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Destiny 2: Beyond Light Review -- Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

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After a delay of nearly two months, Destiny 2: Beyond Light has finally arrived. This past year was been Bungie’s first year self publishing Destiny 2 since splitting with Activision and there have been some undeniable growing pains. While Year 3 had its share of flaws, the Fall expansions are the Destiny franchise’s biggest content drops which lay the foundation for the upcoming year and have the potential to be a clean break from the previous year’s issues. Beyond Light is more than just another Fall release though, it is also the first piece of a story currently planned to cover the next three years. So I think it is safe to say there is a fair bit of pressure on Bungie to stick the landing.

Shadowkeep, last year’s Fall expansion, was promoted as a story focused on the resurgence of the Hive on the Moon and the appearance of strange Nightmare enemies. However, at the end of the campaign’s first mission, players encountered something not featured in any of the game’s promotional material, a Pyramid. These strange objects have been vaguely referenced as avatars of the ambiguously defined Darkness throughout the history of the Destiny franchise. The later part of Year 3 was spent dealing with the arrival of additional Pyramids and the encroaching Darkness. Invited by the Darkness, players arrive on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This frozen moon was once home to facilities that experimented on advanced technology and pushing humanity to new levels, but is now occupied by the House of Salvation. Empowered by the Darkness, this new Fallen group wields the power of Stasis, Destiny’s first new element. But the Fallen are not the only ones to receive this new power, and as you can imagine, as players delve into Europa, it is not long before the Darkness reaches out offering players access to Stasis.

For the majority of the Destiny franchise, the Traveler and the Light have been presented as good while the Pyramids and Darkness have been presented as evil. But as the name implies, Beyond Light is about crossing that line and delving into the Darkness. At the heart of this is the Exo Stranger, an enigmatic character introduced in the original Destiny campaign who then vanished for some unexplained reasons (read: poor writing). The Exo Stranger comes from a future where the Darkness won and has returned to guide Guardians to prevent them from being corrupted by its powers. And while it sounds intriguing to explore the other half of Destiny’s narrative dichotomy, this core aspect of the story falls incredibly short. For the majority of the past six years, the Darkness has been presented as an oppressive and destructive force that was responsible for the death of uncountable lives and caused the collapse of humanity’s Golden Age. Crossing the line and embracing the powers offered by the Darkness needed to be a bigger deal. Unfortunately, so much of Beyond Light’s campaign is spent dealing with the Fallen, Stasis comes across as just another tool for players to utilize. This is best captured by a moment near the end of the Beyond Light campaign where Commander Zavala, the leader of the Vanguard, basically tells players that Guardians cannot use the power of Darkness. But this conversation occurs while I was standing in front of him with the darkness-based subclass that I literally just unlocked equipped. And that was the end of the conversation. I get that this story is far from over and Bungie can potentially do more to make these events feel significant, but at the same time, this was a huge step and not giving it that weight is a wasted opportunity.

Another reason Beyond Light’s approach to the story of the Light and Darkness is such a disappointment is that there are several exceptional story-lines throughout the rest of the expansion. The narrative focus on the Fallen and their leader Eramis does a great job with one of the franchise’s core enemies. Before the Traveler visited humanity, it uplifted the Fallen, and their society collapsed when it fled. These events and the consequences of the Traveler’s actions have been discussed in the game’s lore, but Destiny’s approach to lore has never been especially accessible. Beyond Light finally puts this story front and center and gives players some context for the first enemy we encountered back in Destiny 1. Much of Beyond Light’s post-campaign content focuses on the story of the Exo Stranger and uses her to finally answer numerous questions. Although the character has been largely absent, fans of Destiny’s lore have known certain things about her past for many years, and Beyond Light confirms those facts and expands her connection to characters and organizations that have been at the periphery of the Destiny story for years. Praise aside, and I have made this complaint before, I am tired of the non-playable characters doing nothing. Bungie has spent a lot of time world-building only to leave the actors on the sidelines. This time around, the worst offenders were Eris Morn and the Drifter. For the past year, Bungie has been setting Eris and the Drifter up to be something of a dark counterpart to the Vanguard. But after arriving on Europa and an initial cutscene, they did nothing. I am not saying they need to be involved in missions (although that is a conversation I would like to have eventually), but have them do more than sit around a campfire while I am out doing everything.

Of course, it would not be a Fall expansion without a new raid, and Destiny 2’s best content continues to set a high bar for the franchise. Similar to some of the best raids in the franchise’s history, the new raid, The Deep Stone Crypt, ties into Beyond Light’s narrative and the raid’s first completion changed the world, triggering new story-lines and activities. The Deep Stone Crypt features some amazing set-pieces and, like previous raids, is built around encounters that are unlike anything we have experienced before. With the Deep Stone Crypt, Bungie has also continued their recent trend of making the day one raid experience accessible to more players. From releasing the raid on a Saturday, to the contest modifier which caps players at twenty levels below each encounter, to giving player more time from the release of Beyond Light to prepare for the new raid, the Deep Stone Crypt saw some of the highest day one engagement numbers. That said, while Bungie has taken steps to make the raid more accessible, I have seen a fair bit of frustration from players who came back to Destiny 2 or do not play the game too seriously who felt they did not have access to all the weapons and tools that players who play the game year round had available. Honestly, I do not think this is a problem as the day one experience is supposed to be challenging and players who spend more time playing Destiny 2 should be better equipped and should be better positioned to succeed. While I am happy to see more people attempting and succeeding on day one, this raid has also raised some questions about whether players are becoming too powerful and have too many survival tools at our disposal. One raid is not a definitive enough data point for me to make such an assertion, but this is a topic I will be following.

As you can imagine, introducing a new element as the Destiny franchise goes into its seventh year has shaken up some of the core gameplay of Destiny 2. Stasis is an ice-based element which slows and freezes opponents and allows players to build walls and obstacles. Unlike previous expansions and subclasses, the process to unlock Stasis is built into Beyond Light’s campaign. Stasis subclasses are more customizable than the light-based subclasses we have had for the past three years, and players can choose individual perks based on their playstyle rather than picking from pre-decided sets of perks. There are also quests to unlock additional abilities and customizations after the campaign which tie into the post-campaign storyline. Each class gains access to one new Stasis subclass; Revenant, Shadebinder, and Behemoth, for Hunters, Warlocks, and Titans, respectively. The Revenant takes advantage of the Hunter mobility and uses its abilities to freeze and slow targets. Shadebinders are ice wizards which summon an ice staff to freeze opponents and shatter them. Behemoths are hulking wrecking-balls which rely on freezing targets and setting up ice walls and then shattering the ice by punching or charging through them for added damage.

Out of the gate, the Shadebinder was the strongest and most well-defined subclass. Unlocking additional abilities made the subclass even more powerful and played into the fantasy of an ice wizard rushing into battle, freezing its opponents. The subclass was arguably too powerful, which has already resulted in a few nerfs, although the pendulum may have swung a bit too far in some regards. On the other hand, the Behemoth felt incredibly lackluster at first, but after unlocking additional abilities and spending some time working on a build, it has become a lot more fun. Of the three new subclasses, it benefits the most from players spending time thinking how they want to play and building around that. For instance, I have paired exotics that boost my survivability and recharge my melee ability so I can charge in and repeatedly slam into opponents. As someone who prefers to play Hunter, the Revenant feels fine, but it does not stand out as much the other two. For example, in PvP, Shadebinder just feels powerful and I have constructed a build that makes Behemoth fun to play, but with Revenant, if Stasis as a whole was not so incredibly strong in PvP, there is a good chance I would not be using this new subclass. While its abilities are functional, I wish they synergized better or played into the class identity a bit more.

Speaking of PvP, while Beyond Light has brought some major changes across many aspects of Destiny 2, the Crucible has unfortunately received almost no attention with this expansion. I am not asking for a lot, but I do not think it is too much to want a few new PvP maps with the big annual expansion. Last year saw the return of Trials of Osiris which was intended to offer endgame content for high-skill PvP players. Trials of Osiris is a tournament-style game-mode where players prove their skill by trying to win consecutive matches. Unfortunately, lower skilled players see Trials as an insurmountable challenge and the lack of meaningful rewards (and the delays to Beyond Light) caused the population to plummet. Bungie has made a few changes to make the loot more desirable, but I cannot speak to whether those changes will be effective or not because, as of this writing, various bugs have caused Trials to be canceled each weekend. As I have touched upon before, I love ranked playlists. This is not the most popular opinion, but I do not think bringing Trials back was the right decision and wish Bungie had instead invested those resources into improving the ranked playlist. If done correctly, it would actually be accessible to all players and offer rewards and challenges for high-skill players. While, it unfortunately seems Bungie has largely abandoned the ranked playlist, at a minimum, can the playlist actually use rank-based matchmaking again?

On the other hand, Destiny’s third core game-mode, Gambit, has undergone some major revisions. Introduced in Forsaken, Gambit is a hybrid game-mode that combines PvE and PvP elements. Six months after its introduction, Bungie unveiled Gambit Prime, a higher skilled, more complex take on Gambit. With Beyond Light, Bungie has simplified Gambit to one version that combines elements from the two modes. This new version of Gambit opts for some of the simplicity of the original Gambit over Gambit Prime’s overly cumbersome mechanics, but requires less time commitment because, like Gambit Prime, it is a winner-take-all single round. While these changes are great, many of Gambit’s problems persist because it is a hybrid game-mode. From the PvE side, Destiny is a game where players are incredibly strong and have numerous tools for burning down enemies, especially bosses, which hinders Gambit’s attempts to be competitive. It also does not help that there is a large portion of the Destiny player-base that abhors and avoids PvP, so high-skill PvP players and low-skill weapons can make the PvP side of Gambit feel overwhelming. I do not see Bungie ever removing Gambit, but I also do not know if there is a fix for these problems.

Gambit is not the only part of Destiny 2 that has seen significant change. Beyond Light has also brought a number of behind the scenes and foundational changes to Destiny 2. Two of the more controversial changes have been sunsetting and the Destiny Content Vault. Up until Beyond Light, players could take any weapon or piece of armor and raise it to the current level cap. This created a situation where, if I could keep using all my perfectly rolled gear release after release, Bungie would have to embrace power creep and create gear that was inherently stronger than what I had, or there would be no incentive to chase new loot. Destiny 2 is a looter and if there is no incentive to chase loot, that is a huge problem. The solution Bungie decided upon was sunsetting; a piece of gear can be raised to new level caps for a year, but not beyond that. If you have ever played a massively multiplayer online role-playing game before, the concept of sunsetting will sound commonplace, just without the name. A new expansion comes out, there is a new level cap, and you hunt for new, more powerful gear to replace all your old gear. Bungie’s problem is that players have been able to bring their gear forward since Destiny 1, Year 2, so there is a vocal portion of the player-base that is overly attached to their gear. It also has not helped that Bungie did not execute the change very well.

When sunsetting was announced, some, like me, hoped that if a gun was reissued, Bungie would use the opportunity to shuffle the perks or offer new perks. That has not been the case. So far, it seems that reissued guns have the same perk pools, so players are being told to chase the same guns, just with a new max power cap. To make matters worse, this was the first season of sunsetting, so a large number of weapons were taken out of the pool. And while this was expected, there was also an assumption that the world loot pool would be refreshed with reissued guns and armor. When Beyond Light released, that was not the case, but to their credit, Bungie has added more drops from the previous year in response to complaints from players. At the same time though, many of these drops are not set to the power cap a year from now, but from the season they were released. This problem was best exemplified when one of the new campaign missions rewarded an old gun with a power cap below the current season. If I am doing old content, I get that the loot pool for those activities are not going to be updated. But if I am doing new content, the rewards should be at the new power cap. Especially if Bungie is taking the lazy route and just reissuing guns exactly the same as when they originally came out.

The other major controversial change is the Destiny Content Vault. When Destiny 2 came out in 2017, Bungie was still partnered with Activision and therefore had to abide by the contract which stipulated they would release a new, numbered entry into the franchise every few years. This was not their original vision for the game, and when Bungie went independent, they committed to Destiny 2 being a game they would support for many years to come. However, Destiny 2 has been growing to an unmanageable size, both in terms of disk space and complexity. For example, the game was over one-hundred gigabytes last year, and that is with seasonal content that was removed at the end of each season. Last season also introduced a gun that would soft-lock players in one of the Season 2 campaign missions which forced Bungie to spend time to fix an interaction in a mission that was, at best, rarely played. The inelegant solution Bungie devised was to remove older, less played content so that they could better support the game. And while this was done for Destiny 2’s long-term sustainability, losing campaigns, raids, PvP maps, and entire planets is a bitter pill to swallow.

The Destiny Content Vault has not been solely about removal, however. Beyond Light has brought back the Cosmodrome from Destiny 1 which plays a central role in an updated New Light experience for new players. Last year, Bungie created the New Light experience for new players, but, if I am not mistaken, this was an introductory mission that then dropped players off in the Tower with little guidance. New Light felt like it was designed for the player who wanted to play with their friends, not a brand new player to Destiny 2. In response to those criticisms, Bungie re-hauled New Light, offering a new story-line which serves as a tutorial and teaches various game mechanics. I have not played the New Light content, but I have heard a lot of good things about it, although I still wonder about the overall Destiny experience now that new players cannot play some of the older campaigns. While Destiny 2 offers a free-to-play option, that name is something of a misnomer as it is more free-to-try. Much of the older content that was removed was free content, so players who do not purchase Beyond Light or one of the older expansions will be limited in what activities are available.

Destiny 2 is a game that has an enormous disparity between when the game is good and when it is not. When it is good, it is a great experience. But when it is not good, it can be a slog with few reasons to motivate players to log in and engage with content. And unfortunately, Destiny 2 Year 3 skewed heavily towards the not good. Part of this undoubtedly stems from the fact the Year 2 was, arguably, the best year in the Destiny franchise. However, I have said for a long time that players cannot hold Destiny 2 to the same standard that Year 2 achieved since Bungie's partnership with Activision afforded them many additional resources. And then there’s the elephant in the room, the ongoing global pandemic. We will never know how much the pandemic affected the past year’s content and Beyond Light, but there is no denying that it has had an effect. There is honestly a part of me that feels Beyond Light could have used more time, but Bungie felt pressured to get it out after having already delayed it nearly two months.

While working on this review and being engaged in the community, I have seen a lot of opinions about what Beyond Light was able to deliver and where it fell short. The thing is, I think a lot of players created unrealistic expectations for this expansion. I have seen a lot of comments from players who expected Bungie to shake up the Destiny experience and offer something drastically new with Beyond Light. The Destiny franchise is going into its seventh year. The game is pretty set in what it is. At the end of the day, Beyond Light is more Destiny. If you enjoy the core Destiny 2 experience, the phenomenal shooter gameplay, chasing rolls on weapons and armor, engaging with the different core playlists, you will probably enjoy Beyond Light. But if you are expecting something more than that or are tired of Destiny’s gameplay loops, I imagine Beyond Light will disappoint. As someone who was not always happy during Year 3, I can confidently say I am having fun playing Destiny again. But a year is a long time, so I also know that there is a good chance I will end up taking breaks from Destiny 2 throughout the year. And at this point, I am okay with Destiny 2 being a game that draws my attention for extended periods of time, but also being a game that doesn’t need my attention every day.

A side should always be taken. Even if it's the wrong side.

All images owned by Bungie.