Review: Destiny 2: Shadowkeep

Bungie’s history with Destiny has been something akin to whiplash. First they release a lackluster base game (Destiny, Destiny 2) and then they release two awful expansions. Finally, when players are at their lowest, Bungie releases an enormous expansion (The Taken King, Forsaken) that fundamentally changes the game. It’s a high Bungie achieved last year with Forsaken, which ushered in the best mission design, sandbox activities and post-launch content since The Taken King. But can that streak continue? Destiny 2: Shadowkeep aims to build on Forsaken’s success with a new campaign, a restructured Armor system and more ways to earn loot. Does Destiny 2: Shadowkeep scare up enough quality content, or should it have remain buried on the Moon?

Unlike Forsaken, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is a direct sequel to Destiny 2. Eris Morn has uncovered something deadly on the Moon and accidentally unleashes the Nightmares, ghostly versions of past enemies. With a new threat emerging, the Vanguard quickly dispatches its army of Guardians to put down the Nightmares and discover their dark source.

Destiny campaigns have always been mind-numbing thanks to heavy-handed writing and mission design that overly relies on mundane busywork. The stories nearly always end up being vague, open-ended and unsatisfying. Forsaken changed that by making the story more personal and finding new and engaging ways to push that narrative forward. Shadowkeep, on the other hand, is content with regressing all that hard work. Aside from strong opening and closing missions, Shadowkeep barely delivers any meaningful revelations or character development. You, Eris Morn and the remainder of the Vanguard remain blank slates with surface-level characterizations. With the most emotive member of the cast, Cayde-6, dead, Destiny desperately needs NPCs with some personality. Unfortunately, that isn’t found anywhere in Shadowkeep.

Clocking in at four-to-five hours, Shadowkeep’s campaign generally overstays its welcome despite such a short completion time. The campaign doesn’t offer anything interesting in the way of revelations or mission design. Instead, it spends most of its length tasking players with mindless busywork. After that, it ends on an interesting yet unsatisfying cliffhanger that likely won’t be addressed until the inevitable Destiny 3. The campaign never approaches the awful Dark Below or Curse of Osiris, but it’s a severe drop in quality from Forsaken.

It’s lucky that the rest of Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is quite good, though familiar. The Moon, a vanilla Destiny location, never got its fair shake back in 2014. Unlike the other areas in the game, it was easy to finish off the Moon sections and then never come back. In Shadowkeep, Bungie has made it a location players will want to keep visiting. Though the design is familiar, the studio has done quite a bit to make it more visually appealing. Giant chasms have torn the landscape asunder, new caves have opened up never-before-seen locations and an enormous Hive citadel looms large over the horizon. Adding to the spookiness of the locale are Nightmares of fallen Guardians, whose silhouettes replace the standard Patrol Beacons. It’s clear a lot of compassion went into bringing back the Moon and transforming it into a place players want to visit.

That mentality extends to the way Bungie is handling post-launch content. Season of the Undying sees waves of Vex arriving via a storm to take over the Moon. Watching them arrive is breathtaking, and the firefights that ensue are hectic and enjoyable. Then there’s the new Vex Offensive activity, which allows players to travel back to the Black Garden to take on the Vex. It’s a surprisingly robust seasonal activity and it’ll be interesting to see what lasting impact the Vex have on the Moon once the Season is over.

Probably the biggest albatross hanging over the entire expansion, however, is the lack of anything new. Despite some additional areas to explore and a fresh coat of paint, this is a map players already paid $60 to explore back in 2014. Nightmares are just reskinned versions of enemies we’ve already fought and they don’t behave any differently. Two of the three new Crucible maps are remasters of old maps. The new Nightmare activities are against bosses that players have already fought hundreds of times. The new Strikes and Raid are excellent additions, but you don’t even need to own Shadowkeep to play the Strikes. For $34.99, players should expect more and Bungie should have provided plenty of new content rather than rehashing older material.

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’s
greatest strength is what’s kept Destiny so popular all these years: the gameplay. The blend of shooting and looting remains as addictive and satisfying as ever, even if we’re still firing at the same enemies we’ve been fighting since 2014. Bungie has done a solid job altering and perfecting the formula over the years and Shadowkeep represents the next big step in its refinement, Armor 2.0.

With Armor 2.0, Bungie is fully embracing the RPG potential of its franchise. New weapon and armor mods allow players to mess around with different elements and stats to build a character that fits their play style. Players can not only tweak little things like Resilience but also stats like how fast your abilities recharge. It’s an exciting system that hardcore players will love tinkering with. It’s also available for every player, regardless of whether or not you purchased Shadowkeep.

You don’t even need to own Shadowkeep to enjoy a lot of the expansion’s content. The opening mission, the Moon patrol space, the new two new Strikes and the three Crucible maps are available as part of Destiny 2: New Light, the free-to-play version of the game. While the Raid and campaign are sectioned off, there’s a lot you can do without owning Shadowkeep (the Seasonal Activities require you own the Season Pass).

Since the release of Destiny 2, monetization has been a thorn in all player’s sides. Though Bungie tweaked it to be fairer, players still resented the idea that Bungie was selling a $49.99 Season Pass with microtransactions on top of it all while asking players to pay up front to get the game. Anyone hoping things would get better after Bungie’s split from Activision isn’t going to be happy to hear what’s happening in Shadowkeep.

Bungie is now quadruple-dipping with Season Passes, loot boxes (via Engrams), direct cosmetic purchases and a Battle Pass. The Battle Pass in particular is annoying by adding an additional layer of time-consuming grind to a game that already requires a lot of grind. The scummiest part of the whole system, though, is that Bungie has built the Eververse store straight into the Director menu. Previously, monetization could be ignored entirely because it was secluded to the Eververse Store at the Tower. Now, Bungie has made sure that it follows players everywhere they go. It’s sad to see such regression after Forsaken made Destiny 2’s monetization feel fairer to players.

Despite all the regression with the campaign and monetization and the rehashing of older content, Destiny 2 still looks quite good. The Moon is an atmospheric place to visit and traversing the caverns the Hive call home produces a sense of dread that other locations in the Destiny 2 experience can’t provide. Meanwhile, the short visits into the Black Garden are gorgeous thanks to all the colors and lush jungle mixed with Vex machinery. Destiny 2 may be two years old now, but it’s still looking good.

Closing Comments:

The cycle of Destiny whiplash continues with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep. Like during the Destiny 1 era, we started with a lackluster opening, then got two awful expansions, got our significant overhaul, and now we’re at the stopgap. Much like Rise of Iron, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Bungie is just buying time until the inevitable next entry in the franchise. In this case, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep feels like Bungie is slow-walking to Destiny 3. The campaign ends up going nowhere, ending in an unsatisfying cliffhanger we likely won’t see resolved for a while. Meanwhile, as great as the Moon is compared to its incarnation in the first game, there’s no getting around the fact that we’ve already seen and paid for this before. The core gameplay is still the star of the show, the Moon is a fun place to play around in, the Strikes are imaginative and the new Seasonal Activity is a standout. But you can access all that without owning Shadowkeep (though the Seasonal Activity does require you to own the Season Pass). Destiny 2: Shadowkeep isn’t bad, but it also feels wholly unnecessary when most of its selling points (Strikes, the Moon, Armor 2.0) can be played without owning it. This is one nightmare we didn’t need to have.