“Destiny 2” is one of this year’s most-anticipated blockbuster games, and it’s finally available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The game launched on September 9, and millions of people are playing it already.
I’m one of those millions, having spent a few dozen hours travelling from planet to planet in search of slightly better gear.
But just because it’s anticipated doesn’t mean it’s any good. So, uh, is it? Yes and no.
“Destiny 2” is a gorgeous first-person shooter that’s clearly been lavished with hundreds of dedicated, top-of-their-class game developers. In terms of the shooting, it might be the best of all time. As evidenced above, it is very pretty.
“Destiny 2” is also an always-online game that intends to blend storytelling with a multiplayer experience that’s at odds with any sense of pacing or gravity.
In addition to all of that, “Destiny 2” is only a first-person shooter insofar as that’s your main form of interaction with its world. What the game really is, at its heart, is a “loot game,” forever pushing you toward the next dopamine hit.
“Destiny 2” is excellent. “Destiny 2” is terrible. It’s complicated.
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It probably goes without saying, but I'm going to speak explicitly about 'Destiny 2' -- this is a review, after all. If you don't want anything spoiled, turn back!
The first 'Destiny' game was divisive, to say the least.
Like the sequel, the first game had excellent shooting. Devoted fans latched onto so-called 'endgame' activities, like elaborate 'Raid' missions that can only be completed with a squad of friends and good communication.
Critics charged that it lacked content, that its world felt empty, and that the story was a mess.
Both sides of that divide are right, and some of those issues have been fixed in 'Destiny 2.' Rather, more than enough of those issues have been fixed in 'Destiny 2' -- enough to make it a far better game than its predecessor.
The world of 'Destiny 2' feels more alive than ever.
Each planet is distinct in look and feel, rife with hidden treasures to find and nests of enemies to savage. Just getting around can be a lot of fun, as 'public events' happen near-constantly. These events are quick, and short in scope -- stand near this object while fighting waves of enemies, or take down a massively powerful boss enemy, or whatever else. Since they provide a nice reward to whoever participates, you'll often find other people spontaneously joining in with you.
This is where 'Destiny 2' shines.
There are a seemingly infinite number of slightly different guns in 'Destiny 2,' and they feel shockingly distinct. It's an incredible achievement, and it's no surprise that the studio behind the revolutionary 'Halo' game franchise, Bungie Studios, is also behind 'Destiny.'
It's hard to put into words -- the shooting 'feels' precise in a way that few first-person shooters do. There's subtlety to movement that has a tremendous impact on each shot you fire. Single-shot revolvers pack a huge punch, but hold few bullets and reload slowly -- forcing you to make sure every shot counts. Automatic weapons offer higher ammo counts, but do far less damage and are far more difficult to keep steady.
And I'm speaking in vastly broad terms -- each of the types of gun in 'Destiny 2' is distinct unto its class, but within each class there are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of variants.
If nothing else, 'Destiny 2' is an incredible achievement for its best-in-class shooting -- from feel to variety.
That incredible shooting, however, is wasted on rote, repetitive combat featuring some of gaming's dumbest enemies.
The combat in 'Destiny 2' is a major step back from the 'Halo' games that Bungie made over 10 years ago.
In the 'Halo' franchise, you can look at a room full of enemies and assess how best to take it on. The 'Destiny' franchise attempts this same goal, and even shares eerily similar enemy types to the 'Halo' franchise, but prioritises numbers over tactics.
Here's what I mean by that: Since the enemies are so 'dumb' -- literally standing in front of you and missing most of their shots, rarely taking cover, etc. -- 'Destiny 2' throws more enemies at you (higher numbers!) in an attempt to increase the challenge.
Can you shoot more bullets into them before they can to you? In this way, combat often feels like a frustrating numbers game rather than the '30 seconds of fun' cycle Bungie achieved in the past with 'Halo.'
The story and characters work this time, but are ultimately meaningless: The goal of much of 'Destiny 2' is to upgrade your character, always chasing higher numbers.
'Destiny 2' is a 'first-person shooter' game because the main thing you do in it is shoot aliens with a gun from a first-person perspective. That said, the point of 'Destiny 2' is to play virtual dress-up. Your main action in the game is shooting in first-person, but you're doing it because you want better gear -- a more powerful shotgun, or a stronger helmet, or some really sweet-looking gloves.
This gear is known in gaming as 'loot,' and it's what defines 'Destiny 2.'
Kill an especially tough enemy? Their dead body is quickly replaced by a shiny treasure box, filled with stuff for you to equip. Apply that same incentive to virtually every action in 'Destiny 2' and you'll never be wrong.
And this is a fine incentive as you play through the game's campaign.
But 'Destiny 2' is about more than a campaign. You're collecting loot so you can continue on after the campaign is over, playing 'endgame' activities like strikes, patrols, and raids.
And herein lies the problem at the heart of 'Destiny 2': It's a game that feels nakedly like a treadmill. Shoot more of the same dumb enemies so you get better loot so you can shoot more of the same dumb enemies so you can get better loot, ad infinitum.
This isn't just a 'Destiny 2' problem, of course -- this is a loot-game problem. You could level the same complaint at the revered 'Diablo' franchise, and you'd be right.
What makes it stick out so much in 'Destiny 2' is how tremendously dumb the enemies are, which compounds the longer you play the game. By the time I'd completed the game's campaign, I was ready to never play it again.
'Destiny 2' starts strong, throwing players right into the action and quickly setting up the game's main conflict. Indeed, after five hours with 'Destiny 2' I was pleasantly surprised.
That urgency and pacing is thrown out the window as the game's world opens up. Whatever was central to the story is now a mere backdrop for the pursuit of loot. If the mechanics of the game don't drive it home enough, the 'lol nothing matters' attitude of one of the game's main characters (Cayde-6) makes sure you understand that you're still playing a game (lest you forgot the gamepad in your hands).
Ultimately, 'Destiny 2' walks a fraught line between trying to appeal to people who play the campaign then move on, and people who play the game for 500 hours.
The enemies are dumb because, when you're shooting tens of thousands of them across hundreds of hours, they can't be endlessly challenging -- it could end up as grating rather than challenging.
The loot system is a priority because it's a way to provide incentive to people who are playing the same mission for the umpteenth time. It shows off how 'hardcore' you are because you have an exotic weapon that could only be obtained by doing something that took serious dedication.
I get it.
Unfortunately, that means that much of the lengthy campaign is rife with combat that rarely changes, backed up by a story that the game itself seems to think is unimportant.
There are quiet moments of exploration in 'Destiny 2' that feel revelatory, just as there are exhilarating battles and breathtaking vistas. I bet I spent an equal amount of time in the game's character menu, swapping out a pair of boots to maximise my character's power.
The same lizard part of my brain that likes to see my character's arbitrary level rise in a game like 'Overwatch' also likes to see my character's arbitrary level rise in a game like 'Destiny 2.' Who'd have guessed?
After a few dozen hours with 'Destiny 2,' I started realising how much time I was spending in a menu making sure my numbers were as high as possible. And then I was immensely sad, because that's not what I care about in games. What's amazing about parts of 'Destiny 2,' and what makes video games an incredible medium, is the interplay of systems, storytelling, and interactivity.
What breaks my heart about a game like 'Destiny 2' is that it plays to that basest appeal -- and people love it for that. I respect that Bungie are just giving people what they want, but I think I might also hate it.