5 years ago, this trailblazing sci-fi shooter changed online games forever
Destiny 2 is about to enter Year 5.
Over the course of three chaotic years, I’d slain gods, prevented time itself from being destroyed, and accomplished dozens of other impossible feats of heroism thanks to the space magic called the Light. Then along came a brash alien emperor with the guts and tech to take it all away.
Since the first game’s release in September 2014, the Destiny franchise has always been an otherworldly power trip. Taking place in the far-flung future long after an apocalypse that humanity narrowly survived, it’s decidedly science fiction. And yet, the way it approaches magic is on par with the highest of high fantasy epics. You can channel the inferno of a star into a hand cannon capable of blasting through anything, or maybe you transform your entire body into a floating lightning rod that would make Emperor Palpatine weep.
Destiny has always been good at making you feel powerful, so for Destiny 2 to take that power away at the start of the initial campaign released in September 2017 — five years ago — felt utterly groundbreaking. It’s a shame that you still can’t play it anymore.
Out of nowhere, a fleet of Cabal (a chonky, highly militaristic alien rhino race) assault the Last City on Earth, and they even hijack the big orb called the Traveler that empowers the countless Guardians protecting the city. For Destiny’s entire three-year run, the Tower was the game’s social hub where player Guardians would teleport in to pick up bounties, organize their stored gear, and dance next to their favorite NPCs — all in a third-person perspective.
Destiny 2’s thrilling opening mission, however, disorients you by putting you in your combat-ready first-person perspective. You’re looking at your home through new eyes as it’s destroyed, and you fight alongside characters that have, for the most part, only ever been talking heads. You shoot a bunch of aliens and then confront the Cabal leader Dominus Ghaul.
Just as you’re about to destroy this rude rhino, Ghaul activates a device that siphons the Traveler’s Light, rendering you totally powerless. Without the space magic that resurrected your ancient pile of bones in middle-of-nowhere Russia a couple years back, you’re basically a wobbling corpse.
Ghaul exerts no effort at all when he yeets you off the top of his ship, and you freefall into oblivion.
Psych! You awaken two days later barely able to move and must sneak your way (in third-person, another shift that felt pretty novel for Destiny) out of a dangerous spot. For a fast-paced game with excellent gunplay, this feels nothing short of claustrophobic as you inch towards a pistol and limited ammo, then a submachine gun. A pack of Cabal War Beasts (alien dogs) bears down on you just before you make it into the wilderness. Normally, you can mow these bad boys down with ease and glee, but you feel desperate here just trying to survive.
Because, you know, you’re still essentially a hobbling corpse.
Inevitably, a stray shard of the Traveler calls to the player character, a beacon of light in the darkness that allows you to rekindle the Light needed to fight the Darkness. That grants you enough power to eventually defeat Ghaul and reactivate the Light for everyone. But this whole conceit offers a compelling narrative reason for your character to start with a blank slate in the sequel. Destiny has always had a strong ludonarrative: Your chirping little robot Ghost channels the Light to resurrect you countless times over, giving even player-versus-player matches some canonical logic within the Destinyverse.
That’s part of what makes it a total bummer that the opening storyline to Destiny 2, dubbed “The Red War,” is currently unplayable because it’s locked in the Destiny 2 content vault, which began back in 2020. Essentially, developers created an in-universe reason to shroud huge swaths of content in a cloud of Darkness. (Hey there ludonarrative!) Practically speaking, this rendered entire expansions and planets unplayable. Mars, for example, was a staple since the very beginning of Destiny, but the Darkness swallowed it heading into Beyond Light. It wasn’t until Savathûn’s rise to power in February 2022’s The Witch Queen that the Darkness burped it back out.
“Instead of building a Destiny 3 and leaving D2 behind, each year, we are going to cycle older, less actively played content out of the live game and into what we’re calling the Destiny Content Vault (DCV),” Bungie’s community manager wrote in 2020. The main reason was to keep the game’s overall size more manageable. This makes sense for the Red War in particular, which involves a number of unique gameplay environments. The real secret sauce in Destiny 2’s game design is in recycling and reskinning the same environments to tell new stories, so the Red War campaign is likely massive by comparison.
Permit the diversion here, but why is it not just “Destiny” with ongoing annual updates that revamp the core experience? That’s essentially what happens already.
Destiny always felt like a trailblazing new game model. Back in 2014, everybody had a hard time describing Destiny in simple terms. It was a looter-shooter at a time when the subgenre was still gaining traction, but it also focused heavily on online multiplayer. Yet it wasn’t quite the FPS MMORPG some believed it to be. This was several years before battle royale games popularized the live-service model, so Destiny endured growing pains and an identity crisis or two trying to suss out where it fits into the industry. (It wasn’t until Destiny 2: Shadowkeep in 2019 that developers finally accepted the “MMO” label.)
Destiny 2 was a soft reboot that felt decidedly different both from Destiny and from everything else available at the time. Though I’ll forever have fond memories of the original, I have even fonder memories of how my obsession with Destiny 2 ebbs and wanes with every new major content update — and some of the more interesting seasons in between.
Truly, Destiny 2 is better than it’s ever been right now, but five years after its launch, I’m still vaguely annoyed that there’s even a “2” attached to its title. I also can’t wait to maybe, hopefully, replay the Red War at some point.