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Friday, May 24, 2024

Destiny 2: Lightfall Review

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On the chitin-covered heels of the impressive Witch Queen expansion and a relatively strong year of live-service support overall, it seemed like Destiny 2 was finally gaining momentum as it headed toward the conclusion of its epic saga. Sadly, my optimism for a game I’ve put thousands of hours into has come crashing down like a Cabal drop pod after spending 80 hours with its latest expansion, Lightfall. The story is so shockingly incoherent that even someone who has spent countless hours reading Destiny’s lore like me couldn’t understand its nonsense, the new destination on Neptune feels as lifeless as the real planet, and the passable endgame/seasonal activities have so few surprises that they give me deja vu in the worst possible way. Thankfully, there are a number of things Lightfall excels at as well, like the new Strand subclass, which is an excellent addition to Destiny’s sandbox. Many of the expansion’s new campaign activities and Nightfall Strikes are refreshingly challenging too, and the most recent batch of quality-of-life improvements largely succeed at making my time shooting space rhinos in the face a less bumpy ride. Still, even Lightfall’s best parts can’t disguise this significant step back from The Witch Queen.

The opening moments of Lightfall are some of its best, as Destiny’s long-awaited final villain, The Witness, arrives in our solar system to deal a blow against humanity and our allies. But any excitement is quickly swept into the vacuum of space as you’re bizarrely and inexplicably redirected from the action to take part in a seemingly unrelated sidequest in the Neptunian city of Neomuna. Not only is the story a decidedly low stakes diversion that draws you away from the real conflict happening on Earth, but it flatout does not make sense. That’s not just me saying that either; some of the Destiny community’s greatest lore minds have been completely stumped by the utter nonsense of Lightfall’s story.

The events on Neomuna surround a macguffin called The Veil, a mysterious artifact that you’re told is super important, but nobody ever, ever tells you what it is or its purpose, even a little bit – ever. Your enemy is Calus, a stack of pancakes cosplaying as an air fryer, who serves as the least intimidating antagonist in Destiny’s history. As you wage war against an incompetent moron for control of an artifact you know nothing about, you’ll also discover the dark powers of Strand, a green elemental subclass our heroes spend half of the campaign trying to figure out how to use in a process so dull they literally skip over some of it by giving you a Rocky-style training montage at one point. Yikes.

Along the way, you also meet the Cloud Striders, Nimbus and Rohan, who are 12-foot tall cybernetically infused humanoids with personalities that were apparently drawn randomly from a basket of cliches. Rohan is an elderly Cloud Strider who all-but stares directly into the camera to tell you he’s a day away from retirement (I wonder what will happen to him), while Nimbus is a young gnarly surfer who makes cringey jokes as humanity’s holocaust unfolds. Staying on brand with the rest of the campaign, the writing for these two is so extraordinarily bad it makes interacting with them a painful chore, especially Nimbus, who manages to make the low stakes of Lightfall’s story feel even more laughable with their irritating adolescent hijinks.

This story slams the brakes on any momentum from The Witch Queen.


Just as quickly as it began, the story wraps up a mere eight hours later while resolving none of its greater questions and kicking the can down the road for any actual story developments to be dealt with at a later date, neatly putting all the pieces back exactly where they were at the beginning. The storytelling is so dreadful it makes me nostalgic for the days of the infamous “I don’t have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain” line uttered in vanilla Destiny – but worse than that, it undermines the approaching finale by trivializing the arrival of The Witness and slamming the brakes on any momentum or goodwill Destiny gained from The Witch Queen’s excellent writing. As a longtime Destiny fan, I was utterly heartbroken by both the disappointing whiplash in quality and all the wasted story potential by the time I finished Lightfall’s campaign.

It’s not just the plot that disappoints, either. The levels themselves feel decidedly less unique or memorable than The Witch Queen. The interesting puzzles and diet raid mechanics featured in last year’s campaign have been replaced with irritating battles taking place in an arena where you’re often running in circles to survive, stopping to take shots here and there while you can. Instead of fighting interesting new enemies like the light-bearing Hive, Lightfall has you mostly fighting the same burly Cabal we’ve been at war with for nine years, which have always been one of Destiny’s less engaging adversaries.

Destiny 2: Lightfall Screenshots

Thankfully, Strand does help ease the monotony of the campaign’s action, representing the biggest shakeup to Destiny’s sandbox in a long while. The powers themselves aren’t revolutionary to Destiny: you get a new melee ability, new supers for each class that all deal huge DPS, and some new buffs and debuffs to play with – like Suspend, which lifts enemies off the ground and entangles them briefly, or Sever, which causes the enemy’s damage output to become significantly reduced. But despite that somewhat familiar framework, after spending dozens of hours optimizing my Strand builds on each of Destiny’s three subclasses, I’m hooked.

The main reason to pick Strand over other subclasses is in its unmatched mobility, since by default it replaces your Guardian’s grenade with a grappling hook that allows you to swing around the environment and pull yourself towards enemies to follow up with a devastating melee hit – both of which are a lot of fun. It’s definitely an interesting tradeoff since losing your grenade is a big deal, and that adds some much-needed variety to the sandbox. The grapple hook is a great option to help navigate the vertical nature of Neomuna’s skyscrapers (or surprise your enemies in PvP).

The neon-soaked streets of Neomuna feel barren and lifeless.


Destiny has used big updates to add subclasses or adjust powers since the beginning, but Strand’s amped up movement is the first thing in many years to really change a meta that sometimes feels stuck in the mud. Paired with 12 months of impressive updates since the Witch Queen , the personality of each subclass finally feels more defined and the build potential of them is better balanced and more interesting than ever before. That’s fantastic news for people like me, who will likely sink hundreds of hours more into Destiny over the next year after the sour taste of the campaign has left my mouth.

You’ll be spending most of that campaign on the neon-soaked streets of Neomuna, a city that’s been peculiarly hidden from the rest of the galaxy until now, yet houses massive buildings and technology that surpasses even that of Guardians during the golden age. Unfortunately, this setting is as flimsy as its lore, and is barren and lifeless despite supposedly thriving up until the recent Cabal invasion. Each area of Neomuna contains a handful of featureless buildings and plenty of Cabal and Vex enemies to battle, but little else to engage with aside from the standard fare of patrols and public events that we’ve seen in every Destiny location since 2014.

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You might be thinking: “but shouldn’t this thriving city on Neptune be full of people to talk to?” Of course it should, right? It’d be crazy to make the whole thing look like a derelict corporate park with no intelligent life in sight. Well, as you’re conveniently told early in your visit, all of Neomuna’s citizens have been uploaded to a virtual network to achieve immortality, so they only appear around the city as blurry, ghostlike outlines. The only physical beings occupying the meat space of Neomuna are our duo of Cloud Striders, who apparently follow the Sith’s rule of two so there’s no chance of you meeting a third, maybe more interesting character even by accident.

Luckily there’s at least one exciting new enemy for you to fight along that way, as Lightfall introduces the Tormentor, a warrior of the darkness who chases you around with a scythe, takes away your abilities with suppression powers, and can nearly one-shot you with his terrifying grapple attack. As the first true footsoldier of the darkness we’ve faced after years of speculation that their pyramid ships would be filled with new horrors to confront, the Tormentor serves as a glimmer of hope for what I imagine will be a fully realized enemy faction once we finally face The Witness head-on. But for now they’re one of the only things to occasionally inject some needed freshness into a sandbox that’s becoming a bit long in the tooth. They may be a bit overused in the campaign for that reason, but they are still a genuinely fun new obstacle to overcome, and give the Destiny sandbox a fantastic new tool to play with (and which will hopefully see more use than the all-but-forgotten Lucent Hive from last year).

It's not the best Destiny raid, but it’s still an extremely fun time.


A less thrilling addition is that Cabal enemies, now infused with the wicked powers of darkness, will frequently drop a shard upon death that grants an overshield to their allies for a long time unless it’s destroyed. While it’s at least a new challenge to keep me on my toes, it mostly just causes the flow of combat to grind to a halt every couple of seconds as you’re forced to remove overshields from the enemy before proceeding, only for another shard to drop soon after.

Another big change is that Lightfall has changed the way Destiny handles difficulty in endgame activities, ramping it up to eleven in some cases, to my delight. I quite enjoy a challenge and the improved difficulty balance makes fewer activities feel like humdrum chores, including Nightfall Strikes and the Legendary Campaign, both of which killed me more than I care to admit. Of course, usually these challenging activities require you to engage with either Lightfall’s lackluster campaign or the same Strikes that have been in the game for years, but at least they inject a bit of excitement into the mix.

Once you’ve completed Lightfall’s campaign, you’ll be greeted by the usual post-game quests that have followed all of Destiny’s recent campaigns. There are certainly some interesting missions to enjoy, but much of it requires mindlessly grinding uninteresting activities, like patrol missions on Neomuna, to unlock a new exotic weapon or some additional options for the Strand subclass. That said, there are definitely some post-game activities worth checking out, like the weekly Partition activity that had me racing against time across a Rainbow Road-esque floating track to defuse bombs, or the new secret exotic quest that sent me on a virtual odyssey to claim the legendary Vexcalibur glaive – an awesome weapon that can block attacks and build an overshield for you and your teammates in the process. Per usual, these late-game treats represents the reason I’ve stuck with my fellow guardians for so long, even when little else feels worth playing.

That leads me to the awesome new raid, Root of Nightmares, which pits you and five friends against a series of tricky encounters that require precise teamwork and communication to overcome. Raids have long been some of the best content in Destiny, and this creepy journey through a ruined spacecraft that’s been overrun with flora is no exception. It’s not the best raid Destiny’s ever had – it’s somewhat brief, introduces few mechanics we haven’t seen before, and has some sloppy design, like how the final boss flops about and sometimes gets stuck in places he’s not supposed to. But with fantastic music, absolutely beautiful levels, and one particularly cool encounter where you have to work with your team to rearrange planets floating overhead, it’s still an extremely fun time. Oddly enough, while much of Lightfall’s new content is quite difficult, I found its raid a fair deal easier than some of the past raids. In fact, I was able to beat it in the more challenging “contest mode” in just 6 hours (which might be a record for me).

Quality of life tweaks have at least made Destiny 2 a smoother ride.


Lightfall also arrives alongside some interesting quality of life improvements that make Destiny a noticeably smoother experience. Loadouts allow you to easily swap out your equipment for different activities, the new Guardian Rank system serves as a roadmap directing players towards the next in-game feat they should focus on and lets others know your level of expertise with Destiny, and the mod system has been refined to be easier to navigate and allow for more customization. There’s also a new commendation system that lets you give kudos to your fellow players and receive them in-turn, which rewards good behavior in multiplayer across all of Destiny’s activities by allowing players to earn a positive reputation over time.

Still, even some of these welcome facelifts can come up a little short. For example, the loadout system allows you to pull items directly from your vault to be equipped immediately, but offers no way to send those items back to your vault when you no longer need them or transfer them between characters. That means your inventory quickly fills up with items as you switch loadouts, taking up valuable space for your loot, and you have to travel to the tower or use an out-of-game app to transfer your items – exactly the kind of annoyance this feature is meant to prevent. The new Guardian Rank also has an insane grind that seems quite unnecessary, like one step that requires you to get 750 commendations from other players, and much of your progress will apparently reset as new seasons and activities are added to Destiny, which would make much of the reputation system meaningless. That said, all of these things are promising additions that Destiny very much needed, and even though they’re available to all players whether or not they bought Lightfall, it certainly made my time playing the new content more enjoyable.

The real shame with Lightfall is in what it doesn’t offer, though, as Destiny once again makes little to no effort to improve the core playlists in which you’re expected to spend much of your time: Crucible, Strikes, and Gambit. Lightfall adds no new PvP maps, absolutely no changes to the PvE/PvP mode Gambit, and a single new strike. That means if you’re hoping to grind out max power and conquer the toughest endgame activities, you’ll have to return to the same bag of tricks that have become fairly dull. The good news is that two old strikes have been refurbished with some new content and dialogue, and three new Crucible maps are planned for later this year, but the cadence for new content remains so painfully slow that clicking on the Gambit icon from the menu is about as fun as a poke in the eye.

Verdict

Destiny 2: Lightfall is a disappointing expansion with a campaign that falls flat on its face, an underwhelming new destination, and only a few new standout activities to take on. That said, Strand and the new Tormentor enemy are fantastic new additions to the sandbox, some of the endgame activities and added difficulty make for a sweaty, memorable time, and per usual, the raid is a complete blast (even if it isn’t their best). No doubt Lightfall’s shortcomings are made more painful by immediately following The Witch Queen and its strong post-launch updates, which felt like Destiny 2 had finally overcome its storytelling woes and charted out a promising future for itself. After playing Lightfall, perhaps too fittingly given its name, that future doesn’t look quite as bright.

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