Back in 2014, one of the more inflammatory reviews I wrote was for Bungie’s much anticipated first-person shooter MMO hybrid, Destiny. Even after all of the agreeably impressive downloadable expansions and quality of life updates, it still sticks in my mind as a brilliant hot mess. It was a hot mess I tried desperately to love, but it amounted to being an inoffensive distraction when I just needed to unwind; a far cry from the community-driven action space opera that was promised.
Destiny 2 is a fantastic improvement. The guns feel meatier, the enemies feel nastier, and the storytelling flows a lot better. But there are still some issues under the surface, some familiar, some brand new.
Take Back Your Home
The campaign starts strong. After creating your character from three different races and classes or importing your characters from the first game – complete with an impressively animated retrospective of your greatest achievements, you are thrown into the middle of an invasion of the Tower, your main headquarters and home. After this brief tutorial, you are introduced to the major villain of the campaign, Dominus Ghaul, right before he uses a special device to steal Light, the cosmic space magic that makes all the heroes in the story amazing, from you and the entire community. Your weapons and armor are gone, your home has been destroyed, and everything that has made you special has been taken by this new threat. The following escape sequence sets the tone perfectly: a heroic underdog story where all the hero has is a desire for revenge and the clothes on their back.
And when the game’s tone focuses on this low point, it works. The supporting characters are able to emote and show a bit more nuance even if those roles are familiar cliches like the stoic determined leader and the wisecracking rogue. The show is practically stolen by Nathan Fillion’s return to the series as the voice of the robotic hunter, Cayde-6 and the catty new character Hawthorne voiced by Sumalee Montano, but they have relatively small screen time which evens it out.
The problems start to arise when the shooting starts. Bungie has satisfying gunplay down to a science thanks to their work on the Halo series and that is still the case here. Each weapon feels great to fire, enemies take just enough hits to feel satisfying to take down, and the shear variety of enemies on hand with immediately understandable tricks and tactics make each encounter savory even if it’s the dozenth time they’ve appeared. But Bungie’s grand campaign about reclaiming Earth from an overwhelming alien force is over so quickly it feels less like a Red War and more like a Red Sortie. There’s plenty of exciting and dynamic battles and set pieces along the way, even various characters get to show a depth and personality that was only hinted at before, but once those eight hours conclude it feels like a little more time could have gone a long way.
Get The Gang Together
On the bright side, in just about every other department Destiny 2 is a much bolder and more realized experience. There are four areas to explore, the moons of Titan and Io, the centaur planetoid of Nessus, and the European Dead Zone on Earth. While the first game’s worlds were vast open expanses with barely anything to do other than mindlessly shoot, these new hub areas are the exact opposite. Locations are packed with various content such as small side missions called Adventures and hidden dungeons called Lost Sectors. There are also random and frequent public events where all players nearby can work together against a major boss encounter. There are even new Heroic Public Events, more difficult versions of these challenges that activate when certain conditions are met.
The rewards given for completing these challenges is new weapons and armor, and Destiny 2 has expertly made each new piece feel special. Almost every single time I beat an Adventure that was a higher level than me I got rewarded with a piece of armor or a weapon that was definitively better than what I was wearing. . The sense of accomplishment became so complete that when the game revealed there was more to do after the campaign concluded I was immediately hooked, losing entire evenings to just exploring a single location.
This even extends to Destiny 2’s co-op content. The special Strike missions where a fireteam of three players tackle a major challenge don’t just boil down to mindlessly shooting away at a boss monster with a larger than normal health bar, but have a greater emphasis on environmental awareness and coordination. The boss might turn invisible and do quick assassination strikes on the team while enemies pour in with an area of effect ability meant to slow you down for example. This is also meant to help encourage the use of new abilities the three main classes have. Warlocks can create rifts which can either heal or empower himself and teammates, Titans can create temporary walls of cover, and Hunters can perform long swooping diving rolls meant for flanking. It actively encourages more teamwork, which makes the utter triumph over these Strikes all the sweeter.
On the PvP side of things the Crucible mode has become leaner and more cutthroat as a result. Each match consists of four-on-four, and the ten maps (or eleven on PS4) are all about tight corridors and small skirmishes. It leads to a more meticulous and deliberate competitive experience far different from other major shooters on the market that keep aiming for high player counts and large-scale destruction.
The matchmaking is more accessible as well. There is now low intensity games for a more casual online experience and high intensity games for the competitive crowd. This does lock some of the more demanding modes to the latter such as Survival, a deathmatch where both teams have a fixed number of lives or the “de-activate the bomb” chaos of Countdown, but it’s reasonably handled.
The only real problem is that as of writing there is no private matchmaking or a way to choose a specific mode. You join a queue, wait, then hope that it’s something you’re in the mood for. Considering the last game had a modicum of these options, their absence here is baffling.
Despite these improvements, the game still has some shortcomings. While Destiny 2 has entertaining gameplay and a vibrant community of supportive players, the production is full of half-measures when it comes to introducing a new audience. A lot of praise was given when it was revealed that Bungie would include crucial lore into the game itself, mostly as descriptive text on certain weapons and armor, but there is no in-game Grimoire for new players to get caught up on certain crucial key points such as why characters like The Traveler and the Taken are so important. There isn’t even an option to re-watch certain story cutscenes or even replay specific story missions.
Finally, Destiny 2 is yet another major game to fully embrace loot box culture with its new string of microtransactions. The Eververse shop sells Bright Engrams that can only be bought with the premium currency of silver, which can only be bought with real world money. These bundles include special cosmetic items like emotes, ships, and vehicles. While these items have no real gameplay value, they’re just pretty cosmetics, it still can have a negative effect on a community-driven experience. Seeing others using a particularly flashy piece of armor will, however subtle, entice players to buy, especially in a series that utterly thrives on its visual presentation.
You aren’t able to actually buy any of these until you reach level 20 in the game, but that’s when the real problems begin. After hitting level 20, killing enough enemies to level up again will grant you one of these packages and another roll of the dice. But in addition to fancy armor and ships, these engrams can also grant powerful armor and weapon mods, which can give some players a small but noticeable advantage in online modes. The boosts are minor but they dangerously toe the line of pay-to-win.
But probably the biggest change made to keep people playing and buying are how shaders are used. Shaders were items you used to recolor your armor. They covered your entire set of armor and once you had it, you could use it as many times as you liked. It was a universally loved part of personal customization in the original game. Destiny 2’s shaders meanwhile can be used in segments, used on just gloves or the helmet, but use it once and it is gone forever. The only way to get more is to either farm for them in zones or pay to get more from Eververse. Just to add more salt in the wound, these new shaders drop in packs of three while a full set of armor is made up of four slots, five if you include your Ghost. It’s by far the most insulting major change to a game that prioritizes profit over player convenience, the only saving grace being that they drop relatively frequently.
As it stands at time of writing, Destiny 2 stands as a testament to Bungie listening to feedback and making a sequel that stands head and shoulders over its predecessor. It can be accused of preaching to the choir with its lack of in-game codex and more aggressive microtransaction pressures but if you found the first Destiny cold, impersonal, and half-baked, this installment is the one to jump in on.