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Review: Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

20 Sep 2023

CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 has walked quite the rocky path.

Following a launch burdened by myriad technical issues and negative player reception, the game has nevertheless soldiered on and steadily improved. I was lucky enough to miss out on a lot of egregious technical issues in my initial playthrough, and thus enjoyed my time with Cyberpunk 2077. It didn’t blow me away, but it was a fun to take a jaunt through Night City, see the sights, and enjoy the characters that inhabited it.

Now, after several subsequent patches and the release of the excellent Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, the game’s reception has become quite a bit more glowing than it once was. Hot off the heels of that anime-fueled hype train arrives Phantom Liberty, the first (and last) expansion to Cyberpunk 2077, as well as the sizable Update 2.0.

I had the chance to get my hands on both ahead of their wider release on September 21st and 26th, respectively. Together they add a bevy of new quests, content, and various refinements to the game, but are the changes substantial enough to warrant another trip through Night City? My experience was with the PC version, but it’ll also be headed to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S as well.

Dog Days Are Over

From the jump, Phantom Liberty was pitched as a spy thriller packed with espionage and intrigue, and that absolutely ended up being an apt description for the expansion’s main storyline. By that same token, the less said about the particulars the better, but the events are centered around the newly added district of Dogtown and the powers that be vying for control over it, with V caught directly in the middle.

Base Cyberpunk 2077’s storyline always felt as though it had its characters at the heart of the action, and Phantom Liberty continues that trend. There’s certainly a high-stakes narrative with all the requisite twists and turns, but the major players in the storyline are the real driving force of the storyline. More specifically, the narrative heavily emphasizes the points where their individual pasts, ethics, and trauma intersect.

I found myself engaged with the characters faster than I’d expected to as a result, but I also appreciated the room the storyline made for V (and by extension the player) to personalize the stakes to make decisions more interesting. All in all, the main storyline keeps a steady pace and—once it gets going after a bit—is great at encouraging you to see what happens next.

It also makes a decent effort at tying itself into the events going on outside of Dogtown, where NPCs and certain dialogue options will call back to things V has already done when they become relevant. Especially after some time away from Cyberpunk, it was nice to be reminded of certain story beats.

The side gigs do fare a bit less fairly, however. Most of their setups are little more than a quick route the player can take to more gameplay, and while they do provide some interesting characters to interact with, the themes and plotlines they explore don’t fall very far from the usual cyberpunk tropes the base game already tread thoroughly.

Quickhackin’ & Quickslashin’

Playing through the first stretch of Phantom Liberty left me a bit unsure how to feel about the expansion’s approach. After breaching the walls of Dogtown, the sequence of events was rather linear with a focus on set pieces, which gave me pause given that best memories I have of Cyberpunk 2077 were largely tied to the openness of Night City.

Thankfully I didn’t have to grapple with this too long, as not much later the game opened up once again and let me really sink my teeth into Dogtown and the content it had to offer at my own pace. It was easy to settle back into the comfortable, familiar gameplay loop of dispatching enemies, leveling up, and taking in the sights as I traveled between each quest.

And in that same vein, the more I explored Dogtown, the more I came to appreciate the differences that set it apart from the rest of Night City. Its more compact design allows for spots of labyrinthine layouts, with snaking pathways guiding you back to the more open areas and establishing a sense of variety.

More than that, thorough exploration of Dogtown is also encouraged by the new Relic perk tree, which can net the player extra benefits by spending points only obtainable from nodes peppered throughout the borough. It makes for a fun distraction while you’re working your way to the next main story, especially when the game asks you to wait a day or two before you’re allowed to continue onto the next quest.

These wait times are clearly a way to encourage players to explore some of the other side content that comes with Phantom Liberty, but it’s hard not to feel they’re a bit forced. Certainly you can just skip time to advance the quest immediately, but it feels somewhat antithetical for an open world game to say, “Hey, you should do some side stuff right now!” when you’ve already had the option of doing said side stuff the whole time. This practice wasn’t absent from the base game either, but the smaller sizing of Dogtown exacerbates the feeling significantly.

Regardless, the content itself is still a good time. As alluded to above, their stories don’t offer much in the way of novelty, but they’re mostly great from a level design standpoint. The brawls and firefights in Phantom Liberty take place in some pretty unique locales with a big focus on verticality; as a melee-focused V, I had to be very mindful of my footing while fighting up a room packed with staircases and enemies peeking out of cover from all angles. It felt like a situation I hadn’t quite been in before.

Speaking of my melee-focused V and returning to the Relic perk tree for a moment, I greatly enjoyed the gameplay effects I obtained through it. The tree itself is definitely on the smaller side, but it comes with some far-reaching benefits. The new ability for the Mantis Blades allowed V to zip and zoom around, launching herself up to dismember far-off enemies before rushing to the next one. Other melee options also received a significant boost in the Relic tree, like unlocking a quickhack slot for charged Monowire attacks, and having these options made the action feel much more involved.

Of course, the new content isn’t the only thing new with Phantom Liberty, as it also arrives part and parcel with the game’s 2.0 Update. It packs in some neat features—the enhanced wanted system and the untethering armor rating from clothing are very welcome improvements—but the revised perk tree has the most lasting impact on Cyberpunk 2077 as a whole.

At a glance, the new perk tree can feel a bit more limited than it used to. Everything is still based on the points you put into your attributes to unlock the various tiers of perks, but the reduction of nodes overall has the incredibly appreciable benefit of letting each perk point spent affect the gameplay to a higher degree than before. My build for V is very much centered around melee and stealth, and nearly every point gave me something new to play around with that I hadn’t before.

Now, these changes aren’t as sweeping as to make someone who didn’t care for Cyberpunk’s gameplay suddenly fall in love with it, but it does get more impactful gameplay decisions into player’s hands faster, which is a marked improvement over its original incarnation.

Take A Gander, Mercenary

Base game Night City already covered a lot of aesthetic ground, what with the inclusion of the sizable Badlands outskirts of the city on top of the differing aesthetics of each section therein, but Dogtown still manages to carve out its own visual niche all the same. It’s in a much rougher state than even the most decrepit areas of Night City, offering up a more industrial vibe amidst the dry and dehydrated environs.

The decrepit state of the buildings allows for some pretty interesting views that consistently ground and remind the player of their scale. It feels as though most of Dogtown is built on top of itself, densely packed with points of interest to explore and alleyways to get you there. I found myself simply wandering through the city at several points just to see what there was to find, which wasn’t always the case in the game proper.

When you combine this execution of Dogtown with Cyberpunk’s already excellent lighting, music, and actor performance, you get an expansion that’s very easy on the eyes and ears. The music in particular stood out to me quite a bit in my playthrough, with thumping beats and electronica always fitting the action unfolding on-screen.

An Extra Chapter

For my part, Phantom Liberty’s biggest question mark was always going to be how it ended up feeling as an expansion to the RPG. Would it simply be more Cyberpunk 2077 content wedged into Night City, or would it feel more self-contained to differentiate itself as a paid expansion?

The end result here is a balancing act—a little of column A and a little of column B. Phantom Liberty’s main questline absolutely explores a more espionage-tinted angle than its base game counterpart with, but there was a concerted effort to intertwine them in a way that still feels seamless. Its side quests may not feel like anything new, but the level design and encounters have never been better.

In that sense, Phantom Liberty is Cyberpunk 2077 distilled. If you enjoyed the base game, it’s hard to see you being dissatisfied with this expansion. And even if you aren’t enticed by any of the new content on offer, Update 2.0 has brought net improvements to the overall gameplay that make it more than worth taking another trip through Night City.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by CD Projekt Red for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of CD Projekt Red.