“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 already playing it.
I’m one of those millions, having spent a few dozen hours traveling 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 has 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.
Additionally, “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.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for “Destiny 2,” including story and gameplay.
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!
“Destiny 2” is a much better game than the first “Destiny.”
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 be completed only 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 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 nearly 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.
“Destiny 2” may be the best first-person shooter ever made in terms of shooting.
There is 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 a subtlety to movement that has a tremendous effect 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 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 Bungie made more than 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 enemy types that are eerily similar to the “Halo” franchise – but prioritizes 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 in an attempt to increase the challenge.
Can you shoot more bullets into them before they can shoot them into you? In this way, combat often feels like a frustrating numbers game rather than the “30 seconds of fun” cycle Bungie achieved 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 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 is shooting, 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. That’s the incentive for virtually every action in “Destiny 2,” and it’s a fine one 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 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.
Though the story starts strong, it ultimately undercuts itself.
“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) ensures you understand you’re still playing a game – lest you forget the gamepad in your hands.
Ultimately, “Destiny 2” walks a thin line between trying to appeal to people who play the campaign then move on and to those 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 an 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 be obtained only 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.
I love a lot about “Destiny 2.” I hate a lot about “Destiny 2.”
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 maximize 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 realizing 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 “Destiny 2” is that it plays to that basest appeal – and people love it for that. I respect that Bungie is just giving people what they want, but I think I might also hate it.