Linear Open-World Narratives: A Case Study in Entering and Exiting Pittsburgh

As developers continue to experiment with the cinematic qualities of action-focused games, the rich potential of open-world ‘sandboxes’ continues to be heralded as the Holy Grail for next-generation game design. Following the astronomical critical and commercial success of Rockstar’s reinvented open-world Western Red Dead Redemption, which succeeded in introducing mechanics that continually reinforced the tone, atmosphere and narrative of the dying days of the wild west, plenty of other franchises have sought to take advantage of the smash hit’s genre-defining gameplay. In doing so, they have ignored its beautifully considered design in exchange for providing players with what seems like an endless checklist of chores.

Games like Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 thrust players into an expansive, empty, open world and throw every threat imaginable at them as they clear out hideouts from ravenous wildlife and meandering mercenaries. Missions exist, but their restrictions are secondary to the more ‘open-ended’ (but ultimately simplistic and repetitive) choices available when surviving the dangers of the jungle. Assassin’s Creed is even more guilty of abusing the ‘sandbox’ approach to game design, with boring combat and ‘collectathon’-style objectives ruining what is, at its core, a creative and inventive franchise. Even now, almost seven year after RDR’s release, we’re seeing ‘brand new’ IPs like Horizon: Zero Dawn and rebooted series like Mass Effect: Andromeda each dropping players into expansive rural settings to hunt a variety of enemies, each of which requires certain ammo types to effectively bring down, whilst also imposing resource-gathering mechanics on the player when traversing their environments.

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Is this really the lesson that Red Dead Redemption taught the industry, or are developers choosing to mimic what they perceive makes an ‘open-world game’ when creating their repetitive, sterile ‘sandboxes’? The art of hunting, collecting resources and trading has been reduced to a rinse-and-repeat mechanic, rather than an active and interesting activity which gives the world a sense of life and unpredictability that players can choose to involve themselves in should they wish to ingratiate themselves within society or retire from their main quest. Developers seem to have stolen the core gameplay without understanding that it existed in a landscape which contextualised the activity.

The firefights in Red Dead Redemption were loud, bloody, wild affairs. Looking at the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda gameplay video – which presents the player with hordes of unresponsive enemies whose health bars are simply there to be whittled down, before smashing into another area of bad guys and repeating the process – it seems developers believe players like gameplay loops with slivers of rewards rather than a world to explore and genuine adventure to undertake. The same can be said of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s video previews, which – after years of showcasing the game’s sleek, purposeful combat – turns out to have a cluttered HUD and busy-work objectives which require players to collect X amount of ingredients to craft ammunition. Whilst this might not be bad in itself, such additions are a testament to the climate and culture of games we’re currently living in.

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What the industry has seemingly chosen to aspire to, especially as Ghost Recon: Wildlands looks to be another indicator of this general trajectory, are games filled with busywork which emulate rather than build upon other, better, open-world games. Although judgement must be reserved until these games are released, previous sandbox titles over the last four years have all lacked the nuance and world building which made the environments of Red Dead Redemption so essential and fun to explore.

Although we only have a sixty-second teaser to go by, it does look like Red Dead Redemption 2 will actively redress these now-tired mechanics by elevating what could be a repetitive act to grind XP into a meaningful activity once again. For instance, camping will likely serve as a moment of respite to converse with your posse and other characters the protagonist(s) is travelling with, rather than being relegated to a fast-travel station and save point. More likely, as the image below suggests, hunting will evolve having to escort your kills back to a trading post. Imagine stumbling across a grizzly bear or herd of buffalo, and deciding to reap the financial rewards by dragging the carcass to town on foot. Players, if looking to earn money, would have to invest in a waggon to carry a grizzly bear back to town – making the activity enthralling and challenging every time the player risks their own safety to drift off the beaten path and make a profit. The days of shooting wildly at a wolf before mindlessly mashing Y or triangle to harvest its organs could finally be behind the ‘sandbox’ genre. Of course, this is all conjecture at this point, until the inevitable April 2017 Game Informer cover story which finally gives fans more details, but for games released seven years after the fact to not consider employing these added dimensions to an otherwise overused hunting mechanic is baffling. No wonder so many fans are suffering from open-world fatigue, especially if Watch_Dogs 2’s sales figures are anything to go by – a game which, by all accounts, actually tried to do something new with the open-world formula but still suffered from the growing stigma associated with the genre.

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That isn’t to suggest that all developers influenced by Rockstar’s trademark open-world freedom have failed. Look at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. On the surface, the title is a very repetitive game with strict gameplay loops. But the genuine awe which the game generates stems from its so-called ‘emergent gameplay’. The AI is intelligent enough to adapt to the player infiltrating bases at night by equipping themselves with torches, or wearing helmets if the player keeps using headshots to take down enemies whilst conserving ammo. Moreover, bases are often labyrinthian, encouraging the player to find intel to help refine their search of any given area. This allows the versatile measures available to players when conquering a base or town – such as sneaking in with a cardboard box, requesting a new weapon or vehicle to assist in your assault via air drop, or arranging covering fire from your helicopter – to each serve as viable strategies for the player to experiment with. The world might be a barebones battlefield, but the challenging and adaptive gameplay is geared around this environment to pose a significant and engaging challenge to the player. What’s more, there’s no need to eliminate every enemy in an outpost – stealth is a genuine strategy, not just a tactic promoted by developers to describe ‘silently executing’ every enemy.

Working to have R&D develop a silenced sniper rifle similarly takes effort. The innumerable options for weaponry are not simply in MGSV for the sake of ‘player choice’. You must earn the ability to infiltrate MGSV’s environments with ease – it isn’t a norm right from the get go, as this would defeat the challenge provided by dynamic combat encounters. Would I have liked the game to give me more moments akin to the stellar prologue, in which our hero escapes a hospital by the skin of his teeth? Sure, but that’s what Death Stranding will likely capture. What matters is that MGSV made its gameplay exemplary, which in turn gave its deliberately minimalistic open-world setting a strategic and tactical purpose. If you haven’t already, be sure to watch Danny O’Dwyer’s episode of The Point which specifically covered the ’emergent gameplay’ found in MGSV as it’s certainly going to make itself apparent in future open-world offerings. I’m sure Rockstar has taken note when designing its own skirmishes in the upcoming RDR2 and whatever comes next in the Grand Theft Auto series.

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Conversely, when looking at The Last of Us or even the original Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite (which I’ve been replaying due to the Remaster being on sale for PSN), these are linear games which immerse their players in lived-in worlds through a slow, measured manner. Their set pieces are followed by moments of respite where players are encouraged to take in the sensory symphony of their surroundings before readying themselves for the next firefight. As I wrote in a previous entry to this blog, this is the next trend which I suspect will surpass the current ‘sandbox’ extravaganza developers have been fiendishly pursuing, especially given the Destiny and The Division MMO-like bubble seems to have burst somewhat prematurely.

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Therefore, it seems like we have two styles of games nowadays. The strict, linear adventure with its highs and lows and intense characterisation, and the open-sandboxes which are focused on player invention and dominating an environment’s various settlements. But must these approaches to game design be divided? The detail and depth of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suggests not (even if CD Project Red’s promise that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be an even larger game is terrifying). Perhaps more importantly, Rockstar Games clearly thinks not, given its focus on creating lives for its antiheroes to explore in Grand Theft Auto V when not engaged in a job or mission. If this is the case, then how could their approach be further modified to produce a more seamless narrative experience?

Ultimately, such analysis begs all manner of questions for the future of open-world games and whether they can convincingly surpass these restraints on narrative. Do open-world adventures need to be bound to a mission-based structure to present unique story and gameplay opportunities? How can an action-driven narrative be well paced and enjoyable in an open-world environment filled with distractions and yet defined by strict rules and boundaries? How can the strengths of this genre, and the medium more broadly, be capitalised on without stripping players of the very freedom games offer them? It is this fundamental question of producing an alternative to mission-driven open-world gameplay which will be explored for the remainder of this essay.

To achieve this, I will discuss how a more storied experience like The Last of Us could be applied to an open-world adventure like Red Dead Redemption – assuming rules are embedded into its world. Such a case study will focus on the chapter in the original TLoU where Ellie and Joel’s journey to Tommy’s is interrupted by hunters after Joel foolishly triggers an ambush in the city of Pittsburgh in an effort to conserve fuel.

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Can open-world adventures move beyond triggering events through mission markers and a reliance on the mini map to eliminate scores of red-dotted enemies? I believe so, by essentially creating linear ‘missions’ and tying them to areas of the game world in a much more direct yet nuanced way than has been attempted in the past.

Imagine the setup for a next-generation open-world title: the player’s role in an open-world sandbox is less about dominating an environment but rather being a prisoner within it. The goal is not to confidently eliminate any threat that the player is presented with before ticking off their chore-like quests, but rather having to migrate through an unpredictable landscape which presents unforeseen challenges to the player at every opportunity. Gone is the stability of the now-standard Rockstar open-world epic established since 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, where you’re either engaged in on-mission activities or off-mission frivolities. In this new generation of open-world adventure, players would not trigger missions at their discretion by walking into a mission marker. Instead, they would explore the world in a far more nuanced manner – especially given that any environment they’re forced to explore could throw an unexpected challenge at the player. Moreover, if the player does stumble across a ‘mission’ when exploring a town or village, the mission doesn’t formally ‘end’ by signalling to the player that it’s over through a sound effect or reward. This way, the game would provide a more structured and ever-unfolding narrative experience, where ‘missions’ are masked and woven into the moment-to-moment gameplay. The result would be a much richer, unpredictable and engrossing experience.

In TLoU, Joel’s goal is to journey across the post-pandemic United States and deliver the cure to mankind to a group of scientists working with the militia group known as the Fireflies. As the game progresses, Joel escapes the quarantine zone of Boston (which is effectively a walled-off tutorial teaching the player specific core mechanics) before acquiring the materials necessary to ready a car when exploring the seemingly abandoned town of Lincoln. Using this car, Joel (with his charge, Ellie, in tow) now has the task of finding his brother. Through clever map design, the player is funnelled towards the city of Pittsburgh when following the main road east. No objective markers or GPS ever directs Joel to his ‘mission’; the events which follow unfold naturally, ready to be triggered after the player journeys to a certain section of the U.S.

When living out this scenario in TLoU, Joel – through a cut scene – enters Pittsburgh and is ambushed by hunters. These survivors wreck the car, forcing Joel and Ellie to sneak through the city as best they can. What follows, in terms of set pieces and character arcs, are a series of highs and lows in which Joel and Ellie get separated before Ellie rescues Joel and the duo fall out. Ellie then covers Joel which leads to her being entrusted by her ward to carry a firearm of her own. The stronger-than-ever duo then encounter another duo of survivors, Henry and Sam, which leads to the crew working together to escape the city. Being a linear experience, this sequence of events is very structured and leads to a gripping experience from beginning to end.

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Why can’t this arc be used in an open-world title? Do we really need to break up these various moments into single fifteen-minute missions triggered at the player’s leisure? Doesn’t this take away from the narrative being built in the open world? If we conceptualise the various moments described above as being part of one big mission, the result for open-world players would be something infinitely more dynamic and engaging – if only because it would be so unexpected.

Envisioning the same scenario for our next-generation open-world title, let’s say ‘Pittsburgh’ is our traditional ‘mission’. Players have but one objective when entering the city: reach the bridge to exit the town. Anything else is fair game. Mowing down enemies in the car could be minimised by cluttering the roads and restricting the access of vehicles. Likewise, weaponry could be a luxury which therefore necessitates a more cautious approach for players to take (as was the case in Manhunt and The Warriors, where enemies were less numerous but more lethal than in Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto V). As everyone in the city in TLoU is hostile, the game could place a number of ‘dynamic encounters’ or ‘moments’ in the city which players trigger whenever they reach certain areas in the game world. If you climb through some abandoned flats, you stumble into Henry and Sam. If you’re headed down the main road, the hunters’ armoured vehicle makes itself known and players must either attack or evade it. If you take another route entirely, players bump into Henry and Sam’s missing (and presumed dead) crew. The result is an experience which is tailored by the player’s exploration but ultimately directed by the developer. No matter where the protagonist travels, they will stumble across a character or story event which changes the challenge and forces a different set piece or gameplay style on the player. Importantly, everything you do pushes you towards the bridge and therefore the end of the ‘mission’, ‘chapter’ or ‘level’. At the very least, such an approach allows the spectacular environments in Rockstar’s open world to be more carefully appreciated and investigated.

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Imposing rules and limitations on the player in this next-generation open-world adventure – such as giving the car a finite amount of fuel – means that when players reach Pittsburgh they can either go around the city and run out of gas (meaning they must wander on foot) or journey through Pittsburgh, keeping the car and reducing fuel usage, at the cost of being funnelled into a trap. The latter easily provides the context for the room-to-room combat approach of TLoU or Max Payne 3, rather than the open-world war zone like in the other ‘sandbox’ games described earlier. By presenting challenges in a linear style – the checkpoint assault at night, the basement, the hotel, the bookstore – players have multiple iconic moments laid in their way without even realising it.

Alternatively, if players did choose to more cautiously drive around Pittsburgh and not be suckered into a trap, they would bump into Henry’s group either before, or as, they are split from Henry and Sam. The two brothers will die no matter how the player approaches Pittsburgh so the developer could afford to write separate characters into this gameplay section. No matter what happens, players still journey through Pittsburgh and learn to fear the hunters who have taken over the city. Importantly, every decision the player makes leads them to doubt their actions: ‘I should’ve turned the damn truck around’ vs. ‘I should’ve kept moving, saved fuel.’ The gameplay informs the character’s, and therefore player’s, emotional state. It is the specific gameplay challenges and consequences which differ from player to player, depending on whose company they share. The open world serves as a narrative ‘mosaic’, as it were, with players experiencing similar gameplay encounters through slightly different lens – thereby showing the strengths of tailoring narrative to open-world design.

Players could have travelled to the open-world Pittsburgh countless times before this mission had been activated, but when the narrative is ready to present this more storied experience suddenly there’s a sense of danger and unpredictability which makes the player much more alert. Having been caught off-guard, they don’t know when their activities and ordeal will be over, so they must take in the environment beat by beat rather than mindlessly cruising through it.

This isn’t to say that I want rid of open-world dynamic encounters, as they are what makes the combat in such games so exciting. However, there is a way in which linear set pieces can be positioned into the open world. Think about Max Payne 3, and how – upon reaching the roof of the nightclub – Max fires his rifle from Passos’ helicopter, or serves as the gunner on a boat or bus when trying to escape gang members and mercenaries. In The Warriors, players were forced to outrun the baseball furies and Turnbull ACs respectively. Although these two examples aren’t open-world titles, a lot of Rockstar Games’ most iconic missions have blended straightforward situations into full-blown cinematic set pieces. These range from attending Elizabeta’s party in Grand Theft Auto IV and being assigned to watch over a drug deal; having Vermin, Snow and Ash revel in the 1979-inspired blackout after their subway train breaks down in The Warriors; playing cards as John Marston in RDR when seeing a friend, only for the activity to break out into an altercation and eventual firefight; and even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ Rodney King, 1992-inspired Los Santos riot become a battleground which the player actively completed missions in when fighting alongside Caesar and his boys. In every case, the outside world reflected the challenges faced in-game.

Of course, TLoU is a very action-orientated game – so this style of gameplay is only possible in desolate urban environments. Rockstar Games effectively produced similarly environs through the 1970s’ era of decline and paranoia surrounding the crime-ridden New York City in The Warriors, and the privately-purchased, post-industrial wasteland that was Manhunt. RDR2 could do something similar with ghost towns, but the magnitude of an urban environment is necessary for gameplay of this type.

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Still, Red Dead would be able to achieve this blurring of open-world exploration and more linear, meticulously crafted narrative by having the crew journey together through the open world. If, as the teaser suggests, the player is forced on the move and never feels safe in any given environment (aside from having their brothers-in-arms by their side), then defending a site from hordes of Native Americans or a barrage of bandits is given much more story context. Likewise, giving bounties a story which force the player to ask around town, tracking the guy down Witcher 3 style, and staging a method of attack or extraction, would similarly give simple activities a more storied sensibility. Being pursued by bandits in the mountains, and deciding whether to stage camp or keep pushing through the blizzard… there are numerous opportunities to have narrative inject into straightforward exploration. I can’t wait to see how Rockstar continues to push the envelope in this regard, especially if seasons are introduced which visually affect the landscape over time.

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Even more storied games like The Last of Us Part II will be able to expand on the, in my view, poorly executed ‘wide linear’ experiment of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (which essentially amounted to driving around to collect optional trinkets and triggering the next cut scene, as was the case with ‘Chapter Twelve: At Sea’) by giving Ellie a car, an objective to reach, and environments in between the player and their goal. Getting out to explore could see you bump into Clickers, Runners, Hunters or your own kind. Having Ish-esque narratives littered across a town could even colour the setting with a character reminiscent of the ‘formerly utopian’ sewers in the original title. The more players use the car to traverse the landscape for a given chapter, the more its gas dries up and players must scavenge for more from cars. Of course, they could choose to explore settlements on foot – but the extra gunmen and firearms must be left behind to protect the vehicle.

Such an approach could even affect the storytelling in subtle ways. If players stealth an area, they locate their objective one way. If they shoot the place up, they experience it in a completely different way – perhaps by having enemies be aware of your presence and actions, being much more aggressive when they approach you. Depending on your approach, your conversations with allies (and enemies) would adapt to your play style. As you explore this environment, there could be activities off the beaten path which break up the relentless action – such as playing pool, darts, or discussing features in the environment, as well as locating unique weapons, outfits and individuals. The joy of stumbling across Minefield in Fallout 3, and effectively being confronted with a dynamic impromptu boss fight, comes to mind. Even back in 2008, Bethesda took the ‘gameified’ qualities of overthrowing towers or gang hideouts away in favour of something more personal, unique, storied, challenging and memorable. Most notably, it was completely optional.

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Hunting Fireflies could be especially dynamic if, like in the recent ‘Men Against Fire’ episode of Black Mirror, the rebels are hiding from the player. Even adding interrogations with Ellie’s gifted knife from Marlene in a style reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V could make the relationship between the player and their enemy more intimate simply by using core mechanics. The Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system would be incredibly powerful with this kind of design, especially. Having enemies remember what you did to their friends, or thanking you for letting them live, is one thing. It’s another entirely if you let them go hours earlier only for them to betray your trust later – forcing you to consider exacting revenge when stumbling across them in the open world a second time. Suddenly the game mechanics of morality are affecting how you play, not just a rewarding cut scene after fighting through five rooms of bad guys in a row. Thus, if linear games like this can be more open, then it makes sense that more open titles can inject these tighter narrative moments into their design too.

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Another example of cinematic action set-pieces merging into an open world can be seen in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and its final evolution of the convoy chase when Nate and Sully are trying to rescue Sam. Much like all Naughty Dog adventures, the player is directed to the next objective by following a visual objective. In The Last of Us, players head towards the Capital Building in Boston, the bridge leading out of Pittsburgh, the radio tower outside of the suburbs, or the second floor of the hospital. In Sam’s pursuit, the player is directed to ‘just go down’ the hill towards Sam’s chosen tower. For all intents and purposes, players have free rein to explore a few city blocks but are prevented from standing still due to an aggressive APC pursuing Nate and Sully. Minutes into the chase, when the level is becoming too formulaic, the player finds Sam and is then tasked to fend off the pursuing mercenaries trying to gun him down. Circumstance separates Nate and Sully, forcing Drake to hop from vehicle to vehicle across the countryside – before finally catching up with Sam and triggering an in-game cut scene in which Drake’s car is totalled.

Again, such a sequence could easily take place in real time across any of Grand Theft Auto’s open-world environments. Players could receive a phone call from a character saying they’ve found the perfect score, but that they’re being pursued by Merryweather security. Rather than drive to a location and save the pinned-down ally, before using his information to prepare a heist of some kind, the game would have to script a number of encounters – as Uncharted 4 did – which unravel as the player journeys towards their ally. This way, the open world is that much more unpredictable and the combat which ensues is much more involved and alive. Encouragingly, Grand Theft Auto V did experiment with this idea in one mission where – as Trevor is exploring Los Santos and Blaine County – the player is called by Franklin, who reports that the O’Neils are sending a crew to take Trevor out. As the player is controlling Trevor, a mission marker appears on the mini map which will trigger a plan to take out his competition. However, if the player swaps over to control Franklin, who confirms over the phone that he is currently tailing the O’Neils on the freeway out of Los Santos, players immediately begin the mission from Franklin’s point of view. This is perhaps the most seamless way Rockstar has ever started a mission, and is likely to prove indicative of what the next-generation open-world videogames could look like as cinematic set-pieces blur into everyday open-world exploration.

And how does the ‘mission’ end, once Sam rescues Nate from the wreckage of his wiped-out vehicle? They head to the motel and devise a strategy on securing Henry Avery’s buried booty. Surely all an open-world title would need to do is have the player congregate with their allies back at base, draft a plan of attack via the white board in the back office, and prepare the next big ‘score’ in a similar pattern. This way, players still have time to take a break from the core narrative and have fun in the open world, but when they commit to moving forward with the plan they know that they could be busy for the next few hours (rather than just a handful of minutes). Every mission would become that more dangerous as a result.

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In conclusion, ‘sandboxes’ have to be braver with their combination of story and emergent gameplay. A story and its action set pieces don’t need to be reduced to cut scenes or the elimination of hordes of enemies just because there is an open-world setting to take advantage of. Linear open-world narratives aren’t simply about burying what amounts to a linear, character-driven sequence into the confines of an open-world map – the space needs to be used effectively to communicate a narrative and introduce varied gameplay moments. What it is trying to achieve is a much more involved relationship with the player’s goal and their enemies in a less predictable manner.

It could be argued, as Adam Kovic of Funhaus commented, that the dynamic set pieces of GTA Online’s Heist missions are infinitely more cinematic and engaging than anything a developer could choreographed. But the fact remains that Rockstar programmed certain moments – such as shooting helicopters out of the sky in a jet as your friends escort an escaped prisoner to a getaway vehicle – to use the breadth of the open world whilst also taking advantage of team-based combat.

Linear open-world narratives mean that developers can naturally imbue more structured gameplay and story content in their games, sometimes foregoing the mission-based structure which has defined the genre for the entirety of the 21st century in exchange for more hand-crafted sequences. Whether it’s a good thing remains to be seen, but more storied titles will certainly experiment with this structure as they become more open over the next decade or so.

Next week, I’ll begin writing pitches for open-world titles I would like to see created. The first, entitled ‘Inmate’, it is a spiritual successor to Bully (or Canis Canem Edit as I first experienced it) set inside a federal penitentiary. After that, ‘It Always Ends With Blood’ will be my spiritual successor to L.A. Noire. By having a single mystery at the fore, the player’s interaction with the open world means they must put clues together themselves to reveal the most plausible narrative of events which solves the mystery – all without taking away the inherent fun of fighting through open-world environments (something L.A. Noire struggled with). From there, sometime next month, I will present my pitch for the future of open-world action adventures, with an emphasis on environments which evolve and decay in real time against the backdrop of a revolution. Entitled  A World Without End’, this is what I believe will come to represent the evolution of what Rockstar Games has been working to create by blurring ‘on-’ and ‘off-mission’ content into one seamless, gameplay-driven narrative.

 

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