Cyberpunk 2077’s update 2.0 makes its RPG combat better than it’s ever been. The new perk system means that you can easily create a brutal killing machine, one capable of deflecting bullets with samurai swords and air-dashing like an anime hero to punch enemies apart.
Phantom Liberty, the expansion released right after update 2.0, makes its combat better in one extra way: by making most of it optional.
I’m not sure I’d call Cyberpunk an immersive sim, but it is a many-paths first-person shooter. That means that while there’s a gun in your hand in most moments, straightforward confrontation is rarely your only option in any given scenario. If you want to tackle missions by primarily focusing on stealth takedowns, conversational persuasion and environmental hacking, then you can. Total pacificism might not be possible, but there’s an expressive spectrum in how you have V, the game’s protagonist, tackle their problems.
We’ve seen this before in many other games, from Deus Ex to Dishonored. The issue I often have is that avoiding combat in those games often means taking a painstakingly methodical approach, with every enemy neatly choked-out and folded away in a cupboard like laundry. Cyberpunk 2077 was much the same way.
Don’t get me wrong – I love stealth systems, and I’ve completed no-kill runs in the likes of Human Revolution. But really this is just swapping one method of engaging with combat for another. It’s not a way to skip combat entirely, and it often prolongs your interaction with those systems by forcing you to crouch-waddle around vision cones.
By comparison, CD Projekt Red’s expansion is uncommonly willing to let you bypass combat entirely when you feel like it. Even when I had a combat-focused build, and even when I didn’t want to spend hours working my quadriceps behind low walls like a squatting god, the game let me progress without firing a shot.
This willingness seems to run through the entire expansion, but let’s start with the most obvious evidence in Dogtown. As you travel around the open world of Phantom Liberty’s new district, occasional supply drops will plummet from the sky. Once they land, they throw up red smoke to mark their location on the horizon. It’s environmental storytelling: this is the method by which the local militia supplies their troops when Dogtown is otherwise entirely cut off from the outside world.
These supply drops are also optional, repeating combat encounters. If you choose to run towards the red smoke, you’ll be greeted by a squad of soldiers looking to secure the supplies for themselves. If you fight them and win, you can steal the rewards, but I also like these fights for their own sake. The drop locations are always in areas designed with lots of cover and interesting angles of attack. They’re fun, if you choose to do them.
It’s also great that you can choose to not. There are so many ways to progress and gain power in Cyberpunk and Phantom Liberty that I never felt like I was missing out or being punished for not engaging in one of these combat scenarios. When I was tired of combat and needed a break from dismemberment, I could safely ignore them.
These supply drops are a neat piece of battle royale-inspired systems design, but even in Phantom Liberty’s main missions, combat is frequently avoidable. A squad of soldiers waiting between you and the President’s destination, already alerted and shooting at you? There’s no opportunity for painstakingly methodical stealth here – so, just run past them. Phantom Liberty is fine with it. A huge multi-faction brawl in a space port? Same deal – ignore the fight and move on through.
Narratively these decisions make sense, and it helps that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t gate dialogue options behind a ‘Persuasion’ stat or similar. Your background as a Street Kid or Corpo might occasionally open up new conversational gambits, but if there’s an option to convince someone not to fight you, it’s normally available regardless of your perks. Phantom Liberty features a boss fight against a pivotal character that I bypassed entirely with a dialogue choice.
Some of Phantom Liberty’s longest, most tense missions don’t even feature the opportunity for combat. It’s a game that understands that shooting can be fun, but that it doesn’t need to be the primary verb by which you interact with the world. When there’s talking and non-combat scenes, they aren’t just there as a way of varying the pace in-between combat scenarios, either. Talking is treated as if it’s equally thrilling, and it is. When a mission does railroad you into brief, unavoidable combat, it often though not always makes that combat unusually easy. It’s like a little apology for making you do murders.
To appropriately set expectations: there are, of course, still other missions where combat is central and prolonged – including a series of gigs, a handful of which are mandatory, where you’ll need to engage with either combat or stealth to overcome tricky skirmishes. I don’t want to give the impression that Phantom Liberty is a visual novel.
I do want to applaud the confidence Phantom Liberty shows, however, in letting players decide for themselves which of its systems they want to engage in.
Perhaps this seems like par for the course for an RPG, but it’s rare that a first-person shooter – even one that’s also firmly planted in the RPG genre – lets you avoid combat entirely as often as Phantom Liberty does. Starfield forces you to do much more shooting than Phantom Liberty does, for example.
Several years ago a BioWare developer suggested that big, story-driven RPGs should have a button that lets you skip the combat, for players who are just there for the world and characters. More and more games these days do have a “story mode”, though it remains rare among blockbusters. Phantom Liberty doesn’t have a button that lets you skip or remove combat, but it arguably has something better: space to choose whether to fight or not provided through level layouts, systems design, and dialogue. Want to sneak and hack past combat? You can do it. Want to just loudly run past combat? Where it makes sense, you can do that, too.
And if combat ever is desirable, then hey, like I said, it’s more fun than it’s ever been.
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