Cyberpunk 2077 has been on a comeback tour over the last year, from a wealth of fixes and updates to the exceptionally well-received Netflix anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Phantom Liberty feels like the final piece of that project, an ambitious expansion that redefines the game as a whole. After playing a roughly hour-long demo and talking to some of the team behind Phantom Liberty, if there was ever a moment for Cyberpunk’s big comeback, it’s now.
Our demo picked up shortly into Phantom Liberty’s story, as the Space Force One transport carrying the New United States of America’s president crashes, and V must come to the rescue.
This takes you through Dogtown, a vibrant “city within a city,” and an abandoned tourist destination that still sports massive landmarks that glitter in their opulence. It immediately feels different from anything else in Night City, and sets the stage for an espionage thriller with plenty of twists and turns.
“Our main goal was to make you feel like Alice in Wonderland, when you go into the rabbit hole,” says lead environment artist Kacper Niepokolczycki. “It’s a very different vibe, because Night City is a living-breathing city, but this is almost derelict. It’s falling apart, people are trying to survive there, and it feels very brutal.”
In order to add to that sense of realism, senior communications manager Pawel Burza says the team at CD Projekt looked at spy thrillers like James Bond and Jason Bourne. They also researched how real spies work in the field.
Narrative was a huge part of my demo, and early on a developer told me I was free to explore Dogtown as I saw fit — but if I followed the main story, I might have a chance to meet Solomon Reed, played by the one and only Idris Elba.
I chose the latter and did not regret it.
Reed is a fascinating character given all the more gravitas by Elba. He’s a sleeper agent, clearly burned by his history with the NUSA, and maybe even a personal past with President Rosalind Myers.
The thought and care put into the story pacing and dialogue is evident, and that same attentiveness carries over to Phantom Liberty’s gameplay systems, which seek to enhance the game at large. These changes aren't locked behind Phantom Liberty, and will carry over to the base game. There’s more going on here than your typical story expansion.
“With Phantom Liberty, there are so many gameplay improvements and system improvements that come into the base game,” says Niepokolczycki. “We redesigned the perks, we’re adding this new Relic skill tree, we’ve improved the AI, and we’ve improved the whole police system, which is so much fun. They’ll react completely differently now and try to use tactics to take you down.”
The influence of Edgerunners is also evident here.
“Even for us, Edgerunners had a big impact. We saw how people reacted to it,” says Burza. “I feel like both Edgerunners and Phantom Liberty have this sense that this is Cyberpunk. Not everything is going to be happy. Characters are very layered, they don’t have one thing that motivates them, but multiple things pulling them in different directions.”
The acclaimed Netflix anime hinged on the idea that cybernetic enhancements can make you superhuman, but strip away your humanity and degrade your body. Those ideas are foundational to Phantom Liberty, too.
“When it comes to the new cybernetics, skills, and Relic tree, you can develop your characters and pump up yourself with all these implants and such,” says Burza. “But they’re actually starting to have a negative impact on your body. You’re going more into this cyberpunk fantasy of enhancing your body to where you’re unstoppable, you’re running on the edge. There are elements we’re introducing with Phantom Liberty that puts you on that edge. So “edge” and Edgerunners — you get the vibe.”
After an hour and a half with both the demo and developers, it’s honestly hard to think of what more I could want from Phantom Liberty. Cyberpunk 2077 has a lot of fantastic writing and moments that got buried underneath technical woes and odd design decisions, but over the last few years, CD Projekt has shown a strong a commitment to improving the game. Phantom Liberty already feels like the last key part of that mission, and it could be the piece that really turns it into something that people talk about for years to come.