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Rollin Bishop

I played Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty and Idris Elba wasn’t even the best part

Idris Elba as Solomon Reed in Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty on a dark background

At this point, Cyberpunk 2077 has encountered a bit of a Ship of Theseus problem. Given the massive updates that developer CD Projekt Red has poured into the game, is it even really the same game? The upcoming Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty expansion makes this an even more difficult question to answer after largely replacing the functional guts of the game like one of the setting’s ripperdocs.

Narratively, Phantom Liberty is described as a “spy-thriller” expansion that sees V embroiled in spycraft in order to save the life of the President of the New United States of America, Rosalind Myers. Idris Elba plays a sleeper agent named Solomon Reed. There’s a mysterious netrunner named Songbird that promises to help with the Relic in V’s head. And while the new storyline is at least initially compelling, it wasn’t my main takeaway from my admittedly limited time with an extended demo at Summer Game Fest this week.

Welcome back, choom

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

The truly fascinating bit of Phantom Liberty is what’s happening beneath the hood, so to speak. The inventory and skills have seen a major redesign, though it was difficult to tell what exactly all of them did given my brief hands-on time. Perks are now designed in such a way as to make it feel impactful with every choice that you make. Previously, they could feel extremely incremental, adding 5% to this or 2% to that, but now every upgrade seemingly adds some new direct skill or ability, passive or otherwise. For example, one ability might allow you to reload while sliding while another might allow you to fight better in vehicles.

Because that’s a thing you can do now: vehicular warfare. Certain cars are straight-up armed in Phantom Liberty. One vehicle in my demo had two machine guns affixed to the front of it, with laser dots showing where I was firing. Aiming was a fairly intuitive endeavor on the PS5, and shooting the guns on the car felt quite satisfying if I am being honest, though it’s hard to gauge what the greater impact of this might be.

Which is honestly part of why I’ve been most intrigued by the rewiring of the fundamental fabric of the game. My experience only briefly included Idris Elba’s Solomon Reed, who was fine if cagey, and it was explicitly designed to skip around a bit to get me into the thick of things. And Cyberpunk 2077 is far from the first game to go back to the drawing board when it comes to things like skills and inventories, but it’s interesting to see the developer go as far as it has here. Another example is that stat boosts like increased armor seem to have been completely divorced from clothing, rendering the cosmetic aspect of what to wear a truly aesthetic one. Instead, this has largely been moved to cyberware, which has itself received a serious facelift in order to make it more meaningful.

While cyberpsychosis still isn’t something that can happen to the player, plugging in an excessive amount of cyberware will begin to have its own negative consequences. Certain skills can be taken to increase this tolerance and, although this apparently opens up more options for more cyberware, I hadn’t unlocked it for myself by the time my Phantom Liberty demo drew to an end. (Some are even little tributes to characters from the popular anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.)

In general, the way in which the inventory screen presents information has also changed. Hovering over weapons has a more streamlined set of data presented in a less visually cluttered way, and the revamped skills have been sorted in such a way to make it that much more obvious how certain skills can be built into others. Gone are the days of picking up a certain skill because it seemed like the next thing, regardless of how impactful it’s been, and here are the days of understanding exactly how certain skills progress, being able to fairly confidently grab any skill with at least some recognizable upside.

Let 'er rip

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

"While cyberpsychosis still isn’t something that can happen to the player, plugging in an excessive amount of cyberware will begin to have its own negative consequences."

The demo did leave me wondering just how much of these revisions are going to be locked behind buying Phantom Liberty and how much might be patched in for players of the normal game. The devs walking me through the demo were a bit unclear on what that split might be – not because they were being deliberately opaque, but because they apparently have yet to decide just how much will be available in the base game.

The Relic perks, for example, seemed particularly impactful and are apparently only earned through exploration in Phantom Liberty. It seems fair to assume that players of the base game will not get access to this. But the shifting of armor and other stats from clothing and the redesigned perks beyond the Relic ones… those seem ripe for actually allowing as many players as possible to mess around with.

We know that Phantom Liberty is the only planned expansion for Cyberpunk 2077 – no surprise, given that there's a mass of upcoming CDPR games in production – and so the studio appears to be going all out. The spy-thriller story certainly has my attention, so too does the densely packed new area of Night City which we'll be able to explore through this expansion, but it's the broader changes that have gotten me excited to jump back into the RPG. CD Projekt Red has spent much of the last two years reoptimizing Cyberpunk 2077 and now, with Phantom Liberty ushering in such sweeping changes to core aspects of play, it's time for the studio to deliver some much-needed refinement.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty is set to launch for the PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X on September 26, 2023. The base Cyberpunk 2077 game is required to play. If you want to know more, you could always check out everything we know about Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.

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