Destiny 2 is in a weird but wonderful spot. After the big August 23 showcase, the Destiny 2 Lightfall expansion coming February 28, 2023 is on everyone's minds. Calus and the Witness are bringing an army of Darkness to the Neptunian city of Neomuna, and we're going to meet them head-on brandishing the never-before-seen power of Strand. Yet in the live game, we're all running around playing pirates and shooting lightning out of our fingertips.
This so-far silly, swashbuckling season has given players a chance to mull over the massive changes announced at the Lightfall reveal event. Long-requested features like saved loadouts and in-game LFG are finally coming next year. The new Guardian Rank and Commendation systems promise to revamp new-player and multiplayer experiences. Perhaps most importantly, Bungie says it won't be sunsetting any more expansions post-Forsaken.
It's a lot to take in, so I sat down with Destiny 2 game director Joe Blackburn and assistant general manager Dan McAuliffe to drill into the biggest beats of Lightfall and beyond.
Continuing an old story in a new world
There's an interesting contrast between Calus, the co-villain of Lightfall, and Eramis, the big bad of the current season and the Beyond Light expansion. For years, virtually every Destiny villain was a lot like Eramis – someone who existed solely to drive a short plot to a finish line. Bungie only truly broke out of this frame in The Witch Queen with the scars left by Savathun's scheming. Calus precedes the storytelling overhaul that's recently elevated the game, but Blackburn says Bungie's been planning a big role for the Cabal enigma for years. By finally returning to Calus in a big way, Bungie hopes to pay off one of Destiny 2's earliest story commitments.
"We don't want to keep the doors open forever," Blackburn says of Calus' long character arc. "We don't want to leave you hanging. We eventually want to make good on that promise, and Calus was really one of the first long-term promises we made."
"In Lightfall, we want to go with this big blockbuster action fantasy," Blackburn explains. "When that comes up, then we start to look at the narrative roadmap we have and say, OK, what's gonna help us here […] We have the Witness, and the Witness has this specific, stoic personality. We need a big, boisterous villain as well. So this is the Calus release; this is when we're gonna have him, and they really foil each other well.
While Lightfall features some familiar faces, it takes place in a totally unfamiliar setting. Neomuna's cyberpunk culture looks more like Cyberpunk 2077's Night City than Destiny 2's Last City. After the Lightfall showcase, I remember seeing reactions like 'this doesn't look like Destiny' or 'I don't even recognize this game.' And that's kind of the point; Bungie isn't rewriting Destiny's visual identity, but it is playing with it.
"The Guardian silhouettes, the form of the Ghost, a lot of iconic weapon silhouettes and things like that, they're all very centered around the core aesthetic of Destiny," McAuliffe says. "But the world that Destiny exists in is not just the Last City. It's not just the Tower. I think it's important to us to show the variety that exists in the world – both as a change to the eye as a backdrop, but also to tell the environmental story of what's happening in this entire solar system. We're very focused on moments in time, but there's all these other things happening. Neomuna's a wonderful example. This city's always been around and we're just now finding it. What would be different in that world? In a city that was sheltered from the great war? Well, you're seeing it."
"We're always on some sort of sliding scale between the core Destiny fantasy of 'knights in space, wizards in robes' and how broad the universe is," adds Blackburn. "When you look at something like Lightfall, we really thought a lot about the player fantasy. What's the action hero Destiny character look like? We start to pull some inspiration from things like Legend of Korra where you're not just the gun guy, you're also this mystic super soldier."
Build a better grappling hook
Strand is the focus of the mystic super soldier fantasy of Lightfall, and it's unlike any previous Guardian ability. Strand is about grasping unseen power and weaving it into a desired shape – one of those shapes being a sick-ass grappling hook that I had a million questions about.
The Strand grappling hook sits in the grenade slot and is identical across all classes, though Blackburn teased that Aspects and Fragments can alter it. Curious about the offensive abilities of this thing, I mention the glorious Meat Hook of Doom Eternal's Super Shotgun, but Blackburn says the Strand grapple is a tool to move the player, not to move enemies. Likewise, to keep the sandbox from going absolutely off-the-walls, the base cooldown of the grappling hook won't allow for non-stop, Spider-Man-style swinging, though there are some Strand grapple points in Neomuna that will instantly reset your grapple cooldown to enable exploration.
"Because it is in the grenade slot, we made sure there are some offensive capabilities with grapple," Blackburn assures me. "If you're the kind of person who wants to grapple in, there's a finisher on grapple that you can do. I'm going to go in, fuck somebody up at the end of this grapple, then I'll pull out my shotgun. Some Guardians are gonna use this as an escape, some are gonna use it to be aggressive. What is that gonna mean? Why would you take grapple over a different Strand grenade?"
Bungie's also trying to answer a bigger question surrounding the grapple: won't it kinda break the game? Every pre-Lightfall environment wasn't designed with a grappling hook in mind, and Destiny PvP definitely wasn't. As someone who's written at length about the upsides of adding a grappling hook to basically any game, I do admittedly have to wonder how you actually balance for that.
"I'm always worried about [breaking the game]," McAuliffe jokes. "Especially when you add something as ambitious as a new movement ability, and one that we intend to extend across the entire game. I have a lot of faith in our team's ability to test and vet that kind of thing. I'm probably most nervous – not nervous, but excited – to see what kind of utility it has in PvP. As with everything else that's introduced, it will bring a change to the sandbox that we'll react to."
"If you can imagine doing past raids and thinking, yeah, maybe I want to be Strand in the jumping section because that's a struggle for me," adds Blackburn. "We like that. But we also do not want to be building the game where either players that haven't earned Strand or, you know, just like running Solar, feel pulled. We're really thinking of a balance here. There are some cool moments you can accomplish with Strand. I was playing this thing recently where there's this fuckin' bullshit thing of traps between me and where I wanted to go, and I'm watching Robbie Stevens, our assistant game director, hobble through the traps. And I'm like, nah, I think I'm just gonna grapple."
How to sunset sunsetting
Destiny expansions are always about more than just new content, and that seems especially true for Lightfall, which is set to make sweeping systemic changes. One of Bungie's biggest promises here is the end of expansion sunsetting. Seasonal content will still rotate out on an annual basis, but the team's apparently made enough engine improvements to keep the bones of the Light and Darkness saga, beginning with Shadowkeep and ending with The Final Shape, in the game at once. On top of preserving this story, this change will take a lot of the sting out of the Destiny Content Vault (DCV), which most recently consumed the Forsaken expansion in the name of the game's stability.
It's always been my read that the DCV came about because Destiny 2, which began when Bungie was still working on a franchise roadmap under Activision, simply was not built for the lifespan and development cycle it's fallen into. Basically, Bungie had to eject something to keep the whole game from crashing. Nobody actually wanted to see content cut from the game – though as an active player I'd be lying if I said I actually missed much of it – but it was the best of the bad solutions.
"That's not off the mark," McAuliffe responds. "You asked how this came about, and it came about because we really do need to put the player experience first. The technical limitations and the decisions made around sunsetting weren't received the way we wanted them to be. Especially as we start down this path of finishing this saga, it's really important that players, new or veteran, can play through the story from start to finish."
"We have been working behind the scenes to try and prepare a game that, to your exact read, was not designed for this. I don't know that any game was designed for the content volume that Destiny produces. And we're still working on it. We believe that we have a good path to keep these things going on but the work is never done. We're always going to be weighing the awesome content that we want to put in the game against interoperable systems and giant binary sizes – which are also bad for player experiences after a fashion."
"The way that we're getting this is through a lot of very painful choices that we make every single month with a lot of people working on it," Blackburn says when I ask about un-vaulting old campaigns and expansions. "It's not that we uncovered some golden bullet. 'Great! We can do it all now!' The thought of going back and putting in a bunch of stuff is asking a bunch of people that are already lifting a very heavy burden, like, could you just lift twice as much? We're still exploring. We're trying to make improvements to make that easier. We're really happy with working to stop sunsetting content. But we have not doubled that effort to figure out how to make it all work."
"We haven't 'solved the problem,' and I don't think it's a singular problem," McAuliffe says. "But we're committed to solving it, both from the choices that Joe is talking about as well as just investment. We're putting more resources on it. We're working to bolster the engine team to solve these issues to keep as much of the content that players love in the game."
Helping people get into Destiny 2
Sunsetting rankled hardcore players by removing content that they paid for, and it also put off new players by making it even harder to get into the impenetrable grind-a-thon that is Destiny 2. Preserving expansions will help with the latter issue, but as the last few seasons have demonstrated, and as Bungie admitted at the Lightfall showcase, learning Destiny 2 can be as difficult as learning a new language. And like learning a new language, it helps to learn with somebody fluent at your side, but the so-called friend-game hasn't solved Destiny 2's onboarding problem so far. With Lightfall and the seasons following it, Bungie hopes to finally give new players the guidance they need to get their head around this mammoth game, and Guardian Ranks are central to this push.
"We're not gonna ask you to go play 400 hours of old content to be able to play with your friends," Blackburn begins, comparing Destiny 2's new-player experience to other MMOs. "Our time to participate in the latest content is really fast. I think the most challenging thing we've got to start making headway in is that we have a ton of narrative in Destiny, and it can feel really daunting. All my friends know all this stuff about these characters and I don't. What is not the solution is to say, go back and play 100 hours, 200 hours of Destiny. What we want to be looking at in the future is how to offer you ways to get the exact information you need. It's going to take a big lift from us, but it's definitely on our radar. If we can get you into the systems, we've got to get you into the story.
"For us, the primary question that Guardian Ranks answer for new players is: what should I be doing in this game?" he continues. "You'll see it. It shows up in the Director, this journey. 'Oh, this is really important.' Yes! This is really important. It's gonna help you understand how these systems work together. It's gonna push you into harder and harder content. Once you get to rank four, rank five, we're gonna see you understand how guns work, you've made a few builds, you've played a Lost Sector, done a campaign. You can probably try a Nightfall now. Try a harder Nightfall. Maybe you should try a dungeon. We want it to operate as that ladder getting you to harder content."
By introducing and tracking new activities, Guardian Ranks also will tie directly into the upcoming Looking For Group system. "Every LFG tool we've seen that's failed has not been able to deliver the promise of, 'Do I know that this person is ready for this activity?' That's what we want Guardian Ranks to do, provide you that confidence," Blackburn says. He also tells me that Bungie hopes – not necessarily plans – to add LFG with the release of the next reprised Destiny 1 raid, which would be sometime in mid-2023. It won't be ready for Lightfall, but they're "supremely confident" it's gonna be ready before The Final Shape, and they want to get some time with it beforehand to work out the kinks.
In a few years, we may also look back on Guardian Ranks as the precursor to revamped progression in Destiny 2. I asked about Power level and the leveling experience, a sticking point that wasn't mentioned at the showcase, and Blackburn affirmed that Bungie is still looking at making big changes to the leveling system. But what these changes may look like and when they'll arrive is still unclear.
"We would still like to make major changes to the Power system," he says. "We looked at crafting as a scary thing to add to Destiny, and Power is that times 10. There's some good stuff that Power does for the game, and there's some really bad stuff that Power is doing to Destiny right now. I think what you're gonna see us do is some experiments that are helping us understand if we're making the right long-term plays for Power and helping us dial that in. If we're gonna do this overhaul, can we have some good data before we get there? And I think you're seeing systems like Guardian Ranks coming online, things like crafting and titles and seasonal challenges. If we make big changes to this system, do we still have the progression we need in the game? Is there still stuff for you to do? Is there still a guide? So yeah, expect some weird experiments to be flying through in the year of Lightfall."