What I’m Playing: Destiny 2

Destiny 2 is a hard game to talk about rationally. Take a bunch of incredibly talented programmers and artists and shackle them to greedy executives determined to serve up the most mediocre (read, cheap) product possible to keep outrage only simmering but not boiling over, and marketing folks wielding an enormous budget with great skill to placate gamers that REALLY SOON all their gripes will be fixed, and give one fair score to everyone.

The old problem with game companies was that they were run by programmers who had no idea how to run the huge companies they were suddenly in charge of. Deadline? What’s that? The ludicrous over-time hours, the terrific lack of ability to forecast when a project would be finished… there were real problems.

Their vast piles of money, and the vast piles of money they were leaving on the table through mismanagement, threw the pendulum all the way to this side of things. You can see the fingerprints of this on otherwise incomprehensible decisions:  Destiny 1 was a complete mess in terms of story and end-game mechanics. (Eventually, a year or so after I quit, it apparently got really good.) Why would you launch a game that wasn’t ready? Because you’ve got investors. You’ve got guys who only get bonuses if they hit their targets. So you push product out the cloaca and lean on the marketing department to fix it. Destiny 2 was a far more polished as a game, but they took many of the wrong lessons from it.

The developers learned wonderfully from Red Dead Redemption–part of what makes an open world fun is that there’s ALWAYS something to do when you’re on your way to do something else. “I’m just going to go kill these guys for a bit, then I go on to quest x–oh, look, a cave! Oh hey, there’s a tough enemy who drops a loot box if you kill him!” It’s ADD fun to the max.

The game shoots beautifully. The controls are so tight and slick it almost makes it hard to play shooters that are older. The cinematics and art are stunning. Beautiful set pieces. Big moments. Sure, the story is trash. The villain is possibly the least frightening guy to ever blow up a thousand planets. (He stomps around and talks. All game.) The difficulty has no spikes at all. If you don’t beat the final boss on the first try, I’d have to ask what quantity of illicit substances you’d stuffed up an orifice when someone pounded on your door and you thought it was the cops. But heck, difficulty spikes could keep people from the end game–where the In-App Purchases and company profit lives.

And indeed, everything I can see that inspires rage from the (admittedly rage-prone) online gaming community on sites like r/DestinyTheGame makes sense when you think about what costs Bungie/Activision versus what brings in money for Bungie/Activision.

It’s a shoot/loot collecting game… without loot. In Destiny 1, stats were rolled random for every gun. So you could get your 10th copy of Super Rocket Launcher Black, but you’d check that sucker out… because it might have the “god rolls” you were looking for. Destiny 2, all stats are set. Get a cool gun, try it to see if it sounds different than your other gun in the same class. But get another copy of that gun, and it’s exactly the same. Add to this that the rarest gun type, Exotics, had some common bug where if you got an Exotic Gun, say the XXX, you had really great chances that the next five or six or thirteen super rare Exotic Guns you got would be XXX… which all have the same stats. You might play all evening to finish one quest line just to get a exotic at the end… and you get your eighth XXX. And this would happen when there are only 26 Exotic guns to begin with.

They artificially slow progress at certain points in order to make the game feel like it has more content than it does. Even that had bugs, so some people had greatly slowed progress while people they’d play with (at literally the same time) would quickly outrank them. That’s… not fun. They speed progress for infrequent players (gotta keep ’em in the game so they can buy IAP), and slow it for people who are ranking up too fast. So if you figure out an efficient order to do quests, you’ll suddenly see your progress is slowed.

Guns individually feel great, handle great, sound great. Great work team… and that’s manacled to… your damage never goes up. This gun SAYS it’s level 200, and this one says it’s level 300. Put a lowly grunt AI out there against that gun, and what happens? Level 200 gun: three body shots to kill, or one head shot. Level 300 gun: three body shots to kill, or one head shot. In game-play terms, this means you never feel like you’re tougher than you were last week or last month. All the loot you’ve collected (it’s a loot collecting game) has done you no good at all. Now, whyever would they do this? Because if you have enemies who are intrinsically tough, some players will go to those areas and die. Or level up too fast if they get lots of experience for killing tough enemies (which is how games have done it before). Some players will never even SEE those levels that are so very expensive to create. Or players will be sad that tougher players killed all the monsters in an area. Or can kill in one shot what takes them many, many shots. There are ways to fix this, but they involve making multiple areas. That costs money.

It’s a doll collecting game. The only thing that changes is the cosmetics.

The guns are also weirdly homogenized. Instead of there being hundreds of different guns, with dozens of different feels and bizarre combinations, you have like ten. Some have better stats, more scope sway, extra damage drop-off, different skins and shot sounds… but they eliminated outliers. They said they did this so that the PVP (Player versus Player) wouldn’t get lopsided. But… they already tweak your guns when you go into PVP.

And the PVP experience isn’t good. It’s the least fun I’ve had in PVP since I had the lowest ping on Duke Nuk’em. Even when I won handily I was saying, I hate this. When you play with even one other friend, you’ll tear up opponents. Alone? Good luck. You can’t sort by map or game type or exclude certain ones that infuriate you… Didn’t these guys do Halo? Halo 1Halo 1 had better match-making by far. And bigger teams. (Destiny 2 is only 4vs4. I’m serious). Halo had quicker load times. That was 16 years ago. In video game years, that’s centuries.

But let’s buy the official line (because we’re not cynical at all) and believe that guns are homogenized so no one has kick-ass guns in PVP. Okay, even if you actually couldn’t figure out any way around that–(say, when you joined a PVP match, your ‘unbalanced’ guns would be re-balanced for PVP)–even if that’s true, a huge number of players don’t WANT to play PVP. Especially when it’s crappy like this. And what does Bungie care if I’ve got a gun that’s “too strong” when I play against the AI? It doesn’t hurt anyone else’s fun. Instead, you’ve made EVERYTHING Bud Light.

A loot collecting game should feel like walking into an enormous grocery store in the Pacific Northwest and venturing into the beer aisle: there are so many beers there, it’s daunting. You know some of those beers won’t be at all what you like. You might hate them. But some you will love. And some, some people will hate and others will love, and people will debate the merits of various beers and what should go with them for hours.

Bungie/Activision have warped us to Michigan circa 1995: “Well… we got Bud. Or Bud Light. Or Natural Light. Or Natty Ice–that’ll get ya trashed! Or Coors. Wait! Wait! We got Rainier here too! It’s an embarrassment of riches at the 7/11 tonight, folks!”

Everything here has been done to have to retain and pay the smallest staff possible to do hot-fixes and rebalancing work that is usually just part and parcel of a massive online social game. (It’s certainly no MMORPG.)

A lot of great people, talented people and hard-working and skilled people dedicated to their art worked on this game. They did amazing work. The suits did amazing work, too. It seems they saw their job as giving gamers the lowest possible return on investment since No Man’s Sky. I can only guess that at least one meeting featured a graph of plotting rising levels of gamer outrage to show at what point gamers won’t buy the sequel. Those people make more money than you or I ever will because they’re actually really good at finding that point, and at manipulating gamers into getting excited for the inevitable “more accessible still!” Destiny 3. People raging at Destiny 2 will pre-order Destiny 3 to get that sweet Lazer Tiger Skin pack for the BamBam Shotgun, and 4 Elite Gold Loot Crates.

Sad, huh? Video games are art. Unfortunately, the art in question is the art of commerce.

6 Responses to “What I’m Playing: Destiny 2”

  1. Justin

    Hold up, hold up… One of my favourite authors not only played Destiny 1, but also just wrote a scathingly accurate review of Destiny 2? What a crossover episode! As Shaxx would say, THIS IS AMAZING! I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I’M SEEING! Lol

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  2. Garry

    Awesome books and a review that sums up Destiny 2 perfectly. This sums up perfectly why I have gone back to The Division with so many other Destiny players. Just hoping Anthem when released will be all I hoped Destiny 2 would be.

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    • Stephan

      Same. At least the Division has the Wild West (Dark Zones)!

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    • Brian

      @Garry: What? The Division is good now? I quit before any of the expansions came out, when I realized that the Dark Zone “endgame” was an utterly boring and repetitive grind. Dare I try again, after, what, 2 years of not playing it?

      @Brent: Thank you for such a spot-on review of the strengths, and the many, many flaws of Destiny 2. I had no idea that they were actively choke-holding player advancement. It takes PC/Console gaming into ludicrous stages of political correctness and conformity and making sure that everyone (and every weapon) can’t get too powerful too quickly, in order to maximize the in-app sales. It’s like Activisi0n (I refuse to say Blizzard in the same breath as that word; Blizzard gets to remain untarnished and in my mind’s happy place that way) decided to emulate the principles of mandatory blandness that is enforced in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron”.

      I loved playing through Destiny 2’s world, and I happily quit when I realized that the PVP was nowhere near as fun as Destiny 1’s was, and how unrewarding the endgame was.

      Looking forward to reading more reviews from you!

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  3. Stephan

    Spot on!

    The most infuriating thing about Destiny 2 so far is that by Year 3 of Destiny 1, they’d worked most of the bugs out. It was a polished, smooth game. There were still issues, but the game was fun to play.

    Destiny 2? I don’t sign on unless I’ve got a group of clanmates and/or friends to play with. The raid (endgame) isn’t there, either, but it requires a group. I think Taken King in Destiny 1 was the point where everything became cosmetic, as far as armor went.

    Because you can infuse gear to a higher light level, and the end game gear doesn’t have anything special about it, you can max your light level out without ever going near the raid or Trials of the Nine. Essentially, all you are doing is changing your character’s look.

    There’s more, but this is getting long as it is.

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  4. Derek

    Loved the perfectly summed up review! I feel bad for my friend who despite the mass amounts of rage centered on the game, still has hopes for the future. I can’t say that the next DLC will be bad because it isn’t out yet but the pessimist in me can’t believe it. If you haven’t played Horizon Zero Dawn yet Brent, get on it! The story and art and world building is some of the best I’ve seen in years.

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