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A woman in a bar in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

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Cyberpunk 2077’s mind-bending character progression systems explained

If you’re heading to Night City, you’re gonna need to know this stuff

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Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

In any million-hour role-playing game, the main character is the star of the show. Their look, their abilities, and their weaknesses help tell a sprawling story that can keep players engaged long after they should have gone to bed. CD Projekt Red pulled this off masterfully in its series of Witcher games, most notably The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, making Geralt of Rivia the perfect date for a 3 a.m. play session. And yet, Geralt’s customization options were surprisingly sparse. Some haircuts and armor choices, sure, but most variations of him will follow the same spellsword model, mixing casting with blades.

The team’s next game, Cyberpunk 2077, isn’t limited in the same way by the source material. The main character, called V, isn’t a known quantity like Geralt was, and players are free to experiment with a plethora of different looks and play styles.

Exactly how do the customization and progression systems work, though? After four hours of hands-on time with Cyberpunk 2077, I found these systems to be enormously versatile but also somewhat overwhelming to wrap my brain around. I think I finally have a handle on it, though.

The look of your character and their origin story

Talking to two characters in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 begins by giving you a choice to make about V’s backstory: Corpo, Street Kid, or Nomad. You may feel like it’s the most important choice you’ll make in the game, but don’t stress it. These “origins” result in different introductory missions, but once you’re through that segment, the rest of the adventure changes only slightly depending on your origin story.

In my case, I pick a Street Kid, attempting to role-play as the Artful Dodger from Oliver!, the musical I performed in when I was in middle school.

After choosing my origin, I get pulled into the most comically detailed character customization engine I’ve ever seen in a video game. The usual options are here: hairstyle and color, skin color, and so forth. But the possibilities quickly become far more diverse. A simple example: You can change your eyebrow color and your facial hair color to be completely different from the rest of your hair. Eye makeup, cheek makeup, and lipstick are three different toggles with a host of options. You can decide to have long or short nails, and what color they’re painted, if any.

A man at a street corner in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

But that’s still just the basic aesthetic stuff. Although every version of V looks to be physically fit and in their mid-20s, there are some other body modifications at your disposal. You can select a stocky, more muscular body with a higher-sounding voice, or you can give your character breasts and a baritone speaking voice. You can pick your genitalia — penis, vagina, or none — and, if you pick penis, you can choose to be circumcised or uncircumcised. The future is now.

None of these visual options are dependent on any other one. Any body type can have any genitalia, for example. I wasn’t able to find any moments in the game when characters commented on the way I look, but it’s pretty great to see how much freedom CD Projekt Red is handing players to determine the look of their V.

As for my Artful Dodger, I muddy up his face and try to make him look like a rapscallion, but again, V looks mid-20s in age. So I just age Dodger up from his original, pick-pocketing self. Sadly, there are no cockney accent options, as there are just two choices of voice in Cyperpunk 2077, but it’ll have to do.

Given how much time I spend crafting my character, I’m actually put off by how little I see of my V in four hours with the game. There are occasional mirrors, and if I hack a camera I can spin it around to see myself, but most of the game is locked to the first-person perspective. Cyberpunk 2077 was originally designed to be playable in the third person, just like The Witcher 3, but many of those features were stripped out for the sake of immersion in the world, according to the developers. Hey, at least I can see my bright pink nails when I punch someone in the face.

Progression: attributes and character levels

Shooting a shotgun in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

Everything I’ve described up until this point has essentially been cosmetic, with no bearing on your character’s abilities. But obviously what you can and can’t do is a huge focus in Cyberpunk 2077, and the systems that determine these skills are enormously complicated. So let’s dive in.

Character Level is easy: You complete missions, you earn experience, and eventually you level up. With a higher Character Level, you can take on harder missions and defeat enemies that would otherwise wipe the floor with you.

Increasing your Character Level can grant you an Attribute Point (how often you get these is still being tweaked). With these Attribute Points, you can increase one of the five main stats in the game: Body, Reflex, Intelligence, Technical Ability, and yes, Cool. In typical D&D terms, the first three equate to Strength, Dexterity, and, well, Intelligence. Technical Ability ties into hacking, while Cool impacts critical damage and stealth.

As the Artful Dodger, I emphasized my Reflex, Intelligence, and Cool stats at the outset, though the flexibility of the Attributes system means not being locked into any single play style.

Progression: skills and perks

Man at a bar in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

Having a higher Cool stat grants me a few things. There are passive effects, like enemies taking longer to see me when I’m crouching in their line of sight. But it also affects the skills that are categorized as “Cool” skills: Stealth skills, for example.

I can increase my Stealth skill by, well, being stealthy. The more you do the thing, the better you get at it. So if I sneak up behind a guy and knock him out without being spotted, boom, I get some Stealth experience, which makes me even less likely to get spotted the next time around. The same goes for all the other skills in the game, from Blades to Device Hacking to Rifles.

But here’s the rub: You can only increase your skills as high as the corresponding Attribute. If my Cool stat is at 6, my Stealth skill will never rise higher than 6. So there’s a gated mechanism there. To get my Stealth higher, I’ll need to improve my Cool first.

Every skill in the game has between 20 and 30 perk options. These are usually passive upgrades that greatly increase your combat ability. One perk in the Stealth skill tree lets me move 30% faster while sneaking. Another in the Rifles tree dramatically increases the damage I deal when I’m further away from a target, making it ideal for snipers.

You’ll earn Perk Points to unlock these perks when you increase your Character Level, but many of these perks will be grayed out when you start the game. To unlock more advanced perks, you’ll need to spend more Perk Points in that specific tree. Advanced Stealth perks require basic Stealth perks, and so on.

Early in the game, my Artful Dodger only accrued two Perk Points, so I wasn’t able to dive too deeply into this system, but it does seem robust and versatile.

Street Cred and Cyberware

Driving a car in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

There are two remaining factors that determine your capabilities as a criminal mastermind in Cyberpunk 2077: Street Cred and Cyberware.

Street Cred is your reputation within the city. Completing missions and pulling jobs for people will increase your Street Cred. But it’s not a morality system, and your Street Cred will only ever go up.

In addition to unlocking new, tougher missions, a higher Street Cred will also improve vendor prices and stock. There are items in various stores that require a certain level of Street Cred. Character Level doesn’t come into play for these requirements, and it seems that you’ll be able to use any weapon or item you pick up, regardless of your Character Level. But to buy something particularly fancy in a store, you’ll need to be well known throughout Night City.

The biggest-ticket items you’ll find in stores are pieces of Cyberware, many of which require a very high level of Street Cred (in addition to a high credit cost). Cyberware is yet another layer of character progression, granting even more abilities.

Cyberware can be installed all over your body, from your hands, to your legs, to your eyeballs. Once installed, you’re granted new skills and upgrades. Some of these are passive, like a piece of Cyberware for your circulatory system that slightly heals you whenever you kill someone. Others are more active, granting you the ability to double jump. Each of your body parts has multiple slots, and Cyberware can be slotted in and out at will, once you have it unlocked. While Cyberware doesn’t come heavily into play in the early hours of Cyberpunk 2077, it’s easy to see how this system could eventually augment your existing skills or help patch up holes in your character build.

It’s all about flexibility

There don’t seem to be very many limitations put in place for the character systems in Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt Red has built the game with the intention of keeping things as open as possible, letting players lean into preferred tropes and handmade classes. And while it’s not the easiest system to grok, the complexity will offer far more versatility than The Witcher 3’s small handful of viable builds. So watch those wallets, folks. Come November, I’ll definitely be picking a pocket or two.

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