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Call of Duty: WWII

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I’m not sure when I stopped caring about Call of Duty. Sometime in the last five or so years the annual shooty series just dropped off my radar. This was never a deliberate or conscious uncoupling, and I remember enjoying some CoDs back in the day, but there were simply more interesting shooters out there. Call of Duty: WWII, however, managed to grab my attention. The WWII setting, the Nazi zombies mode and the overall change of pace seemed appealing. So does the result live up to the hype? Eh… mostly.

COD: WWII is an attempt by the series to get back to its roots. That means WWII and that means you’ll be storming the beaches of Normandy. Again. See the thing about WWII’s campaign is that it’s beautiful, bombastic, exciting… and yet utterly predictable. If you’ve played earlier WWII iterations of CoD, watched Saving Private Ryan or the excellent TV series, Band of Brothers you’ll know what you’re in for. Almost exactly what you’re in for.

You play the part of Ronald “Red” Daniels who is a generic farm boy stereotype who needs to finish fighting this gol’ dang war and get back to his pregnant missus. It’s a tofu bland character and fairly uninteresting, as are most of the supporting cast, save Zussman (Jonathan Tucker) who manages to breathe life into a stodgy script, playing Red’s smart arse Jewish mate. The tale follows the usual beats you’d expect, with occasional diversions like playing as a resistance member (which is fantastic) and air support (which is okay). The whole campaign lasts about six hours – which is long for CoD – and manages to occasionally eke out some pathos from the cliches. It’s not terrible, it’s not great – it’s fine.

Backing up the campaign is the multiplayer which, for many players, is where the game shines. The usual modes like variations on CTF and deathmatch play like business as usual, but the War mode is a highlight – striking a more narrative-based balance, similarly to last year’s Battlefield 1. Having more objective based modes is definitely a step forward for CoD, although playing with dead-eyed teenagers who only care about their KD ratio can be… grueling.

Finally the Nazi Zombies mode is four-player fun, where you and three chums battle waves of the goose-stepping dead, solving mild puzzles and upgrading weapons. Featuring voice acting from the likes of David Tennant and Ving Rhames this mode is a hoot, managing to be gory and even moderately scary. Although I missed the ability to craft barricades this was probably the highlight of the whole package.

Ultimately Call of Duty: WWII is solid but unextraordinary. The campaign is fine, the multiplayer enjoyable and the zombies pretty fun – but none of it feels as deep and interesting as Battlefield 1. With a few friends you regularly play with there’s a lot to enjoy here, just don’t go expecting a complete overhaul of CoD’s aging engine.

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Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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2017 is an important year for the Assassin’s Creed series. The last full scale game was 2015’s Syndicate which had its moments but ultimately was a bit too samey to stand out in a franchise that had been treading water since Black Flag in 2013. Assassin’s Creed Origins, benefiting from a longer development period, attempts to inject fresh life into the prolific series by going back to beginning and setting the caper in ancient Egypt. The results are good… for the most part.

Let’s start with the positive. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a beautiful game. Like, stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Egyptian setting proves to be the Creed’s most compelling environment in ages and you’ll lose hours, perhaps days, just wandering around the sun-dappled vistas, deadly swamps and snake-filled tombs. New character Bayek proves to be an engaging protagonist, as he embarks on a journey that begins as a fairly standard ‘revenge for the death of a beloved child’ plot but morphs into something bigger. Plus the new loot system – whereby you can grind for new weapons and armour – is addictive and rewarding, giving a genuine sense of progression and a reason to explore all nooks and crannies.

That’s the good news, now the not so good stuff. The major problem with Assassin’s Creed Origins is that what you’ll be doing remains essentially unchanged throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. You’ll begin by exploring areas, taking on missions and side missions, assassinating your targets… and then you’ll move to another area in the game’s outrageously enormous map and do it all again. You’ll get better gear, certainly, but the core gameplay loop remains frustratingly static. This becomes truly irksome in the game’s third act when the ending is gated by missions far too high above your level, so it will literally insist on your grinding lower level missions just to be able to play them. This kind of artificially extended gameplay is baffling in a game that is already massive and doesn’t need it at all.

Combat is conceptually a step forward, with the game adopting a hitbox system that means you’ll actually need to be near an enemy to make contact, and in a one on one situation there is fun to be had. However enemies tend to attack in group formation which makes the fighting frequently messy and lacking in precision. Hopefully Ubisoft will continue to hone this mechanic as it’s definite improvement, but not quite enough.

The story, also, feels a bit half-baked. There are certainly intriguing elements, and Bayek’s relationship with his wife, Aya, is extremely strong, but the overall narrative is so diffused and protracted it never feels as engaging as it ought to. The same applies to the voice acting which, main cast aside, is extremely ropey and veers from deadpan to broad caricature with baffling frequency.

Assassin’s Creed Origins starts strong and initially appears to be the shot in the arm the series needed, however its insistence on artificially extending gameplay in the third act and an overall lack of genuine innovation keeps it from being a true revelation. It is a good time, but it’s also a long time – and not always in a positive way. Still, if a lengthy visit to ancient Egypt sounds like your jam you’ll probably find a lot to dig in Origins – just be prepared to deal with the series’ usual baggage.

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was MachineGames’ triumphant reboot of the long lived Wolfenstein series and a belter of a game in its own right. Creative director Jens Matthies (who we chatted with recently) managed to craft a pitch-perfect game that kept the first person shooting for which the franchise is famous but added a rich, exciting and surprisingly emotional story that packed a lot of punch and ended on an all-time great note. The idea of a sequel seemed… redundant. After all, how much more narrative can be wrung out of an alternative history storyline about killing Nazis? The answer, happily, is “a shitload” because Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is here and it’s bloody spectacular.

The last time we saw jarhead protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz he was in all sorts of strife. His body was broken, his mission incomplete and as The New Order came to an end it was strongly implied he’d carked it, sacrificing his life for the greater good. Happily it seems you can’t keep a good BJ down, and William’s back – although he’s in bad shape. One of the first missions of the game has BJ hacking and blasting Nazis from a wheelchair and it suitably sets the visceral meets farcical tone, which often feels like a mashup between RoboCop (1987) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Throughout the game’s campaign you’ll travel through the irradiated wasteland of Manhattan, the walled up interior of New Orleans and even leave the boundaries of Earth in the game’s most gleefully insane sequence, involving a certain Nazi demagogue whose name rhymes with “Badolf Bitler”, who has taken up work as a film director in his later years. On these trips you’ll kill yourself some Nazis. A whole bunch of them. You’ll sever their arms with a hatchet and watch them bleed out, you’ll cut throats, twist necks, split skulls and pour hot leaden death into their twitching, screaming nazi bodies in creatively violent ways that will have even the most hardened of gore hounds chuckling in disbelief. It’s profoundly cathartic stuff, particularly after some of the game’s more confronting sequences of Nazi evil.

There’s more than just gore to The New Colossus, however, as the surviving characters from The New Order return and strong new cast members are added to the roster. In fact some of the game’s best moments come from wandering around your submarine base between missions, finding collectibles, chatting with characters and getting a sense of the painstaking world-building. Like the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds, The New Colossus excels at the quiet, tension-building moments between the splattery displays. A tense walk through Nazi-occupied Roswell – where Ku Klux Klan members are being chastised for their poor German language abilities by armoured Nazis – or an acting audition where failure will prove fatal are just a couple of the game’s strongly cinematic set pieces. It’s unusual to care so deeply about characters in any game, much less a gory First Person Shooter, and yet The New Colossus makes it look easy.

On the downside the game’s conclusion isn’t quite as spectacular as The New Order, with a definite sense that this is probably the second part of a trilogy and occasionally the game communicates where you’re taking damage from poorly. Neither of these factors are deal breakers, but they’re worth noting. Also the game itself will probably take you between 10-15 hours to complete, which is long compared to the likes of Call of Duty, but without a multiplayer component some may take issue with the value for money factor, but that’s a conversation for you and your bank account.

Ultimately Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is bloody, spectacular, funny and moving. It’s at turns a black comedy, a rousing adventure and a gore-slicked action shooter – excelling at every genre pivot – and well worth your time and money. Plus, and this can’t be overstated, it’s so very much fun to kill Nazis. They’re so pretty when they die.

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Friday the 13th: The Game

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Just how into the Friday the 13th movies are you? Do you know how Jason “dies” at the end of every chapter? Can you explain which entries special effects maestro Tom Savini worked on and why they’re the best? Do you have a lengthy, detail-oriented pitch regarding a new F13th film that you’re happy to share with friends, strangers and the poor hapless people down the bus stop? The answers to these questions directly inform how much you will or will not enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game.

The game, you see, is a bit of a mess. Conceptually it’s kinda brilliant, mind you. It’s an asymmetrical online multiplayer dealy with up to eight players. Seven people will play as camp counselors, and they will search drawers, craft traps and try to escape the map alive. The lucky eighth player will assume the role of Jason Voorhees (currently available in ten different flavours) and hunt and kill the camp counselors before the time runs out. And that’s the game, simple and effective. Playing as Jason is a hoot, all of his various incarnations possess different powers, upgradable skills and unlockable kills – some of which are spectacularly gory and nasty. Pulling off a well-executed environmental kill or managing to burst through a closed door at just the right time is legitimately exciting, especially for an ageing gorehound who loves slasher films.

Playing as a counselor however is… less fun. See, the counselors in the movies were taking drugs, drinking and getting laid – it was a Friday the 13th tradition! In the game, however, you’ll be searching for loot in randomised locations and hoping you get lucky, and it’s just not that great a time. Most galling of all, playing Jason occurs randomly. So you could be solo queuing for an entire day without donning the hockey mask (or sack) of the big man once, which is to say nothing of the game’s numerous server issues, buggy connections, and legion of other technical hitches.

There is, however, one guaranteed way to enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game, but it’s kind of fiddly. You’ll need at least four mates, preferably seven obviously, and you just start up a custom game and only play with those friends. That way you can take turns playing Jason, band together more successfully as the camp counselors and enjoy the game to its full potential. When I played using this method it was an absolutely unmissable experience – funny and violent and scary – and showed what the game could be given the right set of circumstances.

Ultimately Friday the 13th: The Game is a lot like the Friday the 13th movie series: much better with mates, who’ve had a few drinks and are ready to overlook some quality issues and concentrate on the splatter.

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The Evil Within 2

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The Evil Within 2 is the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within. The original game was helmed by Shinji Mikami, director of beloved video games Resident Evil 1 & 4, so naturally anticipation was extremely high. The result was a wildly uneven game that brought the horror hard and fast, but lacked a logical narrative thread that would have made the experience something more than a series of loosely linked horror vignettes.

The Evil Within 2 directed by John Johanas and written by Trent Haaga (who we chatted with recently) seeks to address the lack of story cohesion while still providing a solid, scary horror experience and happily succeeds for the vast majority of its playtime.

Three years after the events of the first game, protagonist Sebastian Castellanos has become a bitter, self-destructive drunk. He’s no longer a cop and spends most of his time getting pissed and lamenting the disappearance of his wife, Myra and death of his daughter, Lily. One day his old partner Juli Kidman appears with an offer too good to refuse: enter the world of STEM (basically The Matrix) and save his daughter, who isn’t actually dead after all (phew!) but is lost within STEM’s virtual realms (bummer!).

It’s a classic, albeit slightly shopworn premise, but it does mean once Sebastian enters STEM the game doesn’t keep trying to pull the ‘this is reality… or is it?!’ trick the first game overindulged in to deadening effect. Naturally STEM is a scary, violent and horrific place and the game’s first half plays a little like The Last of Us meets Silent Hill, featuring tense treks through monster-filled neighbourhoods, with little ammunition and death potentially around every corner.

The term “survival horror” is much abused in modern games, but in the case of The Evil Within 2 it’s apt. You will be struggling to survive, relying on stealth, cunning and nerves of steel. I lost count of the number of times I’d sneak up on a group of enemies only to see my plans go tits up because one of them saw me, and I had to run, hide, set traps or die. In the 20ish hours it’ll take you to complete The Evil Within 2 your nerves will be getting a serious workout, especially if you explore the surprisingly large hub areas and take on some of the excellent side missions.

Gameplay wise The Evil Within 2 plays very much like the original, for good and ill. You’ll creep along in a third person POV, crafting ammo and healing syringes, stealth killing when you can – shooting when you can’t. The handgun handles like a slippery piglet, even fully upgraded, and in the end most battles were so messy I’d resort to using the ever reliable shotgun. This isn’t a bad thing per se, and in fact adds quite a lot to the tension of the piece, but if you’re looking for precision shooting you may be disappointed.

Boss fights feel a little lighter on the ground also. The first game would often reuse the same bosses over and over to obnoxious extremes, but the handful of boss fights in the sequel feels a little light nonetheless. Also, and this is extremely nitpicky, but Sebastian has what must be 74,000 lines that are variations on “what the fuck?” or “what’s going on?” Seb, mate, you’re in the horror Matrix – this was pretty clearly explained at the start – weird shit’s gonna happen, how about you get on with it, eh?

The Evil Within 2 is a solid, scary, tense and ultimately unexpectedly emotional experience, with a great central yarn at its core. It builds upon the foundation of the original, giving players a reason to care, while also providing numerous occasions for one to brown one’s trousers in fear. Fans of survival horror who feel ill served by modern AAA games take note: you’re not going to want to miss this one.

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South Park: The Fractured but Whole

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the follow-up to 2014’s The Stick of Truth, although you don’t need to have played that game to enjoy the new one. Fractured But Whole tells the tale of you – the new kid – who has moved to the quiet redneck mountain town of South Park. A wave of crime is sweeping through the titular town and it’s up to you and Cartman’s superhero group, Coon and Friends – to save and the day, and more specifically, a fearsomely ugly cat, Scrambles. There’s a hundred dollar reward in it, you guys. A hundred bucks!

Whereas The Stick of Truth skewered fantasy movie and game tropes, The Fractured But Whole has the superhero genre dead in its sights and there are some really funny observations. An ongoing gag about making a shitload of money through Netflix, prequel movies and tie-in TV series’ is consistently solid. Of course the game features a lot of callbacks, references and in-jokes for fans of the TV show so expect to see Raisins girls, City Ninjas, sixth graders and crab people…. Crab people. Look like crab, fight like people.

What’s most surprising about TFBW is the depth of the RPG elements. You’ll level up your character with multiple classes, equip relics and better gear and engage in some unexpectedly nuanced combat played in a turn based style. On the other hand you’ll also unlock the ability to solve puzzles with your arse – using an array of farts including the ability to stop time and shoot a hapless gerbil from your rectum. This mixture of solid game mechanics and toilet humour may cause tonal whiplash in some players, but if you’re in the mood for a 20 hour episode of South Park you’re in for a treat.

Storywise the game goes from normal to nuts in the first 15 or so hours, peaking with a sequence that somehow manages to mash up racist cops, Black Lives Matter, H.P. Lovecraft and one of his beasties. This is actually the peak of the game, a total celebration of the profane and arcane. Unfortunately the game keeps going afterwards, and the final 3-5 hours are a bit of a grind, with some fights dragging on way too long. It’s a pity that such an initially charming game ends on such a sour note, but the time that precedes it really is a lot of fun.

Ultimately South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a clever, funny, involving RPG dripping with personality and lashings of bent humour. It stumbles in its final act but the journey there is so delightfully dubious you’ll likely forgive its shortcomings.

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Middle Earth: Shadow of War

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At the deep, nuggety core of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one simple concept: killing orcs. Yes there’s a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, story campaign, yes there is bulk loot collecting and RPG elements and yeah, naturally, there are lots of nods and callbacks to the Lord of the Rings movies/books (oh hi, Gollum!) but ultimately SoW is all about killing orcs in elaborate ways. You’ll kill them with fire, you’ll kill them with swords, you’ll kill them with spiders and big caragors. You’ll kill them in castles, you’ll kill them in on hills, you’ll kill them en masse, mate, oh fuck yes, you will!

Happily when it comes to dispatching orcs Shadow of War’s gameplay is fluid, responsive and enjoyable. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel first used in 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, but it adds enough new elements and mechanics to feel more engaging then a simple retread. Most impressive of all is the Nemesis system, which makes a triumphant return. For the uninitiated this system means every time you die the orc who killed you gains social status and becomes more powerful. Conversely some orcs survive their apparent deaths or humiliations and will return, bigger, badder and holding a drake-sized grudge.

These weird vendettas held against you by characters with name like Dush the Obsessed, Gurk the Angry and Trevor Maggot Pants (may have made that last one up) gives SoW a dynamic, exciting sense of tension. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the story which is all over the place. Talion remains duller then unsalted tofu and wraith partner, Celebrimbor, is still one Joy Division album away from being the bloke in his 40s who takes the whole goth thing just a little bit too seriously. They’re joined by some new characters this time, such as sexy Shelob (finally a spider character you can masturbate to!) and Bruz the Chopper, an ocker orc who is easily the most interesting character by a fairly huge margin.

You’ll occupy five large landscapes, collecting collectibles, brainwashing captains, taking over fortresses and, yes, killing many, many orcs. You can probably knock the main campaign over in 30-40 hours (which by AAA game standards is pretty damn generous) but then the game pulls some bullshit which you may find difficult to forgive. The last act, titled “Act IV: Shadow Wars”, turns the endgame into a grindfest. All those forts you spent so long taking over? Well now you’ll need to defend them against legions of tougher orcs, through some twenty increasingly difficult levels. It’s doable, but tough, and the Sauron-like spectre of microtransactions enters the proceedings because how much easier would it be to just buy some powerful orcs to buff your forts? Why not head to the online market place and buys some, my preeeecious?

For a lot of people this won’t be a deal breaker, it certainly wasn’t for me, I had a great time with this game, but there is a certain cynicism to the exercise that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Pay to win is a shitty design choice, especially when it locks you out of the game’s final cutscene. My suggestion? Don’t buy orcs, take a little longer and earn them by enjoying the game’s many combat options. Or just stop playing at Act IV and watch the “true ending” on Youtube. It’s a rough business that we even have to deal with this kind of nonsense, but that’s gaming in 2017. Proceed accordingly.

That one nasty little microtransactional caveat aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a bloody belter of a game. The Nemesis system alone makes it worth a visit, and the sheer joy of chopping up literal armies of orcs is potent and exciting. In short: ignore the cash grab and focus on the killing and you’ll have a good time.

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Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

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Of all the many things Dishonored 2 did right, and that list is long and impressive, it didn’t quite give enough narrative time to one of its more interesting side characters, Billie Lurk (Rosario Dawson). Happily Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is here to redress that balance and run a victory lap, reminding us how damn good this series really is.

Death of the Outsider begins right after Dishonored 2’s ending. The players who opted to kill Billie Lurk at the end of that game may be slightly confused, but those people are monsters and we shall talk of them no more. Anyway, long story short: Billie has been tasked with finding the Outsider – the living God/man who controls the Void from which all supernatural power flows – and end his eternal life. To do this Billie will need to use her own powers – transporting herself vast distances, mimicking the faces of others and astral traveling into new areas to mark enemies and secrets. In other words it’s Dishonored business as usual and that’s a good thing, for the most part.

Over Death of the Outsider’s 7-10 hour runtime you’ll sneak around banks, museums and cultist’s lairs, either going full on stab-happy or silent but deadly. This time around killing folks doesn’t change the ending, which means cathartic murder goes unpunished, but the lack of a “good ending” for low chaos runs is a little disappointing. Another minor letdown is that you can’t upgrade your powers in any meaningful way. Yes, you can find bone charms that buff certain characteristics, but it’s a poor substitute for genuine stat building. One addition that really works, however, are the contracts you can take from the black market. These add multiple smaller goals (including killing a mime!) and really gives you a reason to explore every nook and cranny of these large, detailed maps.

While Death of the Outsider never quite attains the genius level of its bigger siblings, it’s a solid, undeniably satisfying adventure with some cool characters and world building and an ending that manages to stick the landing. It’s not a perfect ta ta for now to Dishonored but is sure to give fans something to chew on until Dishonored 3 creeps out of the shadows.

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Destiny 2

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The original Destiny was revered developer Bungie’s (Halo) ambitious attempt at an shooter/MMO hybrid. It was insanely expensive, with reports suggesting a budget of around half a billion (!) dollars and released with much fanfare; however the early days of vanilla Destiny were not happy ones. While the game performed well commercially, critics were less kind. The story was painfully thin and forgettable, the systems of looting and upgrading badly explained and the game’s campaign could be knocked over in a scant three hours. The critical drubbing was reflected by an increasing audience backlash, as players found the experience ultimately a bit repetitive and empty.

Over the following months and years vanilla Destiny was improved, slowly and falteringly, until The Taken King expansion turned the game into what it should have been the whole time. It just took over a year to get there! The fact is, Destiny – as it was initially released – didn’t know what it wanted to be.

Destiny 2, on the other hand, has no such identity crisis. This time around there’s a robust, albeit slightly generic, campaign with likable characters and playtime of 8-10 hours. There are planets to explore, public events to join, Lost Sectors (space dungeons) to delve into, Adventures (side quests) to take part in and classic endgame content like Strikes and, of course, The Raid. On the PvP front the Crucible returns, with several new modes and a more focused 4v4 paradigm at play. So, the big question, is it any good?

Yes, it’s fair to say that Destiny 2 is very good, but that statement comes with a caveat. Although the advertising claims differently, Destiny 2 is a lonely old slog by yourself. Oh sure, the voice acting is uniformly decent and the locations you visit feature gorgeous, eye-melting sci-fi vistas but the single player experience can feel a little lonely. Destiny has always been about forming a fireteam and blasting the crap out of aliens, robots and alien robots with your mates, and the sequel is no exception.

Another big factor is that post campaign these games are all about grinding for loot. Imagine Diablo in space, with guns, and you’ve got the basic idea. So while you’re certainly able to play the game by yourself, it lacks the weird mixture of camaraderie, jealously and friendly one upmanship group play allows. Happily Bungie has made joining a clan easier than ever, and also tacked on guided games – where you can meet some fellow nerds and hope they can carry you through the hard stuff.

While the shooting is as peerless as ever, and the graphics and story much improved over the original, Destiny 2 still has its flaws. The new mod system is dense and confusing, and when you finally do understand it – a bloody pain in the arse. Get ready to lose a whole bunch of glimmer (in game currency), time and sanity trying to craft that elusive final bit of gear to hit the level cap. Mission variety is another sticking point, as ‘waiting for your ghost to finish opening a door while wave after wave of enemies attack’ seems to be the order of the day yet again. Occasionally the game attempts something a little different, but those flashes of inspiration are few and far between. Also the campaign’s villain, Dominus Ghaul, becomes less as less interesting and threatening as the story proceeds and in the end just sort of… stops. Also, and this is possibly the most galling flaw, there aren’t any new alien races to shoot. If this game is truly a sequel, and not the ‘1.5’ reddit so often snarkily dubs it as, where are the new alien races, Bungie? Carn.

Balancing out those problems, however, are the Strikes (which are almost all superb) and the Raid. The Leviathan Raid is one of the series’ best, a punishing version of It’s a Knockout in space with clever use of group dynamics and an unforgettable final boss fight. In fact included with this review is the clutch play of all clutch plays as my group finally bested the gold-gilt fatty in a sloppy climax that involved just two surviving players (MightyTiger242 and skaterguy845) resorting to using supers, their last few rounds of ammo and even punching to triumph.

And that, right there, is how and when Destiny 2 works. When you’ve slogged through adversity and triumph on the other side. That weird bond your forge, through mutual goals and lack of sleep; and the seething jealously when everyone else gets better loot then you.

Ultimately Destiny 2 is a slick space shooter with satisfying gunplay, a decent story and engaging endgame content for days. As a single player shooter, it’s adequate, but as a group online experience it’s unmissable. Flawed but fun, Destiny 2 is a the best kind of engaging timewaster set to vampirise your social life and make a dark mockery of your responsibilities. Use it with care, Guardians.