I have never, since Destiny launched back in 2014, been able to categorically recommend it to anyone. Praise always came with caveats. The cool parts were always buried beneath an incomprehensible grind. With The Witch Queen I can finally say, without reservation, that Destiny 2 has a great shooter campaign that is worth everyone’s attention.
For anyone who’s been closely following Destiny 2: The Witch Queen’s launch, this won’t come as a surprise. I’m not the only one saying its campaign is terrific. I’m just here to add my voice to the growing chorus. The eight mission affair takes you through Hive god Savathûn’s Throne World, a floating castle full of deep mysteries and dark secrets, and delivers on everything it promises. Playing Halo: Infinite last year made me wonder what a non-live service version of Destiny would be like. Witch Queen feels like a nod to a possible answer.
Southern gothic swamps give way to French gothic courtyards. One moment you’re navigating an underground cavern to find an ancient tomb. The next your scaling a tower in search of a botched experiment. There’s platforming, puzzle solving, proper storytelling, and lots of shooting. Destiny has always had each of these elements in isolation, but they’ve never been as strong, balanced, or blended together so naturally before.
When it first came out, Destiny was synonymous with shooting into a cave for hours while looking up flavour text online. Witch Queen shows just how far its evolved from that formula. For the first time ever, the story is nearly as good as the combat. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say longtime players are treated to reveals on a level never seen before in the series, while newcomers finally have a fighting chance to parse Destiny’s milieu of proper nouns thanks to a narrative arc grounded in multi-dimensional characters.
The art direction, always incredible, is better than it’s ever been, and is finally in service of varied missions which rarely repeat environments, encounters, or mechanics. As just one example, Witch Queen’s half-way point briefly takes players back to Europa, the home of 2020’s Beyond Light expansion. Instead of diving back into old areas with new objectives, you venture inside the alien pyramid that’s been hovering in the skybox taunting players for over a year with its inaccessibility. What in old expansions would have felt like hallways interspersed with larger arenas is now a labyrinth with passages that snake around, make use of verticality, and occasionally double back on themselves.
The mission culminates in three big fights. The first is small and introduces you to a jamming device you need to disable to take down the boss’ shields. The second takes place in a bigger arena with more enemies and more signal jammers. The final encounter ups the ante again by removing large sections of the ground so that the second you’re pinned down and starting to panic you will surely turn, jump, and accidently fall to your death. It’s meant as a sort of break from Savathûn’s house of horrors, but even without a an especially notable boss it ended up being one of my lowkey favourite missions in the whole campaign.
Combat is almost more interesting. As someone who has fired millions of energy beams into hundreds of thousands of space creatures, I don’t need Destiny to reinvent its shooting every couple years, but two big additions have freshened things up. The first is Void 3.0, an overhaul of one branch of powers that makes them more customisable but also more exciting. Like the Stasis powers before it, Void abilities now feel more like actual magic and less like grenades and punches disguised as super powers. The second are the Lucent Hive, a new type of enemy that can use the player’s powers against them, and which can self-revive if you knock them out but don’t finish them. They are much more thrilling to fight against than the Overload, Barrier, and Unstoppable Champions — normal enemies but with damage cheats — that Destiny has recently become overly reliant on.
None of this would be possible without one of Witch Queen’s core improvements: the addition of a Legendary difficulty mode. It doesn’t sound like much, and it might not have been if implemented differently, but it takes content that is otherwise meant to be burned through in the larger pursuit of loot and level ups and calibrates it to be tense, thoughtful and fun. Legendary ditches Destiny’s traditional tools for ratcheting up difficulty like forcing you to play matching games with enemy shields or making you target practice for snipers. Instead the mode plays with how enemies come at you, what types, and tips the scale of damage output ever so slightly in their favour. The result is that you can still play it solo, but only if you stay focused, remain patient, and play smart.
Even better is if you squad up. The mode scales based on the number of players, but keeps things from getting out of hand by only allowing one revive per checkpoint and requiring you to resurrect fallen comrades in roughly 30 seconds or start over. There’s bonus loot for playing this way, but the real reason to do it is because it’s more fun, a calculation I’m not sure the average Destiny player has ever had the opportunity to make before. The missions also have save points now, and can be replayed, standard features in every other game but a revelation in this one.
Fans have long bemoaned the fact that the series’ best content is hidden in raids, effectively gating it from most people. One way Bungie has tried to address that is by sneaking more and more raid-lite elements into more standard content. That’s certainly the case with Witch Queen, which feels like the most raid-y expansion yet, despite the fact that the actual one doesn’t drop until March 5. But I’m glad Bungie didn’t go overboard. Watching aliens heads pop off when you shoot them with ever more byzantine arsenals is, and always will be, the primary joy of Destiny. Raids, even at their best, often supplant that with esoteric damage puzzles requiring very specific solutions. Witch Queen’s campaign does not. It’s hardcore, but it’s not abstruse.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Witch Queen is perfect. I’ve focused on the campaign here because its too early to judge the rest of the expansion. Is it better than 2015’s Taken King or 2018’s Forsaken? Undecided. I’m not even sure that’s a meaningful comparison at this point, given how different Destiny, and what it meant to exist with and inside of the game, was back then. I will say that to the degree Witch Queen’s campaign has flaws, most of them have to do with the way the rest of the expansion, and its RNG-heavy grind, is constantly giving you homework. As a long time player it’s what I’ve signed up for, and often enjoy, but it does effectively restrict how players can engage with the campaign who aren’t willing to enlist long-term.
Fortunately, they can still see the best of what Witch Queen has to offer without signing their life away and it’s excellent.
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