Phantom Liberty Doesn’t Redeem Cyberpunk 2077, But It Does Make It Great

Cyberpunk 2077's 2.0 and Phantom Liberty updates shouldn't erase the game's mistakes from history, but they do make that game something truly special.

Cyberpunk 2077 Phantom Liberty
Photo: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty expansion (and the massive 2.0 update that precedes that expansion’s release) doesn’t completely redeem Cyberpunk 2077. I know people have been rushing to say that it does, and I can understand why.

Since Cyberpunk 2077’s disastrous launch in 2020, “redemption” has been Cyberpunk 2077’s clearest path forward in the minds of many. It’s the word we often use for games that suffer through bad launches but will (hopefully) be saved by future updates. In this weird world we live in where games rarely seem to ever be truly finished when they are released, redemption has become as much of a business model as a spiritual concept.

However, redemption is often an unreliable metric for charting the evolution of a human being much less a piece of entertainment. There’s no redemption meter hanging above us all that we can indisputably fill by completing certain actions. A person can be redeemed in the eyes of those they wronged and never feel that sense of redemption themselves. Alternatively, a person can feel redeemed but not be forgiven by those that they’ve hurt. Redemption is a complex concept and not something that we should toss at the end of a game review like a “10/10” or “five stars.”

For me, Cyberpunk 2077 can never be truly redeemed in the way some clearly want it to be redeemed. Its stunning technical problems and various missing features were inexcusable for a game that enjoyed all of the advantages that it had during its prolonged (and reportedly troubled) development. Cyberpunk 2077’s launch represents some of the worst things about the modern Triple-A gaming industry on a business, creative, and human level. It should always be part of the game’s legacy no matter how much some fans may want people to shut up and just play.

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Furthermore, it should be noted that 2.0 and Phantom Liberty do not turn Cyberpunk 2077 into the game we were originally led to believe it was going to be. There are still too many missing features, too many shortcomings in the writing and world design, and no way for the PS4 and Xbox One gamers who were burned worst by Cyberpunk to get in on the fun (unless they upgrade their hardware). For that matter, you still need to pay more money to enjoy Phantom Liberty, which may be too big an ask for those still hurt by the memory of giving this game money the first time around.

So what do 2.0 and Phantom Liberty do? Well, through many, many alterations and additions, they turn Cyberpunk 2077 into the best version of the Cyberpunk 2077 experience that we got at launch. That might not sound like much, but as it turns out, that might just be enough to make Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty one of the best games in an incredible year for gaming.

It starts with Cyberpunk 2077 2.0: the free update (available now for PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC owners) that changes nearly everything about the base game in some way. We’re well beyond bug fixes at this point (though there are still many of those in the update). Cyberpunk 2077 2.0 fixes and reimagines the base game’s AI, UI, police, crafting, skills, weapon, NPC, Cyberware, and driving systems (just to name a few). Cyberpunk 2077 2.0‘s developers recommend starting a fresh playthrough when you update the game, and I can not echo that recommendation loudly enough. Those who spent dozens of hours with Cyberpunk 2077 will be overwhelmed. Those returning to the middle of an unfinished campaign run will feel like they are on drugs. It’s a different world.

The optional Phantom Liberty expansion goes even further than that by adding a new (an incredible) questline, a new area, new items, new weapons, a new level cap, a new skill tree, and much, much more. The new storyline alone will take you 20 to 25 hours to complete, and I can’t imagine how long it would take to collect, complete, and explore every little thing the expansion adds. It’s one of the most substantial expansions in the history of video game expansions (DLC or otherwise). 

I promise you that we’ll have more to say about the specifics of 2.0 and Phantom Liberty, but for the moment, the thing that matters most is how all of these new ideas make Cyberpunk 2077 feel

Like too many people, my initial Cyberpunk 2077 playthrough was often ruined by (among other things) technical issues, undercooked open-world elements, and some poorly implemented foundational mechanics (most notably, the inventory and equipment) that made everything more cumbersome than it needed to be. However, when I was participating in one of Cyberpunk 2077’s excellent sidequests, hunting down rare items, or building my character, I wasn’t just enjoying the game despite itself; I was enjoying what I felt was an often exceptional example of those substantial concepts. At its best, Cyberpunk 2077 really was one of the best games of 2020. It’s just that the best parts of the game were either inaccessible or served as an island in an ocean of pain and frustration.

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More than anything, 2.0 and Phantom Liberty build bridges to those islands by expanding upon the parts of the Cyberpunk 2077 experience that worked. Yes, entirely new features like vehicular combat are finally in the game, but so many of those core additions feel like they were designed to enhance the fundamental experience of building your character and participating in the various scripted activities this world has to offer. 

For instance, the expanded skill tree is filled with useful new (or reworked) abilities that are genuinely difficult to choose between. That’s because they are both appealing on their own and open up complex character-building possibilities you’ll be dying to explore. The expanded Cyberware system allows you to finally dive deep into what should have always been one of the game’s defining features. Clothing is entirely cosmetic, and crafting is as accessible as it is valuable. Melee, combat hacking (or “casting”), and heavy weapon builds are not only finally viable but wildly entertaining. Even the improved police, enemy, and NPC AI all ultimately exist to service the thrill of testing the possibilities and limits of your character in a world that now reacts to your decisions and challenges you far more often.

Even in its darkest days, I could play devil’s advocate and defend Cyberpunk 2077 by suggesting that you have to think of it less like an open-world RPG and more like a Deus Ex-style RPG. Well, I get the feeling that some members of the team might have agreed with me because that’s pretty much exactly what Cyberpunk 2.0/Phantom Liberty is. It’s an exceptional Deus Ex-style RPG that presents you with a series of well-executed challenges and then offers you a variety of ways to overcome them, each of which demands the understanding and mastery of the character you’ve built.

I’ve long criticized RPGs (most recently, Starfield) for failing to incorporate your various character-building decisions into more parts of the gameplay experience. Well, I have to say that Cyberpunk 2077 2.0/Phantom Liberty is one of the best modern examples of that same concept. At the very least, it features one of the fully realized relationships between real-time action and character-building that I can recall experiencing in a modern game. Cyberpunk 2077 was always an exceptional game in bursts and specific areas. It’s now an even better version of that game far more often.

Of course, that’s what makes the game’s much-discussed path of redemption so strange. Even with all of these improvements, Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t realize its full original potential or even deliver all the things we were told the game was going to be once upon a time. Its base campaign (not including Phantom Liberty) is still uneven (at best). Its open world too often feels painfully shallow despite all the NPC, AI, and in-game economy improvements. Its grander role-playing concepts (especially those that are supposed to cause meaningful changes in the world) are either missing or just can’t compete with the best the genre has to offer. Some pretty big features are also still missing from this game, and others are just tragically limited to the premium Phantom Liberty DLC. 

There’s a very good chance that Cyberpunk 2077 is still not the game you expected it to be. It certainly feels odd to praise the game for now being the best possible version of what it launched as rather than all of the things it probably should have been. For a game that loves to toss out the word “Corpo” in a derogatory way, there is also something strange about praising a multi-billion studio for finally delivering an improved version of what will always be a fundamentally compromised concept.

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But the fact of the matter is that since December 10, 2020, Cyberpunk 2077 has existed as an officially released and readily available (most of the time) video game. It was one of the worst video game launches ever, and nobody gets to take that back. Well, as of the release of Cyberpunk 2077’s now-available 2.0 update (and Phanton Liberty’s upcoming release on September 26), that game is now not only significantly better than it’s ever been but largely representative of the world-class talent and considerable time and money that went into it. If we can’t take back the trouble that Cyberpunk 2077 has caused up until now, then I certainly feel grateful it ended up becoming the best version of itself.

Cyberpunk 2077 2.0/Phantom Liberty is an exceptional experience that ranks among the very best projects released in an all-time great year for gaming. I don’t love the thought of even unintentionally supporting the idea that other studios should consider Cyberpunk’s path to greatness to be a viable option for their own projects. At the same time, I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I felt Cyberpunk 2077 is now something less than great. Then again, that’s what makes redemption such a complicated concept.