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Destiny 2 - four Guardians running on The Fortress, a Crucible map

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Destiny 2 review

It’s Destiny, with much less bullshit

Bungie/Activision

The evolution of Destiny, like that of many long-term online service games, has been a veritable saga. Three years ago, Bungie launched Destiny amid staggering levels of hype, and the massive canyon between expectations and reality led many people to write off the next big thing that wasn’t. After the trying times of the first two expansions, Destiny came into its own with 2015’s The Taken King, but could never shake the reputation hanging around its neck like an albatross.

It’s understandable that Bungie would want to make a full sequel, to leave the baggage of Destiny behind and start fresh. At the same time, of course, Destiny 2 has to relish and reward the relationships that existing players have built with the franchise over the past three years.

The first 20 hours: September 5, 2017 - by Samit Sarkar

Catering to newcomers and veterans alike is a tough balancing act. Some longtime players are still mad that all their existing gear, which they earned over dozens or hundreds of hours with Destiny, is gone — narrative justification be damned. And while everyone’s excited about being able to play Destiny 2 on Windows PC, the lack of support for cross-platform characters is frustrating.

But that may all end up as water under the bridge. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to Destiny 2 is that it makes its predecessor seem even worse in hindsight. I spent nearly 20 hours with the sequel during a preview event three weeks ago near Bungie’s offices in Bellevue, Washington. During my playtime, I repeatedly found myself wondering how I had ever put up with all the nonsense in Destiny. Because most of it is gone in Destiny 2.

If you can tell me exactly what happened in Destiny’s campaign — without resorting to Google or the Grimoire, the lore cards that weren’t even in the actual game — then you deserve a prize. The confusing plot barely provided enough of an excuse to fly around the solar system and shoot aliens, while its clunky dialogue was dragged down by an overuse of sci-fi gobbledygook.

Bungie’s writers stepped up their game in Destiny’s expansions, and they’ve taken another stride forward in Destiny 2. The inhabitants of Earth have never been in a more perilous position than after the Cabal invasion of The Last City. The surprise attack results in the destruction of humanity’s only safe haven on the planet, and the loss of everybody’s Light — the mystical force gifted by the Traveler that sustains and empowers Guardians and Ghosts.

Much of the story concerns the nature of the Guardian initiative, with the three class Vanguards going off on their own introspective searches for meaning (along with quests to find a way to fight back against the Cabal Red Legion). So far, the writing has asked weighty questions like what does it mean to be a Guardian, but I didn’t see much of a payoff during the story missions I played. (Bungie stopped us at what seemed to be three-fourths of the way through the campaign.)

The effort to save the solar system is the propulsive force behind Destiny 2’s narrative. But it’s almost as important that there’s an actual villain in the story to give a face to the alien invaders. Dominus Ghaul, the Red Legion leader, has an inferiority complex to match his imposing figure. Confounded by the Traveler’s decision to give its Light to humans — inferior beings, in his eyes — Ghaul attacks the giant white orb and takes the Light by force. Of course, nobody thinks they’re the bad guy, and the cutscenes involving Ghaul do a good job of explaining his motivations beyond wanting to extinguish life on Earth.

I don’t want to oversell the story here; it’s a standard sci-fi tale with familiar tropes and roles. But it provides a suitable framework to explain what you’re doing in the campaign. There are strong characters among old friends and new faces alike, and you learn about Destiny’s universe as you get to know them in cutscenes and mission dialogue. This applies whether you’re an existing fan or a new player; the dialogue differs to account for that.

Destiny 2 - Cayde-6 giving fingerguns in a cutscene Image: Bungie/Activision

Outside the campaign, the four destinations’ individual hosts anchor open-world activities on the respective worlds. Each of these characters has their charms, but the best one is Failsafe. As the only survivor of a Golden Age-era shipwreck on Nessus, Failsafe is an AI with a split personality — alternately friendly and sarcastic. (“Seems like you met my new friends: Failsafe, and her evil twin, Failsafe,” Cayde-6 says.) She’s kind of like a more helpful version of Portal’s GLaDOS, and it’s tremendous fun to hear her interact with Ghost.

Failsafe and her cohorts are characters that you can walk up to in Destiny 2’s open world, which is another feature that somehow didn’t exist in the original game. Destiny had problems galore, but most of the game’s issues stemmed from a fundamental lack of content. In order to level up, players had to repeat the same few activities ad nauseam (and the activities themselves lacked variety or excitement).

Destiny 2 offers way more (and more varied) open-world activities than its predecessor, and they provide a steady stream of useful loot. Patrol missions have largely been supplanted by two new activities — Adventures and Lost Sectors — while Public Events now play a much larger role.

Adventures are the new side missions, and they serve as an elegant way to convey backstory and contextualize the campaign. Lost Sectors are semi-hidden areas in the world, denoted with a recognizable piece of graffiti that looks like a prehistoric cave painting of a tunnel. While it’s possible to repeat them and get loot each time through, I found myself wanting more. Calling them dungeons is a bit of a stretch: None of the ones I played were any more difficult than shooting all the enemies until they were dead.

Thankfully, I got plenty of challenge and excitement out of Destiny 2’s Public Events, which are my favorite open-world activity so far. Each one presents a unique problem to solve, so it’s rarely as simple as shooting anything that moves. Every Public Event has a tougher “Heroic” difficulty level that’s unlocked by completing a hidden objective. In Destiny’s expansions, Bungie often relegated these more complex mechanics and challenges to dedicated areas. It’s smart for Bungie to have layered them directly into Public Events here.

Public Events aren’t just more interesting in Destiny 2. The game’s new speed-focused interface makes it much easier to do them. There’s now an in-game map — another baffling omission from Destiny — and it highlights Public Events in real time, so you’ll know exactly where and when to expect them. This is a crucial design change. Even if you happened upon a Public Event in Destiny, you might’ve failed to complete it if you weren’t a one-person army. Taking the guesswork out of tracking Public Events should encourage Destiny 2 players to congregate around them, which will likely increase the chances that a group of Guardians will be around to team up to take on the challenge.

It’s also easier to get around using the map, thanks to landing zones for fast travel and a waypoint system that lets you mark locations and activities. (I remain confounded, however, by Bungie’s decision to keep Sparrows locked behind random drops in Destiny 2.) These kinds of quality-of-life improvements make a huge difference in the experience of playing Destiny. They eliminate much of the busy work that was inherent to the original game, and they keep you from feeling the need to go outside the game for third-party tools like a Public Event tracker.

Destiny 2 - lone Guardian on Nessus with bird flying in the distance Bungie/Activision

Aside from the kinds of exercises you’ll repeat, Destiny 2 offers some brilliant one-off activities. One of the highlights of my sessions was the side quest in which I unlocked the Gunslinger subclass for my Hunter. Sure, you feel awesome when you get to unleash the Golden Gun super attack at the end. But the journey is just as great, with storytelling that makes you feel like you’re becoming one with the Hunters. (Destiny veterans will be thrilled to hear that they can also unlock The Taken King’s subclasses — Nightstalker Hunter, Stormcaller Warlock and Sunbreaker Titan — in Destiny 2.)

Doing these types of activities will earn you reputation with various allies, and it’s a great way to get regular rewards. More importantly, it’s fast. It took forever to grind faction rep in Destiny, but I earned enough EDZ Tokens for Devrim Kay to award me a bright engram within just a few hours of doing open-world activities in the European Dead Zone on Earth. That doesn’t include strikes, which I couldn’t get around to trying in the time allotted during the event.

By the end of the preview event, my lady Hunter had reached the level cap of 20 with a power of 211. (Your Guardian’s gear level is still a weighted average of the stats on your weapons, armor and class items, but in Destiny 2 it’s called “power” instead of “Light.”)

In the original Destiny, the consensus held that the game didn’t really begin until the post-20 grind — the campaign was just a (thin) excuse to get you to that point. That’s not quite the case in the sequel, since there is plenty to do before you ding 20 (including a lengthy campaign with a worthwhile story.) But after level 20 is still where the rubber will meet the road in Destiny 2.

Bungie told me that finishing the campaign will unlock a bunch of new activities and pursuits. And the game’s reward economy in missions and open-world settings seemed well-tuned, regularly providing me with meaningful loot that raised my character’s power level. In addition, you receive a bright engram each time you rank up past level 20. They’re a lot more valuable than Motes of Light, the equivalent reward in the original Destiny.

Destiny 2 - wide shot of The Farm Bungie/Activision

But while I have some sense of what I’ll be doing after I hit level 20 in Destiny 2, I don’t know if that grind will feel fun. The heart of Destiny is repeating endgame activities so you can get high-level rewards, either by earning enough in-game currency to buy them from vendors or by earning loot drops. That phase of Destiny was a pain because of the way Bungie structured the gear system and reward economy. It doesn’t seem like those issues will plague Destiny 2, but at this point, I can’t say for sure because I haven’t had the chance to see the endgame.

I also didn’t get to play around with some of Destiny 2’s new systems for tweaking gear, like weapon modifications. You can get mods as loot drops or from bright engrams, and they’ll allow you to do things like alter the damage type on an energy weapon. Infusion works differently now: It requires Legendary Shards, and the number of shards needed depends on the rarity of the gear involved. That all sounds fine on paper, but we’ll have to see the systems in action to evaluate them.

At the very least, what I’ve played of Destiny 2 is an incredibly promising start. In plain English, it feels like Destiny without all the bullshit. It seems like the sequel Bungie needed to make — not a fundamentally different experience, but improved enough over its predecessor to reel veterans back in and attract people who skipped the original Destiny. Now we have to see how it holds up.

Update 1: September 14, 2017 - by Samit Sarkar

For much of its 10- to 12-hour length, I was enjoying Destiny 2’s campaign just fine. I might’ve described it as “well-made,” the kind of adjective you use when you recognize something as a quality product but find yourself unmoved by it. Writing improvements aside, the missions tended to run together in my mind except for a few standout sequences.

That all began to change around the midpoint of the campaign, a few missions before the point at which Bungie stopped us during the preview event. As the Vanguard began to uncover the true nature of the threat Ghaul presented, the missions became more closely tied to the story. The back half of the campaign gets steadily better as you progress, and the last third is spectacular, with memorable setpieces for the final two missions: a superweapon near Mercury, and an attempt to take back Earth from the occupying Cabal. In the former, I gawked at the blinding sun whenever I wasn’t trying to avoid its searing heat; in the latter, I finished the fight when my comrades could not.

Destiny 2 - Commander Zavala and Ikora Rey give each other a look in a cutscene Bungie/Activision

Destiny 2’s underdog story works because it operates on a relatable level, a human level. For three years, Destiny players heard tall tales of the class Vanguards’ exploits, but we didn’t see those three legendary Guardians in action, and thus couldn’t understand why they were special. Here, it was thrilling to watch Cayde-6, Commander Zavala and Ikora Rey (plus Suraya Hawthorne, the liaison between humanity and the Vanguard) operate as a fireteam in an act of true heroism. And it felt awesome to work with them to defeat Ghaul — our success wouldn’t have been possible without everybody doing their part.

Finishing the campaign unlocks, well, the rest of the game. As I said in my review-in-progress, nobody cared about the original Destiny’s campaign, partly because the game really began once you hit the “soft cap” at level 20. That’s still true in the sequel, even if its campaign is miles better. In fact, there’s so much you can’t do until you take down Ghaul that it almost feels like Bungie locked away all that content in an effort to make the post-campaign part of Destiny 2 seem bigger and more involved than it actually is.

I finished the campaign at a power level of about 210. At that point, there are still a bunch of Adventures and other quests that you’re not strong enough to attempt. Destiny 2 is either very smart about scaling up the difficulty of activities as you get stronger, or I just happened to be doing Public Events in regions with tougher enemies. Either way, it was blessedly rare that I found myself vastly under- or overpowered. The activities in question, though, mostly consist of strikes and Public Events; you’ll be farming them nonstop to get your character up around 260 power. As a Destiny veteran, I was hoping for more variety in this segment of the sequel, and I suspect I’m not alone among people who played the original game. (You can also gear up by playing PvP, if you like; it’s not my thing.)

To be clear, there is undeniably way more to do in Destiny 2’s post-campaign phase than there ever was in vanilla Destiny. And what’s there is more engaging and fun, unlike the drudgery that players of the original game dealt with. But so far, I’m already feeling a little tired of the grind needed to get ready for the raid — even if Destiny 2’s quality-of-life improvements make it much less annoying.

Destiny 2 - six Guardians fighting on Legion’s Gulch, a Crucible map Bungie/Activision

Update 2: September 19, 2017 - by Russ Frushtick

One of the larger chunks of Destiny 2 that we’ve not yet explored in this review is competitive multiplayer, and the surprising level to which it has changed from the original game.

Destiny 2’s PvP is much more team-centric than Destiny’s ever was. Lone-wolfing your way through matches is no longer viable, mostly due to the fact that instant-kill weapons are not readily available. The bulk of your attacks will come from your energy or kinetic weapons, both of which take much longer to kill enemies than the weapons in the first game did. The end result? The only way to take down enemies quickly is with intense communication and cooperative shooting of the same target.

This makes playing Destiny 2 PvP with friends a much more engaging experience. Even in deathmatch variants you’re constantly having to call out radar pings and instructions to friends, granting your team a tactical edge over your foes. Smaller maps and team sizes (lowered from six in Destiny to four in Destiny 2) make communication a lot more manageable.

This major change has ups and downs. As is often the case across modes in Destiny, if you’re playing with friends, PvP is much more fun. But if you happen to be playing solo, Destiny 2 PvP is a generally miserable experience. Sure, you can attempt to follow your team of voiceless strangers, but even a small squad of two or three on the other side will dominate. Destiny 2 has plenty of one-person activities, but until solo-only matchmaking or free-for-all modes get added, lone wolves will be happiest sticking to PvE.

Destiny 2 - upper part of Leviathan’s front Bungie/Activision

As with any Destiny release, the end goal of Destiny 2 PvE is the raid. Set on a comically enormous Cabal ship called the Leviathan, the raid follows the same format as previous Destiny raids. Six players must complete extremely complex cooperative tasks, fighting various bosses and solving puzzles along the way.

Destiny 2’s raid looks unlike anything we’ve seen in the series before. Clearly inspired by Roman architecture, the Leviathan is filled with bathhouses, pleasure gardens and, well, vice. Compared to the often gloomy, post-apocalyptic cities and barren landscapes of the rest of Destiny 2, the bright, gold-coated halls of this ship are a breath of fresh air. It’s much more visually welcoming than previous raids, which is great for people who have been scared off from even attempting one.

Those brave souls who are new to Destiny raiding will find Leviathan’s learning curve to be a little more forgiving than those of past raids, too. The initial combat encounter outside is not too hard to piece together on your own. A section in the aforementioned baths is also relatively manageable with a focused team.

Unfortunately, things go south from there.

Without delving deeply into spoilers, one of the encounters in Leviathan is heavily centered around stealth. You know what Destiny is terrible at? Stealth. Always has been. And yet, Bungie crafted a large chunk of this raid around not being seen by AI that, frequently, does some really dumb, unexpected things. On paper the encounter is ambitious and unique, but in practice it’s a frustrating trial by fire that will discourage most of the people who attempt it.

The stealth sequence is a shame, as the encounter that comes after it is spectacular, a wild neon game show that ends in a breathtaking team-wide race to the death.

That brief sojourn into hilarious fun is once again dashed by the raid’s last encounter, which, as of this writing, needs a lot of work. Unreliable bugs make the final battle in Leviathan obnoxious, even for the most coordinated teams. Like the conclusions of Vault of Glass, Crota’s End or King’s Fall upon their debuts, it’s prone to breaking in unexpected ways. If a game is going to demand precision from its player base to succeed, players should expect the same from the developers who made it. Leviathan is just not at that level.

Wrap-up

As an overall product, Destiny 2 is an incredible feat. Bungie spent three years essentially beta-testing this game, and used the knowledge gained from its predecessor to improve and fine-tune just about every aspect of the experience. As with the original, there are still rough patches to pave over, but the astoundingly fun game here is beautiful, funny, varied and constantly rewarding to play. The first Destiny was a game that we played and enjoyed often in spite of itself; with Destiny 2, Bungie has crafted something that’s genuinely worth the time, especially if you’ve got a few dedicated friends willing to join you.

Destiny 2 was reviewed using final “retail” downloadable PlayStation 4 codes provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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