It’s hard to overstate how much better Destiny 2 has become in the last year. The Forsaken expansion and the smaller updates that followed added variety in activities that meant you could earn rewards while playing your favorite content, as well as a huge amount of new, weird lore to sift through and fun secrets to uncover. It’s not a stretch to say Destiny as a franchise was the best it’s ever been in the second year of Destiny 2.
The new Shadowkeep expansion builds on those foundations in just about every way. While returning to the moon is a pretty good time in and of itself–the expansion leans hard on the spooky locale, which was part of Destiny 1 but refreshed and enlarged for Destiny 2–it’s the smaller improvements to the way the game works that are really the standout. Destiny 2 is a stronger experience in Shadowkeep because Bungie has found ways to make it even more fun to play.
Forsaken made some effort to establish Destiny 2 as a game that’s constantly evolving. Instead of dropping a series of big content updates with little happening between them, Destiny 2’s second year became a drip-feed of new stuff that helped keep the game compelling, for the most part, month after month.
Bungie has said this approach is how it wants to handle the game going forward, and Shadowkeep represents a big step in that direction. That means at least across the first few days, the expansion feels a bit truncated; there’s a lot more Bungie has detailed that’s just not in the game yet. Destiny 2 story campaigns have always been a touch lackluster–they usually pack cool individual missions, but they almost always end quickly and rarely amount to more than chasing down some big enemy and putting them in the ground. Shadowkeep’s main story is also on the short side, wrapping up in a four or five dedicated hours (and less once you start leveling alternate characters who benefit from the high-level gear you’ve already procured). It’s also clearly the first part of a much larger tale, one that Bungie says will play out over the entire year. As such, it presents something of an unsatisfying journey; it’s the first few steps, rather than a complete arc, and you might be a bit surprised when it’s suddenly over.
Shadowkeep sees the return of a Destiny 1 character, Eris Morn, who was central to two previous expansions: The Dark Below and The Taken King. Here, Eris has learned that the death-worshipping enemy alien race, the Hive, has discovered something on the moon that’s conjuring up phantoms of past foes and allies, returning deadly facsimiles of them to life. In a way, it’s a big reunion tour of old Destiny content. Eris is back, you return to the D1 location of the moon, which we haven’t seen in two years, and you fight slightly watered-down versions of big bad guys you’ve previously defeated, such as Dark Below raid boss Crota and Destiny 2 vanilla boss Ghaul. Since we haven’t been back to the moon for two whole years, it’s something of an amped-up nostalgia trip. But we’re still waiting to reach the long-term endgame content that will wrap up some of these story threads.
It is cool, however, to hang out on the moon, especially because its spooky factor has gone up. Lunar tunnels are filled with frightening screams of hidden terrors, there are plenty of tough enemies to dispatch, and the whole place carries an air of haunted mystery. It seems we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s hidden on the moon so far. Destiny is at its best when it’s full of secrets for the community to band together to discover, and it appears there will be lots to find on the moon during Season of the Undying, the first season of Year Three.
The new content is all generally pretty fun, though it does feel a bit thin, at least in the early going and especially compared to the big, layered content offering that was Forsaken. Part of the issue is that the new seasonal approach means we’re still waiting on additional activities, like the Vex Offensive, which starts in the days to come and is effectively a part of Shadowkeep that’s not yet available. The story campaign has some exciting moments as Guardians band together to attack and infiltrate the new Scarlet Keep location and discover what the Hive is up to. Nightmare Hunts, the new high-level gear-grind activity on the moon, are pretty much mini-Strikes, making them quick, palatable boss fights that help you grab new gear. Exploring the moon has a lot to offer as well–though a lot of the location is made up of old areas, they’re deep and maze-like, and every trip into their depths feels deliciously dangerous.
Where Shadowkeep really excels, however, is less in the content to work through and more in the myriad smaller changes Bungie has made to totally revamp Destiny 2. The biggest changes focus on making character builds a bigger part of the experience, giving you a chance to experiment with weapons and armor not just to make your character more powerful in general, but more powerful in ways that specifically meet your particular play style and needs.
Driving that focus is the new approach to weapon and armor mods, which allows you to mix and match elements that were previously unmovable perks on particular pieces of gear. In the past, you had to spend so much time switching gear in order to make your overall stats go up that more nuanced numbers, like how fast your grenades recharged or how quickly you moved, could generally be ignored. Making sure you had the best rolls on particular gear only really mattered in the game’s toughest activities and to the most hardcore of players.
With Armor 2.0 and the new weapon mod system, you can move those perks (now as individual mods) between armor sets to build a few pieces of gear with exactly the capabilities you want. You’re also no longer penalized for experimenting since mods aren’t consumed on use. It means that once you start to get some pieces of armor and weapons that work really well for you, it’s possible to continually tweak them to fit how you want to play the game and your particular role on a team.
I’m still early on in the process of seeing just how useful the system is–moving mods around is great, but how much freedom you actually get and whether you really need to care about them will become more apparent after spending more time in the endgame and upcoming seasonal content. But even early on, the system is providing more opportunities to think and develop character builds than I’ve been doing through most of the five years I’ve played Destiny. On paper, this is an improvement Destiny desperately needed.
The early leveling system has been improved significantly as well, making the climb to the endgame a lot more reasonable. Leveling up your character is (mostly) gone in favor of constantly chasing gear with better Power numbers. Up to the soft Power level cap, every drop is a useful one–giving you a chance to try out a host of different weapons and armor in various circumstances before you get to Shadowkeep’s toughest content. Shadowkeep’s change to move experience points from a needless character-leveling system to a battle pass also helps a major ongoing Destiny problem of running out of things to do as you approach maximum level. Everything earns you experience to advance your battle pass, so there’s a lot less wasted time chasing useless rewards.
Evaluating a game like Destiny 2 is always tough, especially now that Bungie’s putting more of its chips on long-term, evolving content. There’s still a lot that won’t be clear until I’ve been able to spend more time with the game. My initial experience with the post-soft cap endgame climb is that it is, in fact, pretty grind-heavy. After only a couple of days, however, it’s tough to really get a sense of how satisfying or frustrating the path to reach Shadowkeep’s pinnacle activities will be.
I’m also still waiting for new activities that will launch in the days to come and change from there. No review of a Destiny expansion would be complete without addressing its raid–Bungie’s raids are consistently the most inventive, clever, and difficult experiences in Destiny, but we won’t see the raid until it launches on October 5. A new seasonal activity also drops with the first completion of the raid, and seems likely to advance the story and help with providing higher-level players with more to do.
What’s clear from just the first few days of Shadowkeep is that it represents a shift in the fundamentals of Destiny 2, and that has only improved the game. Returning to the moon is full of spooky fun, and while Shadowkeep might not be as huge as Forsaken, it still provides some impressive additions to the world that will take time to fully explore. More meaningful choices in Shadowkeep, even in the early hours, are pushing me to think beyond just packing my most powerful guns and shooting everything in my path. It remains to be seen just how much new choice and nuance these improvements will provide at the highest levels of play, but they absolutely represent a giant leap forward for Destiny 2.
Editor’s note: We will be playing more Shadowkeep, including the Garden of Salvation Raid, before finalizing this review and the score. Stay tuned for the final review in the coming days.