Release Date: Oct. 1, 2019 Platforms: XBO (reviewed), PS4, PC, StadiaDeveloper: BungiePublisher: BungieGenre: Action MMO
Bungie’s first major Destiny 2 expansion since splitting with Activision feels like the original Destiny—in the best and worst of ways. Here are the armor stats of the first game, but with more customization. And here too is Eris Morn, the morose ex-Guardian whose fireteam was devastated by the Hive.
The studio continues to juggle how to keep the evolving world of Destiny 2 while adding more RPG elements to an already cluttered game. Fans looking for more customization and a return to the Vex-focused storyline of the Black Garden may enjoy the new armor and weapon offerings. Lore buffs have a lot to dig into from the very first mission of the campaign, which features a stunning reveal that truly changes the balance of power in Destiny’s world.
On the other hand, Shadowkeep also feels repetitive, and the new progression system fails to make the grind exciting. Broken up into sections in case you want to know about a specific part of the game, here is our review of Destiny 2‘s big Year 3 expansion:
The campaign consists of 19 missions, five of which are story quests in brand-new areas while the others involve completing bounties and other fetch tasks. Shadowkeep also features several exotic weapon quests — one is available now, others will appear later in the season. A new Strike, “The Festering Core,” is an entertaining sniper’s alley with some key conversations between characters.
The story missions dig into Eris Morn’s history with an understanding and mercy that is, frankly, astonishing. It would have been so easy for this character to become either a villain or a damsel, and she is neither. She wrestles with very specific ghosts while dispensing wisdom that applies broadly to the troubles of life.
Unfortunately, in true Destiny fashion, some of her best content is buried in exotic weapon quests and weekly errands. The weekly story bits Bungie started to parcel out when the Seasons began last summer continue, and I always look forward to seeing how Eris will dispel another ghost every week.
Her personal story doesn’t tie into the campaign’s finale as well as it could have. Instead, that conflict is a spooky but slightly anticlimactic confrontation between the Guardian and past big bads. Again, all of this is very classic Destiny. When it isn’t ending on a cliffhanger, it’s just vague, with an avatar of evil speaking of salvation.
The repetition of fighting old enemies over and over has been one of the major problems standing in the way of Destiny 2’s always-on playability. Shadowkeep handles it better than other parts of the game because it has a solid narrative reason for you to fight the ghosts of your past: the moon is haunted with memories of Guardians’ greatest fears. This creates nostalgia in a way Destiny has never done so well and so organically before. It’s one of many cases where I wondered whether I, as a long-time player, am inoculated to Bungie’s less impressive habits. I can fill in the blanks and feel the importance of the reappearance of these old enemies because I know them, but a new player might not get enough emotional resonance from the story to care, even if Eris’ personal ghosts are well-written.
The major change in the gameplay front is Armor 2.0, intended to add true MMO-style customization to Destiny 2’s always-solid gunplay. Gear now displays discipline, intellect, and strength stats, just as it did in the original game. Individual pieces of armor effect the stats individually. This means a lot more customization is possible, from stats to energy types or buffs against particular enemies.
I could immediately equip my Stormcaller with armor that boosts her Super’s effectiveness, then pile on mods to offset her natural Warlock brittleness. Some armor mods are particularly effective in certain areas — I can drop in a particular loadout of mods that allow me to damage some of Vex Offensive’s shielded enemies, or make a rapid-reload weapon almost instantaneous.
I wish there was a way to save custom loadouts so that I could slot mods in automatically instead of shifting them around for different activities. But between Armor 2.0, artifacts, and mods no longer being consumable, mods feel more important and more like unlocks which actually help you on the ladder to greater abilities after you’ve reached the Power cap.
Finally, the cosmetic appearance of some armor has been separated completely from stats, so you can kit out one item and make it look like another. The fanbase has been requesting this for a long time, so it’s great to finally see it in action.
Quality of Life/UI
As with previous iterations of Destiny 2, the process of gaining more Power levels (previously Light levels) is a ladder climb through soft caps and more powerful gear. To level up quickly, you need to complete a number of activities each day that drop high-end gear.
Destiny 2 has always struggled with introducing new players to the game while also holding on to the core audience of people who fly through a campaign in a day and start power-leveling like it’s their job. In an effort to find a middle ground, Bungie might have let down both a bit. The New Light on-boarding experience drops you into the game without much explanation. Perhaps, this is the ideal and intended Destiny experience—five years later, the franchise known for its disinterest in spoon-feeding players its narrative still has a loyal fanbase. On the other side, high-level play quickly becomes a repetitive list of chores.
One way Bungie has tried to make that list rewarding is the new seasonal UI, which gives you an advent calendar of rewards depending on whether you own the season pass or not. (Both tracks earn rewards, but the free track much more slowly.) Bounties confer XP, which moves you further along on the seasonal track. This ensures players still feel like they’re making progress after they’ve hit the Power level cap or between soft caps. The developers are calling the addition of season rank and artifacts an “infinite power grind,” and that about sums it up.
Among other balance adjustments, the way damage numbers display has been changed to prevent players from hitting the displayed 999,999 cap. Player damage output remains the same; it’s just the numbers which have changed, in order to make PvE hit numbers more readable.
Upgrade modules, which are used to infuse weapons to a higher Power level, can usually be purchased now, making infusion less of a barrier. You can also scoop up bounties that give you upgrade modules into larger loot milestones for bounties, so it’s a lot easier to keep infusing in the normal course of playing the game. You’ll also find upgrade modules as rewards as you progress through the season track.
Finishing moves can now be used to deal a final blow to weakened enemies. They’re fun and flashy, if a bit off tonally—this is the kind of power usually displayed by fighting game characters, and it’s hard to be scared of a Nightmare enemy when you’re also zooming in to kick them in slow motion.
The Moon has the same kind of public events seen elsewhere in the Solar System, but different patrols. The phantoms of Guardians past will give you patrols too, which, in a loose narrative sense, ease their pain. Players can also complete simple patrols by listening to Toland, another ex-Guardian, who appears in various locations around the Moon. Vex Offensive pits Guardians against waves of enemies in a simple but entertaining dungeon.
So, do all these possible avenues for progression actually feel good? The Pursuits tab has been moved several times over the last few major updates, but Bungie hasn’t solved the major problem: it’s still slow to load. The gunplay remains strong, but the menus feel like they’re stuck in 2017. Putting Pursuits and Bounties on the same screen saves the time it takes to tab from one to the other, but also highlights how badly Bungie wants you to be able to spend an infinite amount of time in the game.
Some activities show up as quests in the Pursuit tab that require completing bounties, which require fetch quests and serve as tutorials for Destiny 2’s lengthy lists of currencies. As much as I love Eris, I’m completely disinterested in the economy of the Cryptoglyph, a MacGuffin which essentially serves as a dashboard for more bounties. It’s all designed to push you deeper into the rabbit hole, and it doesn’t go so smoothly.
Shadowkeep introduces a new, more accessible version of the beefy PvE mode Nightfall, and it comes with a long-awaited feature: matchmaking. You can be automatically teamed up with other Guardians in Nightfall: The Ordeal, a high-level game type available at two different difficulty tiers. Some enemies in The Ordeal can only be defeated with the aforementioned mods, this time slotted into the Seasonal Artifact. Your Guardian is given this powerful item near the end of the campaign, and it’s essentially another menu. As evidence of Bungie’s continuing mission to create a more numbers-heavy RPG experience, you can unlock mods and abilities for this artifact as you progress, and tune them to various PvP or PvE activities.
The changes in Crucible primarily affect the list of game types. Instead of Quickplay and Competitive lists, playlists are now organized by game type: Survival, Control, Rumble, the “Classic Mix,” Team Scorched, Countdown, and Labs (currently Elimination). “Classic Mix” serves as the replacement for Quickplay in regards to connection-based matchmaking.
The Gambit PvPvE dashboard has been untouched except that, like other activities, it’s rewards have been recalibrated into the current reward system (a joy, since Gambit remains one of Destiny 2’s most entertaining activities.) Gambit is also one of the several ways to chase ritual weapons, guns less powerful than exotic weapons but with unique perks. (These replace last season’s Pinnacle weapons, which were harder to unlock and packed a more powerful punch.)
There’s also a new raid, Garden of Salvation, which I haven’t spent enough time with to properly review. I’ll update this piece once I’ve put in a few more hours into the endgame.
As the new season goes on, Bungie will continue to experiment, for better or worse. As a reviewer, I kept trying to hit my head against what exactly bothered me about the menus. The currency and leveling system feels fractured, perhaps too broken to be fixed without a complete overhaul. As a lore buff, Shadowkeep was a delight, with thoughtful treatment of a beloved character and some surprisingly no-holds-barred lore reveals. Instead of a haunted house, Shadowkeep felt more like a familiar place full of friends.