Bungie has been teetering on the thinnest edge of control over what it tried to do with Destiny since the day the game was released in September 2014. Even in the face of truly impressive DLCs (The Taken King, in particular, is the game’s creative apex in almost every respect), Destiny will ultimately go down as a rough work, sweating and straining under its own ambitions.
With Destiny 2, the game developer has the unenviable task of having to advance something that only barely got to this point feeling like a complete, compelling, inviting experience. It’s appropriate that it isn’t going to be a game trying to polish cracked goods, but an attempt to get things right the first time out. And there was no better way to state that purpose than to literally and metaphorically burn the first game to the ground.
Bungie showed off the first gameplay footage from Destiny 2 at an event in Los Angeles on May 18. This footage specifically unveiled the Tower, Destiny’s famous starting social space, now besieged by a dangerous splinter faction of the Cabal, the first game’s lumbering bipedal rhinoceros race, under the command of a new leader, Dominus Ghaul. Ghaul is able to accomplish in minutes what all the most dangerous alien races spent decades trying to do: By sheer brute force, he’s able to subdue the Traveler—the spherical alien life form that brought new, advanced knowledge to the galaxy, taking up silent residence on Earth—and steal its power for himself, leaving Guardians stripped of their former power, glory, and loot. The various faction leaders are scattered and divided, and humanity is now a refugee species.
In short, if you’re not 100% immersed in the game’s lore, you’ll be starting from square one, hunkered down in worlds even less friendly to human life than before. That’s ironic for a game that, in briefly speaking to world design lead Steve Cotton at the event, is apparently being built from the ground up to be vastly more inviting and accessible than before. “We wanted to make [Destiny 2] a fresh start for everybody so that we could get new players in as well. That sorta helped us figure out what the story would be—where Ghaul and his Red Legion show up in your home and take everything away. That was a strong beginning for us that allowed us to go ’What’s that journey feel like? What should that be in order to let everyone have that experience?’”
To wit, Destiny 2’s opening is equal parts wave goodbye and hello, an introduction by way of destruction. The Tower burns, a massacre of a dogfight transpires in the skies, fire rains down over what was once one of the most calming spaces in Destiny, and the leaders of the Tower’s factions fight the good fight and lose, culminating with an abrupt meeting with Ghaul himself.
Destiny 2 doesn’t represent a total overhaul. Playing it at one of the demo stations at the event, it’s clear that the core shooter gameplay at the heart of Destiny remains as perfect as it’s been since day one, and what’s been changed in this area tweaks the formula instead of going back to the drawing board. Aspects of the subclasses for each Guardian type have been adjusted, and an additional special ability for each class has been added (Titans get a Captain America-style shield, Warlocks gain a Super involving a flaming sword, hunters can execute a new balletic barrage of attacks with a light-generated staff). Weapon loadouts now allow for some flexibility in terms of being able to carry more than one of a primary type weapon at once. Light, the game’s overarching stat for offensive/defensive potential, seems that it will work much the same as it has since The Taken King, which isn’t a bad thing, considering that the system has been vastly improved since the days where you’d need to grind for days just to gain a new helmet with a higher stat. Mostly, however, the act of playing Destiny will be instantly familiar.
Where Destiny 2 feels like a brand new game, the aspect Bungie’s staff seemed most excited to present to fans during its on-stage presentation, is in its newfound laser focus on the gameplay experience, tearing down the barriers between the activities that the game offers and the legwork required to enjoy them. Gone is the need to retreat to planetary orbit to select a new mission or transition from a patrol route to an actual story. Clans are being introduced to encourage more teamwork, as well as give casual players the ability to keep up with their more active peers. While Bungie has still kept away from a matchmaking system for Raids, an interesting variant called Guided Groups will be introduced, allowing players to join clans looking for a mercenary solo player to round out a group heading into a Raid or Strike.
All of this is in aid of a new Destiny lore that plays out in a much more definitive, engaging way than the slapdash job the first game and its DLCs have done the last two years. Story information once relegated to the ancillary material—the Grimoire, the Book of Sorrows, and the like—will now be found in game, accessible from the menus. Audio logs, scannable items, and in-world encounters with NPCs will now tell much more of the tale, in addition to several times more cutscenes than the first title offered.
Destiny 2 will also be saying goodbye to its previous collection of interplanetary locales, moving onward and upward to four new hub worlds. With the Tower gone, Earth’s HQ is now in a forested DMZ in Europe. The other three: Titan, a moon orbiting Saturn, which houses a dilapidated human paradise gradually sinking into a planet-spanning ocean of methane; Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, just barely starting to crawl out of primordial hell toward civilization thanks to the Traveler but left incomplete thanks to the Red Legion’s attack, leaving much of its burgeoning architecture and advancement derelict; and Nessus, a planetoid overtaken by the machine race, the Vex. That same visual ambition that guided the more expansive areas of the first game has even more room to breathe, thanks to Bungie not having to build a game compatible with the PS3 and Xbox 360. In Destiny 2, we find one of the few games taking place on an alien world that truly allows itself to be, well, alien.
Only one of those new worlds was playable on the floor at the presentation as campaign content: a strike on Io. Gameplay was, in fact, as familiar as always, right down to the bullet-sponge boss encounter waiting at the end of the stage. The difference is a matter of intensity. From the second your fireteam lands, you’re beset by massive, whip-quick war hounds ready to take your Guardian down. Extensive amounts of platforming can leave players stranded without their teammates more than once. All the while, the world keeps turning, with massive terraforming machinery chugging on, and providing an extra layer of danger in every area. The area feels alive compared to the haunting necropolis cities that Destiny was famous for dropping players into, and one can only hope you have the advantage of being able to take a look around when the legions come marching.
It’s an intensity to be awed by and fear in equal measure, considering what it might mean for the ever-impenetrable Raids. However, Steve Cotton was able to relate some welcome news in that regard. During the presentation, the stat was given that only 4% of players who tried a Raid had ever cleared one. As of the current playtests, Bungie has gotten that number up closer to 40%. That suggests a still staggering level of difficulty, but not an insurmountable one. That accessibility is by design, and applies to the entire game.
What we’re beginning to see of Destiny 2 is less an iterative continuation of Destiny than its distillation and refinement, the evolution into not just disparate content to tackle, but toward living worlds bound by a sense of community and common goal. The promise that Destiny has always been striving for may finally get to be achieved.
Activision will release Destiny 2 on September 8.