Together alone: a misanthrope's guide to Destiny 2
Can you play this multiplayer game as a singleplayer one?
Destiny 2 [official site], Bungie's game of unblinking science-fictional loot acquisition, is due on PC later this month, but it's already enjoyed a few apparently very successful weeks of online robot-bothering and gun-collecting on console. The Destiny games are most heavily associated with players working together to take down big bosses and obtain the hardest-won loot, but there's a certain sect of us who aren't as comfortable communicating with strangers over a microphone. What does Destiny 2 have for us, the folk who like to think of ourselves as too-cool-for-school loners but are considered to be miserable, uncooperative gits by everyone else?
Bad news: you can't avoid people entirely, even if you want to. After an introductory hour or two in which you are The One True Hero, there's an abrupt and disorientating switch that sees you go from a series of apparently singular adventures and impossible accomplishments to being dumped unceremoniously into a pleasantly rural hub. Here you're surrounded by other players, all of which also boast the same superheroic powers as you and also queue up to take tasks from the major NPCs. You Are Not Important After All, Destiny 2 seems to declare. And you're not. You're just one more shmoe on the commuter train, like everyone else.
This is fine: this is Destiny, and if you bought it expecting a solo shooter then I don't know what to do with you. I would say, though, that this transition is very badly handled. None of the achingly earnest and generally over-long cutscenes and conversations mention, let alone seek to explain, your suddenly reduced status, and subsequent missions maintain the You Are The Chosen One lie, hoping that you'll just go along with it.
This is a Forever Problem in MMOs, of course, but the elaborate singleplayer funnel that Destiny 2 throws you down at first just makes it a little more jarring than usual. As does the FPS structuring - our solo shootin' and our multiplayer shootin' are usually siloed off into discrete modes. Here, everything happens at once - but, importantly, there's one specific place where the apparently contradictory values cross over beautiful. I'll get back to that later, though.
First, let's talk about some other good news. Despite the poison presence of other actual human beings, with their callous disregard that all videogames are made for you and you alone, this is not an insubstantial singleplayer videogame.
Even after the point at which Oz pulls back his curtain to reveal a world of hopping players queuing up to buy new spacehats (N.B.: just like me), he keeps on feeding you lengthy, exciting missions designed for you and you alone. Unless, of course, you transgress against all that is right and proper and specifically invite a friend or two to join you.
At any point during this, you can also pursue a number of explicitly co-operative or competitive activities, but if you want to mainline Destiny 2 as if it were essentially a new Halo campaign (as well as a developer, Destiny 2 shares with Halo the collision of cool space structures with a dry and tiresome excess of spacemagic lore), you pretty much can. Depending on your particular metric for what constitutes a substantial FPS campaign, and depending on how much of a headshot crackshot you are, I'd say Destiny 2's missions wind up offering somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the singleplayer norm. 8-12 hours: fairly comparable to a Call of Duty or Battlefield, really, but not as generous as, say, a Wolfenstein: New Order or Doom 2016.
You might see other players in occasional sections of your missions, and certainly you'll run past a fair few between tasks as you run to grab your next objectives from a questgiver, but they're never during fights or setpieces, and they cannot join in with your tasks unless you invite them to yourself. So long as you can put out of your mind the occasional sighting of someone standing around with weapons four times as good as yours, you can somewhat maintain the pretence that the whole game is about you.
The corollary question here, of course, is "is Destiny 2 a good singleplayer game?" Well, two things there. The first is that playing it this way is scarcely unusual - pretty much everyone tackles the missions on their own, watching cutscenes, unlocking all their class abilities and working out which powers and weapon types they most enjoy. They are therefore designed to be played this way.
The second thing is that, again, it depends on your personal metric of what makes a good shooter campaign. If you want something that regularly switches things up like Wolfenstein: New Order, then no. Despite being set across a variety of planets, Destiny 2 essentially loops the same 15 minute experience again and again. It has some spectacular backdrops, some of which - huge otherworldly landscapes, vast crashed spaceships, mossy cityscapes, and even some lovely forests - gave me the 'I kinda want a bigger TV' urge, which I've not had for a half-decade by this point.
Those backdrops are just there though, the world's most expensive set-dressing. If you're lucky, you might jump across a chasm or float down a gravity well to the next shooty bit, but there's no meaningful use of these dramatic environments bar some deeply-misjudged first-person platforming sections. Destiny 2 is really only about what's inside your targeting reticule and the numbers on your gear. Luckily the shooting is reliably great - the fights are an intense barrage of aiming, reloading, taking cover to regain health, activating recharging superpowers to turn the tide just when all seems lost. It is never not exciting, never not seat of the pants.
The story and writing are, I felt, more to be endured than enjoyed, rife with exhausted tropes such as "we're much the same, you and I", hollow posturing and essentially being told to be impressed by someone rather than their doing anything to deserve it. It stutters between the impressive science-fictional sight of vast space stations under siege and simmering Christian overtones about the ill-defined concept of the 'light' which blesses all it shines upon with great power. Plus the baddies are as Videogame Baddie as it gets. If you love lore you'll get more from it, and I should point out that the tales told by the environments, packed with little details as well as grand landscapes, are superb even if the main story is one big wibble. Destiny 2 goes to great pains to be a story game, but no, I don't think it works as a story game. Not unless you're already a fan or have a low bar for characterisation in your big, noisy sci-fi tales.
Where all aspects of Destiny 2 come together, where it works best as a more or less singleplayer experience within a multiplayer framework, is the public events. These have been an MMO stable since the ill-fated Warhammer Online, and they remain a great concept. Essentially, every few minutes a horde of baddies invade a particular area, culminating in some manner of giganto-boss, and anyone passing can join in the fray. Where the 'solo' missions can be long and repetitive, public events are condensed and kinetic, a capsule version of Destiny 2's most compelling fights that mean a real sense of achievement in addition to whatever rewards you get for it.
Better still, from a misanthropic point of view, is that zero interaction with anyone else is required. A few people will be there, but it's not hard to treat them as little more than NPC support - there's no mic chatter unless you specifically enable it and there's no grouping actions required. Unless you're totally cack-handed, these events end up feeling like most any boss fight does: that it was all down to you. The health bar goes down as you fire, and even if that's in response to other people's shots too, the look and feel is as if it's all you.
Best of all though, it's the superior core of Destiny - excellent gunplay, evolving on the Halo-style two-weapon/different tools for different enemies formula, and big robo-bosses in big sci-fi surroundings - with none of the fluff and none of the faff around it. My life (or, let's be honest, personality) is not such that I can resolve to embark on some hours-long raid or two with a coordinated group for an evening, but knowing I can grab twenty minutes of shooty-bang fun with a climactic encounter, and a new toy at the end of it, suits me down to the ground.
When I think about if and why I will play Destiny 2 on PC, it's these that answer that question. I don't want to go on raids. I don't want to talk to anyone. I don't want any more of these dreary cutscenes. I just want to spend a little chunk of my evening shooting great big things with great-feeling weapons, and then exit the game feeling like I've achieved something. Destiny 2, I'm glad to say, supports that. Be as grumpy and sociophobic as you like: there is a still a game for you here.
Destiny 2 is due for PC release on October 24.