Destiny 2: Shadowkeep (2019) review

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

With the arrival of the newest expansion for the world’s most high profile loot shooter, Destiny 2 looks poised to become the game I wanted the original to be. Yet, for all the ambition of Shadowkeep to act as a new beginning for the series, Bungie’s latest can’t help but remind me of days past.

Back when it was first teased, maybe even as early as the 2012 concept art leaks, I was a openly ambivalent about Destiny. On one hand, Bungie made Halo. On the other hand, they stopped bringing Halo to the PC after the second game in the series. I liked the idea of  an epic science fiction loot shooter where my in-game character, friends, achievements and loot would carry over from each adventure to the next. However, at that time, I was already playing World of Warcraft - which already allowed me to do exactly that. 

And when the reality of the first two Destiny games arrived, I couldn’t help but come away a little bitter. Irrational as it is, I felt wronged and let down by Bungie. Firstly, they didn’t bother to bring the first game to PC. Secondly, they eschewed the traditional expansion pack experience and transitioned straight into a full-price sequel only a few years after launch. You couldn’t even take your character from one game to the next!

If you’re promising the next WoW but delivering content through the same old business model of semi-annualised sequels, then what's the point?

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

Now, with the arrival of the game’s latest expansion Shadowkeep, it feels like the series is making a pivot. Bungie have split ways with Activision and all eyes are on the now-independent studio to see what they do with that newfound freedom. Based on a series of recent blog posts by Luke Smith, they’ve got a few ideas.

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

Bungie want Destiny to be a destination. A world where things are always happening, there are always reasons to come back and a place you had to be there to see it happen. Of course, the Destiny experience has always been defined by the gulf between Bungie’s lofty promises of a dynamic evolving world and the oft-static status quo that they’d actually, y'know, deliver to players. 

Nevertheless, with Shadowkeep, it feels like the space between these poles is shrinking. Part of this reality shift arrives in the form of the New Light free-to-play experience. The other part arrives with Shadowkeep itself, which summons veteran players back to the Moon to deal with a resurgent Hive and literal epidemic of malevolent spirits called Nightmares. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

This isn’t the first time that the Moon’s been haunted but it's certainly a good motivation to revisit the locale. The version of the Moon that players explored in the first Destiny returns in Shadowkeep, albeit in an expanded and remixed form. Courtesy of a wealth of subterranean tunnels, Lost Sectors and the titular castle itself, there’s more than enough new here for it not to feel like a retread. 

The injection of new story content in Shadowkeep isn’t particularly lengthy (only six or so hours) but it does have several pointed highlights and there’s not that much filler. If you’re a longtime series fan or someone well versed in Destiny 2 lore, there are some fairly significant developments you'll want to see unfold. Nevertheless, it feels like the story here is mostly laying the groundwork for something bigger later down the track - which Bungie say will arrive through the new in-game Season arc. Comparisons to the first episode of a new series of an TV show wouldn't be far off-base. More on this later.

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

In typical Destiny fashion, the Shadowkeep campaign brings with mysterious machinations, dramatic speeches, additional currencies to keep track of, cool new guns to shoot and recycled boss fights from earlier incarnations of the franchise. In short, Shadowkeep sure is another Destiny expansion. It lacks the gravitas, scope or depth of 2018’s Forsaken but it's a damned sight better than things like Warmind or Curse of Osiris

Regardless, the new expansion’s opening mission - a bombastic assault on the titular Scarlet Keep - and everything that follows reminded me a lot of my opening few hours with World of Warcraft’s first expansion, the Burning Crusade. More than just charmed by the mere sense of discovery, it left me seduced by the sheer wanton possibility of it all. Imagine having the time to fully sink into this game and see it. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

Landing on the moon and exploring it with waves of new players felt exhilarating. It comes across as less like the climax of everything Destiny 2 has offered thus far and more like the beginning of a great new adventure. There’s an infectious energy and vibe about it. It feels like an exciting time to be getting back on that sparrow. 

Unfortunately, other aspects of the overall package don’t fare as favorably. The absence of any real new enemy types is an undeniable disappointment and a significant step-down from the contributions Forsaken made on that front. As with Warmind, you’re mostly stuck fighting a reskinned variants of the series’ existing stable of Hive combatants. This remains a bad habit I wish Bungie would break sooner rather than later. 

Likewise, the Nightmares haunting the Moon are basically just tougher versions of existing enemies. Even if it’s novel to fight bosses like Crota again - it leaves the latter part of Shadowkeep feeling a bit flatter than it ought to. The backdrop to your latest adventure is a picturesque treat but the rogue’s gallery feels a little stale by comparison.

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

Even Destiny’s worst expansions have ended things with a somewhat-memorable boss fight or two. Shadowkeep has little to offer in this department.  

Beyond the Shadowkeep campaign itself, Bungie have also added new in-combat emotes to the game in the form of Finishers. They’re still a fun - if weightless - addition to the core combat loop but they’re extremely/obviously a ploy to give you more to spend money on the game via microtransactions - which may turn off some players.

PVP has also received some pretty interesting changes. The previous ranked and unranked progression systems have been consolidated while the main Crucible playlist has been split apart into a cocktail of different game modes once again. There’s two sort-of new maps brought over from Destiny 1 and one properly new map that have been added to the mix as well. 

Finally, there’s the new armor system. In a bid to make Destiny’s late game progression less or a grind and closer to something like Diablo, Bungie have introduced a new way of customising your character’s look and stats.

Billed as Armor 2.0, the new system allows you to improve and modify armor by equipping mods on it. In a fun break from Destiny tradition, these mods aren’t consumed through use and the more resources you invest into any single piece of armor, the more and more powerful mods you can stack on it. All told, the new system potentially acts for a foundation of more stable build-crafting meta within the game - which is really exciting news if you’re someone who plays a lot of Destiny. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

What’s more, if you are a person who plays a lot of Destiny, you’re going to like what Bungie are doing with in-game Seasons. 

Last year’s Seasons acted as three separate mini-expansions that drip-fed you content over the course of a couple of months. This year’s seasons work slightly differently. The content itself will still roll out with a similar cadence. However, in addition to the rotating stable of new modes, quests and seasonal events - there’s also a battle pass component. Regardless of whether you’re on the free or premium tier (the latter costs extra), you’ll get unique rewards every time you fill up the XP bar at the bottom of the screen. 

Compared to the previous free engram you got every time you did this, this feels like a small but super-meaningful change that makes everything you do have a little more value to it. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

The other new progression mechanic that Shadowkeep introduces is the Season Artifact. 

Each season, you’ll get a new artifact. Doing stuff in-game will power it up. A powered-up artifact nets you new item mods and adds to your total power level. There’s no limit to how powerful your artifact can get but it will reset when the season ends, so there’s a lot of room for experimentation. How meaningful this mechanic will really prove to be in the long run remains to be seen but like many aspects of Shadowkeep, it presents intriguing long-haul possibilities. It excites my imagination more than it does my reality.

The Bottom Line

For all the momentary thrills that Shadowkeep offers, the most compelling parts of the package ends up being what it sets up. It isn't the most fun I've ever had with Destiny but it does make me want to stick around. I want to see how the multi-season storytelling works. I want to see how powerful my seasonal artifact can get. I want to see what Bungie are willing to do to demand my attention stay with Destiny over the next twelve months. 

World of Warcraft has had plenty of better expansions since its first but none have ever felt quite as meaningful to me as that one did. The opening of the Dark Portal was one of the original you-had-to-be-there’s of online MMOs alongside the opening of Ahn'qiraj and the destruction of The Matrix Online. Burning Crusade opened the floodgates and incited new possibilities in a way that’s similar to what Shadowkeep evokes.

Shadowkeep fails to eclipse or outshine Forsaken but it puts the next stretch of the Destiny saga in a position where it just might.

Credit: Fergus Halliday ~ IDG

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Fergus Halliday
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