Destiny 2: Beyond Light: The Kotaku Review

Destiny 2: Beyond Light: The Kotaku Review

A new year, a new expansion, a new Destiny 2. With Beyond Light, Bungie’s six-year-old loot shooter looks as beautiful and feels as good to play as it ever has, complete with small quality-of-life improvements and a satisfying story that delves into some of the series’ longstanding mysteries and even offers a few, uncharacteristically human answers.

After last year’s disappointing Shadowkeep expansion, Bungie’s first since the studio split with mega-publisher Activision, Beyond Light feels like a return to form and makes for a fulfilling new space adventure if you can set aside some of the game’s ever-encroaching live-service demands. The new stuff ranges from good to great, including: a patrol zone, a subclass, a strike mission, tons of exotic gear, and lots more fascinating lore-based collectibles. Gambit mode has been overhauled and is now, wait for it, fun! The cumbersome mod system is simpler and lets you equip seasonal artefact mods to armour pieces instead of tying up slots on weapons. And you can finally customise your Ghost shells to give them whatever perks you want.

The rest of Destiny 2 is unfortunately a mess at the moment, as Bungie tries to build the game’s future by cutting loose its past. Log onto the game now after being away for a while and you’ll find there’s a lot missing, making Destiny feel smaller than at any time since 2015’s Taken King expansion. The results on that front so far range from mixed to troubling. Destiny 2’s systems can still be cumbersome and unintuitive, and there’s less reason than ever to bother with any content outside of what’s been added in the new expansion. The start of this new era of Destiny feels less like a clean break with the past than a pilot jettisoning everyone’s carry-ons mid-take-off because the flight was overbooked. Based on this first layover, though, it might end up worth it.

The jewel in Beyond Light’s crown is Europa, a world of ice and intrigue orbiting Jupiter that’s home to ancient science facilities and a new faction of Fallen committed to reclaiming their alien civilisation’s former glory. It’s Destiny 2’s best new planetary zone to date, marrying the colour and flair of the current game with the expansive, lived-in environments of the first Destiny. Every time I touch down on Europa I get a chill of excitement, ready to gaze once again upon its shimmering snowscapes and perhaps uncover another layer of its sprawling golden-age complexes.

Here, on Jupiter’s second moon, is where scientist Clovis Bray once experimented with alien technology and the Darkness to make humanity immortal. His labs and production lines dot Europa’s surface and tunnel deep below it. They are full of tools that can potentially decrypt his journal and expose the truth behind his work, as well as the origins of the Exominds, Destiny’s race of sentient androids. These missions, chaperoned by the enigmatic Exo Stranger (finally re-emerged from the wreckage of the original Destiny’s story) are some of the expansion’s best, weaving together dazzling environments, interesting dialogue, and rewarding new abilities into evocative little reflections on the nature of consciousness, ambition, and power.

Among Europa’s biggest highlights are its Lost Sectors, off-the-beaten path micro-dungeons that let you explore in a more natural fashion than the usual chasing of objective markers. There are three, each more involved than any of the previous ones in the game. Instead of just a hole in the ground with enemies and treasure inside, they feel like extensions of the bigger story mission spaces and meaningfully contribute to Europa’s feel and history. You can also run them all on higher difficulties to earn exotic new armour pieces like the Warlock’s Necrotic Grip. These more challenging Lost Sector runs must also be completed alone, a boon to solo players looking for end-game content that doesn’t require finding time to team up with others.

Europa is also home to the House of Salvation, a new group of Fallen, whose leader, Eramis, has made a deal with the Darkness to wield Stasis, a new set of crystal-based abilities that let her and her lieutenants freeze their enemies and shatter them into a thousand crackling pieces. Eramis and her followers feel betrayed by the Light, which they believe once shined upon their golden cities only to one day leave and give its gifts to humanity instead. Foregrounding this lore makes the Fallen more sympathetic and enticing adversaries than ever before.

Europa has a cyberpunk zone and I love it.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
Europa has a cyberpunk zone and I love it. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

Putting down her uprising forms the backbone of Beyond Light’s campaign, which sees you team up with former backstabbing prison warden and brief House of Salvation convert Variks to try and help his people down a different, more peaceful path. It’s very decent as far as Destiny 2 campaigns go, filled with some exceptionally challenging boss fights, a gorgeous Fallen city constructed among Europa’s golden-age ruins, and a few cinematic scenes that do the heavy lifting required to imbue the struggle with the type of pathos too often missing in the rest of Destiny’s jargon-filled universe.

At the same time, much of this showdown retreads well-worn territory without anything fundamentally new to upend Destiny’s usual interspecies bloodletting. There is no disillusioned splinter group of Fallen with whom you can break bread, or even casually trade with, just Variks, a charming new quest vendor who nevertheless serves as an ongoing reminder of how few aliens you can actually talk to in Destiny all these years later. The Fallen, Vex, and Hive continue getting deeper and more complex backstories on paper, but on screen they are mostly still just fodder for shooting galleries.

While Beyond Light continues to lack fellow alien travellers, it continues to gain more elaborate and spectacular ways to kill. Eramis’ Stasis powers can — after some arduous grinding — also be harnessed by the player, both to route the House of Salvation, terrorise the rest of the solar system, or demolish other humans in PVP matches.

[review heading=”Destiny 2: Beyond Light ” image=”” label1=”BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE” description1=”So I started playing Destiny again. Wait, where are you going? Come back!” label2=”TYPE OF GAME” description2=”Space Janitor FPS” label3=”LIKED” description3=”Europa, giant enemy mechs, freezing things and smashing them.” label4=”DISLIKED” description4=”Loot is a mess and there is not enough of it. ” label5=”DEVELOPER” description5=”Bungie” label6=”PLATFORMS” description6=”PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S (played), Xbox One, PC” label7=”RELEASE DATE” description7=”November 10, 2020″ label8=”PLAYED” description8=”Finished the Beyond Light campaign and all associated quests that have been unlocked so far. Played back through the beginning of the game as a new character. Spent a fair amount of time in and out of strikes, Crucible, and Gambit, as well as dabbling in new seasonal Wrathborn Hunts. Have attempted, but not completed, the first half of the raid. About 50 hours total. ” ]

These powers are fun to wield, delightful to behold, and add another layer of texture to Destiny’s combat. Unlike existing energy-based subclass powers, Stasis has form and content, creating icy walls out of thin air or sending shockwaves after enemies that freeze them on contact, halting their attack and often leading them to crumble before they even get a chance to thaw. Bungie is still tinkering with the balancing of these new abilities, having already nerfed them a bit in PVP and (I think wrongly) also in PVE, but the spark of joy I feel every time I freeze something, or see stalks of crystal burst forth from the ground, is on par with the superb gun-feel and jump mechanics that have been Destiny’s saving grace from the beginning. I only wish the campaign gave them to you, and each of their modified variants, sooner.

Beyond Light is what’s new in Destiny 2, but equally important is what’s old, or gone altogether. Just as Eramis wants to jumpstart a new era of Fallen dominance, Bungie is trying to pave the way for a new, more sustainable live game going forward. When the studio revealed Beyond Light earlier this year, it simultaneously announced the two expansions for the next two years, too. The message from Bungie was clear: Don’t expect Destiny 3 any time soon. Destiny 2 is in it for the long-haul, but not necessarily Destiny 2 as we know it. Following the end of last season, Bungie “vaulted” Destiny 2’s main story campaigns, four of its planetary locations, and a whole lot of other content, from PVP maps and modes to secret exotic quests that elevated the game’s grind beyond mere to-do lists.

The mass vaulting was also accompanied by sunsetting, a new approach to loot maintenance that limits how powerful older weapons can grow in order to slowly cycle them out of the core game. You can still use them in activities where stats don’t matter, like Crucible, but for the most part Beyond Light has ushered in a new era of Destiny in which much of the most powerful, fun-to-use, and hard-to-get weapons accumulated over hundreds of hours of play have been forcibly retired.

The Exo Stranger finally gets her due, and her story doesn't disappoint.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
The Exo Stranger finally gets her due, and her story doesn’t disappoint. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

In place of this previous buffet, Beyond Light offers a much more curated and limited menu of loot and quests, and is taking its time doling them out. This makes it much easier to get a handle on Destiny 2’s world, chase the guns you like, and focus on a core set of missions that offer the biggest bang for your buck in terms of exploration and story advancement. It also means that there is less viable gear than at any time in recent memory, and fewer reasons than ever to explore what still remains (though Bungie is working on adding back more loot from past seasons). While Titan, Io, Mercury, and Mars have all been consumed by the Darkness and Nessus, the EDZ, Tangled Shore, Dreaming City, and Moon are still around, I struggle to think of a good reason why you should visit most of them. Xur, Destiny’s shadowy black market exotics dealer, showed up in his favourite tree on Nessus this past weekend, dragging players to a beautiful but now remote part of the game completely bereft of other opportunities. World vendors have not had their loot refreshed, meaning the AI Failsafe still carries the same old Exodus Down armour and now it can’t even be infused up to the current power cap.

Failsafe isn’t the only vendor trying to pawn off expired gear, either. Play Forsaken or Shadowkeep now and you’ll only win obsolete gear (though both expansions currently still cost money). The Moon, last year’s big addition to Destiny 2, now feels like an afterthought. Why was one of the first Destiny’s most memorable settings brought back only to once again languish as a loot backwater so soon? The Tower’s vendors, meanwhile, have been given a slight overhaul, offering different colour variations on the same armour set. Their drops are no longer at your current power, though, and the loot pool they pull from includes mostly old gear, much of which will hit its infusion cap within the next season or two. The playlist token economy, whereby players collect vendor currencies from competing in strikes, Crucible, or Gambit, was always imperfect. It now feels mostly fruitless as well, despite the fact that many quest steps and the new seasonal activity forces players to engage with it regardless.

Europa's Exoscience labs offer some of the series' best environmental storytelling to date.  (Gif: Bungie / Kotaku )
Europa’s Exoscience labs offer some of the series’ best environmental storytelling to date. (Gif: Bungie / Kotaku )

But in some cases the vaulting has given rather than taken, namely by bringing back the Cosmodrome, the first exploration area from the first Destiny. It even has a new quest giver, Shaw Han, who gets some worthwhile screen time in a great new tutorial quest that’s been retconned into the beginning of the game (and which seasoned players can still participate in by accessing the archive terminal near the postmaster in the Tower). I love Han. I love the Cosmodrome. Few things in gaming have given me as nostalgic a thrill as once again coasting over the Steppes in my sparrow hovercraft to catch a view of the old abandoned space shuttle graveyard just as the sun’s setting. The location even has new Lost Sectors to be explored, applying Destiny 2’s single best innovation to one of the best parts of the original game. That all said, the Cosmodrome feels more like a trip down memory lane than a fully fledged destination. Han has bounties to give out, but no repeatable ones, and no Cosmodrome-exclusive loot to sell. It’s fun to visit, but there’s little reason to keep returning. For as much as Destiny 2 has shrunk, it’s not making the most out of what’s still left, either.

Sunsetting is also a mess. One of the best examples of this is an already-infamous moment in Beyond Light when a story mission rewards you with a Long Shadow sniper rifle. A power weapon that goes in the primary slot, it’s a solid choice I might’ve made more use of if I hadn’t been messing around with it since it was first introduced back in season four (we’re currently on season 12). I also have several copies of the original still in my possession, but those were sunset and can’t be infused past last season’s power cap of 1060. Why? I have no idea.

The Cosmodrome is a welcome sight but can't make up for everything that was lost.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku)
The Cosmodrome is a welcome sight but can’t make up for everything that was lost. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku)

It’s one thing to lose old gear while chasing the new stuff, it’s quite another to lose the old and have it replaced by more of the same. It’s the kind of thing that can make you want to stop playing Destiny 2, or at last consider how much better off you might be if you did. It’s not the first time the series has tried to leave old loot behind, but it is one of its more sweeping, messy attempts to break with the past, and it’s exhausting.

Take Adored, Beyond Light’s new masterworked sniper rifle. You can earn it from playing strikes, Crucible, or Gambit, with different perks depending on which way you get it. I went with the Vanguard approach, a tedious questline that required getting hundreds of sniper kills across several strikes, including headshots, sometimes of enemies that appear only sparingly. Eventually I got the gun, a sleek-looking, richly adorned weapon with the Vorpal perk for doing extra damage against bosses.

Adored is a great sniper rifle but it comes at a high cost I sort of regret paying.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
Adored is a great sniper rifle but it comes at a high cost I sort of regret paying. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

It turned out to be the perfect replacement for my previous go-to sniper rifle, a masterworked Beloved I spent hours farming and upgrading back in season seven…the same Beloved Bungie had just sunset. Despite some minor stat and handling differences, Adored is clearly Beloved’s spiritual successor, even down to the name.

RIP to a real one.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
RIP to a real one. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

I killed a couple aliens with it, was overcome with a mixture of relief, frustration, and embarrassment, and decided to call it quits for the night.

Beyond Light’s story and aesthetics culminate in its Deep Stone Crypt raid, which went live over the weekend. The dungeon sees you and five other players team up to plumb the depths of Clovis Bray’s exo labs to stop his technology from falling into the hands of the House of Fallen. I haven’t completed the raid yet — I’ve only managed to make it through to the second encounter so far — but have already been impressed with the visual details and challenging puzzle mechanics, which strike a good balance between killing stuff really quickly and collecting information to effectively communicate to the rest of the team. I’m less enthused about the raid’s antagonist, which I won’t spoil here, other than to say it felt out of place with the rest of the expansion’s bold new scope and direction.

The first team to complete the raid over the weekend also unlocked a series of new activities for all players on Europa, including a new exotic quest for a buzzsaw-looking sword whose power is matched only by some of the brilliant narrative moments that happen during and after its completion. Two weeks later there is still plenty to do, and most of it is very much worth doing.

Forsaken pulled a similar trick, showing there was more behind the curtain just when it seemed like the expansion was wrapping up. In Beyond Light, however, it feels less like an epiphany than a sign of the deepening drip-feed of content brought on by Destiny 2’s new seasonal model and the economic considerations underpinning games-as-a-service. Where expansions used to dump new content on players and let them loose to sort it out at their own pace, Beyond Light, like more recent seasons, appears to be designed to dole out the extent of its offering sparingly over the coming weeks and months. The expansion launched with surprisingly few new guns. The content unlocked by the first raid completion added a few others, including the hefty submachine-gun-like sidearm High Albedo. Subsequent weeks and events seem poised to add more. If you want to be able to experience everything Beyond Light has to offer, in other words, make sure to log on daily, or at least check back weekly.

Beyond Light is at times an unsettling meditation on the appeal of disposability.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
Beyond Light is at times an unsettling meditation on the appeal of disposability. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

A perennial complaint lobbed at Destiny the way young children say they hate their parents when they don’t get more dessert is that it never has enough content. Its most devoted players greedily rip through new expansions and loot grinds in a few weeks and are then disappointed when, after a hundred-odd hours or so, they’re unable to find new outlets for hundreds more. “Dead game,” reads the upvoted Reddit comment that inevitably ensues.

An old response to this line of criticism was for Destiny’s developers to push out multiple big content updates throughout the year. A new one that is perhaps more in line with the financial realities of Bungie self-publishing the game is to push out smaller seasonal updates whose arduous grinds and few additional story quests are sparingly spread out across three months, like too little butter across too much bread.

This new model, facilitated by gatekeeping that limits the amount of powerful drops you can get each week, means there’s almost always some incremental new thing to do in the game. Maybe it’s an entire new story, or maybe it’s just a fresh set of bounties to complete to rank up the season pass one more level and earn the next reward. Even if it’s just the rotating cosmetics on display at the Eververse shop, Destiny wants you to keep checking back the next day, rather than play hard for a bit and then move onto something else.

Beyond Light launched alongside Season of the Hunt, the game’s latest seasonal update, as part of this new model. It adds a new side-activity called Wrathborn Hunts and a premium season pass that costs an extra $US10 ($14) to unlock, but adds new gear, story missions, and another vendor to grind reputation with: Destiny veteran and star villain of Forsaken, Uldren Sov. The last time Uldren was around players killed him to avenge Cayde-6’s death. Now the Light has resurrected him, given him the powers of a Guardian, and sent him to battle a new alien Hive threat with no memory of his past crimes.

Space make me happy.  (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )
Space make me happy. (Screenshot: Bungie / Kotaku )

It’s a compelling narrative turn with a nice cinematic payoff in Season of the Hunt’s first story mission. Less compelling are the to-do lists Uldren sends you out into the wild with, or the fact that his story remains divorced from the rest of Beyond Light and will take months to slowly play out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to have Uldren back in the mix, and the comms chatter between him and the wise Warlock Osiris during Wrathborn Hunts is well executed. I’m less thrilled about him being turned into a mechanism for padding another season of Destiny with more bounties to complete and nodes to upgrade.

Destiny 2 is a game about thriving inside the space between new discoveries and big moments. It asks you to patrol the same stretch of post-apocalyptic ramble, defeat the same swarm of strange aliens, and collect the same guns over and over again until you’re tired and fed up, and then asks you to log on the next day and undertake this long, familiar hike toward spiritual exhaustion all over again. And we do. I can’t speak to the reason why millions of others return but for me it’s always been the game’s bold and prolific art direction, super-satisfying kinetics, and granular, romantic world building that’s kept me coming back. Beyond Light nails each of those one again, which is why I haven’t stopped playing it since its release.

But it’s also undeniable that much of the rest of the game outside that experience is in shambles or has disappeared entirely. At the end of last season Destiny 2 told me to go to Europa to find an ancient power, and I have. The only problem now is that I don’t know where else to go with it.

Beyond Light is out now on PC, PS4 and Xbox, with console owners getting free cross-gen upgrades for the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X version when it launches on December 8.

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