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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rick Lane

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty review: excellent expansion enhances an overhauled game

Upgrading your character just got exciting … Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty.
Upgrading your character just got exciting … Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty. Photograph: CD Projekt RED

Like a Night City gangster after a botched cyberware installation, Cyberpunk 2077 emerged from development as a half-finished pariah. When it was released in the dismal winter of 2020, the game’s stunning virtual metropolis and cinematic storytelling were spoiled by its fundamental inability to satisfy as an RPG. Its open world lacked dynamism and didn’t reward exploration. Its progression systems were tedious and uninspired. It had more bugs than a dead Netrunner. The PlayStation 4 version barely worked at all.

Given that Polish developer CD Projekt RED built one of the best games in existence with The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk was a comparative disappointment and the studio took a reputational pounding. Yet CD Projekt was known for improving its games post-release and in this regard, we were assured, Cyberpunk would be no different.

Three years later the promised fixes have arrived, cleverly aligned with the launch of Cyberpunk’s first and only paid expansion: Phantom Liberty. Delivered as a free update to all players, the improvements are remarkable. It isn’t just a cosmetic makeover; CD Projekt has plunged elbow-deep into the guts of Cyberpunk, reconnecting wires, rerouting circuits and installing entirely new capabilities. The result is an unprecedented revival of a game’s moment-to-moment play, which is further enhanced when combined with new features introduced in Phantom Liberty.

Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty
Showpiece action sequences … Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty. Photograph: CD Projekt RED

Central to Cyberpunk’s overhaul is a completely redesigned “perk” system. Originally, Cyberpunk’s protagonist V improved their skills in combat, stealth and hacking via a bewildering labyrinth of passive upgrades. These were often so incremental as to be barely perceptible, such as increasing the damage done with melee weapons by a thrilling 1.5%. Now this gnarled forest of skill trees has been slashed and burned, to be replaced by a new system with fewer but more tangible branches.

Slam experience points into the “Reflex” tree, for example, and V will become a superhuman swordfighter able to dodge bullets, or deflect them back at enemies with their blade. The “Intelligence” tree, meanwhile, makes V a master of manipulation, able to hack opponents’ cybernetic implants to blind them, wipe their memories of your presence or even make them shoot themselves in the head. The perk system is complemented by two other redesigned upgrade methods: a passive set of skills that level up as you pursue your particular playstyle, and an expanded range of cyberware augmentations that likewise can be upgraded as you progress.

Although the improvements are palpable, the new system remains stat-heavy and occasionally obscure. After dozens of hours upgrading my sneaking abilities, I’m still not wholly certain what the phrase “mitigation chance” means. Regardless, upgrading your character is now exciting rather than underwhelming. The changes also have a cascade effect on the game at large. Gigs – quickfire side missions that typically involve breaking into a secure location – are far more rewarding. This is partly because the experience points they provide have greater value, but they also function better as play-spaces to experiment with your build. In turn, you’re more inclined to invest in the stories these asides tell, making Night City feel richer as a virtual world.

Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty
Welcome back to Night City … Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty. Photograph: CD Projekt RED

Other improvements help during the gaps between these more organised events. Traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, is more convincing, with crowds reacting better to events such as car crashes and nearby gunfire. Most notably, the game now has a proper Wanted system in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, facilitating police chases that escalate in their intensity. It’s relatively easy to evade the police in most circumstances and getting a five-star wanted rating requires active effort. But swerving through Night City traffic as you evade the blue lights and sirens is undeniably thrilling, and the system can collide with gigs and other side activities to create memorable player-driven action-scenes.

Safe to say, Cyberpunk 2077 is not the half-inked sleeve tattoo it was three years ago, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the game it could have been. The main story is structurally unchanged from the release version, meaning it can only take limited advantage of the revamped systems. Melee combat lacks the same refinement now exhibited in gunfights, and the game’s nonlethal combat options remain half hearted. Moreover the game is still prone to the odd bug, some of which, such as an audio glitch that makes V sound as if they’re trailing tin cans behind them like a car with “just married” written on the back, I encountered three years ago.

By comparison, Phantom Liberty displays the full extent of Cyberpunk’s potential. The expansion introduces a new story in a new area of Night City, the alluringly named Dogtown. A fortified district run by self-appointed military dictator Kurt Hansen, Dogtown is Night City at its most beautiful and most decrepit. Here, impossible skyscrapers and pyramidal glass nightclubs line a crumbling road network piled high with trash. At one end of the district is a glittering sports stadium repurposed as Dogtown’s bustling trading post, at the other a shantytown made from jumbled shipping crates.

V is thrust into this dangerous environment by a hook which sounds typically videogamey, a mission to rescue the president of the New United States. Yet what begins as a Call of Duty campaign with more futuristic guns soon becomes a much murkier affair about spies and cyberspace – one you unravel with the aid of Idris Elba’s sleeper agent Solomon Reed.

The story carries over everything that was great about Cyberpunk’s original plot: exciting missions, captivating writing and dialogue, and equal flair for intimate character drama and showpiece action sequences. No mission epitomises this better than “You Know My Name”, wherein V and Reed sneak into Hansen’s Black Sapphire skyscraper to attend a party in its casino penthouse. It has everything you’d want from a high-stakes spy thriller: a daring infiltration, multilayered secret agendas, verbal sparring over a game of roulette. There’s even a musical interlude you’ll struggle to tear your eyes from.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable yarn, and ties into the central plot of the base game in more significant ways than you might expect. Yet Phantom Liberty’s most notable enhancements are found outside the main story. Dogtown’s open-world design is more holistic and interconnected than anywhere else in Night City. The gigs you stumble upon in Hansen’s District are more elaborate, each featuring colourful characters and interesting storylines, such as helping a pair of dunderheaded cops disentangle themselves from a deal gone bad. Alongside these fixed missions are randomised events that you can leap on for chance rewards, like supply airdrops you can raid for valuable equipment. Another, which involves stealing cars for a local fixer, also functions outside Dogtown, providing an excuse to mess with Cyberpunk’s new vehicular combat across the city.

Although Phantom Liberty is a strong expansion, it isn’t flawless. Idris Elba is a fine fit for the inscrutable Solomon Reed but, as with Keanu Reeves playing Johnny Silverhand, CD Projekt gets less out of him than the wider cast of voice actors. Phantom Liberty also sees CD Projekt continue its habit of dropping players into inexplicably hard boss fights with no real warning, which is especially frustrating if you haven’t built your character around dealing max damage. Finally, given the added emphasis on vehicle chases and combat in Cyberpunk’s general revamp, it’s an odd choice to make the expansion’s district the least driveable of them all. While hardly small, Dogtown a is cramped environment with few proper roads, and you’ll spend far more time trudging its alleys and elevated walkways than cruising its streets.

The biggest downside to Phantom Liberty, however, is that it’s the only expansion Cyberpunk will get. Combined with the general improvements to the base game, Phantom Liberty brings Cyberpunk much closer to the vision of itself portrayed in its earliest trailers, blending Grand Theft Auto’s driving and gunfights with the more creative problem solving you’d find in a game such as Deus Ex. With its potential finally realised, Night City feels capable of telling a thousand more stories, and in many ways it’s a shame, rather than a mercy, that CD Projekt is leaving its chrome-plated dystopia behind.

• Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty is released on PC, PS5 and Xbox Series X/s on 26 September

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