An exciting campaign mission and a thrilling strike doesn't tell us very much about the long arc of the game.
Image courtesy of Activision Blizzard
Destiny 2 is out in less than two months, but there's plenty we still don't know. It's a sequel to Destiny, yes, which offers a chance for improvement, even if details are hazy on exactly how. The Taken King proved Bungie could identify and build on the original game's many weaknesses, yes, but the opening mission's bombast and spectacle, a key element missing for ardent Halo fans, quickly faded. My guardian will suit up on day one, but the beta hasn't erased my lingering concerns.
The game's opening mission, shown during the reveal earlier this year and depicting the fall of The Tower, is killer. It didn't do that much for me then, but given a chance to play it for myself, it comes across as a more satisfying hybrid of older, Halo-era campaign missions wrapped in Destiny packaging. By design, Destiny can't really compete with that kind of campaign, and it remains unclear (if unlikely) Destiny 2 will have enough for a player only interested in a campaign, but if there's another dozen missions like this one, I'll be a pretty happy camper.
But again, caution: The Taken King had an equally splashy start, and while every story mission was miles better than what shipped in the original game, it couldn't keep pace. That might very well have been because The Taken King was only an expansion, not a new game, but I'm trying to avoid presuming too much.
The mission sure does look pretty, though. I had several god damn moments playing through with Austin earlier this week. Destiny had an immediately appealing, acutely defined aesthetic, but it wasn't a show stopper. And while I can't help but be that guy and pine for 60 frames-per-second—I'll see you in October, PC version—there's no denying Destiny 2 is a terrific looking game. It's the subtle details that really stood out for me, like the subtle use of mood lighting:
Or how rain is used to heighten the drama, as your home is taken from you:
There was also a, uh, beautiful swaying tree I just couldn't stop looking at:
Even if we presume Destiny 2 sticks the campaign landing, it's not what'll keep you playing for weeks and months after. There's a credible argument to be made that story missions are merely a prelude to the real game: strikes, patrols, raids, loot. That's where the real game is hiding, and it's where most people will spend time with friends and strangers. The question is whether Destiny 2 can achieve a better consistency of experience the original struggled with.
Since Destiny 2 was revealed, Bungie's been cagey about some key elements, especially regarding the kinds of activities that define the daily grind of a loot game. Strikes and patrols were novel parts of Destiny, but both were easy to exhaust, with precious little variation in activities for players, as hours piled up. With the beta, we have a slightly better idea of what to expect—and signs are good. I think. The beta doesn't feature patrols, one of my biggest remaining question marks, but it does have a really great strike, dubbed The Inverted Spire.
For those new to Destiny, strikes are self-contained, short-lived missions largely built around fighting your way through waves of enemies, often set within the same (or modified) levels from the story. You might get some nuggets of lore, but by and large, they're meant to be easily repeatable events, allowing you to have another pull at the game's loot machine.
Patrols are set on each of the game's planets. It's a chance to explore a wide space and goof around. Other than completing the odd quest, they're mostly useful for wasting time while friends get online. During exploration, you'd come across various side missions, stuff that takes only a few minutes to complete, like defending a position or defeating a certain number of enemies. They're boring, but when you're looking for something to do, patrols got the job done. People grumbled through and accepted patrols in the original game, but they needed serious reform.
According to Bungie, there will be a lot more variety in Destiny 2. That sounds well and good, but as this will likely be our only chance to play Destiny 2 before the game launches on September 6, we're taking their word for it. It's worth remembering, of course, the original Destiny had both an alpha and beta test ahead of launch, and the beta was chock full of things to do, including patrols on the Cosmodrome. I remember running through the beta with friends for a few hours, entranced by the combat but puzzled at how little there was to do. We ended up running circles around the map, waiting for new encounters to spawn, because shooting was satisfying enough to keep us interested. Surely, we thought, the final game will have more. It did, obviously, but not by much—patrols were barren.
"More interesting patrols" is a low bar for Destiny 2, but it's still important.
That strike, though! While my Destiny memories have become increasingly fuzzy—most of my time was with The Taken King, though I briefly returned for the lackluster Rise of Iron—I don't remember playing anything as dynamic and ambitious as what's seen in The Inverted Spire. It's not just about how The Inverted Spire is set on a grander stage than previous strikes, it's how that scale is mixed with rotating types of encounters to keep players constantly on-guard.
The scale is important, though. When we stumbled upon this section, I was giddy:
It's a wide-open space with enemies everywhere, giving players options on how to press forward. Rather than funneling people into a tight space, there's opportunity to wander off and get into trouble—or save the day. Towards the end of this part, the game assigns you to two powerful enemies to defeat—one to the left, one to the right. Having played the strike twice, my groups tackled this in different ways. With Austin, we split up, resulting in tough-as-nails fights with high-level enemies that we bought barely survived. With strangers, we trucked through as a convoy, absolutely wrecking those who dared stand tall.
I managed to avoid spoilers about what the strike had in store, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the "digsite" was active and ready to mess me up:
It killed me more than I care to admit.
The strike keeps up the momentum towards the end, with a boss fight that involves the floor beneath players being taken out three different times, as you work through an enormous, robotic bullet sponge. That particular trick is the best thing the otherwise normal boss encounter has going for it, but on first blush, it was enough to put a smile on my face and change the contours of the fight.
By the time the strike was over, my main issue was that I'd exhausted just about everything I find interesting about Destiny in the beta. Crucible will never be for me, and that's not even a big deal; it just means the beta is slim pickings for someone whose interests lie elsewhere. One strike, one mission. Now, we wait.
The beta paints a rosy picture of what Destiny 2 could be. Fingers crossed.