It's hard to believe that 3 years have already passed since I've first descended into the streets of Night City, but the calendar doesn't lie.
I needed a good reason to revisit the game after a failed attempt in 2022, when I quit just after an hour or so because of frustrating amounts of glitches and bugs. In my experience the game was in a worse state in late 2022 than it was shortly after its launch in January of 2021. Which was the last time I played it in earnest.
But now I had not one, not two, but three good reasons to revisit the game. Firstly the 2.0 (2.1) patch, the release of the only paid expansion for the game: Phantom Liberty, and finally the fact that I have upgraded my GPU to a RTX 4080 that should be able to give me an uncompromised experience, as opposed to the 2080 Ti I originally played the game on. And it mostly does, although I encountered occasional stutters, but I suspect that is due to my by now also aging CPU, but since I'm playing at 3840x1600, I should be GPU bound for the most part still.
The famous 2.1 patch
First thing's first. Before delving into the expansion itself, let's talk about the major upgrade the game got. If you are not interested in this feel free to skip to the next headline.
Is this really the game changer it was hyped up to be? Well, I don't want to tell everyone who were waiting for the game to "get fixed" that I told you so, but I told you so.
The game is still buggy, and not even slightly buggy. Glitches are aplenty still. It is not the night and day difference everyone hoped for. Don't get me wrong, I also hoped that it would be more bug free, but I kept my expectations grounded. The game is enjoyable despite the occasional glitch, but I was of the same opinion already in 01/2021. So to anyone who waited just for the bugfixes: Know that it was mostly in vain. You can either deal with the bugs as is, or you can wait indefinitely.
I think at this level of complexity it is impossible to iron out all the glitches. It would just take forever. And I'd rather deal with a more ambitious but slightly buggy game, than one that aims low but is relatively bug free.
However not all is gloomy, there is another area where the overhaul is actually a game changer: The skill tree. I remember being extremely frustrated with it in the original version of the game, it was all but useless to me. I could not find any path with skills that seemed even remotely useful, so I remember not even spending my points for long periods because anything I could unlock I did not want.
The new skill tree(s), one for each trait are much more well thought out and logical. Actually offering skills that build on each other and offer great specialization possibilities. Unfortunately there is still an issue, the trees are just too small, you can max out any specialization fairly quickly forcing you to become a jack of almost all trades.
I say almost, because the level cap prevents you from acquiring every skill in a single campaign, but you can fully unlock three out of five branches, each containing two specializations. If you do all side missions and gigs as I did, the level cap will hit you many hours before the end of the game. So it's not a perfect system still, but infinitely better than v1.x.
The patch also promised a complete overhaul of police behaviour. But frankly the way I play the game this does not make a lick of a difference. I don't play the game as GTA, if I ever attract police attention it is because I made a mistake. Like bumping a pedestrian with your car. Which is quite stupid, I knock over someeone, even if they aren't dead, the police will start shooting at you like you just commited mass murder. And I don't remember all NPCs being psychic in the 1.x version, but now even if you do just some minor crime like hacking a vending machine, everyone goes aggro around you and civilians start running like headless chicken shouting "cyberpsycho". What the hell?
So to sum it up, version 2 of Cyberpunk 2077 is not the game changer it was hyped up to be, it brings some improvements, most notably the new skill tree. But it only slightly reduces the amount of glitches encountered and in other areas like police behaviour it is a sidegrade at best.
After 1.000 words it is time to get to the point. Phantom Liberty is a major story expansion that offers roughly 25 hours of new unique content, mostly set in a walled off portion of Night City, called Dogtown. Twenty plus hours might sound like a lot, but it goes by quickly and I was left craving for more.
I felt that things in the main story of Phantom Liberty are quite rushed, there was much room for additional connecting tissue here. One thing just leads to another in quick succession diminishing the weight. Even the relationships you supposedly build with the new characters seemed hollow. You meet someone once and on the next meeting you are already buddies? I'm not saying what we got is bad, and if you imagine the missing bits in your head it could even be great, but it shouldn't be left to your head canon to fill in the blanks.
Rushed is the name of the game not in just the story but the gameplay as well, as many of the main story missions are very linear, you have minimal freedom to play it as an immersive sim. Instead you are just being herded through a one way corridor.
This is quite sad, because Dogtown as a setting might seem small at first, but is teeming with possibilities, most of which goes untapped by the story. Side gigs offer some open world content, but it was not nearly enough to satisfy me.
The side gigs in Dogtown at least are slightly more complex than in greater NC, but apart from those the only new activity you get is gone in 60 seconds. Randomly a wheel icon will appear on the map indicating a car you need to steal. But this activity gets old very quickly. As there are only three variations of it, either you get pursued and need to get rid of the enemies, or you simply have to deliver the car undamaged, or with the third version within a time limit.
Neither of the three is particularly challenging, and you always have to take the car out of Dogtown, so in every one of these you'll drive the same exact route for half the mission (Dogtown has only one exit to Pacifica). The goal of doing these is to unlock cars for purchase, but the game doesn't tell you how many you need to complete, so I gave up after about a dozen when it still refused to unlock the interesting ones.
Before my closing statements I want to circle back to the story, since the writers wrote themselves into very specific corners with the base game, the only way this can work is sanwitched in between the heist and the point of no return. Specifically the Phantom Liberty campaign can be started after you dealt with the Voodoo boys in Pacifica.
When a netrunner will contact you with an urgent mission. You'll have to become Snake V. No, seriously. The (New)USA's president's plane crashes in Dogtown and you need to save them from the gangs and ruler of Dogtown, Kurt Hansen, a former NUSA colonel, turned warlord. But clearly John Carpenter is not the only bit of inspiration being used liberally by Phantom Liberty as choosing to go down a specific path in the story will lead into a mission that plays exactly like Alien Isolation's earlier levels. The line between being blatant ripoff and homage is very thin here. But I think this still falls on the good side there.
Without going into spoiler territory the story of Phantom Liberty has a fork in the middle that will lead to two very different endgames, each leading into two possible outcomes. I'm sorry, but I can't be more specific than that, well maybe I can reveal that one choice will lead to a more action heavy path than the other. In typical Cyberpunk fashion there is no good choice, only two wrongs.
But the cool bit is, that making specific choices will open a new fifth or sixth (depending on how you count) ending for the base game as well. And if you don't want to read a minor spoiler please don't click this link.
Sorry, but I just had to vent my frustration about that. With that out of the way let's evaluate Phantom Liberty:
- Great overall story
- Complex characters
- Even more improved graphics with much more detail in Dogtown
- Hard choices
- Main story feels a bit rushed, not enough breathing room to get to know the characters
- Relatively short at around 20 hours with side gigs included in that time
- Quite a few very linear almost on-rails segments
- The setting is a bit under utilized, there is much untapped potential in Dogtown
- One of the endings is particularly frustrating as it doesn't even give you confirmation whether your efforts were in vain or successful.*
*Update: I've learned since that there supposed to be confirmation, but for some reason the relevant mission did not trigger for me, so much for being bug free :(
Graphics and technical merits : 8/10
Story and writing : 9/10
Gameplay : 10/10
Overall impression : 8/10
I believe Phantom Liberty despite its minor shortcomings offers a much more enjoyable main story than the original game did. The characters are more relatable and human each with their own flaws and baggage. Even Johnny Silverhand is less annoying here than usual.