Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 2019 Looked Competent But I Left With Concerns
CD Projekt Red's ambitious Cyberpunk 2077 looks technically impressive, but its E3 2019 demo fell short of "breathtaking."
After the euphoria of witnessing Keanu Reeves emerge at the Microsoft Theater with my two naked eyes wore off, I had to remind myself that Cyberpunk 2077 was still just a video game. The first-person RPG from CD Projekt Red is quite possibly the most hyped up triple-A game at the moment, but I have strangely felt a disconnection to the project—perhaps one can chalk it up to some actions and words from the developer that I have found dubious. I was curious if a closed-door demo at E3 2019 would be able to change my mind.
I can confidently say that Cyberpunk 2077 looks like a fun video game to play, and a good-looking one too. I just couldn’t help but continue to wonder what the devoted see in this game, however, and I constantly questioned the writing and content that I witnessed. Was there really anything innovative about the RPG elements or the storytelling approach here? Was there a genuine effort for inclusion and sensitivity, given the history of not only the studio but the cyberpunk genre?
If the answers to both questions are “yes,” I didn’t quite see it in this demo.
Good character creation in role-playing games is a must—whether players want to insert themselves in the game or create someone new as an exercise in imagination, these creators have to offer plenty of options. And options it has indeed—the developer running through the demo emphasized that regarding the protagonist V, “he or she” can have one of a number of different playstyles, and go through a number of different “life paths.”
It wasn’t until after I saw this demo that CD Projekt Red committed to including transgender and non-binary character options. As a gender non-conforming person myself with plenty of peers and friends who are trans and/or use they/them pronouns, you can imagine my cringe at the numerous utterances of “he or she” throughout the presentation. A step in the right direction for sure, but I question how they didn’t think of adding that feature in a world where identity, change, modification, and transition were prevalent themes in the first place.
For the purpose of the demo, we were able to see two different Vs: a male-presenting V that was more oriented towards stealth and hacking, and a female-presenting V with visible prosthetics and a focus on pure combat. This demo took us through a few scenarios, and we got to see the two different approaches from either V. Recruited by the Voodoo Boys gang, V carefully (or brutally) infiltrated a rival gang called the “Animals” in an area called Pacifica.
As a reminder that Keanu Reeves is indeed a part of Cyberpunk 2077, his version of the Johnny Silverhand character was a reoccurring presence in the demo. It wasn’t exactly the type of presence I expected, with Silverhand being what seemed to be a digital ghost acting like, and these are the developers’ words and not mine, “a dick.” That’s some real acting from Keanu, the developers reminded us, referring to the real-life man’s wholesome image. His role as a shoulder angel/demon to V felt very Tyler Durden-esque to me.
The demo took us on a short tour through Pacifica, which was built with the intention of serving as a resort for the affluent—after a global crisis, those affluent people since abandoned the area, leaving it to poverty and crime. Pacifica was well-populated and looked rather pretty in the daylight, but by its nature of being a demo, the presentation felt like a theme park ride through a hive of wretched scum and villainy. The concern for Haitian stereotypes grew as the demo unfolded, though many can take the word of the original Cyberpunk RPG creator Mike Pondsmith that the Voodoo Boys still serve as a commentary on cultural appropriation, with Pondsmith stating that the developers took lengths to accurately utilize Haitian Creole; the final product will tell whether or not the source material holds up.
After an encounter at a club, V rendezvoused with Placide, a figurehead in the Voodoo Boys. He tasks V with helping to take down the Animals, who has a stronghold in Pacifica—what results is a fascinating scene in which Placide tries to “jack” V (essentially pulling a cable from V to plug into his own devices) without his consent, and it is up to the player to decide how to respond. Maybe the game’s depiction of gender is binary, but not so much the dialogue options. And with more experience gained in certain aspects of the game, the player will be presented with even more options to branch off into.
The option we saw was one of begrudging reluctance and after a brief drive, V found themselves at the Animals’ base of operations. We took a look at the stealthy approach, with V scanning gang members and other nooks and crannies to discover and analyze the enemies’ routines, the routines being something that CD Projekt Red significantly touted during the demo. One such gang member’s routine had him en route to deliver a stack of pizza boxes, before V intercepted and dispatched him, of course.
There were a number of fun examples of hacking that we saw in the demo—one had V hack a vending machine to distract a pair gang members, allowing V to mercilessly whip both of them with some sort of laser garrote. Upon sneaking into a gym, V hacked a training robot into beating its human sparring partner senselessly and later hacked an electronic benchpress to crush its user to death. Hacking involves a minigame, though we didn’t spend too much time looking at it. Afterward, a developer at CD Projekt Red told us this wouldn’t be the same hacking minigame every time.
Shooting combat didn’t look too radically different from any triple-A first-person shooter on the market, to be quite honest. It was perhaps the least intriguing part of the demo. The rhythm of the combat had changed a bit with a boss battle against the Animal gang member named Sasquatch, who utilized a massive hammer and at one point during the fight, jacks you; eventually, it just became a standard boss battle, with V having to take her out by shooting a weak point.
The final bits of the demo provided a bit of intrigue, with V encountering a member of NetWatch, who the Animals were in cahoots with. The agent gives V a moment of temptation, and again, it was astounding how deep and varied the dialogue and action options were. A few select options were explicitly labeled to let you know what path it would take you in, and who your allegiance would be with. The demo had V subdue this NetWatch agent, sticking with Placide’s mission.
By the end, V had earned an audience with Brigitte, a Netrunner in the Voodoo Boys. She takes V on a little tour, plugging them into cyberspace, resulting in the most visually trippy segment of the demo. It seemed like such an essential part of the story, but I wondered if this moment could have been changed or avoided depending on the previous encounter with the NetWatch agent.
But despite some highlights (specifically, watching a dude get boxed to death by a robot), I mainly felt a sense of underwhelming, along with some apprehension mixed in with the content of the game. I was fresh out of seeing the controversial trans-focused in-universe ad featured in the game — and as of this writing, I don’t know if I exactly buy CD Projekt Red’s claim of “social satire.” Keanu’s character, despite the hype surrounding his appearance, didn’t seem to be too active in the story. And despite some complex RPG elements, everything else surrounding the gameplay itself looked rather too familiar.
This sentiment was closely shared by DualShockers’ Reviews Editor Logan Moore who also saw the gameplay and felt that this year’s demo at E3 wasn’t as polished or impressive as the one we saw last year. That’s not to say anything shown here was bad, it just didn’t blow our minds whereas last year’s demo did.
I have to admit, though, that dynamic day-night cycle and the resulting lighting looks gorgeous. I just hope there’s more to Cyberpunk 2077 than spectacle and potentially skeevy social commentary by the time it releases.