It’s been a wild couple of months for looter shooters, hasn’t it? A statement like that wouldn’t have withstood much scrutiny during other periods. You could have made that comment when Borderlands 2 first released, ushering the world in an improved sequel with a greater story and an excellent loot/shoot cycle. You could have said that for the launch of The Division or Destiny or Destiny 2, all which faced significant issues before being heavily patched. Remember how The Division was meant to kill Destiny when it first launched? Or how Destiny 2 was dead in the water with Curse of Osiris while The Division saw a resurgence with its latest update? Good times.
But looking back on the past few months, it’s crazy to think how the looter shooter genre has been impacted. We’ve had the launch of Anthem, BioWare’s newest original IP since Dragon Age: Origins (2009). What seemed like a competent competitor in the genre fell by the wayside quickly due to bugs and performance issues. And before the expose by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, players were already up in arms regarding the game’s unrewarding loot system, how fundamentally broken the scaling was, and just how underwhelming the game’s mechanics really were.
"Looking back on the past few months, it’s crazy to think how the looter shooter genre has been impacted."
You can only optimize so much for a build when you’re not sure what your health will be when spawning in. Or when Legendaries, the absolute top-tier, refuses to drop. Or when your time in Grandmaster 3 difficulty against bullet-sponge enemies isn’t rewarding. After the expose? Well, many stopped having hope for the game in general.
Then there’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, Ubisoft Massive’s anticipated sequel which faced a fair bit of scrutiny. Would it falter in the same way as Bungie’s Destiny 2, removing everything fans loved about the franchise? Or would its final launch face performance problems and bugs, plenty which manifested during the beta like its competitor Anthem? In the end, The Division 2 turned out to be a much more complete game, offering a robust end-game, smart AI and a startling amount of content to play.
However, with its most recent update – which changed mods, introduced the first gear sets and effectively leveled out stats like headshot damage on gear – concern is growing about the homogenization of loadouts. There’s still a decent build for tankiness but for your average player, damage is really all that matters right now. With the lack of major Gear Score increases in World Tier 5 and the decision to have 515 Gear Score relegated to the Dark Zone in a future update, The Division 2 is definitely past its honeymoon phase.
Finally, there’s the announcement of Borderlands 3, mired in its own controversies of being exclusive to the Epic Games Store but still a monumental announcement for the looter shooter industry. The king has returned! Gearbox was going to show everyone how it was actually done! There’s tons of hype but in this day and age of hype culture, a certain amount of expectation tempering doesn’t hurt (and that’s coming from a Borderlands fan).
"However, having spent hours playing and watching Risk of Rain 2, one thing became immediately apparent: It’s a looter shooter."
So in the midst of a strong present day for looter shooters, where does Hopoo Games’ Risk of Rain 2 come in? You’ve probably heard of the first one, maybe listened to a few tracks online from its admittedly stellar soundtrack. The sequel debuted in Steam Early Access for PC on the same day that Gearbox held its PAX East panel. Interestingly, Hopoo Games announced that it was working with Gearbox Publishing for Risk of Rain 2, which could mean anything from support and QA to financial support in bringing it to other platforms. It doesn’t sound all that exceptional…except that Risk of Rain 2 blew up.
Perhaps it was word of mouth and love for the original but people were stoked that they could finally get their hands on Risk of Rain 2. The “buy one, get one free” offer was a fabulous deal, especially since it was easier to play with Steam friends than before. There was skepticism since the game was making the jump from 2D side-scroller to 3D exploration, but the admittedly decent price and value for money helped soften the early access charge. And wouldn’t you know it but Risk of Rain 2 was an immediate hit with 650,000 players in its first week (150,000 who had entered from the “buy one, get one free” offer).
Again, it’s not all that odd when you consider the game’s pedigree, the value on offer, the publicity from appearing on Gearbox’s panel and the fact that it’s actually a very fun game in its current iteration. However, having spent hours playing and watching Risk of Rain 2, one thing became immediately apparent: It’s a looter shooter. More importantly, it’s one that embraces the power fantasy to a degree that many others should aspire.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Risk of Rain 2? On the surface, it’s a simple third person shooter/rogue-lite hybrid. The stages are hand-crafted but spawn locations, items and the teleporter’s location are randomized. That teleporter is your ticket to the next stage – activating it summons a boss which can be defeated. A red dome around the teleporter indicates the area you must stay in to “charge” it and progress to the next area. So theoretically, it is possible to not defeat the boss and escape but you’re inclined to kill the Big Bad since it can also drop special items. Progress to the next area, then the next, then the next and eventually, you’ll loop back around to the beginning.
"Risk of Rain 2‘s character system is where the power fantasy truly begins."
The one other constant in the game is the timer. The longer you play and survive, the harder the game becomes as indicated by the difficulty meter in the top right. It starts at Easy, moves up to Medium, eventually hits Insane and then the game outright breaks down into a constant stream of “HAHAHAHA”. That’s the point where anything and everything is coming to kill you, that too painfully. Three starting difficulties can be selected before a session – Drizzle, Rainstorm and Monsoon. These affect the damage that enemies can do at higher scaling difficulties, one’s starting cash and health, the boss spawns and even how long the teleporter will take to activate.
Obviously there’s a lot of strategy to be had from a rogue-lite perspective. You need to find a teleporter and summon the boss quickly but having some items to ensure you stand a chance in the fight is also key. Afterwards, you have to decide whether to double back through the map for other items or simply deposit all your cash for XP. This will increase your level, resulting in higher base damage and health for your character. How much prep and how you approach earlier scaling difficulties can make a big difference down the line.
Risk of Rain 2‘s character system is where the power fantasy truly begins. You can unlock up to six different character but start out with the lowly Commando who has dual pistols, rapid-fire, dodge roll and stun enemies. As you make progress and rack up those loops, you’ll unlock the Huntress who fires auto-targeting arrows, can sprint while firing, launches a shuriken that ping-pongs between enemies, blinks and even jumps up into the sky to rain down arrows in a specific area.
There’s the Mercenary, a Genji-like sword-wielding hero that can double jump, deal triple damage with every third slice of his combo, perform a vertical slice in mid-air, dash at foes (which can be done up to three times if the first dash connects) and Eviscerate the nearest enemy with a multi-hit combo. That Eviscerate renders the Mercenary invulnerable, by the way. Fancy a bit of magic? Unlock the Artificer and fire flame bolts to ignite foes. Throw a nano-bomb for up to 1200 percent damage that also stuns enemies and electrocutes them with bits of lightning, or freeze them with those below 33 percent health dying outright. Did we mention the Flamethrower which deals 1700 percent damage over 3 seconds and applies over 21 ticks of Ignite damage to all enemies in front of you?
"The classes can leverage these items in different ways for insane, over-powered and broken builds of destruction."
Killing enemies or opening caches provides cash and this can be spent on different randomized loot boxes (no, not those. Boxes with actual loot). Alternatively, you can spend them at kiosks with up to three options with a randomized item sometimes thrown in. This offers more control on what you might want. You can also just plain roll the dice at a shrine, hitting it up numerous times but also risk getting nothing. Opening Legendary Chests is key to picking up powerful gear items like a 100 percent critical hit chance for 8 seconds or a massive BFG-like projectile that does insane amounts of weapon damage. But make sure you stay on the lookout for drones as well, since they can heal you, add support fire and much more.
The classes can leverage these items in different ways for insane, over-powered and broken builds of destruction. Let’s use the Huntress as an example. As you progress through runs, you’ll find the Soldier’s Syringe which increases attack speed by 15 percent, perfect for adding more DPS. You may also find a Leeching Seed which heals 1 point of health for damage dealt. Maybe you’ll add some Lens-Maker’s Glasses for increased chance of critical strikes, which can deal double damage. Then you’ll find a Predator’s Instincts for 10 percent increased attack (stacking up to 30 percent) with critical strikes. Suddenly, your Huntress is attacking at a much faster rate, dealing double damage more often and healing herself in the process.
Start from scratch. Pick up a bunch of White rarity times and eventually find a 3D Printer, a device which converts items thrown inside to a specific displayed item. Let’s say one has a Will-o’-the-wisp, which spawns a lava pillar in a 12 meter radius for 350 percent base damage, as the 3D Printer item. Now pick up a bunch of Will-o’-the-wisps and nuke the entire map every time you get a kill. Mix in some Ukuleles for a chance to chain lightning for 80 percent damage between targets, with the number of targets and range this effect applies rising with each Ukulele added. Throw in some Crowbars as well – they deal 150 percent damage to enemies above 90 percent health. That allows you to quickly take down some enemies and keep nuking the map.
Want insane survivability and firepower? Play as the Engineer and keep picking up items. Ukuleles, Will-o’-the-wisps, Crowbars, most anything is fair game. The Engineer can place up to two turrets along with dropping mines and launching grenades. He can also put down a dome shield to protect his turrets. The kicker? Those turrets take on the properties of the items you’re holding, effectively tripling your firepower in the process. Now throw in a bunch of Bustling Fungus, which heals you and nearby friendly units for 4.5 percent of their max health per second when stationary. Each subsequent Fungus increases the healing output by 2.25 percent with an increased healing range of 1.5 meters. Imagine stacking up to 50 Fungus, your turrets healing each other and you in a large range across the map. You have become the immortal Engineer, deathless unto this world.
"Can you imagine creating a Risk of Rain 2-style damage build in The Division 2 while you’re still in World Tier 1?"
Want to constantly release fireworks upon opening chests, dealing 300 percent base damage per rocket and wiping the map by combining it with Will-o’-the-wisps and Crowbars? How about equipping lots of Sticky Bombs for a chance to attach bombs to an enemy that detonate for 250 percent damage that scale infinitely? Make sure to grab a number of Fuel Cells as well, providing more charges for different abilities and reducing the overall cooldown on your equipment. Want to create a full meme build like blinking almost non-stop as the Huntress? Exchange all of your items after a lengthy run for some additional equipment charges. Lo and behold as your Huntress turns into a stream of light, zipping around the map with nary a care in the world.
Stacking multiple copies of the same item doesn’t just provide a route to min-maxing. It also allows for the sheer destructive potential of each item to shine. In essence, Risk of Rain 2‘s build variety is so darn good because there are so many items that synergize but also perform well on their own. Well, except for Wake of Vultures.
Yes, you could argue that there’s no real end-game like some other looter shooters or that the story is non-existent. Technically, all you’re doing is staying alive for as long as possible and continuously killing bosses until you become too powerful. Or until you decide to go for something radical like trying to kill the Lunar Shopkeeper. Risk of Rain 2‘s “end-game” is less about getting to a certain point and then grinding out loot to become stronger and more about incremental leaps in power from the beginning itself. More importantly, depending on what you want from a run, it’s possible to kickstart those incremental leaps in power from an early point and just become utterly OP within the first 10 minutes.
Such a system would be hard to justify in your typical looter shooter which has a very complex structure to push the player through. Can you imagine creating a Risk of Rain 2-style damage build in The Division 2 while you’re still in World Tier 1? It would be madness, completely breaking the scaling and progression that Ubisoft Massive so carefully constructed.
"The benefit of Risk of Rain 2 is that there’s seemingly no upper limit (unless you crash the game, which no one has done to my knowledge. Yet)."
Then again, wouldn’t it also be fun?
In a way, the game reminds me of Borderlands 2 when all of its content and updates were finally released. There was a lengthy route to scaling your power and by the time you hit Digistruct Peak, fully clad in OP8 gear, you were a venerable powerhouse. Specific builds are required to fully defeat the enemies in the raid (and even those in the open world in Ultimate Vault Hunter mode). But go back into Normal mode or even True Vault Hunter mode and watch your foes evaporate around you.
The benefit of Risk of Rain 2 is that there’s seemingly no upper limit (unless you crash the game, which no one has done to my knowledge. Yet). Insanely enough, the game’s challenges can be trivialized if you build correctly at an early enough time. It does try its darnedest to oppose you for as long as possible though. Whether it’s Monsoon difficulty with its higher enemy damage or replacing regular enemies with bosses as time goes by, you’re still going to have to fight to survive. Even if that fighting is the equivalent of swatting a bothersome mosquito or two in terms of power.
Risk of Rain 2 is still in early access and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t a finished game. There’s more content, more items, more classes and so on that still need to be added. It’s a far cry from this age of complex looter shooters with extensive monetization models, live-service support, raids, gear sets, brand sets, what have you. But its simplicity is perhaps its greatest strength, inviting anyone to jump in and indulge in the looter power fantasy at their convenience while catering to those in it for the long haul of build diversity.
"Even in its early access state, the vision that the development has for it is front and centre without any fluff or distractions."
Even if it’s not a long-structured looter shooter adventure with multiple hard modes, raid bosses and higher rarities like Borderlands 3 will no doubt have, Risk of Rain 2 is a beloved throwback. Even in its early access state, the vision that the development has for it is front and centre without any fluff or distractions. It’s concise, getting you into the action immediately and rewarding your bizarre ingenuity. Yes, games like Anthem and The Division 2 may be prettier and serve more as “long-term” investments that you’re meant to stick with through several years.
However, Risk of Rain 2 is evidence that a palpable power fantasy can be created in a much more streamlined and focused package. If you’ve forgotten that feeling of wiping entire maps of bosses and enemies in an insant thanks a satisfying cycle of looting and shooting, then allow this game to remind you.