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Phantom Liberty might be CD Projekt’s last chance to redeem Cyberpunk 2077

Get ready to wallow in a truly dystopian US

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Idris Elba in his starring role as FIA agent Solomon Reed in Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty. Image: CD Projekt Red
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

A third trailer for Phantom Liberty, the first and only planned expansion for Cyberpunk 2077, dropped on Sunday at Microsoft’s Xbox Games Showcase. It includes a new look at actor Idris Elba and a few additional details about the add-on’s gameplay. But what really stands out this time is the political theme, which sends V off to rescue the president of the United States of America.

This won’t be a story about life on the rough streets of Night City. It’s a tale of espionage and political intrigue, where players will be asked again and again to question their loyalties. The stakes are surprisingly high, both for V and for developer CD Projekt Red.

Cyberpunk 2077 arrived late — very late, in fact, and in poor shape. After the game’s December 2020 launch (and the admission that CD Projekt Red made its employees crunch, even after promising it wouldn’t), it took until February 2022 for the big version 1.5 patch to finally roll out. And while the cars don’t launch themselves into orbit quite as often as they used to, the game’s storyline is still a bit of a disappointment to die-hard fans of the deeper Cyberpunk lore.

In our re-review of Cyberpunk 2077 from April 2022, Cameron Kunzelman noted, “With this game’s long tail of updates, there are seemingly infinite chances to go deeper, to rethink some assumptions, and to engage with the genre at least as fully as its founding texts did. Yet none of these things were deemed patch-worthy. It is more substantive, apparently, to make sure there are new apartments and cars and guns.”

Seen in this light, Phantom Liberty is CD Projekt’s last opportunity for a more complete redemption for its biggest-ever video game. By invoking the executive branch of the U.S., they’re going for the jugular of the franchise’s deeper lore — and the key to understanding it may be a contemporary tabletop role-playing game.

Cyberpunk 2077 is based on R. Talsorian Games’ iconic Cyberpunk tabletop role-playing game universe. First released in 1988 as Cyberpunk 2020, it was later updated in cooperation with CD Projekt as Cyberpunk Red. Set in 2045, this latest edition of the “roleplaying game of the dark future” serves as a kind of prequel to the video game. While players are encouraged to make up the story as they go along, the timeline from 2020 to 2045 is fairly well established. And that timeline, my friends, is buck wild.

The world of R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk is a post-apocalyptic alternate future along the same lines as the Fallout series. The big difference here, however, is that instead of its timeline diverging in the 1950s, it takes a hard right turn in the early 1990s. That’s when the Gang of Four — the National Security Agency (NSA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — put an end to democracy in the U.S. What follows is a period of martial law that extends, more or less, to Cyberpunk 2077’s present day.

Since it’s these four heavyweight three-letter agencies that push the U.S. over the brink into true fascism, consider the introduction of Idris Elba’s special agent Solomon Reed — a member of the newly enshrined Federal Intelligence Agency (FIA) — as a big red flag.

As fascism becomes the new norm in the U.S., several large, wealthy states push back. North and South California, Texas, Alaska, and several smaller Western states declare themselves to be Free States — they’re nominally part of the Union, but they reserve the right to withhold resources and cooperation from the federal government at their pleasure.

Around the same time, all hell breaks loose in every possible sense of the word.

President Rosalind Myers speaks to V in a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
Rosalind Myers, president of the New United States of America, in Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.
Image: CD Projekt Red

“We like to say Cyberpunk is real-world problems turned up to 11,” said Cyberpunk Red line manager J Gray, speaking with Polygon for background on this story. He’s not kidding. Disasters include, but are not limited to, a failed attempt at large-scale U.S. military intervention in Central America; a Neo-Soviet revival and renewed Cold War tensions; the use of tactical nuclear weapons in urban areas; massive disruptions in global energy markets; unchecked corporate warfare; nuclear meltdown; stock market crashes; orbital assault; even drought, man-made plagues, and asteroid impacts.

By 2077, that leaves the setting of Cyberpunk 2077, Night City, standing as a kind of futuristic Casablanca — an extraterritorial escape, a place where personal and private interests have dominion over civil norms. It’s not the place you want to lose track of a major world leader, that’s for sure.

It’s easy to see why the citizens of Dogtown — the largely lawless setting for Phantom Liberty, somewhere near Night City — might have it out for New U.S. President Rosalind Myers. Outside Night City, both American society and the land itself have broken down. People no longer hold allegiances primarily to their town or their country. Those with money are loyal only to the company/warlord they work for, which provides them safety, food, and shelter — not unlike the company towns that sprung up across the U.S. at the turn of the century.

“When mining operations owned the entire town, you worked for a company,” Gray said. “You bought stuff from the company store. You lived in a company house. You went to the company-sponsored entertainment, and you were paid in company cash. So chances are, if you’re a good worker [...] you’re OK. You’re living. You’re able to maybe have a family if you want to — or if the company allows you to. But you are basically more a citizen of the company than you are the United States.”

The sun sets over the Dogtown strip which is dominated by a neon green pyramid in a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.
Dogtown, a new section of Night City in Phantom Liberty, looks like a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas.
Image: CD Projekt Red

That’s what makes Phantom Liberty such a curious development. By 2077, the United States still exists, but it’s repeatedly been broken and humbled for the better part of a century — effectively reduced to the status of a developing nation, but with a much larger stockpile of nukes. The military-industrial complex is no longer a threat to democracy, because the nationalization of the biggest arms dealer in the country helped make democracy a moot point. Things got so bad that the U.S. had to be rebranded as the New United States. Free States still exist in 2077, but both they and the New U.S. are still licking their wounds after a long and bloody war in the 2060s.

So why is V stepping in to save a toothless, petty oligarch? The citizens of Dogtown are likely to represent the biggest losers in this geopolitical scenario: a disenfranchised group isolated even from the rough-and-tumble norms of Night City, likely isolationist in their own right and fearful of any government at all. And once frightened, people tend to turn violent.

My gut tells me that, just as R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk 2020 was playing on the economic and social insecurities of the late 1980s, Phantom Liberty will similarly play on the economic and social insecurities of today. With world superpowers like China, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. surging with newly emboldened populist zeal, global politics feel particularly tense. The situation is similarly troubled in much smaller nations, including CD Projekt’s home country of Poland. How those anxieties will express themselves within a game custom-built to tell intimate stories against a neon-lit urban dystopia is anyone’s guess.

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty will require the original game to play. It is currently up for pre-order via, Steam, the Epic Games Store, the PlayStation Store, and the Microsoft Store for $29.99. R. Talsorian Games still has plenty of new storylines in the pipe for Cyberpunk Red. That includes a new set of missions based on Netflix’s Cyberpunk Edgerunners animated series. Fans can learn more on the official website.

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