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Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty expansion review: A masterstroke in game design and narrative storytelling

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty expansion review: A masterstroke in game design and narrative storytelling

Note: This review was first published on 20 September 2023.

In an industry where second chances are not only rare but often eyed with suspicion, CD Projekt Red's (CDPR) story of redemption is one that might just go down in gaming folklore. Close to three years of patches, updates, and soul-searching led the company to this point — the release of Update 2.0 alongside the Phantom Liberty expansion for their much-maligned game, Cyberpunk 2077 (read our review here). A fractured launch tarnished its reputation, but this new update aims not just to repair the game but to redefine it. Based on approximately 50 hours of gameplay, here's why I think Phantom Liberty isn't just a saving grace but a masterstroke in game design and narrative storytelling.

Update 2.0 can't be discussed without talking about Phantom Liberty. The update serves as a backbone to the expansion, transforming the very essence of how the game feels. Imagine buying a car that gets retrofitted with a V12 engine and a luxurious interior – that's Update 2.0. This isn't merely about patches or fixes; it's a complete overhaul that, when combined with Phantom Liberty, justifies my full rating for the expansion.

The expansion kicks off with an Escape from New York vibe, as your character V is tasked with rescuing a stranded president in exchange for a cure to a terminal condition. The narrative quickly evolves, throwing in mysterious disappearances and warring factions. Right off the bat, the narrative marks itself as distinct and compelling, transcending the main game's Arasaka storyline. There’s no shortage of missions and side gigs, provided by recurring fixers Muamar Reyes and Mr. Hands. Whether it's the car combat system or fetch-and-retrieve tasks, the activities on offer make sure you're engaged but not overwhelmed.

The characters in Phantom Liberty stand tall, both figuratively and literally, thanks to CDPR's next-level animation work. Idris Elba's Reed doesn't just grace the game with his voice; he embodies a character who's as dynamic as he is fascinating. Keanu Reeves' Johnny Silverhand is back, too, serving as a cynical chorus to your escapades. The chemistry between these characters creates an emotional gravity that pulls you into the narrative, making it an engaging experience even when you're not shooting or hacking your way through missions.

This brings us to the issue of gameplay, which is inseparable from the transformative impact of Update 2.0. The gameplay mechanisms have been finely tuned, allowing for a more harmonious experience that caters to different playstyles. A Netrunner can seamlessly blend hacking skills with smart weaponry, while melee-focused builds allow for incredibly satisfying kills. Choices for character builds are extensive, but not overwhelming, letting you swap skill points and try different approaches without regretting your life decisions. From the stealth sequences to the gunfights, most missions offer multiple ways to achieve objectives, further underlining the game’s newfound flexibility.

However, Phantom Liberty isn't without its shortcomings. One particular mission featuring insta-death stealth segments felt less like a challenge and more like a wall I kept running into. Also, Dogtown, the expansion’s primary locale, while dense and detailed, could feel constrained in size when compared to the sprawling map of Night City.

But let's not stray too far from the bigger picture. After three years, what CDPR offers isn't merely a polished version of Cyberpunk 2077. It’s almost a brand-new experience that exudes quality from its characters to its gameplay dynamics. While the expansion lasts around 17-18 hours, its impact lingers on, just like its stunning score that I'm still listening to.

With Phantom Liberty, CDPR didn't just avoid “being another Cyberpunk” at launch; they have set a new benchmark for how to rejuvenate a game post-launch effectively. It serves as a template for industry redemption, joining the likes of No Man's Sky and Final Fantasy XIV. It's a game that has metamorphosed into what it was always supposed to be – a deeply engaging, multi-faceted cyberpunk adventure.

Even if the initial fiasco could have spelled doom for CDPR, the company's audacity to persist and rectify its errors has paid off. It's not just a masterful expansion but also a declaration that Cyberpunk 2077 has finally arrived – and it's here to stay.

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