“With a strong spy story and performances to match, Phantom Liberty gives Cyberpunk 2077 the extra chapter it needed.”
- Superb world and level design
- Fantastic performances
- Revamped gunplay
- Lack of onboarding
Everyone and everything in Cybperunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, the game’s long-awaited first DLC, is expendable. That includes everyone from the former CEO of a private military company who’s currently in her third presidential term to the rogue colonel straight out of Heart of Darkness who refuses to give up control of a section of Night City, as well as the mercenary V, who is caught in the middle and only looking for a way to survive. People are little more than tools that, once no longer useful to the person one rung up on the sociopolitical ladder, will be tossed into the piles of trash lining the streets. No one is free in the New United State (NUSA), but the facade must be upheld on every level.
Your freedom isn’t real — liberty is but an illusion — but no one is willing to face that reality.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty wants you to feel like a pawn being led around by a carrot on a stick — one we know V will never reach since the story takes place before the end of the game proper. That conceit would normally diffuse any tension or stakes, but in this case, it adds to the DLC’s thematic power. Your promised liberation is but a phantom. The reason you play along all the same is because the characters, world, and stakes all feel real.
Dogtown, the new area Phantom Liberty takes place in, by design needs to make some structural concessions to explain why this part of Night City wasn’t accessible until now. The narrative answer the game provides goes above and beyond a few simple bits of lore. Developer CD Projekt Red actually fleshes out a history that ties into the central conflict. Dogtown is a walled-off, highly restricted district in Night City that was essentially annexed by Colonel Kurt Hansen during the Unification War as the militaristic tyrant simply refused to give it up. Once he established it as a profitable black market, the government no longer felt a need to do more than keep him contained within his own walled “utopia.”
That uneasy peace is jeopardized when the president of the NUSA — who was also responsible for that same Unification War — is stranded in Dogtown. What unfolds is a powder keg of political, corporate, and personal tensions that threaten to cause a chain reaction of consequences that will ripple from V’s goal of survival up to the fate of the entire country. There are no isolated elements in this story. Every character has some history with the others, something to hide, something to gain, or a reason to play you against someone else. Who you trust is up to you, and the decisions you make feel anything but weightless. By keeping the scale of the stakes balanced — from finding the mysterious Songbird who promises to cure your biochip problem to the fate of the net at large — I always felt invested and believed I was making an impact at least on a micro level.
Dogtown itself is as dingy, dirty, and despondent as its inhabitants, but simultaneously full of life and color. The streets are cramped, and piles of garbage line the graffiti-marked buildings in a way that brings a sense of realism and history to this pocket of dystopia. The more cramped and constrained environments result in far more intricate levels that allow for a high level of freedom in how you approach each situation. Everything and everyone you meet in this rundown hole is as convincing and believable in their appearance as they are in performance. Songbird, President Myers, Reed, and the entire supporting cast pull off an amazing feat of presenting their personalities and motivations while simultaneously giving you compelling threads you want to pull on as the story unravels.
Cyberpunk 2077 is now the game it should have been all along.
Phantom Liberty, along with the 2.0 update, is the culmination of CD Projekt Red’s efforts to rehabilitate the game’s troubled launch. Having not played since those early months before any patches, coming into this expansion finally felt like the game had reached the state it was always meant to. Aside from one instance where the game saved as I was dying, sending me into a perpetual death loop until I loaded a prior save, I experienced few technical issues during my playthrough. Everything, from the frame rate and physics to the AI, finally feels stable. It may have taken nearly three years, but Cyberpunk 2077 is now the game it should have been all along.
Gameplay in Phantom Liberty is clearly built off of the bones of the original release, but it gets to shine here. It’s nothing revolutionary in terms of changes or how the missions are formatted, but it has been tuned and tightened in a way that finally clicks things into place. Guns in particular feel more satisfying across the board, from their responsiveness to feedback that is unique to each model. Swapping weapons now feels more like changing personalities rather than just having a different rate of fire and seeing damage numbers appearing above an enemy’s head. This alone makes choosing your approach to each mission — when allowed — far more satisfying as you know that each route available will be as compelling as the others. This isn’t a reinvention of or full sequel to what Cyberpunk 2077 was, but more of a remaster of the mechanics to fully achieve the team’s vision.
Mission structure does suffer a bit from a lot of “hurry up and wait.” If you’re not invested in the story and characters, the often lengthy conversations that precede many missions could easily become tiring. From a high-level perspective, the entire series of missions feels well crafted in terms of pacing. You will ride a roller coaster of small-scale encounters, share quiet moments with characters, get let loose in an open environment to approach as you wish, and receive a nice punctuation mark of a cinematic action sequence. The main missions alone pull me along from one to the next naturally in the same way a good TV show leaves me reaching for the remote to continue to the next episode.
CD Projekt Red set a high standard for itself after releasing its two expansions for The Witcher 3, and Phantom Liberty clears that bar. Despite being in a somewhat compact zone, there are dozens of hours of content here between the 13 main missions, 17 side gigs, and other optional content to explore.
Phantom Liberty bills itself as a spy thriller tale of espionage and intrigue. In terms of the narrative, characters, and mission-theming, that description holds true. In practice, players bounce back and forth between the most bombastic set piece battles and tense noir meetups in shady bars where they formulate plans to pull off classic spy story plots. Many missions do keep things open-ended — go stealthy, use tech skills, do some smooth talking, or put a bullet in the head of anyone with a health bar — but this is much more of a Mission Impossible than a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I never felt like I was more than 30 minutes away from a firefight, explosion, or set piece, appropriate or not.
The world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels tailor-made for this type of espionage thriller.
Players are given the freedom to start Phantom Liberty without touching the main Cyberpunk 2077 experience right from the title screen. Doing so will automatically level V, distribute skill points, and outfit them with a loadout of weapons and tools. I hadn’t touched the game since launch, and my file was long gone, so I came at this expansion essentially as a new player. This is not the way to experience Phantom Liberty. There are no tutorials or refreshers on gameplay, let alone the story or characters. I was thrown into Night City at some unspecified time, getting a call that used half-remembered lingo to recruit me into the plot, with the ghost of Keanu Reeves cracking wise in the background. Granted, this isn’t intended to be a player’s first exposure to the Cyberpunk world, but it is an option. And that option isn’t exactly accounted for.
Once acclimated, Phantom Liberty does add in one major new skill tree to experiment with in addition to the massive rework of the existing ones as part of the 2.0 update. That skill tree holds substantial abilities, but they would be for naught if the moment-to-moment gunplay hadn’t received such a robust upgrade.
The world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels tailor-made for this type of espionage thriller. The backdrop and lore of a dystopian future where humans have essentially reached the singularity with technology flow seamlessly into a tale of subterfuge and conspiracy, just as it does bombastic firefights and explosions. Every performance is top-notch, including the character of Dogtown itself. Despite being walled off from the rest of Night City, its tendrils reach out to every corner of the world in a believable way that keeps you feeling like you’re still in the same place and not shoveled off to DLC land where nothing of importance is allowed to come in or out.
That’s what is most impressive about Phantom Liberty. I know that I’m mostly shackled within the walls of Dogtown, but CD Projekt uses those walls as building blocks to further invest me in the characters and events, rather than simply ignoring or trying to paint over them.
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