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Cyberpunk 2077 hands-on: Possibly the year's most ambitious game

I got to play five hours of the upcoming blockbuster. It was a lot to take in.

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"No, you're breathtaking."

CD Projekt

As distant as any kind of optimism for this year may feel, gamers had plenty of reasons to be excited about 2020. 

Not just because Microsoft and Sony are launching next-generation consoles, but there was also a suite of upcoming games with tremendous hype behind them. Of all these titles, three towered above the rest: Final Fantasy 7 Remake, The Last of Us Part 2 and Cyberpunk 2077.

Two down, one to go.

Living up to prodigious hype is never easy, but Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red has it particularly hard. The game was announced in 2012, with a mysterious teaser trailer following in early 2013. It was at E3 five years later, in 2018, that we would next glimpse the game. In between, The Witcher 3 became a blockbuster success that dramatically lifted the studio's prestige -- and excitement for Cyberpunk with it. 

And that was all before Keanu Reeves joined the project.

"No, you're breathtaking."

Cyberpunk 2077 was originally set to launch on April 16, but was pushed back to September 17. At the time, CD Projekt Red said the game was complete, but it needed more time to polish what it hoped would be its "crowning achievement for this generation." 

That same reasoning was behind another delay, announced earlier this week. Cyberpunk 2077's new, hopefully final release date is November 19

After playing the first five hours of the game earlier this week, CD Projekt Red's desire to fine-tune is understandable. I played a fraction of the game, but saw enough to know that Cyberpunk 2077 is a colossus.

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It takes place in Night City, a dystopia that fuses technological progress with deep societal inequality.

CD Projekt

It's a mad world

In many ways, my session with Cyberpunk 2077 reminded me of Horizon Zero Dawn. I'm predicting that, like that game, the world of Cyberpunk will end up being its most fascinating component.

It takes place in Night City, a dystopia that fuses technological progress -- almost all of Night City's residents are mechanized to some degree -- with deep societal inequality. Neon lights and hostility are ubiquitous. 

You play as V, a mercenary. It's hard to describe V as anything more than that, because you'll decide most of what V is. This is true visually, as the game opens with an impressively sweeping character creation screen where you can decide to play as a male or a female (or a male who's referred to as a female, or vice versa) and alter every aspect of their body, including voice, minute facial features and, yes, the genitals.

You'll also get the option of three different back stories for V: Street Kid, Nomad or Corporate. 

Here's where I got a tinge of concern. 

"Life's not easy, but it's one hell of a ride," reads part of the description for the Street Kid backstory, a hint that Cyberpunk's writing will have all the subtlety of a Fast and Furious flick. This anxiety was compounded when I heard V talk: He plays a mercantile tough guy, but sounded uneasily similar to Prison Mike.

(Note the voice acting changes depending on whether you chose to have a feminine or masculine voice, so it's possible feminine V's voice acting is more convincing.)

Which brings us back to Horizon Zero Dawn. That game had mostly cardboard characters and dialogue stunted by conversation wheels, but that was more than made up for by the inspired 31st century world it realized. Cyberpunk 2077, from my time with it, gives me similar vibes.

My session ended just before Keanu Reeve's character rocks up and it's certainly possible, maybe even likely, that he'll lift the narrative. But I'm worried it'll be filled with two-dimensional characters and wooden dialogue, with a sneaking suspicion that V's personal story will be far less absorbing than its surrounding world. 

Night City hums with the ominous luminescence of a metropolis that is a dream for some but a nightmare for most. It also has what looks to be a detailed history, highlighted by wars (The 4th Corporate War, the Unification War), technological progress and even schools of art and architecture. It's segmented into six parts, each with its own character and culture. The city is split between seven gangs and three megacorporations, which each wield power in their own ways.

There's a lot that's promising about Cyberpunk, but exploring and understanding Night City is why I'm most excited for November 17.

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When I say the first five hours of Cyberpunk 2077 felt like a chunky tutorial, I mean that in a good way.

CD Projekt

Style profile

Tutorial sections in video games are like the paws of a puppy. In the same way that big paws predict a big dog, a hefty tutorial section means a long, deep and extensive game. So when I say the first five hours of Cyberpunk 2077 felt like a chunky tutorial, I mean that in a good way.

Take the combat. There's a lot to the combat. 

There's gunplay, which I can happily report feels more satisfying than many RPG-action games (largely on account of it being first-person). But there's also a hacking element, where you'll override surrounding tech -- such as cameras, speakers or some weapons, to distract -- confuse and kill opponents. Plus, there's a separate element of stealth. You can tag enemies to see them through walls, sneak up, incapacitate and dispose of them in nearby fridges or dumpsters. And there's a whole system for melee combat, too, including weapons like katanas.

Oh, and all of these elements of combat have their own skill trees (Body, Intelligence, Reflex, Technical Ability and, my favorite, Cool, which focuses on stealth and critical hits) where you'll unlock upgrades through gaining experience. And these skill trees, from what I saw, are vast.

The combat works like a beefed-up version of the Batman: Arkham games, where you're given a room full of opponents and the freedom to decide how, or if, you'll stack up the bodies. In the Batman games your choice is brute force or stealth. Cyberpunk adds the extra layers of hacking in addition and separate gunplay and melee combat systems. 

Like The Witcher 3, how combat scenarios pan out also depends on story decisions you make. I discovered, after my session had finished, that one of my actions meant I completely avoided a boss fight and missed out on the rewards that would have come along with it. I also opted not to have a meeting with a member of Miltech, one of the three megacorporations. If I did have that meeting, Miltech forces would have aided me during one of the prologue's key shootouts. 

Yet thorough combat mechanic training wasn't the only tutorial in the prologue. It also introduced braindance editing. Braindances are human memories that can be re-experienced by you, or anyone else, through a headset. VR based on actual memories, basically. It's the most popular form of entertainment in Night City, but you'll use it for sleuthing through the braindance editing suite. You'll analyze memories -- with the ability to fast forward, rewind, pause, assess heat signals, sounds and more -- to crack various cases. It looks to add a sufficiently dystopian puzzle-solving element to this epic.

After nearly five hours, Cyberpunk 2077 is still a mystery to me. This is partially because the game is intensively complex. Both its gameplay and mythos are so rich in detail that the session I played was something of an information overload, but in a promising way.

Of 2020's blockbuster games, I can safely guess that Cyberpunk 2077 will be the most ambitious. If V's story is better than I think it will be and Night City as engrossing as I expect it to be, Cyberpunk 2077 may also be the best.