Bungie’s massively multiplayer online (MMO) sci-fi-shooter Destiny 2 might be the best sci-fi first-person shooter (FPS) ever created. According to fans, it might even be the best sci-fi experience ever created, full stop. This certainly hasn’t always been a widespread opinion — what’s changed?
The new downloadable content (DLC) Shadowkeep seems less like a standard expansion to Destiny 2 and more like a re-birth. The huge expansion takes us (back) to the Moon, along with all the new items, missions and loot that you’d expect. Many elements of the core game are being overhauled, and the base game becomes free-to-play with New Light.
Six months ago, I was reluctant to invest the £50 to get the base game and expansions to play with my friends. I’d heard very mixed things about Destiny. Five months ago, after around 30 hours of playing, I’d have said “It’s OK, I guess.” Now, I’m typing an article encouraging you all to go and play it right now; stop reading, go!
So what changed?
The original Destiny launched in 2014 to mixed reviews. The reductive phrase ‘looter-shooter’ is frequently bandied about in the gaming press, and there’s been more than a little scorn in the past about the thin story, grindy gameplay and numerous development problems. On the surface, and with a somewhat cynical eye, that is accurate. However, after five years of continual expansion and adjustments, Destiny seems to have matured from its painful infancy.
Is it still just a shallow ‘looter-shooter’? Should you give Destiny 2 a go?
More than meets the eye
The game is pretty. In the past it’s been said that it’s shallow, too. Is that true? Short answer: yes; long answer: no.
Destiny’s story is rich, detailed, and deep. It stretches back millions of years and explores themes ranging from self-determination to the true nature of good and evil. It’s as politically charged as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It has Lovecraftian overtones, in the subtle influence of terrible, unknowable ancient entities. It melds sci-fantasy and post-apocalyptic dystopian futurism with a Warhammer 40,000-like grimdark atmosphere, and it expresses all of this through deeply human stories and plots: friendships, betrayal, love, and family.
The current flaw in Destiny is that only a small part of this outstanding worldbuilding is expressed in the game itself though design and implementation — the rest is available as scraps of scattered text attached to items and achievements, or occasionally in parts of collector’s edition sets and graphic novels. If you want to truly experience what Destiny really is, in its entirety, you’ll need to do lots of homework.
However, there is hope. Since Bungie split from publisher Activision, the gossip in the community is that Destiny is now free to move away from the rigid, story-light looter-shooter archetype and emerge as the roleplaying game (RPG) Bungie talked about back in 2013; deep lore and engaging gameplay, interwoven with character development, and a living, evolving world that you and your friends have agency in. The Forsaken DLC from late 2018 has been widely praised by both critics and players. Part of this praise relates to how Forsaken wraps the rich lore into the actions you take during the campaign — in short, it becomes more meaningful and deepens the (already good) FPS experience.
Sadly, unless Bungie can somehow re-work the huge amounts of Destiny 2 that exist prior to Forsaken, it’s likely that a new player might still find elements of the game very shallow. ‘The Red War’ core campaign of Destiny 2, followed by DLCs Curse of Osiris and Warmind, are unlikely to satisfy as much as later content like Forsaken and Shadowkeep.
You’ll be five years late to the party (but that’s a good thing)
Some things become apparent within the first hour or so of playing: Destiny 2 is very beautiful, and location design throughout is excellent. It feels very good too; movement is responsive, gunplay is rewarding, and the locations are superbly crafted. The controls are intuitive, for the most part, and most people will pick it up within minutes. The second major plus point is the voice acting: it has a great cast who give it everything they’ve got, and that really adds a huge amount to the feel of the game. Overall the atmosphere of the game is stunningly good: music, sound design, characters, and art style all coherently come together to make a very immersive experience that will whisper sweet promises to you.
The issue for a new player jumping into the game is that Destiny doesn’t always take the time to explain things. This can affect both the story elements (why you’re doing something) and the gameplay itself (how to do things). This is exactly the problem that part of New Light, developer Bungie’s new player experience, is intended to address.
My very first experience of Destiny 2 wasn’t exactly compelling: straight after character creation my shiny new protector of humanity immediately lost a giant war against chunky armour-clad humanoid Space-Rhinos who captured Bill Nighy for reasons I didn’t really understand. Then came a confusing whirlwind of non-player characters (NPCs) shouting things that seemed like they should have been important. I fought through burning wreckage, Space-Rhino corpses, and explosions for about twenty minutes until a cut-scene showed me the Space-Rhinos doing something to the big ball floating above the city to somehow render me powerless, and I was unceremoniously pushed from a very tall platform by the Boss Space-Rhino. This is the start of the first Destiny 2 campaign, The Red War.
The Red War campaign is where the ‘shallow’ epithet fits most appropriately. It’s clear that generally we were defending the ‘Last City,’ since it’s mentioned often (and you can see it — it looks amazing). It was also made ploddingly clear that my Guardian was special because he had superpowers and other Guardians didn’t until the end of the campaign, though why that was so important was vague. My poor Guardian was sent alone on dozens of missions to kill thousands of red Space-Rhinos (‘Cabal’), or purple Four-Armed-Scuttlers (‘Fallen’), green Humanoid-Bone-Monsters (‘The Hive’), sometimes black Shadow-Ghosts (‘Taken’) and sometimes golden robots (‘Vex’) with little real understanding of who anyone was or why I had to kill them all. I couldn’t help making a comparison between my Guardian and the Rick and Morty character Krombopulos Michael, who appears for a brief scene and introduces himself as an assassin with the line: “I have no code of ethics, I will kill anyone, anywhere! Children, animals, old people — doesn’t matter. I just love killin’!”
The NPCs often wax lyrical about how they lost their superpowers — but these same characters stand in the tower (the main social area) surrounded by other Guardian players like you, all of whom do have powers, like you. The inexplicable design decision to make your Guardian the ‘Hero of The Red War’ by thematically de-powering everyone else essentially ignores that there are literally millions of other players running around as evidence to the contrary. Balancing the need to make the player feel powerful and special with the coexistence of many players is a common problem in MMO game design, which most games deal with more elegantly than this.
All of this was supposed to be both the introduction for new players and the transition between Destiny 1 and 2 for veteran players. It was confusing as fuck. A new player’s understanding of what’s going on doesn’t feel markedly broader at hour 30 than it does at hour one.
With New Light, your new Guardian will have a much, much better introduction to the world. Bungie has smartly created an experience which borrows heavily from the starting missions of Destiny 1. Your Guardian will now awake, freshly Risen (Guardians are essentially sci-fi zombies with superpowers), to receive a proper introduction to the world, just like you would have if you’d started back in 2014. After that you’ll have various choices about where to go next, and you’ll be able to begin Destiny 2 on more stable ground.
These storytelling problems persist with the game’s earlier expansions. Curse of Osiris takes place on Mercury, and it feels like Bungie was working a bit harder to integrate the great worldbuilding with what you’re actually doing. After a lot of digging through the lore, the Warmind campaign makes a lot more sense and is actually pretty great — but for a new player, it’s entirely forgettable and does a horrible job of explaining anything. Mars looks and feels good, however, with a Doom vibe, although that could be because of all the shooting of hordes of monsters and apparent lack of plot. With the third DLC, Forsaken, Bungie set out to make the Wild West of Destiny, and it feels like it. The campaign is compelling, and it takes the time to breathe and explore the characters and lore more than any previous part of the game. The trajectory of improvement from the early content to the latter expansions is clear.
The past is the past
Bungie is unlikely to be able to fix the problems in the earlier portions of the game — it’s just far too much work. There’s nothing game-breaking there at all, it’s just not as good as we now know Destiny can be. However, later DLCs are more holistically designed to wrap deep lore into engaging character dialogue and missions that encourage you to actively explore why you’re doing things. A significant example is an episode in Forsaken in which you’re asked to make a distinct and permanent choice relating to a character: the morally ambiguous Drifter. Your choice will change the missions you get afterwards, and might well have larger implications in the future.
Forsaken introduced some subtle adjustments to the narrative. Significantly, it quietly noted that there are other ‘Heroes of the Red War’, and other Guardians doing things just like you. You’re no longer ‘the Hero’, you’re ‘a Hero’; a subtle shift to something that fits much better with a MMO.
As you play through The Red War, Warmind and Curse of Osiris, there will definitely be sections that feel hurried or under-explained, and the experience can seem mundane and even disappointingly old-fashioned in places. Certainly prior to Shadowkeep’s extensive changes, the game did feel more shallow. It was largely about collecting loot, to let you kill harder things, to get more loot, etc.
But the good news is that this is very much the past. While Destiny is still a game that rewards you with loot, it feels less desperate. Bungie as a company has changed and evolved, and so has Destiny 2. It’s worth riding out the rocky bits because things do get better.
The little things count
Bungie has been paying attention to the community. The numerous quality-of-life changes that come with New Light — including adding a real tutorial and starting point for new players, re-shuffling the way missions are displayed, balancing some of the under-used weapons, rebalancing the inevitable power-creep, and completely revising how armour works to allow full customisation and personalisation — show that the developers are taking immediate advantage of their newfound freedom.
Along with a huge number of minor improvements New Light will see the core game go free-to-play. Trying out Destiny will be much easier, and getting your friends involved, even casually, will allow you to have the best version of the Destiny experience right from the start. To encourage this, Bungie have made the starting level for all characters 750 (the game level cap prior to the DLC Shadowkeep) specifically so that new players will start on the same footing as veteran players and be able to join in with friends right away. In addition, the majority of group activities that technically require access to the other DLCs,Warmind, Curse of Osiris and Forsaken, are included. So now you can play the majority of multiplayer content including Crucible (player versus player, or PvP, arena combat), Gambit (competitive team games), Strikes (player versus environment, or PvE) and other activities with your friends — without having to buy anything.
So what changed between Mars and the Tangled Shore? What gave this writer the zeal of the convert?
One, there’s something here for almost every kind of gamer. Some people will love the shooting-aliens-in-the-face part and really not care about much else. Destiny will definitely give you a lot of that. Some people will enjoy the PvP arena combat, or the challenge of the Raids (six-player end-game PvE missions). Some people will need more than that to keep them loading it up. Destiny has a lot to give, though not all of it is apparent at first.
Two, the game is undoubtedly improving. New Light resolves at least the initial player experience and smooths out those bumpy first few hours, and the other tweaks and updates that came with Shadowkeep and will doubtless come in the future are reason enough to keep the faith. In his ‘Directors Cut’ frank assessment of the last six months and peek at the future, Bungie developer Luke Smith highlighted many areas that they’re unhappy with internally (and also things they think are great). Whether all these problem areas will eventually be tweaked remains to be seen, but the decision to release this information to the public shows that Bungie are taking things in a new direction. In short, Bungie cares about Destiny and the players, they do listen, and they do want it to be amazing.
The third and biggest thing that changed for me is that, while I was complaining that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or why I was doing it most of the time, I remembered it’s 2019 and Youtube exists.
I discovered a vibrant and passionate lore community who collaborate to piece together the backstory (and sometimes front-story) of Destiny and present it in a more digestible format. I watched almost every video from creator My Name is Byf, and I was hooked. From there I delved into the work of other lore enthusiasts. There are some great loremasters and lore resources out there. If you’re considering Destiny, or have tried it but it didn’t stick, then have a look at some of the videos, websites and podcasts available and learn about the amazingly detailed backstory. For me, that made the vital connection between a fun but shallow game and the deep, rich and immersive story lurking just beneath the surface.
So, why should you give Destiny 2 a go? It’s a mechanically-good game that’s fun to play, even more so with a few friends. It offers a wide range of activities for both casual and obsessive players, and it’s rewarding. It genuinely feels good getting that Exotic you’ve been chasing or finally completing that mission. If you want more than just a technically good game, Destiny’s lore is probably the richest and most detailed work of sci-fantasy in any game. I would be comfortable talking about Destiny in the same sentence as Star Trek, Middle Earth and Star Wars when it comes to deep lore.
In many ways, with New Light and Shadowkeep, Destiny has Risen and gained superpowers. It remains to be seen how it uses them, and that choice is at least partially up to you.
The Last City needs you like never before. Eyes up, Guardian.