Destiny 2 is upon us. Three years have come and gone seemingly at warp speed, and a new era for Bungie's shared-world shooter is about to begin. Looking back on the absurd number of hours I've spent with Destiny, I'm reminded of the thrill I felt when first embarking on that interplanetary journey – and the bitter disappointment of The Dark Below.
As it turned out, the original Destiny was to be a learning experience for the studio that had launched the explosively popular Halo series more than a decade prior. Talk about a tall order: How do you build one of the biggest franchises in gaming history, a second time, in both the same aesthetic tradition (space opera) and video-game genre (first-person shooter) as its predecessor? I used to joke among friends that Destiny's greatest strength was that it wasn't Halo. Its biggest flaw? It would never be Halo.
It wasn't until the massive Destiny 2.0 update, on the eve of The Taken King – the best and largest of the game's four major expansions – that Bungie seemed to hit their stride. Critical reception for the base game had been lukewarm upon its September 2014 release. Yet the promise of things to come kept players returning in search of the brilliance they'd glimpsed in the Vault of Glass, the high-level raid that had taken them deep into the crust of Venus – and to the darkest corners of spacetime. Would Destiny ever give them that kind of mind-bending, team-focused experience again? Would it ever tell the sort of mythic, large-scale story that had made the Halo trilogy so memorable?
The Taken King became Bungie's redemption. Suddenly, you could choose which armor set you wanted to wear without compromising your Light level; you could wield the weapons that you liked using, rather than the ones you felt you had to use; you no longer had to obtain the raid gear to feel competitive in the Crucible, Destiny's player-versus-player arena. And it had a fun, lighthearted narrative – something the game sorely lacked in its first year.
"We had some pretty broad concepts to introduce the player to when we launched Destiny," says David "DeeJ" Dague, the developer's community manager. "To introduce them to the Guardians, and to socialize them with the three different disciplines that bring the Guardians together. You know, 'Are you a Hunter or a Titan or a Warlock?' And to understand the role that the Guardian plays in defending the City. With that baseline of understanding created, it frees us up to really tell stories in that world."
The story Bungie's chosen to tell in Destiny 2 is an effective one. Dominus Ghaul, leader of the Red Legion, arrives at the proverbial doorstep of the Last City on Earth with the intention of seizing the Traveler, the mysterious source of players' power in the Destiny universe, all for himself. Ghaul's war machines swiftly envelop the massive spherical Traveler in an energy field, stripping you of your "space magic" as well as your invaluable robot companion, the Ghost.
Then, like King Leonidas in 300, he kicks you off the edge of the Tower – your home in the game world since day one, now reduced to flaming rubble – and watches as you fall hundreds of feet to your apparent death while the screen fades to black.
"All ends are beginnings."
A mysterious stranger in the original Destiny once said, "All ends are beginnings." Consciously or not, Bungie seems to have taken that idea and put it to good use in crafting Destiny 2's first act. You soon awaken in the rain-soaked ruins of the Last City, wounded from the fall that should have killed you, your screen dimming and pulsing red. Limping and cowering in the shadows as enemy dropships comb the rubble for survivors, you slowly make your escape; the City is no longer your home. The soundtrack's melancholy strings underscore the total sense of loss – so much for everything you worked toward in the last Destiny. The alien warlords known as the Cabal have stolen it from you. Game over.
"We literally, in the opening act of the game, take everything that you have known and loved and have been sworn to protect, and we light it on fire," Dague says.
You don't go without your powers for long, of course, because then it almost certainly wouldn't feel like a Destiny campaign. But the story missions where your Ghost is broken, and the Traveler's Light is no longer a part of you, are sufficient to make the game's point: you and your Vanguard leaders aren't invincible. Ghaul will do anything to prove himself worthy in the eyes of the Traveler, to gain what you've lost, if briefly, and that means the fate of the entire solar system is at stake.
"Players have such a passionate relationship with the world of the game that, when you start telling more stories in that space, you have to walk this fine very line between delivering more of the same or changing the world so drastically that it's unrecognizable to them," says Dague. "Destiny 2 is packed with enough surprises to make a returning citizen of the Destiny community feel like this is a great follow-up to the adventure – the player experience has evolved in some really significant ways, I get to go to new worlds, I get to meet new characters. But so many of the things that made Destiny great are there, and they're even better."
Perhaps the biggest improvement the sequel brings is a real sense of presence in the world. The game's destinations feel alive, and vast enough to facilitate exploration and moments of genuine discovery. Each planet or moon (or centaur) you visit has a small human population there, fighting for survival. And each has its own host of alien combatants that need to be dealt with. Each of these places also has a de facto leader in the Red War, and most of them have enough personality to set the tone of each patrol area.
If you want to hunt Cabal and Fallen, like vermin encroaching on the last vestiges of your home on Earth, then the tea-drinking ex-militiaman Devrim Kay knows just where the next batch of targets is hiding. If you're in the mood for puzzling out the dealings of the hive-minded, time-traveling robots known as the Vex, then Nessus is the ticket. The Titan Zavala and the refugees under his wing can be found on – you guessed it – Saturn's moon Titan. And Jupiter's satellite Io, the last world "touched" by the Traveler during humanity's technological Golden Age, is where you'll go in search of the Vanguard Warlock Ikora.
"I love the fact that the player character gets to reunite the people that led them in the original journey."
"I love the fact that the player character gets to reunite the people that led them in the original journey," Dague says, referring to the familiar fireteam of Zavala, Cayde-6, and Ikora. "The player's the catalyst for getting the band back together – and to reunite humanity, and to reconsolidate all the survivors of this horrible attack and give them strength again, so that they can go and reclaim everything that is important to them."
However, what's remarkable about the structure of Destiny 2 – aside from it having a real central plot – is that it achieves what the first Destiny tried but ultimately failed to do: it gives the player freedom. Yes, there's some linearity to the Red War missions and the order in which the destinations are introduced – but you can spend the bulk of your time wherever you're most comfortable, where you find combat encounters most fulfilling, or where the rewards on offer are most appealing to you.
Story elements like dialogue and cut scenes also unfold organically based on the individual player's history, so you're not going to experience an "Adventure" or campaign mission or "Public Event" in quite the same way as somebody else. If you've never seen the Taken before, either because you've made a brand-new character for D2 or you're simply new to the series, Ghost will react to their arrival differently than he might if you were a returning player who's imported an existing Guardian profile from the original Destiny. Once you establish a foothold on each of the four destination worlds, they become your personal playground; all the activities available to you are weighed more or less equally both in the fiction of the game world and within the streamlined user interface. "Milestones" serve as reminders of what you've recently achieved or discovered, and also hint at what you might do next, but the more you play, the less often you'll feel a need to obsess over them.
Like The Taken King before it, Destiny 2's storytelling is what will keep you on track for reaching the endgame. And the return of the Taken themselves brings into focus the eternal question of what, exactly, the Traveler is: Why did it grant humanity the power of the Guardians? What is its destiny, and what might that have to do with our solar system, of all places? What is the relationship between the Taken dimension and the Traveler's Light?
By the time you reach Io and find Ikora, you'll have as many hints at possible answers to these as you got from Oryx in Destiny's year-two story, but don't expect Bungie to wrap everything up in a tidy bow. There are more monsters to shoot, after all, and no end of loot chests to plunder.
I haven't had a chance to finish the campaign yet. To my delight, the story's at least as long as the classic Halo games I fell in love with so many years ago, and there's a whole world – four of them, in fact – to investigate with my fellow Guardians. In the depths of Nessus, Ghost has even heard tell of a planet-eating worldship and a pissed-off emperor named Calus, who might have an axe to grind with Ghaul. Sounds like we're in for a long wild ride.