Once burned, twice shy. It was with some cautious optimism that I approached the next big release from The Witcher 3 studio, CD Projekt Red. That’s not to say I didn’t have a great time with Cyberpunk 2077. I did. But it was also a reasonably forgettable experience, due in part to the sour taste left from a title that overpromised and underdelivered on all fronts. Cut features, lack of polish, and in my opinion, an undercooked main plot kept a really decent game set in an incredible new world from achieving the greatness it so clearly could have reached, especially based on those early trailers.
I’m sure this game needs no introduction, but just in case – 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, based on the decades-old Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game, is a first-person action-adventure set in the dystopian Night City. A smattering of RPG systems teased players with being able to build a cybernetic protagonist named V with all manner of neural upgrades, chrome prosthetics, and futuristic weapons. To razz that mass-market appeal, the universally beloved Keanu Reeves starred alongside the player character as a fragmented ghost that is slowly killing V.
Phantom Liberty, a substantial new expansion, comes to us with the promise of a new, standalone story that runs concurrent to the events of the base game. This means we’ll be taking Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand with us as we head into the walled district of Dogtown, located within Night City’s Pacifica ghetto. Whether you are making a new character or loading up your previous playthrough, Phantom Liberty invites players to immediately jump into things with a mysterious directive asking V to venture into the dilapidated conflict zone. Dogtown is an area that was once being developed from the ground up to house the Night City elite and segregate them from the undesirable chrome rats that roam this city. Upon entry, Space Force One crashes into Dogtown and we are tasked with rescuing the president and blasting our way out of this faux-warzone. The president immediately dons a machine gun, emerging from the wreckage of her spacecraft as an action heroine that would surely make Hamilton and Weaver proud. In the first of many nods to action blockbuster classics, this opening offers huge Escape From New York vibes. Should we choose to accept this dicey mission, a hacker named Songbird promises to fix V’s terminal Keanu addiction.
As a setting exclusive to this DLC, Dogtown is a reasonably small area fenced off from the rest of Night City by a nightmarish tangle of concrete and scaffolds. Rather than a wide, open space, Dogtown instead focuses on verticality with a playground of partially-developed towers and a low-lit, derelict atmosphere that chokes the player with this distressing realisation of broken hyper-capitalism overtaken by anarchism. Despite taking only mere minutes to cross from one end of Dogtown to the other, the detail and content density on offer make this space a perfect microcosm of Night City, its atmosphere, and the best beats of Cyberpunk.
I won’t bury the lead here, I am absolutely effusive about Phantom Liberty, but I suspect it won’t convert those who spurned the original game, specifically with regard to the roleplaying aspects of the writing. At the risk of sounding dismissive of those valid criticisms about the edginess and revelry in perverse exploitation, I have come to accept this game as Cyber-punk, not Cyber-hero. As such, the roleplaying choices continue to be different flavours of ambivalent, and perhaps won’t win over players who didn’t love being complicit in the dirtiness of this world that tarnishes V. I don’t blame them, this isn’t a game that allows you to freely make your mark upon a near-future world. It’s about surviving and thriving in a dystopia entrenched in a post-late-stage capitalist nightmare. There will be no happy endings, and the decision space in a given situation may not sit right with every player.
Speaking of the writing, Reeves’ Silverhand gets much-needed character development courtesy of some back story about his past persona and vocation previous to being a rebel rockstar turned phantom memory. This is great as I found him gratingly abrasive when we met him back in 2020, popping up only to offer pithy wisecracks and laugh at your predicaments. Instead, now we find a Silverhand that is equally as invested in this latest spy thriller as it evolves from trying to extract his distracting presence in V’s cyberware and rescuing the president at the same time.
The performances are pretty darn great, leveraging one of the best parts of the base game. Whether it is the newcomer, smokey-voiced slab of sex Idris Elba, Reeves or any of the eccentric oddballs running Dogtown, these performances seamlessly glide about the environment, casually draping themselves against furniture and car windows as they spout their hard-knocks ‘cyber-punk’ philosophies. Coming off of the hilarious “Starefield”, whose quest givers coldly stand to attention when addressed, Phantom Liberty’s chatty denizens treat every surface and obstacle as an extended stage with which to dazzle you during their soliloquies. CD Projekt Red seems all too aware of the uncanny valley that often presents when scanning famous faces into a video game, to the extent that they’ve obliterated that ravine of uneasiness for your gaming pleasure. Marvellous stuff. To circle back, Elba’s Solomon Reed plays a veteran spy who occupies the majority of the main quest by your side and is one of the best actor-likeness performances in all of video games.
Over to combat, which can often be avoided in favour of stealth, and has had a major shakeup courtesy of this DLC and the free 2.0 update. Fights feel dynamic, with enemies tactically moving to higher ground vantage points, finding cover that flanks you, and sending in bruisers to keep you on your toes. Hacking during fights has been spiced up to allow far greater utility amid heavy firefights, with a generous time pause and complete revamp of the skill builds available. It is now viable to go into fights and queue up damaging cyber hacks on enemies, effectively burning them out before even whipping out your gun. But you will want to play with the ballistic toys on offer, new and old. Weapon handling has been juiced up, and with the addition of Phantom Liberty’s exclusive skill tree adding dynamic critical targets to enemies, gunplay is now so frenetic and impactful that all my other approaches paled in comparison. That’s not to say that stealth and other strategies aren’t viable, they’ve all been souped up to the max. But the eruption of action on offer in a shootout with this improved AI is simply exhilarating now.
Vehicular combat is a thing now, and its great
Thankfully, a lot of the edges have been sanded down with the release of Phantom Liberty too. You can build a badass netrunner that shoots out petrol tanks and tyres at high speed, to then glide from the driver’s seat blasting a submachine gun in slow motion upon a gang of enemies who are hovering around a fallen supply drop meant to support the disconnected security forces closed off within this district. All while the sick new battle soundtrack that is specific to Dogtown throbs to the rhythm of the action. I’m repeating myself, but I cannot emphasise how fun it is to pivot to all-out warfare while your allies shrug and say fuck it to their dismissed suggestions of stealth and subterfuge.
I’m yet to see absolutely everything Phantom Liberty has to offer at the time of publishing, but so far there hasn’t been a moment that doesn’t feature a a potent mix of exhilaration and intrigue. It simply doesn’t miss, helped by CD Projekt Red’s approach to side content that carries every bit the production value of the main quest. I simply wasn’t a disciplined enough reviewer to stick to the critical path, and if that doesn’t speak to the wealth of content in this high-calibre package, then I don’t know what could.
Finally, there’s a really impressive musical performance from Grimes’ character, Lizzy Wizzy, that can’t and shouldn’t be missed. Phenomenal stuff. Gave me goosebumps.
It is delightfully wild to me that in 2023, three years after the locomotive of anticipation that was Cyberpunk 2077 came to a skidding halt, it has now become something resembling the experience we were teased with for years. From an entertainment perspective, experiencing Cyberpunk 2077 without Phantom Liberty is an injustice against your memory of the title. First timers, it’s preferable to pony up for the whole kitty. You won’t want to sleep on this.
Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher
- CD Projekt Red
- CD Projekt Red
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
- September 26, 2023