After the somewhat disappointing conclusion to my first run at Cyberpunk 2077 I never did go back to an earlier save to try something different. With the announcement of Phantom Liberty I decided to start up a fresh game earlier this year and had made a bit of a dent in Act 1 before finding more details about the expansion, including a major overhaul of key systems in the whole game. As a result I parked up that second play-through until the full release, and by the time that came around a few weeks back I’d got so rusty I decided to start from scratch, again.
It probably wasn’t the best decision in hindsight; though things have been tweaked and combat feels better this time around the first part of the game plays out in much the same way, and it was a bit of a drag running through that first heist again. After that you have a few different leads to follow so I switched things around by tackling them in a different order, and that refreshed my interest nicely enough to propel me to the point that the expansion started.
It has a neat introduction, a little on-rails but nothing too egregious as you crawl, jump and fight through ruined buildings to reach Dogtown, the new zone. It felt like a fair challenge, particularly a boss that was the toughest battle of the game so far, emphasising the isolated status of the new area. Things then opened up again, with side missions and more freedom, though I hadn’t realised quite how much freedom until I hopped into a car marked by an icon on the map (Have Icon, Will Interact). Phantom Liberty adds the old GTA staple of nicking particular cars and driving them across the map to a random garage, so I merrily followed the indicated route and found myself leaving the heavily fortified gates of Dogtown with naught but a loading screen cunningly tucked behind a security scan. I can’t quite remember the timeline, if a local Fixer had been in touch before or after that to say he’d fixed things so I could travel in and out without issue, but it was a little anticlimactic – you couldn’t have done that a couple of hours ago when I was scrapping with a giant robot?
It’s a well-worn issue in open world RPGs, the tension between having a central, driving plot with sufficiently high stakes and urgency while also offering a variety of side-missions or other activities that tend to be rather less important in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I’ve written about it before, quite probably more than once, but can’t think of a precise enough keyword to find specific previous posts so bear with me if I repeat myself. CP2077 gives you a problem you definitely need to solve, but without such immediacy that any diversion would be unwarranted. It also builds in natural pauses, as many games do; “I need some time to set up the next part of the mission, wait for my call”, giving additional licence to chase after errant taxis, biff opposing pugilists for cash, or stumble across reported crimes with perpetrators conveniently unwilling or unable to leave the scene regardless of when you turn up. Phantom Liberty makes the juggling act that bit tougher by slotting into the middle of the game, allowing you to tackle its missions in parallel with the original story, and at the risk of damning with faint praise it’s sufficiently interesting to work. I’m intrigued by the machinations of moles and sleeper agents and Idris Elba, but not so hooked to be frantically following that thread to its conclusion. I’m happily drifting around from icon to icon doing whatever gigs and side activities pop up, and when that gets a little dull then I’ll push on with the main story (of either the original game or the expansion).
It makes for a somewhat fragmented narrative, but it works in a single player game. I could never really get into the story of Guild Wars 2 or Destiny 2 being spread all over cutscenes, dungeons, open world activities and the like, often out of sequence, some bits never directly experienced and others repeated nightly (with a weekend matinee). CP2077 only moves on when you move it on, and I can more than forgive any minor dissonance from a character getting on the phone saying they have an urgent job, but not seeming too put out when I turn up an indeterminate amount of time later having taken a tour of all the clothes shops in the city looking for a pair of shoes to really set off the snazzy new coat I found in a random suitcase under a bridge when I should really have been street racing but couldn’t help breaking off to investigate the possibility of purple loot. I’m looking forward to finishing off Phantom Liberty then seeking a more satisfactory conclusion to the main plot, but just as importantly seeing what sort of random grenade-nosed faulty-groin-implanted oddballs I bump into along the way.