Massive campaign spoilers ahead.
Now, having put nearly 85 hours into Destiny 2, I feel reasonably comfortable talking about it. There’s a lot to talk about, though, and we’re going to start with the campaign.
Bear in mind that it’s extremely hard for me to be objective about this game – I’ve put a gargantuan amount of time into the original Destiny and I don’t see that changing with Destiny 2. I write this as someone who’s extremely fond of the game and the series in general, so keep that bias in mind when you read.
Now, onward and upward.
From the very first mission, it’s clear that Bungie learned from their mistakes. Of all the content that they’ve put out, The Taken King set the highest bar – for Destiny – in terms of story-related content. And while Rise of Iron did very little to build on that, Destiny 2 is a whole other beast.
Most missions now have cutscenes at the beginning or the end or both, from the perspective of the central characters as well as the game’s antagonist, Dominus Ghaul. There’s also a lot of comm chatter during missions, making the business of shooting things feel much more alive and adding more context to different objectives within a mission.
The theme of adding context has been layered into the characters that Destiny 1 veterans will be familiar with. While all of Destiny 1’s characters stood around a table and gave you periodic loot drops, here they feel like active participants in content even though they aren’t physically present in missions. They talk to you over the radio, offer perspective, share their thoughts and riff off of each other, making them feel more realised as characters over the course of the 8 to 10 hour campaign than they ever did in 3 years of Destiny 1.
Destiny 2’s antagonist, Dominus Ghaul, receives the same treatment. Instead of simply showing up at the beginning and end of the campaign, cutscenes between missions focus on him monologuing or talking to a couple of other characters. This goes a long, long way to making Ghaul feel like a proper villain – he has recognisable motivations and he’s a character that’s less clearly evil than Crota or Oryx were made out to be. He wants the Light, he believes Guardians are unworthy of it, and has come to lay claim to what he believes is rightfully his.
Overall, the first half of the campaign sets down a solid foundation for an incredibly compelling story. And then, exactly like Rise of Iron, Bungie buggers up the second half.
Conflict resolution is much too simple. Each of the three Vanguard leaders – Zavala, Ikora, and Cayde – get only a couple of missions each before they leave their respective worlds and reunite to take down Ghaul. There was so much more that could have been done with the campaign – Zavala building an army, Cayde fiddling with Vex tech, Ikora attempting to re-establish her connection with the light.
At the very least, each of those three characters deserved a 5 to 8 mission set that explored the trauma they went through after having lost their Light and their desperate efforts to either reclaim it or find ways to compensate for its loss. What was needed on Titan, Nessus, and Io were small subplots – mini-campaigns in their own right – before the Vanguard eventually came to the conclusion that even without their Light, they were still stronger together.
Ghaul himself receives similar treatment. He’s built up as a formidable foe at the beginning of the game and through between-mission cutscenes, but he shows up to fight only once at the very end of the game and gets his ass thoroughly handed to him. After the way he had been set up, he should have made a couple more appearances during the campaign, in person, either to fight us or to taunt us and walk away, before we actually fought him in the final mission of the game.
The way the second half of the story is handled frustrates me because there was a lot of potential for so much more. When early promos revealed that Cayde was messing around with Vex tech, it suggested a wealth of fascinating possibilities. Since the Vex are all about the manipulation of time for their own ends, Cayde should have been looking for Time Gates not some random portal nonsense.
There’s precedent for this – in the House of Wolves, for example, Skolas uses Vex tech to pull the entire House of Wolves through time. And, without his Light, as a gambler always willing to bet the odds, wouldn’t this be something that Cayde learned from? While Zavala set out to build an army on Titan and Ikora fiddled with the Light on Io, Cayde should have been doing something crazier.
I believe the middle of the game should have had us losing. Ghaul wins, he can’t lay claim to the light, so he blows up our sun. We’re working with Cayde – in secret from the other Vanguard, while we help them do their thing – to get a Time Gate working and as the sun goes supernova we escape through it, back in time, to a period either before Ghaul’s invasion or during. Cayde closes the portal from the other side. There’s no way back. And nothing to go back to. So we have no choice but to press on. Find a way to stop Ghaul. And keep everything we know from dying.
That’s a powerful story, with powerful consequences. Where the stakes feel high. We know that we’re going to win. It’s inevitable. We will always beat the bad guy and save the day because that’s just how these games work. But, for the briefest of moments, if the bad guy wins, we’re suddenly not sure. We’re suddenly off balance. And that’s when the story starts to mean something to us, as players. That’s when it becomes a little personal.
The big problem with Destiny’s story thus far is that we never really lose anything, not in any meaningful way. Our ghost loses his light and gets tossed off a ship? We find him midway through the next mission. We lose our Light? One mission later, we get it back. The Vanguard loses hope and scatter to different corners of the solar system? Eh, no biggie, two quick missions and their problems are solved – now they’re gung ho and raring to go. A Cabal Warlord who overthrew his former Emperor and subjugated an entire species now has the power of the Light in his arsenal? No worries, bullets and rockets will do just fine.
At some point, developers and storytellers need to realise that we need to lose. There need to be stakes. There need to be consequences. As an example, if you take time off during the main campaign to do a few adventures and earn XP, something needs to happen. Cabal ships need to show up and assault the worlds you’ve neglected. You should be able to land on Titan or Io or Nessus and see the social space overrun with Cabal. Things that we do as players, decisions that we make – or choose not to make – need to actually matter.
Because they don’t, and because how fundamentally simplistic Destiny 2’s story and execution is, the campaign is good. Just good. But there are glimmers of greatness interspersed throughout the campaign.
The level design is fantastic. Bungie really pushed the envelope with the world design this time around and every space on every planet feel rich and alive and vibrant in a way that the original Destiny could never quite manage. There are spots everywhere which offer jaw dropping views, inviting you to set aside your gun for a while, sit, and just look.
The soundtrack is extraordinary. One thing that Destiny got consistently right was how much of a treat the audio was and Destiny 2 ratchets that up to eleven.
Gunplay feels as tight as ever; weapon sounds are dramatically improved and shooting feels as tight, as responsive, and punchier than it’s ever been.
There’s a lot of stuff to do on each of the planets as well, which I’ll talk about another time. There’s no denying that Destiny 2 is a more substantial game than its predecessor – the core experience has been distilled into a very pure form that never fails to entertain or engage.
But Bungie still needs to learn how to tell a compelling story. They know how to begin one – the first half of Destiny 2’s campaign is incredibly interesting and proof enough of that. And the grimoire (of the days of yore) as well as the lore entries that come with new exotic, raid, and trials weapons show that Bungie’s writers excel at setting the stage. They do a fantastic job of adding richness and depth and context in small, simple, and insightful ways to the world. They can write extremely compelling stories. But they seem to have yet to learn how to allow players to experience a powerful one.
Destiny 2’s campaign in many steps forward in the right direction, of that there can be no doubt. The problem, however, is that Bungie still hasn’t gone far enough.
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The campaign is good. The character feel more developed, the villain feels better realised, the world feel rich, vibrant, and alive. All of this is many steps forward from everything that Bungie has done with all of Destiny 1. But it’s still too safe. Too predictable. The biggest mistake that Bungie made with Destiny 2 is that they haven’t gone far enough.