Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty (PS5) REVIEW – Johnny-Come-Lately
September 25, 2023
CD Projekt Red
PC, PS5, XS
Anyone who’s been on the internet for longer than a TikTok will find it hard to forget the launch of Cyberpunk 2077, which, to put it in no uncertain terms, was farcical for a game that promised so much. From barely functioning versions to hardly working systems, a few hundred fail compilations and empty platitudes seemed to undo all the goodwill CD Projekt Red had generated with the phenomenal The Witcher 3. Now, almost three years later, the slow burn redemption story (helped by a pretty excellent anime) is nearing its finale with the release of the 2.0 patch and Phantom Liberty expansion — and what a glow-up it is.
CD Projekt Red has been hard at work to ensure Cyberpunk is now in the best possible state, and while it without doubt never should have been released the way it did, the Polish studio deserve some credit for turning the ship around. At launch, I used to be able to predict the hard crashes that came every 20 minutes — it almost became like a disappointing routine. Now, Cyberpunk 2077 feels like a “proper” game where your immersion isn’t broken every other minute by Keanu’s face being his elbow. Sure, enemies still become absorbed into vending machines a bit too much, and the framerate does occasionally hitch in hectic moments, but there’s a buttery smoothness to the experience now that is leaps and bounds above most other action RPGs of its kind.
Phantom Liberty itself also feels next level compared to most of its peers as far as expansions go, which generally seem to be becoming less and less of a thing. The DLC, which sees V become embroiled in about nine different conspiracies within half an hour, is almost as ambitious as the base game. You can immediately see where that budget went, and not just because Keanu returns pretty prominently as Johnny Silverhand and Idris Elba makes his bow as Solomon Reed, a deeply conflicted and flawed yet still inherently admirable government agent. After the NUSA’s president’s plane is shot down over Dogtown, V and Reed must work together to track down Songbird, an old protege of Reed’s who also conscripted V to save the president while clearly having an agenda of her own.
The DLC’s billing as a spy-thriller feels quite apt, as Phantom Liberty’s narrative has more twists and turns in it than a particularly limber yogi on an Alton Towers ride. There’s a Nolan-esque vibe to Phantom Liberty that’s hard to shake, a coldness in its immaculate aesthetic that is balanced by the humanity of its characters. Even in its rougher days, Cyberpunk 2077 always provided gripping, deeply human characters despite the layers of chrome and wires, and it’s the same here. Few games have ever invested me so heavily in its cast of characters like Cyberpunk has, and the sheer breadth of branching paths you can travel with them on in this expansion makes my head spin.
Dogtown feels like a character itself, pretty much the encapsulation of everything wrong with Cyberpunk’s usually hedonistic world. The previously locked away region seems to have drug addicts on every corner, a gunfight every other minute, and just a not great amount of people not enjoying being alive. To be fair, it’s hard to enjoy being under the thumb of Colonel Kurt Hansen, the despotic leader of Dogtown who transformed it from a war zone into a war zone with a casino.
Though a small area overall that doesn’t seem to have all that many super memorable locations beyond the dome in the north, Dogtown has so much to see and do compared to basically everywhere else in Night City. With activities including new collectibles to courier missions to airdrops, it’s a tightly packed district that you probably won’t even feel like leaving for around 20 hours, especially when its quest hit ratio is so high. From helping two bungling cops with a corpse on their hands to pretending to be a leader of an infamous cartel, none of the quests in Phantom Liberty feel half-baked or like filler. There’s some 30 quests that come part of the DLC, and pretty much all of them highlight CDPR’s penchant for tough decisions and branching paths superbly. One is even a reference to The Assassination of Jesse James, which I enjoyed as a fan of overly long, morose cowboy movies.
All of the many narrative threads wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the exciting moment-to-moment gameplay to match, and Phantom Liberty certainly boasts that. While the base game was always solid in the action stakes, Phantom Liberty supercharges it to level of empowerment usually reserved for certain slayers of doom. From the new Relic abilities to go invisible mid-combat and highlight weakpoints for massive damage to the litany of quickhacks at your disposal, you feel almost comically strong in Phantom Liberty to the point where you may want to crank the difficulty up so you don’t just feel like the kid out of Brightburn.
The combat flow itself feels like the closest you can get to something like Call of Duty in an action RPG, except you don’t feel terrible as you get dusted by the same Prime-swigger over and over again. Things are especially broken if you carry over an old save and find a shotgun early on that basically deletes anything with one charged blast. Couple that with the ability to dash around, slow down time, and keep huffing away at an inhaler to become basically invincible, and the power trip Phantom Liberty’s combat provides is completely compelling. It’s all empowerment, all the time, and there’s never been a better time to experiment with your build thanks to 2.0’s tweaks to how perks and skills work.
For as redemptive as Phantom Liberty is, Cyberpunk does still have a few problems. The police system, while significantly better, still feels a little on the unconvincing side compared to something like GTA, which really seemed to perfect it about 20 years ago. Elsewhere, while Night City is positively bustling with life compared to how it used to be, with many NPCs having long lines of dialogue between them, Night City still lacks truly emergent gameplay, the feeling that you might find anything around the next corner. It can feel a little vacuous and perhaps too scripted at points, but still remains right near the top of the open world pile aesthetically and in terms of those elusive “vibes”. I enjoyed driving around in a Caliburn and soaking in the sights while the DualSense’s haptics and adaptive triggers did their thing, so much so that I barely fast travelled.
With Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, CD Projekt Red sought to exorcise the phantoms of the game’s disastrous launch. Time will tell just how forgiving an understandably jaded audience will be, but you could hardly ask for a better apology than this dizzyingly ambitious, heavyweight DLC. For me, Cyberpunk 2077 will never fade away, and Phantom Liberty just provided a reminder of what this studio can do given the proper time. Here’s hoping there’s no need for a redemption arc next time, mind you.
A PS5 key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty is the final stop on the game's redemption tour, and what a redemption it is. If you were still cynical about CD Projekt Red as a studio, it's time to start believing again.
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