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'Destiny 2' Beta Shines a Light on a Potential Game of the Year

We played the beta – here's what we think so far

The Destiny 2 beta finally arrived, and it's a promising glimpse of what Bungie's been building for almost three years. 

When you first log in, you'll be prompted to select your Guardian's class (Titan, Hunter, or Warlock) and then you jump right into the opening campaign mission, "Homecoming." There's no character-creation screen, which makes sense for a beta in which your progress is purely ephemeral; you'll be starting over from scratch when the full game launches in September anyway.

Destiny 2's story begins when the Vanguard – the triumvirate of Guardians led by the Titan Zavala, the Hunter Cayde-6, and the Warlock Ikora Rey – discover their satellite array has been suddenly knocked out. Zavala surveys the airspace beyond the Tower, the symbol of humanity's hope for a future on Earth. A storm is approaching, along with a fleet of Cabal warships. The Cabal are a species of Romanesque interstellar warmongers that look a little like armored bipedal rhinos, and the leader of their fearsome Red Legion, Ghaul, has a bone to pick with players after all the Cabal troops they slaughtered in the first Destiny. Something else is amiss, as well: a massive metal claw is latching itself onto the Traveler, the Guardians' source of power, or Light, in the game world.

You can manually choose one of the classic character subclasses in the menu screen if you like, but the beta wisely equips you with one of Destiny 2's three new skill sets: the Sentinel, the Dawnblade, or the Arcstriker. I went into the story mission with a Sentinel Titan, which is a kickass hybrid of the classic "Bubble Titan" from the first game and the more aggressive abilities. Depending on whether you hold both the left and right bumpers or simply click them simultaneously, you'll either be given a round Wonder Woman–style shield with which to bash your enemies one after the other or a classic Ward of Dawn bubble from Destiny 1's Defender Titan.

Nolan North is back as the voice of your Ghost, and he sounds pretty much like you remember him. When he intercepts an urgent distress call from the Last City on Earth, he says: "Remember when I told you that you fly too fast? Forget I said that – fly fast." Other familiar faces, like the Crucible Handler Shaxx and Nathan Fillion's Cayde-6, make cameo appearances, while Gina Torres's Ikora Rey and Lance Reddick's Zavala, are right there with you in the middle of the action as you fend off waves of Cabal invaders amid the fiery rubble of the Tower you once called home (if you played the original game).

"If the Cabal want war, give them war," says Shaxx, as he holds open a door for you, a flaming sword slung across his back. Inside his armory, you're given an exotic auto rifle aptly named the "Sweet Business."

Players of a certain age will notice the mission's stylistic similarities to earlier Bungie games, like Halo 3: ODST and Halo 2, which also dropped players into crumbling urban environments besieged by alien shock troopers. It certainly feels like the original 2014 Destiny, but the visuals are more suited to current-gen hardware, and there's a richer sense of texture to the world.

The improvements are fairly obvious, whether you're playing the story, the cooperative Strike "The Inverted Spire," or the Crucible's arena-style multiplayer. Special abilities, or "supers," take a bit longer to charge up, it seems, but feel more eventful and effective when you unleash them. And there's a wonderful rhythm to its level design; mechanical motifs players remember from the original Destiny will certainly be found here, as well, except this time dialed up to 11. Even things as simple as the story team's naming conventions have gotten a much-needed facelift. Gone are Cabal leaders with ludicrous designations such as Valus Ta'aurc and Bracus Tha'aurn; say hello to pronounceable names like Ghaul and Brann.

If you found the first game enjoyable, you'll like or even love this one – otherwise, you'll probably hate it. It's a gorgeous universe to inhabit, as richly colored as classic John Harris sci-fi painting and as inviting, it seems, as this year's exploration-driven Breath of the Wild. But we've barely touched the surface thus far; this is only a beta, and the finished product could surprise us.

I'll be honest: the "Inverted Spire" Strike doesn't feel particularly new or inspired compared with the story mode, and that may not bode well for Strike Playlists and other endgame content – but I'm certainly eager to return to the Vex-dominated planetoid of Nessus to see what else might be found there.

The real star of the beta, of course, will be the Crucible and its two player-versus-player modes. Destiny's traditional Control returns in slightly refined form, this time with greater emphasis on cooperating and playing the objective (thank you, Overwatch); but the flagship experience of the beta is Bungie's all-new Countdown mode. Countdown takes its cues from the more competitive parts of Call of Duty and Counter-Strike without overcomplicating things for casual players. Squads of four will switch sides after each round, with one fireteam attempting to arm and detonate a bomb in one of the other team's two target zones; the first team to six points wins.

With so many upgrades to the Destiny experience, all noticeable within the first couple hours, it's clear Bungie intends to make D2 the best game they've ever shipped. If the current state of things is any indication, the new Crucible will thrive on consoles and PC alike; it seems to have all the competitive spirit of Bungie's classic Halo trilogy without the awful networking issues that have plagued the original Destiny's PvP multiplayer. I remain cautiously optimistic about this already beautiful game. If it delivers all this, as well as an interesting narrative, it will finally be the game-of-the-year contender the first entry failed to deliver.