Destiny 2 first impressions review: Beyond loot

by | Sep 10, 2017 | Review

Destiny 2 first impressions review: Beyond loot

by | Sep 10, 2017

The sequel to Bungie’s blockbuster shared world shooter is a visually stunning, elegantly crafted, downright fun video game.

Reviewing a game like Destiny 2 is fraught with complications. A dedicated player could probably complete the main storyline within a day, two at the most. But the campaign’s end is where Destiny 2 really begins, with a wealth of endgame content spread across its massive world. From the strikes, to player-versus-player battles, to the almighty raid (generally considered the best part of Destiny), it would be exhausting to try to cover the entire game in a timely fashion. Impossible, even: the raid isn’t even available yet.

In such a game, where evolution is constant, offering any sort of final word on it would be moot. Destiny itself is a living organism, a character within the very world it creates.

But there is still plenty to say about Destiny 2, its gameplay, and its world. Since the game’s release last week, I have completed the main storyline and reached the level cap of 20. I’ve explored every location and faced many foes. Yet, there is much I have yet to experience, including the strikes. Even so, I feel safe in calling Destiny 2 one of the best first person action games I have ever played.

A feast for your eyes

Like its forebear, Destiny 2 is a striking game to look at and listen to. Bungie has an army of artists pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into the presentation of this game, and it shows. Somehow, Bungie has managed to make an even better looking game than the first Destiny, and I am seriously in awe that the Xbox One can handle it at all. A varied color palette, mesmerizing vistas, impressive particle effects, and a rich diversity of friends and foes leads to a world that feels even more alive than that of the first game.

To be clear, it isn’t just that Destiny 2’s graphics are good; the art is good. Even low level enemy combatants are crafted with much more care, leading them to look almost as intricate as players’ guardians.

There is a prodigious amount of detail crammed into virtually every corner of every location, so that wherever you look, there is something interesting to see. Destiny 2 provides one of the most visually arresting experiences you can have within a virtual world. If I tried to distill the visual style down to its inspirational ingredients, I’d say it’s equal parts Myst and Halo with a sprinkling of Mass Effect.

As with the first Destiny, all of this visual fidelity does come at the cost of frame rate, which is locked at 30 frames per second on console. (This remains the case on the PlayStation 4 Pro, and Xbox One X enhancement is still a big question mark.) However, this was a design choice I think was worth it.

A part of me wishes Bungie would have dialed back the detail in order to hit 60fps, but the more I play the game, the more I realize that probably would have been a mistake. It is that meticulous attention to detail that makes Destiny, well, Destiny. The quality of the visuals is what pulls you into the world and keeps you there, as if your TV is nothing but a window into a rich and lifelike fantasy.

Like the first game, Destiny 2’s gameplay is also optimized for 30fps, as best as can be. Bungie has gone to lengths to make sure it doesn’t play like a twitch shooter — something the company is quite good at; after all, it had to solve the same problem with Halo. Enemies tend to move more slowly, your turn speed is quite heavy when sprinting, and driving and melée weapons still put you into a third-person view. All of these things serve gameplay, but they also help mask the slower frame rate. Even in the Crucible (Destiny’s player-versus-player arena), the game feels smooth.

Could it still benefit from a faster frame rate? Oh, absolutely. But does the game suffer greatly for being locked at 30fps? No, I don’t think it does.

Destiny itself is a living organism, a character within the very world it creates.

Music to your ears

Destiny 2’s sound design is another major win. The sound effects, much like the visual effects, are more detailed, leading to scarier bad guys, punchier weapons, and explosions that can make you jump if you’re not ready for them.

One of the game’s key successes in audio comes in the form of what I’ll call implied realism, whereby fictional objects that don’t exist in our world still sound “real.” Based on the look and function of any given object, we have certain expectations for how it should sound. The right sound reinforces our understanding of the object, whereas the wrong sound can lead to a breakdown in the suspension of disbelief.

A good example of this is the game’s Omolon weapons, which look like futuristic Super Soakers with ammo tanks that hold colored fluid. When you shoot one of these weapons, it sounds wet, electric, and powerful. The sound reinforces our conceptual understanding of the weapon based on how it looks — even though we have no way of knowing what such a weapon would sound like in the real world. We see it, we hear it, and our subconscious says, “Yes, this makes sense.”

Scripted audio, from voice acting to music, is also improved. In fact, the music may have been the first thing that really struck me about this game. It is incredibly well done and there is ample variety, from the light piano and soft strings that beckon you into the Farm (one of the game’s social areas) to the multilayered cinematic score that adds tension and urgency to story quests. Destiny 2 is one of the few video games that sounds every bit as good as it looks.

There is a prodigious amount of detail crammed into virtually every corner of every location, so that wherever you look, there is something interesting to see.

Loot and loops

The core gameplay loop in any Destiny game is built around the acquisition of loot. Weapons, armor, shaders, mods, etc. Destiny 2’s loot system feels both faster and fairer than the first game. All types of activities provide a steady stream of goodies, and more often than not, the loot received will be an upgrade over what you have (at least in terms of power level).

But there is something more important than loot to Destiny 2’s gameplay that people seem to rarely talk about in games: the intrinsic rewards. While Destiny has always had great gunplay and a solid combat loop (the “30 seconds of fun”), the pre-Taken King game lacked variety. The grind was literally a grind, as you were asked to do the exact same mission over, and over, and over again. After a while, gameplay stopped being fun. The loot rewards were the only rewards. The problem with such a system is that players can burn out. Loot, after all, is an illusion; you only need it because the designers programmed the game for you to need it. Acquiring loot alone does not make the game fun, at least not for long.

This is a pretty stark contrast to Bungie’s other major hit, Halo, a game that had zero loot yet nearly infinite replay value. Halo is a PHD thesis on intrinsic reward. You kept playing simply because it was fun to play.

Destiny 2, I am pleased to report, is much more intrinsically rewarding than the first game. Core gameplay is incredibly similar, but there is simply more variety. Drop onto any planet or moon, and there are at least three different things going on in your vicinity, from public events, to patrols and adventures, to hunting down high-powered enemies who will drop treasure chests if you can defeat them.

The AI also feels smarter, although I’m not sure if this is just an illusion, the result of there being more types of enemies now. Either way, it’s a positive change that keeps encounters more interesting and dynamic.

There is also more story woven into all aspects of the game, which makes it feel like you’re actually accomplishing something. The main story quest, which I won’t delve too far into, is very good. Characters feel real, their motivations are clear, and the climactic ending sparks new questions into the nature of the very centerpiece of Destiny’s lore, the Traveler.

But there are also many other characters found throughout the game world, with each location having a different character that more or less serves as your host in that area. That character has his or her own story, plans, and missions to send you on. This doesn’t just give you more stuff to do, but it gives you stuff to do that feels worthwhile, loot or no loot.

End game

I have just begun to scratch the surface of Destiny 2’s endgame content, and for the first time in a while, I feel excited to jump back into a video game. After the letdown that was Mass Effect: Andromeda, Destiny 2 is a deep breath of fresh air. It’s a sequel that improves on the original in nearly every way. It is a technical achievement on many levels, with an attention to detail that is just mind-boggling. There are small things that leave me wanting (like the jump ships, which are still used for nothing but fancy load screens), but overall, I just can’t wait to play more.