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‘Red Dead Redemption II’ Review: The Defining Game of the Generation

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Red Dead Redemption II is one of those rare, monumental video games that seems destined to serve as a watershed moment for the industry going forward, like a great chasm separating everything that came before from everything that is yet to come. The virtual world in which this game takes place is so far above and beyond what we’ve seen in an open world setting before that you’ll likely still be left gawping at the screen when you’re sixty hours deep, still discovering, still exploring, still aghast at how this technological marvel ever came to be. Never before has an open world game been crafted with this level of polish, and if it were to be suggested that some form of witchcraft or sorcery were involved in its creation, even sceptics of the supernatural might find themselves swayed to believing in all manner of uncanny phenomena.

It’s the sort of game that only a studio that made truck loads of money with their last release can afford to make without concern; a surprisingly risky triple-A blockbuster, one that appears to care not one whit what gamers — hardcore or casual — want or expect, and one that makes no attempt to follow the accepted norms, for better and worse. This is a slow-burning historical drama set in the Old West, one that at times seems to meander, and at other times hurtles with such electrifying pace that you won’t be able to stop yourself from grinning out of sheer, giddy, childish glee. The methodical approach Rockstar has taken to storytelling here is mirrored in the gameplay: you’ll spend just as much time riding your horse to the next town over with nought but the chirping birds for company as you will getting into gunfights and drunken punch-ups in seedy saloons.

It’s a story that unfolds not like a movie with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but more akin to a television series comprised of dozens of smaller arcs, some more important than others, but each in service in some way of driving the story forward — however slightly — to its inexorable conclusion. It’s beautiful, overwhelming, tedious, exhilarating, ugly, fascinating, funny, tragic, exhausting, and utterly, utterly engrossing. It’s awesome in the literal sense of the word. It’s also the defining game of the generation.

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It usually means something big is about to go down whenever the whole gang rides together.

Set in 1899, Red Dead Redemption II is a prequel to the original game released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 back in 2010, but familiarity with that title is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying the story here. Those who have played the original will see characters they remember and locales they’ve visited, but II tells a standalone story that works entirely as is.

We play as Arthur Morgan, a lieutenant in a gang of outlaws led by the charismatic, loquacious, Dutch Van der Linde. We meet the gang in the wake of a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater that has alerted lawmakers to both their whereabouts and their identities. They’re forced to go on the run, leaving their base of operations and their accumulated wealth behind, hoping that heading east will keep them out of reach of the long arm of the law while they come up with a plan for a more permanent method of escape. The east represents everything the gang fears about America at the turn of the century — law, civilization, progress, government, and an end to their way of life — but with the only other path available to them seemingly leading to the end of the hangman’s rope, they turn tail and flee through the mountains towards uncertainty.

The opening hours of Red Dead Redemption II are perhaps not as action-packed as you might expect, and if you’re going into the game expecting Grand Theft Auto on horseback, then you might find yourself left wanting. The early missions see Arthur and Dutch braving the harsh mountain weather in search of food and shelter, and we learn what has gone wrong for the group through their conversations as they walk or ride. The gang has suffered losses — not only financially, but in numbers, too. Not everyone made it out of Blackwater alive, and without money or food, others will surely perish in the days and weeks to come.

Dutch Van der Linde is a compelling character to follow.

Some within the gang are ostensibly good people that joined up to escape their troubled lives, while others are dangerous, sociopathic criminals who seem like they’d be perfectly happy robbing and murdering for the rest of their days — whether they get paid or not. The one thing these people have in common is their belief in the man calling the shots; Dutch Van der Linde makes for an intriguing, almost cult leader-like figure, charismatic enough to hold his disparate group of misfits and miscreants together despite their varied backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and general dispositions. But as the game progresses and as the various storylines unfold, it becomes harder for Dutch to hold his increasingly fractured group together with promises of a paradise that’s always just one big score away, only for it to all go awry and leave them deeper in the mire, time and again.

Rockstar Games’ stubborn determination to tell their story their way pays off. It would have been easy to throw in more turret sections or blow more things up, or to build the narrative around larger than life, satirical caricatures. Too often in the past they’ve relied on casts of despicable but entertaining characters, anti-heroes that we couldn’t really care about but would make us laugh or shock us. Here, they’ve created a varied, layered, complicated bunch — more grounded, more real, and more like people with genuine motivations and reasons for doing the things they do.

This isn’t Blazing Saddles, or even Django Unchained. It’s more like Unforgiven, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s a captivating, absorbing yarn about the end of a way of life, the Wild West coming up against the indomitable march of progress, and it’s told slowly and deliberately across many missions, spanning many hours. But it’s also about the things people will do when they become desperate, about loyalty and the price of it, about coming to terms the bad deeds you’ve committed in the past and not allowing them to prevent you from doing good in the future, and about accepting your inevitable fate rather than fighting it to the detriment of everyone around you. In a twenty-hour game, some of the narrative twists and turns might feel forced, but here, by the time the sensational, genuinely exciting finale rolls around after sixty hours, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be out of your chairs willing every punch and gunshot to land.

We see many familiar faces from the original Red Dead Redemption.

In a less ambitious, less self-assured game being crafted by a studio with less of a financial cushion, it’s easy to see how executives in suits could have demanded some changes to make the experience more accessible, but Rockstar Games’ more grounded approach here has paid dividends. This is their best ever story, featuring their best ever cast of characters.

There are other areas of the game in which Rockstar’s intransigence, their disinclination to adhere to contemporary standards in gaming are not such a success. The controls in particular feel positively archaic, and while you will undoubtedly get used to them over time — and it is certainly worth persevering — it’s impossible to ignore the obvious fact that at times Red Dead Redemption II feels like a game a decade older than it is. Everything feels slightly more complicated than it needs to be; you’re always being asked to hold buttons when surely a single press would do, you’re required to tap X to sprint when I think we’ve all pretty much accepted now that just clicking L3 will suffice, and the aiming in gunfights is finicky enough to make auto-aim practically a necessity.

There’s also huge stretches of time spent playing the game in which you might feel like you’re doing little of any consequence, and while these quieter moments do a wonderful job in terms of world building, there’s no escaping the fact that some people are going to wonder why they’re shovelling pigshit and talking to an old feller about his past rather than blasting fools with their shootin’ irons. A slow and methodical game like this is simply not going to be everybody’s cup of tea; think The Last of Us rather than Uncharted, and sixty hours long. You’re going to spend an incredible amount of time riding your horse alone, buying new shirts or hats, hunting for meat or fish to keep your camp fed, and (seriously) waiting for your beard to grow.

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Some of the nights spent in camp celebrating a job well done are wonderfully entertaining pieces of world-building.

Depending on how enamoured you become with the world that Rockstar Games has created for you here, you’re either going to want to spend as much time in it as possible, exploring every nook and cranny, finding every secret, and talking to every character, or you’re going to find a lot of the time spent outside of main missions a bit of a damp squib.

The mission structure throughout the game is superb. Despite how many missions there are — and there are a lot — the quality of them never dips or even seems to waver. You’ll generally have to direct Arthur to a member of your posse who’ll set the scene for what’s about to go down, and the journey to wherever the meat of the quest is due to take place will be spent chatting with your companion(s). During these quieter moments, you learn much about your fellow gang members — their pasts, their temperaments, and their feelings about the bigger picture you’re involved in. Even minor characters get moments to shine and give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

There’s an incredible amount of variety in the quests you’ll be given. Some are as simple as performing a menial task or travelling to another location to talk to somebody, others are multi-faceted, elaborate operations involving dozens of characters, multiple locations, and an awful lot of gunfire. The quieter, more laid-back quests help to provide context for the noisy, violent ones, and as a result, every time you take part in a well-planned robbery or rescue a friend from the clutches of an enemy, it feels like a major event. Some of the smaller missions are also the funniest, and while most of the wackiest characters in the game are relegated to side-quest status in Red Dead Redemption II, there are still lots of amusing moments.

Ain’t no party like a cowboy party.

One fantastic early mission sees Arthur head into town with his friend Lenny to go for a “couple of quiet drinks” at the local saloon, and the shenanigans that ensue make for one of the most entertaining gaming moments of 2018. Red Dead Redemption II is littered with gems like this. There are so many of these quality scenarios — some big, some small — that you’ll undoubtedly see more and more people talking about them as they get further into the game. Side-quests are just as well-written and entertaining as the main quests, and many add so much flavour and character development that you’d be robbing yourself if you didn’t experience them.

Voice acting is strong from start to finish, and every NPC in the game can be talked to, whether you choose to be amiable, hostile, or violent with them. The soundtrack is an absolute delight as well —at times minimal, and at others grandiose. There are instances in the game where you’ll have to ride across a long distance without company, and during some of these a song will begin to play. Incredibly, these songs seem perfectly timed to fit the journey — just another example of how Rockstar Games’ painstaking attention to detail and sense of perfectionism has created an adventure that stands head and shoulders above other open world games.

Graphically, the game is beautiful. It takes place across a number of fictional states in America, each with their own unique topography, climates, and ecological systems. To the north, there are snowy peaks populated by wolves and moose, while to the south, there are swamps and the threat of alligators, with everything between. All of these areas are densely populated and absolutely jaw-dropping to behold. Rarely is this more readily apparent than when observing the changing weather conditions or watching wildlife go about its business.

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Sadie Adler is just one of the many companions Arthur can ride with, and she’s also one of the best.

The intricate world is teeming with flaura and fauna, and the animation quality is staggering. Of course, you can hunt animals if you so desire, with some quite obviously being more dangerous than others. Skinning kills means you can have a trapper craft new clothing or holsters for you, while the meat can be donated to camp for the gang’s butcher to use to keep everyone fed. So, if you’re after some killer alligator shoes to go with your elk-skin chaps, then you better get yourself a hunting rifle and put some time aside.

Otherwise, if you want to rely on clothes that don’t require you to go out and skin anything, you can visit a store in one of the many towns. These establishments sell most of everything you’ll need on your adventure, and the level to which you can customize Arthur is really impressive. Beyond clothes, you can change his hairstyle and beard (but only once your hair has grown long enough),as well as change the appearance of your trusty horse. You can upgrade the camp you’re staying at via donations, and you can customize your weapons with engravings, different metal types, and various varnishings.

Towns also offer more than simple stores to peruse. There are saloons where you can eat, drink, and be merry; there are poker and blackjack tables where you can try to win a small fortune; there are theaters to visit where you can watch cabaret that is genuinely entertaining — this is a world so packed with things to see and do, so stuffed with activities, side-quests, and people to meet, that you can kinda believe that they all just carry on living their lives even after you’ve powered down your console.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Patrick Murphy

    November 6, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    Nice review! Based on the amount and sort of attention given to various elements, this sounds extremely weighted toward those who consider story and immersion into a world more important than gameplay. I can’t count myself in that group (and I’ll avoid this like the plague), but it does seem like a huge accomplishment. We’ll see how much it actually defines this generation, but if that does end up being the case, what aspects do you see having the most influence?

    • John Cal McCormick

      November 7, 2018 at 3:44 am

      It very much is. It’s similar to The Last of Us in that way. That’s held in a super high regard and as one of the best games of all time, but if you remove the story and how you feel about the characters, the atmosphere, the music, and focus just on the gameplay, you’re left with a fairly okay third person survival game. Take Princess Peach getting kidnapped out of a Mario game and you’ve still got a game that’s a tonne of fun to play.

      So it depends what you’re after. If you want the whole package then Red Dead II absolutely delivers, but if your finger is going to be hovering over the skip button every time someone starts talking then it’s probably not for you.

      Undoubtedly, the most influence is going to be in how the open world has been crafted. Open world is a thing that just won’t go away, and more and more games are going open. If you compare the open world here to games that even came out last year like Zelda or Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption II is so far ahead of them that it’s ridiculous. It plays like one of those cinematic, third person action games like Uncharted where it’s all been meticulously planned out like an interactive action movie, but it isn’t. The open world is that organic. Things just happen and it’s like they’re meant to, but then you play the same section again and it plays out differently. The world is absolutely packed with stuff. It’s just an incredible achievement in building a virtual world to inhabit, one where it seems to take longer for that, “Oh yeah, it’s just a game” moment to hit when you realise that you can’t do something, or go somewhere because it’s not in the code.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have more fun playing it, but I do expect to see more studios try to emulate what Rockstar has done here in the world and how you can interact with it.

      The problem will be that studios like Ubisoft who are intent on churning out open world games on an annual basis simply won’t have the time to do it. Rockstar spent years on this thing, and poured a lot of money into it – something they could afford to do because GTA V made so much money. They could afford this kind of risk. I don’t see many other studios doing it, so I fully expect that Red Dead Redemption II will remain the most impressive open world we’ll see until the next console generation.

      I could be wrong, but I genuinely don’t see anyone surpassing it.

      • Patrick Murphy

        November 8, 2018 at 8:50 pm

        That’s one thing I wonder about – how many studios could even seriously attempt to try to attempt the level of intricacy that Rockstar has achieved in their open world? Unless there’s a particular element or system that someone can home in on and take in a new direction, I feel like this could just basically be an anomaly that earns more admiration than emulation.

        I’m curious to see what developers have to say about it. I listened to a couple on the GI Show appreciate it from a distance (they had worked on Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and MGS 4), but they seemed to share the opinion that no one else has the budget or time to mount an effort like that, and they hoped it didn’t turn into an unrealistic standard.

        • John Cal McCormick

          November 9, 2018 at 3:09 am

          Yeah, this is what I mean by nobody topping it until at least the next generation. When you look at the studios working today, who would seriously try to outdo this open world knowing how long it would take and how much it would cost. The likes of Activision and Ubisoft are going to be sat there looking at their money, knowing they can just bang out another Destiny or Assassin’s Creed and it doesn’t need to be this well made, but they can monetize it to death and turn a profit for less effort.

          Microsoft has nothing, Nintendo is a no go. Sony has studios working on open world titles but none of them have been close to this. Perhaps Naughty Dog – Sony seems to let them do whatever they want – as they’ve been heading more and more toward open world in their latest releases but nothing they’ve made comes close to this on that level. As a virtual world it’s just brilliantly made, and far beyond the closest competitor.

  2. Antonia Haynes

    November 7, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Excellent review! I agree with so many of your points.

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Game Reviews

‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.

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Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

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