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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Review -- Dark Side of the Moon

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In 2010, Bungie announced they had partnered with Activision for their next franchise, Destiny. Although we will likely never know all the details, ardent fans of the franchise have always been aware of tensions between the two companies due to competing visions and goals for the franchise. However, in January of 2019, Bungie announced they were ending their partnership with Activision and were taking complete control of the direction of the Destiny franchise. A few months later, Bungie put out a ViDoc and interview where various members of the studio talked about their plans for the future and, for the first time, mentioned three letters that have loomed over Destiny from the beginning -- MMO. Shadowkeep marks the start of Destiny 2, Year 3 and is Bungie’s first Destiny release as an independent company and their first major steps to create the game they wanted.

Those who played Destiny 1’s third year expansion, Rise of Iron, will notice some parallels with Shadowkeep. Like Rise of Iron, Shadowkeep is heavily built around nostalgia. Shadowkeep brings players back to a familiar location, Earth’s Moon. In Destiny 1, the Moon was the second major location players explored. While Fallen scavengers scoured the surface, a sprawling cave system hid a dark and terrifying Hive stronghold below the Moon’s surface. In the years since those adventures on the Moon, the Hive have expanded their presence and built a new fortress watched over by an ominous red spire known as the Scarlet Keep. Shadowkeep’s narrative opens with an assault against this fortification, but quickly evolves into a greater threat. The Moon has become occupied by shadowy specters of enemies players have defeated over the course of the Destiny franchise called Nightmares. Players are reunited with Eris Morn, a brooding character from Destiny 1, who assists players as they attempt to unravel the truth behind these powerful phantoms and their seeming origin.

There are some things that Shadowkeep’s narrative does really well. The opening mission where players fight alongside NPCs to establish a beachhead on the Moon is an experience I have wanted in Destiny since the beginning (it is admittedly unnamed frames, but, you know, baby steps are still steps..) and the big reveal that motivates the entire campaign is one of the biggest narrative moments in the entire franchise. But then there are the moments that fall flat and unfortunately, the moments that shine are outnumbered by the ones that do not. A large part of this is because Shadowkeep is about fighting enemies from the past. As the name implies, these are enemies long-time players have already fought and defeated many times over the course of the Destiny franchise. Far too much of Shadowkeep is spent hunting down these enemies which don’t really contribute anything to the narrative. Worse still, from a gameplay perspective, these encounters are essentially repeats of encounters players have undertaken numerous times before.

And then there’s the continuing narrative. Ever since Destiny 1’s first content expansion, The Dark Below, one of the franchise’s biggest critiques has been that the original release of Destiny 1 laid the groundwork for a story that Bungie has done little to progress. Most expansions have been largely self-contained, and while there are moments, such as the ending of the original Destiny 2 campaign, which suggest the story is going somewhere, there hasn’t been much done with the Light, the Traveler, and the encroaching threat of the Darkness. The Shadowkeep campaign builds towards a climax that seemingly comes to an abrupt stop after teasing some major story revelations. Starting with The Dark Below, almost every Destiny content release has told a mostly complete story through a campaign which then ends with that release’s raid. For instance, in The Taken King, the campaign ends with players defeating Oryx, the titular Taken King, and the Kings Fall raid sends players to deliver the final blow. I personally like this approach because it keeps the raids grounded in the game’s narrative and players who don’t do raids or endgame content more-or-less get a complete story. Shadowkeep is not like that. The campaign’s finale feels like it sets up the new raid, Garden of Salvation, and leaves players hanging. I believe all players, not just the ten to twenty percent that will complete a raid, deserve closure. Except, then you do the raid and it doesn’t really tie into campaign at all.

I feel my criticisms of the story of Shadowkeep are fair, but with the caveat that there is still content coming that could still build on the narrative. Bungie has been very open with players that they are trying new things with Destiny 2, Year 3. One of the major changes is that they are trying to tell an evolving story over the course of the entire year. While Garden of Salvation does not have strong ties to the Shadowkeep campaign, it establishes an enduring conflict of the season. For some currently unspecified reason, Vex forces have started invading the Moon. Over the course of this season, players have been working with Ikora Rey to go on the offensive and launch a counter-attack. While the Shadowkeep campaign is similar to previous Destiny campaigns, in that it can be finished in a few hours, this story has followed the pattern of the Year 2 seasonal stories and has unfolded from week to week. Additionally, this narrative is reportedly intended to build on the events from one season to the next. On one hand, as someone who plays Destiny 2 year-round, I enjoy seeing the story progress each week, even if some of those weeks are minor steps at best, but there is also no denying that Bungie is time-gating content to keep players coming back week after week. That criticism also applies to the Shadowkeep narrative. While the story has continued past the campaign, the events that have pushed that narrative have felt more at random and have occurred based on Bungie's scheduling decisions rather than being open for players to pursue at their own pace.

When Bungie decided to use the Moon as the backdrop for Shadowkeep, it was inevitably going to split the Destiny community. While some players look at the Moon and have fond memories and nostalgia from their experiences in Destiny 1, others look at the Moon and see reused assets and something that was taken away with Destiny 2. I know there are players who think it was as simple as dragging and dropping the files for the Moon from a Destiny 1 folder into a Destiny 2 folder and tweaking them a little. Honestly, I barely acknowledge that opinion. I have no doubt that Bungie put a lot of work into building and redesigning the Moon for Destiny 2. This isn’t the same Moon we spent so many years exploring. The surface of the moon has been torn open by glowing chasms and fissures and many of the familiar structures from Destiny 1 have fallen into disrepair since our early adventures. Some of these are nice throwbacks for long-time players. Locations like the Shrine of Oryx and Traitor’s Ketch are collapsed and decrepit, seemingly as a result of our many battles in Destiny 1. However, for players, there’s only so much time you want to spend exploring a familiar area you previously spent years exploring. It also doesn’t help that much of the promotional material focused on the Scarlet Keep which ends up being largely unused. The Scarlet Keep is a completely new areas that players have never explored, but it ends up only barely used. Players can't even access the Scarlet Keep when in the game’s open-world patrol mode.

While Shadowkeep is not as substantial an expansion as other fall expansions, part of this undoubtedly stems from the number of significant background changes. In addition to the aforementioned split from Activision, Bungie moved Destiny 2 to Steam, launched a free-to-play entry called New Light, and introduced cross-save so that players can freely move their characters between platforms. While the move to Steam and free-to-play option are great for bringing in new players, Bungie unfortunately continues to do a poor job of making the game accessible to those new players. While ardent players stay informed by watching live-streams, reading blog posts, and scouring news pieces, a lot of important in-game mechanics are never easily explained for newer players. This is best exemplified by New Light. New players are given an introductory mission, a remaster of the first mission from Destiny 1, which teaches basics like movement, shooting, and a few abilities. Unlike Destiny 1, however, these new players are then dumped in the Tower with no real guidance. Shadowkeep raised the minimum level so every player can immediately hop into the Shadowkeep campaign. While this sounds great, this is a third year expansion and, just from a gameplay perspective, assumes players are familiar with certain systems. And what about the new player who wants to experience the story of Destiny 2 from the beginning? New Light feels like it is structured for the new player who has friends who already play the game, not someone who picks the game up on his or her own.

Last year’s fall expansion coincided with several changes meant to improve the core gameplay experience. The release of Shadowkeep has seen the implementation of changes and systems meant to introduce new role-playing game elements and depth to that core experience which is still in a good place. One is the introduction of new champion class of enemies which have allowed Bungie to create a novel spin on team composition. Aficionados of typical role-playing games know the advantages of running a team comprised of characters who fill different rolls. Supports, tanks, and different types of offensive characters all bring their own strengths and weaknesses. While Destiny has always had distinct classes, the franchise has never had content that required players to run specific team compositions. Instead, these new enemies force teams to coordinate and plan their weapons and load-outs. For instance, in a single encounter, one player will need a weapon that can break an enemy’s shield to prevent it from healing while another player needs to bring a weapon that can stagger a powerful enemy that will otherwise unrelentingly charge the team while taking little damage. It only really matters in specific high-level content, but it is a step in the right direction for players who want to do more than mindlessly shoot everything without any planning or preparation. The game has also reintroduced different difficulties so that hardcore players can push themselves for better rewards and, for the first time ever, the game also offers content which players can repeat indefinitely to farm for end-game armor and materials.

One of the biggest changes to the Destiny 2 experience that players interact with everyday has been dubbed Armor 2.0. In the previous armor iteration, players chased armor with randomly rolled perks and selected fixed bonuses to various stats. This new armor system flips that chase. Perks are now unlocked from doing activities and are slotted into armor pieces with randomly rolled stats which do things like increasing a character’s health or reducing ability recasts. In the old system, if a piece of armor didn’t come with a perk I wanted, it was worthless. With this new system, there is more flexibility and room for fine-tuning. While a piece of armor might not provide the stat bonuses I want, I might be able to slot it in and use other pieces of armor to fill those stat deficiencies. The reintroduction of stats that were initially removed with the release of Destiny 2 also allows players more control over their characters which has already produced some powerful and fun builds. If you want a build that can run around throwing out grenades every few seconds, there's a build for that. If you want a mobile character that can dive between characters and throw out melees, you can build that character. All that said, while I like that this change gives players more freedom over their builds and allows for more customization, I hate the way it made much of the gear I grinded for last year worthless. And this isn’t the first time either. It happened at the end of Destiny 1’s first year, it happened with the release of Destiny 2, and it has happened, to varying levels, at the start of every year of Destiny 2. Bungie needs to get better at not invalidating the time players invest in previous releases.

For Destiny 2’s more competitive-focused players, the game still offers the player-versus-player Crucible and the player-versus-environment-versus-player game-mode, Gambit. After a handful of tweaks over the course of the last year, for better or worse, Gambit hasn’t changed much with Shadowkeep. On the other hand, after a year of being largely ignored, the Crucible finally has received some welcome attention. Bungie has also promised to devote more attention to the Crucible going forward, but they’ve made similar promises in the past, so we’ll see how the rest of the year pans out. Many of these changes have been made in response to player complaints and to seemingly create a better experience for new players. The Crucible now offers more options and is no longer broken into two major playlists. While nodes for Rumble (solos) and Private Matches remain largely unchanged, the previous Quickplay playlist has been replaced by the Classic Playlist which offers players a similar connection-based experience. A subset of players have complained about Destiny 2’s reliance on connection-based matchmaking for Quickplay the past year, and the new director places a greater emphasis on playlists which use Destiny 2’s hidden background matchmaking rank (MMR), or skill-based matchmaking, in response. These rotating playlists are intended to give players a more even Crucible experience where they match against others in the same skill bracket. As expected though, we’re already seeing complaints about questionable connections, so it is only a matter of time before those complaints become deafening.

While I personally don’t have anything against skill-based matchmaking, the changes to the Competitive playlist are more glaring. The 4v4 Competitive playlist has been replaced by 3v3 Survival and a 3v3 Freelance Survival playlist. I have nothing against these changes and have actually found myself enjoying the strategic changes that 3v3 have introduced. My problem is that the Competitive playlists seemingly also relies on skill-based matchmaking rather than the player’s visible rank (Glory). Destiny 2 locks certain weapons behind the Competitive playlist (the current iteration requires players to acquire a set number of points from winning matches) and every season, players’ rank points are reset to ensure every player has a chase. This has created a scenario where top-tier players who are working their way up to their actual Glory end up going against lower-skill players. Under the current system, players still start at the bottom, but are seemingly matching against others at the same skill-tier while working up the ranks. Personally, it feels like this system is a hybrid of the worst parts of two options. I’m not going to pretend that I’m the best Crucible player in the world, but I do play at a fairly high skill tier. My first Competitive match of the season was against three players who all had the Unbroken title, a title acquired by reaching max Glory in three seasons. It would not have bothered me if this had just been a random occurrence when both teams were at low points, but at least one of them had over four-thousand Glory. If the game is going to use the background MMR for matchmaking, then give me the Glory and the corresponding rewards from the start. The caveat to this is a player receives bonus Glory for winning a match when his or her MMR is higher than the current Glory (I was getting over double the base points for a win until I was around five-hundred points away from max). While this means higher skill players climb faster for wins, it also feels like a lot of extra work when there are seemingly easier options.

As someone who has spent a lot of time with the franchise, I have two competing evaluations of Destiny 2: Shadowkeep. There is the side of me that is invested in Bungie and the Destiny franchise and wants Bungie to succeed. That side looks at Shadowkeep, acknowledges the major changes at Bungie, can see all the behind-the-scenes work that went into this expansion, and is hopeful about this upcoming year of content. But there is also the part of me that is a consumer who purchased a product that was put out, and that part of me is disappointed in Shadowkeep. I’ve tried to give my honest impressions, the good and the bad. There are also a lot of things I didn’t touch on and there’s an entire discussion about microtransactions that have been dominating the community discourse lately (tl;dr: they’re cosmetics, I’ll care when they start actually affecting the game). It’s not Fall for me without a new Destiny release, and while Shadowkeep is far from perfect, there are a lot of things which give me hope that Year 3 will be a good year.

Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody ~ Mark Twain

All images owned by Bungie.