Destiny 2 review

It's more of what you love, except where it isn't.

Destiny 2's "Red War" campaign opens with a bang. It closes on pretty much exactly the same state of affairs as the first Destiny and every one of its expansions.

Even the "Red War" branding of the game's main story component should give you some idea that developer Bungie only considers this a single new chapter in an ongoing battle. A scarlet arch slides into view before every one of its cutscenes — like a massive science-fantasy trademark symbol poised to differentiate it from other models in the line. It's the nextgen iPhone of videogame stories.

This is to say it's an improvement over the first Destiny. Dominus Ghaul, military dictator of the Space-Roman empire, the Cabal, vaguely gestured at in the first game, is an actual villain this time. He has dialogue, motivation, and inter-personal relationships. He is not a big old blob of floating gallium that you never even realized was the main villain in the first place. His presence gives the Red War a focal point and a definite, long-term objective. Want to win? Kill Ghaul.

Why? Because Ghaul has reset the Guardians, Destiny's pseudo-scientific super-warriors, to zero. He blows up their stuff, steals their space magic, and kicks them out of the last city on Earth. That much has been the crux of pretty much all Destiny 2 marketing from the jump. It gives developer Bungie a canonical excuse to start from scratch — leaving behind the slowly disintegrating monster truck they managed to keep running for the last three years.

Despite this chance for a clean slate, however, Destiny 2 has carried over quite a few more nuts and bolts from the previous game than you might think. And not all of them are the ones you might’ve expected to see.

One of the most obvious repeat performances comes from "Exotic" gear. These unique arms and armor were a lynchpin of the original Destiny. As the first-person loot shooter's rarest, most powerful, most unique form of equipment, much of the late-game revolved around collecting them. In Destiny 2, many old Exotics churn among the new.

And boy howdy, is it ever a bummer to feel the sweet thrill of picking up a yellow Exotic engram — unidentified dodecahedrons that decode into Destiny's guns and equipment — only to receive the same toy you just spent the last three years playing with. That's a bit of a nitpick, and one that obviously won't affect anyone who skipped the flawed first game, but it's indicative of a wider problem: Destiny 2's loot treadmill is narrow.

Oh, you can spend dozens of very enjoyable hours slamming down the Red War campaign, battling through crowded public events, repeating MMO dungeon-like strikes, and a whole host of other things. Bungie has filled the four playable planetoids of Destiny 2 with plenty of things to do... So long as those "things" involve shooting hordes of weaker enemies between you and one very large one.

The rewards you get, however, are almost identical. I'm not talking about the simplified currency system, which rewards you with different tokens to cash in at separate vendors depending on what activity you completed and where. I mean that the variance between the gear you get has basically been squashed down to a choice among five or six different aesthetics.

The Warlock class helmet you purchase from an unstable AI on Nessus might look different from the one you got for grinding away at PVP multiplayer, but their stats are precisely the same. Guns fare a bit better, with differences in rate of fire, handling, clip size, and so on. Yet they no longer have random perks assigned to them when dropped. So once you've got the scout rifle from Io, you've got the scout rifle from Io — as long as you keep finding higher level scout rifles to "infuse" into the original.

Infusion is another nitpick that begins to compound over several dozen hours of play. The rules around this mechanic, the process that lets you feed guns and clothes to other guns and clothes to keep them relevant to your character level, have gotten more specific. Instead of being able to infuse anything from the correct category of gun (kinetic, energy, or power), you need the right class of weapon (sword, shotgun, auto rifle, hand cannon, etc.). What used to be one-in-three odds of having the right weapon to level up your preferred murderizer is now far, far lower.

You know what else bothers me? Shotguns and sniper rifles now share the same rare ammo type as rocket launchers. I have to hold down the button that starts bite-sized patrol missions twice as long now. Ghost shells, skins for my Nolan North voiced robot companion, don't affect my level anymore. So when I get a new one as a drop, it's a disappointment.

Destiny 2 is pedantic that way. It overcorrects seemingly miniscule problems and just ends up making things feel more like a chore. Ghost shells were a rare drop that kept many players from needing to raise their overall gear level in the first game. Now, they're just about meaningless. Sniper rifles and shotguns once dominated competitive play. Now, they're rarities altogether and regular combat range has homogenized to between "medium-close" and "medium-far."

But said combat is still the best of any console shooter to date. Sprinting feels deliberate, as your character swings their gun back and forth to maintain balance. Enemies' heads explode in gas geysers as you pop their thick pressure suits with controlled barks from those weighty weapons, or their glass bellies shatter so that white brain goo puddles at their robotic feet. When things get too hectic, you can turn your weight upwards with powerful double-jump thrusts that feel more like falling upwards than flying (unless you're playing one of the new, reworked subclasses that can literally fly).

I feel "present" — like a body at work — in Destiny 2, as opposed to like a camera behind a sentient gun in Call of Duty. Destiny 2 also reduces the friction between that loop of running, gunning, and getting the hell out. You no longer have to load multiple times between selecting a mission, performing it, and turning it in. The open world-ish planetoids let you seamlessly jump between nearly any activity: from a public quest to stop machine blood sacrifices, to side quest "Adventures" that hide much of the best writing in the game.

I say "hide" because Destiny 2's obtuse character progression actually discourages you from playing most of these side quests. Any experience Adventures offer quickly takes a backseat to farming gear, although tried-and-true experience points do matter... up to a point. That point is level 20 and it arrives blazing fast — right around the time you beat the 16-mission “Red War” campaign.

After that, it's all about "Power;" what was called "Light" in the first Destiny. Just like Light, Power is derived from an average of all your equipped gear's strength. It's also the only level that matters for getting into the glorious endgame — modified Nightfall strikes, Destiny 2's sole six-player raid, and meaningful PVP events like Trials of the Nine and the Iron Banner.

Getting your Power level up is so poorly explained I'm half-suspicious it was made that way on purpose. The current maximum is 300, while the user interface hints the cap will eventually reach 350 as new content gets added. Getting to 265 is no big deal. You'll get there just from drops and turning in tokens to those aforementioned vendors.

At that level, however, progression is time-gated. Only a handful of activities (the Nightfall, the Raid, etc.) earn gear above 265 Power and those rewards can only be redeemed once per week per activity.

This has been great fodder for online guides, but nowhere is it explained in Destiny 2 itself. The special drops are marked as "powerful gear," as opposed to "legendary gear," but the difference isn't made clear. So if you jump on the high-grade activities before climbing up through the lesser ones, you can screw yourself for up to a week at a time. The "powerful gear" will drop at lower levels than non-time-limited equipment.

Coincidentally, I'm sure, confusion around those restrictions is probably a great way of keeping players from burning through content too quickly. Great for the people who contend with complaints about too little content, anyway. All it did was frustrate the hell out of me, after I realized my own week-one goof.

Destiny 2, like its predecessor, demands nonstop play. The combat is just that good. I have to keep reminding myself that, while it feels like I've seen most of what the sequel has to offer after just a week, that week included dozens of hours of total playtime. In any other game that would feel tremendously satisfying. Destiny 2, however, isn't built like that. It's built with weekly repeatable content and recurring events in mind, like an MMO or other nonstop game. It's turned cosmetic and gameplay-relevant items, like shaders and equipment modifications, into consumables you get out of Overwatch-style loot boxes.

Also like its predecessor, Destiny 2's reach exceeds its grasp in that regard. There simply isn't enough here to make it the endless machine Bungie and very likely Activision want it to be.

As a singular package, with a beginning middle and end, it's pretty damn good. The story lacks the fill-in-the-blanks cosmic poetry of Grimoire Cards, but at least it makes sense now. Strikes, while reduced in number like late-era Destiny, are now as much about positioning and teamwork as bullet sponge bosses. That's doubly true in the stellar Nightfalls. They use timers and changing combat rules to capture the cooperative spirit of a raid in 20-minute chunks.

Speaking of the raid, it's gorgeous. The whole thing is set on a solid gold spaceship and sports an unstable emperor inviting you to interrupt his unknowable pleasures via loudspeaker. It's unlike anything in Destiny up to this point — which is delightfully par for the course for raids.

Bottom line: if you ignore the narrow, stagnant vending machine that Destiny 2 tries to be, and instead look at it as a single ride from level one to the raid, it's one of the best series of bangs for your buck out there. The shooting is untouchable. The teamwork required to juggle objectives in the endgame makes or breaks friendships. It's a point of view that requires you to be okay with walking away from Destiny 2, which is something Destiny 2 (often frustratingly) does not want to happen. But it's the best way to enjoy a mostly improved second stab at one of the best shooters ever made.

Verdict: Yes