Destiny 2 is a game about dying. But it has trouble remembering that.
I’ve already explained the bizarro premise of the Destiny series, which casts you as a Guardian, an undying space superhero powered by the energy of a machine deity. What I failed to mention in that initial description, though, is how Destiny 2 begins: by taking all of that away. In the game’s first moments, an invading army assaults the Tower, the security hub of the last human city—and robs every character (and thus every player) of their “Light”, that invisible source of their power. Whereas in the first game every Guardian could be resurrected again and again, now every Guardian has only one life to spend.
This offers Destiny, a game always plagued by accusations of repetition and artificiality, a remarkable opportunity for reinvention. The original title proved to be a game primarily interested in accretion: collecting guns, collecting armor, collecting various accolades and accomplishments. There was so much to collect that eventually the game’s developers introduced what amounted to an in-game scrapbook cataloguing all the various things you’d done—Oh, the Places You’ll Go for the shooter addict crowd. But now, with the Tower ruined, the original game’s primary hub world no longer exists; every long-term player’s meticulously amassed collection is oblivion.
Every player has a chance, with Destiny 2, to rebuild themselves, get new powers, and—to quote Destiny‘s atrocious but sincerely played tagline—”become legend” in a whole new way.
And for a while, we do. In its first few hours, Destiny 2 wears the clothing of a more solitary sci-fi experience, and it stands a reminder of how good Bungie still is at making this sort of game. The studio that revolutionised the first-person shooter genre with Halo: Combat Evolved, effectively handing Microsoft’s Xbox its legitimacy, still has it. These early missions move the player through a variety of gorgeous locations, from a post-apocalyptic Europe to a city-sized spaceship orbiting the sun, with a deft sense of place and the sharpest writing the studio has pulled off since 2010’s Halo: Reach. The Destiny that emerges here, as each player concerns herself with getting new superpowers and striking back at the Red Legion, is a self-conscious and deliberate one. Its sudden interest in solitude and focus gives way to a surprising bit of soul-searching.
In its first few hours, Destiny 2 wears the clothing of a more solitary sci-fi experience, and it stands a reminder of how good Bungie still is at making this sort of game.
You find it most sharply on the Jovian moon of Io. You have regained your Guardian abilities at this point, but you’re the only one. So it’s up to you to gather together the old leaders of the Tower for one last mission, a desperate gambit to retake the last city and recapture the old glory for everyone else. You’re on Io looking for Ikora Rey, a mystic given voice by the emotive tones of Gina Torres (Firefly). When you find her, she’s meditating and on the brink of despair. She laments that she had centuries worth of lives to spend protecting the galaxy, trying to understand it—but instead she spent all that time, all those resurrections, locked away in the Tower, playing mission control and librarian to a society that’s now been all but destroyed.
Now, Ikora Rey has only one life left to live, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. A character formerly known only for giving quests and spouting cryptic sayings is having an existential crisis. Destiny 2 has learned what it is to be afraid of death.
This fear quietly permeates the entire narrative arc, which takes the player from level 1 to level 20, where begins what enthusiasts call the “endgame”: a repeatable, more difficult set of tasks established for players in massively multiplayer games to acquire rewards and generally entertain themselves after all the new stuff has been seen. This early game, entirely distinct and self-contained, seems to be asking itself why. Why the loot grind, why the repetitive progression—why Destiny, essentially? What does any of it mean in a world where death is real, and out there, and waiting for us? It’s a question every player who bounced off the original game asked, and even quite a few who enjoyed it. Is there a point to all this?
You can take that question pretty far, ride it straight down the road to nihilism, cigarettes, and black berets. But it’s an important question to level at our entertainment, at our jobs, at all the things that take up our time: how do we make the world into something that matters to us in the short time we have?
In light of this question, the climactic moments of Destiny 2‘s story crackle with a new vitality. As the lone Guardian with special abilities to speak of, you become the sole hope of a generation of people staring death in the eye for the first time. You take risks they can’t, shooting through an army of evil space moles (I mean, it is still a videogame here) in the name of people who are risking everything to support you. It even has quiet grace notes, a reconciliation between the formerly immortal Guardians and the normal humans who have always lived beneath their rule. Everyone brought together in recognition of the most universal human experience imaginable. Seeing the risk, and deciding to fight anyway. And Destiny 2 continues that way, taking that emotional core, along with a renewed focus on a series of places that feel real, to hit highs it’s never managed to get anywhere close to before.
Until it doesn’t. Until, in the last moments, as the final victory is achieved and the game transitions from the story-centric narrative campaign to the play-and-reward-centric endgame, Destiny 2 begins to forget what it spent a whole game learning.
First—and this is a mild spoiler, be warned—you return to the Tower. A new one, a bit prettier and more interesting than before but ultimately the same place, with the same static quest-givers and vendors as before. Ikora isn’t a character anymore. Her fear has been forgotten. Everyone gets their Light back, death is abolished for space superheroes everywhere, and players start doing the stuff they’re used to doing. Gathering rare gear, doing a small, repeated set of missions at escalating difficulties. In a surreal moment, you’re even tasked with setting up an in-universe system of beacons to access “Patrol” missions, the most shallow and time-wasting set of activities the first Destiny ever produced.
Destiny 2 is a game about dying, but it forgets, and then it gives you, the player, the responsibility of building the first Destiny all over again. Some of its rougher and more frustrating edges are rounded off, but fundamentally the same game. Not that Destiny has any responsibility to become something different than it is, or that there’s anything wrong with what it becomes. I played the original Destiny for years, warts and all, and on some level I’m very happy to play a streamlined version of that for a few more.
But it’s disorienting. The clarity of a brush with death dissolves into the existential malaise of everyday life. It feels self-justifying, an almost desperate drive to return the Destiny series to the exact same point it started at. Bungie forces its players to see its game with fresh eyes, and then it puts them back to the same tasks, gathering treasures on earth that they won’t get to take with them to space heaven. It feels like being blindfolded and spun around, brought to a surprise party that ends up being in your own living room, with no guests. Just your roommates, a gaggle of magic sci-fi superheroes and one or two normal people who live in the back room as a reminder of what fear felt like.
Welcome home, Guardian. Look around. Everything’s back to normal. This is what you wanted. Isn’t it?