In 'Cyberpunk 2077' you control your own dark, intoxicating future

After five years of silence, CD Projekt Red shows off its new IP.

Cyberpunk 2077 looks fantastic. It's a joy to be able write those words, and it's a relief that they ring so true. CD Projekt Red, the studio behind the Witcher series, has been remarkably silent since revealing Cyberpunk in 2012 -- developers released one teaser trailer in 2013 and then went underground, leaving sci-fi and RPG fans in the dark for five long years.

At E3 2018, they finally turned on the light. And, my oh my, what a sight it is.

The light happens to be neon, shining bright blue, green, pink, red, purple and yellow across the sprawling, metallic future of Night City. Cyberpunk offers a fresh kind of sci-fi dystopia, ditching the heavy, dreary backgrounds of Blade Runner or Deus Ex for a brighter, yet still corrupt and dangerous, metropolis. This art direction alone infuses the game with life -- it feels more connected to reality, rather than relying on an extreme vision of humanity's technology-fueled doom.

Night City is still bustling with activity and subtle details that bolster the sense of realism. On top of things like cranial chip implants, robotic body modifications, a plethora of drones and flying vehicles, Cyberpunk nods at the past. For instance, there's a restaurant styled like a classic American diner, and as the protagonist walks through, a waitress tells some customers about the strawberry shakes on offer.

CD Projekt Red developers are building Night City to feel like a real California town.

"This is a world where the worst crimes happen in broad daylight and everybody knows that they happen, and everybody just kind of goes along with it," quest designer (yes, "quest designer" is a job title at CD Projekt Red) Patrick Mills says. "Everybody just lives their lives. But it also lets us have this vibrancy and this living quality to the streets. It's not a dead world. It's a very living place."

The word "mature" gets brandied around a lot in the video game industry, often used as a euphemism for hyper violent or sexual titles, but Cyberpunk treats that description with a deft hand. It's plenty violent and features scenes with (male and female) sex workers, nudity, murder, drugs and alcohol -- the protagonist is a big fan of scotch, apparently -- but in the hour-long gameplay demo shown off at E3 this week, none of it feels gratuitous. It feels right for the world. It feels real.

The main character, V, is completely customizable in Cyberpunk, meaning players get to tweak things like gender and appearance to their own liking. In the demo, developers played as a woman. Whatever gender V ends up being, the character has plenty of attitude, playing the role of the skilled, sarcastic and tough mercenary perfectly.

"We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that this feels like California, and that it has the ethos of California and it has the diversity of California," Mills says. "Even internally, the way that we work, just to make sure that we're writing a story that works with a male and a female character, some teams write and they write 'he' and they use the 'he' pronoun. Some other teams use the feminine pronoun, just to make sure that we're not screwing anything up and we're not writing, 'Oh, this only works for a man and this only works for a woman.'"

The game relies on individual choices, offering players a wide range of reactions to certain situations and opening up gameplay paths from there. Some players will attempt to fight their way through each scene, starting battles with every person they encounter, while others will try a more diplomatic approach. Both responses are accurate, but they change the game in unique ways.

"We have a rule, where if it's logical that you should be able to do something in a different order or have a different path, then you should be able to do that and the game should respond to those things," Mills says. "Which means our quests can get really, really big and really, really complicated, and it is a ton of work. But it's worth it."

V gets a variety of gadgets and upgrades, including eyes that can zoom in and scan objects, a gun that shoots bullets around corners and praying mantis-style arm blades that allow her to climb walls and cut enemies down.

One of the biggest revelations about Cyberpunk this week was the fact that it's in a first-person perspective, rather than third-person like the Witcher games and most other RPGs. This is a deliberate design choice by developers. They want players to feel like V's story is their own.

"If you go and you play a third-person game and you try to look up, it never really works and it never really gives you that feel," Mills says. "To us, if you've got that [first-person perspective] and you can look up and you can see those skyscrapers dwarfing you and you're in this canyon of glass and steel and concrete, it feels really cool."

There's no word on when Cyberpunk will actually come out, and developers are hesitant to provide a release window. It'll be done when it's done, Mills says -- even if that means another five years. At least now there's a little more light on the project.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2018 here!

"It's not a dead world. It's a very living place."

"We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that this feels like California."