If I had a word to describe 2014’s Destiny, it would be “serviceable.” It was expensive, popular, gorgeous, triple-A, high quality filler. The world was sprawling. The mechanics were solid. The ideas were surprisingly creative at the time. Still, Destiny was soulless, full of undeveloped potential that went to waste thanks to a host of design flaws. Now, in 2017, developer Bungie has another shot. They have a chance to redeem their past missteps, and produce a stronger game with their sequel: Destiny 2.
Note #1: I played Destiny back when it first released, but never picked up the DLC expansions. Whenever I refer to “Destiny,” I’m exclusively referring to the base game. If you’re interested in reading our review of the base game, click here. If you’re interested in what we thought of its expansions, click here.
Note #2: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
Concept and Execution:
In the future, Earth is on its last leg. After the events of Destiny, only one fortified city remains as a safe haven for the last living members of humanity. It resides underneath the Traveler, a cosmic power source that fuels the guardians, the final protectors of Earth. In the opening minutes, Destiny 2 begins with an alien invasion of the Last City, an all-out assault from the Cabal and their leader, Dominus Ghaul. After severing the guardians from their power source, the Cabal armies hold the city hostage, forcing the disarmed populace into imprisonment or exile. Against all odds, the protagonist player must work to reignite their power, battle the Cabal, and save the Last City.
The first six hours of Destiny 2 are absolutely terrifying. It’s not because the story has high stakes, or the combat has tension, but because the game initially appears to make all the same mistakes as its predecessor. The enemy types are the same, the character creator still has a limited pool of possible designs, and the maps feel pointless with no clear sense of direction. Even the story beats, while more defined, are rushed. One section in particular is supposed to be sorrowful and haunting, leading the player through saddening sights with a depressing score in the background, but it falls flat. The montage of gameplay segments only amounts to around 20 minutes in length, even though the subtitles claim that days have passed in the story.
This is what drove my fear that Destiny 2 would simply be a carbon copy of the original. Destiny had one of the worst stories I’ve ever experienced, never defining itself in a memorable way. However, once the sequel passes its period of growing pains, it changes. The world opens up again. The mechanics expand. The edges start to smooth out, and the franchise’s potential finally comes into fruition.
A host of improvements make themselves known after the first six hours, and the most prominent of them is the game’s storyline. Destiny 2 has a story. When the pace slows down, the game shines. Characters can interact with players on their quests. The environment is shaped by its narrative, changing based upon how it fits into the plot. And—unlike the first game—the narrative of the game is clear. It might be a little simple, but its defined progression still drives the player toward the story’s end, motivating them onward. Along the way, the writing manages to deliver humor, drama, and dare I say it, a little heart.
Once the campaign is complete, Destiny 2 offers plenty of activities in true MMO fashion. Other than a variety of side quests on each of the interplanetary playgrounds, guardians can also engage in activities like patrols, strikes, raids, and the Crucible. Patrols are challenges resigned to a specific area, giving players a reason to explore the world. Strikes are co-operative missions carried out by 3-player teams, incorporating platforming puzzles and boss battles into the regular combat. Raids are the intensive 6-player dungeons that require meticulous planning, high-level gear, and dedicated hours to complete. At the time of this writing, only one raid is available, but more are set to come. Finally, the Crucible rounds out the gameplay of Destiny 2, a playlist of modes and maps for guardians to do battle with one another in 4v4 combat.
As far as its content goes, Destiny 2 has about as much to tackle as its predecessor, but the quality has increased. While playing the Destiny activities used to feel like chores, these new challenges are upgraded from their original versions. They aren’t perfect; they still have their flaws. While the story is intriguing and entertaining, it lacks depth, and it could’ve fleshed out its characters a little more. The side quests can get dry after too much repetition, and the Leviathan raid has a section that could frustrate me on my happiest day. Even with that said, the title still offers a variety of challenges to conquer. They’re more replayable, more varied, and more focused than what the first game offered. There’s more fun to be had.
Concept and Execution Score: 20/25
At its core, Destiny is still a mechanics-based franchise. No matter how many worlds players explore or how many challenges they complete, they’ll still be running around and shooting anything that moves. Though the concept and atmosphere might match that of an MMO by sending players on quests and social activities, the gunplay is the core of the series. It was excellent in the first game, and it’s still excellent here.
Those familiar with shooters may find the control scheme a bit strange, with the melee button attached to ‘R1,’ and a third weapon accessed only by holding down the ‘triangle’ button (Sorry if you play on Xbox One or PC; I don’t speak your language). Also, the velocity of the jump speed is floaty, slower than a shooter like Overwatch or Call of Duty, especially when playing the titan class. However, once the muscle memory forms and the brain adjusts, it feels wonderful. The learning curve isn’t steep. Before you know it, you’ll be pulling off lightning-fast tricks before your opponent can ever raise a weapon. Hit boxes are forgiving, the platforming is a blast, and using each weapon is an absolute joy.
Speaking of weapons, Destiny 2 is full of them. Weapons are divided into three slots: kinetic, elemental, and heavy. Players can carry one of each, three weapons in total, and each slot can hold plenty of options. For elemental and kinetic weapons, the game supplies a huge number of gun types. From hand cannons to automatic rifles, from side arms to SMGs, most of the traditional shooter weapons can be found in these two categories. The differences between kinetic damage and elemental damage is a nice touch, providing some strategy for taking down enemies. Opponents with red shields are weak to fire, while foes that regenerate can be taken out quickly with the burst damage of a semi-automatic. As an added bonus, power weapons occupy the final slot in your armory. Ammo is scarce, especially in PvP, but destroying your enemies with one or two shots feels glorious. Players and bots alike can be annihilated with weapons like the grenade launcher, the fusion rifle, and even a towering greatsword. The combat feels spot-on; I never really felt cheated out of a life or killed unfairly at any point in the game. If I made a mistake or took a wrong step, the AI would annihilate me. If I adapted to the situation and exploited the weakness of the enemy type, I won the battle with flying colors.
Alongside the excellent weapon system is a gear system, which is more of a mixed bag in terms of quality. Gear is essential to the leveling system of Destiny 2. When the level cap of 20 is reached, a guardian’s gear determines their relative power in combat. As aforementioned, skill and strategy are important, but battling a high-level enemy with low-level armor rarely ends well in any MMO. Therefore, players will be scrounging through the worlds, turning over every rock and robbing every alien, trying to find the best items to wear. The practicality of the armor is fantastic. New pieces of gear will pop up left and right, enhancing statistics and providing perks to differentiate each guardian from the pack. Each set can bulk up your character, help you move faster, or even change your entire play style by adding a priceless ability to your repertoire.
Aesthetically, though, there is a serious problem with gear. This problem has been covered all over the Internet, so I won’t linger too long, but it’s still worth mentioning. In Destiny, armor color could be changed with shaders. The dye sets changed the color scheme of all the gear equipped to a player, and they could be removed and reused at any time once obtained. In the sequel, this system has changed for the worse. Shaders can now only be used for one item each, changing the color of only the individual item. Additionally, they cost in-game currency to apply. This would be forgivable, since it simply makes specific color schemes harder to obtain, marking their wearers as elite, but the changes don’t end there. For some strange reason, shaders are now single-use modifiers that are permanently attached to an item. They cannot be removed, so the moment a player finds a better piece of gear to replace the old, the shader is useless. All the work they put into designing their gear and decorating their character becomes moot. This is an illogical choice, damaging the value of what used to be the franchise’s most coveted prizes.
On top of the shader issue, the problem with aesthetic character designs spread elsewhere. The character creator in the beginning of the game offers about the same number of options as the original, which were disappointingly minimal. The barebones customization system offers very few options for creativity. This is par for a shooter, but it’s abysmally poor compared to other MMOs. This issue, again, wouldn’t be so damaging, if the options presented weren’t so ugly. Of the three playable races—human, exo, and the awoken—there are only a handful of combinations that don’t look absurd. This is particularly evident for the human males, where most of the possible face options look monstrous.
Thankfully, the issues of aesthetic design don’t carry over to the core of the gameplay. As was the case in the last game, Destiny 2 offers three primary classes. My favorite class, the titan, operates as a tank that fights either aggressively or defensively based on the player’s gear set, subclass, and play style. The hunter is a champion of mobility and stealth, using their abilities to operate as serious damage-dealers. The third, most creative class of the bunch is the warlock—a sci-fi mage with the power to manipulate different factors of the battlefield. All three classes are balanced amongst each other, since all of the classes play differently and offer their own benefits. When they finally reach their full potential, they are wonderfully empowering.
Once players begin to sink into their character’s class, they can earn two extra subclasses, expanding their choices to three in total. A character’s subclass determines their grenade options, their active and passive powers, and their ultimate ability. In turn, this can shape their strategy. While many RPGs force players to follow a single upgrade path, Destiny 2 permits you to change your subclass at any time, allowing you to cycle between gameplay styles on the fly. As more and more abilities unlock, guardians gain more tactics for coordinating with their teams and defeating their enemies. This extra layer of strategy in the character design helps vary up the tired formula of pointing some crosshairs and pulling a trigger.
Once players have their fill of the PvE combat, they can scratch their competitive itch by jumping into PvP in the Crucible. These matches have undergone some major changes, some of which probably won’t please fans. Some of the improvements include balancing tweaks, such as making power ammo more difficult to obtain. Shotguns and sniper rifles were painfully overpowered in the first game, so switching them into the weapon category with the least ammunition on the board was a smart idea. However, the entire structure of the Crucible has changed for the worse. Even though the game is a more balanced, personal contest, most of the opportunities for teamwork have been crushed with a critical change. Destiny had 6v6, 3v3, and free-for-all game modes. Destiny 2 only has 4v4 game modes. Whether it’s a game of Clash (team deathmatch), Control (domination), or Countdown (search and destroy), the player count never exceeds eight. To compliment this change, maps are tighter and more constrained, making matches more hectic. It’s still an addicting set of battle mechanics, but it’s hardly a social experience anymore. Isn’t that what MMOs are all about?
Mechanics Score: 21/25
Upholding the stronger story of Destiny 2 is an atmosphere central to the franchise. Each of the new locations in the solar system have their own unique landscapes, both through their natural environments and their intentional designs. Titan, a moon of Saturn, is a planet-sized ocean, with decaying structures infected by an insect-like species of alien called the Hive. Nessus is a distant planetoid, its rich vegetation corrupted by the advanced technology of the Vex. Io, a moon of Jupiter, is a wasteland, the remains of what used to be a magnificent settlement blessed with the power of the Traveler. Earth also makes a return in the form of the European Dead Zone, where many of the Last City’s refugees have fled.
Each world has two lead characters guiding players’ actions along the way. One of the characters is central to the story, the other acts as sort of a manager for their zone, helping players during and after the campaign. Some of the characters are an absolute failure. Devrim Kay, the guide of the European Dead Zone, never makes an impression, which astounds me. He’s voiced by Gideon Emery, a voice actor with major roles in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. He’s an English sniper holed up in a church in the middle of a territory occupied by the Fallen. In addition, he’s a milestone; he’s Destiny’s first gay character. This sounds like it could be an amazing formula for an empathetic personality, but he’s completely forgettable. Players receive almost no information about him, they don’t get any proper sequences with him, and he hardly impacts the story at all. His dialogue is minimal, and mostly gameplay-related.
On the flip side of the spectrum, FAILSAFE is the manager of Nessus, and she’s a step in the right direction. She’s a complete character fleshed out with a backstory, she has a prominent personality, and she influences the direction of the plot. FAILSAFE is an AI program with a split personality, constantly jumping back and forth between supportive and cynical dispositions thanks to a tragic past and a lifetime in isolation. When players arrive on Nessus, they discover that FAILSAFE’s transmission brought them there. As the players explore the planetoid, she directs the player, and she helps save and protect another title character, Cayde-6. Actress Joy Osmanski (Grey’s Anatomy, The Loop) sells her lines perfectly as a comedic version of Siri. Although the writing lets her down at times and some jokes won’t land for everybody, it’s a much stronger example of a proper character.
Generally speaking, the Nessus section of the story definitely soars above the rest of the campaign in terms of quality. The two best characters in the game are FAILSAFE and of course, the charismatic exo gunslinger Cayde-6. Nathan Fillion carries the role of the wisecracking rogue, combining his experience from Castle and Firefly to play the ultimate sci-fi comedic relief character. His presence is a breath of fresh air, as Cayde-6’s motivations and personality shine throughout the entirety of the story. His need to impress his friends and his willingness to carry on a fight on his own subtly hint at a deeper personal backstory. I wish it could’ve been explained more clearly, but otherwise, his character is masterfully executed on every level.
Ultimately, though, the friends and foes of Destiny 2 are somewhat disappointing. All of the alien races return, like the legions of Cabal and the army of the Fallen. The Taken King expansion’s race of corrupted aliens (uninspiringly called “The Taken” [*groan*]) make their return as well. Although there are some new enemy types among them, and bosses have new abilities and tactics, there isn’t enough new content on which to chew. Sure, it’s interesting to have the corrupted Hive soldiers alongside the brainwashed Vex, but where’s the intrigue? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to fight Taken guardians? Corrupted exo, awoken, and even human enemies turned to the darkness would be a twisted way to change encounters, adding some haunting worldbuilding to the lore of Destiny. The Cabal are intimidating enough, as is main antagonist Ghaul, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The allies, including Lance Riddick’s Zavala, Gina Torres’ Ikora, and as always, Nolan North’s Ghost, are all well-performed but underutilized. Zavala and Ikora have identical personalities, and Ghost does nothing to differentiate itself from any other sidekick companion of the sci-fi genre.
Thankfully, the social aspects of the world pick up the slack where the characters fail. With all of its gameplay content, Destiny 2 is a great title to enjoy with friends. There are plenty of opportunities for interactions with new players as well, especially with the matchmaking in strikes and the comradery of teaming up to win public events. Voice chat is always a barren wasteland, but that’s mostly because MMO players are often accustomed to third-party communication methods, such as console parties and Discord servers. Playing alongside your friends can be laid back and casual, but it can also be intense and competitive in areas like the Crucible and the raid. It’s an opportunity that no Destiny 2 player should pass up.
The visuals of Destiny 2 are difficult to describe. While the environments look stunning from a distance, and each area is packed with detail, some of the textures are poor. The franchise always embraced a less realistic, more cartoonish aesthetic. That’s acceptable, but some of the problems go beyond artistic choices. Even in the introductory tutorial, the fire effects adorning the destructed buildings look cheap, rushed, and unrealistic in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, once the new environments unlock and you’re gazing out at the thrashing oceans of Titan, it’s hard to be picky.
The epic tone of the game is beautifully supported by a heavenly score. Powerful brass sections and light violins blend seamlessly to accompany each mission, providing more than a couple memorable melodies. Composers Michael Salvatori, Skye Lewin, and C Paul Johnson deserve an award, because it’s one of the best soundtracks I’ve enjoyed in a long time. The theme alone captures such a hopeful, uplifting sentiment that sticks with me long after I’ve finished playing the game.
Atmosphere Score: 19/25
At the beginning of this review, I called Destiny “serviceable.” If I had to describe the sequel, I’d describe it as “more serviceable.”
Destiny 2 provides all the great content of the first game and smoothed out some of the edges of the original, but in the end it doesn’t have its own identity. Not much changes from one to the other, and there aren’t enough new ideas to earn it a high score. Actually, this title operates better as a remake of its predecessor, improving the formula instead of taking a step forward.
All of this isn’t to say that Destiny 2 isn’t fun. It’s an absolute blast, a game into which I could sink 100 hours. It’s truly an enjoyable experience, with an enriched environment, tweaked mechanics, and a solid story. It’s probably going to please a lot of franchise fans. However, it does little to attract new players or folks who felt scorned by the original Destiny.
If you spent hours and hours fighting alongside fellow guardians in the first game, I’d strongly advise picking up a copy of Destiny 2. If you liked the idea of Destiny but disliked its execution, I’d still recommend this title, but it’s worth waiting for a sale, or buying it prepackaged with its upcoming DLC. As an MMO, it’s good. As a sci-fi shooter, it’s great. Despite this, it continues the trend of the franchise, doubling down on its premise rather than evolving in a major way. It’s a quality of life improvement for Bungie’s ambitious experiment, but I’d like to see the studio really shoot for the stars in the installments to come.
Entertainment Value Score: 18/25