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‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’ is the New Bench Mark for Open World RPGs

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About forty-five hours into playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I was tasked with tracking down an old companion of mine who had gone AWOL. The mission began as I met up with another old friend and we discussed the best way to track our missing ally down. Knowing that our mutual friend in question was somewhat of a Lothario, we ran through his diary, split up the names of the women he’d been meeting with, and each went out into the city to begin questioning his various conquests. The quest is partly played for laughs, as the jilted lovers make their anger quite clear, and the women who saw through his lecherous act and spurned him comment on his appalling behavior.

What was most striking about the quest was how it was structured. In any other game of this ilk, this sort of light-hearted side-quest would likely be over in minutes, before getting back to more serious matters. In Wild Hunt, the quest lasts an hour, and involves, but is not limited to, a meeting with four different women across the city, a day at the races, a good old fashioned bar brawl, some fencing lessons, and a live performance from a famous, lute-playing bard. From there, the quest branches, opening up other side quests involving the characters we met, some of which also branch into other quests after that.

This game is absolutely massive.

But what makes The Witcher 3 really, really special is that this enormous, open world role-playing game doesn’t spread itself too thinly. The quest I mentioned before is just one example of dozens of well thought out, fully realized quest-lines that take the player on a journey across multiple towns, meeting scores of fleshed-out characters, in many different scenarios. This isn’t a question of quality versus quantity. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gives the player both, and it does so with such a confident swagger that it’s nigh-impossible not to be impressed.

Geralt can happen upon all kinds of incidents, and if the player wishes it, he can usually step in.

Geralt can happen upon all kinds of incidents, and if the player wishes it, he can usually step in.

On countless occasions I opened up the map screen to begin deciding where I would head next, only to sit back in my chair aghast at the breadth of the options before me. Some games provide an incredible five hour experience, while others take a weekend or a fortnight to master. After over forty hours of game, I could quite easily double that and still not complete all the quests I’ve unlocked so far. It’s possible some may find the game overwhelming, but for players like me, who relish the opportunity to become invested in a fully realized world, this is gaming heaven. I’m playing it in most of my spare time. When I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about playing it. If you only buy one game this year, so far, this is the one to get.

The Witcher franchise is based on a series of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. One of the greatest strengths of Wild Hunt is the setting created by the author, and the feeling that the world hasn’t just been created for us as a playground; it’s a lived in, war-torn continent inhabited by real people with real issues. So many times in open-world games the towns and cities feel artificial, but not here.

Consider Seattle as represented by inFamous: Second Son. The third inFamous was an enjoyable game, but strolling up to a street corner to see another musician doing the same thing as the musician you saw a few blocks away takes you out of the illusion. It’s an artificial representation of a city, with precious few variations of citizen, each following regimented patterns in a way that is inherently inorganic. The setting of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the most convincing open world settings I’ve ever experienced, and one in which after forty hours I’ve yet to experience a repeat quest or random instance. It might be an artificial world created for our enjoyment, but it feels genuine, and successfully pulling the wool over our eyes makes the experience joyfully unpredictable.

The sorceress Keira Metz is an old friend of Geralt, and like all old friends, comes with her own branching quest-lines.

The sorceress Keira Metz is an old friend of Geralt, and like all old friends, comes with her own branching quest-lines.

For the uninitiated, our hero, Geralt of Rivia, is a witcher. Witchers undergo special training and body modifications as children in order to enable them to battle dangerous creatures and live to tell the tale. Their unconventional upbringing means that some citizens consider them to be freaks or abominations, but throughout the land they are regarded as warriors who can be counted on to complete tasks that mere humans could not. Pay up, and they’ll take care of the monster terrorizing your village. Cross them, and you’ll wish you only had a wraith or a were-wolf to contend with.

Geralt is the gold standard of Witcher; firm but fair, with a dry wit, and an undeniable charm. The scars that mark his body tell you more than any lengthy piece of exposition could, and the way old friends speak with him says a lot about how reliable he is at his job. Getting to know Geralt in Wild Hunt is a slow burning process, and while the character may appear stoic and emotionless at the beginning of the game, unpacking the various facets of his personality through dozens of hours of interactions with other characters reveal that he’s a lot more interesting than those opening minutes might suggest.

The main plot thrust of the game involves Geralt looking for Ciri, an adoptive daughter of sorts, who has gone missing and is presumably in grave danger. The interesting twist on this familiar narrative is that as Geralt learns a little more about what Ciri has been doing through conversation with other characters who’ve met her, the player is allowed to control her in flashbacks, revealing that she’s not a damsel in distress, but rather a highly skilled warrior comparable to Geralt himself.

W4

The Ciri sections are brief but allow us to get to know her, which in turn makes it easy to feel sympathetic to her plight, giving Geralt’s main quest-line to find her a little more emotional heft. Geralt travels to different towns, speaking to many different people and becoming embroiled in their adventures as he strives to find Ciri, and while the main plot might seem to be very simple for a game of this scope, the simplicity actually helps to make sure that the ultimate objective never becomes lost in side-quests, or the larger political landscape.

As Geralt travels the world he’ll unlock many different quests in many different variations. These can be found by checking out a notice board in a town or village, speaking to characters marked with an exclamation mark above their heads, or they can unlock automatically branching out from other quests. Missions can be unlocked at any time, providing the circumstances for unlocking them have been met, and they’re filed in a handy subsection of the main menu that lets you know where the quests are based, and roughly what level you should be at to have a chance of making it out alive. It’s not unusual to have dozens of quests active at any one time, for recommended levels both far in advance and far below your current stature, but the quests are different enough, and the quest-givers fleshed out enough, that the missions mostly avoid feeling rote or by numbers.

Opening the map screen allows the player to keep track of exactly which direction they should be headed in order to complete their current mission, but also reveals places of interest removed from the currently unlocked objectives. These take the form of question marks on the map, and heading to one could reveal buried treasure, bandit camps to eradicate, monster nests to take care of, slaves to free, dangerous beasts to slay, and other activities. While these instances rarely come with a story-based incentive to complete them, they often yield valuable items and experience points, so it behoves the player to make the effort when they come across the opportunity. The main thrust of these mini-objectives is generally to find something, or kill a bunch of creatures, which requires the player to use their “witcher senses” or their combat skills respectively.

Geralt can join a bare-knuckle boxing competition to prove his worth among the peasants.

Geralt can join a bare-knuckle boxing competition to prove his worth among the peasants.

Witcher senses are essentially the detective mode from the Arkham games for witchers. Holding down the L2 button gives the screen a blur effect and allows Geralt to use his heightened senses to locate items of interest, ranging from hidden walls and objects, to tracks, blood or scent trails. Missions frequently require Geralt to use his witcher senses to track a friend or enemy, before ultimately having to deal with whatever the problem may be. While he can deal with many issues diplomatically, or even by using his magic powers to influence someone’s mind, more often than not, he has to deal with his problems the old fashioned way; by whipping out his swords and cutting down whoever, or whatever, stands in his way.

Combat in Wild Hunt feels somewhat akin to combat in Assassin’s Creed, for better or worse. Geralt has two swords – a steel blade for human foes, and a silver one to vanquish magical beasts. Sword fights make use of both quick and strong attacks, careful blocking, as well as countering with a well timed tap of the block button. Like Assassin’s Creed, these battles require careful timing that when mastered can allow the player to feel like a truly powerful warrior. Often, taking a hit isn’t a matter of course, but the result of an ill-timed block or parry attempt, and so success or failure always feels like it’s in the hands of the player, rather than a cheap enemy attack.

Geralt is also in possession of an array of magical skills, such as the ability to conjure a defensive shield, a fiery blast, or to take control one of his foes, forcing them into doing his bidding. Enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, leading some to be more susceptible to certain types of magic than others, and the bestiary reveals much about how to tackle the various monsters that inhabit the lands. Coating your blades in special oils can buff your weapons with specific properties, and this sort of preparation can mean the difference between making mincemeat of your enemies, scraping through a dungeon by the skin of your teeth, or failing outright.

Geralt's beard grows over the course of the game. Seriously. In fact, for beard lovers everywhere, one of the first pieces of free DLC is a hair/beard style pack, allowing more styles of grooming for all you witchers who like to look good.

Geralt’s beard grows over the course of the game. Seriously. In fact, for beard lovers everywhere, one of the first pieces of free DLC is a hair/beard style pack, allowing more styles of grooming for all you witchers who like to look good.

One of the greatest strengths of the combat in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt actually lies in its brevity. While there are many battles in the game, the size of the world and length of the missions mean that the time spent fighting is comparatively short. Where Assassin’s Creed has similar combat mechanics, that series has a tendency to overwhelm the player with a lot of enemies, which can lead to battles degenerating into button mashing affairs as the player tries desperately to get out of the fight as quickly as possible.

Wild Hunt recognizes that violence is generally most impactful when used sparingly, and so the battles in the game tend be over fairly quickly. Geralt will usually find himself in a pickle that can only be resolved via the sharp end of his blade, and seconds later he’s surrounding by the bloody corpses of his recently slain foes. Like the Japanese movie series Zatoichi, the battles Geralt gets into tend to be intense flurries rather than drawn out affairs, and they’re all the better for it. Combat isn’t perfect, with the lock-on system feeling a little sketchy at times, and hits occasionally not registering when it looks like they should, but on the whole it’s satisfying and engaging.

The variety of missions and the random instances that take place in the game are undoubtedly one of Wild Hunt’s greatest strengths, but also worthwhile of note is the relative inactivity between these moments. The periods of calm as Geralt travels from one town to the next are a treat unto themselves, allowing the player time to absorb the scenery, learn the lay of the land, or even just have a little alone time to think about the task at hand before reaching the next destination. These quieter moments are, in many way, just as important as the flashes of violence or the story progression, as they give the player an opportunity to become more immersed in the wonderful open-world created for them.

If you're a fan of lutes, you're in for a treat in this mission.

If you’re a fan of lutes, you’re in for a treat in this mission.

Riding through a town to a chorus of insults from superstitious peasants that consider witchers a sin against their various gods, it’s hard not to feel something. Wild Hunt has you, the player, take on the role of an outsider, and the animosity some people spew at you based purely on your upbringing can really hit home just how volatile this world is. The political scene is tense and seemingly ready to explode, and Geralt and his witchers are just one of the combustible elements in play. The moments spent observing the common-folk, both amiable and hostile, helps to give the game a real sense of a world inhabited by people with their own thoughts, allegiances, and prejudices.

In a similar vein it’s worth noting that on a technical level, the world created here is nothing short of astonishing. While the graphics aren’t as eye-popping as something like The Order or The Last Of Us, the fact that the world can look half as good as it does given the scale of the maps and the almost complete lack of load times (experienced only when first loading, fast-travelling, or upon death) is incredible. Of particular note is the weather system, which like the time spent among the peasants and lords of the towns and cities, helps portray a world that feels truly alive. Sunsets as seen behind the silhouette of farmland, or wind and rain battering the branches of trees in a small forest are often breathtaking to behold, and among the very best I’ve seen in a video game. Voice acting is also consistently strong, and with all characters fully voiced, side-quests that would otherwise perhaps feel of less importance are often just as compelling as the main plot-line.

The quest that I mentioned at the beginning of this review is worthy of note for more reasons than highlighting just how long Wild Hunt is. I’ve mentioned many different ways in which the game is special, but that mission (and there are many others that I could talk about in this way) represented exactly what I think is the strongest aspect of The Witcher 3, and why it’s a truly special game. The greatest achievement of CD Projekt RED here is the amalgamation of all these separate strengths into a cohesive whole that amounts to more than the sum of its already impressive parts.

Battles are violent, bloody and usually over quickly.

Battles are violent, bloody and usually over quickly.

Tracking a friend via his string of scorned lovers gives the player an opportunity to explore a town, taking in the sights and sounds, before conversing with the aforementioned women leading to further missions. We learn more about Geralt and the world through the interaction with these characters and the women are all completely different and believable, ranging from lowly peasants to high nobility and everything in-between. We learn some of the history of side characters and open up more quest lines. We get into brief bar-room brawls and take part in sword fighting lessons. We try our hand at horse racing. And there’s a wonderful scene in a tavern as we sit back and watch a song played by a bard that is both genuinely entertaining, and offers some well deserved respite. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game that has many strengths, but it’s greatest is in knowing how to use them all together to create something truly memorable.

It’s worth noting here that CD Projekt RED have also, quite magnanimously, vowed to release up to sixteen pieces of free downloadable content for players as well as the obligatory upcoming paid DLC. Given the amount to do already in the game upon release, complimenting it with more free content down the line is a gesture that shouldn’t be ignored, and hopefully one that other publishers will take note of. With dozens of unique missions, hundreds of random encounters and hidden treasures, a fully fledged popular card game to master, a pugilists club, horse racing rackets, dozens of magical beasts to slay, weapons and armor to upgrade, a complex character progression system, alchemy and crafting options, serious decisions to make with real consequences, and romance options to boot, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the quintessential example of how to do open-world gaming properly. There’s no superfluous collecta-thons, and there’s little in the way of repeated missions. The amount of content in this game is borderline ridiculous, and for once the hyperbole regarding how long it will take to uncover all the secrets of the world feels like it might actually be an understatement.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an almost MMO-level commitment, but without the grind associated with that genre. It’s not the sort of game you can dive into for ten minutes here and there, or hope to beat in a weekend. This is the sort of long-form gaming that keeps you busy for a month and does it with such style that it never gets old, or tedious, and never makes you feel like you’re completing busy work or administration. A few technical flaws here and there and some occasionally clunky combat mechanics are about the only issues, but given the weight of positives going against them, they’re barely worth mentioning at all. This is one of the first truly special games of the current generation, and one that we’ll likely still be talking about with reverence for years to come.

This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org

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

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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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Game Reviews

‘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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Game Reviews

‘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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