Walking around the venue after Destiny 2’s official reveal in LA in June, a particular phrase came up a few times in conversation with other attendees. “Destiny 1.5”. It seemed that, as impressive as the game’s presentation was - and undoubtedly excellent as the gameplay experiences we were demoed were, and have had since - some initially felt Bungie’s sequel to be more more an enjoyable, iterative upgrade rather than the full-blown revolution they expected. And while I didn’t agree with that notion (and agree even less now that I've exploring the depths of the beta), I could - initially at least - see where those people were coming from.
Destiny 2 doesn’t present a night-and-day visual upgrade over its predecessor, nor does it shake up the game’s physical structure in the foundation-rattling, pure open-world direction that had been rumoured over the past year. Destiny’s traditional set-up remains present and correct. Several planet hubs, threaded through with story missions and Strikes. Crucible PvP located in separate locations, and a travel director menu managing transportation between content. Although reworked, remixed, and reoptimised, the basic building bricks that shape Destiny 2 are similar to what we know.
Is Destiny 2 a half-measure though? No. Not at all. Far from it. Ignoring the perhaps unrealistic nature of those high-falutin’ expectations (how often does any major video game series utterly change its format between games? Once a decade? Less?) while what we've seen of Destiny 2 might not appear, to the untrained eye at least, to have reinvented the wheel, the truth is that in terms of what really, fundamentally matters to the health and vitality of the Destiny experience - in terms of creating the best possible version for the future of the series - it delivers exactly the right things in abundance.
Destiny’s real content has always been the product of two very specific sources working in unison, and neither of them has ever demanded a vast, architectural overhaul. The twin catalysts in question? A complex but accessible sandbox of player-led RPG-FPS combat craft, and a supportive, co-operative, uncommonly benevolent community. Where most AAA games - and by association, their sequels - are built around clearly-defined content offerings made of missions, weapons, set-pieces, map sizes, stories and endings, Destiny’s heart has always been less immediately visible, but tends to beat harder and longer than most once discovered. Destiny is about playing and experimenting with home-grown, open-ended, loot-driven combat systems, and hooking up with other players to share both knowledge and adventures for the mutual benefit of all. Everything else is peripheral.
Bungie understood that early on, and rapidly, so did Destiny’s now-huge player base. The reason Destiny thrives, three years after its somewhat awkward launch? Both sides of that equation also understood that together, they were the equation. Bungie provides, adapts and upgrades the toys, and the vast, perpetually engaged, and constantly communicative human element acts as the melting pot for the experience of using them. They work out new possibilities and new ways to play, forming cultures and communities, and feeding back - through both their words and their actions - on what the act of playing Destiny is. And then Bungie responds, reacts, and adapts once again. In many very real ways, the first three years of Destiny have been a co-production between game developer and game community.
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The reason that Destiny 2 feels like an insightful and entirely potent sequel? It quietly doubles down on all of this, establishing a hell of a strong bedrock for the future evolution of everything that’s important to the game’s make-up. While the original game’s Taken King and Rise of Iron expansions vastly expanded the size of the game and made great efforts to extend the creative scope of the character-crafting sandbox, Destiny’s ambitions ultimately found themselves straining against the limitations of its 2014 framework. Destiny 2 feels like a deliberate exercise in blowing apart those restrictions so that we can all explore with renewed and unknown potential, unencumbered by past conventions, yet informed by what we’ve already learned and achieved.
Destiny 2’s change to its three weapon categories, for instance, is a seemingly small but utterly fundamental shake-up that should now - by removing the restrictive categories of Primary and Secondary weapons - give creative character builds much greater freedom for years to come. Ditto the new grenade launcher and SMG weapon types, whose new functionalities will reshape the landscape of Destiny’s combat options, while acting as a catalyst for even greater, long-term possibility when combined with the new supers and surprisingly numerous and diverse class-specific abilities. And then there are weapon and armour mods, with which to customise gear yet further.
Destiny 2's world might have been substantially built out with new Adventures, questlines, Lost Sector dungeons, and hidden treasure, but the scope for internal exploration of gameplay systems has, crucially, been given just as much effort. Destiny's scale has never simply been a product of the game's physical size.
Warlocks, for instance, now have vastly increased scope for verticality in their fighting style, and also gain explicit and powerful group support buffs, able to heal and power-up their squad-mates at will. Experimenting with new guns, supers, ground-strikes, tertiary abilities, and rapidly unfolding new ways to combo all four - at reveal, and during the beta - I discover a Destiny that now echoes the sense of creative experimentation and open-ended potential found in a good fighting game. And with thoughtful, supportive fireteam tactics now being encouraged more clearly than ever, by way of those support skills and the new, smaller, PvP team size of four, Destiny 2 feels like a game aiming to blow open personal freedom while also increasing the intimacy of its interpersonal element. The Destiny experience distilled in every important respect, then.
Two become one
And at the same time, this understanding of Destiny’s true player experience clearly fuels a hell of a lot of the sequel’s structural changes. In fact, looking at Destiny 2’s upgrades to its connectivity tools and gameplay interfaces, it’s easy to see that the biggest and most impressive additions have been taken directly from the player community, formalising cultures and initiatives into in-game systems.
The excellent-sounding new treatment of clan support, for instance, which leads into something Bungie calls Guided Gameplay, is every bit the official adaptation of the work done by the Destiny Sherpa community on Reddit, who I spoke to for an article a while ago. Acting as guides and teachers for inexperienced players wanting to learn the game and explore its high-level content in a safe, supportive environment, the Sherpas have been volunteering their services for the good of the community for years now, and Bungie is certainly aware of them. Destiny 2’s in-game Guided Gameplay initiative - whereby solo players can contact clans willing to take on and help out the eager - is an unambiguous embracing of this culture, Destiny once again proving a co-production between studio and community.
The same philosophy can also be seen in the new in-game map, a long-requested feature for Patrol exploration, which actually goes above and beyond the basic navigational functionality expected. Destiny 2’s Patrol map is touted to flag up not only areas of interest and the locations of Patrol mode’s greatly expanded activities, but also provide fully featured information - including commencement timers - for the overworld’s various, profitable Public Events.
A great innovation, then, and one that will make the Patrol experience in Destiny 2 a great deal easier and more economical. But, like Guided Gameplay, not exactly a brand new idea. In the early months of Destiny’s life, the player community developed several home-made solutions to the issue in the shape of online Public Event timers, their data fueled by real-time Guardian feedback. It’s great to see the idea appear in Destiny 2 as a basic gameplay improvement, but its advent is even more heartening as another representation of Bungie reshaping and growing Destiny to acknowledge and accommodate exactly what its players have turned the game into.
And the really exciting thing is that this is just the start. The start of the start, in fact. Consider where the original Destiny began, and where it’s going to end. The current game is in many ways almost unrecognisable from the somewhat cumbersome, niggly initial release. And that three-year evolution occurred from a cold start, before Destiny’s community even existed, at an inception point based only on Bungie’s ideas of what the game might be.
Now, both creators and players know what Destiny really is, how it’s at its best, and the circumstances and facilities that make the experience most effective. Destiny 2 is starting out in a format already fuelled by insight, experience, and close-knit, loyal, community cohesion. Destiny 2’s baseline is already many iterations, evolutions, and discoveries beyond that of its predecessor, and its starting content - in both its game systems and overarching services - is already a notable step past what the excellent original game now offers.
If Destiny 2 continues to grow and optimise over its life-span in the way that the first Destiny did - and it surely will - then we’ll have an incredibly exciting, and thrillingly unpredictable, journey ahead of us. And with Destiny 2’s day-one DNA clearly the product of the same co-operation between Bungie and its players that got us to where we are today, the shape, tone and priorities of that journey are almost assured.