Thursday, September 21, 2017

Eyes Up, Guardian: Destiny 2

Destiny 2, developed by Bungie, was released on September 5.

I purchased Destiny 2 under a certain degree of duress. My experiences with the original Destiny, first launched by Bungie in 2014, were strongly mixed; I was often frustrated by its obtuse and player-hostile systems, and many of Bungie's choices in managing the IP prompted a raised eyebrow, and yet I count the shared social experiences I had with my friends throughout the game's multiplayer challenges as some of the best and most memorable in my whole life. I was hardly the only player to feel this way, and though many of the issues the game launched with were eventually patched out in future expansions, Destiny never really felt like the complete online shooter experience we had all expected it to be. The fact that we were being asked this September to purchase a fully-priced sequel, instead of a new expansion on the original game that included improvements and changes, was galling in the extreme.

Destiny 2's reception has been glowing from the jump, which I found surprising (didn’t everyone have the same gripes as me?), but now that I've played it, I understand why. Its changes seem subtle and intuitive on the surface, but actually disguise a bone-deep redesign that streamlines Destiny's systems, excises its unnecessary cruft, and prioritizes player satisfaction. It's far too early to comment on the game's long-term sustainability, but even at launch this is the strongest the IP has ever been, and these things only ever get better as they go.

Destiny 2 is proud to claim that it has a stronger narrative than the first game, and this is true if only in the sense that there's a narrative there at all. Bungie infamously relegated most of Destiny's story to offline pieces of text, asking players to visit their website and read paragraphs of lore instead of integrating it into the game itself, but the cruel backlash to this deeply misguided approach forced a significant shift for the sequel. Destiny 2 features a full-throated campaign, supported by beautiful cinematics, strong mission design, amazingly gorgeous environments (which are no longer hamstrung by a reliance on older platform technology), and memorable set pieces. It’s no daringly original narrative by any means, but it’s perfectly functional, acquitting itself well with both new and returning players alike, and that in itself is something to celebrate in a series whose history with this stuff is spotty at best. Destiny 2’s campaign (about the aftermath of an attack on the benevolent space-orb called the Traveler that grants immortality to Earth’s protectors, the Guardians), is cleverly constructed in a number of ways. The best example is the way it cashes in on the recognition and affection that players might feel towards characters that, until now, have existed only as NPC vendors, taking these cardboard cutouts (voiced by all-star talent like Nathan Fillion, Lance Reddick, Gina Torres, Bill Nighy, Frank Langella, and Lennie James) and putting them through the ringer. We see what an apocalyptic crisis does to the character who used to sell you weapons and gear, or the character who used to sell you a spaceship. We learn of the shared histories and relationships among  these people, who have forgotten the fear of death, finally allowing the great actors who play them to exercise their craft. And crucially, we learn how the gameplay structures – such as the ability class you choose for your own character – connect to this world and the people in it. They’re not just video-game conceits you’re asked to blindly accept anymore – there’s actually a narrative reason that your character respawns when you die; there’s a culture and history into which you are inducted when you choose a class; there’s a purpose, beyond the structure of a game that’s fun to play, for all this stuff to exist.

And boy, oh boy is this game fun to play.

It was never a secret that the best part of Destiny – which Bungie claimed as a “new genre” of online multiplayer shooter – was the shooter part. All of the game’s myriad systems, in their gnarled complexity and frustrating, obtuse execution, couldn’t tarnish the purity and fun of its first-person gun-based action. Its gamefeel was utterly sublime, fine-tuning the age-old Halo formula for a much wider variety of guns, gear, and abilities, all of which were incredibly satisfying to use. This is still the best part of Destiny 2, and will doubtless remain the high-water mark for online exploration-based shooters for many years to come (it’s still always just as thrilling to pop off head shots with a hand cannon, or project a protective bubble shield over your friends as they’re about to die, as it was the first time). But Destiny 2 offers many other gameplay improvements that extend beyond the shooty-bang-bangs into those systems that used to prompt so much ire from the fanbase. Nearly everything has been streamlined in Destiny 2, from macro systems like the progression to the level cap, the grind for incrementally better gear, and the progression towards the end-game content; to micro-improvements like the ability to hold L2 on your character screen and see an overlay of the stats of all your gear, or the ability to warp directly to any fast-travel point from your menu. The game is extremely generous with rewards, dropping loot and cosmetic items into your lap at seemingly every opportunity, and reworking all its systems so they all directly contribute towards a shiny bauble of some kind. These quality-of-life changes make the prospect of facing down the game’s inevitable long-term grind a manageable, even pleasant one. The shorthand is: Destiny 2 offers a lot less stick, and a lot more carrot.

That Destiny 2 made improvements to the original game was hardly a surprise; the game would not have already been received so well if that were the case. What I didn’t expect, however, were several new issues that seem to have metastasized as a nasty side effect of this improvement process. An overhaul of the weapon system that categorizes your guns into one of three slots means that you are often at the mercy of whatever items drop for you, leaving you unable to specialize in the weapons you enjoy using. There is still a lack of content and support for groups of four players – a common enough number, especially in other online games – relegating your interactions to teams of three or six (meaning at least one member of my social group is often left as the odd person out, who can’t join us on whatever adventure we’re on). A microtransaction economy called the Eververse, which thankfully only focuses on non-essential cosmetic items, still extends its influence far enough to cast a dark pall on other systems (like shaders, ships, and even consumable buffs like the Fireteam Medallion, whose utility is being strongly debated by the player base). The hope, as always, is that Bungie will prove a good steward for their brand, and find solutions to these issues in response to player feedback. Instead of just, you know . . . making another sequel.

As the most vocal opponent of Destiny 2 among my friends and colleagues, it was of course only a matter of time before I caved and tried it out. I was, if I’m honest, afraid of falling prey once again to the commitment in time and energy that the first game demanded from me, and I was unimpressed with the way Bungie handled the whole IP. The lady doth protested too much: Destiny 2 is a wonderful game that realizes the potential of its predecessor, and even if Bungie fails to support it in the future with smart updates and strong new content, the base game feels like a worthwhile enough experience just on its own.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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