LOS ANGELES – Night City in Cyberpunk 2077 is a bleak place, but you have the opportunity to carve out any niche in it that you see fit. Whether you want to ravage your enemies face-to-face or employ subtle computer hacks to bypass them entirely, the game has your back. You can build a character that’s suave enough to ace every noncombat encounter, or a run-and-gunner who can dash past any obstacle, and Cyberpunk 2077 will give you plenty of opportunities to excel. If there’s one thing this game emphasizes, it’s that no matter how you want to play, you’ll be able to make the most of your character build.
I sat in on a live gameplay demo at E3 2019, where I saw the same mission play out from two different perspectives. The devs from CD Projekt Red ran through a mission to recover a wayward surveillance van, first as a stealthy netrunner, and then as a melee bruiser. The experience looked quite different – and not just because one character avoided combat, while the other embraced it. The skills they employed, the routes they took through the levels and the ways they interacted with the environment differed considerably as well.
Exploring Night City
The mission began when V, the game’s customizable protagonist, approached Placide: the Haitian leader of a high-tech gang called the Voodoo Boys. A surveillance van (or kamyonét, in Placide’s Creole lingo) went missing, and Placide was willing to pay good money if V could recover it. To do so, V would have to track the van to an abandoned mall, reclaimed by a rival gang called the Animals.
Talking to Placide demonstrated how even something as simple as taking a mission could affect the story. Placide wanted to jack into V’s head in order to keep tabs on him during the mission, and V reluctantly agreed. And yes: V’s virtual assistant, Johnny Silverhand (the breathtaking Keanu Reeves himself), had plenty of commentary to add to the proceedings as well.
Had V refused Placide’s jack-in, the mission may not have begun at all. Furthermore, something funny was clearly going on in the back room during Placide’s briefing, but V chose to overlook it. Had he investigated the matter further, the interaction could have taken a very different turn.
(At this point, a power outage in the Los Angeles Convention Center caused the game to crash – which was perhaps a little on the nose.)
From there, we got a quick look at Night City and the options for traversing it. This mission took place in Pacifica: one of six districts in Night City, and perhaps one of its most dilapidated. V hopped onto a motorcycle (lots of other vehicles are available in-game, but who doesn’t want to ride a motorcycle around a cyberpunk city?) and rode across the crumbling highways and dangerous shantytowns. Pacifica was supposed to be a huge tourist destination, but when investors pulled out, the district fell apart quickly. If you dig the bleak, anti-corporate feel of media like Neuromancer, you’ll feel right at home.
When V arrived at the mall, he had to make a decision about how to approach the situation. Two of Placide’s lookouts recommended that he sneak around the back, even though blasting his way through the front door was the most direct approach. V opted for the former.
Granted, “sneaking through the back” or “going in guns blazing” is not exactly a groundbreaking gameplay choice, but there were interesting gradations, even after V decided to take the stealthy approach. When V entered the garage, he eavesdropped on the Animal guards, who decided to investigate Placide’s henchmen outside. Waiting out two groups of guards turned out to be much easier than hiding from them – but a less patient or more stealthy player could have taken another approach.
The direct approach
V sneaked his way through the facility, stopping to hack into various security cameras along the way to hide his presence. In fact, he avoided every direct confrontation by unlocking doors and taking back routes through the building. But that doesn’t mean every route was open to him. At one point, he could have dashed past a security camera to a side door, except that his Athletics skill was not sufficiently high. He had to take a slower, more circuitous route.
At this point, the devs decided to show us how a different character might handle the same challenge. They switched over to a build they called a “strong solo” – a female melee fighter who could go toe-to-toe with the close-combat Animals. While she also sneaked in through the garage, that’s where the similarities ended. She tore her way through the Animal guards – quite literally. Combat in this game is violent and brutal, whether V was picking up knives and tossing them into enemies’ hearts, or ripping turrets out of their housings to use as impromptu miniguns.
In fact, when the strong solo V found the surveillance van, she wasted no time in punching, knifing or machine-gunning every Animal who dared approach her into submission. Elegant, it was not, but the gunplay looks fun (if a bit rote), and there is something undeniably satisfying about building a combat-focused character, then seeing her effortlessly clear out a whole base.
The devs then switched back to the netrunner, to compare and contrast approaches. (It’s worth noting that players won’t be able to switch out characters in the final version; they’ll have to build a character carefully and figure out what playstyle works best for them organically). First, he got a vantage point above the surveillance van, then sneaked around to the far side in order to access the van’s information. There, he discovered that NetWatch – a government agency dealing with cybercrime – had a hand in the van’s theft. This, understandably, complicated matters considerably, as V had to contend with both the Animals and NetWatch’s ominous warnings.
Netrunner V couldn’t lift the turret, since he lacked the physical strength to do so. But he could hack it, and it blasted the animals efficiently enough by remote control. When hacking technology failed, V also used a weapon known as “nanowires” to hack enemies directly. Here, he could take control of enemies’ minds and force them to shoot themselves, or even unpin grenades and run into large groups of foes. It’s dark, to be sure, but if you want to play V that way, there’s nothing stopping you.
The demo ended when a deadly Animal boss called Sasquatch burst through a doorway and attacked V. Sasquatch wielded an enormous sledgehammer and appeared to have massive health reserves. It wasn’t immediately clear how V could take her down – particularly netrunner V, who didn’t seem like he would last long in open combat.
Players will have to find out for themselves how the battle ends when the game launches on Apr. 16, 2020. The demos have done a good job demonstrating just how much variety might be in the final version, but it’s not yet clear how much impact these gameplay mechanics will have on the overall story. Hopefully, players will also be able to shape the world – not just individual mission outcomes – with their choices.
Be sure to follow our E3 2019 news hub all week long for the biggest reveals and impressions out of Los Angeles.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.