Last year, Destiny 2 delivered some of its greatest content in its close to 10 year lifespan. The Witch Queen expansion was a definitive statement from Bungie in that, after many years of ups and downs, they finally got a handle on what makes Destiny tick, and that they were capable of delivering the best version of the game this late into its lifespan. With a story that finally made sense out of the game’s many disparate threads, combat design in the newly introduced Legendary campaign that unlocked the potential of the combat sandbox, and a spread of year-long content that’s a far cry from the yawning gaps of the game’s earlier lifespan, it really seemed like Destiny 2 was riding high momentum as it approached the end of the “Light and Darkness” saga.
With all of this in mind, with the recent launch of the newest expansion, Lightfall, does Bungie maintain the momentum of the success of its previous expansion and continue the promise that we are in the best days of Destiny?
Well, as it’s ever been with this franchise’s topsy turvy existence, it’s complicated. Lightfall shows us the ways in which Destiny 2, as a game, keeps getting better, while unfortunately stumbling in key areas that they shouldn’t stumble in this late in the game.
The Light Not Quite Falls
Picking up immediately from the ending of Season 19, “Season of the Seraph,” the Lightfall campaign begins in the most exciting of moments. After years of getting teases of the Pyramid Ships and heels off the reveal of The Witness, the ethereal being pulling the strings, the start of the campaign was the signal that the end was nigh. To put it in pop cultural terms, this finally felt like Destiny’s own Avengers: Infinity War moment. And, with the scale and awe inspiring visuals of the Witness facing off against the Traveler, I couldn’t think of a more momentous way for the campaign to begin.
But just as things were getting exciting, the campaign immediately sends your Guardian hitching a ride on the returning Emperor Calus’ ship all the way across the galaxy to the planet of Neptune and the hidden, synthwave cyberpunkian city of Neonuma. It turns out the Veil, something of great importance to the Witness for…reasons, has been hiding inside this city all along, and it’s up to your Guardian and the returning Osiris to help the remaining living guardians of the city (some human/robot synthetic guardians called the Cloudstriders), Rohan and Nimbus, to protect this Veil from being acquired by Calus, lest things could go awry.
Let’s get the good things outta the way. Last year’s The Witch Queen campaign felt like the moment that Bungie remembered they used to make kick ass campaigns during their Halo heyday. While there have been some good moments campaign wise in both Destiny games (The Taken King and Forsaken come to minds as particular highlights), The Witch Queen campaign felt like the moment one of these seemed more than just good enough for a Destiny campaign.
When it comes to the combat, variety, and level design pitted against the Legendary difficulty, I would say I found the Lightfall campaign was almost, but not quite, on the level of The Witch Queen, but it still carried enough of the hallmarks of that one to make it a highly entertaining romp from start to finish. Destiny’s combat sandbox is second to none when it comes to PVE content, and with the introduction of the new darkness subclass, “Strand,” it added a fresh new flavor to the game that differentiated it enough from the previous four subclasses and helped freshen the combat (grappling and punching enemies never got old.) While I was not a fan of how “Strand” was implemented during the campaign (repeating the same mistake from Beyond Light three years ago, where you only get interspersed tastes of the subclass before it’s unlocked post campaign), I always felt a grin on my face getting the taste of this newfound power. This added level of interspersed power, combined with a visually stunning setting in the new city of Neomuna (as a fan of synthwave cyberpunk aesthetics, this speaked to me personally), helped make the Lightfall campaign entertaining throughout.
Unfortunately, if there is one area that the campaign MAJORLY fumbles the ball this time around, it is in its actual storytelling. Yes, we have all heard the memes back at the launch of the original Destiny about how there was barely anything resembling a coherent story. The thing is, over the years, storytelling has been the one area where, slowly but surely, Bungie had been improving tenfold in both their expansion content and, more recently, the seasonal storytelling. On the eve of their best storytelling yet in The Witch Queen, and especially now at this point in time where they were at the endgame of their purported storytelling plans, the timing of Lightfall actually stumbling in that regard and reverting back to nonsense is beyond comprehension.
Through the duration of this campaign, you have to chase this “Veil” MacGuffin, which every character tells you is this very important thing that the Witness can’t access. But in all of the desperate pleas that you are told by the returning Osiris, the Cloudstriders, and your old Vanguard buddies that this Veil has to be protected at all costs…you are never given an explanation as to why it’s important. To give a close analogy, it’s like if you were to watch Infinity War and witness Thanos collecting the Infinity Stones for his gauntlet, but you were never told why those stones were important or why “The Snap” could be this terrifying moment that needs to be stopped. It almost feels like Bungie wrote this story thinking that at some point in their many expansions and seasonal storytelling they actually talked about and explained what the Veil was, and the reality is that never happened and they just forgot.
And then when something climactic and allegedly game-changing happens at the end of the story, it falls flat and leaves you bewildered with more questions than you would expect. The result is a campaign with a severe lack of stakes (especially when more than half of the campaign is us learning about Strand, including one of the most epic, cringe inducing Rocky montage cutscenes I’ve ever seen), leaving Lightfall so narratively inert and such filler that we have to now wait for next year’s “The Final Shape” for any semblance of big narrative progression. The fact that Bungie came out in their two most recent “This Week at Bungie” posts to say Lightfall was just the beginning of a year long seasonal storytelling plan, where next season will include a quest for expansion owners to explain some of the mysteries, feels like damage control for a story that was just majorly fumbled, and they are just picking up the pieces.
It is to the game’s credit that its core is still so sound and so entertaining, that the campaign still manages to be fun even with such massive storytelling fumbles at such a key moment in the franchise’s lifespan. Unfortunately, this campaign is not living in a vacuum and lives in the shadow of last year’s The Witch Queen campaign which managed to perfectly marry its fun gameplay with the game’s best storytelling yet. The regression makes this hurt more, even if, for my money, this is still ahead of what expansions like Shadowkeep and Beyond Light gave to us, campaign wise. I definitely enjoyed playing this one more than those (just playing with Strand and its Legendary difficulty pulls it ahead), even if its storytelling woes frustrated me beyond relief.
We’re In the Endgame Now…Again
As is usual when it comes to Destiny expansions, the real meat begins as soon as you are done with the campaign and start the endgame preparation towards the raid. The formula of post-campaign exotic quests and missions, along with vendor upgrading, is still present, which one could argue, as a formula, is definitely growing stale when the format remains the same. However, this is the one area where I’d say that I have enjoyed my time post game more in Lightfall than I did with The Witch Queen last year. A big attribution to that is unlocking the full upgrade suite of “Strand” now as a wearable subclass, which, unlike unlocking the different aspects for Stasis in Beyond Light, requires less time gating to get the full suite of upgrades.
Granted, that latter aspect is something Bungie actually hotfixed, where all the fragments could be unlocked, after an initial outcry that Strand felt bad and weak compared to how it was presented as this OP thing in the campaign. The key to the subclass’ viability was on those fragments, and instead of having players wait for the second week and raid completion to let those fragments unlock after a limited timegate, they were then made available quickly to offset the initial negative sentiment. Unlocking and buildcrafting around Strand really made the endgame sing, which was a reminder of how right they have gotten buildcrafting with the 3.0 subclasses from last year.
The few quests that unlocked post-campaign are pretty good, too. While structurally similar to what came before, they produce the kind of world building and storytelling that you wish had been there in the main campaign (even if some of the lore remains vague and nonsensical). A vaguely annoying character like the CloudStrider Nimbus, with their surfer-like attitude that was so overbearing and cringy in the campaign, slowly became endearing with some of the post-campaign parts, to the point that I actually now enjoy their quirks after being put off initially by them. Some of the lore of what happened to this pretty sparse city of Neomuna is given some extra context that makes it feel slightly more “alive” in one of these exotic quests. And some of the exotics you unlock in these quests, like the Strand exotic side arm “Final Warning” (Titanfall fans will love the exotic perk of this weapon), the Void Volatile Machine Gun “Deterministic Chaos,” and the Stasis Glaive “WinterBite,” have added some great new weapon tools to the sandbox.
As for activities of what you’ll be doing in the city of Neomuna, it gets a little more hit and miss in that regard. There is the weekly rotating mission called the “Partition,” whose two offerings so far have been quite varied and opposite from each other, going from one Mario Kart/SRL inspired racing incursion into the Vex Network, and another more traditional combat heavy scenario. A less successful activity includes the Vex Incursion Zone, which rotates daily between the three boroughs of the city and randomly takes the place of a public event. Unfortunately, its randomness means you are at the mercy of the luck of the draw of when those things will actually happen, which makes it so frustrating and unreliable (at least it does guarantee a random exotic drop). Then there is the Terminal Overload, the “Escalation Protocol” style activity that’s just a Neomuna-style variation of that activity that is slightly helped by the inclusion of activating a nod in your Directory to potentially load into an instance with other players, even if its not a true matchmade activity. Thankfully, some QOL they added, where the event is pretty much super hard to “Fail,” at least rewards a long session if you happen to solo the activity due to bad luck in an instance.
Like it is usual with Destiny expansions, they don’t launch in a vacuum and come with an adjacent “paid” season, with this being Season 20, “Season of Defiance.” Over the past year, the seasonal formula started getting heavily criticized by its rote formula, with Bungie promising that the already announced upcoming Season 21, “Season of the Deep,” would be their first crack at a different seasonal formula, taking feedback into consideration. With that said, even with “Season of Defiance” still adhering to a stale seasonal model, some of the QOL improvements Bungie has made to the overall game, as well as some crucial tweaks, have made the start of this expansion’s adjacent season much stronger than the last three, dating all the way back to Shadowkeep. The time-gated “upgrade” nodes are still present but will require way less time to fully upgrade and get to the good stuff: weapon and armor focusing.
The seasonal activity, Defiant Battlegrounds, is the strongest version of Battlegrounds yet, continuing the high enemy density while varying the encounters that feel much closer to Strikes than previous Battlegrounds. And things like the hidden exotic quest over the European Dead Zone that takes you to the visually stunning Vex Network to engage in a nice mix of combat and puzzle mechanics continue Bungie’s great track record with their exotic quests.
Then there’s the big carrot at the end of the stick: this year’s expansion raid, “Root of Nightmares.” As the second raid in a row taking place in the Witness’ Pyramid Ships, when compared to the symbol learning complexity of last year’s “Vow of the Disciple,” this year’s raid is definitely way less complex with its mechanics, instead relying more on enemy dense combat scenarios while keeping up a bit with its few repeated “Light/Dark” mechanics in most of the encounters (with the third planetary encounter being the one awesome, slightly different exception).
In a way, it does remind me a bit of one of Destiny 2’s cooler raids, “Deep Stone Crypt,” where the mechanics/combat mix was fairly balanced and relatively easy to understand. If you are savvy with your combat expertise, I see this raid being far more repeatable than last year’s symbol heavy midterm exam. While the impact of being inside a Pyramid Ship is not as striking the second time around (especially the big deal that was fighting a new kind of enemy with VOW’s own Rhulk), “Root of Nightmares” does enough to differentiate itself from last year’s raid, being even more visually stunning with its terraformed environments and centering its raid boss around a big lore character in Nezarec, who gives fascinating story context as you go through the raid (though Nezarec, as a boss fight, is probably on the easier side of the final raid boss spectrum). It’s rare for Bungie to miss when it comes to their raids, and while I don’t know at the moment where this will land amongst the raid pantheon, it sure will be one I want to revisit way more than last year’s raid.
How About Some Quality of Life
If there is one expansion that Lightfall reminds me a bit of, it is the final expansion released for the original Destiny, Rise of Iron. Content wise, Rise of Iron managed to put as much as could be put in such a short turnaround, which wasn’t a lot (like Lightfall, it launched with one new strike, for example). However, if there is something Rise of Iron did really well, it was using the opportunity to clean up the original Destiny towards the best quality of life the game could have by the end of its lifespan, rising the tide of all the available content to become a beloved time in Destiny, even with its meager offering. I would say, with the exception of PVP (where back in the day expansions would try to bring between 4 to 8 maps at least, where we rarely if ever get even one nowadays), Lightfall provides a bit more content than that expansion, and the rest of the work was put towards trying to place Destiny 2 in a better quality of life situation than it has had since a big overhaul back around 2019’s Shadowkeep. I don’t think it’s quite there yet, but with this game’s ongoing nature, Bungie has definitely put the pieces for a better game down the road, while some changes in the here and now are very welcome.
Yes, it may not rival, at all, the popular off-game inventory manager DIM, but the in-game loadout system introduced here has made swapping between established builds inside the game within a single character so much better than it’s been before. If you have played Destiny for a long time and like to maximize and set your different builds for both casual and hardcore endgame activities, being able to save those now, on the fly, instead of having to manually change your mods and pieces of armor, saves so much time and makes the idea of having different builds a more attractive idea than before. The system is not perfect, as it has this weird, half-baked half step where your saved build is able to pull weapons stowed away at your vault but doesn’t pull them from a separate character in case it’s there. Little annoyances like that would keep hardcore players choosing to still using the Destiny 2 app, or even DIM, but the bones are there where just some final tweaks could make this system better.
Lightfall also brought in a major rework of the mod system, which was increasingly becoming a little too convoluted for its own good and hard to grasp if you were a new player. The game’s seasonal structure and constant content removal meant a lot of the game-changing mods that allowed the game’s version of buildcrafting felt out of reach for people not in the hook with this game, instead having to rely on the chance of two potential game-changing mods being sold at a daily rotating vendor, as if it was a mobile gacha game. With the exception of weapon mods that are acquired when you upgrade your gunsmith vendor, a lot of the armor mods have been deprecated and unlocked from the jump, cutting a few of the hoops needed to make your Guardian more optimal.
While new players entering the game via the “New Light” quest may not have those mods unlocked, via the game’s recently added “Guardian Ranks,” they will have an easier and much more understandable pathway towards buildcrafting this time around. However, the new mod system is far from perfect as the deprecation of many mods has kinda hurt previously established builds, so it’s up to Bungie to build up the mods they introduce from here on out now that they are on a much more user friendly (but still complex) system.
Perhaps the most notable quality of life improvement about the game this year has been Bungie finally tweaking the difficulty from various PVE activities so that they don’t crumble for feeling too easy under the weight of the added power from the recently revised Light 3.0 subclasses. The power fantasy of Destiny has never felt better than after the subclass updates, but it came at the cost of trivializing a lot of the content on offer. Only via the campaign’s Legendary difficulty would you get a reasonable challenge that didn’t feel at odds with trivializing your newfound power. Taking a little bit of the design ethos from that Legendary difficulty, Bungie at least has gone and tweaked some of the gameplay modifiers from some of the harder difficulties so as to not trivialize your Guardian character via forced loadouts and cowardly gameplay.
The tweaks have not been perfect, with a recent Mars Battleground Nightfall showing that Bungie needs to adjust their difficulty delta to make up for activities that swarm you with enemies. But, overall, with some slight outliers, the Destiny 2 sandbox is on much firmer ground this time around compared to how it was around The Witch Queen, serving you challenge while still allowing crazy, powerful builds beyond what this game originally allowed back at its launch.
The quality of life around the rest of the game is of a more mixed variety, especially when it comes to the new player “New Light” experience, as well as the core playlists, like Strikes/Vanguard Ops, the Crucible, and Gambit. The “New Light” experience is still this strange meager offering of an introduction, still suffering from the removal of the original “Red War” campaign as a base introductory experience. If there is an improvement for new players, it is the addition of “Guardian Ranks” that finally introduce some semblance of a checklist that properly introduces and guides you through the wider spread of content (an improvement over Bungie’s expectations of veteran players serving as the guiding hand of new Guardians).
However, the New Light experience is definitely interested in trying to get new players to play Lightfall above all else, which leaves the other available expansions as mere curiosities with the game poorly guiding you to previous experiences. As long as Bungie still refuses to figure out a way to unvault and reintroduce the Red War and Forsaken campaigns that they vaulted, trying to bring in new people with Shadowkeep as the first meaningful content they can play (if purchased) still makes coming fresh into this game a relative nightmare, and one I only recommend to new players on the basis of the game’s strong gameplay. You can’t expect people to understand a long running saga with such huge pieces still missing (and, no, the included “timeline” with brief summaries doesn’t cut it).
As for the playlists, the one that is at its healthiest currently is the Strikes/Vanguard Ops. With the recent decision of folding the seasonal Battlegrounds into the Strike Playlist to make them Vanguard Ops, the mode feels like it’s in a healthy spot with a variety of content that finally makes up for the 7 strikes that got vaulted back in Beyond Light. While it was disappointing that Lightfall only added one full new Strike, it did some reworks to two old ones (the EDZ’s “Arms Dealer” and “Lake of Shadows”), and the promise of the current Defiance Battlegrounds eventually joining the rotation, like previous Battlegrounds before it, will help in keeping that PVE playlist robust, especially compared to the sorry state of the Crucible and Gambit, with Crucible still awaiting a new map after a single addition last year following a three year drought.
At least, when it comes to PVP sandbox, the introduction of Strand hasn’t wrecked the mode like Stasis did for almost an entire year, so it’s got that going for it as we wait for Bungie to still take forever to add a single new map (how they could offer 4 to 8 new maps back in the day and struggle to put one out now is such a mystery). Then there is Gambit, which is currently so ignored by Bungie, I’m shocked it hasn’t been put out of its misery. At the very least, they could unvault the two maps they vaulted from that mode, as having to play the same four maps over the last three years is asinine.
Lightfall is Destiny 2 at its Best and Worst
As previously mentioned, on the lead up to The Witch Queen, current game director, Joe Blackburn, had promised that the content coming from that expansion onwards would present what he believed would be known as “Destiny’s Best Days.” After the launch of The Witch Queen, it was not hard to think that there was actual truth to that statement, with the game presenting us some of its best content heading into the conclusion of its long running saga. The massive disappointment of the story presented in the Lightfall campaign is a slight betrayal to that promise, especially knowing how good last year’s story was.
But in the midst of that disappointment, Lightfall manages to pull through by being some of the most fun you can have with Destiny 2 in the places that have always actually mattered with this franchise. Even with all of my ever-growing list of complaints, nine years in, I still can’t get enough of it. While I can’t quite recommend this expansion on its campaign alone, like I could last year, in the places where Destiny has shined over the years, this is the most I’ve enjoyed playing it. In the ever-growing contradiction that is this franchise’s existence, that’s got to count for something.
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