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Why the Cyberpunk 2077 developers were hesitant to show gameplay

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“This is probably not the same game you’ll see on your screen when we launch”

Cyberpunk 2077 - two guys shooting out of a van at a sports car that’s following them CD Projekt Red

The gameplay demo for Cyberpunk 2077 shown to the press at E3 2018 was finally unveiled to the public. Today’s Twitch stream and the 4K YouTube video that followed are pulling all of the oxygen out of the room as fans, critics and even other game developers get a look at it for the first time. But the team at CD Projekt Red is already asking fans to temper their enthusiasm.

In a press release issued today, game director Adam Badowski stressed that the game isn’t done yet. This demo is not representative of the game’s final look and feel. The press and industry professionals at E3 and Gamescom, where a version similar to the one shown today premiered, understand that. But CD Projekt Red seems concerned that consumers might not. That’s why the entire 48-minute demo had a “work in progress” watermark in the upper third of the frame.

But that watermark might not be enough of a warning.

The skyline of Night City, the setting for CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077, shown at night for the first time.
The watermark reads, “Work in progress — Does not represent the final look of the game.”
CD Projekt Red

“What we’re releasing today was recorded from a game deep in development,” said Badowski in the press release that followed. “Since many of the assets and mechanics in the current version of Cyberpunk 2077 are most likely to be modified, we initially decided to show this gameplay only to media. Elements like gunplay (both in terms of visuals and how RPG stats influence it), netrunning, car physics, or the game’s UI — everything’s pretty much still in the playtest phase and we felt uneasy about publicly committing to any particular design. Animation glitches, work-in-progress character facial expressions, early versions of locations — all this made us hesitant to release what you’re about to see.”

From the sound of it, Badowski himself is still a bit nervous about what he’s showing to the public. When I spoke to him in June, he seemed to be under quite a bit of stress, at one point holding his head in his hands while we discussed the demo’s early reception. But the hype from those early showings proved a bit too powerful, and the team decided to toss the gameplay demo out there anyway.

“We are also well aware that many of you want to see what the media saw,” Badowski said in today’s press release. “Although this is probably not the same game you’ll see on your screen when we launch, we still decided to share this 48-minute video with you. This is how Cyberpunk 2077 looks today. Let us know what you think!”

The last time CD Projekt did something like this, fans accused the team of downgrading their game. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt released a gorgeous trailer in 2013, but when the final product arrived in 2015 some consumers felt like the visual fidelity wasn’t as good as what was promised.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have shown that [trailer],” said Marcin Iwiński, the studio’s co-founder and joint CEO, at the time. “I don’t know, but we didn’t know that it wasn’t going to work, so it’s not a lie or a bad will. [...] We don’t agree there is a downgrade but it’s our opinion, and gamers’ feeling can be different. If they made their purchasing decision based on the 2013 materials, I’m deeply sorry for that, and we are discussing how we can make it up to them because that’s not fair.”

Looks aside, that needs the most work in Cyberpunk 2077, to my eye at least, is the driving. I’ve isolated that part of the demo in the video clip below.

V is sitting in the driver’s seat of her partner’s car. She spends a few minutes tooling around night city when suddenly they’re jumped by a van full of gunmen. V asks her partner to take the wheel, pops her head out the driver’s side window and starts firing away.

Essentially, this action sequence is an on-rails experience. Whoever is controlling V has the ability to change where they’re aiming, but their AI partner is doing all the driving.

If you look at a game like Grand Theft Auto 5, there’s a lot more nuance to the driving experience. You can fire out the window while staying in control of your car, for one. Or, if you’re like me, you can accidentally eject yourself from a moving vehicle and take falling damage as you tumble across four lanes of traffic. You can ram other cars, even flipping them over at times. That’s all a far cry from what we’re seeing here.

After watching the gameplay video again, for the first time since E3, I’m optimistic about CD Projekt’s ability to pull off a first-person shooter. But they’re going to have to give me a lot more before I’m sold on the driving in this game.