We were all Nolan Bushnell's "Neon Lovechild" in the 70s. It was different back then.
Destiny 2 may have had one of the most financially successful launches a game could hope for, but its reputation has only gotten worse and worse. Though Bungie continues to support the game through seasonal events and minor updates, none of it has really managed to garner much praise from the community. It was, as always, sustained by the hope that with a new, substantial paid DLC release, the game might finally get on track and correct course towards a brighter future. Unfortunately, despite bringing several improvements and somewhat fresh ideas to the table, the recently released Warmind DLC serves only to perpetuate the simplicity and stagnation that’s been plaguing players.
The expansion starts out reasonably enough, with the gorgeous icy deserts of Mars to explore, which is already a nice change of pace from the drab brown circuitousness of Curse of Osiris. Players are immediately introduced to the character Anastasia Bray, a guardian referenced as a war hero since the early days of the first Destiny. Ana is on Mars to solicit help from the artificial intelligence Rasputin to fight a giant worm-god named Xol, who is apparently related to the Taken King somehow. For some reason, it then falls to us to go in and save the day and engage in some ambiguous extra adventuring along the way.
The expansion continues with the almost iconic Destiny trope of throwing out fantastical names and concepts as if they mean something to the player, perhaps even ramping up that hollowness further. A large problem with the first Destiny was that Bungie offloaded nearly all of the story and world-building to their website, where players could collect cards in-game via achievements and read them to discover more about the world. This sort of storytelling was clearly inspired by the likes of Dark Souls, but Destiny wasn’t quite able to pull it off in the end, and abandoned the concept in the sequel. Destiny 2 certainly featured a more complete story, but it still had a whole slew of issues. The game simultaneously expected you to have read most of the old game’s nigh-inaccessible lore, while most of its characters acted as if you’d never encountered even the most basic aspects of their world.
Warmind has possibly one of the least compelling narrative arcs I’ve ever seen in a piece of media. Throughout Warmind’s two to three hour campaign I must’ve asked my girlfriend “what the hell is happening right now?” at least a dozen times. The game sticks to its path of throwing out buzzwords; Anastasia, Rasputin, Valkyrie, Taken King, Vanguard, Traveler- every few minutes, but never stops for a second to let a concept breathe or expand. Destiny 2 is a game that’s made up of a thousand one sentence questions and answers about “what’” but it never stops to ask “why?”
That is to say nothing of having a guardian with amnesia named Anastasia, whose character arc comprises of dealing with and finding a way to work with something called Rasputin. It’s one thing to throw around a slew of fantasy words ascribed to so many things of little importance, but once the lore treads into the territory of real world historics it gets much more dicey. At no point does the game consider a message or a reasoning behind the placing of two characters related to the Romanov family into the narrative. It feels like the sort of situation where one dude sat in an office racking their brain for possible names, only to find their “aha” moment by thinking solely of the animated film. It’s not surprising at all to imagine that Destiny’s lack of cohesive vision would be a constant in Bungie’s design process.
As the game pushes you through mission after mission, there is at least some semblance of engaging gameplay. The new enemies are fun, if uninspired, mixing a more icy and melee oriented Hive with the same Cabal and Taken enemies you’d see throughout the game. Though it felt a little cheap for one of the expansion’s scant missions to take place back in one of the base game’s starting areas, it was at least utilized well, and ended up feeling more like a return than the forced shuffles of the last expansion. However, when it comes down to the endgame feedback loop, things quickly return to those familiar questions of “why?”
Not ten minutes into my experience with Warmind and I was already seeing the same public event that I’d seen throughout the base game experience, enemy names and all. While it was somewhat excusable that the original game featured the same three to four public events scattered across various environments, seeing the same exact event barefaced dropped into new content with absolutely no changes is hardly defensible. While there are two other public events, an older one actually reskinned and one completely fresh, the rampant recycling problem permeating the game has unfortunately yet to be resolved.
It makes sense why Destiny 2 would try and crib the design philosophies of other multiplayer online games. World of Warcraft, which lives under the same corporate umbrella, is the most likely target. Similar to the narrative, though, Destiny’s design liftings are surface level, and fail to understand what makes them work in the first place. World of Warcraft had players participate in timed events around their maps, but the reward pools and activities were varied and nuanced no matter where you went. When Legion added more World Quests, the devs specifically went out of their way to mix things up as much as they could with the standard MMO quest format. Bungie hasn’t moved beyond the level of “you can make it slightly more difficult for more tokens,” which, despite their changes, hardly feels exciting or engaging, especially when you’re going through the same event for the 30th time.
That being said, Bungie has tried to improve upon the problems of their core reward loop, but to little success. You still trade in tokens to vendors for a randomly generated loot item, but now if you do that enough times, you can take your pick out of a selection of vendor specific gear. Again though, like with most of Destiny, this too only goes so far when the options and statistics in the game are so unfortunately paltry.
The stats system in Destiny is so woefully underdeveloped that it’s hard to believe anyone at Bungie could’ve tricked themselves into thinking they created a compelling and deep system. With only three major stats to contend with- Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience- there’s hardly any nuance from the get-go, with what any specific player will be wanting. Mobility lets you move faster, which in theory allows you dodge quicker and faster, Recovery makes your shields regenerate faster, and Resilience makes you take more hits before you die. The problem with these stats, besides the fact that they only take drastic effect once you’ve capped out their points, is that you’ll always be wanting only one or all of them, and choosing between them ends up feeling less like strategy and more like whatever ends up being the most convenient.
In Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft, there are more than a handful of stats to search for and idealize based on your class or specialization. This gives players have more incentive to go back and grind or lust after those specific gear pieces that will boost their damage numbers off the charts, or make their builds all the more fun. In Destiny 2, the classes hardly even have variation as-is, let alone enough that you’d want to make a specific build. While this is fine for the game on a surface level- there’s nothing wrong with simplicity- you can only be so simple for so long before the player feels like they’ve seen it all.
Destiny 2’s core problem will probably always be how shallow it is, and I don’t just mean in terms of accessibility. Where other online service games engage players month by month with a multitude of carrots on sticks, Destiny seems to stutter with just the few they have to offer. Other games tempt with dozens of outfits scattered across dozens of activities, or gear with variable and impactful stats for players to pine after. In Destiny there’s hardly any variety, and what is there is largely only different by virtue of name and a few tweaked values. While there is fun to be had in the exotic weapons and armor, you’ll still be faced with the question of “what do i do with it once I have it?”
If you like the PvP, you’ll at least have some sort of answer there. First Person Shooters tend to be most popular in their PvP modes, so if you can be satisfied enough by what’s on offer, you could probably get your effort’s worth. I do think that if you played Destiny 2 with some friends as a purely PvP game, you could come out reasonably satisfied. The progression and ranking systems they’ve added in recent months do a lot to give your victories and gameplay a sense of tangible recognition, and the events every now and again help keep things fresh. Unfortunately, thanks to the nature of Destiny 2’s design, you can’t get away with only playing PvP.
At some point you’ll want to get those exotics, some of which are tied behind questlines which require you to dip into elements like strikes or public events in order to complete. At some point, you’ll want to get whatever the hottest PvP weapon is so you can perform well in competitive or in general, but again, you’ll probably have to go out into the other aspects of the game. For other FPS games like Halo or Call of Duty, if you didn’t like the campaign, or you didn’t like the multiplayer, you could get away with just playing one or the other, but Destiny expects and nearly requires you to engage in all that it has to offer in order to play effectively in that one aspect that you really like.
That’s why Destiny 2 will probably never succeed at being the game that it’s trying to be. It’s trying to be an MMO for casual gamers without quite knowing how to manage it. It’s a game that simultaneously expects you to not put any time into it at all while demanding that you play excruciating amounts of its droll repetition when you actually do. It’s a game that fundamentally misunderstands the difference between simplification and emptiness, and unfortunately relishes in the latter.
It’s nice, at least, to see that Bungie has responded to player feedback with regards to the microtransactions and how they were handled within the game. Seeing that the new raids have gotten back their fancy weapon perks and more exclusive content, and that sparrows and other sorts of cosmetics are spread across more activities is a great boon. On the other hand, seeing things like Ghost Shells that give incredibly large bonuses like increased XP or loot from specific locations and activities being sold on the cash shop is pretty gross! Though I’d like to believe that the horrible response Destiny 2 has gotten will curb any further degradation into the wastes of consumer exploitation, I trust Activision as much as I trust my cat while I’m cooking.
Hopefully with the new proper full-sized Forsaken expansion this fall, Bungie will re-examine a lot of what the mission statement was for Destiny 2. In the end they’ll have to not only see if there’s a way to mold the game into a new and better form, but also to self-reflect and figure out if it was really a good idea to begin with.