Video Games Review: Destiny 2 (PS4, 2017) files down many of the original’s rougher edges

Destiny was the first game I reviewed for this site, back when the games section was still called VideAU Games, an offshoot of The Iris parent site, The AU Review. On launch, it was an ambitious but deeply flawed experiment in the MMO space, hyped beyond almost any other game in recent memory. It weathered two major expansions, The Dark Below and House of Wolves, before finally finding a groove in its third, The Taken King. A fourth and final expansion, Rise of Iron, brought Destiny‘s two year run to a close. And now Bungie returns to their newest sci fi universe, their first new IP since leaving their renowned Halo series in Microsoft’s hands. Destiny 2 repeats a lot of its predecessor’s mistakes, but it also files down many of that game’s rougher edges, creating something that is at once extremely easy to play but doesn’t feel like it carries much in the way of long-term satisfaction just yet.

Destiny 2 has a few different masters to serve. It must not only act as a bridge for returning players, validating their work in the previous game and allowing them to move forward, it must also remain accessible to new players and clean the proverbial slate.

In spite of all this work to make the leap from the old title to the new as easy as possible for all involved, for some players it hasn’t been enough. Some are still salty that their old gear (quite a bit of which could only be gained through hundreds of hours of grinding) is simply gone, non-transferable to the new game. Others still, despite being pleased as punch about the forthcoming PC version, are unhappy about the inability to transfer characters cross-platform.

Regardless of your feelings on the state of the Destiny union at launch, what can’t be argued is that Destiny 2 makes the original game look especially bad by comparison. That’s probably the best and strangest compliment I can pay it. The problems I’d had with the original kept coming back to me during my first 25 hours with Destiny 2, mostly because a great many of them had been eradicated entirely.

There’s still narrative issues a-plenty however. One of the original Destiny‘s problems was that the story was utterly incomprehensible. Destiny 2 doesn’t do much to change this — by the time the game’s main quest line was done, I still had no real idea what had actually transpired or how it all fit together. While a concerted effort is made to get the player to care about the story that’s unfolding around them, I just can’t quite bring myself to care. The game ratchets the stakes early in the piece, damaging The Traveller (the mysterious moon-thing(?) from which humanity has been deriving much of our future tech) in a surprise incursion and driving home the notion that we as a species are lost without The Traveller’s assistance and the ephemeral substance we use to empower ourselves called Light. The gist, as I was able to piece it together, is that it is up to your Guardian, depowered like Samus Aran in the game’s explosive intro, to save The Traveller, the Light and the galaxy.

Another of the original Destiny‘s problems was that its grim narrative situation was taken from bad to worse with Peter Dinklage’s performance as your sidekick Ghost, a voice over role in which Dinklage sounded openly bored. He was later replaced by the slightly livelier Nolan North (UnchartedSpec Ops: The Line), though North’s inclusion did nothing to untangle the plot.

Destiny 2 narrowly avoids any similar disaster, recruiting North’s considerable talents once again and investing in a cast of noteworthy actors including Lance Reddick, Gina Torres, Bill Nighy, Frank Langella and Bungie’s own good luck charm Nathan Fillion. Despite the calibre of the acting talent involved, few of them can spit out the clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue they’re handed in a way that sounds remotely natural. Of the entire cast, only Fillion and Joy Osmanski (a series newcomer who steals the show as a damaged AI named Failsafe) seem to be having any fun at all.

And can we talk about some of the quest designs during the campaign for a second? Bungie, I know you had a good time making Halo. I had a great time playing Halo. But you don’t make Halo anymore. You make Destiny. I say that because I spent a good 70% of the campaign feeling like I was playing Halo again. A huge preponderance of the campaign missions are pulled straight from Bungie’s Halo playbook. From dangerous adventures through enemy infested mountain ranges to vehicle-based bid-for-freedom escape quests, even enemies that hint at body horror and a love of a good, oozy cloaca as a doorway, Bungie are very much leaning on what they know here. There were moments where all that was needed was the liberal application of the Halo theme and it would have been genuinely difficult to tell the two games apart.

Okay but, David, you wonder as I grouch over narrative in a game about shooting aliens forever, where’s the fun? It’s right there, in the shooting. Destiny 2 proves that there are very few developers who understand what makes a first-person shooter work, mechanically, on a console quite as thoroughly as Bungie does. Picking up one of Destiny 2‘s many hundreds of different guns and blasting your way through its four species of alien races, each one distinct and interesting to engage with, never seems to get old. There’s a savage delight in nailing a stream of headshots and watching the bulbous skull of a Red Legion foot soldier pop off, expelling gas from severed spacesuit cables.

Bungie has also attempted to address one of the biggest problems of the original — the lack of different things to do. In Destiny, the only way to raise your character’s power level and accrue new gear was to run the same quests over and over, farming and grinding forever. In Destiny 2, headway has been made in offering more quests and free form encounters alike. Once you’ve knocked over the main campaign, you’ll have free reign of each of the game’s four current worlds to explore and loot as you wish. While Patrol missions still exist, they’ve been mostly replaced by the new Adventures and Lost Sectors. Adventures play as short quests with a specific purpose — kill this toughened enemy, locate this macguffin — and they offer decent loot for completion. Lost Sectors reward players who like to explore, opening up hidden caverns below or within each level filled with high value enemies and loot. Denoted by specific markings on nearby walls, its like finding a little treasure trove every time you stumble upon one.

Destiny 2 also sees the return of Public Events which have become the loot farming Happy Place for players not yet ready for primetime in Strikes, Raids or the Crucible. Each event throws a problem at the player that must be solved with shooting. Each event also has a secret Heroic variant that is unlocked by completing a hidden objective in the midst of the fight — sometimes as simple as blowing up an incoming dropship to trigger a more tanky boss fight.

It’s easier to get yourself into Public Events in Destiny 2 than ever before. With the aid of the new in-game map (I still can’t believe it took making a sequel to include one), you can see exactly when and where each Event is starting. From there, you can race over or simply fast travel to a nearby location and head in. This is great because it encourages other people to turn up — there’s no guessing involved, you know everything you need to know before you get there and on the whole I’ve found that I’ve been joined by other players more often than I’ve been left to fend for myself.

While I’m ready to applaud the vast majority of the changes Bungie have made to in-game travel, I do have a take a shot at them for still having Sparrows locked away in random drops. You can buy one from the store once you reach higher levels, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that I could really use one from the jump. C’mon Bungie, why you gotta do me like that? All this ground to cover and here I am using my digital legs like a chump.

Another welcome change has been the speed at which you can level up faction reputation. Grinding faction rep in the original Destiny was one of its greatest sins. Glacially slow and often not worth the time or effort, levelling up your reputation with the various faction leaders is now not only faster but much more clear-cut. For instance, running Adventures and other optional quests in the EDZ (the primary Earth-based zone) will reward you with EDZ tokens. These can be taken to Devrim Kay, the EDZ’s faction leader and turned in for Engrams that drop loot. Often, these will be of Purple/Legendary quality but every so often they’ll result in a Bright Engram (the updated version of Motes of Light) which is all but guaranteed to net you a piece of sweet, sweet Exotic gear.

The breathless scavenging of evermore powerful gear is the game’s primary loop. You run missions to harvest loot to upgrade your Guardian so you can run them more efficiently. Doing this, as well as knocking over the campaign, will see you ding the current level cap of 20 in no time at all. It was the common consensus among players of the original Destiny that the game didn’t even really start until you hit 20 and began the grind but that’s been mitigated somewhat here by a kinder drop system and the reworking of side quests. Your Light level still works more or less the same way, an aggregate number pulled from the gear you’re wearing which is now called Power.

Post-launch content so far has included the launch of The Crucible, which is the game’s returning PvP multiplayer mode, as well as Strikes and Raids. Strikes typically play like regular game missions but often feature harder enemies. The weekly 3-person Nightfall strike is particularly hairy, running on a ten-minute timer that is lightly buffed with each enemy killed, and a need to rotate weapon types (Solar, Arc and Void) to leverage higher on a damage minute-to-minute basis depending on what the game calls out like a battle-ready version of Simon Says.

Destiny 2 also received its first Raid this week, called Leviathan. Raids are notoriously difficult long-form missions that see fireteams of up to six players attempting to wade through harsh enemies to battle a particularly nasty foe at the end. The raid was first completed by a group in around five hours. That’s a good indicator for how long you’re going to have to commit to one of these things. However, the rewards are well worth it with some of the game’s best loot drops going to players who can make it all the way to victory.

What I have discovered, prior to diving into Raids and Strikes more fully, is that there’s what feels like a soft cap at around Power level 270 or so. I was enjoying the brisk pace at which I was gaining Power and then the game abruptly stopped giving me higher level gear, only drops that matched or fell below my current set, preventing me from getting any stronger. The only way to move forward was to dive into Raids and Strikes, which promised “Powerful Gear” as a reward. It’s an interesting way to push people into trying new things but for those who are happy blowing down Public Events and looting the PvE areas, it might come as a bit of a surprise.

As an aside, those looking for something crunchier in the shooter RPG department might still want to keep Borderlands 2 installed for the time being. Destiny 2 is happy to take the Diablo 3 route of making This One Big Number Go Up as an indicator for character ability so if that doesn’t sound like your jam, you are encouraged to look elsewhere.

As I’ve said, there’s a lot about Destiny 2 that makes it superior to the original. Vastly so. But there’s a lot of old habits it still can’t quite bring itself to break. I am keen to see where Bungie take Destiny 2 in the next few years. I will be watching with interest to see how it changes shape with each new expansion. As it stands at launch, it’s a good start, but there’s still room for improvement. I hope Bungie can keep their roll going and capitalise on that.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Good shooting; Fixes a lot of what you hated about Destiny; Nathan Fillion
Lowlights: Retains a lot of what you hated about Destiny
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: Now (PS4, Xbox One), October 24 (PC)

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.