Any assessment of Destiny 2 has to start with a bit of context on its predecessor. Launched after much hype and anticipation (and, as it was revealed later, a fairly tortuous development process) in 2014, the MMO shooter disappointed somewhat on its first blush with its weird, barely-there story, arcane currency and upgrade systems, and lack of content, and was written off by many players.
Yet plenty played on as well – even some of the game’s harsh critics – lured in by the game’s overall setting, tight core shooting gameplay, and perhaps above all else, the feeling that the game had genuine potential, leading to the classic assessment that the game was “the year’s best 6 out of 10”. Subsequent DLC releases for Destiny, especially major expansion and course-correction The Taken King, have been about Bungie correcting things they realise they did wrong with Destiny at release, polishing and sanding away in an attempt to burnish all that potential underneath things into a better overall experience.
Finally with the full sequel, they’ve had their chance for a proper do-over. Destiny 2 could easily have been released under the title Destiny, Fixed.
For those who went through the slightly Stockholm Syndrome-like experience of becoming Destiny addicts the first time around, it’s remarkably easy to see Bungie’s direct response to the feedback of their fans (and critics) flowing through almost every aspect of Destiny 2. This starts most prominently with the game’s single-player campaign, which sweeps aside memories of infamous audio clips of a bored-sounding Peter Dinklage phoning in lines like “That wizard came from the moon!” and writing like “I don’t even have time to explain what I don’t have time to explain” to focus on telling a much simpler, more direct and classic-style narrative, comparatively chock full of cut-scenes, and with much more for fan favourite characters to do.
The Cabal was the enemy faction least explored by Destiny and its various expansions, but in Destiny 2 they get their turn for a bit of feature villainy, arriving in force with one of their military divisions (the Red Legion) under the command of baddie Dominus Ghaul. Old mate Dominus is not happy that humanity’s chosen warrior class, the Guardians (who are the game’s players), got shoulder-tapped by mystery giant orb thingy The Traveller to get the space-magic called The Light and he didn’t, so he shoots Guardian homebase The Tower to bits, occupies the last “safe” human city on Earth, and slaps a big syphon/cage thing on The Traveller that cuts the Guardians off from their powers.
This means no magical flaming pistols of solar energy etc for the Guardians but more importantly, no convenient immortality either. The scene is thus set for a heroic comeback narrative but in terms of gameplay, this is also a convenient board-clearing that puts new players on the same footing as Destiny veterans. These players have had their beloved arsenal of weapons from the first game detonated by the story, and now have to go through the journey of regaining their powers like everyone else, arriving with only the clothes on their backs (and, er, their Destiny character’s head on their necks).
There are some neat touches throughout the game’s campaign. For veterans especially, the sudden humbling of the Guardians at the start of the game offers some affecting moments, with the defeated champions of humanity suddenly sharply confronted with the realities of mortality. Ideas about what it means to wield The Light – and how humans and aliens both who don’t have it feel about that – are also explored. Biffing the first game’s terrible idea of hiding much of the story out of the game on a separate website, the campaign tells a much more traditionally structured video game narrative, with specific scenes even offering insight into the motivation of the villains. This a welcome, almost surreal development for all those that got to the end of the campaign in Destiny and thought, “What just happened?”.
More crucially though, the campaign makes the most one of the first game’s strong points, with the excellent voice acting trio of Nathan Fillion, Lance Riddick and Gina Torres front-and-centred as Cayde 6, Zavala and Ikora Rey respectively. Their roles in the first game were essentially as glorified quest-givers, but here they’re more fleshed-out characters and essential allies in the player’s fight to stop Ghaul. The 12-or-so hour campaign even manages to introduce a couple of good new characters and builds to what are a particularly excellent last couple of missions, with the fate of the solar system and humanity on the line, and ends with a satisfying unlock that I’ll leave unspoiled here. It’s not suddenly Uncharted in terms of quality game storytelling, but it’s definitely a significant step-up from Destiny’s campaign in every way.
It’s also your introduction to the game’s new worlds. Destiny 2 leaves Mars, Venus and the Moon behind to introduce all-new areas; the European Dead Zone (Earth), Nessus, Io, and Titan, each offering its own distinct character. The EDZ for example is huge and varied, offering the crumbling ruins of a town, forested areas, and a massive Cabal base, whereas the oil rig-like structures on the methane oceans of Titan are much smaller in area, but no less inventive. With the game freed from the shackles of having to run on previous-gen consoles, they also look gorgeous.
Bungie’s artists (who still know exactly what to do with a skybox) have created glorious vistas everywhere you look, doubling-down on the sort of '70s sci-fi novel cover art aesthetic that was a big part of the appeal of the first game. Your first step into the New Pacific Arcology, encounter with Nessus’s gigantic white waterfall, or delve into Io’s Vex Pyramidion are genuine stop-and-stare moments. Level design also builds on one of Destiny’s strengths, with much more emphasis on the y-axis; it’s hard to think of a shooter that offers more vertical play space, and there are any number of nooks and crannies to explore and towering structures to ascend as you make your way about pinging aliens in the head.
That pinging is as satisfying as ever. Here the rule of thumb has generally been if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, although a few tweaks have been made. Each enemy faction is back from Destiny, and a couple have brought new unit types or tricks with them to keep you on your toes. The Cabal have signed up snapping war beasts, cleaver-wielding Gladiators and flamethrower troopers for example, while the Fallen now cover ground faster and kamikaze Vex units leave damaging vortexes on the ground behind their self-detonation.
None of them will be winning too many battlefield commendations for intelligent field tactics, but it’s the number, combination and situation in which the game throws them at you that creates challenge and variety.
Your arsenal for taking them on has had a slight tweak too; secondary weapon classes from Destiny such as shotguns, sniper rifles and fusion rifles have shifted into a new “Power” weapon category, while the old primary and secondary slots have become “Kinetic” and “Energy”. A number of weapons classes such as assault and scout rifles come in both kinetic and energy versions, which mean it’s possible to equip more than one; this initially puzzling change becomes clearer in the end game, where the energy damage type you’re dealing out (void, solar, or arc) becomes much more of a tactical consideration. New weapon classes submachine guns and grenade launchers offer one hit and one miss, in that order.
If there’s a complaint here, it might be that things are just a bit too similar to the first game. In particular, newly simplified Guardian superpower skill trees hew pretty closely to Destiny. Each class (Titan, Warlock, and Hunter) only gets one new subclass (out of three), and each class’s other two subclasses are merely reorganisations/tweaks of old Destiny abilities. This can’t help but feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. At least each class is afforded a new active ability; Titans can erect a barricade for cover, Warlocks can create rifts that heal or buff, and poor old Hunters get the short end of a stick with a dodge move that not only kind of looks a bit stupid but rarely seems to come in that useful.
But recycled space magic quibbles aside, satisfying moment to moment gunplay is still the rock solid core around everything else is based. With the blessed addition of an automatic mantling move – a true tonic for anyone that experienced the Destiny joys of hitting a ledge at shin height and bouncing off to plunge into an infinite void – the franchise has probably now usurped Quake 2 as simply the best game for shooting things while you’re flying through the air like a gun-toting Superman.
This is borne out in the Crucible, the game’s PvP mode, now reorganised into a series of strictly 4v4 game modes. Bungie are a company with a lot of Theories about optimal gameplay experiences, and there might have been some concern pre-release that the strict 4v4 focus was getting into the realms of the academic. Their theorising might have some merit to it though if the generally fun Crucible experience in Destiny 2 is any indication – even if you occasionally long for the chaos and scale of the old 6v6 Control or Clash modes.
Destiny 2 prunes a number of game modes from Destiny (goodbye, Rift) and focuses on shorter rounds on smaller maps for a more intense, quick-fire experience, with tweaks to existing gameplay to match – there’s no need to neutralise a Control zone before capturing it now, for example. Key to a sense of freshness for vets especially are more frequent and accessible power ammo drops and rounds that are short enough that you’ll typically only get one super use, which serves to make the entire experience more even-handed.
New mode Countdown, which sees one team planting and trying to defend a bomb until it goes off and the other trying to stop them, may be the least enjoyable on offer – although your mileage may vary on the enjoyability of its tendency for brief, vicious clashes that bring a round to a sudden end. But if you don’t like it much that’s too bad, because to play Crucible you simply enter either the Quickplay or Competitive (with more careful matchmaking) playlists, and are cycled randomly through matches of different game types. It’s a slightly odd choice, but it’s perhaps aimed at avoiding less popular modes becoming playerless ghettos, as happened in Destiny.
This is a lot of words to date, and yet I haven't even begun to cover what you'll probably spend most of your time in Destiny 2 doing – tooling around on the surfaces of its purty imaginary worlds, looking for trouble. Here's where the game makes its most significant and largest improvements over its predecessor. Destiny put you in the role of a powerful gun-toting post-apocalyptic future space wizard – who all too often felt like he was reduced to driving around in the space equivalent of the empty main street of Temuka on a Sunday night at 8:45, trying to find somewhere open to get something to eat.
In comparison, Destiny 2’s open world feels stuffed to the gunnels with activities. The map – and yes, praise RNGesus, there is now actually a map, accessible at any time – of each planet is festooned with things to do. These include Adventures (plotted missions relating to the overall situation in the system), additional story quests, Lost Sectors (mini dungeons off the beaten path), regional chests, treasure hunts from Cayde 6, and markers and countdowns for public events, which come in different flavours on different planets, and much more frequently.
Tough bosses, alien bikie gangs, and roaming packs of enemies just drop into the world on the regular too, daring you to take them out. It all feeds into loot drops and an easy-to-follow reputation system which turns out reliable rewards, the whole activities-reputation-gear-levelling up thing so streamlined and simple that you wonder how you ever made it through three years of Destiny's Ascendant Shards and Strange Coins. Even the game's microtransaction cosmetic goodies can be earned (albeit randomly) through regular play.
This keeps you ticking along nicely until you reach an in-game power level of about 265, at which point the grind falls on you like a felled tree. It's here you have to turn to the endgame content of strikes (tougher missions designed for a fireteam of three players), Nightfall strikes (harder versions of the strikes, now with a tough time limit component), and the recently released six-player raid. Fortunately, the new strike missions are enjoyable to play, with mechanics like laser death grids, huge grinding drills, and boss rooms slowly filling with deadly liquid all helping to keep things interesting.
With a bit more time in Destiny 2’s lush worlds, you develop a good sense of the end game. Again, Bungie’s “lessons-learned” approach to their sequel comes through in their essential retool of the end game loop. Equipment drops that can continue your character’s advance towards the maximum power level is essentially tied to relatively few weekly tasks to complete called milestones, including the Nightfall strike, Leviathan raid, and ultra competitive PvP mode Trials of the Nine.
As individual pieces of equipment no longer need to be levelled up as in Destiny, a lot of the incentive for repetitive late-game grinding has been removed from proceedings. There’s certainly still a sense of routine to things in the endgame, but this is difficult for any game designed to be played long term to avoid.
Bungie’s determination to give players plenty to do is further demonstrated with the recently dropped factions aspect of gameplay, which retools Destiny’s faction alignment as a game-wide competition between Dead Orbit, Future War Cult and the New Monarchy. This contest comes with yet more tasks to seek out, repurposing Lost Sectors and injecting new public events into the world, and offering another avenue for rewards via faction rep in the form of gear and shaders. But these rewards won’t serve to advance your character’s power level much beyond 265; you’ll need to dip into the milestone activities, which is now theoretically easier.
Destiny’s infamous lack of matchmaking for raids was a result of Bungie’s philosophical determination that they were designed to be enjoyed with friends. The hard line they took was a curse for those without five squadmates to readily call on, and resulted in huge numbers of players never completing the game’s premiere activities. Help is on hand for lone wolves this time though via the new Guided Games system, which pairs solo game seekers with clan-mate sherpas prepared to help them through the game’s tougher challenges.
Using the system comes with much associated hullabaloo about the Guardian oath, a code-of-conduct which game-seekers have to confirm like a license agreement before even searching for a game. Waits can be long, but you will get into a game eventually. The system’s not without its hiccups – there’s no guarantee you’ll end up paired with a fireteam that speaks the same language as you, for example – but at this stage it seems to be a mostly workable in-game route into the Nightfall strike and Raid for solo players that didn’t exist in Destiny.
These challenges are definitely worth tackling. Nightfall strikes in Destiny 2 have been reworked into a sort of time attack mode, with the pressure of a ticking clock added to (much) tougher versions of the game’s three-man strikes, which also demand plenty of weapon juggling for maximum tactical effect. The raid itself, which takes place amidst the Roman-like opulence on the Cabal Emperor’s literally world-eating monster ship/pleasure barge, is another Bungie master class in multiplayer shooter experiences.
It offers a host of secrets, a series of memorable encounters, and an especially adrenaline-pumping race-track-like sequence that demands intense team cooperation and that presents a fist-pumping feeling of triumph once conquered. The only bum note here is a ropey stealth section where glitchy AI behaviours frustratingly let the side down a bit, but overall the raid is another one of the fun, seriously hard team challenges the first game was rightfully lauded for.
Bungie has thrown a lot of time, money and hard lessons at Destiny 2, and it shows. This is an incredibly polished product in almost every respect. Presentation is outstanding and the core gameplay is as tight as ever, but most importantly major sticking points from its promising-but-flawed predecessor have been addressed and improved across the board.
A host of major systemic annoyances are now a handful of minor quibbles (why you still can’t junk unwanted items directly from the postmaster is anyone’s guess). Only a lack of major innovation holds it back from being one of the all-time classics, but this nevertheless a game that it is looking like it will be providing good times for literally years to come.