All MMOs end up fighting a constant battle against entropy. The bulk of MMO development takes place after they are released: new content and systems are added, existing systems are streamlined, and some aspects of the game are rendered entirely obsolete. This rapid and constant change inevitably produces more than a few evolutionary dead-ends. Fire up any popular MMO and you’ll instantly be confronted by the signs of a game at war with itself; your journey up the levelling ladder will invariably take you past the corpses of game mechanics that were really, really important for one expansion before being discarded by the designers in favour of the next big thing. The longer an MMO is released, the worse a problem this becomes; World Of Warcraft is the unquestioned barnacle-encrusted nautilus champion of abandoned and now-irrelevant expansion features1, but even the younger examples such as Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy 14 are starting to groan under the weight of their own history.
The good news is that this entropic decay is usually a gradual, creeping process that takes years to fully manifest. Most MMOs have at least one or two expansion packs’ worth of breathing room before their design and structure starts to become obviously unfocused. And this makes Destiny 2 a deeply impressive game, in a way, because where it took half a decade or more for entropy to start claiming other MMOs, Destiny 2 has managed to develop itself into a state of almost total incoherence in just two short years.
I played Destiny 2 at launch. It struck me as a perfectly decent game — not quite the same thing as the original Destiny, but that was fine because I didn’t like Destiny all that much. It took much more of its general design thrust from the quick gameplay loops of ARPGs such as Diablo 3 than it did the crushing grind of a full MMO that Destiny was originally modelled on, and I thought it was all the better for it. Interestingly it seemed to be structured so that it had a concrete end point where most players were intended to put down the game for a while until the next expansion pack, which made a lot of sense to me because I think this is how the majority of players play these big online experiences2. I heavily dislike games that effectively present themselves as a full-time job because I already have one of those, thanks very much, and I’m prepared to forgive much of a game that at least seems like it knows when to stop.
So Destiny 2’s plot was utter balls and the strikes seemed a bit rote and the Crucible had been turned into some awful 6-player thing in the name of chasing esports money, but the core shooting experience was about as good as you’ll ever find in an FPS and I could play it for thirty-odd hours (which, in MMO terms, is not long at all) and still feel like I’d achieved some closure on a relatively satisfying game. That was more than the original Destiny managed, and so Destiny 2 felt like an improvement. Unfortunately some stuff then happened:
- The hardcore Destiny playerbase all but rioted. They’d spent thousands of hours grinding up light levels one at a time in Destiny, and they wanted to do the same in Destiny 2. Where was the grind? What was this shit where you just played it for a few dozen hours and then put it down? Bungie bowed to the pressure and the item and quest systems went through several redesign iterations that made them considerably more baroque — and confusing. There are whole gameplay strands that are now based solely around rolling the same item over and over again in order to try and get a perfect combination of stats. The hardcore playerbase is now happy, but this retooling of so much of the game’s fundamental driving force strikes me as a colossal waste of time and development effort for little gain.
- Bungie split from corporate overlords Activision. Given what’s happened to Blizzard in recent years this is almost definitely a smart move in the long term; however it does mean that the game was being driven in one direction by Activision and then suddenly got turned in another by Bungie. It also deprived Bungie of the Activision-owned studios that were supporting Destiny 2’s development.
- Destiny 2 went free-to-play. Again, from a long-term business perspective this is a very smart move, as it already had a comprehensive set of microtransactions built into it at launch and they’ve only added more ways to feed money into the game since then (such as the now ubiquitous Fortnite-style battle pass). Moving to a full F2P model will guarantee the game’s long-term health while maximising revenue and giving Bungie enough time to get whatever they’re working on next out of the door. It also means that Bungie have had to retool the game again in order to try and onboard this vast influx of new players without forcing them to sit through the 12-hour Red War campaign that much of Destiny 2’s content was originally locked behind.
In short, the two years of Destiny 2 post-release development have been nothing but redesigns and major shifts in direction. When you combine that with four named expansion releases it’s really no surprise that it’s such an utterly indescribable mess of a game, especially since, like Firaxis, Bungie strike me as one of those companies that’s now almost totally disinterested in surfacing how their game actually works to first-time players. They’re not designing for that audience any more; they’re designing for their hardcore playerbase who have hundreds or thousands of hours invested in the game and already know it like the back of their hand. (Which is very much at odds with their recent F2P release and their onboarding funnel dropoff must look more like a cliff at points.) They don’t feel the need to explain themselves at any point, and this ethos is reflected in almost every single aspect of Destiny 2.
So what did the retooling for the F2P release actually entail, then? Well, what it was really designed to do was to ensure that people who were just starting the game could play with people who had been playing it for years by immediately unlocking every single piece of non-paid content. Destiny 2 used to have a campaign where the Cabal invaded the boxy Tower that the Guardian player characters call home and separated them from their powers; this set things up so that players could have basic Destiny concepts such as strikes, equipment, light level, subclasses and supers gradually reintroduced to them over the course of the campaign. It wasn’t the most original concept (every single Metroid game ever made starts like this, for example) and the plot itself was pure nonsense, but it at least fulfilled the basic duty every videogame has of teaching its players how to play it. Unfortunately this campaign is no longer the first thing a player experiences when they boot up Destiny 2 for the first time; it’s instead been replaced by the notoriously awful tutorial from Destiny 1 which has inexplicably been ported into the sequel. This does nothing more than teach basic FPS controls, and when it’s over the game immediately fast-forwards to the end of Destiny 2’s original campaign. All of Destiny 1 — the fight against the giant blob in the Black Garden, the business with the Taken King, whatever the fuck happened in Rise Of Iron — and all of Destiny 2’s launch content is assumed to happen during the loading screen that separates the player jumping in their ship at the end of the D1 tutorial and them spawning into the Tower for the first time.
This is an unconventional approach that results in some… unusual consequences. For example, there used to be a conventional RPG levelling system supporting the original campaign, where you’d gradually unlock abilities and subclasses as you levelled up and then eventually transitioned to item light level once you maxed out your regular level towards the end of the campaign and had fully gotten to grips with your character. With the F2P release this levelling system has been thrown straight into the garbage: all new players start with all subclasses and abilities unlocked (good luck making sense of that) and have their starting light level boosted to 750, because that’s where everyone else is after two years of grinding3. I get that Bungie didn’t want a situation where new F2P players bought the Shadowkeep expansion and then couldn’t play it for a dozen hours or more while they ground up their light to an appropriate level, but arguably all this truly achieves is to expose how vacuous Destiny’s light level progression system really is; it’s just a meaningless number that goes up and Bungie can arbitrarily set the scale however and wherever they like.
Another consequence is that new players — or even returning players who haven’t played since launch, as I did — are confronted with an absolutely baffling cornucopia of content after getting out of the tutorial without being given any accompanying context that would help them make sense of it. The only content that’s locked off from non-paying players are the Forsaken raid and campaign and the currently-active Shadowkeep content, and at first glance this is a ridiculously generous package: F2P players get all of the launch content, all of the Warmind and Curse Of Osiris content, the Forsaken strikes and patrol areas, and the first Shadowkeep strike and patrol area, all without paying a penny. The big thing here is that most of this content is almost totally flat and can be tackled in any order. You can instantly jump into any strike in the game, You can go to any patrol area without having to unlock them first. The Crucible and Gambit multiplayer matchmaking is immediately open to you. And this is actually kind of a problem, because Destiny 2 doesn’t breadcrumb a single goddamn thing besides pointing out some key NPCs in the Tower4, which is the Destiny 2 equivalent of being told where the toilets are on your first day at work. Otherwise you’re just thrown into a world that now has something like eleven distinct destinations to visit and god knows how many matchmaking queues and left to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing.
To say this has resulted in some confusion amongst new players is putting it lightly. Bungie giving away the Red War campaign along with the Warmind and Curse of Osiris campaigns is generous, to be sure — but it’s also not advertised to the player in any way. I’ve seen multiple people report that they weren’t aware Destiny 2 even had a campaign because the start point for them is so out-of-the-way. Getting to grips with the Tower NPCs takes a few hours at the best of times, but even when you do it turns out the campaign quests aren’t with any of the ones you regularly visit as part of Destiny 2’s daily and weekly bounty/loot loop. No, if you want to find the campaign content you have to walk down a very long corridor to an isolated dead-end hangar with a single ship mechanic NPC in it and nobody else (so you never go down there unless you want to visit her); the ship mechanic sells some crappy ship skins, but also happens to have the Red War + DLC campaigns on her because… I couldn’t actually tell you why, I can’t fathom the design logic that led Bungie to effectively hide all of the free plot content in Destiny 2 in the deepest darkest portion of the Tower that they could find. Hell, I didn’t realise it was down there until I’d been playing it for a couple of dozen hours, and I’m quite good at picking up on stuff like this.
This is hardly an exception, either, since the quest and bounty system in general is a complete car crash of design. You can hold up to 63 quests or bounties at once but you can only actively track three of them in your Ghost overlay, with the rest having to be checked via the quest menu which subscribes to the “giant disorganized pile of stuff” school of UI design. For extra confusion, quest items are also stored in your quest menu and not distinguished from the actual quests in any way. Some of these quest items are actually portals to whole subsystems that were important in previous seasons of content, but which are barely advertised to the player now. Even the wording on the quests is by turns misleading or simply out-of-date. I had a bounty to “Open five chests on the Moon”, except it apparently doesn’t count chests dropped by special enemies, chests obtained by completing public events, chests at the bottom of Lost Sectors or region chests, which together make up probably 90% of the chests you find in an average play session on the Moon. I had a quest that said I should “Complete 3 challenges”, but which didn’t explain what a challenge was. I had another quest that asked me to go into the Triumph menu (Destiny’s ingame achievement system) and click on a specific Triumph, except there are about 1000 Triumphs in the game and the Triumph system is a labyrinthine mess and it doesn’t signpost in which sub-sub-sub-menu you’re supposed to find the target Triumph, and so the only way to find it is to go through and click on all of your recently-unlocked Triumphs. Since I hadn’t been doing this regularly I had about 50 of these to go through before I found the one that the quest wanted.
This brings me to a wider point about Destiny 2’s UI. I namechecked Firaxis earlier and I’m reminded quite uncomfortably of a criticism I made in my Civilization 6 review: Bungie clearly regard keeping the Destiny 2 UI understandable — and by extension, Destiny 2 itself understandable — as a secondary priority. Unlike Civ 6 I can at least understand how Destiny 2 got into the state it’s in; as with so much of the game, the pace of development and the rapid changes in direction must have made presenting all of these new and conflicting systems via a UI that was definitely not originally designed to accommodate them very, very difficult. The thing is, though, I can think of maybe one menu in the game that isn’t a disaster area: it’s the clan menu, and that’s only because Bungie have barely touched clan mechanics since release. The Destinations menu should be a very clean interface because it’s just a collection of pictures of where you can go on an adventure next, but it’s also got these little yellow circles next to specific nodes on its map. What do these mean? Mousing over them is no help, and there’s no key telling you what they are; it turns out they’re the missing challenges that had baffled me so when I encountered them in the quest menu, but I had to figure that out on my own. Bungie have overhauled their clean and simple equipment system to include RPG stats on every piece of armour, and now you get minor bonuses for having these stat totals meet or exceed certain breakpoints — but the inventory screen won’t tell you if putting on a new pair of trousers or slotting a new mod will increase or decrease a stat total past one of these breakpoints and you have to do the maths yourself. That’s the big problem in general: I have to do too much of the work the UI should be doing for me, whether it’s adding some numbers together or working out what major game mechanics mean. It’s a constant source of irritation because the UI is, well, the UI: the means by which I interact with the game. I am using it 100% of the time I am playing it, and if it is shit — and Destiny 2’s UI is utterly, abjectly shit — then I am constantly being confronted with shit. It’s not exactly something calculated to endear a game to me, you know?
That’s why I’m less willing to forgive some of Destiny 2’s more conventional fuckups than I would be otherwise. The loot pool is laughably small; exotic drops are rarer than they were on release and so you end up picking up the same three sets of legendary armour over and over again. That’s probably somewhat intentional since, as I said earlier, much of the loot system is now focused on repeatedly rerolling items until you get a perfect stat combination, but it’s not particularly interesting for me as a casual player. The game still showers loot on you, but after the first ten hours you’ll have seen 95% of all of the drops it has to offer; this means that seeing a purple engram fly out of an enemy’s exploding head fails to spark any joy as you know it’s not even going to boost your light level by more than a fraction. Picking up loot in Destiny 2 is boring, as it just leads to inventory management instead of cool new abilities, and this is a huge problem seeing as the acquisition of new loot is the major predicate of Destiny 2’s core loop. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the battle pass, which hands out the same five pieces of armour over and over again and expects me to treat this as some kind of reward. It also gives you zone resources which you’re supposed to hand in for zone-specific equipment drops — but again, this equipment is all legendary-grade (i.e. trash) with no increase in light level and none of the exotic properties that would make it interesting. The only reason you’d particularly want to go for it is if you liked the look.
And then there’s the netcode issues. Since Bungie introduced cross-save between platforms I could port my PS4 characters across to PC and play the Steam F2P release of Destiny 2, and mostly this has been great. The shooting has been designed to feel fantastic on a controller and it feels doubly so when using mouse and keyboard, it looks and performs far better thanks to the much more powerful hardware I have inside my gaming PC, and the magic of SSDs ensures that the interminably long loading screens have been cut down to a fraction of their original length5. However, at least once per session the game will boot me out of whatever I’m doing with an error message saying I’ve lost my internet connection. This is a lie. I know this is a lie, because the moment it happens I can immediately check the connection on my other monitor and see that everything is fine; if the connection is being lost then it’s happening for a fraction of a second at most, and Destiny 2 thinking otherwise probably has more to do with its netcode being stitched together out of rainbows and hope than the quality of my internet service. To add insult to injury this error doesn’t just boot me out of my session, it crashes Destiny 2 entirely, and — somehow — Steam along with it, which is another indication that all is not well with Destiny 2 networking code on PC.
Destiny 2 post-release development hasn’t all been bad. The additional DLC content, which is mostly being given away for free now, has served to bulk out the game considerably with the addition of five new patrol zones and many new strikes, even if the strikes are all “walk through dungeon shooting baddies and then shoot a boss”. The Gambit PvPvE mode is possibly the single most innovative thing Destiny has ever done: two teams of four compete to shoot enemies for points which they then dump into a central bank while trying to stop the other team from interfering too much. It’s nothing too special, but it still feels oddly daring considering how conventional the rest of the game is. The Menagerie is a series of unfailable raid-lite encounters for anyone bored to death with strikes (and trust me, you’ll get bored of them quite quickly), and there’s a couple of horde modes present which are perfectly serviceable if you just want to shoot things for 10-15 minutes. And, most importantly of all, there’s a five-minute cutscene of the incredibly annoying android Cayde-6 being beaten to death at the start of Forsaken which I very much enjoyed. Bungie are sneaking some good stuff in here despite the prevailing design ethos of building the game for the hardcore obsessives and leaving everyone else to sink or swim. Thanks to that ethos I don’t think Destiny 2 would be an incredible game if the last two years had been more stable for them, but it does at least prove that somebody at that studio still knows what they’re doing.
It’s not remotely enough, though. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time trying to decipher all of Destiny 2’s systems, trying to dig my way through all of the layers of misinformation and obfuscatory bullshit to try and see something that’s worthwhile in the long-term; something beyond shooting an endless procession of robots and aliens in the head, which Destiny 2 admittedly does do rather well. Unfortunately since rolling the same item 20 times in a row doesn’t really appeal to me I’m forced to conclude that there isn’t really a reason to continue with it. Importantly this doesn’t feel like a natural end to my time with the game the way it did when I played it at launch; I’m only halfway through the Forsaken plot and haven’t even started Warmind or Curse of Osiris, so there’s still stuff for me to do that’s not embarking on some preposterously long quest chain of “Kill 1500 enemies with a tuning fork so that you can get a golden version of the tuning fork”, but I just don’t feel like doing it. None of the game’s progression systems mean anything to me any more, and so the only reason I would do any Destiny content now is for its own sake, and when measured on that scale Destiny 2 is laughably inadequate outside of the raids6. When I look back on my time with the game this time around, instead of a mild feeling of satisfaction I just feel empty. Not sad, or angry, or annoyed, just… empty. Emptiness is not the emotional reaction I was expecting after spending two full days of my life playing it, but after some thought I’ve decided that it’s an almost perfect reflection of the meaningless pile of goop that is Destiny 2.
- Hey, remember the Garrisons in Warlords of Draenor? The legendary weapons from Legion? Blizzard would really rather you didn’t. ↩
- I still need to write a follow-on thing about Final Fantasy 14, but one of the reasons I like that game so much is because it’s explicitly designed for people to be able to do this. ↩
- Exactly what the players who actually did grind for those light levels think about this I do not know; I presume at least some of them aren’t exactly happy about it. ↩
- Okay, not quite true, it also gives you three introductory quests: do a strike, visit a patrol area and, uh… do the Leviathan raid? Really, Bungie? You don’t think that might be a little ambitious for somebody who’s been playing the game for all of fifteen minutes? ↩
- Except when accessing a high-population area like the Tower, when it still takes a minute or more to load the area. I suspect this is entirely down to network issues since the Tower isn’t a particularly complex environment otherwise. ↩
- Which are good fun, but you need five chums to come and do them with you. ↩