Sedia finally explodes in a coruscating flash of Bungie's signature pyrotechnics. As she's released, the Tech Witch emits a curdling pantomime scream that is matched by my own joyous whoop over Discord. My teammate sums up our collective feelings only slightly more articulately: "Holy shit, my heart is in my asshole!"
I can confirm that my own heart was also racing at a speed that is not to be joked about at my advanced age. After two marathon sessions—the first of which was six straight hours spent not so much banging our heads against a wall as head-butting an iceberg—we had finally beaten The Corrupted on Grandmaster difficulty, thereby earning the Conqueror title.
Titles in Destiny are purely cosmetic, but intended to display a certain level of achievement, or at least bloody-minded persistence. Many of them, especially the seasonal ones, are acquired simply by collecting a shopping list of loot and ticking off activity-specific objectives. Others require more in the way of actual mastery, and hew closer in spirit to Destiny game director Luke Smith's beloved Scarab Lord title from World of Warcraft. When you see a guardian rocking 'Flawless' from Trials or 'Reckoner' from Gambit, there's a grudging acceptance that they've seen and done some shit.
The witching hours
Generally I don't care about this kind of e-peen stuff, but given the ruinous amount of time I've spent in Destiny 2 it's nice to have a little virtual badge for it, so I've focused on collecting all the raid titles: 'Rivensbane', 'Blacksmith', 'Shadow' and 'Enlightened'. Amongst other requirements, these involve completing their respective raid without anyone on the six-person fireteam dying. Given that raids are essentially like doing a combination of synchronised swimming and puzzle solving while under sustained fire, usually for over an hour, that's quite an ask. But I can honestly say getting 'Conqueror' was harder than any of them.
Conqueror requires you to complete all six of that season's Grandmaster Nightfall strike missions. You don't have to keep everyone alive, or hit a particular score, you just need to drag your asses through. The reason it's so hard is that the power level is set at 1100, but your characters are hard capped at 1075. That means that the damage delta between what enemies dish out and what they receive is more like a canyon. Most mid-tier enemies will one-shot you, and even the most ignominious trash mobs pose a substantial threat.
The fragility of your team is compounded by the fact you have a limited number of revives, though more can be earned by defeating Champions en route to the boss (but take longer than 45 minutes and you lose your remaining ones). There are three types of Champion in Destiny 2—Unstoppable, Barrier and Overload—each of which can only be staggered by using a weapon with the corresponding attribute. Trying to brute force Champions without a matching weapon wastes an egregious amount of ammo and feels like trying to chew through a stale pizza topped with elephant gristle.
Consequently, the Champion mechanic is not entirely beloved by the Destiny 2 community, but Grandmaster Nightfalls (where the bastards are abundant) feel like their natural home. The mode has a bunch of other modifiers—for instance, enemies in The Corrupted leave behind 'blight geysers' which will launch you into the air. When considering your loadout you also have to factor in what elemental shields you'll need to break, how you're going to DPS the boss effectively, and even equip mods that generate ammo for teammates as it tends to be so scarce.
The upshot is that, unlike almost all other content in Destiny 2, loadout and team comp for Grandmaster Nightfalls actually matters and benefits from planning. GM Nightfalls are also one of very few activities where speccing into more supporting abilities rather than raw damage makes sense. Our team last night comprised two tether hunters for add control and a Well of Radiance Warlock for encounters that got really hirsute.
Here's what I most like about Grandmaster Nightfalls: They reward practice and patience. Because none of the enemies appear at random, the more you try and fail, the tighter your strategies for each encounter inevitably become. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that enemies didn't just spawn in consistent places, the AI would also guide them on certain routes in response to particular game states. For instance in the Corrupted if you shoot the Shrieker after doing the elevator section, the two Knights guarding it will always fall back to the same spot. Armed with that knowledge you can begin to make micro improvements.
That feeling of mastery and improvement reminded me of an interview I did with raid lead Joe Blackburn a couple of years ago for Gamesradar. Here's the full quote:
"We talk a lot about mastery and how individuals can develop it over a specific experience. We look at a lot of games—even old school Mario. The first time you do a level, the Goomba gets you. But you soon learn that the Goomba comes from the same spot, and you never get got by that Goomba again, right? Dark Souls does a great job of this too. Taking that sort of approach, we throw a challenge at you and the first time it seems daunting, but it has enough predictability that once you’ve mastered it, it’s easy to digest the information and pass it on to others."
And so it goes with GM Nightfalls: the cadence becomes try, fail, improve, repeat. Even the way you move through the Strike feels so unlike the rest of Destiny. Rather than face rolling waves of aliens it's incumbent on you to think smart when it comes to positioning and timing bursts of damage against the beefier enemies. Tonally it reminds me somewhat of the little endgame content I played in The Division insofar as you're coordinating fire and inching your way through a sea of bullet sponges.
Live, die, repeat
If that sounds like it might not be your thing, well I'm not surprised. As with any mode deliberately pitched at extreme difficulty, frustration abounds. At the end of our six-hour session on Tuesday night, I was at my wits' end, and advocated for cheesing the boss by carrying a shield-breaking orb from earlier in the strike to effectively spawn trap her. My teammate quit out as we started doing damage, reasoning (rightly, I see with hindsight) that this would result in our title having an asterisk of illegitimacy next to it. A sour moment for sure, and I worried it might break our little group for good.
Honestly though, the line between what's a cheese and an actual exploit has always been a blurry one when it comes to Destiny's Nightfalls. In the interest of full disclosure I will admit to standing under one of the Minotaur's nutsacks during the finale of the Garden World strike so as to use his shield to block other enemies. And I have zero regrets.
Other than for the Everest-like thrill of 'because it's there', Grandmaster Nightfalls are still not especially rewarding in terms of loot. You'll get a guaranteed Ascendant Shard—the rarest upgrade material in the game, currently—with a decent chance of a second, but only if you get a Platinum completion which involves killing all Champions. On some strikes, such as Lake of Shadows, that's not a problem—but for The Corrupted it's a nightmare. If you're looking to farm quick runs through the 1080 strikes, which usually drop exotic gear, are still the best bet.
Last night we reconvened after the disastrous collapse, with no apologies on either side. It was unspoken but also weirdly like it'd never happened. Three hours of further failure followed, almost entirely at the final boss fight. Sedia's last stand takes place in the monochromatic Ascendant Realm. The encounter is on a floating rock ring, with barely a couple of pillars for cover, as Sedia flies around threatening to blast you off and into the abyss with no warning.
Here's where I have to say GM's can feel like some cheap bullshit. There is no amount of mastery that counteracts the RNG involved with the booping. It just happens and from there the run invariably rapidly descends into shambles as teammates try to grab the revive and suffer the same fate. At this point, aside from tiredness-induced mess ups, none of the rest of the strike was giving us trouble. But Sedia was a shit show.
"We just need one lucky run" I trilled, the lack of actual belief obvious to all. But in the end, so it was. Without wishing to paint myself as the hero, because it really could have been any of us, I clutched the kill. Having got to the second damage phase, we gave her everything we had. One teammate went down fast, killed by the absurd number of enemies spawning. My other teammate began popping tether shots and almost had her, then suddenly he was dead too. The dreaded message appeared on screen: Last Guardian Standing.
There was no time to think about revives. I'd already emptied my Xenophage ammo and didn't have my dodge to go invisible and reload it. I can't remember what was being shouted but I did hear: "She's one shot, she's one shot". Frozen in place it was all I could do to hold my breath and pump Gnawing Hunger at her. For a couple of excruciating moments the health bar didn't move and then, suddenly, fireworks. She was gone. It was done.
Flying to the Tower afterwards felt like going to the bar after a particularly big team win playing actual sports—everyone reliving how it had gone down, but also glad it was over. Much like my ongoing flirtation with Trials, working through the GM Nightfalls has provided an at times frustrating but ultimately satisfying diversion during this fallow period for Destiny 2. I've come to look forward to each new one rolling around, steeling myself for whatever nonsense it brought. All that said, I would only recommend going for Conqueror if you have competent, like-minded friends who won't throw blame when the inevitable disappointments come, and who enjoy shooting the shit for hours at a time as much as they do the aliens.