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.