Destiny 2's Opening Hours Are Brilliant
After spending the weekend wishing the Anthem demo was more like Destiny, I decided to cut out the middleman and fire up Destiny 2. Having never created a Titan in either title, I thought I'd play through the intro again instead of exploring the post-Forsaken game with my Warlock.
I'm glad I did - It reminded me that Destiny 2 has one of the most compelling introductions for a shooter ever.
FPS games generally have strong starts: The Covenant boarding the Pillar of Autumn in Halo, the unmistakable theme song of Doom's E1M1, any of Call of Duty's opening levels. The original Destiny has a relatively slow, almost spooky start: after being resurrected by your Ghost outside the city walls, you creep through an industrial facility being slowly introduced to The Fallen, one of the four major enemy factions. Destiny's opening is good but it's safe - your fledgling Guardian has few powers and the game slowly introduces you to its combat mechanics. Destiny 2 hurls you at the first level like the void-infused wrecking ball you are.
Destiny 2 picks up after all the various stories packed into Destiny. The achievements of your individual Guardian aren't explained, if the player only played the vanilla campaign or if they tore through all the expansions, mastered the raids, and are kings of The Crucible, everyone in The Tower knows who you are.
Something that Destiny does well is balance the single player storytelling with the multiplayer framework. You can see other Guardians running around in the open world, but you load into instances for story missions. This gives the impression that, yes, there are other Guardians running around taking care of business, but you are the one doing all the major stuff.
I really enjoy this kind of storytelling because it allows for the necessary FPS power fantasy while minimizing the games-as-service FOMO. As a solo gamer, I've never done any of the raids. In character, I justify this as being a specialist: I don't need to invade the Leviathan or close the Vault of Glass - there are specialized teams to take care of that stuff. I'm the lone wolf, the one who stumbles on the big problems and solves them, then lets the other Guardians clean up behind me.
Destiny 2 takes this idea, that everyone is special but you are specialist, and runs with it. The story picks up with your Guardian returning to the City after some expedition. While unfortunately, but obviously, the Guardian who appears in the opening cinematic isn't wearing your gear or flying your ship from the first game. This makes sense but is a bummer: my favourite thing about the original Destiny was spawning into each new expansion with all the wacky colourful space robes I'd accrued in the last one. In this playthrough, since I had made a Titan from scratch, it's not such a big deal.
The Tower, the last bastion of humanity, is in bad shape - similar to the opening levels of Halo and Halo 2 (Both developed by Bungie) your home is being invaded. Does the game start like Destiny, with you slowly infiltrating the Tower to quietly save all those vendor and quest NPCs from the first game?
Hell no. You literally spawn into a room full of fire and RIP through the invaders, The Cabal, who are basically Warhammer's Space Marines crossed with the Mangalores from The Fifth Element. We learn that these particular Cabal are from The Red Legion - an ancient military force who "Have never known defeat." Yeah, well, our invincible light-infused Guardian who shoots lighting out of his fists when he body slams stuff hasn't ever known defeat either.
Another place where Destiny 2 surpasses its predecessor is characters. Each character class has a mentor, each voiced by a beloved nerd culture actor. In Destiny, you meet these mentors standing around a big table where they stay for the entire game. In Destiny 2, that table is smoldering slag in a ruined boardroom and your mentors are in the fight. Hunter Cayde, voiced by every nerd's best friend Nathan Fillion, is blasting Cabal with with his flaming pistol. Titan Zavala, The Wire's Lance Reddick, is holding an entire plaza single-handedly, and my girl Ikora, Firefly's Gina Torres, space-magic punches a spaceship with her bare hands. It's a spectacular way to introduce these characters and, additionally, give you a taste of your own Ultimate ability, which you probably won't unlock for hours.
When I was an improviser, one of my golden rules was to never have a scene with two people meeting for the first time. It's boring, and lazy, and safe. Instead, it's better to launch yourself into a scene by endowing your scene partner with being your best friend, or a hated rival, or a love interest. Destiny 2 does this well: you're the Guardian who cleansed The Black Garden, who killed Oryx, explored the Dreadnought - like a space fantasy Cheers, everybody knows your goddamned name!
Your reputation is well deserved. You pick up guns and tear through the Cabal, you toss grenades and unleash your super power, you float through the air blasting away enemies with pinpoint accuracy. All of this glorious, gleeful action is driven by a ridiculously bombastic and epic score by Michael Salvatori. Music has always been Bungie's secret weapon and while big, orchestral scores are more common in games now, Destiny 2's is particularly awesome. This game bangs with a good pair of headphones.
As you careen from combat to combat, Destiny 2 makes one thing clear: You are a living God.
Until all that gets taken away.
Destiny's lamest idea is where your superpowers come from: Light. Yes, Destiny is another "Dark bad, Light good" story. While the quality of the storytelling and writing for the characters has done a lot to alleviate the generic trappings of this setup, Destiny is at its worst when it's pontificating on unquantifiable things like "Power" and "Light" and "Darkness." In Destiny 2, the leader of the Red Legion, Gaul, takes your light away! Oh no!
What follows is a slow-paced sequence where your Guardian, battered and powerless, limps through the ruins of the City avoiding Cabal patrols. There's no danger here, you can't be spotted by the roaming tanks and spotlight-wielding aircraft, but the combination of music, lighting, and the sheer slowness of your Guardian is a powerful combination. It reminds me of the future war sequences from The Terminator - you are hunted and if you are caught, you will be killed. When you reunite with your Ghost, he makes it clear: you cannot be resurrected. If you die, you die for good.
After you escape the city, you journey into the mountains following a mysterious hawk who seems to be leading you somewhere. The music here is mournful, tinged with loss, but as time passes (The game informs you that you spend over ten days in the wilderness) you get stronger. The music gets more hopeful. Your first encounter with enemies in the wilderness, fighting a pack of Cabal war hounds who have savaged a group of powerless Guardians, is desperate and thrilling. You're backed into a corner, with only an SMG to defend yourself. These war hounds shouldn't be a threat at all, but here they can really mess you up. As you get stronger, you see the ruins of The City in the distance, you come across and defeat the Cabal commander of these war hounds and kill him, too. You've gone from blowing through whole platoons of Cabal without slowing down, to rejoicing in killing a single trooper.
Upon this victory, you meet Suraya, and here the game continues its exploration of its own myths. All through the first game, we are told the world outside The City is a lethal wasteland. Suraya is proof it is not and actually rejects the comforts of the Tower, comparing it to a prison in one exchange. As you complete missions for Suraya, and the game falls into the structure that it will stick to for the rest of the game, Suraya grows to accept not just you, but all Guardians, even as you abandon her on Earth to jet around the solar system.
In the space of a few hours, you go from the most powerful creature alive to a wounded animal struggling to survive, then recover your power and set off on another grand adventure. Suraya is furious that you're leaving her behind but this is what you do: you don't sweat the details, you have more important things to do, whole planets to save, ancient cosmic mysteries to uncover. This build, more than a common abilitease, grounds in a way the first game failed to. By the end of the campaign of Destiny 2, you're more powerful than you were at the beginning, and each expansion grows your power further. Even at the conclusion of the campaign, with The Tower restored, you can still go back to The Farm, Suraya's refugee haven out in the wilderness, far from the City. There's no reason for you to go there, all the vendors you need are back at the Tower, but its existence is a reminder of how far you've come, and what you're fighting for.