CD Projekt Red and the Anatomy of an Open World Part 2: Augmented Horizons

If you managed to catch last weeks absolutely riveting part 1 (by all means, check a look here) you probably got the impression that I quite like CDPR, and you’d be dead right. But if you aren't up to speed yet, let me recap. We’re taking a look at the publisher/developer studio that helped revamp and revolutionize the open world video game space as we know it. With the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CDPR pulled off the impossible, making a full AAA experience that improved on nearly every aspect of its predecessors and charted a course for other devs/publishers to follow. All while providing quality post launch content and support to boot.

Their approach to interacting with the larger community and how they manage their portfolio is also something not to be ignored. In an age marred with litigation against companies that strong-arm customers with egregious microtransactions and lootboxes - CDPR instead trust in their product to sell on its own merits. One look at their record breaking finances is enough to see their strategy works and while many companies will point out the importance of a happy customer base, few actively work on maintaining that healthy relationship like they do.

“If you buy a full priced game, you should get a big, polished piece of content, which gives you many, many hours of fun gameplay.” A simple statement that goes along way when backed by quality content and a clear effort made to entertain its audience.

All that talk and we have yet to get to the meat of this piece, Cyberpunk 2077. We’ve covered why The Witcher 3 was a turning point in the industry and how it helped pave the way for this current generation of hardware. But on the eve of the PS5 and Xbox Series X console launch we must look ahead by seeing why Cyberpunk, in my opinion, is setting itself up to be the swan song of this generation and yet again showing us all that we still have a lot to learn about the open world RPG game.

Hack the world..or just...your face?

Announced all the way back in 2013, Cyberpunk 2077 is a first-person action RPG set in the dystopian Night City. An overpopulated megalopolis teeming with criminality, neon and general awfulness that one often associates with the cyberpunk genre as a whole. You will play as the titular V, a non-gender specific character ala the Mass Effect series, that you can mold and modify to your liking. And they really are quite literal in that sense, CDPR have promised and shown off (see below) some in-depth character creation. I’m a complete sucker for these kinds of games and have spent literal hours just at the beginning section of a game - fine tuning and redoing the look of my character over and over until they are just right.

Customization and character creation is very much a critical point for me and a tough balancing act to manage. Do too little and the options put forward feel meaningless. Take The Division 2's character creation as an example, with the caveat that this isn't trying to be what Cyberpunk is. It simply doesn't measure up, there's very little in the way of modifying your characters look to make them stand out among other agents you will come across in the field. Now, gear is where the meat of customizing lies in that title but for me, I want to invest as soon as possible in my avatar and don't care much for sweet looking military hats if my agent looks more or less the exact same as my buddies +/- a mohawk depending on mood.

On the other end of the stick, doing too much can be overwhelming to the player. I say I don't want to spend ages developing my character but honestly, I do I just want to enjoy the time spent. Having sliders upon sliders that measure bone density, eyebrow depth, god damn bone structure and facial scarring (looking at you MGS V) becomes monotonous. Especially when the end result is less your ideal alter-ego / clown person and more a slightly raised eyebrow, different shade and spiffy new haircut from the base model after a solid hour in the weeds, I lose interest.

Those opening moments, even pre-gameplay count for a lot. You want to feel like you can embody the avatar you will be playing as for the next 100 hours and that's a big commitment. Cyberpunk seems to be going for a slightly more streamlined approach to creation, there are presets instead of sliders but there are plenty of options to choose from within those. They're even going a step further and allowing the player to customize gender. So you can have a male body and not so, whether this inclusive approach to character creation will reflect in the more dynamic story elements we don't know but even having the option to be whoever and look however you want to be is a solid move and something I can easily see as being the way forward.

You can even customize your bits....yes..those bits...

Lifepaths - A starter for three

Then there is the story stuff. CDPR is offering three distinct campaigns that decide some base traits for the character themselves and set the scene for the rest of the story. These are represented as Nomad, Corpo and Streetkid, promising to drastically change how the world responds to your V as you set out on your path. I'll link in below what these entail but what I want to focus on is the potential of having unique paths and the prospect of replay-ability.

First off, it is exciting to see CDPR attempt something on this scale from a story perspective. While the Witcher had the benefit of having a set path laid out in the books, loosely adapted in the games, with Cyberpunk they now must get by on their own merit. Sure the brand is based off the pen and paper RPG of the same name, but that is mere set dressing. Now, we get to see what their approach to story telling looks like when they don't have a a safety net to fall back on.

A CDPR unchained, if you will, can take the branched story telling perfected by the Witcher and run wild. Suddenly choices can become more meaningful when it feels like it's your head on the line and not Geralt. How does a quest like the Bloody Baron look when there is less of a guarantee on the characters within living past each quest line. Moreover, you decide how you interact with people and how your relationships develop. If we look at the Mass Effect series as a closer example of this, I remember how it felt when (spoiler for a 10 yr old game) Thane died in the final mission of ME2. I spent hours learning about his alien species, getting to know how he felt about leaving his family to help in our mission and because I built that connection and was crushed when he kicked it, to the point where I still think about him a decade later!

With two other life-paths to choose from and taking the above into account the potential for replay-ability is boundless. I have a penchant for trying to be a nice guy all the time and because generally a video game story follows a singular path, I rarely feel the need to go back once I've completed and try the d***head route for example. While I don't expect the kind of reactivity that means my entire run will change, there will be crossover in the story, it certainly stands to reason that I will not experience the same thing twice and actively encourages the idea of multiple play-throughs with this simple set up.

To Live is to Die in Night City

What excites me more than anything, beyond the fact that I trust the developer to deliver a solid experience, is the world we will get to inhabit as V. The very nature of Night City, being the megalopolis that it is, provides a vastly different landscape then what came before in The Witcher. Whereas previously you would encounter outcrops of civilization, small rundown villages or slightly larger towns spread out across the world, Night City completely does away with this and adds density to the mix.

Suddenly you're dealing with thousands of people all on top of each other just trying to get through the day. Maybe without getting shot in the slums by one of the many roaming gangs or making it through the next dreary meeting up in the big corporate offices, high above the riff raff. The space you occupy becomes something more personable to you since you will be establishing your own sense of self in this world this time - through the crux of the main campaign and beyond. Given the systemic nature of their previous worlds, there's every chance the interactions you have with folk will be far more intricate than other titles of the same ilk. Especially when we take into consideration the following quote:

There’s a couple of layers. There’s a passive layer, which is the vendors, then there’s the STSs, which are the street stories. I think there’s around 75 street stories. Then there’s minor activities as well.

While I would recommend reading the full interview for the details, the main takeaway here is in the multiple "layers" that will be in place. The street stories in particular promise to be far more branching and encompassing than Witcher 3's side quests and allow for more tangible effects on the main quest line, something that wasn't really possible before, it feels like CDPR are really going to be stretching their legs on this one.

Implanting the Seeds of the Future

Did you really think I wouldn't include the most cyber of all the punks screenshot?

What Cyberpunk 2077 is really trying to do in my eyes is scale, not with numbers or sheer landmass but scale its purpose. There's more focus being put into every system, more thought being put into the moment to moment game-play and not just the interstitial set pieces strewn throughout the campaign. There will be epic moments and fierce battles I have no doubt. There will be trials and tribulations, shocking reveals and all manner of twists and turns but what happens along the way, I believe, will ultimately be dictated by you.

The world of Cyberpunk and Night City is being meticulously designed to be reactive, adaptive and most of all fun for each person that chooses to walk its streets when it launches on November 17th later this year. It will be the little things that people will appreciate ultimately. The kinds of things that you won't really notice until you decide one day to go back and have another run at Skyrim for old times sake. When you are forced to look back and see just how far we've come in those intervening years that puts a smile on your face.

If you've made it this far, thanks for taking the journey with me, I've gushed quite a bit as we've gone along but have enjoyed every second of it. But how do you feel? Is Cyberpunk going to be all that in your eyes? Feel free to sound off in the comments below or, better yet, take a trip over to the Casual Game Community on Facebook and join the conversation there! In the meantime, here's a reminder of how breathtaking you all are:

All images taken from the official press kit found here

Gif can be found right here if you need cheering up

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