Destiny 2 beta impressions

Bungie's loot shooter MMO is about to get shootier and lootier.

The long-awaited Destiny 2 beta is live! Well, for some folks anyway. Regardless, this is the general public's first firsthand look at a slice of Bungie's upcoming sequel. For fans of the first game, especially those who swore by its gameplay in the face of criticism and the company's missteps, this is a high stakes moment.

So, what has changed since the first Destiny? Check out our beta impressions below!

What's Different?

Actual characters are present in the same space as you.

The original Destiny gave me an incredible sense of self. Enemy positions and certain attacks forced me to think about where my feet were planted, where my eyes were focused, and how to always look for potential threats. That sense did not extend to NPCs.

Most "characters" in Destiny, when they weren't just vaguely extant shop vendors, existed only as voices in your ear. They conveyed none of that same sense of physical presence as a player. The end result was that you could often feel very detached from and uncaring towards anyone with a personality.

The extended story mission in Destiny 2's beta gives me hope that that is no longer the case. Regular NPCs Zavala, Cayde-6, and Ikora Rey don't just squawk at you over an earpiece. They're there, fighting beside you. They also use skills appropriate to their canonical character classes. The sight of a named, canonically important figure blowing up a Titan's defense bubble, or Ikora slamming wiping out a dropship with void energy, makes these characters feel not just present, but internally consistent. I'll take a whole lot more of that throughout the story, please!

Strikes are bigger.

More specifically, a Strike is bigger, because there's just one in the beta and for all we know the rest are just a load of uniform firefights. That doesn't change the fact that The Inverted Spire is wider and deeper than any other co-op dungeon from the first game.

There's platforming -- performed while under fire from enemy sharpshooters and berserkers. There's a boss fight with multiple stages, across multiple arenas, which change how you need to run, jump, and shoot to survive. But my personal favorite moment was when cresting a hill, only to discover a wide-open, cratered battlefield scattered with opposing enemy factions. For all the never-ending, ever-changing motion through The Inverted Spire, that scene is a guttural display of scale that the originally Destiny never managed.

The subtler ways in which the Strike kept me on my toes and moving will probably be more vital to my enjoyment over time, though. Hopefully, we'll find it representative of what the full game has in store for us.

There's no more "hiding in plain sight" during PVP.

The most obvious change to Destiny 2's player-vs-player suite is that every team-based mode is four-on-four. The original Destiny, by contrast, was usually six-on-six. Only the more hardcore modes, like Salvage and Trials of Osiris, had trios duke it out for supremacy.

That might sound like an arbitrary change, but you'll sing a different tune when you're in the thick of it. The trimmed player count multiplies the impact of every kill and every death. Suddenly, you can't just slop your way to victory and defeat as one other faceless member of a crowd. In a compact, four-person unit, you're always part of a team.

That might not appeal to players who never got into the fun, panic-inducing Trials of Osiris which Destiny introduced with Rise of Iron. Covering the field, reviving teammates (at least in certain modes), and checking all possible angles of attack was stressful even in the first game. In Destiny 2, it seems consistently terrifying.

Combat stops and starts.

Destiny 2 has new class-specific abilities, two per class for a total of six. Titans can generate physical barriers -- useful for cover. Warlocks drop healing or attack-boosting puddles. Hunters can dodge out of harm's way at will. It's pretty neat! It also fundamentally changes the flow of fights from what we're used to.

See, in the first Destiny, movement was your best friend. Launching into the air, ducking around corners, and just generally trying to confuse or break line of sight with bullet spongy swarms of foes kept you alive. Alive is good! It keeps you shooting and having fun. Dead is bad. It puts unfair pressure on your teammates to hold the line against frustrating restarts.

These new class abilities stymie that emphasis on movement, however. As a Titan, I didn't need to pirouette between bullets while my health regenerated. My barriers give me the option to make a stand, instead -- at least for a little while.

There are two big consequences to this. One is that classes now feel markedly different from each other, in more ways than just their super abilities. A Titan is meant to be a kind of tank, after all, so it makes sense that they can just dig their heels in and fight. The second change is that whole battles can be won, lost, or turned around on these occasional breaks in the action. It'll be interesting to see just how frequent and dramatic those breaks will be.

Guns aren't as easy to "read."

The original Destiny broke its weapon classes into primaries, secondaries meant as specific counters to certain enemies, and heavies with rare, but unmistakable stopping power. Destiny 2's kill categories are… squishier. You still carry around three weapons, but the difference between primaries and secondaries (now classified as "kinetic" and "energy" weapons) is much less dramatic. Auto rifles, hand cannons, scout rifles, etc. all fit into those same two fields. The one difference is that energy weapons carry special damage types -- like fire and electricity -- while kinetic guns don't.

The third class is now "power weapons" and seems to be a mix of what used to be heavy and some secondary arms. The problem is that old heavies, like LMGs and rocket launchers, served a specific but shared function. They did tremendous damage, every once in a while. Now more all-purpose firearms, like shotguns and sniper rifles, are lumped together with that.

With so many varied weapons now locked behind a category with extremely limited ammo, Destiny 2's combat threatens to be fought at extremely similar ranges and paces, from one fight to the next. Proper distribution of different ammunition might alleviate that, but it'll have to be pretty generous for me to accept super short and long-range combat becoming a commodity.

What's the Same?

The user interface.

Some people really didn't like Destiny's cursor-and-tab-based menu UI. Apparently there weren't enough of them. The menus of Destiny 2 are functionally identical to the previous game's.

Personally, I don't mind it. The menus in general even feel a bit snappier this time around. Maybe I'm just remembering the feeling with rose colored, uh… fingers, but I'd swear the menu cursor moves more quickly and crisply than in the last game. That tiny load time between hitting the right button, and the menu booting up, is also shorter. Hopefully that will hold true once more players start hitting Bungie's servers.

The unaltered menus do draw attention to Destiny's deliberateness, though. Since weapons in each category can only be changed from inside a menu, there's a weight to deciding which arsenal you bring into battle with you. It feels just as on-brand for the heavy style of shooter as it did in the first game.

The shooting is good and meaty (i.e. they still got them headshots).

There's something about the way Destiny enemies' weak points pop when you shoot them. I'm not the first person to observe that, of course, and thankfully it looks like I won't be the last. The loud and punctuating death animations are back in Destiny 2. So is the immense satisfaction I get every time one happens.

More than that, the new game retains its sense of momentum to movement. It's as if turning and moving take a split second to get "up to speed" when you elect to do so. At the same time, the controls are still responsive. The delay is a reminder that your character exists as a physical presence in the world, rather than a result of loose controls. Like the original Destiny's menus, there's a deliberateness there that lends weight to even the smallest choice.

A lot of abilities carry over.

If you didn't care for a particular Destiny class's grenade, melee, or acrobatic abilities, don't get your hopes up now. A lot of those core skills are identical in the sequel. Hunters still have a triple-jump, while Warlocks float through the air. Titans effectively have jet packs and straight-up clock aliens with shield-generating punches (depending on your subclass, of course).

Many of the long con super abilities have changed, however, and mostly for the better. Sunsinger Warlocks' "Radiance" super ability, which the player self-resurrect, has been replaced with a "Dawnblade" that lets them fly and rain fire from the sky. Meaning it's no longer a passive (although admittedly useful) "get out of jail free card" for players.

Moment-to-moment, though? The core tenets of each subclass feel familiar. It'll be up to class abilities and a bevy of new passives to decide whether the regular Destiny triad feels noticeably different over time.

Dead players keep on killing me.

This is an admittedly specific issue, but it still bothers me. Due to some quirk of its netcode, the original Destiny's PVP has always plagued me with moments where I watch my opponent die, only to be supposedly shot to death by them an instant later.

That kind of rubber-banding isn't unique to Destiny. It is, however, a lot more pronounced. Maybe it really is all the fault of the code. Maybe it's because so many Destiny duels devolve into detailed, close-up melees. Whatever the cause, it's always made the first game's PVP battles hard to move through -- and often frustrating to lose in.

What's Just Plain Weird?

I think I see the story coming a light year away…

Right now, I'd say my biggest concern over Destiny 2 is its plot. That shouldn't be shocking, given this is the follow-up to story where the most recognizable line of dialogue even admits how incomprehensible it is. Bungie, meanwhile, has itself acknowledged that it won't be answering many old questions. So what's left?

Destiny 2's opening story mission has the setup. In the beta, it shows alien commander Dominus Ghaul blowing up the sacrosanct Tower that was the first Destiny's main port of call. He then jacks the player character's superpowers and scatters the factions of humanity across at least four different playable planetoids.

As glad as I am to see Destiny 2's villain has a personality -- at least enough of one to talk smack, as opposed to the ill-defined red goo from the last game's last expansion -- I feel like I've seen this story before. Hell, I feel like I've played this story before.

First, I suspect, the game will task me with finding some new source of magic juice. Then I'll rally the disparate factions on each playable area. Along the way, I might heal Zavala's bruised ego, or help Ikora overcome obsession with an ancient artifact she thinks will save everyone. After Ghaul dies (probably at the end of a Raid), we'll get a cutscene and some brief narration about the Destineers finding a new place to call home. Or maybe we'll rebuild the old one.

Granted, the original Destiny eked more than a few hundred hours out of me with far less plot. But perhaps that was a blessing. Without hardly any story, good or bland, to get in the way, the last game left open the door for a lot of uninterrupted grinding, shooting, and looting. A more blown-out, but generic story in Destiny 2 wouldn't just be disappointing. It could be a detriment.

So here's hoping I'm worrying over nothing! The smaller, more dynamic changes certainly seem exciting. If every Strike has the same level of sprawl and complexity as The Inverted Spire, I'll be happy to repeat them a few dozen time for the promise of better gear. If every combat encounter feels as freshly shaken by class abilities as the few I've seen, I'll be happy to fall into that new rhythm all over again. If the story is as predictable as I fear… well, hopefully there's an option to skip cutscenes.