Destiny 2 combat is a punchy, kinetic joy

Destiny 2 [official site] comes with a lot of baggage. It’s the PC debut of an enormously successful new series from a mega-developer, and the original is precisely the kind of multiplayer co-op shooter that even some die-hard fans are a little burned out on after nearly three years of DLC and grinding for gear.

Enter Adam. I came to Destiny 2, at E3 last week, with barely enough baggage to fill a pencil case, having only played the demo of the original, and am immediately greedy for more. Whatever more it might offer. Destiny 2 is colour and light and the majestic spectacle of a Saturday morning cartoon and a space opera fused into a punchily satisfying shooter.

My play session took place at the Nvidia booth at E3. The console version of the game was elsewhere and placing the PC version on a hardware stand was a statement of intent in and of itself: this is one of those games that show you what your expensive machines are capable of. I’ve spoken to enough people who see the sequel as something of an interloper on PC that the attempt to sell this version as the ultimate, be-all-and-end-all incarnation of Destiny 2 could easily seem like overcompensation; the guy who wasn’t really invited to the party, then shows up late but brings a truckload of liquor.

Frankly, if Destiny 2 is buying, then I’m drinking, because it’s not just gorgeous, it’s a proper sci-fi shooter.

I need to clarify the use of the word “proper” there and I’ll do so by introducing another word: “sponges”. Bullet sponges, specifically.

The first time I shot one of the flame-throwing alien beasties that make up parts of the initial onslaught in Destiny 2’s first campaign mission, I recalibrated my expectations significantly. Talk of loot and incremental weapon upgrades, as well as MMO-like special abilities, had led me to expect enemies with hitbars that whittled down bit by bit. I thought I’d be in for a bit of a slog – an enjoyable slog perhaps, but a slog nonetheless. So imagine my surprise when a couple of shots to the canister on the thing’s back caused a thumping great explosion that sent the creature somersaulting through the air, and blasted some of its buddies tumbling backwards.

Sure, these are the first enemies in the game, so they’re obviously going to be somewhat feeble, but I was using a bog standard gun and everything just felt so beautifully kinetic.

Jumping lacks weight, which I found to my disappointment as my Warlock character got stuck halfway up a wall and slowly trickled down the side of it. The fight was taking place on some kind of space station/ship or orbital platform, so it’s possible that gravity was all awry, but it’s also possible the warlock has magical jetboosters on the soles of his feet or his bottom. I have no idea.

There are lots of confusing things in Destiny 2, and perhaps a knowledge of the first game wouldn’t have helped me to overcome them given that the game’s director has admitted a big chunk of the original game’s lore didn’t make a great deal of sense.

All I know is that a wizard came from the moon. Destiny’s entire setting is essentially a meme in my mind.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some glorious space spectacles though, and Destiny 2 delivers immediately and repeatedly. Enormous guns cast shadows across the ship’s surface, booming as they send their payloads toward enemy vessels. Everything is turned up to eleven. There are no single-seater fighters to be seen, just hulking great capital ships tearing each other and an entire planet’s surface to pieces. I was reminded of Battlefront 2, a game that relies on recognition to create so much of its impact; Destiny 2 is completely alien to me, but the star war unfolding is something I very much want to be a part of.

It doesn’t rely on cutscenes, having these scenes of combat and destruction on a ridiculous scale play out right in front of your eyes, as you play. You’re at the periphery of the fight rather than in the centre of it, attempting to fulfil specific objectives to serve the greater good rather than participating in the battle as a frontline soldier, but the world is wonderfully alive, even as it burns.

And the fights I found myself in were distracting enough to drag my attention away from the preposterously impressive displays going on in space. The kinetic quality runs through the movement as well as the shooting. There’s a slightly frustrating opening segment that involves fighting off several waves of enemies, while occasionally having to retreat beneath an AI ally’s shield (magic shield or tech shield? I DO NOT KNOW) as fire rains down from above. The bubble effect of the shield is as handsome as everything else in the game, but the fight-fight-retreat rhythm becomes a little tiresome even though there are only three small waves to destroy.

Once Destiny 2 gives you the freedom to jump and run and whip out a great energy sword, it finds a satisfying pace in no time. There is something of the ARPG about it, your character being so overpowered against the grunts and then occasionally meeting tougher elites and bosses, but there’s nothing of the clickity-clicky about movement and combat.

It’s a proper, honest-to-goodness, mouse and keyboard shooter, that rewards accuracy, speed and precision rather than careful management of cool-downs and clever use of loot. I didn’t even collect any loot because I wanted to reach the end of the mission before I ran out of time, and fumbling through inventories seemed like a dangerous distraction. Truth be told, I was too busy popping flame canisters and lining up headshots to worry about the details of the weapon I was using.

That’s remarkable in itself. I love loot to a degree that would make me a massive nerd even if I wasn’t already a massive nerd for a hundred other reasons. I love inventory management as well, which makes me a completely hopeless case, but also precisely the kind of person Destiny 2’s RPG bits and bobs are aimed at. But there I was, playing a game that felt good enough as a shooter that I didn’t even care about my +1 modifiers and status effects. Imagine Diablo or Path of Exile had actual melee combat worth playing with in its own right. Imagine World of Warcraft did.

Quite how well Destiny 2 will hold up over hours, weeks and months rather than thirty minutes, I can’t rightly say. As well as snubbing the loot system, I only played singleplayer, and just the one mission from the campaign. It put all of my doubts to rest though. Proper shooting, with great tracking of hit locations, weapons that feel dangerous rather than like whittling knives, and a ridiculous, glorious sci-fi setting.

This is definitely a game that I want. Even the boss I killed wasn’t enough of a bullet sponge to make my eyes roll, and it used movement and different attack types to offer a threat beyond its hitpoint count.

Of course, it’s worth nothing that I was playing it at its absolute best, in 4K at 60 fps. The machine running it could probably have stood in as a prop spaceship model, and there’s no way I’ll get the same performance here at home. But on the right PC, it’ll be one of the most beautiful games around. It’s not just the technical qualities, it’s the design, which is colourful where so many games would tend toward mood and gloom, and has a sense of scale that allows it to be the sci-fi fantasy I hoped it might be.

I’ve only seen a small slice, but it’s a delicious slice. Whether I’ll be able to make any sense of the story, with its moon wizards and Guardians but-not-of-the-Galaxy, I do not know. Perhaps I’ll miss the satisfaction of these initial shoot-outs when the complexity ramps up and I’m trying to match damage types to enemy vulnerabilities, but at its core, Destiny 2 is something I hadn’t expected. A shooter worth its salt, even without the joy of companionship and loot.

Destiny 2 will be out October 24th.

32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Eh, the Warlock jump is just terrible generally. It plateaus rather early but allows you to glide around significantly longer than either the Titan or the Hunter can… on the other hand the Titan’s jetpack (rocketboots) is more balanced and satisfactory overall, and the Hunter’s double/triple jump is very akin to a platformer character – not amazing but still more fun to play with than the Warlock jump. At least in Destiny 1.

  2. MooseMuffin says:

    Destiny 1 had plenty of big picture problems, but the moment to moment gameplay was spot on. They nailed the shooting feel in a way few other games do.

    • Maxheadroom says:

      Couldnt have put it more succinctly myself. Never played vanilla Destiny only coming into it with the Taken King (3rd expansion), and as much as I enjoyed a quick blast now and then I dont see D2 being different enough to draw me back.

      Another factor is that as a predominantly solo player I almost never saw the inside of a raid due to there being no matchmaking for them (the company line being ‘get friends or go home’).
      They’ve made a token effort towards addressing this in D2 with Mentoring or whatever its called (opening up a space in an already formed raid to let a random scrub join – and most likely fill the role of punching bag when things go wrong) but its a token effort at best

  3. caff says:

    This all sounds rather good. I have no knowledge of Destiny but I’m interested, given your excitement about it.

  4. Bostec says:

    Get the combat right in a long term MMO and your good, just look at World of Warcraft. Its the secret sauce.

    • Premium User Badge

      Nauallis says:

      Spotted the guy who has never played WoW.

    • theallmightybob says:

      That was the worst part of wow for me, its a horrid way to do PVP and its meh for PVE.

  5. Catweasel says:

    I guess the shooting is better than it looks? Everything looks really bullet spongey and boring when I watch gameplay footage. :X

    • UncleLou says:

      Is there a shooter outside of ArmA that is not “bullet spongey” – that’s a serious question, not a passive aggressive one. :)

      I see this complaint every time, and I rarely get it – neither do I ever see it directed at any other genre (are the enemies in Dark Souls “arrow sponges”, or “sword blow sponges”?), nor do I have any idea how an (action) shooter would look like where enemies are not bullet sponges. Like the Dynasty Warrior games (that would require that the player character is a bullet sponge though, unless we’re fighting Stormtroopers), or should every game feel like ArmA?

      Anyway, Destiny 1, for all its problems, felt great as a shooter. You could tell that it was made by a studio that made nothing but first-person shooters for a decade or so. It does have stats at its heart, though, much like Borderlands (but it’s a much better FPS than BL), so it might be more bullet spongey than you want.

      • main says:

        UncleLou: try Killing Floor 2 or Rising Storm 2, both from Tripwire, very good gun play, sounds, animations and the general feeling but also monsters in KF2 are not sponges, they have location based damage and can lead to some hilarious firefights. Give it a go, free this week.

        • Premium User Badge

          boundless08 says:

          Destiny also has location based damage, headshots to most enemies with a revolver or scout rifle will kill it in one shot, also on some enemies shooting different areas can have different effects.

          I think people should also note that the Cabal(enemies from the videos) are the most spongey of all the enemies in Destiny. Like, just look at them! They’re massive and covered in armour, you’d expect them to take some hits. There’s also really quick fragile enemies with 6 appendages and robotic enemies that attack in waves and can teleport. I know this is the internet though and we like to judge everything at face value

      • haldolium says:

        Bulletsponges are usually a mechanic used in heavy grind PvE coop games such as Borderlands or Devision and are not a definition of HP bars or armor/shields.

        Many/most MP shooters have OHK-mechanics and are far away from anything spongy and equally far away from Armed Assault insta-wtf-death.

        /e

        think this video sums up the very definition quite good: link to youtube.com

      • Paradukes says:

        I think the reason enemies mainly get classed as “Bullet-sponges” rather than “Sword-sponges” is that Dark Souls and similar have much more interesting melee combat. There’s a fluid dance to the motion; swing, dodge, counter, swing, riposte. Whereas in a shooter, it comes down to “Hold trigger until one of you is dead”.

        Obviously there are good shooters with more interesting mechanics, just as there are bad melee combat games with less interesting mechanics. Basically it boils down to how much you have to think about attacking; if you’re pressing one or two buttons maximum and have to do it a hundred times, you’re fighting sponges. If you’re dancing across the battlefield with a sword or shotgun, weaving in and out of combat, it doesn’t matter how much health an enemy has; they’re generally not considered a sponge.

        TL-DR: It all depends on how interesting / fun it is.

      • fish99 says:

        Most shooters I’ve played, for regular enemies you can usually take them down with a single headshot from one of your better weapons.

        I wouldn’t call the average enemies in Dark Souls spongy either, they go down pretty quick, but can equally take your health down quickly. You also have to continually dodge, anticipate and reposition yourself in Dark Souls.

      • that_guy_strife says:

        It’s called Hardcore mode. I used to tremendously enjoy playing Call of Duty stoned on that mode. Just roaming and killing. No bullshit – move fast, shoot faster. Pumping rounds into a guy only to have him turn around and headshot me while at 1 % health always drove me nuts.

        I then switched to BF4 (still on Hardcore)when I quit smoking pot. Unfortunately, it would seem the vast majority of gamers are pussies who can’t deal with getting killed by less than 3 bullets, and so those modes die very fast (meaning the game also dies for me).

        I understand hitpoints in games like Quake and UT, but CS, BF and COD ?

  6. AutonomyLost says:

    I’m genuinely looking forward to the release of Destiny 2 on the PC. Thanks for the write-up, Adam!

  7. brucethemoose says:

    This reminds me of Andromeda. Good combat, and… Yeah. I’m gonna watch alot of gameplay videos before getting this.

  8. brucethemoose says:

    Also you mentioned something about gameplay videos looking boring.

    Whenever I see the “official” gameplay videos, it sometimes looks like the player has barely held a controller before. When the twitch/YT streams start coming, gameplay looks more more lively and fluid.

  9. Chairman_Meow says:

    Rock Solid 60FPS!!!!! Native 4k!!!!! (Do the E3 everybody!)

    • Premium User Badge

      Don Reba says:

      E3 did not invent running games at a decent frame rate and high resolution, you know.

      • hennedo says:

        I think the reference was to noise and superlatives as opposed to performance, specifically.

    • PiiSmith says:

      On the Xbox One X (XXX)!

  10. Thirith says:

    Shooters aren’t at the top of my list of favourite genres, doubly so MP shooters and triply so shooters on console (I enjoy console gaming as much as PC gaming, but when it comes to shooters I favour KBAM).

    Nevertheless, I found myself surprised to enjoy Destiny on PS4 a hell of a lot. Yes, the writing is often ludicrous (though as bombastic sci-fi cheese it’s actually kinda enjoyable, especially because of the majority of voice actors and delivery) and the game itself isn’t highly original. But damn if it doesn’t feel great playing it. In terms of *feel*, it’s one of the greatest titles I’ve played. That’s not usually what I look for in games, but I definitely found it in spades in Destiny. I never binge played it, but it was one of the greatest games to play in the evening after a day at the office and before going to bed. It’s easy to underestimate what the game does well and to dismiss it out of hand, but Bungie are smart and capable – though in ways that don’t make for in-depth criticism and sociocritical essays on video games.

    • PiiSmith says:

      Whenever I am forced to play a shooter with a controller (Happened only on trade shows so far.) I give up after a few minutes. I feel like playing a shooter the first time, though I have done this since the 90s.

  11. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Wait, are we talking offline singleplayer here? Or Diablo III always-online? If there was proper offline singleplay, I might even be tempted :o (but not expecting it, to be honest, just some of the wording there and I thought… maybe… just…)

    • that_guy_strife says:

      Well, Destiny is basically Diablo/WoW with guns, published by basically the same company. While offline singleplayer would be nice … it’s really not what they’re aiming for. Sorry.

  12. Zealuu says:

    Warlocks glide. That’s their double jump. Not sure how the skill tree looks in Destiny 2 or if there even is one, but Destiny 1 at first gave you the option to glide either faster or more accurately. HOWEVER, further down the line it also gave you the option to replace the glide with a Blink ability, which I think everyone did, particularly for PvP. I certainly did and never looked back. I did hear someone say they had removed the Hunter’s blink ability for Destiny 2, which makes me worried for the Warlock.

    You shouldn’t have to go through people’s inventories to loot. At least I hope not. This was one thing Destiny 1 did very right – you don’t have to pause the action or fiddle with menus to loot. Some loot drops are added automatically to your inventory, but the majority of them burst from dying enemies in the shape of loot-colored, d20-looking balls called engrams. All you do is run over these balls and they’re added to your inventory, ready to be decrypted (identified) later. They also glow, so they’re easy to spot in dark environments.

    The main thing this preview makes me hopeful about, is that they have decreased the mean time to kill on most enemies (although when properly kitted out, you would also run through trash mobs in Destiny 1 like a hot knife through butter) and made the bosses less bulletspongey. So many boss fights in Destiny 1 opted to forgo interesting encounter design in favour of making the boss fight pure 15-20 minute endurance matches.

    @Rao Dao Zao Destiny 1 never had an offline mode, I doubt 2 will either. Your characters are stored server-side and you have to log in to play.

  13. Stevostin says:

    Well you tell a story that’s entirely opposite to what videos show. Which is awful art (as opposed to… Destiny 1, say…), awful rendering, awful IA and what seems to be a gameplay adapted to the aiming speed of a pad, not a mouse. I really hope you’re right and those videos are misleading.

    • Stevostin says:

      Just found a PC video played with mouse and actually it kinds of backyou up. AI still seems awful but that may not be too important. Visual is below everything Bethesda but more or less ok. Design is awful for hostiles, but ships are still nice.
      All in all, interested. Story looks much less interesting than Borderlands 2 though.

  14. tslog says:

    I see that no one cares about AI, again, which actually betrays the severe lack another version of AI – Actual intelligence – because looking at those early enemies in Destiny 2, they are stupid fat shooting bags. Every think why they are so large and round those early enemies ? So to make them easier to shoot. Setting up a mindlessness of repetition the carries on in the combat from the first terrible Destiny.

    To not even mention AI in a Bungie game where they were famous for from that halo series, is just so poor. But it keeps happening again and again years on end.

    No wonder we don’t get desperately needed improvements in AI, because gamers and the games media generally don’t really want it.

    • Chromatose says:

      I’ve heard many strange hot takes on videogame development in my time, but complaining that the AI in a game is bad because the NPCs are too fat is a new one for sure