Destiny 2: The Witch Queen Review - Queen's Gambit

  • First Released Sep 6, 2017
  • PC

Bungie continues to improve its shooter MMO with the best story campaign it has yet produced and a whole lot of great additional content to keep players engaged.

For as long as there have been Destiny and Destiny 2 expansions, those expansions have followed a specific formula. The add-ons have always been standalone offerings with new guns and a new playable destination, dropping players into a new story more or less independent of what came before. Each included a pile of new content and a fresh story campaign, but they were less like subsequent chapters for a living game than semi-discreet new modules bolted onto an existing, sprawling whole. The Witch Queen changes all that; rather than connecting something new and separate onto Destiny 2 with no context, it instead is an organic, evolutionary outgrowth. This is Bungie's live game molting, emerging from a cocoon as something better, smarter, and more complete than it was before.

Back when it was first discussing The Witch Queen, Bungie called the expansion's new story "the definitive Destiny campaign." Despite being marketing speak, that statement has turned out to be true--Destiny expansions are largely built on multi-mission story offerings, but The Witch Queen's campaign stands alone among its predecessors. It is, without hyperbole, the best campaign Bungie has released for the game, eclipsing even the most-loved releases of the past, like Forsaken or The Taken King. This is what people like about Destiny, boiled down into approachable missions you can play alone or with friends.

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Destiny campaigns lean toward the simple end of the spectrum, giving players an on-ramp into the more complex offerings that really define the game: its six-player raids and three-player dungeons. The problem with this approach has always been that, while the early parts of any given Destiny 2 expansion feel good--the game is nothing if not extremely satisfying in terms of straightforward shooting mechanics--they aren't really indicative of what makes the game good. Destiny 2 has really been defined by its raids, which are full of brilliant mechanics that require adept teams to learn the rules, establish roles, communicate intentions, and work together like the intricate components of a clockwork device. You don't really get a sense of what's great about Destiny 2 until you play its best content, which is always the high-level stuff that can be tough to get to.

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The Witch Queen upends that, clearly taking cues from raids, dungeons, and other high-level content to bring those same feelings and experiences to its story. Fights aren't just big arenas with bullet-sponges that need to be chipped away at; they're fast-moving situations full of combatants that often have you working your brain to solve a puzzle or develop a strategy while you're also identifying targets and prioritizing threats. One standout moment has you fighting a boss who's immune to your attacks and chases you through a darkened maze. Your job is to find and destroy the hidden crystals powering the boss's shield, but they're nestled off in dark corners somewhere, guarded by smaller foes. It's almost impossible to see your path, but you can shoot glowing orange pustules sticking out of walls to spray their incandescent goo all over the ground, lighting your way. So you're running from a huge monster, blasting his minions, hunting the objects that can allow you to hurt him, and trying to light your way through a maze. Levels drip-feed you new mechanics and ideas all along the way so that it all comes together in the boss fight, and coupled with Destiny 2's already excellent combat foundation, it makes for an intensely fast-paced, hectic experience.

The campaign is filled with these standout moments, with excellent level and arena design throughout, and each mission feeling significantly different from the others. Along with great levels, though, Bungie has also brought a slate of helpful quality-of-life improvements, like extra checkpoints and the new "major encounters'' approach. Much like the inclusion of the brainier raid-like mechanics, this is another page borrowed from endgame content--major encounters are big fights with a clear start and endpoint, where you can refill all your ammo beforehand so you're prepped for what's coming, and where you get a big pile of equipment rewards at the end. Each of these arenas feels like a significant event, one that will challenge your abilities and give you a big feeling of accomplishment once you've bested it.

That's especially true when playing the story campaign on the new Legendary difficulty, which is a phenomenal addition to the overall package. Because they're geared toward being on-ramps for new players, Destiny story campaigns tend to be easier experiences than most of the rest of the game. Bungie acknowledged, however, that veteran players have the weapons and experience for a significantly tougher fight, and the Legendary campaign obliges beautifully. It caps player Power levels beneath the recommended maximums while adding a few key modifiers and other tweaks, raising the stakes by making everything just that much more lethal. The tactical consideration of protecting yourself and taking down important targets before they can seriously threaten you--coupled with the smart mechanics and encounter design--make for an excellent challenge that is consistently, exquisitely harrowing.

That high-intensity threat feeling is amplified further by the inclusion of a major new enemy in the Hive Lightbearers, mini-boss-like foes who show up at key moments and in major encounters. These new foes wield the same space magic superpowers as players, invoking a sort of middle ground between playing against computer-controlled enemies and playing against other humans in the competitive portion of Destiny 2. What's more is the Lightbearers are legitimately deadly; whenever they show up, they completely rewrite the situation of which they're a part. They demand you assess the new threat and alter your strategy accordingly, lest you be annihilated by a burst of lightning or cut in half by a flying Captain America-like energy shield. The Lightbearers add an extra dimension to The Witch Queen's story encounters that further shifts the usual Destiny 2 paradigm, forcing you to use what you know of your own capabilities to counter those of your enemies.

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The story, too, is among the better ones Destiny 2 has told, largely because it's not a standalone addition to the game that came out of nowhere, but the culmination of years of storytelling, and particularly the last four seasonal stories that appeared in the game in 2021. Since before the release of the Beyond Light expansion, the trajectory of the Destiny 2 world has been altered by the gravity of Savathun--an eons-old godlike alien whose modus operandi is manipulation through lies and deceit. After literal years of Destiny 2 players seeing Savathun's machinations play out in small-scale altercations, The Witch Queen brings her plans to fruition.

It's a pretty good story, all things considered--one that is conscious of players investing in the game, not just for the last year, but at least since the release of Destiny 2 in 2017. It makes use of key elements of Destiny 2's deep lore, bringing some of the strangest and most interesting aspects of the universe to the forefront, and recontextualizing things we thought were settled about the story. After more than a year of build-up to this exact moment, The Witch Queen is both a satisfying unification of the threads Destiny 2 has been weaving for a long time, and great at dropping intriguing clues that keep you invested. Like Beyond Light, though, it excels most when it's focused on its characters and the conflicts between their ideologies and the threats they're facing.

The Witch Queen upends what we have long accepted about key elements of the game, in particular our relationship with the immortality-granting "good" force known as the Light. When the Hive, an alien death cult known only for conquest and genocide and arguably humanity's greatest enemy, also claim the power of the Light, it shakes everyone to their core (although the player character, who at least has a few lines this time out, remains unfortunately stoic most of the time). The best moments of the campaign are when the player's Ghost, their stalwart companion and the character manifestation of their connection with the Light, explodes with rage at seeing that power in the hands of the Hive. Watching other characters who've treated the Light with religious reverence questioning those beliefs and choices helps make the stakes feel more important than just shooting another big alien before it can do some kind of magic ritual to ruin everyone's lives. The Witch Queen feels like it matters beyond what you're shooting; it's affecting the people who make up the foundation of the game.

The struggle of Destiny 2's story and its expansions is that so much of the required context to make sense of it exists in lore passages dropped as flavor text on the weapons you find or in special lore books you unlock--it has long been a problem with the game that its best stories tend not to happen in the game you're actually playing. Bungie has gotten a lot better about this in the last few years, and The Witch Queen is probably the best job it's ever done of mixing its great lore ideas with the actual player experience. But it still struggles with the fact that it's trying to convey complex in-universe concepts to all players--from those who've read all the lore to the brand-new folks just jumping into the game for the first time.

Although it certainly tries, The Witch Queen can't quite thread that needle; it compromises the complex stuff in an attempt to make things clearer for players who haven't been in the game long enough to establish context, and in so doing, it undercuts the impact of some elements for those who've been around the whole time. What's more, even the simplified story isn't simple enough to carry new players through--so the compromises end up weakening the story for both audiences. While this chapter makes clearer sense than some past ones have, it's still best enjoyed by people who have a firm grasp of Destiny's long-term story and lore, and even then, it has its confusing spots.

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Still, there's a lot of great story being told here. Following the campaign, there's a whole host of things to do in the new destination the game adds, Savathun's throne world, which is full of secrets to uncover, additional missions to play, and weapons to earn. The Witch Queen also adds a new weapon-crafting system that provides a whole new element to the usual loot chase that defines Destiny 2. The system generally feels a bit too grindy in its earliest iteration--a lot of unlocking weapons and their various upgrades still requires a huge reliance on random drops--but Bungie has already announced plans to make adjustments to alleviate that issue. Still, the system adds a lot of cool new things to chase and customize, bringing a fresh angle on the ever-present loot chase that defines the game. After a few days with it, I've developed a version of the new first-person melee weapon, the Glaive, that I love, and I have plenty of plans for new auto rifles and scout rifles. Using the grind to make exactly what you want out of your arsenal is an addition to Destiny 2's loot system that feels like it's paying off my investments and incentivizing customization, and it's a great new facet of the game's underlying formula.

There are a few more changes to Destiny 2 with The Witch Queen that elevate the game, like adjustments to the Void player subclasses that offer a whole lot more freedom to make loadouts, and tweaks to the Gambit activity that make it more competitive. Those adjustments, too, feel like Destiny 2 continuing to evolve as Bungie hones it to its best possible version.

Along with additional story offerings and gear, The Witch Queen adds a new raid to Destiny 2 as part of its offering, called Vow of the Disciple. Destiny raids have long been impressive affairs in game design and art direction, offering some incredible multiplayer shooter gameplay. Vow continues that tradition as another excellent offering, a fitting next-level cap to a brilliant expansion that continues to add a lot more to Destiny 2's gameworld. Its mechanics borrow a bit from past raids in ways that play into its overall themes, giving it a more familiar feel than some Bungie's other offerings in this department. Our Day One raid attempt also suffered a bit, thanks to a few bugs during boss fights that could slam a solid run to a halt. But mostly minor frustrations haven't marred another extremely fun, high-intensity multiplayer offering in Vow of the Disciple.

Delving into all its new features, new missions, new locations, and new raid, The Witch Queen has been extremely impressive and a ton of fun. The centerpiece is the laudable story campaign, making a lot of the game's best design more approachable for a variety of characters, but The Witch Queen also invokes the best parts of Destiny's past, as well--like the secret-laden, dense, and fascinating locations found in The Taken King and Forsaken expansions. The Witch Queen is a massive step forward for the game, the culmination of a recent history of great refinements and additions, resulting in a Destiny 2 that's in its best form yet.

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The Good

  • Excellent, varied campaign that shows some of the best of Bungie shooter design
  • Gorgeous new destination littered with secrets
  • Weapon-crafting and Void 3.0 systems offer all sorts of new customization options
  • Story brings great elements of deep lore to the forefront
  • Hive Lightbearers mix up encounters and are fun to fight

The Bad

  • Story is weakened by struggling to serve both veterans and brand-new players

About the Author

Phil Hornshaw has scoured Savathun's throne world of secrets across an inordinate number of hours in the first week of The Witch Queen. He's extremely ready for the new raid. Review code was provided by Bungie.