Wednesday, September 20, 2023
There is one genre severely underutilised in video games, and that's espionage. With so many badass spies littered throughout history in various different narrative spaces over the years, you have to wonder why so many game developers steer clear of this field - with a handful of rare exceptions, of course. The backstabbing and who-to-trust elements of an espionage thriller are the perfect ingredients for a rich narrative, if pulled off correctly. And not only does Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty do that with aplomb, but thanks to the setting and technology on offer, it makes the James Bond movies look like they’re set during the stone age.
Phantom Liberty is a standalone narrative set within the Cyberpunk 2077 world, leaning into V's desperation to find a cure for her malfunctioning Relic woes. In Phantom Liberty, V finds themself pulled into the world of espionage by a mysterious Netrunner named Songbird, called upon to save the President of the New United States. What flows from that explosive start is a cleverly-written narrative that has you questioning the loyalty and motives of everyone around you, from President Myers to former operative, Solomon Reed, played by the brilliant Idris Elba. What makes Phantom Liberty purr, though, is not just the handcrafted and superbly articulated story, but the sheer variety of set-pieces. They're exactly what you want from a 15-20 hour experience, with style and class in spades.
While the backdrop for Phantom Liberty, Dogtown (situated smack-bang in the middle of Night City’s Pacifica district), might seem relatively limiting and uninspired at first, the density of it is like nothing else you’ll have experienced in Cyberpunk 2077 thus far. Every building seems to have a purpose, whether it’s as part of the main narrative or for one of the game’s fantastic Gigs and Side Missions. Dogtown is a brutal backdrop, with Kurt Hanson and his cronies running the show, and one that will grow on you the longer you spend in it.
As previously alluded to, it's not just the main narrative that oozes class and style, as well as meaningful choice and consequence - the game’s smattering of Gigs and Side Missions are an extension of that. There's pretty much a choice to make, and an ensuing consequence to feel the breadth of, around every corner. If The Witcher 3's Blood and Wine was the perfect piece of DLC, this runs it close. It's nearly enough to make you forget Cyberpunk 2077’s shaky launch.
On top of the fantastic new Side Missions and Gigs, there's now infinitely-repeating emergent open-world opportunities, too, in the form of car deliveries and cache drops, which can result in some excellent loot, if that floats your boat.
It's not just the narrative that's superb in Phantom Liberty. The whole game feels like something completely brand new, thanks to the workings of Update 2.0. Sure, there is an adjustment period you’ll have to go through, as you try and forget everything you've learned, but the game as a whole feels better for it. Although, I would say that developer CD Projekt RED has perhaps gone too far the other way with vehicle handling since launch - it feels too floaty now (a change, I realise, from before Update 2.0, but it’s very apparent now I've returned to the game for an extended period).
There are some changes, however, that don't sit right with me, personally, like no longer being able to attach a silencer to a revolver. Armour values are also no longer attached to your gear, but attached to your Cyberdeck instead. That last one, in particular, doesn't make sense to me, as it's now rendered clothing pointless - it's now a purely cosmetic aspect, which boggles the mind in a first-person game where you rarely see your character. However, for the most part, Cyberpunk 2077 is a much better package overall, thanks to 2.0.
The truth is, any minor gripes fall away pretty quickly thanks to everything else, like the massively improved perk tree, the vehicle combat, and the improved police reactions - resulting in some epic GTA-style chases and shootouts if you cross them. I do wish CDPR had leaned into that more during Phantom Liberty's missions themselves, but alas, it chose not to. Still, it's there, if you fancy having a bit of fun off the beaten path.
The new Relic system, tied into Phantom Liberty, does leave a lot to be desired, though, effectively offering a paltry three new skills, and extensions of said skills. They either fit your playstyle, or they don't - often, they won't. The new changes to the Cyberdeck offer up more options there, and with the new Level 60 level cap, there's room to extend your capabilities there if you haven't already.
While Phantom Liberty has seemingly learned a few lessons from the base game, these lessons seemingly don’t go as far as improvements to Cyberpunk’s boss encounters. Some of them are still lacking a little tact and ingenuity. A main mission boss fight early on, for instance, can't hold a candle to the more interesting boss fight approach in one of the Gigs, ‘Spy In The Jungle’. Some progress has been made in this department, though.
Phantom Liberty goes some way towards washing away the sins of Cyberpunk 2077's messy launch, delivering a fantastic, bitesize Cyberpunk standalone experience - within the confines of the base game. With some truly memorable and innovative set-pieces, an explosive narrative that keeps you second-guessing at every turn, Phantom Liberty is everything you'd want in a spy thriller, made all the more exciting by the setting and advancements in technology. It's just a shame that this is the only major Cyberpunk expansion we’ll see, as it feels like CD Projekt RED has finally found its feet in Night City. Cyberpunk 2077’s sequel can't come soon enough.
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty is out on 26th September priced $29.99/£24.99.