Cyberpunk 2077’s launch is always going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. After years of fever-pitch hype and anticipation, CD Projekt RED’s action RPG was on the receiving end of widespread criticism for not only the sorry technical state it launched in (especially on consoles), but also for how it failed to live up to the many lofty promises the developer had made in the lead-up to the game’s launch. But if there’s one thing that the last decade or so of the games industry has taught us, it’s that you can never fully discount the possibility of a redemption arc.
With Phantom Liberty, Cyberpunk 2077 has cemented its place in that ever-growing list of games, because CDPR has delivered an incredible expansion that finally lives up to what we all had hoped Cyberpunk 2077 would be nearly three years ago. Not only does it deliver a gripping, captivating story with incredible characters and tough choices, it’s also a radical improvement in terms of the actual gameplay experience, from the moment-to-moment stealth and combat mechanics, to how alive the open world feels, to how much more rewarding all of the underlying progression mechanics are now.
"Not only does Phantom Liberty deliver a gripping, captivating story with incredible characters and tough choices, it’s also a radical improvement in terms of the actual gameplay experience, from the moment-to-moment stealth and combat mechanics, to how alive the open world feels, to how much more rewarding all of the underlying progression mechanics are now."
Phantom Liberty kicks off partway through the base game’s events. At a certain point, V is contacted by Songbird, an expert Netrunner working for the New United States of America, who tells him that she’s aboard a plane with the NUSA’s President- and the plane is about to crash. Worse still, it’s about to crash in Dogtown, a lawless, chaos-filled district of Night City, whose leader, Colonel Kurt Hansen, fully intends to capture the President and use her for nefarious purposes that definitely won’t be in the NUSA’s best interests. So Songbird makes V an offer he cannot refuse- get to the crash site, rescue the President before she is taken captive by Hansen’s goons, and help her escape, and in exchange, the NUSA will help V with the experimental Arasaka Relic in his head, which is slowly but surely killing him and replacing his existence with the remnants of Johnny Silverhand.
From the very first second, Phantom Liberty raises the stakes in a way that the base game never could- a high-stakes plot involving the President of the country, a way out from V’s predicament with a sickness that’s killing him, and an adversary who poses an instant, tangible threat. And from there, it only gets better. More characters are introduced as the story progresses, including undercover NUSA agent Solomon Reed, who’s played excellently by the impeccable Idris Elba, while the aforementioned Songbird herself is another highlight of the story. Keanu Reeves returns as Johnny Silverhand as well, and delivers another solid performance as the anarchist army vet-turned-rockerboy.
Beyond the characters, the plot itself continues to thicken at an alarming rate. Phantom Liberty’s spy thriller story is full of intrigue, betrayal, conspiracies, and grand reveals, and you can never quite be sure whom to trust, as each major player in the story has conflicting motivations that are fleshed out wonderfully through rich backstories and complex character development. Until the very end, the tale that this expansion spins had me on the very edge, and every new revelation, every new twist, ever major new development only made me fall deeper in love with the journey. Hell, the expansion even adds a new ending to the base game’s story itself, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that that ending is better than almost anything I experienced in the entire original Cyberpunk 2077 experience. It’s going to stay with me for a long, long time to come.
"Until the very end, the tale that this expansion spins had me on the very edge, and every new revelation, every new twist, ever major new development only made me fall deeper in love with the journey."
Another area where Phantom Liberty excels on the narrative front is how it makes use of player choice. This being an expansion, choice and consequence mechanics are obviously not as widespread and intricately interwoven into the main story as you’d expect from an entire, full-fledged new game, but the choices that you are asked to make are often ones that you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve made your decision. More than anything else, that applies to one single decision that you make to kick off the expansion’s final act, based on which the story can branch off into one of two completely different directions. On the back of its incredible characters, Phantom Liberty makes each choice feel like the right one and the wrong one all at once, which goes to show just how well executed that is. With side quests, I was a little disappointed that their smaller stories and the decisions that V makes don’t impact the main story in any meaningful way, but at the same time, it helps that those stories and decisions are still compelling enough in and of themselves, even if the vast majority of them don’t come anywhere close to reaching the heights of the main story.
Meanwhile, Dogtown is another highlight of the experience. An entirely new district in Night City, Dogtown has a unique vibe and flavour that sets it completely apart from the rest of the map, combining the futuristic tech of Night City with a war-torn, almost apocalyptic landscape that lends it an incredibly strong sense of place. Of course, Phantom Liberty also goes hand-in-hand with Update 2.0, which has overhauled the base game in many respects as well, which means it’s not just Dogtown, but all of Night City that has now come alive. When I reviewed the base game back in 2020, though I was a fan of how gorgeous Night City looked and how strong it was in terms of art design, I felt it was ultimately a vapid open world with almost no depth and interactivity. Now, however, with significant improvements to crowds, activities, and a much more dynamic and responsive police system, I felt compelled to explore Night City proper as much as I could, even though the vast majority of Phantom Liberty is set in Dogtown.
Similar radical improvements can also be found in other key areas of the gameplay experience. For instance, where the original base experience’s tight shooting mechanics and excellent weapon designs were frequently let down by the braindead AI, with Phantom Liberty and Update 2.0, every combat encounter is now an absolute blast. Raining lead on your enemies while you’re zipping and weaving through the battlefield never stops being exhilarating, especially with enemies now being much smarter in how they cooperate and try to take you down, while a greater emphasis on destructibility in the environments also makes firefights a much more explosive affair. And if you’d rather take a stealthier approach, that, too, is significantly more rewarding in Phantom Liberty, thanks in large part, once again, to the AI improvements.
"An entirely new district in Night City, Dogtown has a unique vibe and flavour that sets it completely apart from the rest of the map, combining the futuristic tech of Night City with a war-torn, almost apocalyptic landscape that lends it an incredibly strong sense of place. Of course, Phantom Liberty also goes hand-in-hand with Update 2.0, which has overhauled the base game in many respects as well, which means it’s not just Dogtown, but all of Night City that has now come alive."
All of these gameplay improvements are also further bolstered by the massive leap that the game has made where its RPG mechanics are concerned. Phantom Liberty and Update 2.0 bring a completely overhauled progression system to the table, where not only has the entire skill tree system been completely redesigned, but cyberware is also much better integrated. Armour is now tied directly to the latter rather than the gear that you have equipped, while the perks that you unlock in the skill trees now feel much more gratifying and give much more tangible and material boosts right off the bat. There’s actual, legitimate build variety in play now, which means the game now empowers you to build your character the way you want to in much more rewarding fashion, whether you want to be an expert Netrunner that focuses on stealth and quickhacks, an out-and-out tank who comes out all guns blazing in every combat encounter, or a quick and agile cyber ninja who zips around the arena with a katana in hand. While deciding which new piece of cyberware to equip, which attribute to invest in, or which new perk to unlock, I was consistently torn between multiple choices that felt equally useful, which truly is the mark of a well-built progression system.
Phantom Liberty represents quite a leap on a technical level as well- though not as much as it does in other areas. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, and it’s far, far more stable and far less buggy than Cyberpunk 2077 was when it first released, or even before Update 2.0 launched. It is, however, still a little buggy. The majority of the technical issues I ran into were fairly minor – like isolated instances of brief frame rate drops, or elements in the UI becoming unusable for no reason, or V’s movement speed suddenly slowing down drastically in spite of me being well below my encumbrance limit – though I was forced to reload or restart on a few occasions (more so during some missions than others), which was definitely an annoyance.
I also ran into what’s inarguably a major bug. As I mentioned earlier, Phantom Liberty’s story splits into two very different branches in its final act, but sadly, one of them was totally blocked off for me, thanks to a bug that completely prevented me from making progress. Thankfully, I had an older save that I could reload, so I was able to see the expansion through to completion by picking the other branch, but the fact that half of the available endings were bugged out of existence in my playthrough was pretty deflating. Shortly before writing this review, I was informed by CDPR that the issue had been ironed out with an update, but as recently as a couple of hours before the time of writing, that bug is still very much present. Hopefully, it won’t be an issue by the time the expansion releases.
"There’s actual, legitimate build variety in play now, which means the game now empowers you to build your character the way you want to in much more rewarding fashion, whether you want to be an expert Netrunner that focuses on stealth and quickhacks, or an out-and-out tank who comes out all guns blazing in every combat encounter, or a quick and agile cyber ninja who zips around the arena with a katana in hand."
And yet, I still can’t help but be amazed by the radical improvements that Phantom Liberty has made to Cyberpunk 2077, to the extent that I would even call it one of the best expansions I’ve ever played. Very rarely do you see expansions that are so good that they uplift even the entire base experience, and that’s exactly what Phantom Liberty does. If this was the level of quality that Cyberpunk 2077 had managed to hit when it first launched, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would have gone down as an unequivocal victory for CD Projekt RED. All in all, I’ve spent roughly 30 hours playing the game with its addition of Phantom Liberty, and I have loved every second of it, bugs notwithstanding. I absolutely cannot wait to see how CD Projekt RED builds on the massive strides it has made here with future content in Night City.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
A gripping story that only gets better the more you play; Incredible cast of characters, backed by strong writing and excellent performances; Adds an excellent new ending to the base game; Dogtown is an excellent addition to Night City; The open world feels much more alive and vibrant; Solid side quests; Moment-to-moment combat and stealth are an absolute blast; Radially improved progression systems, with actual, legitimate build variety; Looks incredible.
Side quests don't impact the main story in any meaningful way; Still has a few bugs, some of which are not minor.