I have a test that lets me know whether I’ll enjoy an open-world game. It’s very simple: The more I find myself wandering, looking for side quests, exploring what I can find in the side streets, the more fun I’ll generally have.
That test served me well with Cyberpunk 2077. After four hours with the first playable build of the game, another Australian journalist stood up and asked me where I was at. As it turned out, we’d both been doing exactly the same thing: checking out the sights, taking notes, exploring side quests and investigating every nook and cranny possible. But we hadn’t finished the main quest that CD Projekt Red wanted us to see, and it was after 10:00pm at night. Would we stay back a bit longer to finish the main questline, they asked.
Of course I stayed back.
“You can go far, especially if you get chipped.”
A session of Cyberpunk 2077 has an awful lot to unpack. There’s a ton you could say about the character creator alone. Or each of the three classes, each of which have their own prologue story. The way the combat works. The different approaches to combat. The deliberate space you’re afforded in battles so each of those approaches can work.
There’s the character models. The lipsyncing. The levelling system. The split between attributes and perks. The people V rolls with. The subtle change of language depending on how V is customised. The braindances, which you could liken to CD Projekt Red’s cyberpunk take on Remember Me‘s memory remixing (or the similar mechanic from Life is Strange).
Hell, just the amount of lore and little detail. The references. The movie references. The dripping detail for Cyberpunk 2020 fans.
But it can be a bit overwhelming explaining all of that at once. So I’ll do this in two sections. First, we’ll go through the concrete details of how Cyberpunk 2077 works, and then I’ll cover what it’s actually like to play.
Some functional notes: while the builds were played on PCs, we were only given access to controllers.
Cyberpunk 2077’s Character Creator
Recreating yourself is a big part of the Cyberpunk experience, so naturally there’s a ton to explore in the character creator. There’s a hell of a lot to unpack, and if you’re curious on the specifics, I’ve gone into full detail in a separate story here.
Apart from the cosmetics, the biggest choice you’ll make is the class. Your character class doesn’t have any impact in terms of your character’s playstyle. That’s affected mostly by your perks, more so than your actual attributes, and choosing any particular class doesn’t lock you from investing in any other set of attributes or skills later on.
The main limits in that regard are your street cred, which you level up by performing certain actions and achievements in game. Some items and weapons are locked to your character level too, and certain perks are functionally locked in a similar way — you won’t be able to access them without having spent a certain amount of points in earlier perks first.
Cyberpunk 2077’s Skills And Perks
When you make your character, you’ll get seven points to distribute across the five main attributes: Body, Intelligence, Reflexes, Technical Ability and Cool. Cool’s kind of the catch-all for your stealth, speed and critical hit bonuses , and since I was playing a lithe femme corporate arsehole — or that’s what I had in mind — I decided to max out Cool, Reflexes, and then add an extra bump into Intelligence.
What’s more important, however, is how you actually play. Similar to the first iteration of Don Bradman Cricket — stay with me here — your character levels up skills as they’re used in-game. Your ability with katanas, for instance, gets better the more you block and land hits with them. Same goes for pistols. Shotguns. Takedowns. Throwing knives. You get the drill.
When you get the chance to level up, you’ll be given an attribute point and a perk point. Later levels will sometimes give you multiple points of each, and you can spend these in any fashion you want.
“Preem as hell, right?”
And there’s a lot of perks. For the Cool attribute, you’ve got a Stealth Page and a Cold Blood page. There’s 26 different Stealth perks and 19 Cool Blood perks to choose from, and most of those have multiple levels.
The same goes for other attributes. Technical Ability — or TECH — has Crafting (19 perks) and Engineering (22). Reflexes has separate branches for each of the main weapons: Blades (23), Rifles (20) and Handguns (19).
I was playing an assassin-type, so I focused on the Cool skills. All the choices there were pretty good: Improving critical chance by 15 percent; a global 15 percent/25 percent damage bump to human and mechanical enemies; 30 percent faster move speed while sneaking; unlocking aerial takedowns; unlocking the ability to throw knives; or just getting more movement speed generally after a takedown.
And that’s just the Stealth perk line. Want to be a better hacker instead? Then you can unlock the ability to breakdown turrets. Increase your Breach Protocol buffer. Get better hacking programs. Or maybe you just want faster aim time. Better headshot damage with handguns. Health regen during combat. Double the carrying capacity.
All of this is available with your very first perk point. You can’t have it all, of course. But you can work out pretty quickly the amount of possible permutations.
People are going to be speedrunning and replaying this game for years.
Cyberpunk 2077’s Combat
You’ve got the three main classes of weapons in Cyberpunk 2077: Rifles, Handguns and Blades, although Blades includes non-blade melee weapons like clubs. There’s also the option of straight up fist-fighting, which was first shown off in the original gameplay trailer.
Melee or not, the controls are largely the same. If you’re in hand-to-hand or melee, left trigger jabs and stabs, holding left trigger launches a heavier attack, and right trigger block. There’s a stamina metre as well, limiting how much you can dodge and
With guns, it’s a simple aim down sights/shoot on LT/RT, with the right stick bound to a simple melee attack. Different guns will have different alternate abilities, as well as elemental modifiers like shock damage.
The biggest feature of the combat is that you’ll always be levelling up your skills for using them. Land hits with a pistol and your handguns will level up. Hack more targets and your hacking skills will slowly improve. You get the drill.
“We dumped crates full of rifles into the ocean; they had to be pushed out using borrowed fishing boats.”
Most of the mechanics are otherwise pretty straightforward. If you’re crouched by a wall or some piece of cover, aiming down the sights pops them up. The movement speed in the opening hours is a little heavy, almost reminiscent of Fallout 76. The guns were a lot less clunkier, however, with minimal recoil, a good amount of spring and plenty of weight to the bullets and sound.
It was so powerful, in fact, that the enemies posed basically no threat. The final mission of the gameplay preview was the same mission where V and Jackie pick up the prototype Militech bot. I didn’t have enough creds to pay off Royce’s Malestrom goons cleanly, so I was forced into a giant firefight.
As a test, I decided to see whether the AI was smart and lethal enough to stop me from rushing to the exit. Without any upgrades to my stamina — which lets you dash more often — I only had to rely on a couple of inhalers (health packs) to survive. Obviously, it’s not the fastest way to level up any of your skills. But the fact that the enemies did so little damage and couldn’t prevent me from running straight past is worth noting.
But the quest can play out completely differently. If I had enough credits, I could have simply paid for the bot myself, avoiding a shootout altogether. In my playthrough, I took the optional route of meeting with a Militech agent beforehand, where I was given the choice of taking a spiked credit chip. If I pass that chip over to Royce as payment for the prototype bot, Militech will take care of the goons for me — but V and Jackie still have to escape.
Warning Royce is an option too, and you can still walk away with the prototype that way — but Militech will storm the building. (It’ll impact what happens on Militech’s side later on, however.) You can also just start shooting up the Maelstrom goons as soon as you walk in the door. You’ll have to deal with Royce, but you’ll also be able to get more loot and more rewards by fighting more enemies.
Not enough? As you go through the Maelstrom hideout, you might see Royce’s former second-in-command, Brick. He’s being kept in a cell for general interrogation and torture, and you can set him free if you feel like it by disarming a trap in his cell. But you could also kill him, or just leave him locked up. There’s no immediate impact on the plot for doing any of these things, but CD Projekt Red noted that the choice you make will have an effect later in the game — if you come across Brick at all.
Cyberpunk 2077’s Hacking
The hacking interface has been given the biggest UI overhaul. In the current build, you can scan for hackable objects (or any interactive elements/enemies) by holding down LB. When you hover over a valid target, like an enemy or a camera, you can then “Quickhack” them by pressing RB.
You’re then able to pick from a series of quickhacks. Some of these could be as simple as triggering some shutter blinds to cause a distraction. Others could be forcing an enemy’s gun to malfunction, or a grenade to detonate. Whatever you pick, all options cost a certain amount of points from your cyberdeck memory, which slowly grows as you level up and invest more perk points.
When you go to hack cameras or enemies or just anything connected to a network, the cheapest and first option you’ll see is Breach Protocol. This basically triggers a small mini-game with a 5×5 grid of letters.
The object here is to enter in the right sequence to install the requisite program onto the network (read: get cheaper hacks, disable turrets, and make life easier). You start by picking a letter and a number from the top column, and then you select a letter and number from the corresponding row. The key is to try and plan the combinations you need ahead of time so you can chain together multiple programs, although how successful you’ll be depends on how much buffer room you have (which you can expand with perks).
Cyberpunk 2077’s Prologue
“That was … too much. Felt … could feel the guy’s … pain, his stress, his … hope? Hope wrapped up in somethin’ else…”
I opted for the corpo lifestyle, so my version of V began life in the Night City headquarters of the megacorporation Arasaka. The first thing you see is V throwing up into a sink, then staring into a mirror that says “TRUST NO ONE”. Each of the prologues has something similar: it’s an effective way of showing you your character creator off the bat.
Jackie calls to check in, but you’ll be dealing with him later. For now, it’s a trip through the Arasaka tower and the suddenly frantic lives of the clandestine suits and lawyers hovering around.
If you ignore the main quest prompts and wander near the NPCs, you’ll get the first details of what’s happening in Night City. A data leak has rocked the Arasaka office in Frankfurt, setting counter-intel scrambling and resulting in the deaths of at least three agents.
A Militech assassin was killed on the German border. Arasaka PR is already planning to spin it as a “tragic accident during routine system security maintenance”. That’s what some of the Night City staff reckon, anyway.
Being an Arasaka agent, your HUD is a little different to the other classes. There’s stock market updates in the bottom right corner. The screen has a corporate barcode, some kind of slow scrolling news ticker at the top.
You’re a business prick, and everyone knows it. Later on, when you leave the Arasaka tower to meet up with Jackie, the AI driving your flying vehicle warns you that there’s no nearby parking.
“Find a spot close to the bar, as close as you can. Fuck procedures,” my V, who just finished downing a champagne flute, spat out.
The landing spot happens to be a social basketball court. Understandably, the three players are a touch pissed at your approach. Until V knocks one out cold with the basketball and throat punches a second.
To say Cyberpunk 2077 is constantly on edge would be an understatement.
“Assume Japan knows everything. It’s safer that way.”
When playing as a corpo, you’re working as an officer for Jenkins, a psychopathic brute pissed that he was passed over for promotion. His methods become brutally clear in the initial opening, putting V right in the middle of a political pissing contest between Jenkins and another director.
Jenkins’ long-term solution to the problem: take out the other director.
You’re given this brief at the start of the game, but there’s a neat amount of room to explore the Arasaka tower along the way. There’s your own public terminal, which has a cognitive booster hidden in the drawer. It doesn’t really explain what good it would do me at this stage, but it’s Cyberpunk, so I took a hit anyway.
Other details come out about you. There’s an email on V’s personal computer, a report into an operation in Europe. A contact in Prague died thanks to your poor planning; the only reason the mission was a success was because Petrochem, supposedly the rival corporation getting screwed, made more mistakes than V did.
V’s doctor emailed as well. V’s been using hormone blockers for three weeks straight, one more than recommended. You’ll get a call later about this from a robotic Pilates trainer of sorts; they gently remind you to do your neuromotor relaxation exercises three times a day.
Once you’ve gotten the brief from your boss and you’re allowed out of the tower, Cyberpunk 2077 really comes to life. Night City is constantly bustling, constantly in your face, and ruthlessly unapologetic. The first bar you enter is more of a nightclub crossed with a sex dungeon; patrons line up outside private rooms, under a sign saying “FUCK TO DEATH”.
You can enter some of the rooms; there’s health packs — or Bounce Back MK. 2 stims — in some of them. There’s a lot of loot in Cyberpunk 2077.
After a double tequila with grenadine and lime, which is just a faster and wankier way of having a Tequila Sunrise without the juice, V meets Jackie for the first time. She needs a professional hit, but Jackie’s not interested.
And fortunately, it makes fuck all difference. Goons for Abernathy, Jenkins’ main rival and antagonist in the Arasaka hierarchy, has decided to crash the party. Quite literally: V starts losing access to her Arasaka-issued cybernetics; her bank account is seized; her vision is absolutely buggered; and you’ve lost access to all the trimmings and status that came with her counter-intel lifestyle.
Well, except for one thing: the small wad of cash you were given to arrange the hit. But that money isn’t for Arasaka now — it’s all you have left to start over.
Now, Cyberpunk 2077 truly begins.
“Everything on full blast. They’ll spot us extra for a wicked adrenaline high.”
When you’re done with the prologue, the game jumps six months ahead into a mission with Jackie. It’s the same missing person mission here, and pans out pretty much the same way it did when CD Projekt Red showed it off two years ago. The main differences then are largely cosmetic. The cyborg laid out on a table is more realistically depicted this time: instead of seeing a string of cords and some innards, most of the innards are now sprawling out of her body.
The UI’s been updated, going for more of a red/cyan look across the board. You’ve got access to a cell phone where you can call contacts and read messages. Holding down Y also brings up a quick access inventory, although you’ll be diving into your full inventory frequently. There’s so much junk and weapons to pick up, so much so that Jackie was constantly berating me at the end of a mission or side quest because I was running around looting everything imaginable.
Once that first mission ends, you’re able to roam Night City at will. You’ve got access to the car, and the map reveals a mix of vendors and activities nearby: ripper-docs, food vendors, techie vendors, and sex workers.
As you walk around different areas and districts of Night City, you’ll get messages from the prominent fixers in the area. They’ll ping you on your phone with different jobs, and you can call them back to pick up work. Some of the tasks will also just appear on your map, and you’ll want to do as many of these as you can. Apart from the levelling up system, tasks add to your street cred, which lets you access more weapons, more items, and so on.
Even outside of that, you’ll just want to wander in Night City anyway. It’s just cool. It’s very Grand Theft Auto: an enormous city full of its own characters, side-streets, and hidden pockets to explore. But you’re never quite sure who might pull a gun on you at any second. Case in point: I finished a quest, and was on a phone call with Jackie giving him an update.
While the phone call was taking place, a trio of thugs started yelling at me. The tell-tale stealth warning indicator flashed.
By far the coolest pocket to explore is the base of Lizzie’s Bar, where you’re introduced to Judy. She’s a braindance editor, or what’s probably better described as a digital producer of dreams.
Small catch: the dreams are actually real memories ripped from other humans.
After being strapped into a chair with some flashing lights — and beware if you’re sensitive to that stuff — you’re in the role of a regular thug. You don’t have control. And you definitely don’t have control when you die.
After the initial shock wears off, Judy sends you back in. This time it’s like being inside someone’s head with VLC, except you can also scan the area around you. Even better: Any objects that come into that person’s field of view, like a computer or a monitor can be scanned too, leading to a neat “Enhance” reference.
On a functional level, the braindance sequences can be a little fiddly. The main braindance puzzle is a task to identify a hidden object in an executive’s room, which involves the use of three different cameras — audio, visual and thermal. Because it’s the first proper exploration puzzle, there’s a fair bit of going back and forth. First you’ll scan things on a visual level, then identify audio sources on the audio camera, and then try and scan everything within thermal range.
Not all objects immediately appear when they should, because your range of exploration is limited to a small radius around the person who’s memory you’re reliving. Thermal objects can be difficult to find on camera sometimes as well, because it’s dependent on whether it was actually in the person’s eyesight at the time — except, most of the time, you’ll be in third-person mode trying to scan everything imaginable.
As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the memory remixing from Remember Me, I like that CD Projekt Red is adding a more detective-esque element into the game. It was a little clumsy, and could definitely use some extra visual prompts or some UI reminders. And I was also on the back end of a 14 hour work day, which certainly wouldn’t have helped.
“You don’t get it. That body and this one – I’m the same person.”
The easiest and simplest test for any game after a preview is this. How soon do you want to play it again? For me, as soon as humanly possible. Five hours simply wasn’t enough, even in the early stages, to ponder around, explore all the nooks and crannies, listen to all the NPCs.
Even after 3400 words, there’s still so much to discuss and think about. From a mechanical level, there’s the range of implants you can trick out V with. There’s also the way you get those implants: sitting in a chair, watching your endoskeleton slowly be revealed as the gleeful ripper-doc quietly talks shop.
There’s the animations. Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t have Last of Us 2 quality motion-capture, but CD Projekt Red’s lip-syncing technology is pretty damn decent at least, and the detail and texturing on the models is real high. My preview of the game wasn’t in 4K, only at 1080p, and that really doesn’t do the game complete justice. Every moment of Night City is constantly full of detail: reflections of the concrete on the ground, the details of magazines in the shop window, the diffuse lighting from the neon LEDs and strips around your room.
It’s a game that will undoubtedly be best played on the next-generation consoles and the next-generation of Nvidia and AMD GPUs. No PC today would comfortably run this at 4K/60 frames per second — and the preview build didn’t even have the full suite of ray-tracing tech.
But it would be unfair to make any serious quips about performance when there’s still has months of optimisation to go. The more important question is whether the experience was worthwhile, the characters intriguing, the setting captivating.
And it’s hard not to be entranced by Night City right now. It’s a world apart from the discord and chaos in our own lives, and even in the early stages, Night City is a world unto itself.
Almost as soon as the game gave me freedom, I wanted to wander. I wanted to hear the sounds and sights of the city, a world beyond our own. I still don’t know whether the inhabitants of Night City will pose a worthwhile challenge. Whether the city will have the gritty, complex side quests that brought Skellige, Velen and Novigrad to life. Or whether the majority of the game’s missions and end-game content will have the same flexibility and variability that was shown in the preview.
Previews, after all, are meant to impress.
But this is, in spirit and in practice, a Cyberpunk Grand Theft Auto. There is nothing available that blends that level of ambition and scope with that visual flair, or grit. Some games have pieces; some games have the spirit. None have them all, but then few studios can afford to spend seven years developing a single game.
So even if all the pieces that bring Night City together crumble into a disappointing heap at the end, I still want to wander its side streets and corner markets some more. Bring on November 19.