Cyberpunk 2077 wasn't always an easy game to love, but one thing I appreciated from day one was that V leaves a relatively small mark on the world. Sure, you help down a transport ship and briefly snoop for a mayoral candidate, but the movers and shakers of Night City always (rightly) treat V like a dispensable street punk—a barrel to be aimed in the direction of your nearest problem.
Well, this punk's next mission is to save the president, and my partner-in-cybercrime is Idris Elba. OK technically he's a superspy named Solomon Reed, but in the same way that I exclusively called Johnny Silverhand "Keanu" in my first two playthroughs, I plan to play Phantom Liberty like it's a buddy cop movie with my best pal Idris. It's an Escape From New York situation that lands V in the middle this mess—my demo jumped around through the early parts of the story, but the gist is that the local leader of Phantom Liberty's new district, Dogtown, shoots down Space Force One and V is the most capable mercenary around to help.
As much as I wanted to hurry through my hour-long Summer Game Fest demo to get the Idris part, it's Dogtown itself that left the biggest impression on me. Dogtown is a new add-on to the Pacifica district, a chunk of Night City that was underutilized in the original game. CDPR describes Dogtown as a ghetto that's been left to rot by the city. The streets are lined with defunct casinos, ramshackle storefronts, and abandoned construction sites that squatters have turned into functioning communities. The centerpiece of the district is a massive disused stadium that houses a bustling market.
It's here that Phantom Liberty's story kicks into gear, and where I was introduced to Colonel Hansen, Dogtown's local warlord who airs his reactionary political talk show on every screen in the district.
Had I not been playing with a time limit, I would've lost an hour to just walking around Dogtown and taking in the sights. With its wide open streets and neo-Vegas aesthetic, Pacifica was one of my favorite places to look at in Cyberpunk. I was bummed that there were only a few story missions in the district, the biggest one being inside a mall that feels detached from the rest of the city. Dogtown fills in the district nicely, and CDPR is promising lots of new side gigs and activities to accompany the new location. That's exciting too, because like The Witcher 3, I had the most fun in Cyberpunk when I was ignoring the relic in my head and simply living the fantasy of my character instead—taking gigs, solving mysteries, driving cool cars. I won't really know how Phantom Liberty stacks up to the main game (or even more optimistically, The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine) until I'm let off the leash.
Though, maybe Elba will steal the show in the main quest. I only met him the last third of the demo, where we hung out long enough to learn that he was president Rosalind Myer's best agent before he was burned by the agency and left for dead—he's basically the protagonist of a '90s action B-movie, and Elba is eating it up. It's certainly better stunt casting than Keanu, who despite interjecting with the occasional insight as Johnny Silverhand, ended up being a nagging, inconsistently cynical presence throughout the main story. Elba's Reed is calm and measured by comparison.
I was excited to learn that Elba is on your side (though this is a spy thriller, so maybe there's a double cross), because Cyberpunk was at its best when V had a partner to work with. Surveying infiltration points with Takemura and solving a murder with detective River Ward were highlights of the base game, so it's a good sign that my limited ride-alongs with Elba are giving off the same vibes.
Phantom Liberty is also bringing some major gameplay changes that CDPR briefly talked about, but I didn't actually see in my demo. The studio sounded relieved to report that Cyberpunk now has a five star notoriety system to complement its improved police AI. It sounds like cops will no longer spawn out of nowhere when you commit a crime. There's a new skill tree that expands on the combat augments like the Mantis Blades and Gorilla Arms. New weapons were also mentioned, though the character I was provided with had a standard stock of LMGs, shotguns, and melee weapons. Car combat is a thing now, too. You'll be able to draw your weapon and shoot out of windows while driving, but CDPR said some cars now have guns mounted to the front of them.
I'm curious how useful car guns will prove to be considering the entire main game was designed without car combat in mind. Presumably Phantom Liberty will have car combat moments baked into the story, but I hope it's not all centralized to Dogtown. There's miles of gorgeous desert north of Night City that's begging to host a Mad Max gladiatorial arena.
CDPR was reluctant to fill in a few details about Phantom Liberty: no price has been announced, and they wouldn't give a rough estimate of how long it'd take to finish Phantom Liberty. My best guess is that Phantom Liberty will be about the length of one of Cyberpunk's main questlines, plus all the side stuff.
Based only on what I actually played, Phantom Liberty is so far a second helping of Cyberpunk 2077. If it were still 2021 that would've been a hard sell for me, but last year's Edgerunners update smoothed over some of the game's worst problems and let its best qualities shine—the characters, guns, cars, and unbelievably pretty city. If the Phantom Liberty update does the same, I'm hopeful it'll be the expansive sendoff that Blood and Wine was for The Witcher 3.
As announced during today's Xbox Games Showcase, Phantom Liberty is releasing on September 26.