It's hard to overstate how much better Destiny 2 has become in the last year. The Forsaken expansion and the smaller, more frequent 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 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. Shadowkeep's content offerings aren't quite as sprawling, varied, or engaging as what we saw in Forsaken, but the expansion builds on the recent tweaks in Destiny 2 to make the moment-to-moment gameplay even stronger.
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 parts of the expansion feels a bit truncated--it teases more to come, but leaves some of Shadowkeep a bit unsatisfying.
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 faction, 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 the Destiny of old. 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. It's something of an amped-up nostalgia trip that's a good time, especially if you've got a long history with the Destiny franchise--but we're 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 uncover, and the game has already provided a few big, baffling mysteries that have required everyone to band together to work out.
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Though it ends a little too quickly, 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. The rest of the expansion's new content is engaging as well. Nightmare Hunts are pretty much mini-Strikes, making them quick and palatable boss fights that help you grab new gear. A new take on Nightfall Strikes, the tougher versions of Destiny 2's three-player Strike activities, are enticing thanks to a ramping difficulty system that gives you challenges at a variety of Power levels. 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.
There's also the Garden of Salvation raid, which became available a few days after launch, to give Destiny 2's highest-level players something to aspire to finishing. Destiny raids are often the best, most inventive content the game has to offer, and Garden of Salvation continues the tradition of including strange and fun mechanics that push your limits of skill and team coordination. It's one of the shorter raids with only four encounters, but includes big, exciting pieces, like a chase through a field exploding with enemy fire and a Gambit-like boss battle that requires teams to split into multiple groups to gather items and defend against team-wiping attacks. Garden of Salvation isn't quite the equal of the massive Forsaken raid, Last Wish, but it's a highlight of Shadowkeep for certain.
Vex Offensive, a new six-player wave-based activity that dropped alongside the raid, helps to round out the amount of stuff Shadowkeep gives you to do for its first season. Like last season's Menagerie, it has the feeling of being a lighter, easier raid-like activity that's more accessible for those who aren't quite hardcore enough to take on Garden of Salvation. The activity itself requires a little more teamwork than the usual Destiny 2 event, without being impossible to do if you're matchmaking alone. It's a fun change of pace from Strikes or Crucible, and its huge dump of rewards mean chasing the best rolls for its many guns doesn't feel like a chore.
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 more important 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 members of the community.
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.
Shadowkeep's tweaks to higher-level enemy encounters, like adding enemies that require specific mods to defeat, provide excellent opportunities to experiment with character builds and loadouts. Especially in Garden of Salvation, I found myself stopping to try different equipment combinations to help me deal with tough enemies or specific situations. The system provides a lot of opportunities to think about and develop character builds; more than I've been doing through most of the five years I've played Destiny. It's an improvement that makes the game's core loop of constantly chasing new gear feel like it matters to how you play the game--and it's one 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 and new Seasonal Artifact item 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 and artifact, and the latter of which contributes to your characters' overall Power level, so there's a lot less wasted time chasing useless rewards.
Much of the experience of live service games like Destiny 2 is in the continued chase after better gear and more power in the endgame. While things slow down significantly during the post-soft cap climb, progress feels steady through the game's decent variety of activities, especially with the addition of Vex Offensive. Bungie's changes to the system strike a nice balance between the issues of Year Two, when so many activities started to feel like chores, and the problems of the past, when progressing was a much slower grind. Pushing hard through a week's worth of Powerful gear drops can get you raid-ready in a hurry, but with a number of new guns to chase and new activities to master, there's still a lot for top-tier players to focus on beyond trying to raise their Power level through the roof. The new Seasonal Artifact also helps balance the grind by continually awarding additional Power points regardless of the numbers on your gear. As a result, you never feel stalled, no matter what part of the game you're playing.
Shadowkeep 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 are pushing me to think beyond just packing my most powerful guns and shooting everything in my path. These are improvements that represent a giant leap forward for Destiny 2.