Cyberpunk 2077’s one-and-only expansion, Phantom Liberty, is coming out on September 26, but the 2.0 update—which brings some pretty significant systemic changes to the RPG that has been getting incremental changes since its disastrous launch in 2020—is coming out for free for all players on September 21. Is it enough to salvage a game some think might not be salvageable? I sat down with fellow staff writer Claire Jackson to talk about it after we’d both spent several hours with the new changes. Our conclusion? It might not fix everyone’s problems with Cyberpunk 2077, but it is the mechanical realization of what the game probably always should have been.
Kenneth Shepard: Claire, I have one question for you, and it’s just a simple one that isn’t loaded or complicated at all. Is Cyberpunk 2077 good now?
Claire Jackson: I’ve always loved this game. It holds a special place for me, so it’s always been “good.” Just with a big asterisk. I think Phantom Liberty really makes that asterisk hard to see. The game is in a very different place now.
KS: Honestly, I went from a begrudging respect/disdain toward it when I played it at launch to it also holding a very special place for me when I replayed it last year. Even then, that was before the 2.0 update, and I think while I certainly had my issues with the writing, its worldview, and a myriad of other problems, I always thought the thing that always kept it from being good or great was a lot of its systemic issues. Because there’s an argument to be made that even the most detestable parts of it Cyberpunk 2077‘s writing were part of a larger commentary, and whether or not it holds up to scrutiny is a separate discussion. But systemically, Cyberpunk 2077 just felt like the most unremarkable RPG adorned with some pretty neon lights, great characters, and some pretty strong thematic broad strokes. I think I’m on record somewhere as saying that short of big sweeping changes to the way the game operates nothing was going to make Cyberpunk 2077 “good.” But I also think I said that assuming we’d never get something like the 2.0 update, and I gotta say, this is exactly what the game needed.
CJ: Oh, I’m in total agreement. I’m always happy to talk about what I love in this game, and the weird way its narrative (and even buggy state) resonates with me. But you’re right: There are fundamental issues that go beyond just bugs. Those issues have been very well documented and they’re totally valid. And for a good chunk of Cyberpunk’s core problems? There’s no fixing them without making a new game. The good news is that the new update, I think, is like half a new game (maybe a bit more?). The new mechanics really make for a fresh experience.
KS: The funny thing was I was using my second playthrough, which wasn’t a total completionist run but I’d done a majority of the things to do in that game. Booting the game up and just immediately being able to access almost everything on one of the new skill trees was like being put behind the wheel of a truck after driving cars for years. One of my big recommendations for people going into the 2.0 update is to maybe go test out a lot of the skills before jumping into Phantom Liberty, because many buttons no longer do what they previously did.
My V is specced hard into Cool and stealth, which was fine in the original game. I loved rebooting enemy optics, then sneaking up behind them and taking them out, but that was most of what I did to get through fights in that game. With 2.0, the Cool/stealth build has so many new tools in its kit. I used some of the update hardware to cloak in fights, and the skill tree has so many neat perks, like slowing down time when you’re seen giving you a precious few seconds to get back into cover before an enemy aggros. And even then, I can use Memory Wipe or Reboot Optics to take advantage of that opening. It really feels like CDPR just gutted this game and put something new in its place, because progression is no longer this really arbitrary, inconsequential numbers game of making damage go up. Now, each spot on a skill tree gives you something tangible to use in the game, rather than making my pistol’s bullets hit harder, somehow.
CJ: Oh yeah, there’s a good case to be made that one may wish to start with a new character or take their time with other activities before diving into Phantom Liberty’s story, because I definitely had (and am still struggling with) a bit of an awkward learning stage with the new mechanics. Old habits and go-to strategies might not work for folks—and I think that’s for the better. Much as I always saw myself in V narratively, I rarely paid significant attention to the RPG mechanics under the hood. I couldn’t tell you what my “build” was. In the original game, the options rarely felt rewarding (I also have a hard time with RPG mechanics that aren’t in a turn-based game, particularly when it’s a shooter and my brain just wants to go into Halo mode). I’d just get some numbers up and then spam shots to get to a cool narrative moment, because that’s what I was there for (and pretty lights), but now? I too have been investing in Cool, and its wild how much I feel like I’m fulfilling a Matrix-y cyberpunk fantasy now. I can zip around, bring time to a crawl, mantle out of cover, and slide across the floor as time slows. Like this new skill tree feels way more interesting when it comes to crafting a specific build and living up the fantasy of this kind of fiction.
KS: Yeah, I’ve been talking to a few others who have been playing 2.0, and it’s been really surprising seeing how much one person’s V can be so different from another now. I was talking with Jesse Vitelli at Prima Games, who has specced into Reflexes, and there’s a perk in there that lets you lower stamina use when dashing toward enemies. That guy is just outrunning cars, while I’m over here hacking and sneaking around. There’s now real distinction in character builds that gives you divergent strategies. Sure, you could probably spec into something tanky or stealthy, but in terms of the verbs you were using, a lot of Cyberpunk felt flat. That’s all just fundamentally different, and it feels like a really strong roleplaying decision you’re making, on top of a mechanical one. Baseline, V is a merc, but now I feel like it’s possible to say something about your character in their build and strategies, rather than a lot of us just falling into the most common denominator of what is useful.
CJ: Yeah the old system was just basically “number go up”—and there still are a ton of stat boosts and percentage increases here, but it feels like it feeds into a more active playstyle. Now, even reviewing my capture footage, I’m surprised by how often I’m diving back into the skill trees. I’ll get to an encounter and start observing ways I could improve my build, then go and check out what new options I’ll have available to me. Like upping my reload speed with pistols in Cool, combined with the ability to sprint and reload from Reflexes. I’m actively looking for these cool synergistic moments to build out an exciting playstyle. I was not doing that at all previously. And even just perusing the skill tree you’ll find cool things that inspire you to try out new tricks and playstyles, like being able to use Sandevistan while driving—and now finally being able to do drive-by shooting!
KS: One of the big things in the Cool tree that just fundamentally changed my playstyle was Deadeye, which makes headshots the most trivial thing by aimbotting you onto enemy heads, as well as slowing down time so you get a real good, precise pop with pistols and other weapons. In Phantom Liberty, you get a powerful silenced pistol, and I tried to avoid using guns as much as possible, because I was too busy stealthing and taking enemies to the chiropractor. But Deadeye just made gunplay more viable for me, and even if I managed to reactivate stealth after things got loud, I would start using a silenced pistol to speed things along, rather than getting too precious about my perfect stealth run. Everything just feels so much more dynamic now, and I’m still surprised at just how much better things are. Single-player games rarely get this kind of overhaul.
Speaking of drive-by shooting, holy shit, the car combat isn’t something I necessarily love doing, but I was just surprised at how fundamentally different things were. Enemies and cops are so aggressive now with the new behaviors they’ve added. These motherfuckers are trying to run me off the road when I’m on a motorcycle. Like, damn, talk about overkill. But that’s why it’s cool to just be able to whip out my revolver and get them off my back. Even if it’s not a mechanic I care to work with much, it’s just good to have more tactics at hand other than drive away faster from your pursuers.
CJ: Like I said before, I loved this game for the story first, but when the bullets started flying previously it just felt like mindless blam, blam, blam. But just as you highlighted, now with something like Deadeye, there’s more of a game-to-play™ when the action starts. And I don’t doubt that folks who really came to know the old system in-and-out weren’t having fun, but things just feel more readable, understandable, with better control for charting out builds.
And yeahhh, the drive by shooting, jumping out of cars, it helps bridge the gap that existed between regular run-and-gun stuff and then driving. Previously cars just felt like a means of traversing the map to take in the sights…and that was about it. I am concerned that the base game won’t have enough scenarios that really make use of these new driving mechanics—as they were designed with the old limitations in mind—but to have them makes the game feel more malleable and dynamic, without that firm boundary that always felt present when you hopped into your car. Now your car is more a part of the cyberpunk fantasy, and that’s pretty awesome.
KS: Ultimately, all of this just helps me feel like I actually “exist” in Night City, rather than just passing through. It’s been a pretty bittersweet feeling going back to it to play Phantom Liberty and feeling like the game has finally gotten its shit sorted, just as it’s releasing its only expansion. But that’s a conversation for another day (a review, perhaps). Right now, I’m just kind of amazed at how well CD Projekt Red managed to salvage this game in ways that I would have thought would have required a sequel. I still want to go back and do a full third playthrough with 2.0’s changes in place, but right now, I’m just really vibing with how much more V feels like the stealthy hacker I always imagined him to be.
CJ: Bittersweet is literally the word that’s been on my mind with these changes. This update won’t fix everyone’s issues with the game, but it really does make for a much better experience. 2077 would’ve been far better off shipping closer to what’s here than what arrived in 2020. We know CDPR has more plans for the future of this franchise, but we’re basically looking at 2077’s curtain call with this update and with Phantom Liberty, and I’m so glad to get to replay this game in such a better form (and new content with Phantom Liberty). But it also feels like saying goodbye to the game in a way—which like, as a single-player game, sure I can play it forever, but this update evokes that sentiment.
So I think that really raises the question: Given that it is such a refresh and potential “final act” moment of 2077, should folks roll up a brand new V and start from scratch?
KS: Questions like this are tough for me, because I’m so attached to my player characters in RPGs that I don’t tend to roll new characters in subsequent playthroughs, just remake them to start their story over. But I do think the changes are so far-reaching that experiencing Cyberpunk 2077 with them is the best way to play this game now. If you’ve been away for awhile, yeah, I think starting the game over and actually building out a character with these new systems is pretty rewarding, and feels like experiencing the game how it should have always been. For me, it was about finally realizing who my V was and how he would have made his way through the city, but I think broadly for anyone who’s looking to try out Cyberpunk 2077 after all the updates, this is as close to definitive as it’s ever going to be. Warts and all.
CJ: Yeah the sentimental attachment is rough, but as you said, when you consider how substantial these changes are, you also want to have a game to play them through. So, I feel it wouldn’t be fun to get this whole overhauled system when you’re a handful of missions away from the end anyway, and don’t have as much to playthrough (even if you get Phantom Liberty in addition to this). Also, if you’re high enough level, the game is going to ask you to re-spend all the points you have. That (as was the case for me) can be pretty darn overwhelming when you have dozens of points to allocate. Taking in these new options step-by-step is going to help folks get the most of it I think, and then you’ll be in pre-em fighting form for Phantom Liberty when you reach that point in the campaign.
KS: It definitely felt like I wasn’t “growing” into this build. It was more like a lateral pivot from the pretty meh stealth build I had in the original game into becoming a super spy hacker. Which was jarring, but still really powerful at illustrating just how big the changes are. Ultimately, whatever route you choose to go, I think this is the definitive way to experience this game, and while I know some might have valid preservation criticisms about the original game essentially being unplayable short of just not downloading the update, this is the version of Cyberpunk 2077 CDPR probably wishes they had launched in 2020. And it’s the one I wish we all could have played then, as well. What a concept, you sell millions of copies of a broken game and you’re able to stay afloat while you fix it.
CJ: And this certainly is about as “fixed” as 2077’s ever gonna get.
Be on the lookout for Kotaku’s full review of Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty expansion on September 20, 11 a.m. Eastern Time.