The early verdict on Destiny 2's campaign mode

I had an awkward moment with the original Destiny, which was repeated a year later with The Taken King expansion. My other half glanced at the screen and said: "Is that the final boss you're fighting?" "Yeah" I replied. "But you've only had it for a day." "Well, true, but…" and so I began making excuses. "The story isn't really the point", I explained, feeling oddly embarrassed on the game's behalf. "It's more like scene-setting." Which is actually true. The campaign in Destiny largely acts as context for the endgame, where the real action (and grind) happens. It feels apologetic even typing that excuse now, but I still stand by the idea. And the same is going to be true of Destiny 2.

Spin back a couple of weeks and I was sat in a darkened Seattle hotel ballroom, playing through Destiny 2's campaign on console alongside writers from outlets all over the world, in order to get a feel for how the storytelling has changed. I can't pinpoint for certain how far through the story I got, because we were all given a hard stop to avoid certain spoilers, but a developer told me I was just entering the final act. 

And sure enough the key Vanguard characters were gearing up for a potentially suicidal assault on the Cabal flagship, and a final reckoning with Ghaul, the game's Bane-esque big bad. Ghaul actually figures less than you'd imagine in the preceding missions, barring a few cutscenes in which he menaces the captured Speaker character. I asked one of the writers why, and he said it was to create the sense of being knocked off a mountain at the start which you then had to climb back up.

Destiny 2 isn't dissimilar in length to the original game. But in terms of focus, quality control, and basic coherence, it's much better.

So right now I can't tell you whether when you reach that summit the payoff is satisfying, but I can say Bungie has painted itself into something of a corner by talking up how the sequel has over 80 missions and PvE activities. The studio is clearly counting even the most minor stuff that happens when you're out on patrol—which is what the open-world exploration is called—presumably in a bid to reassure players who'd been scared off by the lack of content in the original. 

But there's a danger in setting expectations incorrectly, and having ploughed through the bulk of the story plus half a dozen hours on patrol over two days, I'm pretty sure the core story of Destiny 2 isn't dissimilar in length to the original game. But in terms of focus, quality control, and just basic coherence, it's much better.

Ghaul is more considerate than his bulk suggests. The cut-scenes with his advisor are surprisingly interesting.

Before we get into the guts of the campaign, I also want to state that Destiny 2 really is going to be a bigger game. The patrol aspect I mentioned is substantially richer this time, as I wrote in depth here. Each destination is groaning with activities, and there's a legitimate reason to hop between planets in order to get rewards from levelling up the local vendors. The upshot is that if you're doing some of the 'adventure' sidequests, making time to explore 'lost sectors', and completing public events (especially the new Heroic difficulty ones) as part of your playthrough, then it's going to make for a longer, more substantial experience—and one that fleshes out key story details. But if you want to just blast through to the credits as quickly as you can, well, that won't take long.

Tower thoughts 

With all that caveating out of the way, let's talk about what happens. By now you should know that the Cabal have nuked our homebase, The Tower, slapped the Traveller in shackles, and stripped the Guardians of their Light—which is the space magic that gives us our abilities, not least of which being the ability to be resurrected ad infinitum by the AI 'Ghosts' that follow us around. The initial 'Homecoming' mission, which could equally be billed 'Space Rhinos Reenact Pearl Harbor', segues into a sequence in which you stagger around the city below, shorn of your powers, trying not to get killed for real. It's a bit like one of those Call of Duty-type shellshocked moments, and I'm not sure it’s entirely effective—largely because being forced to walk at a snail's pace always sucks.

To the surprise of precisely no-one, following a few skirmishes with the Cabal sans your powers, and a meetup at the farm-come-refugee-camp which provides the Guardians new homebase, you're soon dispatched on a quest to examine a shard of the Traveller that results in the rapid rediscovery of those missing special powers. But crucially none of the other Guardians get their powers back, because hey—you're the special one. And if you're rolling your special eyes at that, well sure, but a game that is fundamentally about kicking ass with space magic was never going to dispense with the cool shit for a substantial amount of its run time. 

Anyway, the whole chosen one schtick does make sense if you're familiar with the previous game. Your character has already racked up a couple of god kills while the other Guardians were playing silly buggers with beach balls in The Tower, so it makes sense The Traveller would rejuice your Light first.

At the outset you lose the power to perform abilities like this Fist of Havoc, but not for long.

Let there be light 

From there it's a case of getting the old band back together, which means scouring the solar system to find the missing Vanguard mentors Zavala (Titan), Ikora Rey (Warlock), and Cayde-6 (Hunter, and marketing dept's favourite). That journey takes you from Earth's overgrown and awesomely-named European Dead Zone, to a sulfuric Jovian moon, and a base floating on the methane oceans of Io. Or in other words there's some serious eye candy on show here, even running on the PS4.

MOD FOR IT

Weapons in Destiny drop at uncommon, rare, legendary and exotic tiers of quality. Unlike the first game, guns don't roll with different perks. The upside of this is that you won't have to hunt for a god roll that never happens, but the downside is that without the grind, your interest might dry up. Fans had hoped that a weapon modding system would help bridge the gap between static and random rolls by offering an amount of customisation, but as far as I could tell mods were only used to change the gun's shader (ie skin) or to switch elemental damage types on energy weapons. Still, perhaps the system will be expanded post-launch.

More impressive were the armor mods, which added perks like reduced recharge on abilities and improved reload speed for a particular class of weapon. Helpfully, unlike the first game, you don't have to keep a different type of gloves to match each type of gun—the perks are generic for all Energy, Kinetic or Power weapons. It seems like a minor a thing to call out, but it's one of many quality of life improvements Destiny 2 has made based on what Bungie has learned from three years working on the series.

And those of you who dabbled with last week's PC beta will already know how gorgeous the Nessus destination looks. This 'centaur' planetoid has been almost entirely converted by the Vex machine race, and the result is the kind of confluence of alien beauty and brutalist architecture that Bungie's art team does so well.

Speaking of the Vex, Destiny 2 effectively serves as a greatest hits collection of the series' extraterrestrial enemies, with the forces of the Taken, Hive, and Fallen all making appearances. Which is good news if, like me, you were worried that constantly fighting the Cabal would get relentless. All the races have been visually reworked—I love what the Hive Knight's have done with those tattered cloaks—but as expected it's the Cabal who've received the most attention. 

Additions to their roster include swarms of crimson attack dogs, chunky melee bros who dual-wield giant cleavers, and troopers with a new type of coffee table-sized shield that thankfully/ridiculously has a crit spot right in the centre. (In the first game when they had a shield up you had to shoot them in the shin or elbow, which got irritating.) 

As antagonists go, the Cabal are super fun to fight. They make guttural, genuinely alien-sounding grunts out in the field, but sound relatively considered and relatable when outlining their nefarious plans in the translated cutscenes. Their helmets also explode with a whoooosh of exiting gas and flesh chunks that remains a delight from the first kill to the last.

Running headfirst at these guys is an inadvisable strat.

Hunter banter

 Ghaul's grand scheme is to bully The Traveller into bestowing The Light on him—and presumably his troops, though it's not entirely clear—so he can become an even bigger pain in the galaxy's ass. And if he can't, then you'd better believe he's going to blow up our sun for shits and giggles. The stakes are relatively high then, which actually creates something of a tonal problem for Destiny 2's story. See, on the one hand you've got Ghaul doing his genocide and torture stuff while the Guardians feel broken and bereft, but on the other you've got the relentless blokey banter of Cayde-6 and the wry one-liners from your Ghost. The two styles don't really mesh. When the fate of all humanity is on the line, having Cayde needle Zavala about whether he might have cried because he missed him feels off key.

Still, there's a reason Cayde is the star of the adverts. Most players seem to prefer his Saturday morning cartoon humour to the serious-minded lore found in things like The Books of Sorrow from The Taken King. Bungie would doubtless argue it's possible deliver both, and lore tabs are being added to the Exotic and Raid weapons to help quench the the thirst for background info, but it still feels like the game is pulling in different directions.  

Zavala hanging out at the European Dead Zone's farm. Does it look like he's been crying?

Nonetheless, the core characters are better realised in the sequel, with clearer motivations and consequences to their actions. And not just the returning Vanguards, also the new supporting cast like Devrim Kay, the European Dead Zone's British gentleman sniper, Suraya Hawthorne, who shows the Guardians what it means to be mortal, and Asher Mir, the perma-grumpy awoken researcher on Nessus who adds comic relief without getting wacky.

STAY SUBCLASSY

Depending on which class you pick at the start (Titan, Warlock or Hunter) you'll begin Destiny 2 using the new subclass (Sentinel, Dawnblade and Arcstrider respectively) but midway through the campaign you'll discover a mysterious artifact. In order to charge it up you'll need to participate in a bunch of Public Events while on patrol, after which you'll be packed off to the European Dead Zone for another summit meeting with the Traveller's shard which will give you access to a new subclass, plus a bunch of enemies and an infinite supply of orbs to go hog wild with. 

The big surprise, which was unfortunately spoiled by less reputable outlets, is that towards the end of the campaign this process is repeated, which unlocks the returning classes from The Taken King (ie Sunbreaker, Stormcaller and Nightstalker). From what I saw of the Stormcaller, these haven't been 'remastered' as much as the other returning classes, meaning the perks stay largely the same, just separated into two possible paths. Regardless, I wasn't expecting Destiny 2 to ship with nine subclasses, so the extra variety is very welcome. 

All the best lines go to Failsafe—a schizoid, sarcastic AI who you may have heard a little of in The Inverted Spire mission during the beta. Something very bad has happened to the crew of her ship, and there are some serious hints that we'll find out more about that later down the line. (In fact, I've got a sneaking suspicion the raid might be a Danger Room-style romp through her ship, rather than a journey into the belly of a big fish, as has also been rumoured.) Squirrelled away in the side quests there are also some intriguing pointers to where the game will go next, many of which will delight longterm fans. I picked up one clear reference to the possible fate of Osiris, a missing Warlock who was obsessed with the Vex, heavily suggesting that we will indeed be heading to Mercury in the first DLC expansion. 

Sadly not all of the writing has the wit of Failsafe's acid tongue. In one early vision quest sequence my ghost mused "It's that falcon again… but is it following us, or are we following it?" which made my face crinkle up like I'd eaten a falcon. The missions themselves are also something of a mixed bag. Destiny is at its best when it's funneling you from one playground of destruction to the next, throwing in unusual architecture and a splash of platforming to let the Guardians' double-jumping, superhuman mobility shine.

It's at its worst when it's saying go here, hit a switch, and fend off a few arbitrary waves of attackers, which still happens too much. I was also kinda surprised to see actual red barrels in one destination. I get it, explosions are sweet, but a little on the nose as 2017 design goes, surely? 

Likewise, I did not love the two driving sections I encountered in the story. One of which was an escape sequence in an APC, the other involved cutting loose with a tank. What is it with Bungie and vehicular interludes? Some sort of inside joke, maybe. The feel of lumbering around in an armor-plated Lyft can't compete with the silky gunplay that the game delivers on two feet.

Tanks, Bungie. But also no tanks.

More positively, character progression is handled well. New subclasses open up at just the right time (as has been heavily leaked, each class ultimately has three to explore) and it always feels like the next ability unlock is within touching distance. New gear also drops consistently and at slightly higher power levels to ensure you keep getting stronger. I particularly liked the fact that the game hands you an exotic weapon and piece of armor relatively early (from a choice of three, in each case). Trust me and pick the Graviton Lance void pulse rifle if you get offered it—it's one of the most delicious guns I've fired in a shooter.

And that's the rub really: what matters about Destiny 2 is its combat, and the combat is very good indeed. It's the reason I'm planning to take a couple of days off work to kickstart my first character. As I said at the start, the story is almost inconsequential when it comes to weighing Destiny 2's charms. I mean, it's fine. You visit some cool-looking planets, I'm pretty sure the right asses get kicked in the end, and mercifully it mostly makes sense and is easy to follow. But the reason you're going to want to play Destiny 2—aside from the fact it's a technical marvel on PC—is because the moment-to-moment gunplay feels so good.

The story is almost inconsequential when it comes to weighing Destiny 2's charms... what matters is the combat, and it's very good indeed.

Which is an easy thing to say but slightly harder to drill down into. I think James on our team nailed it best. He said that in any given firefight you feel constantly on the verge of death, but your acrobatics and finger skills keep you alive at a sliver of health until you emerge triumphant, surrounded by fizzing sparks and dead aliens. In a weird way it reminds me of how Resident Evil 4 felt when it first arrived. Obviously the pace and camera perspective were totally different, but both games have this moreish, crowd management approach to combat, and both take place in these brilliantly realised, fantastical but convincing worlds.  

I can't speak to how much longevity there is once the story has been chalked off, but the hope has to be that, as with The Taken King, lengthy questlines will open up on the planetary destinations. It's somewhat concerning, though, that the game is only launching with five co-op Strike missions (six on PlayStation, due to a deal with Sony).

So without seeing that endgame in its entirety, how the PvP scene shapes up, and what impact the move to static rolls on loot drops ultimately has, I also can't be sure of the appeal won't fade—but Destiny 1 kept me playing for three years, even through its various content droughts. My sense is that Destiny 2 will be compelling enough to build a substantial audience on PC.

Triggering the new heroic versions of public events whilst on patrol makes for fun with strangers.

Back when I spoke with PC lead David Shaw at E3, he conceded that it was almost impossible for Bungie to create content at a quick enough lick to keep the playerbase satisfied. "As fast as we can possibly make it in the most optimal situation still wouldn’t be fast enough," he said. Demand outstripping supply is a problem most games would kill to have, but it's the key question Destiny 2 still needs to answer. 

The console version lands today, hence this write up, and by the time we get our hands on the final PC game on October 24, almost all the secrets—from the Raid to the inventory of exotic gear—will have been spilled. But I think we should take heart from the fact that these intervening weeks will also give us a chance to get the exact measure of what the game has to offer, safe in the knowledge that the PC version will be the definitive one when it touches down.