The gunsmoke still lingers from CD Projekt RED’s worldwide unveiling of Cyberpunk 2077. There was a thrilling reveal at E3, a cinematic scene-setter that featured augmented humans, the seedy introduction to Night City, and a dude getting a good old fashioned shoeing.
What followed was a full briefing for press, publishers and high-profile game developers (we saw David Cage and members of the BioShock team in one presentation, as well as Hideo Kojima and Warren Spector) that was not revealed to the public.
It really was a behind-closed-doors presentation on a scale we rarely see now, with CD Projekt refusing to release the 50 minutes of gameplay footage to the masses. That may create suspicion in a world where everything leaks, but the developer has a right to show its own work when it’s truly happy with it.
Honestly, we came away wild-eyed and buzzing. It was easily one of the best demos I’ve personally seen at E3 in years – the scale of it, the willingness to show live gameplay and the amount of time dedicated to so many of the game’s systems was a perfect snapshot of this ambitious project.
“It’s a detail-oriented world, where who you are, how you dress, what kind of cyberwear you have really matters. In order to maintain that feeling of an interconnected world switching to a first-person perspective was really important”
I sat through the very first presentation at E3, and afterwards was ushered into a room to carry on the conversation, a little in awe at what I’d seen, trying to process some of the surprises. The first was one that received predictable kickback from the game community, too eager to judge something it hasn’t yet seen.
“Personally I think the switch to first person is a great choice, especially for the world of Cyberpunk,” says Maciej Pietras, lead cinematic animator. “It’s a detail-oriented world, where who you are, how you dress, what kind of cyberwear you have really matters. In order to maintain that feeling of an interconnected world switching to a first-person perspective was really important to how we’re going to use the immersive narrative.”
It makes sense. Cyberpunk 2077 is rich, colourful and vibrant – nothing is hiding in the shadows – a far shot from the grimey, rain and neon of something like Blade Runner or Deus Ex.
It’s not just the first-person perspective that grabs the player, but a smooth blending together of cinematic scenes and gameplay, something Pietras, who has worked at CD Projekt for four years, has personally overseen.
“The way we actually approach this, we’re calling it the directive scene system,” he explains. “From my perspective, we’re trying to blend cinematics and gameplay. The way it works is that since we’re creating a first-person perspective open-world RPG we want to keep the player as immersed in the game as possible. We’re using the directive scene system as a way of pulling you into this world and keeping you in the scenes.”
You don’t have to sit through what you’d normally consider a cutscene, listening to a character spout pre-scripted dialogue until the last full stop. You can interrupt by poking the barrel of a gun in someone’s face if you’re more about actions than words.
“You can actually pull out a gun there. It’s a super-challenging thing for us, but it’s also really, really cool. It gives this visceral feeling of being there, that this matters and you pay the consequences of your actions,” says Pietras.
Part of that fear of turning Cyberpunk first-person is that it will lose its role-playing elements. People don’t want to lose what makes The Witcher 3 and the Cyberpunk pen and paper RPG so popular. But if first-person is usually associated with ‘shooter’, the development team are looking to blend is with RPG. Hit someone with a shotgun and they’ll take damage to multiple body parts. Blood spatters on the wall, but numbers rise off the body too.
“This is still an RPG, right? It has to be a stats driven gameplay system,” says Pietras. “You want to reflect those damage options and how they’re connected to your stats and your skills and attributes in general. You can then adjust your weapon type to the situation.”
Players can single out particular limbs, whether chopping at arms with a katana of blasting out knees with a shotgun. This isn’t spray and pray – you approach an enemy tactically and switch up your weapons based on their defence or skillset.
“When it comes to combat we have three different types of weapons. Each are for a different approach to the gameplay,” says Pietras. “What I can tell you about hand-to-hand combat is that we will have it; where you can use the katana or other weapons. It’s a cool thing because we have a dismembering system. It’s visceral, it’s brutal.”
Technical tricks aside, you can’t take an open world seriously without the creation of a believable society within it, one that mixes daily mundane activities with the shoot-em-up thrills of a video game.
Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in Night City, an open-world split into six districts. The rich tourists play in Westbrook, the socialites populate the suburbs of Heywood. In contrast, Pacifica is overrun with gangs, while Santo Domingo is a forever evolving tech industrial zone.
“I have to say that the city, the place where this game is happening, reflects the adult nature of the game. There is no hiding from it. This is the world, it’s brutal”
“The social structures are all inside the different districts of the city. There’s six districts and they’re all very different. They have different architecture, and obviously different people,” says Pietras.
“You will interact with people on all social levels. You’ll be handling different missions and meeting people from all forms of social life. But also we’re not forcing you to follow any path. You’re a cyberpunk, but you have to find your own way in this world. Since we’re creating this emerging interactive scene system it helps with making it clear that the choice is yours.”
CD Projekt shows that society in all its glory, and features a cast of characters with believable traits; selfish, nasty, funny, idiotic, ugly. These characters go about screwing each other over, screwing each other, and yelling much worse than “screw you” at one another.
“I have to say that the city, the place where this game is happening, reflects the adult nature of the game,” says Pietras of the language, nudity and violence of Cyberpunk 2077.
“Night City is a visceral place where dark things are happening. There is no hiding from it. This is the world, it’s brutal. We have to show it, we have to be true to the genre.”
Like CD Projekt’s Witcher games there is an emphasis on creating believable NPCs to interact with, a way to tell story naturally and create emotions through interaction.
“Without going into story spoilers you can expect that we will have followers with which you can have super-deep relationships. It’s like The Witcher, these NPCs have stories. It’s easy to compare it to the Red Baron [questline in The Witcher 3], but it really shows what really connects people is that even though we have this cyberware and this futuristic world, what connects people is close relationships and emotions like love and friendship,” he says.
So yes, you will be able to fuck a number of companions and NPCs, but it’s not just about the cheap thrill.
“There are many of those,” says Pietras of romance options, “from one-night stands to long engaging relationships.”
With such acclaimed heritage, it’s difficult not to compare Cyberpunk with The Witcher in many ways. But where it’s hoping to feel different is in the sheer size of the game. And that doesn’t just mean the amount of hours you’ll spend playing Cyberpunk 2077.
“Obviously we’re creating an open-world RPG. Those games made by us – they’re long. This game will be long, how long I cannot specify, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be satisfied,” says Pietras.
“But when it comes to the scale – how big is the game? A new aspect which we didn’t explore in The Witcher was the verticality of a place. In the demo you can see these huge Mega Buildings and what’s awesome is it’s almost like its own separate ecosystem. It’s a system of its own. It’s basically a group shops, vendors, people living – it’s almost self-sustaining. At CD Projekt we really push for you to be able to touch the hand-crafted environments.”