For this reviewer’s birthday in 2014, he purchased himself a Playstation 4. It came with Destiny, a social, online, first-person shooter developed by Bungie (of the Halo franchise fame). Destiny was, from the outset, an odd beast. Acclaimed thespian Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) provided the voice of robotic boon companion Ghost, in a famously-lackluster performance that included the totally groan-worthy line, “That wizard came from the moon!”
And what better way to sum up Destiny than a game where wizards can come from the moon, and this is worthy of remark. Bungie described their creation as “mythic science fiction,” so basically Star Wars, but with less charming personality and character names that feel like they were cribbed from 1970s progressive rock album liner notes, like “CROTA, SON OF ORYX, HIVE PRINCE OF DARKNESS.”
This reviewer quite enjoyed his brief time with the original Destiny, as, for all its various warts, the gunplay was remarkably solid and the level design on-point. But it was a shooter on a console, never an ideal situation. Other, better shooters on other, better platforms called, and so the install of Destiny was quietly erased to make room for Bloodborne.
But 2017 brought us many things, such as the fact that politicians cannot keep their hands in their own pants and the ever-present and looming threat of thermonuclear war with the Silicon Knights of nation-states. In between these various existential crises, Bungie released a follow-up sequel to a barely three-year-old game. Destiny 2 is not an expansion to the original game. In fact, its universe is wholly incompatible with the original game. One need not have played the original to understand, such as one can, the story of Destiny 2. It is its own creature.
And it was released for the PC platform, thanks to a partnership with ActiBlizz’s Battle.net service, where it can compete with Blizzard’s colorful and cartoony Overwatch. However, the PC is the platform of choice for shooters, as no amount of controller aim assist will ever match the fine-tuned control of a mouse, and as such, this reviewer was excited to get his mitts on a game which improved the biggest complaint he had about the original.
Destiny 2 again finds the player creating his or her own character or characters in the world of far-future earth. Player characters are known as “Guardians,” special people who have inherited the power of the Light (again, 70s prog rock liner notes) which lets them do space-magic with guns. Guiding our player through the game is Ghost once again, who has been replaced by far superior voice actor Nolan North since fairly early on in Destiny‘s history. North does well with the scrappy Ghost character, injecting some personality and providing quite a bit of flavor text and background information on the world. The dialogue is also much improved in Destiny 2 (though this is perhaps damning with faint praise), as one no longer find pithy references to moon wizards, but rather some occasionally humorous banter between the NPC characters.
Rounding out the talented voice cast are the three Guardian headhonchos: Zavala (played by veteran character actor Lance Reddick); Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion, enjoyably chewing on scenery and, yes, touching our hearts); and Ikora (Gina Torres, who must be thrilled to be working with Fillion again). Torres, Fillion, and Reddick inject quite a bit of characterization into the roles, rounding out Bungie’s lacking script. Fillion in particular seems to have a lot of fun with his character and lines, perhaps because the writers gave him most of the comic relief. Most of the rest of the voice cast is par for the video game course, but one stage in particular, featuring Fillion and a bipolar artificial intelligence named Failsafe (played by newcomer Joy Osmanski), is a delight to play through, with both Fillion and Osmanski delivering humorous and heartfelt dialogue that will bring a sure smile, and perhaps, even a wry chuckle or two.
Other performances fail to impress. Principal antagonist Dominus Ghaul (sorry; the names are not going to get any better, so just get used to it) gets a half-hearted performance by voice actor Neil Kaplan. Gideon Emery phones his lines as Earth-based sniper Devrim Kay. But these are not unusual factors for a video game, and Destiny, to its credit, does production values better than most. If there is a complaint to be made, it is that Destiny 2 is merely competent at what it does, never superlative (save and except for one aspect, discussed below: the soundtrack).
The graphics for the game, particularly on a powerful PC with all of the bells and whistles turned on, are stunning. This reviewer played the game on a curved, 34″ ultrawidescreen 1440p monitor tuned to 144hz, with nVidia’s proprietary G-sync activated, resulting in a very smooth and tear-free experience. Driving this graphically-demanding beast were a pair of nVidia GTX 1080s in SLI, and nVidia’s graphics settings guide was used to tweak the settings for a high framerate without sacrificing much in the way of graphical fidelity. As a point of comparison, this reviewer watched the game played by siblings on consoles. In any iteration, Destiny 2 is a pretty game, with psychedelic colors, well-constructed and detailed environments, and competent animations. But this is again merely par for the AAA course. Nothing in Destiny 2‘s visual production is outstanding or amazing. It is done competently–very competently, even–but will not be used as some sort of graphical benchmark.
The sound, on the other hand, really is superlative. Bungie brought back Halo composer Michael Salvatori to work on the soundtrack for Destiny 2 (he also worked on the soundtrack for several expansions to the original game), and he is up to his usual feats of aural mastery. The game’s orchestral swells and ambient noises each perfectly fit the scene or the level in which they occur. Whatever faults Bungie might possess, their sound design is almost always a high point of the games, and Destiny 2 is no exception.
So we have a pretty, well-made game with some high production values… but how does she handle? Technically, this reviewer has noticed very few glitches. A few times during certain levels, I have noticed some screen flickering, but this could be an artifact of either SLI or one of nVidia’s obsessively-inscrutable lighting gewgaws. It always very temporary and little more than a small bug that gets smoothed out. Controls are mostly fine, except that the floaty nature of double-jumping makes some of the platforming sections more difficult than they need to be. During one memorable scene in the main quest, the player must chase a robotic drone across a series of inexplicably floating rocks that require double jumping and canceling the double jump in the air to land. Because of the nature of Destiny 2 as an online game, this particular section is very sensitive to network issues, and more than once a late-registered cancellation sent this reviewer hurtling into the void.
The shooting, on the other hand, the principle part of a first-person shooter, is by-the-gods sublime. This reviewer was a big, big fan of the original Titanfall when it released in 2014 as well, and found that Respawned-developed game to be a perfect symphony of free movement and balanced, well-tuned gunplay. Destiny 2 unseats that game in nearly every category (Titanfall‘s Parkour-based movement is still better). Bungie knows how to make guns feel right in the hand in a video game. Each type of weapon is distinct, and players are permitted enough variety to find out which guns they like. This reviewer is partial to the scout rifles, which trade off burst-firing capability for higher damage, but other players may find themselves enamored of hand cannons, pulse rifles, trace rifles, sub-machine guns, swords, grenade launchers, sniper rifles. For every Guardian, a gun, and for every gun, the ability to deal damage as kinetic, or one of the game’s three classes of energy (blue, red, purple; they have appropriate names, but no one knows them, so… blue, red, purple.). There is even the ability to wield a sword as a “power weapon,” dealing out massive amounts of damage to space monsters with 8th-century Common Era Earth tech. No one “gets” it, just go with it.
Enemies are nicely varied, although boss enemies tend to be “bullet-sponges.” This is again not a unique criticism of Destiny 2, but rather an unfortunate design feature of many FPS games, particularly sci-fi FPS games. Still, Bungie’s level design is such that there are always multiple ways of completing a level or mission depending on playstyle, which lends to replayability of certain content.
As a quasi-MMO game, there is going to be a considerable bit of replaying. The main campaign can be finished in a few days (maybe 15-20 hours, if ground out consistently with no breaks to explore or complete side missions). The base leveling system brings players up from a measly level one with no abilities to a full-fledged wrecking ball of guns and space magic by level 20 within the span of only a few quest lines. There were no gaps or cliffs in the leveling progression, just a steady march toward 20. After hitting level 20, however, progression is gear-based and very vertical, with multiple cliffs meant to gate the activities in which people engage after completing the campaign. There are Strikes (MMO dungeons meant for three players), planetary patrols, “adventures” (quests) and deep, involved questlines that usually reward a unique “exotic” weapon or armor. Bungie encourages players to find multiple exotics, but then restricts players to one piece of exotic armor and one exotic weapon at a time, probably for balance reasons.
So for a game with good, if not great, production values, and mostly fantastic gameplay, this must be a “must-play,” no? Sadly: no. Not even close.
Destiny 2 is a well-designed Skinner box, if one is into such things. It is a fun video game. The story, however, is somewhat… stupid. This reviewer, prolix as ever, is bereft of a better word for it. “Mythic science fiction” sounds really cool, and properly handled, this reviewer is sure some writing team out there could do it justice, something along the lines of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, or perhaps cribbing from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. But Bungie‘s writing team never got the story elements to gel together coherently. Humorous passages bump jarringly into overwrought speechifying. Events meant to evoke emotions leave one flat, and the finer moments are the ones where the game gets quiet and some junior intern with actual talent slipped a scene in that made it past the censors.
The main story starts off strong, with the Guardians’ home city being besieged by space rhinos (just go with it; the other monsters are robots, space-faring insects, and the worm-infested undead, so space rhinos really does seem like the best choice for principal antagonists), leading to the expulsion of all Guardians and the loss of those carefully-earned Destiny 1 powers. For a few levels, the dejected Guardian must then reclaim some small bit of her power, find the last hope for the human race, bring the old team back together, and my God one gets bored simply summarizing it. The story takes no risks. It contains no surprises. There are no moments of overbearing pathos that make us reflect on what it means to be human in a world of space rhinos and moon wizards. At most, there is a gun-toting robot who has a pet rooster that he strokes, the most juvenile reference to playing with one’s cock that can be displayed in a game without getting an M rating. In short, Destiny 2 is the sort of game where enjoyment can be increased by skipping most cutscenes to get back to the action. There are moments of levity and fun in the story, but most of it plods along at a dull pace, buoyed only by the fact that good voice actors manage to inject some life into a shitty script.
Beyond the level cap and story missions, however, Destiny 2 is a loot grind. The most recent patch, titled an “expansion” (the Curse of Osiris) adds a paltry few hours of story content (although what is there is not bad) and some repeatable MMO-like content, but not a new high-end raid. Competitive PVP in the game is always going to be amateur hour, as competitive gamers will no doubt dedicate themselves to CS:GO or Overwatch rather than try to make Destiny 2 into an e-sport, with good reason. As competitive FPS go, either of those games is superior to Destiny 2, and that is not counting the current issue with Destiny 2 where a bugged gun is killing people in less than a second in PVP (nota bene: after this reviewer first heard the story about it, some numpty on Roddort decided he would dare Bungie to give the overpowered, buggy weapon to the weekly special weapons vendor Xur, Agent of the Nine (yes, we get it, the names are so, so stupid). Bungie, which apparently retains quite the sense of humor, took the motherfucker upon the bet. Let this be a lesson, readers, some companies read your social media posts and will troll the fuck out of you right back).
Then there is the community. MMO communities are known to be conglomerations petulant, brain-starved children, beating their tiny, impotent fists against the walls of their self-imposed cage, but Bungie seems to amplify this effect somehow, drawing the worst salty crybabies this side of League of Legends customer support queue. If there were ever a global shortage of salt, the Destiny subreddits would rise to the occasion and replenish the world supply. At this point, one suspects there is some sort of metagame going on where bitching the loudest about the game one keeps playing grants some sort of in-game bonus. Yes, Bungie is not transparent enough. Yes, there are some weird bugs and balance issues in the game. Yes, that is pretty much how shit goes in the MMO (and quasi-MMO) world.
Still, the in-game social features are barely there at all, so one is spared the Barrens Chat experience. However, without much in-game chatter, the world feels strangely silent, as if a million people merely run around to do their own thing, teaming up only because doing so promises a shinier shiny bauble to take home. With the in-game social scene non-existent, and the online forums populated with shouty nerds, Destiny is more like a secret shame than a game one might discuss at watercoolers. Overwatch, to crib an example from Battle.net, manages to inspire a varied and… expressive… online community from a game where the story is barely stitched together, resulting in an online community utterly fascinated with a world that is little more than a sketch in a notebook. Destiny, despite nominally having a more complete storyline, has wholly failed to engage its community in this way. The longevity of Destiny 2 cannot outstrip its Skinner box nature. Once people no longer crave the drug of a shinier gun, populations are going to drop, and unless one is predisposed to hunt for that drug in the first place, Destiny 2 is not going to win any new adherents.
Finally, one must remark upon the microtransactions. While Bungie and ActiBlizz have certainly not risen to EA levels of demoniac insanity, Destiny 2 does feature real-world money currency (Silver) which can be exchanged for loot boxes. These “loot boxes” (or Bright Engrams, because again, Bungie’s design philosophy with regard to names is to find the stupidest possible name they can, and then really crank that sucker up to 11) contain cosmetic fluff like shaders (which change the color of gear), vehicles (which the game will provide to you in the story and are purely cosmetic upgrades), and weapon modifications (which do not change the stats of the weapon, but might convert a piece of gear that improves healing to a piece of gear that improves mobility). These loot boxes are earned by normal gameplay as well, and microtransactions and loot boxes are restricted to players at the level cap. Thus, there is no way one can use real money to gain any sort of advantage in the game. This reviewer bought the most expensive loot box package to see if it provided any noticeable improvement, and the only thing that mattered was that this reviewer now has a cool-looking spaceship on his loading screens, with precisely zero effect on actual gameplay. So while the existence of microtransactions is not exactly something to be celebrated, it is with relief that this reviewer can say that they are “mostly harmless.” Some hay could be made that in a Skinner box-style loot grind, “looking cool with badass shaders and a cool spaceship” has value, but that is about it. No one is going to cry to their mommy that XxXWeedLord420XxX was able to 360-no-scope them because his mommy used all his Good Boy Points to buy him a shiny new Prometheus Lens (no, that name is not made up).
Still, if the Curse of Osiris expansion is any predictor of the future, and thematically, that makes a lot of sense, then Bungie needs to step up their game to keep players engaged. A few hours of story quests and some new environments is not going to keep people plugging away at the treadmill.
On the other hand, the ultra-casual-friendly nature of Destiny 2 may mean that players can take large breaks from the game without materially disadvantaging themselves. Other MMOs provide no such luxury. Take a month and a half off of raiding in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, for example, and a player will find themselves left behind on content and unable to find groups or complete some activities until they have “caught up” to their friends. Catching up in Destiny 2 is a matter of a few hours dashing around a planet completing public events and patrols, because the loot system always drops gear of an appropriate and usable level no matter what you do.
Is Destiny 2 worth the price admission? Or do PC players look to be facing another situation like Ubisoft’s The Division, where a strong initial showing eventually fizzles out because no one has managed to quite nail the MMOFPS formula? Time is going to tell, but for now, the established universe of Destiny and its known-quality status appear to be stringing it along through its trials. Perhaps a strong showing from the next expansion can revitalize the game and boost flagging fan ardor. After all, the ebb and flow of content release schedules dictated the original game, and it was only with certain expansions like The Taken King that it became what it was destined to be. But for now, unless one is predisposed to want to chase this mythic science fiction dragon, nothing about the game compels a purchase.
Title: Destiny 2
Genre: MMO First-Person Shooter
Platform Reviewed: Microsoft Windows
Release Date: 6 September, 2017