Plus, see the game's first revealed Strike mission captured on PlayStation 4.
LOS ANGELES—Bungie knows how to deliver a first-person shooter that immediately looks and feels solid. The game developer's prowess with accessible, sexy blasting has never been in doubt. But two big questions remain as the company's highly anticipated sequel, Destiny 2, nears its September 9 launch: How much better will the sequel feel over a long span of time as it tries to hook fans for multiple years? And what should we expect from the series' Windows PC premiere?
A few hours with the game was too brief to answer the first question, though a fantastic "Strike" mission got my hopes up. My hours of play were certainly long enough to wholeheartedly sell me on Destiny 2's PC build. Sadly, Bungie and Activision have saddled this superior PC version—one that enjoys tight mouse-and-keyboard controls and higher frame rates—with quite the asterisk: a PC-specific delay.
At Thursday's Destiny 2 gameplay reveal event, Bungie and Activision did not clarify a vague statement made about the various versions' release dates. In this statement, the companies confirmed a "September" release window for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions. The Windows PC version got its own "additionally" sentence without a release window attached.
We left the event not knowing whether the PC version will launch simultaneously with its console brethren, let alone whether the versions will land in the same month.
That's a bummer of the highest order. Destiny 2 on PC unlocks the series' true beat-by-beat, quick-action potential. At the event, the PC version screamed at a rock-solid 60Hz visual refresh—at an astonishing 4K resolution, no less. This is a first for the series, as every version of Destiny 1, across older and newer consoles, is locked to a 30fps cap. Should the reveal event be any indication, the sequel's console versions could be stuck with the same frame rate limit. The event was loaded with PlayStation 4 Pro consoles, and they rendered the game at a sub-4K resolution with a 30fps cap. (That frame rate on the console was locked, at least.)
Bungie reps would not clarify what boosts PS4 Pro owners will be able to enable in the game or whether it will include options for higher frame rates. The devs also wouldn't clarify what visual perks to expect on the upcoming Xbox Scorpio console, if any. Fingers crossed that either, or both, get an option to boost frame rates.
While waiting for a single-player mission to start on the PC version, I poked through the game's visual settings menus. As of press time, Destiny 2 on PC includes the following visual-setting toggles, which either have on/off switches or low-to-high sliders: texture anisotropy; ambient occlusion; motion blur; anti-aliasing; texture quality; foliage detail; environment detail; character detail; shadow quality; depth of field; foliage shadows; lighting shading detail; local light shadows; and one I'd never seen, "wind impulse." Bungie representatives pledged that the PC version will also ship with an FOV slider and support for wide-ratio resolutions.
When I tried adjusting any settings I saw, the menu text didn't change. Bungie representatives said that while the description text for most categories was frozen on "medium," in action, they were actually set closer to "high" or "highest." However, three separate representatives told me that they would "be right back" with answers to my specific visual-setting questions. None of them returned with answers.
Whatever settings these were, they matched up very nicely with the GTX 1080 Ti-powered PCs on hand. The only clear visual benefits compared to consoles, beyond crisper resolution and a higher frame rate, came in the form of higher-res textures and superior particle effects. Anti-aliasing was limited to FXAA, and I noticed its slight failings whenever I walked over a grated floor in a metallic, indoor section. I didn't notice other effects, like shadows and reflections, looking particularly better than on console. Additionally, while fire effects looked quite good on the console version, the higher fidelity of a 4K PC rig revealed some obvious sprite-stitching tricks, which made plumes of flame look fake.
But the gorgeous base of the current-gen console version only hums that much more on PC. As I previously wrote, the game's entire lighting system has been rebuilt to afford more object-based lighting and specular highlights, which make for subtle, gorgeous moments while walking through dimly lit caverns and glowing, metallic corridors. In action, this means laser, fire, explosion, and weather effects now have a clearer impact on the color and lighting of objects (particularly the weapons and scopes in your hands) during a crazed battle.
And make no mistake: that higher frame rate, coupled with mouse-and-keyboard control, makes contending with massive groups of enemies that much more intuitive to pull off. Destiny 2 doesn't let off the gas in the tons-of-enemies-everywhere department, and once I got the chance to deal with those enemies with smartly mapped PC controls, I really struggled to go back to those PlayStation 4 Pro kiosks. (Every key can be remapped, by the way.) Destiny's higher-level content has always scaled with more and crazier enemy waves, and the little bit I played at the reveal event proved that Destiny 2 will have hard-enough missions so that mouse-and-keyboard players won't be bored by "console-simplified" action.
I played three different modes in Destiny 2: the opening level of the campaign, an early co-op Strike mission, and a few multiplayer versus battles.
The campaign's opening level is identical to the one played in Thursday's gameplay reveal video. As one of the Destiny universe's "Guardians," you must fend off invaders who are ravaging the original game's hub world town of the Citadel. The mission ends with your death, which Bungie's designers and producers say also wipes your prior, superpowered hero's arsenal and ability slate clean when you come back to life.
This is clearly an introduction level, what with its overpowered weapons, dramatic weather effects, and big-guys-go-boom enemy encounters. Aside from all of that bombast, players only get one or two moments to make real tactical decisions while blasting everything in their path.
The new co-op Strike mission, on the other hand, was such a blast that I went back and played it twice over.
Bungie's design team has restarted the series' Strike mission design from the ground up—and I know this is groanworthy, but I do mean that literally.
The level, named "The Inverted Spire," opens with familiar Destiny stuff: run for a bit, find a set of entrenched enemies, and attack them from multiple angles while juggling weapon, grenade, and power types. But Bungie's level designers had a field day here playing with horizontal and vertical space. In some encounters, players walk into what I would call a "battle hallway." Two types of alien forces can be seen clawing at each other from a distance, both far away and beneath you thanks to some drops in the terrain. They fight each other for a minute before noticing your squad.
At this point, the three people playing this mission can immediately split up between those who hang back with long-range guns and those who run in with shorter-range spray-and-pray assaults. Each player gets some intriguing terrain to work with in advancing, finding safe cover, and advancing again. Eventually, this highway will turn in a severe direction (to the left or right). Players must group back together to withstand a more claustrophobic battle at the bend. This accordion-style sway between separation and reunion among my squad-mates played out very subtly, and this organic ebb-and-flow fostered some interesting in-game banter with the other players (all of whom were strangers).
The Strike mission also takes huge jumps up, or down, into new terrain, which either requires that Guardians jump carefully from one massive floating block to the next or to hop into massive boost-chute things that look like Mario Kart launchers. The Strike's boss fight went even further with this idea by surprise-dropping players to new platforms, usually dozens of stories below, once the boss's energy dropped to certain points.
This boss, by the way, was a blast, even though it was yet another one of Destiny's bullet-sponge monsters. The boss character transitioned from one dangerous state to the next, each state having its own types of attacks, lasers, and movement patterns. The boss conjured a different set and pattern of support grunts each time, as well. Combine these shifts with level geometry that changed with each form, and the result is a tight, circular arena of combat that remains intense and surprising the entire way through. You and your teammates will need to control specific parts of the full circle (which change with each of its three phases) to stand a chance of survival.
The craziest part of the Strike may have been its long, curved run through an alien mining operation. While running down this huge stretch, your Guardian can jump off of the primary, enemy-loaded path to grab a positional advantage for a moment. This only works for a limited time, however. A series of massive, insta-killing mining gears grind through the paths every 15 seconds or so. This surprising hazard adds a nice tactical touch to this long, rock-covered corridor.
The one new "player vs. player" mode on offer, called Charge, splits players into two teams of four. I fought in what I would describe as a "tight-corridor city" level. Anyone who has played the best, tight Call of Duty deathmatch maps has seen this type of design before.
Charge offers a slightly unique twist on the "control parts of the map" modes you'll find in most modern shooters. In Destiny 2's case, Charge players are split into attack and defend teams, and your victory depends on whether or not attackers are able to find, arm, and detonate timed bombs around the level. (Every map can also be won just by killing all four players on the other team.) The best thing I can say about this mode is that it felt very quick and breezy while still offering memorable choke-point and "last stand" moments between teams.
Just like the first game, Destiny 2's multiplayer mode benefits from tight first-person shooter control and powerful weapons but could be prone to serious balance issues. Thanks to each Guardian having super moves that take a long time to charge, each side has a few very brief moments to jack up their power and turn a single round's tide. Thus, in my testing session, teams were more successful when they min-maxed each squad-mate's most powerful attacks. Lisa, you set off your acrobatic-staff-strike move this round; I'll save my throwable, flaming swords for next. That sort of thing.
Every mode had Destiny's rock-solid control foundation in common, which really doesn't stray far from D1. I was able to cycle through a ton of high-level guns, including "arm cannon" pistols, plasma rifles, grenade launchers, auto rifles, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. Same as last time. My Guardian had a single chargeable superpower he or she could whip up that was customizable and tweakable in the game's menus. D2 may be getting new superpowers, but this system is otherwise the same as last time. I could run around, pull up a scope to target enemies, and match my weapon's damage type with an alien, robot, or monster's vulnerability. Same as last time.
In my 2014 Destiny review, I pointed out what a good time I had for the game's first eight or so hours. I'm not shocked to see the sequel's out-of-the-gate experience feel similarly stunning. The moment-to-moment sensation of action and momentum is grand. The weapons look, feel, and sound powerful. The core mechanics are spit-shined with incredible production values and rock-solid controls. (Double that controls compliment if you grab the game on PC... whenever it comes out.)
Right now, my optimism comes from the feeling that Bungie debuted the Inverted Spire Strike mission to prove out this sequel's newly revitalized co-op gameplay. Hopefully, it's not the exact opposite issue where this is the only good Strike mission.
Everything else that stitches the Destiny gameplay experience together—matchmaking for online play, a well-written campaign, hidden goodies, older levels being spruced up with meaningful updates, tight solo content, a general reason to come back—will be impossible to judge for some time (and details on new online tweaks, like the "Guided Games" co-op feature, were scant). In fact, we may not figure out how the true game feels until Destiny 2 has been out for weeks.
At least it looks like we'll have a better time on the way to answering that question.