No, you aren't experiencing a glitch in the Matrix, and you haven't stumbled through a time rift to two weeks ago (at least as far as I know). I did indeed devote last column to Destiny 2, which outlined my impressions (and late-night narcolepsy) in meticulous detail. But a lot can change in two weeks. An adorable puppy can grow into a ferocious adult wolf.* A bag of organic compost can dissolve and leak horrendously putrid garbage juice all over your kitchen counter.** And a game like Destiny 2 can go from being a fun-if-somewhat-forgettable romp to a full-blown, loot-driven obsession. I won't say Destiny 2 has ruined my life yet, but I'm standing on the precipice of a dark abyss and intently staring in.
Before you accuse me of money-hat shenanigans, I still stand by everything I said in my last column, which was mostly focused on Destiny 2's story because I'm just a normal guy with a full-time job and that's all I could get through before deadline. The small collection of story missions features some interesting locations and engaging battles, but you can really only do so much when your main protagonist is essentially an undead mime and your supervillain can be aptly summed up by the term "Bane-Hulk." I'm now playing through the story for the second time (more on that later), and while my familiarity with the gameplay has allowed me to focus on and appreciate the pretty scenery more, Destiny 2's story is still a rather underwhelming side salad to the main course. I was mid-salad when I wrote my last column, but since then I have been gorging myself nightly like a banquet attendee in a George R.R. Martin novel, albeit with less throat-slitting (though it feels like it sometimes when I'm playing PvP).
Anywho, the point is that once I gave 'ole Inferiority-Complex Ghaul the boot*** after my last column, Destiny 2 became an open-world playground with a singular goal: to keep me playing forever and ever, like some kind of fiendish siren. By all accounts, the first Destiny was singing a similar song, but something about it never clicked with me. I can't put my finger on a single tweak or addition in Destiny 2 that has me rubbernecking like that stupid meme guy I'm sick to death of, but I figured it's worth a second examination, so here goes.
Loot is one of the most obvious driving forces in Destiny, and appeals to my Smaug-like desire to horde every shiny object I can get my hands on, regardless of whether I'm ever going to use it (I've even kept my ratty starting armor which serves no point whatsoever – I'm running out of vault space and I still can't bring myself to dismantle it!). The best loot drops are weapons, which are divided among three intuitive slots: Kinetic (normal), Energy (elemental), and Power (big booms). Quickly comparing new weapons is a breeze – green bars go up, red go down – so you don't have to forsake your dying friends while you stand around crunching the numbers on your new gun in the middle of a battle (I suppose you could also wait until AFTER the battle to check out your loot, but where's the fun in that?).
Destiny 2's biggest drawback so far is that your vault is basically the world's largest junk drawer. I think that's my fusion rifle next to the half-unraveled ball of twine and 15 dead AA batteries.
I'm pretty sure Bungie has programmed actual wizards into the loot code this time around, because drops provide a steady and satisfying climb in power, and no longer give you items your class can't use. At least that's been my experience. Andy, on the other hand, has been complaining for days about how terrible his drops have been, so maybe the system isn't perfect – or maybe he just pissed off the wizards. Either way, I don't know if I'll suffer the same fate when I get to the absurdly high light levels Andy's at, but so far it's been smooth sailing.
Speaking of light level – I actually understand how the hell light levels work this time! Once you max out your character level at 20, the focus shifts to your overall light level, which is determined by the levels of your most powerful gear. This means your progress no longer boils down to watching a bar slowly and predictably fill up – each shiny engram you pop out of a treasure chest/opponent's head could give you a boost (provided you've kept the loot wizards happy). I didn't really need another reason to get excited about engrams (have you seen how shiny they are?!), but boosting your level in addition to giving you a sweet new piece of gear is a great way to make rewards seem more…well, rewarding.
And unlike the original Destiny, you don't even need to equip the new gear to have it boost future loot drops, so if you snag a high-level gun that you don't want to use (i.e. every sidearm ever), keeping it in your inventory still has value. What all this means is there really is no such thing as a "worthless" piece of loot in Destiny 2. If you're not going to use it, you can infuse it to boost the power of a gun you do like. If its power is too low, you can dismantle it to gain shards for future infusions, or parts to trade for free weapons from the gunsmith. Even lowly blue drops are worth abandoning your cover and blindly running across the battlefield to pick up (well, maybe that's not the smartest strategy, but it's my modus operandi for sure).
And boy oh boy are the weapons worth collecting! Unlike the continual and forgettable churn of a procedurally generated arsenal like Borderlands, Destiny's guns have all been carefully crafted to feel and perform differently. And thanks to the aforementioned infusion system, when you do find a legendary or exotic weapon that you like, you can just keep upgrading it for as long as you want, until you've forged an unhealthy Full Metal Jacket-style bond with it.
That said, Destiny's combat is so good that I find myself frequently switching up weapons anyway. That even includes guns I don't usually bother with in games, like pulse rifles, which fire in three-round bursts (I always thought that was called "hellfire," but apparently that's not a thing). My favorite so far is the Graviton Lance, which does extra damage on the third shot, and also makes enemies explode when they die.
It also has glowing purple tubes. COOOL!
Hand cannons are also usually a hard pass for me; when you're going up against auto rifles and SMGs and rocket launchers, bringing a revolver to a gun fight is like bringing a knife to a completely different gun fight****. As it turns out, though, hand cannons are actually the best weapons in the game! Landing a headshot with a hand cannon is almost always a guaranteed kill on regular enemies, and provides an immediate, visceral satisfaction that never gets old, like the watermelon lady.
In fact, Destiny 2 might as well be called Headshot: The Game, because whatever subtle aim-assist algorithm Bungie employed (I'm guessing more wizards) makes them easy to line up without feeling like you didn't earn it. In most games I have the sharpshooting accuracy of Mr. Magoo, but in Destiny 2, I can fly around the battlefield injecting hot lead into the brainpans of foes with surgical precision. I've played enough shooters to know that there's NO WAY I'm this good, but the assistance is subtle enough to not throw a heaping bucket of cold water on the fantasy.
Armor makes up the other half of Destiny's loot, though it admittedly doesn't have the same draw for me; a lot of players seem to enjoy tracking down and equipping full armor sets (and have very strong feelings about shaders, apparently), but at this point I'd run around the battlefield in a giant banana suit if it gave me a few more light levels. I can see armor being more of a draw once I start to max out my light level, but for now all I really care about is if my hood looks appropriately roguish.
Class abilities also provide plenty to get excited about. I'm still rocking my Hunter, which Miller recently told me is the hardest class to play, but also attracts the best players. I am definitely not one of the best players, but I'm still having a ton of fun with my mohawked monstrosity. Hunters have access to a triple jump, which by my calculations is a 50% improvement over the double jump (though a double jump is only 33% worse than a triple jump, because math is evil like that). I still favor the Hunter's Gunslinger subclass, in large part because of its golden gun (not that one) that shoots three super-powerful bullets, which makes me feel like some kind of cowboy demigod.
If there's one thing Bungie knows, it's how to fulfill a power fantasy.
You know what's even better than a flame-spewing golden gun, though? A knife! Holy lord, the Hunter's throwing knife – forget whatever stupid thing I said about not bringing one to a gun fight, because nothing is more satisfying than running out of ammo and desperately flinging your knife straight into the noggin (or glowing Vex abdomen) of a powerful enemy to finish them off. Even better, the Gunslinger has an ability that makes precision kills with the knife instantly wipe out its lengthy cooldown. I once scored three knife shots in a row thanks to this ability, and I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.
All the loot and abilities in the world wouldn't matter if you didn't have something to do with them, and this is another area where Destiny 2 delivers well beyond the campaign. Bungie's sequel goes full Diablo with its activities: You've got patrols and world challenges and flashpoints and side missions and hidden chests and all sorts of other rewarding crap vying for your attention. Having a million different things to do and not enough time to do them is a known exploit in my programming, and a big reason I love games like Stardew Valley and Diablo III so darn much. So far Destiny 2 scratches all the same itches, and oh god I want to keep scratching.
I don't have enough time to go into all of Destiny 2's activities (well, I guess I technically do, but I'd rather just go home and play more), but a few are worth calling out. Lost Sectors are sprinkled across the map, and are basically hidden mini-dungeons that you can discover and fight your way through as many times as you desire. Lost Sectors don't outstay their welcome: You go in, blast your way through a bunch of pleb enemies and a more substantial boss, then nab a treasure – all in about 10 minutes. Now that I think about it, you're essentially committing a home invasion, but you don't garner much sympathy when you look like a space cricket/The Mummy extra/evil robot/Miyazaki spirit/rejected Ninja Turtle.
Click to enlarge the picture and then just TRY to tell me I'm wrong about any of those descriptors!
Public events also frequently pop up on the map (oh yeah, there's also a map this time around, which turns out is pretty useful!), and are basically impossible to pass up: "Yes, I know I'm the only one who can save the Traveler, but that spider tank isn't going to blow itself up!" Public events pull in guardians from across the zone, and provide a light, social-friendly activity that ends with a big Glimmer-spewing treasure chest. Each one also has a secret optional objective that will trigger a "heroic" public event, leading to tougher enemies and better loot. How cool is that?!
When Miller told me about the heroic triggers, I had a Usual Suspects-esque realization – all this time I thought I was kicking ass in public encounters by tearing into the bosses, but in reality I was screwing up everyone else's attempt to complete the secret objective first. Miller also informed me that there's a term for well-meaning but uninformed players like me: Kindergaurdian. Ah well – at least it sounds cooler than "newbie."
Strikes offer more focused co-op fun, requiring a trio of Guardians to navigate a full-fledged dungeon – but unlike the Lost Sectors, I'm pretty sure these goons have it coming to them. Bungie didn't offer matchmaking for Strikes in the original Destiny, but after playing three matches in a row with randos, I can say with 100-percent certainty that they totally could have. All three Strikes went fine; the only setback was that I got same Strike (fighting a giant robot in a laser pyramid) three times in a row. In fact, I thought the game only had one Strike, until Miller told me there were actually six. Awesome! I hope the RNG wizards let me try the others some day!
Seriously, imagine showing up to a blind date with this guy. Blink, Zavala!
After a few more successful Strikes, Captain Daniels (A.K.A. Zavala) took me aside and told me that I'm one of the greatest Guardians he's ever seen – the video game equivalent of your grandpa declaring you the best little leaguer or imaginary cowboy or in-the-lines colorer. Zavala also told me that I was ready to take on Nightfall Strikes, which are the hardest and most dangerous Strikes in all of Destinyland. I hopped right in, only to find out the game doesn't offer matchmaking for them – what Bungie giveth, Bungie taketh away. That didn't stop me from stubbornly trying to fight my way through the stupidly tough enemies all by myself (I am the best Guardian ever, after all – I can't let the Captain down!), repeatedly dying until the 15-minute timer ran out.
A few days later I tackled the Strike again with Miller and Andy, and I now totally get why Bungie nixed the matchmaking. Passing the Nightfall didn't just require constant communication and cooperation to best our alien enemies – we also had to hunt down and shoot glowing boxes to increase the time limit, and coordinate our supers for the final bullet-sponge of a boss (who was also invisible half the time!). We passed on our second try, and while Andy got boned on the rewards again, I walked away with a greatly upgraded scout rifle and a spiffy new pair of boots (my takeaway from the experience is to always play with someone who has worse RNG luck than you). Bungie has added a guided games option for finding partners to tackle Nightfall and the Raid with, but by the sounds of it you have to sign some kind of long-winded 50 Shades sex contract and then wait half an hour just to play. I think I'll stick with my clan members.
Being in a clan in Destiny 2 gives you some sweet rewards. It doesn't make it any less awkward to declare that you're in a clan, however.
All of Destiny 2's content is surfaced through the game's new Milestones tab, which doles out big rewards for various activities each week. Milestones become vital for progressing beyond level 265, but more importantly they motivate you to branch out and try new activities. Some of the Milestones are downright dastardly; I had been avoiding Destiny 2's PvP like a dog would avoid veterinarians if he knew what neutering was. But then the game made me an offer I couldn't refuse: "Just play two Crucible matches, and I'll give you some sweet gear. You don't even have to win! Just participate!"
I resigned myself to suffering through two matches for the reward and then never touching PvP again, but lo and behold, even the multiplayer is fun! Bungie has placed a greater emphasis on squad play in Destiny 2, so as long as you stick with your fellow teammates (the game could seriously use a "group the f— up!" emote), you've got a decent shot of coming out on top. I've had a couple of demoralizing blowouts in the Crucible while pursuing subsequent Milestone rewards, but all in all I've won more than I've lost, and had enough fun to include PvP in my growing list of weekly activities. You win again, Bungie!
And finally, there's Destiny 2's mighty Leviathan Raid. Miller and Andy have been raving about how awesome Destiny's raids are for years, but I never understood why – it's ultimately just a series of enemy waves and bosses, right? What's the big deal?
I hopped into the raid last night with Miller, Suriel, and a couple other G.I. clan members, and the experience was a bit like getting pulled off the street by a crazy guy in a lab coat and told, "Hey, you're in charge of this nuclear reactor now – here's the 10-step process you need to flawlessly nail to keep it from exploding and killing us all. The clock started five minutes ago." It was all a crazy and confusing blur: There were moving pedestals and glowing power balls and targets that we needed to shoot simultaneously and literal hoops that we needed to jump through. Over the course of an hour or so, we slowly honed our ragtag crew (actually, I think I was the only rag) into a finely tuned machine of mass destruction, coordinating all of our actions throughout the multiple phases like an Olympic synchronized swimming team, only with way more shooting and explosions and fewer noseplugs.
An actual screenshot of yesterday's G.I. raid team. Just kidding – we were more like these guys.
It wasn't easy, but through ceaseless dedication, teamwork, and a whole lot of patience on Miller's part, we finally beat the Leviathan Raid…'s FIRST ENCOUNTER?!?! And that was apparently the easy one! Unfazed, we threw ourselves into the next challenge: purging the Cabal's opulent bathhouses from more weird alien scum. The new encounter required even more intricate planning, and after another hour or so of steady gains, we had to call it a night; we may be fearless guardians, but we all have day jobs, too!
Despite not even coming close to finishing the raid (there are FOUR challenges in total), it was still a blast to play, in no small part due to it being a shared experience – even if there were more commiserations than congratulations at the end of the night.
I ended my last column by stating that I was enjoying Destiny 2, but that I didn't think I'd become one of those crazy super fans who can't stop playing. Since then, I've played the game almost every single night for the past two weeks. I completed the story, unlocked all of my subclasses and abilities, plowed through all my weekly Milestones, and have done attempted every activity except for the Trials of the Nine (which still sounds absurdly hardcore to me – so check back next column when I rave about how completely awesome it is). I've also maxed out my Glimmer reserves multiple times over, amassed a pile of legendary shards for the next Xur visit, and given the annoyingly emo Dead Orbit faction a big boost towards their goal of running off and writing bad poetry in deep space (they're wieners for sure, but they also had the best reward this week). I even started my first alt character, so I can do it all over again.
In other words, I was wrong. After years of not getting what the big freakin' deal was, I've officially been indoctrinated into the Destiny cult, and now all I want to do is play and write and talk and think about Destiny 2 until the end of time. Or until Destiny 3 comes out. Whichever happens first.
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*I'm not 100-percent certain how canine physiology works, but I'm pretty sure that's right. (back to top)
**Unfortunately, I'm speaking from experience here. (back to top)
***I know this is technically a spoiler, but what did you really expect? That you and Ghaul were going to set aside your differences and become BFFs? (back to top)
****I'm aware that the number of gunfights in this analogy makes it confusing, and I apologize. (back to top)