I’m about five hours into the European Dead Zone and I’m finally starting to feel alive. The EDZ, as everyone calls it, is a barren wasteland of abandoned structures, decrepit tunnels, and long-lost architectural trends because, well, this is Earth in the far future. How far? We don’t really know. Perhaps it’s been thousands of years since humans colonized the Solar System and entered the realm of the supernatural. Except here we are, stuck back on Earth following a devastating attack from a foreign invader, trotting through the depressing gray debris and green overgrowth of a disaster zone.
Yet, the exhilaration is unmistakable as I fend off wave after wave of alien enemies on a covert mission to take back the land for humanity. I’m communicating by satellite transmission with a man — a grizzled sniper with an unplaceable accent — named Devrim Kay. Unlike myself, he does not possess the “Light,” which is a fancy way of saying that when he dies, he stays dead, while I come back to life to continue the fight. We’re in the process of trying to pit two alien crews against each other, by spoofing the signal of one and sending it to the other. It’s a clever plan, but I’m not really thinking too much about the specifics.
Instead I’m focused on how great it feels to pull the trigger of my virtual firearm and the beautiful sound it makes. It’s all leading up to the activation of my super, a transformational ability that allows me to dance across the ground, unleashing a torrent of blue energy waves against my enemies in what has to be the closest approximation to feeling invincible that video games have to offer. This is what developer Bungie does best: it makes you feel powerful and reassures you that your time spent in this virtual world is worth it, even when what you’re doing is maybe not all that remarkable, or, in this case, all that new.
The EDZ is the first and largest new environment players will experience in Destiny 2, the sequel to the Halo maker’s bold gamble on the future of the first-person shooter. The area sets the stage for a comeback story, as the game’s protagonists, the Guardians, attempt to retake the god-like entity that grants them power from the invading Red Legion. For Bungie, it’s also an opportunity to prove its learned from everything it got right and wrong with the first Destiny.
At an event in Bellevue, Washington, last month, I was able to play nearly 20 hours of Destiny 2 on PS4 from the beginning with a newly created character. While many of the series’s ingredients remain — you still shoot guns, run from one area to the next, and take down big bosses — the game has been reworked in an attempt to address, if not alleviate, virtually every annoyance and complaint that existed in the first game.
Based on my time with Destiny 2, I can say Bungie has largely succeeded. The question now is whether it’s enough to breathe new life into the series.
The original Destiny was a narrative wreck. The crucial pieces were there: players knew they were superheroes, capable of astounding feats of magic, thanks to a giant, moon-sized alien entity known as the Traveler. Like many sci-fi stories of the past, the Traveler arrived in the Solar System and thrust humanity forward in terms of technological progress. It also attracted an evil force known as the Darkness, which sought to extinguish the Traveler and set off a series of multi-planetary wars, fought thanks to the Traveler’s “Light,” which transformed humans into magical killing machines that could be revived endlessly.
The issue is that everything in the original Destiny felt like a cliché storyboard placeholder, with generic titles (The Light vs. The Darkness) and unexplained “cataclysms” that ended “the golden age” of humanity. The game lacked character development and emotional context. Its original plot was so convoluted that players clamored for the ability to skip the shallow and infrequent cutscenes. Its flat dialogue didn’t help, and some of the voice acting, notably featuring Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, was later scrubbed, rewritten, and redone post-launch.
Future expansions with sharper writing did a much better job of world-building, but Bungie still mostly sent players to an online encyclopedia where you could read cryptic text descriptions of the universe’s history. It was a huge letdown from the makers of Halo, as its crowning achievement of the early Xbox era was making the shooter genre feel as expansive and bold as Star Wars, with a story campaign you clamored to play instead of doing so begrudgingly.
Some of those issues can be chalked up to writer Joseph Staten leaving prior to launch, and Bungie going in and scraping much of what he and his team had constructed. The developer did not make the same mistake with Destiny 2, which is a far superior narrative vehicle. It’s sharp, funny, thoughtful, and epic in all the right places, making it feel like a sci-fi Marvel movie featuring the best elements of a Hollywood blockbuster.
“The Darkness” has been scrubbed from the game, a decision game director Luke Smith admits is because Bungie didn’t know what it even was supposed to be. In its place is a real villain: the Red Legion’s Dominus Ghaul, a militaristic Cabal leader intent on stealing the Traveler’s power. The sequence following the game’s introduction, after Ghaul strips you of your light, is among one of the more emotionally powerful and interesting narrative flourishes Bungie has ever delivered. Without spoiling too much, it’s here that Bungie explains how exactly humanity first contacted the Traveler and received its blessings.
The game now leans more heavily on the cast of characters most Destiny fans will recognize: the witty android Hunter Cayde-6, voiced by the excellent Nathan Fillion of Firefly; a comically deep and broody Lance Reddick (The Wire) as the inspiring Titan Commander Zavala; and fellow Firefly alum and sci-fi regular Gina Torres as the vengeful and intimidating Warlock Ikora Ray. Each exists to segment the story into three sections, sending you from the EDZ to the moons Titan and Io and an all-new location, the Nessus, in your quest to rejoin them. Other minor characters have also been brought into the spotlight, including ship captain Amanda Holliday and the Speaker, a character whose role in the original game as the one who communicates with the Traveler was painfully underdeveloped.
To build the story, dramatic, well-written, and frequent cutscenes are now used to flesh out your relationship with the other Guardian commanders, as well as expand Ghaul’s character as he interrogates the imprisoned Speaker. There’s also a whole cast of new characters, including the above-mentioned Devrim Kay and Hawthorne, an EDZ scavenger who invites the Guardians into a new home at the Farm, a makeshift space that serves as your new HQ and replaces the now-destroyed Tower.
More noticeable is how the game weaves the story into standard interactions with other characters and into the missions themselves. Picking up new quests pulls up a high-definition render of quest giver, who will banter with you and go over the details of an operation in a conversational tone, a break from the original Destiny’s text-heavy narrative that was supplemented mostly by the dull voice of your AI companion. Missions now have a more straightforward, cinematic structure, too, avoiding the first game’s tendency to send players aimlessly wandering from checkpoint to checkpoint only to press a button so your AI could scan a computer.
While Bundie did not let me finish the main campaign, what I was allowed to play felt far more like an epic action movie than anything in the original. There are more set pieces, sweeping orchestral arrangements, and moments of emotional payoff, making parts of the campaign, like driving a tank into a Cabal military base or freeing Cayde-6 from a space-time prison, feel worthwhile. While I’m unaware of Ghaul’s fate in the main campaign, I have a hunch he may be the boss of Destiny 2’s first raid, due out sometime soon after launch.
You can’t talk about Destiny without talking about its many complex progression systems. Bungie’s true success with the first game was artfully mixing elements of a shooter with the structure of a massively multiplayer role-playing game. And while the shooter side of the equation has always reigned supreme, it’s been balanced by a deep series of systems for upgrading weapons and armor, progressing in level, and collecting loot.
It’s this RPG-like growth that gives the game its central addictive hook while you progress as one of three classes — Hunter, Titan, and Warlock — from level one to level 20 and beyond. In Destiny 2, much of what made that process a slog has been excised. Progression is simplified, easier to understand, and spread across all of the activities in the game, instead of leading players down paths of extreme repetition.
The core of the system remains intact: you still push to level 20 through experience points by killing enemies and completing missions as you would any other RPG, while a ranked gear system determines the level of enemies you can fight. Bungie is now calling that your Power Level, in place of Light Level, and it ranges from zero to 350, at least according to in-game menu systems. (In later expansions, Bungie will increase that number as it did in the first game.)
The subclass system also remains, including the Hunter’s Nightstalker, Warlock’s Stormcaller, and Titan’s Sunbreaker, details of which Bungie kept under wraps for inexplicable reasons. But subclass growth has been simplified, too, down to two paths you unlock over time. For instance, the Hunter’s new Arcstrider subclass has a “Way of the Wind” path for more nimbleness and a “Way of the Warrior” path for more aggressive combat. You can easily switch between these depending on whether you’re playing against the enemy AI or against other human players in the Crucible, the game’s competitive multiplayer mode.
The crucial differences in how this affects gameplay are visible in the breadth of ways to spend your time, level up, and collect new gear. Bungie seems to have learned from its mistakes — situations like the infamous loot cave from the original in which players shot endlessly into a black abyss to grind armor and weapons from the developer’s near-mystic random number generator. Although Bungie likely knows these shortcuts are inevitably going to surface, it appears like the developer wants to avoid incentivizing players to find them in the first place.
Now, every single social space spread out across the four available planets and moons has a new faction leader. Devrim Kay is the EDZ’s leader, while new characters will take on that role for Titan, Io, and the Nessus. Each time you do an activity in that zone, you can return to the faction leader, earn reputation, and ultimately rank up your allegiance to that person to earn rare loot that, by the time you reach level 20, will start pushing your power level even higher.
Bungie also made sure to craft its sprawling environments with the end-game in mind, so players wouldn’t just abandon early parts of Destiny 2 because they wouldn’t yield loot after the main story was finished. Parts of each new map now have hidden areas, called Lost Sectors, that can be found organically as you explore, alongside new treasure chests, a better designed public events system for fighting big bosses as a group, a revamped patrol system, and level-locked portions of the map that encourage you to come back later when you’re stronger.
On top of all that, a new mission type called Adventures exists to keep players from racing to the next planet and blowing through the main campaign missions. Each adventure is a side mission that expands the narrative backdrop of an area, fleshing out its faction leader and giving some expositional meat to why you’re there.
These seemingly small quality of life improvements make a big difference. As Bungie’s social lead M.E. Chung told me back in May, probably the single largest driver force in the game’s development was the mantra “making it easier to find the fun.” Based on my time with the game, I can say Bungie did just that. There’s a ton of stuff to do at any given point, and huge annoyances in the first game have been removed to make that stuff easy to find: the lucrative public events now have timers telling you when they’ll appear, you can now fast travel from place to place on a planet, you’re auto-enrolled into daily bounties (now called challenges), and your inventory space is large and much more manageable.
The most impactful change of all, one Bungie played up back in May, is that you no longer have to jump back to the waiting “orbit” screen to change activities, a massive hurdle the original Destiny never fixed. Now, you have an easy-to-access “director” that lets you move from one area of a planet to the next via fast travel, jump to a different planet entirely, initiate a story mission or adventure, or even jump right into the Crucible for multiplayer.
The end result here is a game that feels far more conscientious than in the past. I felt like there was always something different and fresh to do instead of feeling pushed toward a soulless grind to go from one power level tier to the next, or a near-quixotic quest to get a single item to drop through hours of repetition. Certain players will undoubtedly always play the game that way, looking for exploits and some even enjoying the repetition of it all. But you now at least have choice, something that should satisfy players who want the depth necessary to keep switching it up.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about Destiny 2, which launches September 6th for PS4 and Xbox One and later in October for PC. Bungie didn’t let me finish the main story campaign, leaving that a surprise for the retail version of the game. We were also unable to try many of the game’s activities with other living, breathing humans, as the game will likely be experienced by thousands of day-one players starting tomorrow.
We don’t know what the raid — arguably the most rewarding experience in Destiny — will be like, or how Bungie will address end-game progression that, in the first game, felt maddeningly luck-based and random. We also don’t know how exactly Bungie’s Guided Games feature will function, which is its ambitious plan to make Destiny 2 more fun for single players by letting them pair up with larger in-game clans for activities like the Crucible, strikes, and the raid. It may never take off in the way Bungie hopes.
Yet there is one thing that’s clear: Bungie has improved upon Destiny in almost every way that matters for day-to-day play. Of course, we won’t know how well the game will fare when it goes from hour 20 to 50, and onward to 100 plus. I’ve experienced only a fraction of the game, and it’s not enough time to fully judge. But from what I have played, I can say that while Destiny 2 isn’t radically different or revolutionary compared to its predecessor, it does contain a much improved and playful narrative, removes many friction points that existed in its predecessor, and, above all else, better respects your time.
For everyone else, those who may still be unsure or didn’t play the first game or don’t want a life-sucking online title to zap all their free time, know that Bungie is still arguably the best around at designing the aesthetics of virtual firearms. That is one thing that has not, and will likely never, change from one Bungie game to the next. While that may not be enough to justify a $60 purchase, it sure means that shooting aliens and casting space magic is just as fun as it was three years ago. For some players, myself included, that’s enough to get sucked back in.
Destiny 2 is available on PS4 and Xbox One on September 6th and on PC starting October 24th.