There’s a moment in Destiny 2 – one that eclipses all the storytelling seen in the first game. It’s small, and maybe not even intentional. Amidst the countless lines of dialogue and high-budget cutscenes, it’s a tiny, insignificant thing. It’s about a wall. An eight-foot-high wall that – in any other game – you would effortlessly climb over. It’s an eight-foot-high wall that in Destiny 1, you would glide over without a second thought, on your way to shoot more enemies and acquire more loot.
Destiny 2 begins with your abilities being stripped. Dominus Ghaul from the Cabal has invaded humanity’s last bastion, and attacked your source of power. We’ve seen this abilitease in other games before, where you have the full set of skills available at the start of the game, only to have them removed moments later. Destiny 2 makes it feel that much more important, because it’s an extension of the first game – a thing you’ve spent countless hours with. Actions like throwing an elemental grenade or popping a super are as reflexive as breathing or blinking, and now they’re gone.
I approached this wall while trudging through a sewer, my Guardian devoid of her Light. I knew I had no powers, no ability to soar through the air – the game made that abundantly clear in the preceding cutscenes and dialogue.
But I still hit the jump button twice.
And my Guardian hopped feebly.
There are maybe a handful of moments in games that have been burned into my brain, that transport me to a time and place. This can be counted amongst them.
Bungie also make good on the legacy of Destiny 1, and again it’s simple. A collection of JPEGs, dates, and names cataloguing your achievements; when you beat the campaign, which players stood by your side when completing the raid. It’s nothing more than SQL calls, pulling strings and numbers from a database, but it’s oddly powerful.
If you’re looking for a more traditional story to follow, Destiny 2 has that – and it has a lot of it. Returning characters are given moments to shine, while new faces are also slotted in, giving depth and context to the universe in an organic way. You get a sense that the different factions aren’t just repositories of guns and armour. They’re all pushing and pulling for their share of the solar system.
But by making the story more transparent, the game also loses much of its mystique. While some cast members are given more depth, the game becomes all too comfortable with relying on one-or-two for comic relief. At times Destiny 2 feels like its erring towards the MMO storytelling singularity – that grey sludge of comedy. Where depth is sacrificed in favour of making dialogue meaningless enough to button through, so you can pick up your next quest.
If inscrutable writing and flavour text is your thing though, Destiny 2 still has it. It’s no longer sequestered behind Grimoire Cards, or in some app or website. Weapons and armour of a high enough tier come with their own little stories that you can read, each with unique prose and form. What little identity Destiny 2 loses with its main campaign, is survived by these elements on the periphery.
The game also carves out an identity through its music. The sweeping drum-heavy tunes make a return, but now they’re punctuated with lilting strings and breezy melodies. Much of Destiny 2’s music feels like it belongs in a JRPG – and that’s cool. It differentiates itself from the stuffy, orchestral bombast that Bungie has relied on for years.
The core of Destiny 2 is unchanged from the original; aim down the sights of your space gun, shoot at enemies until they pop, hope they drop more space guns, repeat. But where Destiny 1’s handling of equipment felt like a trickle, the sequel is a deluge. If you’re playing the game right, you’ll constantly be swapping out guns and armour, breaking them down, and infusing them to make other gear stronger. Even at higher tiers of play you won’t be getting too attached to your equipment, as there’s always something with a slightly higher number on the horizon. Destiny 2 is constantly rewarding.
Some tweaks have been made to the minutiae though. Instead of primary, secondary, and heavy weapon slots, these have been broken down into kinetic, energy, and power. What this means is that it’s now possible to pair weapon archetypes – auto-rifles, SMGs, hand-cannons – across these different slots. The change is small, but it allows for more granularity in your loadout. Moreover, it recognises the different playstyles that players appreciate.
The way that you customise your appearance has also seen a change, but it’s not all for the best. Shaders – items that apply a colour scheme or pattern – are now applied to individual pieces of gear. Mixing and matching different colours and textures to create a Guardian that is uniquely yours is cool, but the system hobbles itself so microtransactions can awkwardly be hammered in.
Shaders are now single-use consumable items, which can be purchased alongside other items in bundles – all for real money. What this means is that if you’ve playing Destiny 2 correctly – which is to say, routinely swapping out your gear and breaking it down – then you’re effectively throwing shaders in the garbage. The game does reward you with random packs of them through quests and other activities, but it’s a salve for a self-inflicted wound. I don’t want to commit time to maintaining my appearance, when I could be finding new weapons and armour. It’s especially egregious, as Destiny 1 never asked you to make that choice.
But Destiny 2 is as much more about the end-game content. Unlike the structure of the first game, the dungeon-like Strikes aren’t peppered throughout the campaign. Instead you’ll unlock them all at the end of the game. Encounter design and exploration have seen a much-needed improvement too. Bosses aren’t just bullet-sponges with rotating shields, with some requiring mini-tactics all their own. Some require you to deal with adds before they electrify the floor, while others have you besting a gauntlet of thresher blades.
Nightfalls now come with more inventive modifiers too, that drastically change the way Strikes are played. The first game was more brutal, with everyone being forced to restart upon dying. Now things are more lenient, but rely far more on coordination. You’re constantly fighting against a ticking clock, while trying to coordinate damage types and abilities. It’s exhilarating and snappy, and a perfect distillation of some of the more advanced tactics you’d see in the raids.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find any time to set aside for the raid, but by all accounts it’s as mysterious and rewarding as the ones seen in the first game.
Destiny 2 is a long list of refinements. Tweaks and tightenings to the gameplay loop, and quality of life improvements that cater to the player – instead of making them subservient to mechanical whimsy. It still has its rough patches, but it realises – and raises up – the systems of its predecessor.
Keith received a digital copy of Destiny 2 from Activision for review