When was released in late 2014, expectations were high. The “looter shooter” genre had shown itself to be a force after the success of Gearbox Software’s and , and developer Bungie—whose pedigree of unmatched gunplay and inventive worldbuilding—had signed a ten-year contract with publisher Activision to build out a deep universe for the franchise.
The first mainstream “shared world” FPS/ARPG mashup was set to become a bona fide, capital-T “Thing.”
We all know what happened. While garnered praise for its crisp gameplay and cool setting, it quickly became known as a content-bare shell of a game, strung up on the skeleton of a confusing, half-assed story, with lore that you literally had to go online to explore. The game’s first two DLC drops, and , did little to convince anyone who wasn’t already a fan (even in those dark days, there were fans).
expansion, released a year later, changed everything. Suddenly, the game had a coherent, well-produced story. Entire gameplay systems were redesigned and rebalanced, and there was now plenty of content for hardcore loot fiends to grind through. By the time the game’s last expansion, , came out at the end of 2016, was generally viewed by fans as a fulfillment of that wide-eyed 2014 promise.
So when the release of rolled around at the end of 2017, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that Bungie had learned a few lessons along the way and that would build on the solid foundation laid by the first game’s final form. The sequel did make a good first impression—reviewers (us included) praised the game for its improved storyline, uptick in content, and added quality-of-life features (like… uh, a map). But as committed players reached the end-game loot grind, a series of utterly baffling design decisions revealed themselves to be deal-breakers for long-term play.
Bungie, it seems, thought “sequel” meant “relive the entire life cycle of the first game”—release an ultimately disappointing game followed by two largely ho-hum expansions (for , and), and then rescue the whole debacle with a big expansion a year down the line. The remaining question: would , ‘s big second-year expansion, bethe game’s ?
Your 10th Better Devils
Change is good, of course. But the changes Bungie made to its winning formula in made no sense. This wasn’t a matter of change-averse veterans pining for the good old days; had unquestionably lost whatever magic kept hobbyists around for hundreds—even thousands—of hours. That magic, it turns out, can be attributed to a list of original features that were stripped out of the sequel for seemingly no good reason. Chief among these were changes to the game’s weapons.
Instead of the primary/secondary/heavy weapon slots seen in the first game gave a much more restrictive setup that meant you effectively had two primary slots and one slot for everything else, drastically limiting the variety of usable weapon loadouts. Do you enjoy sniping or shotgunning but want to carry a rocket launcher for burning down bosses like you did in the first game? Nope, sorry, not in .
With (or, more accurately, a free update available to all players a week before ’s launch), Bungie decided to fix the weapon slot system by making it even more flexible than the first ’s. Not only can you again rock a greater variety of different loadouts, but since weapon types aren’t locked to specific slots anymore, you can do crazy things like run three snipers if it tickles your fancy. It’s incredible how much this seemingly simple fix has increased my enjoyment of the game.
But perhaps even stranger than the weapon slot changes was the decision to make ‘s guns drop with static perk rolls. Every time a Better Devils hand canon dropped in vanilla , it was the same exact gun. The meant every duplicate loot drop you got was not only boring and disappointing, it was basically useless. The chase for jackpot “god roll” legendary weapons—a fundamental draw of the first (and basically every other loot-based game in existence) was gone. This was an issue—one that game director Luke Smith acknowledged before the game even released.
“How can my second, third, and tenth Better Devils hand cannon be interesting?” he asked. “That’s a question we should be asking and answering as quickly as we can.” As it turns out, “quickly” meant “in one year” and the solution was “scrap this dumb idea and go back to the system.” Random perk rolls have returned, and unlike vanilla ’s ridiculous limit of one main perk per gun, guns have two main perks. Again, this opens the door to interesting and playstyle-changing combos (Kill Clip/Outlaw, I will find you soon.)
The end-game grind is back, and the reaction from the faithful—a reaction I wholeheartedly share—is “.” There’s nothing wrong with a good story-driven game, but no one replays a strike for the 300th time because they want to re-examine the narrative beats. We replay loot-driven games ad nauseum because they’re slot machines that spit out exciting toys for us to experiment and play with. Loot in at release was boring. It’s now exciting again.
“Masterworking,” a system by which you can upgrade gear by investing resources into it, has changed from its initial incarnation to provide better benefits at the cost of increased investment. Weapon and armor mods have been completely reworked to provide more interesting effects. Armor perk rolls are back. What all this means is that you can now have honest-to-God “builds” in , something I wouldn’t have said before s release. That’s not even to mention that each subclass got a new Super ability and skill tree (making for three per class), and every one I’ve tried so far has been a blast. (If you have a Hunter, do yourself a favor and pick up the Way of a Thousand Cuts first.)
The grind (again, a good thing) extends to the end-game power level climb. There are now more ways to earn “powerful gear” upgrades, ushered in by two resets per week (a normal weekly reset and a “daily” reset that happens every four days—it’s… complicated). But the race to the expansion’s high power level cap of 600 will take quite some time to reach. So you’re always making progress, but you won’t get to max level in a week.
I’m not much of a player-vs-player guy, but I’m well aware of the complaints dedicated Crucible players had with ‘s PvP modes at release. The general sense was that the Crucible had lost its quick-playing, twitchy spark in favor of a slow-downed, balanced-to-a-fault slog. Team sizes have been increased, and the long time-to-kill that led to a “teamshotting” meta has been jettisoned to bring back blink-and-you’re-dead one-on-one duels. Combined with generally faster movement and ability regeneration, PvPers seem happy with the changes.
More interesting to players bored with standard PvP modes, though, is Forsaken’s new “competitive co-op” Gambit activity. Gambit is a competitive mode where two teams of four players compete to kill NPC enemies on two separate maps. Vanquished enemies drop motes of light, which players race to collect and bank at a central console. Bank 75 motes to summon a giant, beefy boss on your map; kill the boss to win.
Sounds simple, but the brilliance of the mode comes in the details, which open up a whole wealth of strategic decisions for teams to juggle. When an individual player banks a certain number of motes, a “blocker” enemy will be sent to the other team’s map, effectively shutting down their mote console until the monster is defeated. The more motes you bank at once, the bigger the blocker. If you die, you lose all your motes.
When a team banks enough motes (25 and 50), a portal opens, and one player can jump through to the other team’s map to wreak havoc. Timing is essential here—since you can see how many banked and unbanked motes both teams have, you want to jump through the portal when the other side has a lot to lose. When a team summons the boss, the portal opens frequently, giving the opposing team a chance to stall victory, as players killed during the boss phase actually heal the boss.
Gambit is easy to jump into but rich in tactical considerations, and it’s not uncommon to see a team make a huge comeback from early stumbles. Of course, coordinated fireteams have a distinct advantage over teams made up of solo players, so a solo-only queue would do wonders for evening out the odds. All in all, though, Gambit is inventive, fun, and a great addition to the game.