Monday, September 18, 2017

Destiny 2 Thoughts

Destiny 2 has been out for almost two weeks now and it’s almost everything fans of the original Destiny wanted. It’s also something of a reset that allows newcomers to jump in and play alongside longtime fans of the series. Everyone begins Destiny 2 at the same place. But how does it hold up as a single player experience? And how does it hold up against what’s come before?

As solid a selling point as it may be to hear that everyone starts at the same place, it’s also a bit bizarre when you think about it. I understand why my character, that I’m continuing from Destiny 1, would begin the game flying back to help save earth from an alien invasion, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling introduction for new players experiencing this world and the characters for the first time. Yet Destiny has never been a character driven story (the player character has no lines of dialogue!), but Bungie’s storytelling is stronger here than it ever was in vanilla Destiny. The music is fantastic throughout and the sound design is a major step up from Destiny 1. You can feel every gunshot and footstep. Bungie lovingly gave every sound effect in the game a weight that was lacking in the last game.

Nevertheless, I hold to my statement that fans are getting “almost” everything they wanted from Destiny 2. It is a far more engaging story and a more smartly crafted shared world shooter experience than the game Bungie launched back in 2014. This time there are actual cutscenes. There’s an actual villain, not just some mysterious “darkness.” However, Bungie often keeps things as cryptic as ever over the course of Destiny 2’s story. A lot of it still requires looking up lore videos on YouTube in order to understand. I watched an hour and a half long lore video covering everything that happened in Destiny 1 (and it’s 4 expansions) before Destiny 2 launched, and there was an awful lot of info I didn’t recognize despite the thousand or more hours I spent playing that game.

Certainly more of the story is up front and presented in the game’s beautifully rendered and voice acted cutscenes this time around, but the story here left me with more questions than answers. Yet that’s one of the peculiarities of ongoing storytelling in a persistent world like Destiny’s. I can’t help feeling as though gamers who play games for a good story are going to be disappointed here, though far less so than if they’d played the original Destiny. There’s still talk of some mysterious source of power known as “The Traveller,” and some mysterious power known as “The Light.” Perhaps comparisons could be made to the Force in Star Wars, but Bungie never attempts to make it. By the end of Destiny 2’s story I had learned very little more about The Traveller and The Light than I knew before I started.

Bungie’s storytelling problems aren’t even always that they don’t put the lore in the actual game (despite the fact that most the lore for the first game required reading grimoire outside of the game). In Destiny 2, they do put a lot of it in the game, but you have to find it in the form of hidden “scannable” items, or it’s told to you in voice-over while you’re busy running and gunning. In fact, Destiny 2’s side missions, known as “adventures,” frequently include important lore details and clues as to what could be coming in future DLC’s. Yet because all of these details are told in voice-over while I was trying to survive waves of enemies, I rarely picked up on as many of those details as I would have liked. And because there is no in-game codex, the only way to hear the dialogue again is to replay the entire mission or look it up online.

It also does a very poor job of connecting the guardians with the people of the world they’re protecting. It’s an obvious missed opportunity to further flesh out this unique universe. Initially I suspected things were going that direction when a couple of new characters from beyond “the wall,” help the guardians establish a community in the wake of the Tower’s destruction. However, very little connection is made there and the story quickly moves on from those characters.

It isn’t as though Bungie is incapable of creating and establishing interesting, unique characters. In fact, there are plenty of them in the universe of Destiny, but they don’t always know what to do with them. Many of them - like Eris Morn, Osiris, Lord Shaxx, Shiro-4, Lord Saladin, Variks, Asher Mir, and the representatives from Dead Orbit, New Monarchy, and the Future War Cult - are either absent from the game entirely or only available to speak to in social spaces. I wondered more than once where these characters were and what they were doing during these dire events. Most of them don’t seem like the type to sit idly by while an alien force invaded Earth and stole the light from us. It’s another clear missed opportunity to utilize all of them coming together for an Ocean’s Eleven style heist/assault mission in order to save The Speaker and kill Dominus Ghaul.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I did enjoy the story in Destiny 2. It is a major step up from vanilla Destiny, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very flawed piece of storytelling. Nevertheless, I would say my main gripes come in the form of what comes after the main storyline. The “adventures” do a decent job of varying the gameplay, and the exotic quests give you a some good rewards, but I ran out of things to do faster than I expected. Granted, I was sick all last week and did very little other than grind for loot. It’ll take most players longer to get through the available content. Nevertheless, there will come a time when players get stuck at a power level of around 265 (the max is 300), and there won’t be any more activities for them to play in order to advance.

Public events are a much better experience this time around. They’re clearly marked on the map (oh yeah, there’s actually a map in Destiny 2 - though you sadly can’t set waypoints in order to drive to specific points. You can only select missions and public events in order to make them appear on your HUD), and they happen frequently enough that you won’t spend long periods of time waiting for one to begin. Then there are things like “lost sectors,” that offer bite sized firefights that earn you decent loot (and they’re easily repeatable). These are all improvements over Destiny 1, but they’ll soon stop offering powerful enough rewards to push your power level up. The strikes, on the other hand, are more varied and interesting than in vanilla Destiny. They feature "raid-lite" mechanics that make them feel far more interesting than the bullet sponge bosses of early Destiny strikes.

Nevertheless, this post-story loop of gameplay is a far cry from the post-main-storyline of Destiny 1’s The Taken King expansion. There were questlines that included multiplayer game modes and single player activities and strikes, and they all felt like they went on forever. Many of the exotic weapons were locked behind their own questlines, and the new subclasses had interesting and detailed questlines in order to earn. There were even a set of challenges for the existing subclasses. Unlocking the subclasses in Destiny 2 feels repetitive and underwhelming by comparison. You acquire them by random drop and then are forced to grind public events before you can actually take on the quest. And the quests are exactly the same no matter which subclass you’re unlocking. It always involved listening to some bizarre poetry from characters I didn’t recognize before the game threw wave after wave of enemies at me so I could throw my super at them over and over again.

Perhaps I’m not being fair. Even if I find the post-main-storyline content a tad lacking, there is enough of it that the average gamer who buys the game, plays it through, and sets it on the shelf until a DLC drops, should feel as though they’ve gotten their money’s worth. It also offers plenty of replayable strikes and multiplayer content that’ll keep players busy. And let’s not forget, Destiny is a social game. It’s made to play with friends, and as such, it’s a fantastic experience, as flawed as I may find it. The shooting mechanics and powers all feel great, and there's a level of refinement here that shouldn't go unrecognized.

Destiny has started a trend in the gaming industry. The “shared world RPG shooter,” is now a genre everyone wants to get in on. Ubisoft made The Division, EA and Bioware are making Anthem, Microsoft and Rare are making Sea of Thieves, even smaller developers like Digital Extremes have Warframe. Destiny 2 is a solid next step in the evolution of the series, even if it’s not as big a step as some of us would have liked. Only time will tell if Bungie can evolve the franchise in interesting ways that’ll keep it a step ahead of its growing number of competitors.