Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Review – Expansion of Salvation

Note: My complete review includes thoughts from my Initial Impressions of Shadowkeep, which should be read in addition to this review.

We’re three weeks into Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, and while I’ll never realistically feel like things are settled enough to issue what I’d consider a “final” review, I’ve been able to get a good impression of Bungie’s ongoing vision for this upcoming Season of content releases, events, and storytelling; the ebb and flow of each week bringing new activities, updating the old, and just generally evolving the game.

After the first week, I hammered out some quick impressions in the time that I had, mostly during loading screens, which are still excessively lengthy on consoles. It’s nothing that I blame Bungie for, but I sincerely hope that Destiny 2 can be optimized to account for this on next-gen platforms. My impressions from that first week still hold largely true, so I’ll try to avoid overly rehashing any of the points I made at that time (he says, as he begins typing out a few paragraphs rehashing one of those points).

One of the biggest complaints early on was in regards to the brief campaign that very suddenly ended, but the weeks of play that followed have rendered that mostly moot. Destiny 2 is not a boxed product anymore. Any qualms I specifically had about the campaign’s length went out the window when I was trying to level my two additional characters. The thought of running the campaign again seemed like a chore I didn’t want to engage with. I wanted to be in the endgame, playing all of the activities, not spending my time playing story missions and doing a bunch of menial tasks for Eris. I mean, the endgame has enough of those as it is.

The end did still seem to come “out of nowhere,” being immediately teleported back to the surface of the moon after the vision in the Black Garden, but the storytelling hasn’t stopped. Week after week we’re getting hints of elements like the Artifact talking to us and Ikora building a massive portal in the Tower that will help us defeat the Vex Invasion once and for all. While I wouldn’t call it perfect just yet, it’s a great start as Destiny 2 slips more into that realtime ongoing narrative that I’ve wanted the game to embrace for far too long.

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Bungie still has a problem with communicating much of the narrative through text, either when speaking with characters or in the Lore Triumphs. I personally think it’s great to continue to learn what the mysterious artifact is whispering to us or to hear from Ikora how she plans to end, but when playing as a group, there are too many places where the narrative accouterments held within text can get completely missed.

The other side of this coin is the evolving world, one which Bungie is proving the concept of by having an enormous Vex portal built behind Ikora for the purposes of ending the Vex invasion. And it wasn’t just a week 1 (well, week 2, technically) thing either. Each weekly reset I’ve gone back to find more and more of the construction completed. It makes the events feel less like a “bubble” and more like a natural progression of the Season’s storyline.

These two elements—the text-based story beats and the evolving world—then fall kind of at odds with each other, when in fact players should find them complimentary. After the first week of new Tower construction, everyone wondered what was being built. A new chamber for the (now dead) Speaker? Bathrooms? Had they talked to Ikora, listened to her and read the text, they would have quickly found out that it was a Vex portal, as well as sussed out her plan to defeat the Undying Mind repeatedly in various timelines using said portal. That’s all not so much a Bungie problem as it is a player problem, but it wouldn’t hurt to continue to refine how Destiny 2 is delivering the story to players.

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Another great example of this is the quest for the new Exotic Bow. Upon talking to Banshee, players are met with a couple paragraphs of text that many players will skip right over in their pursuit of getting the heavy bow that using a bike chain for a drawstring. It’s a sad story really, one that highlights Banshee’s continued forgetfulness after so many resets. Storytelling for so many elements happens in this way that I feel like impatient players will miss in pursuit of checking off the list of tasks to complete. Protip: Take time to read the text within Destiny 2. Even just the couple of paragraphs as you pick up or turn in missions. It will wholly enrich your experience. A lot of the answers to “why are we doing this thing?” can be answered with some light reading.

New Ways to Play Weekly

Since Shadowkeep launched, each week has brought new things to do and more ways to play. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the reasons for those new things to do. Increasingly difficult Nightmare Hunts have been released, but my own fireteam is having a hard time finding a reason to pursue that mounting challenge. There are still a ton of things to do, however, even for somebody like me who has put in more time than I would like to admit since returning to the surface of the moon.

I’m certain that this pace of new content won’t continue, particularly not in future Seasons. The Season of the Undying is a shorter one thanks to Shadowkeep’s delay. Bungie only had a little over two months to deliver everything, which means that there will barely be any downtime at all. Going back to a three-month Season cycle starting the beginning of December, it will be interesting to see how Bungie adjusts pace for Seasonal content delivery, but the end of Seasons have always felt notoriously more dry than the month or so following the start.

Fortunately the new time-limited Seasonal activities should help rectify this (while also solving the problem of dated content that is no longer relevant and dull to longtime players). The Vex Offensive is a Seasonal activity for those who paid for the Season Pass (which is unavoidable if you bought Shadowkeep). It’s a six-player matchmade activity that has players defeating waves of Vex in the Black Garden and features some light mechanics in order to advance. Compared to past activities that have come with the smaller seasonal drops, it’s not quite as complex as say, something like the Menagerie, but it’s more involved than either The Reckoning or Forges.

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Vex Offensive’s current issue is the lack of even minimal variation on repeat play. In future seasons I’d like to see Bungie impose some kind of modifiers that keep it interesting (limits or restrictions on loadouts, for example), though we will be getting the “Final Assault” variant near the end of the Season to close it out and bring on the next Season’s activity. In addition, Vex are now invading the moon through portals in the sky, creating a new kind of public event. Before these invasions, I had been disappointed that all of the moon’s public events were simply ones we had on all of the other planets. Vex invasions, while perhaps not a public event proper, do manage to take up the mantle, complete with a way to make them Heroic to drop powerful gear. It’s a great incentive for players to run new content, keeping it relevant for the brief time that it will be around.

Another element I do want to touch on again, after having talked extensively about it in my week 1 impressions, is the new Seasonal Ranking model, challenging players to level up with the Season Pass. For better or worse, I play the game in a whole different way now that I also have the Season Rank layer to grind. Previously meaningless XP has suddenly become a valuable commodity that I can’t get enough of. Fortunately it’s a system that basically stacks with everything else that I’m doing in the game too, but it helps make those times when I’m just helping out a friend or randomly roaming around the EDZ feel more rewarding. Seasonal Ranks and the unlimited Power cap mean I’m always working towards something, even if I’m not doing much of anything.

The rewards gained up to level 100 are largely cosmetic in nature, though some have usefully added to my overflowing stores of upgrade items. After I hit rank 100 (I’m nearly there! Rank 90 right now), I’ll still be able to grind for that bonus Power level to help push me up and beyond those gear caps, though I am going to have to temper myself as the Season approaches closing time. Once the new Season hits on December 3, that level gets reset and I’m sure next Season’s is going to grab me just as much. More and more games are moving to this kind of model as a pseudo-seasonal subscription to help retain players longterm and drive them back to the game. When I pick up my controller and think about what I want to load up, the Season Pass is just one more element that helps Destiny 2 float to the top of that list.

Hit Me Raid Week, One More Time

A new expansion, a new Raid. it wasn’t available immediately at launch, but shortly after, players entered the Black Garden to answer a signal from the Pyramid ship’s mysterious artifact. The simple act of kicking off the Raid also started many of the other events going on this Season, all catalyzed by the events of finishing the main campaign questline. The Garden of Salvation Raid brings back feelings of nostalgia, not because it retreads familiar ground, but because of the context and the stakes.

It has a number of new mechanics that are not only challenging, but present fascinating gameplay opportunities. The tether mechanic requires players to chain together a tether to connect certain Vex devices, and much of the Raid centers on not letting waves of Vex sacrifice to confluxes. This makes Garden of Salvation a much more add-focused Raid, one where the adds are not just for increased difficulty, but a fundamental part of the mechanics of an encounter. Don’t worry, there are still enormous bosses to shoot too, in what might be one of the toughest Raid encounters in Destiny history.

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Context is everything though, and good mechanics require a good reason to be doing them. This time we’re not just being a janitor or playing a game show. There’s an impending threat, and this is one of the first steps we’re taking towards stopping whatever’s coming. Garden of Salvation also has the grand sense of wonder as you explore the surface of the mysterious Black Garden once again, a place that has been relegated to legend since the ending mission of the original Destiny.

Garden of Salvation isn’t a long Raid, but some clever arranging of the encounters ensures that it feels at least a bit longer than last year’s Raid Lairs, and I’m fine with it not being an Odyssey long epic. Four encounters feels like a good number, though I can’t wait until we get something on the scale of Last Wish again. Garden of Salvation managed to get pretty damn close.

Oh, and don’t worry about all the hubbub that the Raid armor was “just a reskin” of the Season 2 Eververse armor. It might feture the same design, but it’s way more detailed and has really cool accents on it that sets it apart. Garden of Salvation’s armor feels properly like what I would expect from Raid armor. Plus, Season 2 (Curse of Osiris) was when Destiny 2’s player count was low, so can people really say that they got the complete Eververse armor set at that time?

Not Everything New is Shiny

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep does a great job of completely revamping how the game is played through a whole new armor system, adding a new location to scour, a new Raid, and plenty of new activities. However, apart from the revamped free-to-play New Light, existing players got very little to convince them that older content was worth coming back to. We’re still getting the same gear and weapons to drop, which makes those staple activities like Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit (among others, like planetary destinations) feel stagnant. It’s especially stark against the tapestry of an ever-evolving world.

This is one of those broad complaints that I completely understand the rationale behind, however. Bungie can only do so much, and taking the time to develop and test new armor for every vendor (or even just some of them) takes away development resources from other endeavors. Critcisms have been levied at making armor ornaments for the Eververse Store, but Bungie has to continue to bring in money somehow. I’m not going to pretend to understand how they balance their books, and my criticisms of the Eververse Store don’t extend much beyond “Ooooh, look at the pretty new thing. I want that,” and envy and greed aren’t good looks on me.

Destiny Sales

I hope they’re able to strike a balance in the future, however. I am rather sick of getting the same old armor from Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit, but I get the plight of only being able to do so much at one time. There’s also plenty of other cool armor in the game right now. Future Seasons that introduce fewer armor sets might be more of a call for a vendor refresh than this one.

Biggest question for players is if it’s worth returning to the game or venturing in for the first time? That will depend on your desire to be a part of something long term. Destiny 2 isn’t a boxed product that you can pull off the shelf and beat within a weekend. The very nature of the game pushes it to be played over time, to have discoveries and events happen that players find unforgettable, forming bonds and memories with the people they play with. If that doesn’t sound up your alley, run away. This game probably isn’t for you. But if, like me, you enjoyed watching the entire series of LOST over the course of six years, having weekly conversations about every episode, and theorizing about every little detail, then come see what it’s like to live life as a Guardian.

Destiny 2 expansions and seasons have to be some of the most difficult things to review, because unlike traditional static games, Bungie is constantly changing and adding things. It’s designed to be played over the long term, and most of the playerbase knows that. Shadowkeep is another watchtower along the way, guiding us through the Season of the Undying, Season of the Dawn, and beyond. We’re three weeks into a full year (and more) of Destiny 2 that began with something awakening on the moon. It will have its ups and downs, but ultimately Bungie has the ship pointed in the right direction, making Destiny better than it’s ever been before.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep review copy provided by developer. Reviewed on PS4. For more information please read our Review Policy.