Destiny 2 Review
I’ve never witnessed hype on the level that surrounded Destiny back in 2014. Bungie’s first post-Halo game looked to be their most ambitious, innovative title yet, with grand promises about the shared-world nature of the gameplay and a vast universe to explore, not to mention all the discussion about the 500 million dollar price tag. While Destiny’s initial release ultimately turned out to be as ambitious as we all thought, it was also just as flawed. The game delivered near-perfect shooting mechanics that lead to immensely satisfying gunplay, but everything else was underwhelming, confusing or, in the case of the story, mostly absent. There was a lot of potential, which Bungie somewhat made good on in the following expansions, but for many it was too little, too late. It was no surprise, then, that Destiny 2 was met by many with less hype and more practical suspicion than its predecessor. Fortunately, that skepticism proved unwarranted as Destiny 2 finally delivers on what was only hinted at back in 2014.
Set an indeterminate amount of time after the original, Destiny 2 opens with a brutal assault on The City, humanity’s last bastion. Lead by Ghaul, a faction of the Cabal known as the Red Legion has come to destroy humanity and harness the power of the Traveler for themselves. Crushed by overwhelming force and sheer numbers, it’s not long before all of humanity finds itself on the run, scattered across the remains of the ruined world. The Vanguard has gone missing, the Traveler’s light has gone out, and you are all that stands between Ghaul and the destruction of humankind.
The Loot Cycle
Much like its predecessor, or any Diablo or Borderlands game, Destiny 2 is built around the loot cycle; you kill enemies to get their loot, which makes you strong enough to kill tougher enemies, which give you better loot with which you can kill even stronger enemies and so on, ad infinitum. Most activities in Destiny 2 revolve around this cycle, but unlike its predecessor Destiny 2 wraps this concept in a broad, traditionally told narrative that actually gives your character one of the things it lacked most in the first game – purpose. The original Destiny had fantastic gunplay, and great loot for the taking, but it mostly turned into a slog through the same repetitive missions and even more repetitive patrols and public events, none of which offered any real reasoning or justification for why you were doing the things you were doing. Sure, it was possible to learn more about the world through the Grimoire cards, but asking people to stop playing a game to look up cards on a website so that they can learn more about the game they just stopped playing in bits and pieces is awkward, to say the least.
Lack of story was easily the biggest complaint levied by gamers and critics alike, and Destiny 2 addresses this by packing an impressive amount of story content within the first 10 hours. Not only are there far more cinematic moments that focus on the narrative, including a particularly spectacular first hour, there are more story-driven missions overall that provide exposition from the principle NPCs in the game to help flesh out the world you’re in. On top of that, the original patrols have been (temporarily) replaced by the new and improved Adventure quests. Playing out more like side quests that augment the main story, Adventures can vary greatly in length and content, but all are more complex and rewarding than the original patrols, with multiple steps and locations, and lore to uncover. Some even play out much more like low-level strikes from the first game, complete with their own bosses.
The standard patrols do make an appearance in the game, but only after completing the main campaign, and mostly to give you additional options when it comes to how you approach the end-game grind, but they’re not necessary. Bungie has packed so many story missions and adventures into the game that even after 30 hours with Destiny 2 I still have not completed them all.
The Way of the Golden Gunslinger
When first starting out in Destiny 2, you’ll pick from one of the three original classes available in the original game: Hunter, Warlock or Titan. There are no new classes in Destiny 2, though each come with a new, default sub-class. As you progress, you will unlock 2 additional sub-classes, though the means of going about it isn’t as straightforward as it should be, requiring you to find a random drop from a public event, and then complete several more, before you unlock a mission to secure your next sub-class.
There aren’t many fundamental changes to how classes, or even sub-classes, work, but rather an overhaul of the system and abilities available. You still have a grenade and melee ability that each operate on a cooldown, and you can dump skill points into each to upgrade and customize how they function. There’s a new sub-class skill, however, that can (and often does) modify how you use your other core abilities. The Hunter’s new sub-class, Arcstrider, utilizes a dodge maneuver that can quickly get you out of a jam. However, it can also be augmented so that any successful dodge instantly recharges your melee ability, or instantly reloads your weapon.
As before, using these core abilities, in addition to unleashing general destruction, eventually charges your Super meter, at which point you can unleash your equipped sub-class’s ultimate elemental attack. These use one of the three primary elemental attributes in the game (lightning, solar or void) but primarily come in two flavors – crowd control or massive, singular damage. The Warlock’s Daybreak or Titan’s Sentinel Shield are great for clearing out mobs, whereas the Hunter’s Golden Gun is best used to deal massive damage to boss-type enemies. Which class you use, and how you combine and use your three primary abilities is based mostly on personal preference and team composition.
Assemble Your Fireteam
Destiny 2 doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to cooperative play, but that’s mostly because they didn’t need to. The three-man fireteam is still how you’ll spend most of your time in this game, because cooperative shooters are always better with friends, and because you reap greater rewards when you fight together. Bungie’s net code for the social aspects of the game is still fantastic, with flawless drop-in-drop-out cooperative play, making it easy to pop in and help one friend out of a jam before hopping over to a Fireteam to join a strike.
One notable change to cooperative play is that strikes are now unavailable until you reach level 20. Strikes, for the uninitiated, are lengthier missions designed for co-op play, with higher stakes and greater rewards than typical story missions, and cannot be played solo. In the original Destiny, strikes were often part of the main campaign and were unlocked as early as level 9. Now they are relegated more towards end-game play, and entirely optional, but the structure of the strikes and the rewards they contain have been modified to match. They’re tougher, with bosses that truly hit hard and require strategy to take down.
Thankfully Bungie has tweaked certain mechanics to make team play more fluid and rewarding. As in the previous game, each time you unleash your Super, you drop Orbs of Light that others in your team can pick up to charge their Super more quickly. Coordinating when each player activates their super, and on which enemies, in order to maximize these abilities’ up-time, is a crucial part of end-game play, and thanks to a few tweaks by Bungie doing so has never been easier. Supers charge faster in PvE than before, and orbs you pick up will replenish much bigger parts of the gauges, allowing teams to chain abilities for some truly remarkable boss fights.
There is good news for people who prefer solo play, though, as Destiny 2 is much more single-player friendly than the previous game. I actually spent most of my time in the first Destiny in solo play, as I initially purchased the game on PS3, two years after everyone else, before eventually transitioning over to the PS4 to finish up the expansions with my friends. Solo play in Destiny, especially level 20 and above, was a slog; it was simply too difficult in too many places if you were going it alone. Destiny 2 does a much better job of balancing the difficulty curve to ensure that, whether you’re with friends or by yourself, you rarely find yourself biting off more than you can chew, at least until the final bits of the current end-game. In fact, some of the best missions in the game are the ones that require you to play through them alone. Extended, multi-part missions that unlock exclusively after beating the main campaign, however, will often require you to have either competent backup or the patience of a saint.
Sunset on Io
2014’s Destiny was not an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was it particularly good looking. Perhaps it was due, in part, to the hardware limitations of the legacy consoles Bungie chose to support or the scope of the game itself, but the problem went deeper than that. For a game that tried to capture the wonder of roaming our own solar system, Destiny was never able to really ignite the imagination. The various locales mostly felt bland, empty and uninspired, particularly Mars. Whatever changes Bungie has made to personnel or design philosophy in the following three years, though, have paid off in spades as Destiny 2 is one of the best-looking games on the PS4 to date. Impressive on a purely technical level, for sure, but also featuring some of the most breathtaking art design I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Instead of the barren, rocky steppes of the first game’s Cosmodrome, Destiny 2 starts players out in the European Dead Zone, featuring post-apocalyptic European towns and villages that nature has begun to reclaim. Lush vegetation and dark forests encroach on the remains of human settlements in an atmosphere reminiscent of The Last of Us, albeit with a heavy sci-fi twist. Eventually you’ll take the fight to all new corners of the solar system such as the Jovian moons Titan and Io and the icy planetoid Nessus, most of them more visually impressive than the last. The decision to focus on more exotic locations this time around definitely pays off, as it opens up artistic possibilities not present when trying to recreate something as ‘mundane’ as Mars.
There are few games that can constantly force me to stop and take in the scenery simply because it’s so striking, but much like I did with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I often found myself taking a break from my current activity to simply go explore the area and marvel in the sights, turning off my HUD in an attempt to find that picture perfect moment, such as scaling the peaks on Io to get a better view of the monoliths and geysers reaching into a sky dominated by Jupiter, or walking through the crimson forests inside the huge, broken marble structures of Nessus as green-tinted sunlight splashed through the leaves.
These magnificent views are paired with the game’s wonderful original score to create truly memorable moments. There is probably no video game franchise in existence with music as iconic as Bungie’s Halo series. As recognizable in the gaming community as the Imperial March is for Star Wars fans, the monastic chants of Halo still resonate with players today, thanks largely to the incredible talents of Martin O’Donnell. While O’Donnell’s sudden departure from the studio prior to Destiny’s release in 2014 was a cause for concern for many, his longtime collaborator, Michael Salvatori, has taken up the mantle and continued to produce some of the best sounding games of this generation, and in Destiny 2 we get what is perhaps Bungie’s most mature, beautifully articulated composition yet.
The House That Lord Shaxx Built
I loved multiplayer in Halo, enough to log over 15,000 matches across Halo 2, 3, ODST and Reach. Halo 2 was the first game to truly grab my interest when it came to competitive online shooters, and the Halo franchise routinely set the bar for online console multiplayer with each installment. It was quite a surprise for me, then, that I didn’t much care for the PvP aspects of Destiny, to the point that I only played it for the purposes of progressing in PvE. It felt too imbalanced, too hectic, with maps that simply didn’t work and a reliance on having the right loadout and hoarding power ammo. It became more of a chore than a pleasure.
Destiny 2’s multiplayer does a much better job reigning in the chaos with several key changes to the core of the PvP experience. Matches are now 4-on-4 for all game modes, as opposed to 6-on-6, and Supers charge much slower in PvP. This helps eliminate the feeling of being dogpiled from the first game, where you could often find yourself on the receiving end of three or four Supers in a row, knocking you out of the game the moment you respawned, without allowing you any time to charge up your own. The result was that too many matches slid into blowouts the moment one team started getting the upper hand.
By reducing player size to 4 players per team, without a commensurate reduction in map size, everyone has more breathing room, especially now that you might get to charge your Super twice per match, if you’re good and/or lucky. More importantly is the change in loadout. In the original Destiny players were given a Primary, Secondary and Power weapon slot, allowing you to carry a regular rifle or pistol, a shotgun and a light machine gun all at once. The domination of heavy weaponry played a big part in the frenetic arcade style in a battle for power ammo that quickly become rote and boring.
In Destiny 2, you can equip two ‘primary’ weapons (rifle, hand cannon or sidearm) and only one power weapon, and only one player on your team can collect ammunition for it at regular intervals. It is often good strategy, then, to forget about power weapons completely, which many players seem to be doing, myself included. The somewhat slower pace also lends itself better to teams sticking together, leading to bigger, more exciting gunfights at various map intersections, rather than dull one-on-one encounters in random corners of the map while you scramble to find the action.
Most of the game modes from Destiny remain intact, even with the changes. Of particular note for people who did not stick around for all of the first game’s expansions, however, is Supremacy, a game mode first introduced in Destiny’s final expansion, Rise of Iron. A team deathmatch mode with a twist, Supremacy grants you a Crest for every enemy you defeat on the battlefield. To score a point for your kill, all you have to do is pick it up before the other team either recovers it or kills you and picks up your own. It adds an interesting layer of strategy to the boring team deathmatch model, one where you’ll often find yourself creating crests only to leave them be, rather than risk losing your own trying to secure them, or better yet simply sticking with your squad.
For those who want a more traditional match, there’s always the usual standbys: Clash, which is just basic team deathmatch; Control, in which teams fight to hold three different control points; Survival, in which each team has a limited number of available respawns; and Charge, which works somewhat similar to the various Bomb modes from earlier Halo games.
Which modes you play, and how frequently, will depend on whether you select Quickplay or Competitive when entering Lord Shaxx’s Crucible, each following their own playlists that cannot be changed. Unfortunately, not all game modes are represented equally in these lists, and you’ll spend approximately 70% of your time playing either Control or Supremacy. They’re good modes, to be sure, but it would be nice to see more variety.
All That Glimmers Is Not Gold
As impressive an overall package as Destiny 2 is, it’s not without its share of problems, ugliest among them the questionable decision of selling weapon and armor mods that actually affect gameplay, and turning shaders into one-time use only consumables which can only be bought with real money through the Eververse, the in-game trading post that connects Destiny 2 directly to your wallet.
The weapon and armor mods aren’t as troublesome as they first seem, because they cannot be purchased or equipped until you reach level 20, and the only ones you can buy are of the Rare variety. Shortly after hitting level 20, you’ll find yourself rolling in Legendary and even Exotic gear, many of which come with their own, far superior perks. Since all level advantages are disabled in the Crucible, these perks only affect the PvE experience, which is to say that for a few hours, some of your teammates may be able to kill AI enemies slightly faster than you, so long as they’re willing to spend real-world money. The impact it has on actual gameplay is trivial at best, but it’s a bad look that’s created a lot of misconceptions about notions of ‘pay to win’ mechanics.
More troublesome, by far, is how shaders are now treated. Customizing your Guardian’s look is a fun way to inject a little personality into your character, and to Bungie’s credit they give you a ton of cosmetic options with various shaders and weapon ornaments that can change the look of both you and your weapons. The problem is that each shader you acquire can only be used one time, and only on one piece of gear. If you want every piece of gear to sport the Indigo Matrix look, for example, you’re going to need six of the same shader. Every single time you upgrade a piece of gear, you’ll need to use another shader on it.
It's true that you can acquire all these items through Bright Engrams, which you are rewarded with every time you ‘level up’ after 20. However, the contents of Bright Engrams (which can only be decoded at the Eververse) are completely random, and the ones you can earn without spending real money are limited to the current maximum power level. Given how frequently you will find new, better gear, if you want to maintain a consistent look at all, you’ll be spending hard earned cash to do so. Hopefully Bungie changes course on this in the future, but for the time being it deserves to be mentioned as a blemish on an otherwise incredible experience.
A Promising Future
It’s hard to say where Destiny 2 will go after launch; the various and inevitable tweaks, changes and expansions will certainly modify the core experience over time. Raids, the true end-game in Destiny, have not even been released yet, and so we have no idea how they’re going to work, either. That said, Bungie has laid an impressive foundation for Destiny 2, one that sports much improved narrative focus, refined cooperative play, and a rock solid multiplayer experience, all brought together by flawless controls. With the exception of some questionable choices regarding microtransactions, Destiny 2 is a game that improves upon the original considerably, in every key area. This is, without question, Bungie’s best work yet.
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9/12/2017 Ryan Hartmann