay from outside the studio’s official channels. That has now changed, as three of our editors had a chance to finally play the pre-release game, trying out different avenues and opportunities over the course of four hours of playtime for each of us. As it turns out, that’s hardly enough to even scratch the surface of what Cyberpunk 2077 has to offer – but it sure gives us our best sense yet of what players can expect.
In this article, we walk through the hours we spent exploring the world, step by step. If you’d prefer to just get a broad scope understanding of what was most striking about the game, check out our five biggest takeaways from playing Cyberpunk 2077. If you’re more into listening to our impressions, click over to this week’s Game Informer Show to hear us talk about our experiences in the game.
Building A Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk 2077 opens with some important decisions that affect the entirety of your subsequent play experience. Character creation is extremely customizable, and earns the game’s inevitable mature rating before gameplay even begins, since you’re selecting gender and secondary sexual characteristics right away. In keeping with the cyberpunk aesthetic of people who have modified and changed the bodies they’re born with into their preferred nature, the game is quite fluid with what features you apply, and the male or female voice actor can be applied to any character, no matter what other changes you choose to make.
Beyond cosmetic customization, players also select starting attributes – each attribute opens up multiple perk upgrade trees. Body affects health, stamina, and overall power. Intelligence deals with memory and hacking abilities. Reflexes determines things like speed, critical chance, and evasion. Technical Ability connects to things like armor bonuses, control of technical interactions, and even the possibility of harvesting craftable loot when you come across it. Finally, the Cool attribute governs willpower and several features related to stealth. At character creation, you’re able to tweak these attributes with a few bonus skill points – I gave my V higher Body and Cool, with an eye toward a stealth-focused mercenary who occasionally gets into melee throwdowns – but the choice is up to you.
In the build I played, I received new attribute points and perk points when I leveled up, and when I acquired enough street cred (gained by getting a reputation for my actions). Once acquired, these points can be spread out as you like, improving a particular stat, with a separate pool of points going into upgrades presented on the perk trees governed by that stat. For me, my early points focused on successful infiltration. I took “Hidden Dragon” (in the Stealth perk tree, governed by my Cool attribute) which opened up aerial takedowns, and later on I snagged the “Embrace the Shadows” perk, which offered improved health regeneration while sneaking. For players curious about how “RPG-ish” this game is with its progression loop, these perk trees completely set my mind at ease. There are dozens of perks and customization options available here, and many of them offer significant and playstyle-altering changes to your character.
The next important choice before the game begins is your lifepath. These three foundational backgrounds determine the course of the beginning of the game, and also establish important options for dialogue, mission options, and flavor for the rest of the game. Because these lifepaths are so different – including entirely distinct opening missions – I won’t be surprised at launch to hear stories of players who have tried out all three before settling on the lifepath they prefer for a full playthrough. For me, the nomad was a clear winner. In this persona, the main character, V, begins life out in the Badlands surrounding Night City, and is already an experienced smuggler. One last job sends him into a new life in the city. Another Game Informer editor tackled the Corpo lifepath. In this background, V starts out in a cushy, but stressful, life in the dangerous corporate rat race, and having the wrong allies results in her being brought low and back to the streets. A third editor explored the Street Kid lifepath, where V is already an experienced hand living on the scraps of Night City, eking out hard-earned survival.
First Steps Into A Larger World
In an interesting twist, each of the three lifepaths offers a way to meet a character named Jackie Welles. Like V, your selection of lifepaths also determines Jackie’s background. For instance, you meet him on the smuggling job as a Nomad, but if you’re a Corpo, then he’s been your friend and confidante for years. Regardless of his origin, Jackie’s personality is relatively consistent across the three backgrounds. He’s a tough guy with charm and loyalty who can hold his own in a fight, and no matter which way you meet him, the story jumps forward to some time later, when a firm partnership has formed, as the two of you work together to survive on the streets of Night City.
Your lifepath intros can vary in length, but we were all generally through those crafted and individualized intros in around a half hour, at which point the story opens on a prologue mission that is the same, no matter your background. This mission, which has been seen in previous hands-off sessions of Cyberpunk 2077, shows V working together with Jackie and T-Bug – a remote netrunner on your team – to complete a job in which you must infiltrate a hideout and save a wealthy woman who has been kidnapped.
Before the action really gets going, this early gameplay stretch also houses a tutorial, accomplished in-game through a virtual program that you plug into your head port. Here, you get the basics of combat and infiltration. All of these features match expectations you might have for a first-person open-world experience. Of note, melee weapons use a timing and observation approach, where you balance quick light attacks and heavy attacks to break opponents’ blocks, as well as quick taps of your own block button to open up big-damage counters. Another important feature that is available right from the start is the option to hack both enemy augments and environmental features.
With the tutorial complete, the subsequent mission gives me the first sense of stealth and open combat, as V moves through a building and takes down the kidnappers. In this regard, mechanics are quite familiar to anyone who has played a first-person game of this style. Most encounters allow for a range of approaches, from sneaking up behind foes to choke them out (using either lethal or non-lethal attacks) or going in, guns blazing. In these early battles, shooting exchanges reward taking cover and staying mobile. Enemies use smart tactics to flank and move in on my position. In keeping with its RPG heritage, damage numbers pop on enemies to give you a sense of relative power between selected weapons, and the use of individual weapon types upgrades my skill with that style of attack. Once my enemies were dead or unconscious, I was able to loot their bodies – clear color-coding of the rarity of their loot let me know what items were worth snagging.
After dropping the bad guys, I found my target in an ice-cooled tub, barely alive. Because of her affluent status, she had “platinum trauma team” status, effectively adding up to a heavily armed EMT team that flies in to pull you from the brink of death. After dealing with the blocking tech that kept her trauma team from reaching her, they were able to pick her up and whisk her away. Mission success.
At this point, the game begins to open up in some meaningful ways. After completing the job, I return to my pad in a large apartment complex, and settle in to sleep. The next morning, I’m free to begin exploring Night City. Walking out of my apartment and into streets of Night City, I’m immediately reminded of my first time, in real life, visiting Tokyo’s Shibuya district, with its brightly lit signage and masses of people crossing the streets, with small shops and restaurants clustered at ground level. Here in the fictional metropolis of Night City, the effect is even more exaggerated, with dozens of animated ad billboards, hundreds of people, and towering skyscrapers competing for attention. Jackie meets me at a street-food stand, and we talk about an upcoming job as he eats. For the rest of my time playing, I’ll be splitting my attention between the non-linear mission he pitches me on (part of the game’s main story), and more freeform wandering as I get to know a bit about Night City and my opportunities there.
Before I get too lost in the urban jungle, I have the opportunity to go visit the ripperdoc, and get some new cyberware. Ripperdocs are underground service providers, capable of installing new body augmentations on the fly when you arrive at their dingy offices. They quickly anesthetize the affected area, and use mostly automated tools to dramatically reformat your body. Players can install SynLungs in the cardiovascular slot, for improved stamina regeneration. Or snag microrotors in your nervous system slot, improving movement speed and precision. These augmentations come in tiers of quality, and also fall into one of three distinct categories – active, passive, and triggered. Unlike in some futuristic games, in which the application of technology becomes an existential question of whether you’re still human, Cyberpunk 2077 presumes a certain level of acceptance of tech. Moving forward through the game without cyberware seems, on the surface during my playthrough, to be basically impossible.
“The Pickup” mission turns out to be a multi-layered and multi-part adventure in its own right. We meet up with a legendary fixer named Dex, who drives me around town in his fancy car while laying out the job. He’s setting up a major heist that will no doubt figure prominently in the later story of the game, and in connection to that job, he wants us to hijack a fancy military droid spider-bot, recently stolen by a gang called Maelstrom from a big military supply megacorp called Militech. From here, there are a wealth of options regarding how to proceed.
In connection with the long-term plans for the heist, I choose to start with a chance to speak with the client, Evelyn Parker, visiting her at Lizzie’s Bar. The bar is neon-lit and has the look of a sex club, but in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, that designation means something different than it does today. Much of sex work in this future unfolds through the use of something called braindance technology, a sort of fully immersive virtual experience that lets you experience the memories and emotions of another. Clubs like Lizzie’s cater to a clientele interesting in living out their fantasies in these virtual formats, but the braindance format has much broader applications. Check out the sidebar to see how.
Evelyn Parker fulfills the role of the beautiful, but mysterious, woman in a detective noir story, and her motivations for the heist plans remain shrouded. However, to help us plan, she’s recorded her own braindance of an intimate visit to the Arasaka executive we’ll be stealing from. By meeting with Evelyn, and diving into her own braindance memory, we get some important info for later in the potential heist. But before we can deal with that bigger problem, we must complete the initial job, and get that spider-bot.
Braindance The Night Away
In the world of Cyberpunk 2077, the prevailing form of entertainment is a technology called braindance. You can think of braindance as a variation on virtual reality, but the experience is fully immersive, and replicates the feelings and bodily sensations of a memory. Usually, these braindances are edited, tweaking and adjusting individual aspects to further accentuate the experience. It offers a way to live vicariously through another, with edited additions and subtractions, so many of the “influencers” of the world are individuals who people follow by living out their actual memories and experiences. On the black market, more extreme braindances cater to a clientele that wants more raw experiences – often sexual or extremely violent in nature.
For those with the technical know-how and equipment, raw memories can be edited and reconfigured on the fly as you’re experiencing them, letting users pluck additional information from the recorded memory. From a gameplay perspective, braindance becomes a tool that lets the player investigate and gather new clues.
In my playthrough, Evelyn Parker introduces me to Judy Alvarez, a braindance expert who helps V get acquainted with the tech. In that process, I experience two separate braindance memories. In one of them, I experience the raw memory of a thug who is robbing a convenience store, before his accomplice murders him. In-game, V is shocked by the visceral nature of experiencing what feels like her own death. In a second braindance that is more relevant to the impending heist, V inhabits Evelyn’s own memories of a late-night tryst with an important corporate executive. While visiting his penthouse suite, we’re able to learn the location of the tech we’ll be stealing.
Within the braindance, you have a number of editing tools at your disposal, and you’ll need them to uncover important information. You can experience the memory unaltered from beginning to end. You can also pause, rewind, and fast-forward the memory. Leave your own first-person perspective, and zoom around the perceivable space (from the current perspective of the person who recorded the memory) to learn more, like sighting in on secret information displayed on a distant mobile screen in someone’s hand. You can also move between different layers of the memory, between visual, audio, and thermal. With those tools, you can isolate conversations from across the room, or zoom in on a hidden freezer unit that might be hiding delicate tech.
As a storytelling tool, braindance offers a disturbing, but vicarious, dip into another character’s life and experiences. As a gameplay tool, it opens up intriguing avenues for players to gather information and clues.
As part of the larger mission, I can optionally meet with a Militech exec named Meredith Stout, from whom I glean that the theft is part of an internal power struggle at the company. She wants me to pay for the bot with a credchip implanted with a virus (a fact I only learn if my tech skills are up to snuff). If I chose to meet up with her, Stout’s agents follow me to the meet-up at a nearby factory. Meeting up with Royce, the Maelstrom gang boss, provides a wealth of avenues, which our different playthroughs made clear. I can pay for the bot with my own money, without using the virus-infused credchip – a pacifist, but pricey, proposition. I can warn Royce about the setup, but then Militech attacks. I can simply blow Royce away, angering his gang, but avoiding a later boss fight against Royce. Or, if I give Royce the credchip, an explosive battle ensues between the company and gang forces, and I can either shoot it out, or take a stealthy approach to escape. Taken together, the mission ably presents the range of choices players might expect to find in a Cyberpunk 2077 mission, and the way each decision is likely to have long-term consequences, both with organizations in the world, and individuals.
The Freedom To Explore
Beyond this involved mission, I spend the bulk of my time wandering the streets, both on foot and in my car. I’m driving a vehicle called a Quadra Turbo-R, an American-made muscle car – one of several distinct vehicle brands that I see scattered around the city. Driving may be accomplished in both first-person perspective or from one of a couple of third-person angles. The crowded streets of Night City make for a challenging space to navigate, and it takes some effort to not bump into poles and to make tight corners. In addition, the urban landscape is especially vertical, so I get lost a few times as I go in one direction, only to discover I need to be on a totally different level of the city to reach my destination. In addition to driving, there appears to be a fast-travel system that unlocks around the city, but I don’t use it much as I try to get the lay of the land.
My explorations of the city yield no shortage of fun opportunities. At one point, I find a weapons store, and purchase a katana in pursuit of my stealth melee powerhouse build. I encounter a fighting ring, and open up a new questline in which I can box my way through an increasingly challenging series of fighters. Out on the street, I stumble into more than a few gang hideouts, and at my low level, I die more than a few times to overzealous thugs, and am forced to reload to a recent checkpoint. In one amusing exchange, I encounter a guy who needs me to rush him to a ripperdoc, because some implant in his genitals have malfunctioned, and he’s in overwhelming pain. It’s one of more than a few moments that recall the irreverent tone of game franchises like Grand Theft Auto – but simply told with a futuristic spin.
In another more involved sequence, I infiltrate a hideout and take down a bunch of heavily armed enemies. I manage the feat of not raising the alarm, so by the end, I’m free to make a leisurely exploration of their hide-out, before stealing their van and driving off. Unfortunately, as I drive away, I accidentally bump the van into a civilian on the sidewalk. While my silent infiltration didn’t raise any alarms, this vehicular mishap results in a police bounty being put out on me. In order to lose the police bounty, I have to hightail it out of there, and find a way to keep a low profile for a time.
Cyberpunk 2077 recently pushed out its release date by a couple of months, and will now launch on November 19. While the version of the game we played already showed great promise, there’s no doubt that the team is using these extra months to polish moment-to-moment gameplay and knock out remaining bugs. With only one afternoon in a game that will no doubt offer dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of potential playtime, it was challenging to get a complete picture of progression, gameplay flow, and the feel of gunplay and combat as new perks and weapons unlock. Nonetheless, I came out of my demo time blown away by the scope of what CD Projekt Red is attempting with the game, and similarly impressed by the depth of its RPG systems. This is a rich and nuanced game well worth the long wait we’ve had to play it. If you’ve been wondering if the game can really be as big and complex as early looks have implied, our time playing made it abundantly clear that the game really is an especially ambitious and massive game – now it’s just a matter of seeing how the final version comes together.