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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep review: "Destiny Christmas has come once again"

(Image: © Bungie)

Our Verdict

It's not quite on the level of The Taken King or Forsaken, but Shadowkeep feels like a major step forward for Destiny 2. It's a promising starting point for the game's third year, and for post-Activision Bungie. I've thoroughly enjoyed the 100-odd hours I've put into it, and I'll easily triple that play time in the months to come. I've got raid challenges to master, a dungeon to explore, Exotics to claim, Seals to earn, armor to min-max, and - hopefully - secrets to see. Destiny Christmas has come once again, and if you like Destiny 2, you'll love Shadowkeep.

Pros

  • Rewarding endgame grinds
  • Another fantastic raid
  • A short but gripping campaign

Cons

  • Confounding balance issues
  • Occasionally awkward upgrade systems

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is undeniably smaller than Forsaken, but it's every bit as impactful. Where Forsaken fixed a bunch of stuff because it had to, Shadowkeep purposefully adds to existing stuff because it can. It's not without its hangups, but it introduces several exciting systems, areas, and activities which channel the lessons Bungie learned in the past year, and which will undoubtedly shape the next year of Destiny 2 content for the better.   

Shadowkeep starts with what may be the best opening sequence in Destiny's history, if not Bungie's history. You hit the ground running with a joint assault on the Hive-infested Moon, allied Guardians behind you and countless Knights, Acolytes, and Thrall ahead of you. The ever-impeccable soundtrack swells as ally ships swoop in and enemy Shriekers spring to life. Then, in an instant, the chaos of the battlefield is silenced and you're thrown into a dark cave crawling with ethereal creatures somehow estranged from reality, and the number of questions on your mind explodes in time with the now-haunting score. Enemies of the past, from Dominus Ghaul of Destiny 2's Red War to Crota of Destiny 1, return as seemingly unkillable Nightmares, and you need to find out why.  

A single panning shot in the first mission of Shadowkeep sparked more speculation and theorycrafting than the entirety of Destiny 2's vanilla campaign. The expansion's campaign is short and ends rather abruptly – seemingly to create a foothold for seasonal story content to come – but it's exceptional. Shadowkeep cashes in on two years of slow-burning intrigue and shakes up the game's universe in a big way. There are still many questions to be answered, but it's exciting to see Destiny 2 actually asking those questions instead of inventing and instantly forgetting new plotlines. 

This is Destiny – and Bungie – firing on all cylinders, and it's exhilarating. In many ways, Shadowkeep channels the hallowed Taken King expansion from Destiny 1. Environments are cavernous and murky, enemies jump out of nowhere, the horizon is peppered with ominous spectres, and stunning orchestral music is punctuated with unnerving whines and echoes. It really is spooky, which is a refreshing change of pace after so many years of bulldozing bad guys in well-lit glory. The Moon is dark and full of Nightmares, and I'm here for it. 

Grind me into a fine powder  

(Image credit: Bungie)

Of course, it's only after the campaign that the real game starts. The measure of any Destiny expansion is how long it keeps you hungrily logging in, and Shadowkeep will keep me occupied for a long while. Through meaty activities, actionable goals, and robust character customization, it delivers one of the best endgame grinds yet. It started out a bit threadbare because, more so than previous expansions, Shadowkeep was designed to roll out over several weeks and months. But after three weeks of updates, I'm drowning in things to do – and there's more content still to come, including the hotly anticipated dungeon and a few Exotic quests.

The Hive Lectern obtained in the campaign is also at the heart one of Shadowkeep's most enjoyable grinds. You can purchase and complete Essence quests at the Lectern to obtain specific pieces of gear from the Moon loot pool, including a full - and extremely cool - armor set and multiple weapons. You have to complete short, mission-like Nightmare Hunts to unlock some Essences, but once you have them, you can repeat them as much as you'd like. 

Essences are fairly easy to acquire and complete, so they're a great way to acquire specific weapons and rolls. It's very similar to the Black Armory Forge bounties in the Year 2 Annual Pass, but Essences are much shorter, there's more of them, and their rewards are generally better. My new Tranquility sniper rifle is probably my favorite sniper ever, not just because it sounds like god slamming a garage door, but because I finally got the perk roll I wanted after a few Essences. 

(Image credit: Bungie)

Essences aren't the only direct path to loot, either. The new Vex Offensive horde mode has four weapon-specific bounties which let you chase your ideal roll. The activity itself also showers you in loot, with at least four Legendary drops every 15-minute run. Shooting heaps of Vex is fun in a very Menagerie kind of way - just turn your brain off, shoot the mans, and get gear. Lizard brain satisfaction is a go. You can even double-dip with some Essences since Vex Offensive counts as a Moon activity. Mmmm. Grindy. 

There's an entire Seal attached to Vex Offensive, and I'm looking forward to chasing it. It's a cathartic and rewarding experience, which is just what I need in between Shadowkeep's more challenging pinnacle activities: Nightfall: The Ordeal Strikes and the Garden of Salvation raid (and, soon, the dungeon, which I cannot wait to explore). Outside of limited-time events like Iron Banner, these activities are the only ones that can drop gear above 950 Power, so in terms of quality, they have the best loot around. They're also the hardest activities, especially Nightfall: The Ordeal. 

The cream of the endgame crop  

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The Garden of Salvation raid is fantastic, don't get me wrong. It comes with stunning weapons and armor, its bosses are inventive and feel distinct from previous raids, and it has some of the best vistas and music to ever grace a video game. Raids like King's Fall and Vault of Glass will always have a special place in my heart for the sheer impression they made, but one thing newer raids like Garden of Salvation do way better is creating a throughline for encounters. It deftly layers mechanics through multiple encounters, then tests you on everything you've learned during the final boss. This makes for a more cohesive, flavorful experience, and I've always enjoyed bosses that feel like final exams. 

I'm in no way disappointed with the raid, but I'm utterly smitten with Nightfall: The Ordeal Strikes. For the past two years, Nightfalls have been humdrum weekly chores that spit out one Legendary a pop. The new, max-Power Nightfalls are harder than the raid thanks to brutal modifiers and Power caps, and they have a unique loot pool which makes them essential for upgrading armor. I'm actively looking forward to grinding Master Nightfalls for hours on end to stock up on materials. They feel like proper challenges again, and it's so nice to have them back. 

Nightfalls are hard, in part, thanks to the new Champion enemy type. These enemies have special abilities reminiscent of the elites in Diablo 3, and they bring some welcome variety to fights, from Nightfalls to the raid to Nightmare Hunts. Unstoppable enemies rampage uncontrollably, Barrier enemies can put up a barrier that lets them heal to full, and Overload enemies are sitting somewhere between the two. To kill Champions, you need precise coordination or - to make things much more manageable - special mods acquired through mods on the new seasonal Artifacts, which adds another wrinkle to customization. 

Build a better Guardian 

(Image credit: Bungie)

Artifacts are one of several ways that Destiny 2 has quietly shifted toward the Battle Pass models seen in games like Fortnite and Apex Legends. It's clear Bungie wants to deliver seasons of sustained content rather than big expansions followed by huge droughts, which feels like a healthy direction for now. On top of spacing out Shadowkeep's updates, it's doing this through a literal Season Pass which unlocks activities and provides extra loot as players level up throughout the season (the Season Pass for the Season of the Undying is included with Shadowkeep). Artifacts follow a similar approach. They level up as you earn XP, and provide small but significant Power bonuses as well as special armor mods which will only be available this season. 

I love what Artifacts have done for build-crafting, but at the same time, I wish they were more flexible. Champion mods like Anti-Barrier Rounds and Unstoppable Melee create interesting decisions that affect your choice of weapon and subclass as well as your play style, and they definitely pay off in endgame content. But Anti-Barrier rounds, for example, are only available for auto rifles, hand cannons, and submachine guns. Likewise, only Arc and Void subclasses received Artifact ability mods. This limits your choices when creating endgame builds, which runs counter to what Artifacts seem to be about. I'm sure different weapons will receive special mods next season, and we'll also likely see a focus on Solar abilities, so seasons theoretically balance each other out. But there's a difference between encouraging alternative play styles and straight-up mandating choices, and some Artifact mods veer disappointingly close to the latter. 

PvP in Shadowkeep

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The Crucible had huge balance issues even before Shadowkeep, and the addition of Armor 2.0 and Artifact mods only compounded them. Several Supers, Exotics, and weapons are still obscenely overpowered, and the reintroduction of skill-based matchmaking has turned some playlists into a slog. That said, the new maps are nice, Iron Banner is much better this season, and Competitive is downright bearable thanks to the solos playlist. Ultimately, my opinion of the Crucible remains unchanged: there is some fun and much frustration to be had in Destiny 2 PvP, but the average person should not play Destiny 2 for the PvP.  

Artifact mods also tie into another of Shadowkeep's standout features: Armor 2.0, Destiny 2's reworked armor system which gives players more stats to adjust and reusable mods to play with. Armor 2.0 is more successful than Artifacts in its goal to promote build diversity, and it's a definite improvement over the old system. After a few weeks of faction turn-ins and pinnacle loot, I've managed to build up a respectable stockpile of armor mods, and I definitely feel like I have more control over my loadout than I did in Year 2. To my relief, it hasn't taken that long to get to the point where I don't miss any of my 1.0 armor, as I'm starting to check off staples like Scavenger mods and Ashes to Assets. New mods like Ammo Finders are great, too. 

I've been focusing on Recovery (health regen), Discipline (grenade cooldown), and Intellect (Super cooldown) in my sets, and it's nice to have access to that degree of specialization. Exotics like Contraverse Hold, Monte Carlo, Ophidia Spathe, Nezarec's Sin, and plenty of others have been given a second wind thanks to the granularity of Armor 2.0. Synergies are stronger, so making a set feels more like putting a flavorful build together rather than assembling armor that happens to have the perks you need. Together with new Exotics and Artifact mods, there's a lot of room for powerful and interesting combinations, and my ability to make sets like these while maintaining the look that I want has also improved tremendously thanks to the new pseudo-transmog ornaments. Everyone knows Destiny 2 is really just an excuse to play dress-up with space wizards, and Armor 2.0 upped its fashion game big time. 

Always room to grow  

(Image credit: Bungie)

As an added bonus, now that mods are valuable unlocks instead of disposable bonuses, obtaining new mods is more exciting. Likewise, chasing specific mods is actually worthwhile. I received an Enhanced Nightmare Breaker mod from one of the higher-level Nightmare Hunts, and that tells me I can get Enhanced versions of the other Nightmare mods too. I finished my weekly Nightmare Hunts ages ago, but you'd better believe I'll keep grinding them until I get those mods. In the same vein, I played way more Iron Banner than I normally would simply because the turn-in packages have a good chance of dropping Enhanced mods. 

The option to grind updated versions of old mods like the faction-specific ones (Taken Armaments, etc.) that come from raids and other Year 2 activities has also revitalized old content. This gives Shadowkeep a veritable second endgame: once you finish all the new stuff, you can replay the old stuff to get Armor 2.0 versions of your favorite Year 2 armor and mods. This isn't as exciting as new content, obviously, but there's no doubt it'll keep me going for a few dozen hours. I'll take any excuse to revisit old raids, and now that Shattered Throne is available every week, I'll happily run through it for a chance at well-rolled armor. 

(Image credit: Bungie)

That being said, Armor 2.0 feels like a work-in-progress. I'm not totally sold on the elemental affinity system that determines which armor can use which mods, as it can feel arbitrary and weirdly limiting at times. If I want to use a scout rifle and a shotgun, for instance, I won't be able to use Scout Rifle Loader and Shotgun Loader mods on the same pair of gloves. Scout Rifle Loader is a Void mod while Shotgun Loader is an Arc mod, and armor can only use mods from one type of element. So I'd need to use Scout Rifle Loader and the generic (and less efficient) Large Weapon Loader mod, which would limit my other mod choices. This is especially annoying for neutral mods like Ashes to Assets, which is only available on Solar class items, and mods for the new Finisher moves, which need all the help they can get as they're easy to ignore.  

I get that Bungie wants to diversify the armor pool and present players with more decisions to make while gearing up, but the affinity system strikes me as convoluted. It's already difficult to get armor with the stats you want, but now you also have to worry about getting the correct element. And with how expensive it is to upgrade armor - with no good sources of Enhancement Cores available - I want to be confident in my set. Elemental affinities also make finding specific mods a chore because it's easy to lose track of what mods go on what armor piece and for which element. Fortunately, Bungie says that a new Collections page showing all the mods you've unlocked will be added in the future, and it can't come soon enough.
 

The Verdict

4

4 out of 5

Destiny 2 Shadowkeep

It's not quite on the level of The Taken King or Forsaken, but Shadowkeep feels like a major step forward for Destiny 2. It's a promising starting point for the game's third year, and for post-Activision Bungie. I've thoroughly enjoyed the 100-odd hours I've put into it, and I'll easily triple that play time in the months to come. I've got raid challenges to master, a dungeon to explore, Exotics to claim, Seals to earn, armor to min-max, and - hopefully - secrets to see. Destiny Christmas has come once again, and if you like Destiny 2, you'll love Shadowkeep.

More Info

Available platformsPS4, Xbox One, PC