Destiny 2 is a special game and always has been. The Witch Queen, a new expansion that landed on Feb. 22, tries to make the case that it can be special for everyone, whether or not you invest serious time.
Even almost a decade after the series kicked off, Destiny is still, for my money, the best-feeling first-person shooter on the planet. There’s an intoxicating quality to simply running and jumping around in its intricately designed play spaces. And combat, which employs a mix of guns and abilities that fans colloquially refer to as “space magic,” is similarly thrilling. Art, animation, audio — all of it harmonizes beautifully, turning every encounter into a veritable symphony of action.
The problem has always been the exact same thing: Destiny isn’t all that approachable. The lush gameplay is paired with a comically dense landscape of rules and stats that matter most for high-level challenges, and most of the play content is built in a way that has traditionally funneled players toward those challenges. But Destiny 2 rarely slows down to explain itself.
That’s not exactly fixed in The Witch Queen, but it still feels like a top consideration. Because while esoteric and difficult-to-explain concepts like Power levels and Masterworks are all still there and as inscrutable as they’ve always been, they’re an additive to the main thrust of this new expansion: Creating a superlative Destiny mission experience with a beginning, middle, and end.
The Witch Queen revives for Destiny the idea of sending players through a gauntlet of narratively interconnected missions. While that story is rather dense, with unexplained details that even longtime players aren’t always plugged into (hi, it me), the missions themselves are filled to the brim with the kinds of ideas and gameplay twists that have often been relegated to activities like raids and dungeons — high-level stuff that’s largely out of reach for more casual players. Best of all, though: There’s an easy mode.
While skilled players can turn to “Legendary” missions for big rewards and a stiffer challenge, there’s also a “Classic” difficulty that anyone can play and conquer, from the saltiest longtime fan with 5,000 hours logged to the greenest newcomer. You don’t need to worry about Destiny 2‘s seasonal content and the only loot rule you need to understand is: “Equip the weapons and armor with higher numbers.” You just need to go and play.
Classic isn’t unchallenging, to be clear. You’ll still need to be competent in your moving and jumping and shooting to get through any given challenge. But the lower difficulty is built to accommodate even those players who don’t know anything about loadouts and who have no Exotic weapons or armor to lean on. That’s made clear right up front before you dive into the first story mission, with a menu screen that explains the difference between Classic and Legendary before asking players to choose.
This isn’t just progress for Destiny 2‘s ability to communicate how things work, it’s also a gift to anyone who has ever been curious about this series. The base Destiny 2 game is now a fairly limited free-to-play experience, but spend $40 on The Witch Queen and you get a 6-10 hour space fantasy first-person shooter (plus the current content season, for those who choose to go further) from Bungie, the studio that created the Halo series.
That studio legacy is actually a great touchstone for helping us understand why The Witch Queen is such a success. Halo: Combat Evolved gets a lot of credit for the impact it had on game design, but don’t forget that it was just a fantastic video game in its moment that looked great, felt amazing to play, and, in various ways, upended our idea of what a first-person shooter (FPS) could actually be.
Destiny has always pushed against the industry status quo for shooters in its own ways. Raids and dungeons are action-oriented puzzle boxes that challenge teams to put core running, jumping, and shooting mechanics to work in unexpected ways. The three different character classes — Hunters, Warlocks, and Titans — all play in vastly different but complementary ways, right down to the abilities they can employ and how each one’s jump works.
Best of all: There’s an easy mode.
The Witch Queen sticks the best of Bungie’s creativity right at the front of the experience, limiting the friction new players often feel from trying to wrap their heads around Destiny’s oblique rulebook. There are clear markers leading new players into the story missions, and all of those missions further shape the running, jumping, and shooting basics around inventive twists.
In one jumping puzzle, players need to find the path forward by spotting and shooting glowing nodules which temporarily light up the surrounding area (including any safe landing spots nearby). Another level riffs directly on an old raid mechanic from the first game, sending players through a poisoned environment that places hard limits on movement and ability use. Those limits can be temporarily wiped away by huddling close to large, clearly visible lanterns that dot the environment, but each lantern explodes and is rendered unusable only a short time after being activated.
This way of thinking extends to boss fights and other major encounters as well. Very few set piece moments in The Witch Queen are as simple as “shoot the largest threat until its health is gone.” One of my favorite boss fights deposits players into a large, round, and mostly unlit space with four small chambers jutting out from it. The boss is protected by an invulnerable shield that can be temporarily brought down by destroying targets found in those side chambers, but they’re filled with smaller enemies and can only be lit by the same kind of light nodules from the aforementioned jumping puzzle.
Encounters like these are no exception; they rule the day in The Witch Queen. And all of it is further bolstered by the simply incredible art and sound design from Bungie’s talented team. The vast, new play spaces introduced in this expansion are some of the most jaw-dropping environments that Bungie has crafted to date, and the musical score amplifies the mythic space adventure qualities to an incalculable degree.
Even the one game rule that newcomers should take the time to at least partially understand provides value. Destiny is a loot-driven series, and all the guns and armor you get come with a main “Power” stat. A player’s “Power level” is dictated by the average of all the Power stats together across any equipped weapons and armor. Each Witch Queen story mission ramps up the “recommended Power” — the number your stat should be if you want a nominal challenge — by a few points. So in order to keep up, you need to keep raising your Power level as you progress.
The practical impact of this setup forces players, particularly newer ones, to keep trading up for higher Power gear. And because loot drops are completely random, you end up sampling the full range of space alien shooting tools that Destiny 2 has to offer. The Witch Queen story won’t teach you how to bring you favorite gear along as your Power climbs higher, but it’s one of the clearer rules to comprehend (and mission rewards always include the material you’ll need to upgrade gear).
Of course it’s Bungie’s hope that the moment-to-moment mechanical delights of Witch Queen‘s story missions will send players down the deeper rabbit hole of Destiny 2‘s ongoing game with its seasonal content and weekly/daily activity changes. But the whole thing with this expansion is that none of that other stuff is really necessary. If you just want a thrilling shooter that feels great to play, it’s here and waiting to say hello the moment you sign in.
When ‘Destiny’ was born
It’s a good thing because, unfortunately, Destiny 2 is still fairly terrible about explaining itself. Even just figuring out how to navigate the quest and inventory screens you’ll need to access and succeed at Witch Queen missions comes with a learning curve. Other new features — like the harder “Legendary” versions of each campaign mission, seasonal content, and weapon crafting — will take even more effort to get a handle on.
Still, it’s as gentle and smooth a leap from start screen to cool space fantasy adventures as I’ve seen in a Destiny game since the original launched in 2014. The Witch Queen may not ignite a whole new groundswell of fan interest in Destiny 2, but it’s an absolutely dynamite space magic-fueled first-person shooter on its own that’s permeated at every level by the ineffable Bungie-signature stamp of quality that made Halo such a beast.