Destiny 2 Review: Growth in the Light
Ben Sheene / Sep 20th, 2017 No Comments
Improving one’s self is a grueling task. It forces a person to pick apart their layers with surgical precision, searching for those bits in desperate need of love and attention. Often it is about shedding the weight of the past, whether it be bad habits or former trauma. Self-improvement is not easy, but the end result is a person made better and stronger by the internal crucible they were forged in.
As a player, watching Bungie’s work with Destiny has been fascinating to behold. Vanilla Destiny was a maddening feast of criticism and joy, marred by bad narrative choices and repetition, yet uplifted by fostering a passionate community. Bungie’s armor never cracked and the team soldiered on, simultaneously breathing life into Destiny and somehow managing to piss people off with a weapon nerf. But it is all in the name of making a better experience. After all, we are in for a 10-year journey, and for video games, that’s a lifetime.
Destiny 2 is the next step on the road to that quintessential “Destiny experience.” It’s the first date after a demoralizing break up. It’s the move out of your parent’s basement into your own place. With Destiny 2, the sci-fi epic’s zenith is in full view.
The dead horse of vanilla Destiny’s subpar storytelling has been beaten countless times. Plot holes and half explanations run rampant through the original story of Destiny. Light versus Darkness fought for the freedom of the last human city that no one ever visits, only looks at from the distance of a solitary tower on high.
Destiny was absent of stakes. Players understandably had little reason to emotionally invest in characters that served as window dressing voiced by great talent, some of who phoned in their roles. The truly compelling story bits were written out or banished to the Grimoire, an online location on Bungie’s website completely separate from the game. Some players became lore masters, combing the Grimoire of its most elusive details, revealing that Destiny was packed with intrigue and a rich history that no one got to play.
Each expansion churned along with incremental refinements. Quest structures were introduced and gods visited our solar system that needed to be slaughtered. The Taken King brought Destiny to a new standard with more character interaction and a developed story, making everything before it feel all the more barren.
Destiny 2 out of the gate required a better story. Of all the boxes that needed to be checked, it would be second next to “make sure it turns on.” That isn’t a high bar to set in today’s world of narrative-driven masterpieces, but it is an important one for Bungie to meet, if not exceed.
Once I finished the main campaign in Destiny 2, it was hard not to be pleased. The six-to-eight hours of critical path narrative far surpasses nearly everything Bungie has accomplished with Destiny so far.
A half hour into starting the game, players watch their last safe haven be attacked and are left a shambling mess with no means of defense. This gripping introduction feels as if it has more character interaction, dialogue, humor and stakes than the entire campaign of Destiny.
Dominus Ghaul sets the stage by attacking the city and robbing the god-like Traveler of its light. Ghaul wishes to steal this ultimate power for himself because he thinks it is owed to him. Throughout our Guardian’s world-hopping quest to reclaim the light, we are treated to cutscenes of the Cabal warlord spouting exposition and being generally threatening.
As a villain, Ghaul does not tread any unfamiliar ground that has yet to be told in other mediums. More importantly, Ghaul serves as that narrative motivation that Destiny so desperately needs. I find many parallels with Ghaul and Oryx, Destiny’s only other real villain (because the Darkness doesn’t really count). Both show up unannounced to upset the status quo, both are omnipresent throughout the narrative, and both result in cool boss fights. Yet Ghaul succeeds more because his attack is a personal one, it cuts deeper and has more influence on the grander story than just being another target to eliminate.
Bungie must have been humbled by the reception of Destiny’s flawed story because there is an obvious effort to right many of those wrongs.
Destiny 2 places its NPCs at the forefront. Cayde-6, Commander Zavala, and Ikora Rey are no longer vendors at a table. In the opening mission, they are on the frontlines of battle, and each get the spotlight on Nessus, Titan and Io respectively. Newcomer Hawthorne injects sass and tough love into Guardians’ time on Earth. Additionally, each zone also has an NPC that gives quests and vendor reputation for items.
In terms of numbers, Destiny 2 sports an advantage with the amount of characters who have speaking lines. This investment in new and old characters pays off by fully fleshing out the overall narrative. One of the places this is most apparent is the Strikes. These intense three-player dungeons previously served as a series of difficult kill rooms with some snippets of dialogue to add context and flavor. Now, multiple characters converse and banter with each other to provide motivation and a dash of interesting context.
Bungie’s ability to write character banter and humor makes for the better parts of Destiny 2’s story. Instead of voices talking at the player, these characters are speaking with each other as friends and comrades all uniting for a singular cause. The moments on Nessus with Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6 and MVP newbie artificial intelligence Failsafe, provide laughs and levity before the story ramps up into more serious territory.
Special recognition must be given to Nolan North as Ghost. Ever since taking on the role from Peter Dinklage, North has managed to give Ghost the kind of personality that movies give characters like Wall-E. From the moments when Ghost is weakened and broken to joyful and playful, this is a character players should be glad to have as their constant companion. This all culminates into an incredible final act that left me breathless in its variety.
Over the campaign, a true effort is made to improve mission variety. Gone are the days spent waiting for Ghost to open a door triggered by waves of bloodshed. There are vehicle sections, puzzles, object interaction and epic setpieces. These elements don’t feel forced, representing a developer who is growing increasingly comfortable in their ability to blend gameplay and story in a variety of methods.
“Gripping” and “emotional” are easy buzzwords to use when referencing the culmination of Destiny 2’s campaign. I was thrilled beyond words to feel invested in what was happening before my eyes. This is the effort players should have seen three years ago.
Attached to this sentiment is what I consider one of the crowning achievements of Destiny 2: the music. The quality of the game’s score is nearly impeccable in the way it is married to both narrative and gameplay. Tracks laden with string instruments tug at the heart during Guardians’ most desperate moments. Hard-hitting synths and guitars break out during a fight or as the dynamic of a scene changes.
Though I heap praise onto what Bungie has done with Destiny 2’s story, I find it only fair to call out its issues as well. As heavily derided as the Grimoire was, it provided a safe haven to pick apart the game’s lore in an easily digestible way. Now, the Grimoire is gone and the lore has been shifted into tabs on armor and objects players can investigate. While the quality of writing will make lore fiends giddy, Bungie did not compile any found text into a singular location after they are inspected. Instead, as with the Grimoire, a secondary site must be visited to further explore these tidbits.
As great as the story may be by Destiny standards, there are moments that could have been stronger. The first handful of missions where players search to reclaim their light flow so well but are over too fast. The fear Ghaul is meant to put into players subsides after about an hour once their powers are restored. You can see these slivers of experimentation where Bungie is trying to do something different but didn’t want to expand that beyond a few minutes. It may be a compliment to want more of what you just played but that sensation of being rushed through just to get back to the loot grind is present.
In fact, plowing through to the end game is far too easy. On an alternate character, I decided to breeze through parts of the story so I could power-level. On Titan, the game’s second location, I was able to jump through rooms by dodging and ignoring the Hive until I was forced to open a door or clear a room. Issues like this become more glaring when the quest to get your second or third subclass is reduced to a random drop from a treasure chest. It culminates in a spectacle of supers, however.
Adventures, which act as side quests, add more character to the world by providing stories and missions off the beaten path that even offer backstory to the raid. For players who want to drown themselves in the stories that Bungie is trying to tell, the content is there. But I believe there are times when players want to just sit down and eat up a good tale. Destiny 2 does not quite find the perfect balance between all the varying elements of its universe in a way that satisfies every player.
Back to the Grind
Gunplay is one of the few elements that did not need a significant upgrade in Destiny 2. Few players would deny that Bungie didn’t strike gold right out of the gate. Something about the combination of guns with their various perks and upgrades feels like a natural extension of the hands. Jumping and floating along platforming puzzles is tight more often than it’s clumsy. Popping supers is as satisfying as someone handing you free money.
Maybe the same can’t be said for the constant weapon updates and nerfs, but outside of actual stats, the mechanics of shooting in Destiny have little competition. We may only be a short time into the lifespan of Destiny 2 but that same polish is here. The change from having a kinetic weapon, energy weapon and power weapon is not a difficult hump to climb. It allows for more experimentation in loadouts, which is key when equipment is locked for Prestige Nightfalls and Trials of the Nine. But I do find that fusion rifles and sniper rifles are too situational and I prefer a shotgun or rocket launcher when dealing massive damage.
Class abilities have been fine-tuned to allow for two specific upgrade paths. I was skeptical of how this would work until I got my hands on it. Players are being edged into trying out support roles and it’s a welcome change considering how most classes in vanilla Destiny are purely tied to offensive abilities. The new classes don’t seem phoned in, but they do make me yearn for more. The Warlock, Titan and Hunter have only improved over time, but it would be nice to see someone new enter the fray.
This sentiment brings up the major problem of Destiny 2. Everything has an extreme level of polish and refinement but much of it is very familiar. The absence of a fourth class and a fifth enemy race means that a lot of the gameplay loop is intensely familiar to veterans. Strike bosses are still going to be large versions of enemies players have fought countless times before. A Warlock still throws its nova bomb just like it did three years ago.
I wouldn’t call anything in Destiny 2 a cut and paste job because it feels even better than before. But if new enemy types aren’t introduced over the course of the next year it may be a frustrating case of “been there, done that,” which became a problem with the minor expansions.
Bungie manages to ease this tension by taking everything it has done with Destiny and integrating it in fun ways. Yes, this is all very familiar but it’s so difficult to not enjoy the act of playing Destiny 2. It’s like a warm blanket or a familiar sensation that went away but now it’s back. “Destiny 2: It’s like Destiny, but better,” would be a perfect marketing quote if developers and publishers were allowed to be so blatantly honest.
A Life of Quality
Destiny 2 is also a much more friendly game to players this time around with a number of quality of life improvements. The economy is no longer a bungled mess and only a handful of consumables are required to get loot. Weapons and armor no longer need upgrade materials and, without random perks, everyone can have the same gun and be happy they didn’t get screwed by RNG. The mod system is a welcome addition because it allows players to attach a specific benefit to each piece of armor and weapons.
Of course, gear doesn’t really matter until players reach level 20. Once that threshold is crossed, the quest for power begins. Blue and green gear will almost always be instantly scrapped for purple legendaries or yellow exotics. The grind to be Nightfall and Raid ready is much less labor-intensive. Weekly quests exist that guarantee players better loot than their current level. Daily quests offer tokens that can be turned into vendors for engrams that more than likely will be used as upgrade fuel.
At this point, improvements such as not having to go to orbit to visit another location or activity are required, not welcome. With the shift to current-gen consoles, the absence of these would have been excusable.
Bungie seems determined to provide and inform players as much as possible in the game by showing where public events will be but there are still a few mysteries that are currently best solved by exploring a Reddit page. Incorporating Clans as a means of meeting new players and completing difficult tasks shows that Bungie is taking an even more direct interest into fostering its booming community.
As much as I enjoy Strikes, they do not feel rewarding enough to sit through the 20 minutes or so they take to complete. By now, it is well known that public events are the fastest way to grind for loot. And with only 5 Strikes in the game (6 if you are on PlayStation 4), it feel disheartening to finish one only to get loot that is instantly trashed. It’s also a concern that there is no way to select an individual strike and that players are at the mercy of a playlist that can toss them into the same strike back to back.
Another questionable absence is strike scoring, which was introduced in Destiny’s third year but is nowhere to be found in Destiny 2.
Nightfall strikes have received a significant step up by forcing players to beat them in a certain amount of time. The first week, players added to the time limit by killing enemies that were already a challenge. In the second week, players literally had to jump through hoops to add time. Unlike previous Nightfall experiences, these are tense encounters that feel insanely difficult while maintaining a sense of teamwork.
The only major change with the Crucible is that it is now 4v4. I enjoy the dynamic a lot more than I thought I did because it places further emphasis on teamwork. While the standard multiplayer modes exist in the Crucible, Countdown, a variation of Search and Destroy, left a bad taste in my mouth. What’s worse is that Trials of the Nine used it for the first week.
While I am not the most competitive Destiny player, both Quickplay and Competitive multiplayer can be excruciatingly brutal. Not only are players forced into random match types with no way of choosing, Bungie has admitted that matchmaking isn’t pairing up players correctly. During my second round of Trials of the Nine, my team with zero wins was pushed into a match where the other team already was 6-0. Guess who won?
PvP Destiny has never been my thing for this series and that likely won’t change. What I am nervous about is Bungie’s attempts at balancing out weapons. There are a handful of guns that become the dominating meta in Crucible and everyone sticks to them, leaving little to strategy. But Crucible balancing often comes at the detriment of PvE encounters to the point where I wish Bungie would just separate the two.
It would be wonderful if a new mode came along that allowed six players into the Crucible together because each activity in Destiny is locked behind a different fireteam cap. A raid group of six can’t go right into Crucible and vice versa, which can be frustrating if someone is left out. But those who adored PvP in Destiny 1 will feel right at home in Destiny 2.
Destiny’s centerpiece is without a doubt the six-player raid that serves as a true test of puzzle solving, shooting skill and willpower. The Leviathan raid just might be Bungie’s finest work to date and I say that after countless runs through previous raids. Where other raids focus on boss fights and surviving the hardest enemies in the game, Leviathan is a mosaic of mechanics. The simple act of getting to encounters is exciting process while emerging victorious is a testament to six players’ ability to work together.
The amount of love Bungie has poured into this raid is only eclipsed by the work put into making the story better. Sections of the raid where one death basically means the whole team has to wipe are definitely gut-wrenching, especially when it’s caused by almost random elements. The well-oiled machine that is Leviathan is so stunningly intricate that players will likely take at least two weeks to find all its secrets, which, in the age of the internet, is pretty impressive. I can’t wait to see what Bungie has planned next, especially for raid challenges, but as with most other things in Destiny 2, a second raid would have really set the bar to such a high mark.
Destiny 2 Overall
The constant question that I have returned to when writing about Destiny 2 is whether or not the game deserves to be a numbered entry rather than a titled expansion. During the beta period, I was uncertain despite being impressed by the opening campaign mission. After playing a good chunk of the story during the preview event, I left pleased and curious of how the endgame would play out. For the time being, this is the game players will spend countless hours in. Bungie is going to tinker with things and add small bits of content, but until the next expansion in a few months, this is it.
Destiny 2 could always use more content because this is a game people ravenously consume. It is a social hub of interaction. Players wind down after a long day of work by running strikes. Me and my friends stay up until the crack of dawn jumping around social spaces talking about nothing in particular. There will always be players that want more, and it will come,eventually. Destiny 2 is more than just the fresh content and the elements carried over from previous entries. It is more than the Leviathan raid and the Nightfall.
Destiny defined a genre when it came out three years ago. It was nothing like some players had ever experienced, especially those who spent all their time on consoles. That remains true in 2017 as Bungie edges closer to that ideal shooter everyone has in their heads.
Yes, Destiny 2 is a true sequel and it will fuel the fires of millions of hours of play. More importantly, it is an improvement on three years’ work by a dedicated team and a passionate fanbase. Destiny 2 positions the series as one of the best shooters available by being bigger, better and, of course, more Destiny.
Destiny 2 was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro using a code for the game provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
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