Games

Still Inscrutable, Still Short of Greatness, 'Shadowkeep' Is Destiny at Its Best

Everything old is new again.

by Ricardo Contreras
Oct 11 2019, 2:08pm

Image courtesy of Bungie

I remember the first time I saw the Hellmouth, one of the more visually striking locations on the Moon in Destiny. It was 2014, Destiny had just launched, and I was devouring the campaign as quickly as I could. This was before I knew how broken and barebones the base game was at launch, so everything felt new and exciting. I explored the Hellmouth, a massive hole in the surface of the Moon, meant to signify the power of the Hive, the chittering insect-like enemies I had just encountered on Earth. I looked down into it and saw a ledge, so I jumped. I immediately hit a kill zone, and my character ragdolled into oblivion. Part of Bungie’s initial promise of an expansive living world chipped away that day, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Screenshot of the Hellmouth in Destiny 2. The surface of the Moon in Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, with a large hole dug into it. In the background, a single red tower from the Scarlet Keep.
Image courtesy of Bungie. The Hellmouth in Destiny 2.

There’s a specific kind of excitement that comes with being a longtime fan of a franchise with a rocky history. It’s an anticipation mixed with anxiety, eternal hope resting on a bed of worry. Destiny has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, but the more I heard about Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the first expansion they’ve made since Bungie broke ties with Activision, the more that worry was drowned out. A new expanded armor system with more customization sounded great, and coming off the high point that was last year’s Forsaken, I had more faith than ever that Destiny would get better with Shadowkeep.

But as with seemingly with every Destiny update, it feels like two steps forward, one step back. I’m happy to say that for me, the Destiny diehard with a combined 1,500 hours over Destiny 1 and 2, Shadowkeep is great. The big theme of this expansion is facing past traumas, and Bungie has reached deep into it’s lore for material. The new campaign takes you to the Moon for the first time since Destiny 1, with resident goth Eris Morn also returning. The story opens with you encountering a [REDACTED] under the Moon’s surface, a revelation made early on, but one of extreme significance to long time players—hence the redaction. The [REDACTED] is leveraging your past traumas against you, making them physically manifest as new “nightmare”-type enemies. The location, the NPC, the opening mission, and in fact the whole campaign are setup to tug on longtime player’s nostalgia. It feels like Bungie is saying, “See! We didn’t forget you!” after base Destiny 2 felt like it was aimed at attracting new players.

For the most part, Bungie does a good job with the material. Remembering the tense moments between Ikora Rey and Eris Morn in The Taken King makes their relationship in Shadowkeep, and they ways they react to grief and trauma, much more impactful. The fact that I remember what the Moon looked like in Destiny makes the changes they’ve made to that location more exciting than they would be without that prior knowledge.

Screenshot from Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, Eris Morn, a white woman wearing dark brown clothing, studded leather breastplate and spiky rock like pauldrons, with a dark veil over her three green glowing eyes. A constant stream of black tears flows from them.
Image courtesy of Bungie. Eris Morn, One of Destiny's resident goths.

What used to be patrol beacons are now ghosts of dead Guardians, and completing the tasks they give you cleanses the area of their presence. Toland the Shattered, a guardian cursed to live on as a glowing white ball of energy, replaces the old “go scout this area by standing in one place” patrols, instead having you follow him to different spots so he can spout lore about the Moon. Doors that were once closed now reveal labyrinthine caverns and hidden complexes, including Lost Sectors, mini-dungeons that you can find in the open world, that are at their most complex since their introduction in base Destiny 2.

Even just the topical changes to the Moon, the cracks where the power of the [REDACTED] has forced itself to the surface, and the new ever looming Scarlet Keep, visible from almost every corner of the Moon, give this old location new life. Things that may seem like simple window dressing carry a lot of weight by creating a history.

It helps give the world the sense it is alive and continuous, rather than made up of discrete moments, which is how many of their past expansions have played out. This is a direction Bungie has been moving in since last year’s Forsaken, and so far Shadowkeep has made good on that promise. In the first week alone, the campaign led directly into the new Raid, where you see how the [REDACTED] is affecting the Vex. Following that, a new activity opened up as a consequence of the actions taken in the raid. New weekly story beats, new mission difficulties, and new public events on the Moon all help, and the seasonal roadmap promises some new activity or quest alongside these every week for the rest of the 3 month season.

It gives me pause that so much content seems to be ready in the pipeline, especially with reports of overworked employees at places like Epic. Much of the industry has looked to Fortnite as a guide for free-to-play and ongoing games, and Destiny is no different. The new Seasonal Rewards UI looks eerily similar to Fortinte’s Battle Pass. So far, the only thing to assuage my fears is that there doesn’t seem to be more content in this expansion than in the past, but it’s being deployed more strategically and strung together narratively in a way that is new to Destiny. There are overall less cutscenes and story missions than in Forsaken, and hopefully that allows for a bit more breathing room for the developers.

Unfortunately for new players, the expansion does nothing to explain itself. Destiny the franchise has existed for five years now. For five years, Bungie has released a steady drip of content for fans, where even the largest gap was only a few months long. For five years, they’ve built a world and a mythos that apparently takes at least four hours to explain in its most simplified form. Alongside the main campaign missions, which have ranged from incomprehensible to solid sci-fi fare, they’ve filled out their worldbuilding through lore entries and sidequests. There’s so much Destiny lore that it’s easier to fill in questions as you go along rather than try to catch up at this point.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Review Summary: A

And the problems don’t stop at the narrative. The UI for quests is still confusing, to new and old players alike. As a veteran, I inoculated myself to the clunky “pursuits” tab through use of its previous iteration, a screen where bounty and questline were thrown into an indiscernible miasma of things that I’ll tell myself I’ll get to but probably won’t. Even with the small improvement of moving Bounties and Quests to different sections, the way those quests are deployed in the campaign can be initially confusing.

For example, after doing a few missions, you’re tasked with crafting a set of armor. The main quest labeled Shadowkeep simply says “craft armor: pieces 0/3 completed.” I looked for almost 20 minutes until I figured out that in a separate quest you get the instructions on how to craft the armor. It doesn’t help that the Pursuits tab organizes quests not just by newest picked up, but also the most recent you’ve made and progress on. Eventually, two pages back, I found the quest I needed to continue the campaign.

Even with these issues, I’ve been enjoying Shadowkeep immensely. Bungie still knows how to do great FPS combat, and with this expansion they’ve added new wrinkles to the Destiny 2 formula. There’s a higher mix of the beefier “major” enemies in the campaign, making missions that would otherwise be a cakewalk into fun challenges. Doom (2016) style finishers help with this added difficulty, and with the right armor mods they’ll also give you ammo, or health, or an overshield, or instantly recharge your grenades—the list goes on. Finishers will sometimes require anywhere from a tenth to a third of your Super charge, making the choice to fire one off a bit more interesting. The addition of three new enemy types (barrier, overload, and unstoppable) with three corresponding weapon mods to deal with them further complicates the usual combat loops. These additions are welcome innovations in an expansion where we’re otherwise facing the same enemy factions that have been around since the launch of Destiny 1.

Screenshot from Destiny 2: Shadowkeep. A view from within a canyon on the Moon, the Earth framed by the canyon's walls. Ghostly figures float above a rocky outcropping in front of the Earth.
Screenshot from Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, courtesy of the author.

Shadowkeep finally feels like a world I’m excited to come to week to week, not just to make the “numbers go up,” but because there’s a story and characters that I care about. It’s solidly taken two steps down a path where keeping up with Destiny will be fun, but that also means its taking one step back in it’s accessibility to new players. From it’s poor new player onboarding to bad quest UI, it’s a game I only feel comfortable suggesting to friends that I can personally play with. It’s a game aimed to keep the players it has, and it hopes those players will do the work of introducing their friends to their favorite hobby.

The Hellmouth in Destiny 2 feels like returning to a neighborhood you’ve moved away from after many years. Some things you’re sure are different, but others fall into the space between memory and history, where you can’t quite tell if you’re remembering something that was actually there, or remembering something because it’s there now. I ran over to the lip of the opening, and looked down into its depths. I see the same ledge I saw before, this time rendered in such a high fidelity that it almost feels like I can actually go there. I jump, knowing full well that the same kill barrier from before would still be there.

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Destiny
Destiny 2
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Destiny 2: New Light