Every so often in Destiny 2, a bug will work in the community's favour—the playerbase scrambling to take advantage before the inevitable quick fix. And so it was last week, when, on the Tuesday reset, players discovered that the new Nightfall: The Ordeal's Master difficulty was much easier than intended. Instead of the usual power level of 1080, its enemies were set to 750—the base level of the game, which all new players start at.
That gift lasted just 24 hours, Bungie swapping out the bugged Strike—The Festering Core—presumably to be fixed before its eventual return. Here's the thing, though: the bugged version was great, and, crucially, still pretty hard.
Difficulty in Nightfall: The Ordeal is handled in two ways: power level and modifiers. The easiest version, Adept, is set to 750 power with one modifier. The hardest version (at least until Grandmaster returns later in the season) is 1080 with eight modifiers. The current season's level cap is 1060, although players can go beyond that by levelling their seasonal artifact. Nonetheless, it's likely that all but the most active players will be tackling Master difficulty with some form of power disadvantage.
This sounds fine—it's called Master difficulty for a reason. Increasingly, though, I'm convinced that power disparity is the least interesting way that challenge manifests in Destiny 2. Yes, enemies at a higher power level hit harder. Yes, you do less damage to them. But this often sits uncomfortably against Destiny 2's ideal flow of combat.
At its worst, power disparity engenders passivity—encouraging players to hide at the back of the arena using long range weapons to chip away at health bars. That's mitigated somewhat by the sandbox. With just a few exceptions, Destiny 2's PvE meta increasingly favours shorter ranges, tempting players to overcommit to a fight. Case in point: this season, swords are once again the in thing.
Still, power level remains a blunt tool—an inelegant way to make something artificially harder. Worse, it excludes those that, for whatever reason, choose to also play games that aren't Destiny 2. Currently I'm yet to do this season's new dungeon, because one of my regular fireteam is still stuck doing the least fun part of any Destiny release—grinding through the weekly challenge activities to slowly increase power level to the point that they can do the fun stuff. It's not that they're incapable of doing difficult content; it's that the game first forces players to repeat the same handful of activities, over and over again, before they even have a chance to try.
In the brief window that the Master difficulty Nightfall was bugged, we all jumped in because suddenly it was a rewarding encounter that anyone could try. And it still wasn't a pushover, because it turns out the modifiers are the more interesting variable.
In addition to two types of Champion—special versions of enemies that need to be staggered with help from seasonal weapon and ability mods—The Festering Core's modifiers reduce ammo drops, increase void damage, and make enemy shields more resistant to non-matching elemental damage. Beating it means, at the very least, carefully coordinating with your team before entering the raid, as the Equipment Locked modifier means you can't change your loadout on the fly.
None of the modifiers are particularly special—all are regularly deployed across The Ordeal's Strikes. But they combine to make for a series of interesting puzzles as you figure out how best to utilise the interlocking systems to overcome a variety of threats. One player might be able to stun Overload champions, but they need another to break a Taken Captain's solar shield before the third can cut it down with a sword. These cooperative considerations are way more interesting to work through than just, "whoops, I got too near the grenade of an enemy 20 power levels above me and now I'm dead". And thanks to the void damage modifier, you can still be punished for careless mistakes, as I was repeatedly each time a Cyclops's void charge sniped me from across the room.
The rewards for completing the Master version of Nightfall: The Ordeal is a chance to earn an Ascendant Shard, a rare upgrade material that lets you masterwork armour pieces. The cost to craft these is absurd, and you only earn three from each season's battle pass. If you want to earn them from in-game play, your only other option is Trials of Osiris, which… I mean, who's playing that? It means that access to a fundamental resource for upgrades and buildcrafting is tied to a system that requires both skill and grind. This seems like a needlessly capricious restriction. When a season starts, you're forced to spend a significant amount of time gearing up just to return to the point where you can again start trying to earn a crafting material. Even if you like the power climb, Ascendant Shards desperately need some alternate sources.
For some players, overcoming a power level disparity is part of the fun. That's great, and there should be options that support and reward that challenge. But it's a shame that Bungie feels that the sliding scale of difficulty needs to be a straight line—that lower power activities have to be so trivial as to be mindless, while higher complexity tasks must be inextricably linked to the arduous power climb. The Festering Core might be bugged, but it showed that separating power and difficulty is actually a valid way to make the end game more fun.