The first “Destiny” game, for me, is associated with deep disappointment.
As a longtime “Halo” fan, I was excited to be there for the launch of the next big series from Bungie. The beloved developer even entered into a 10-year deal with the publisher Activision, ensuring that its next big franchise would be exactly that: big.
Expectations were high, and, after a series of chances to play early versions of the game ahead of launch, I was cautiously optimistic. “The shooting is fun!” I said to myself. “Assuredly the story is just bare bones because I’m playing a beta version of the final game; there must be other areas to explore that are bursting with life.”
Obviously I was wrong.
When the original “Destiny” launched three years ago, it felt rushed and messy. The story was incoherent, its world was small and empty, and enemy encounters were cookie-cutter – my interest in continuing to play fell off a cliff about halfway through.
On Wednesday, “Destiny 2” arrives. In my brief time with it thus far, “Destiny 2” seems like a vast improvement.
After spending about five hours with it, I have a very different reaction from the one I did last time: hope.
It is – dare I say it – a beautiful, thoughtfully designed, well-paced game. At least so far.
Allow me to be clear that this isn’t a review of “Destiny 2.” It’s a large game and I’ve only spent five-ish hours playing it (as of this writing) on PlayStation 4.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Destiny 2,” including story and gameplay.
It probably goes without saying, but I’m going to speak explicitly about the first few hours of “Destiny 2” – beyond where the beta’s intro mission ended. If you don’t want any of that spoiled, turn back!
In “Destiny 2,” you’re facing a new foe named Ghaul. He’s got a real Alexander the Great vibe about him. If you played the beta for “Destiny 2,” you already met him at the end of the intro mission.
Ghaul isn’t a particularly complex enemy – he wants to be the emperor of the stars. He’s come to Earth to take control of “The Traveler” (the orb that usually floats above Earth in “Destiny”). And by the end of the introduction, he’s well on his way to doing that.
You may recall him pushing your character’s face with his boot at the end of the beta’s intro mission.
Indeed, him. Soon after he knocks you out and sacks The Last City, you’re left to pick up the pieces.
And this is where “Destiny 2” — thankfully — continues to demonstrate how different it is from its predecessor. Your first mission is to slink around the destroyed remnants of The Last City, clinging to life and completely unarmed.
This kind of story-setting, quiet moment was completely missing from the first “Destiny,” and it’s refreshing to see it front-and-center in “Destiny 2.” You can see the outline of the rest of the game’s plot stretching out before you, and that’s tremendously meaningful considering how much of a mess the first game’s structure was.
It sounds simple, but slowly walking through the ruins of The Last City is the kind of scene that lends gravity to the rest of the game. You see first hand how devastated the city is from the attack, how enemy troops are patrolling the ruins – it’s a rare peek at the civilization you’re supposedly fighting for in the “Destiny” franchise, and how it has just fallen.
You also get to experience how weak a “Guardian” is without the magical powers they’re usually imbued with by The Traveler. No double jumps. No power weapons. No weapons at all, actually.
And yes, in case that wasn’t clear – “Destiny 2” does the classic gaming trope of starting you with loads of powers and subsequently taking them away, forcing you to build yourself up once again. It’s blessedly quick, and smartly handled. There are no moments you can’t handle, even though you’re unarmed.
It isn’t until (in-game) days later when you find a camp of slaughtered Guardians that you get ammo for your pistol.
Revenge is certainly on the cards.
The most refreshing change about “Destiny 2” is its pacing and variety. I haven’t gotten the sense that I’m doing the same thing over and over again, or that I’ve been listening to bad dialog for too long.
The missions I’ve played thus far strike a nice mix of exploration, story beats, and fighting aliens. There are new characters to meet (who are actually characters), crazy new areas to explore (like the striking European Dead Zone, which is dripping in details), and precarious ledges to skirt. The game moves along at a steady clip, though you’re of course welcome to go off exploring as you wish.
Shooting aliens feels as good as ever, and there’s an impressive variety of weapons to choose from. I’ve been playing as the Hunter class, which is a nice mix of speed and power.
One major oversight I’ve encountered thus far: Enemy AI hasn’t improved as much as the rest of the game. This is an especially strange issue considering that Bungie is so well-known for its deviously smart enemies in the “Halo” series.
That said, time and again, gunfights with aliens in “Destiny 2” felt more like a measure of overcoming numbers than solving a puzzle. Good AI makes the player feel like they outsmarted the computer. “Destiny 2” makes me feel like I beat the math.
This sounds ridiculous, I realize, but “Destiny 2” thus far feels like the game “Destiny” was intended to be. It feels large and mysterious and alive in ways that the first game never achieved.
Again: I’ve only spent five-ish hours with “Destiny 2,” so I don’t want to overstate any sweeping statements about the game. It’s entirely possible things go downhill, but I have no reason to believe that’s the case thus far.
If I’m being honest, I’m happily surprised by how much I’m enjoying “Destiny 2.”
I’m glad that the European Dead Zone feels like a small German city that’s been unoccupied by humans for who knows how long. I’m glad that there are nooks and crannies to explore in most buildings, and that there are creepy enemies waiting in dark corners for me to find them. I’m glad that the first people I met outside of The Last City were memorable characters instead of trope pastiche. I’m glad that each mission feels distinct and important, even if it isn’t.
The cumulative effect of this stuff is that “Destiny 2” feels like a finished product in ways that the first “Destiny” didn’t. So far, anyway.
Ultimately, if you don’t like the type of game that the first “Destiny” was, I doubt you’ll like “Destiny 2.” But if you were simply disappointed by the first game — like so, so many people were — there’s a lot to enjoy in “Destiny 2.”
Yes, “Destiny” is a first-person shooter franchise, but the real game is the loot system. You’re shooting aliens so you can get better weapons/armor/etc. (“loot”), so that you can kill the aliens better (and so on and so forth). “Destiny” and “Destiny 2” are so-called “loot” games because of this cycle.
And if that doesn’t appeal to you, the fact that “Destiny 2” has far superior dialog between characters (and whatever other improvements) isn’t going to change that. The central drive of “Destiny 2,” like “Destiny,” is the quest for better “loot.”
That said, the focus of “Destiny 2” feels less nakedly based on the next dopamine hit. Loot is still something you have to pay attention to, as your gear has a huge impact on gameplay, but there’s less of a “mouse on a wheel” vibe in “Destiny 2.” That’s specifically due to the improved storytelling, character development, and mission variety.
“Destiny 2” is available now for $60 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; a PC launch is scheduled for October. Check out the launch trailer below, and stay tuned for <em>much more</em> “Destiny 2” coverage.