The Witch Queen has been great for Destiny 2, but the games core content needs help

I said in my Destiny 2: The Witch Queen review that, however positive my early impressions, there was no way of knowing how I’d feel about the expansion after a few months. Reader, it has been a few months, and I feel good. We’re now just weeks away from the end of the Season of the Risen which launched alongside the expansion, and it’s still in rare form. I’m a notoriously casual player among my clanmates – which is to say, I also play other games – and even I still feel a genuine itch to hop on Destiny 2 and stay caught up on the story, craft some weapons, or just run a few raids. The Witch Queen has been a great, lasting addition, and the Season of the Risen was a fantastic way to kick off Year 5. My biggest concern is that almost every time I set foot outside of the newest content, my enjoyment falls off a cliff.  

See, The Witch Queen was the first release in nearly a year that actually imposed a big Power grind. For the past few seasons, the Power increase was reduced to just 10 levels that you could knock out in an instant or, at end game, passively climb up the pinnacle Power ladder. But with a zillion levels to grind out on multiple characters, I actually had to dip into Destiny 2’s core playlists – Vanguard Ops, Crucible, and Gambit – much more over the past few months, and it has not been great. 

For one, we’re once again feeling the limits of Power as a goal to pursue and as a system of progression, in a way that we haven’t since the seasonal Power gap was reduced. If anything, the big Power grind feels worse after some time away from it. The seasonal Power reduction always seemed like tacit acknowledgement of the system’s limits as well as patchwork harm reduction to tide us over until bigger changes – changes which still haven’t come and, to my knowledge, haven’t even been mentioned since a vague teaser like two years ago. I maintain that Power is basically a “you must be this tall to ride” sign that Destiny fundamentally doesn’t need. It is, at best, an inoffensive but forgettable excuse to Make Numbers Bigger. And that’s just the reward side of the game. However, dipping back into the moment-to-moment gameplay experience for Destiny 2’s core playlists to grind Power wasn’t always stellar either.  

A story in three playlists  

Destiny 2

(Image credit: Bungie)

Hell may have frozen over, because I’m somehow most optimistic about the Crucible, though I admit I’m not the PvP regular I once was. Trials of Osiris finally has a decent option for solo players, hardcore Trials players are getting better post-Flawless rewards, and the sandbox is due for another major shakeup which sounds promising on paper, especially the limits on special ammo. The Crucible feels reasonably balanced apart from a few busted Exotics and combos which are already on the chopping block. If we can get updated Iron Banner loot on par with the Trials system, boosts to neglected subclasses, and some more frickin’ maps, I think PvP will be OK. 

To the surprise of no one, Gambit is probably in the worst shape of all the core playlists. Remember when Gambit was fun? I do. It was a brief but glorious time in the Forsaken era. Another core playlist! Competitive PvE, something we’ve always wanted! How young we were. Gambit has been so frustrating for so long that it feels like everyone’s understandably written it off. I guess Bungie hasn’t, but while it is encouraging to see the studio poking at the mode through experimental Gambit Labs, the Witch Queen’s Gambit revamp kind of made everything worse. 

In the storied history of players complaining about live service games, these are definitely among the more positive gripes.

For my money, Gambit’s biggest problems have always been overabundant heavy ammo and overpowered Invaders. Early invasions have been slightly blunted, but there’s more heavy ammo than ever and the Primeval boss phase is still a non-stop Invader clown fiesta. I’m praying for a Gambit Lab variant that straight-up removes all heavy ammo just to see if the grass is truly greener without it. 

It doesn’t help that we didn’t get any new Gambit maps. At least the Vanguard playlist got some nice additions this year, albeit nothing so enticing that I want to run more than a few Strikes a week at most. The Witch Queen campaign added a couple good Strikes, and Bungie’s decision to fold in the old Battlegrounds activities feels like a smart move for variety. There are some unique weapons to pursue, even if they can be incredibly rare or time-consuming to get, and the vendor rewards are… there. Sort of. I do think normal Strikes are in a better place than they were last year, though I still miss the Strike scoring from the original Destiny and I think there’s a ridiculous gulf between normal, baby mode Strikes and Nightfall Strikes. Incidentally, I think Nightfalls are showing their age the most in large part because of how hard they push Champions.

Champions of what  

Destiny 2 The Witch Queen

(Image credit: Bungie)

The talk of the Destiny community lately has been Champion fatigue. People are getting tired of building loadouts around the few weapons that can counter the Champion types in specific activities, especially the high-ranking Nightfalls which have been positioned as the hardest content in the game. This was exacerbated by the Master versions of Wellspring and the Vow of the Disciple raid in the Witch Queen – which, go figure, are basically the same activities with more Champions and a bigger Power number. That said, I think the base issue is that the many builds unlocked by the Void 3.0 skill overhaul are so fun that not using them due to Champions is an enormous buzzkill. This has driven a lot of hate toward Champions and Nightfalls this season, and I don’t think it’s undeserved. 

If Champions are going to stay the way they are, we desperately need more ways to counter them

Champions are the product of an older combat sandbox, and they just don’t mesh well with our increasingly dynamic play styles. Character customization has been blown wide open, and it’ll only get better with the pending release of Solar 3.0 and Arc 3.0. But I know in the back of my mind that the majority of new builds I create won’t be competitive against Champions and therefore won’t be usable in most end game activities, especially Nightfalls. Bungie is telling us to have fun with our reworked elements, and the sandbox team’s doing a great job with them, but Champions keep showing up to kick over the sand castles we so painstakingly build. The more cool stuff Bungie gives us, the more we reluctantly have to give up when the Champions come out. Surely Destiny’s end game should demand and reward careful build-crafting, not condense it into rock-paper-scissors. 

This extends to more than just subclasses, too. The Witch Queen also gave us weapon crafting, and now that we’ve got better pattern drop rates and increased material caps, it’s really grown on me as an auxiliary end game goal. Compared to the Power grind, making the best guns by spending time using those guns feels much more in tune with how people actually play Destiny 2. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed pursuing perfect versions of the seasonal and raid weapons I like the most. The only problem is that I can’t use most of them against Champions because there are only so many anti-Champion mods on the seasonal Artifact. Plus some of them, namely overload SMGs and auto rifles, just demonstrably suck and feel terrible to use. Letting us unlock the entire Artifact helped a bit, but if Champions are going to stay the way they are, we desperately need more ways to counter them. Otherwise, all our shiny new weapons will continue to go underutilized. 

A good problem to have 

Destiny 2

(Image credit: Bungie)

In the storied history of players complaining about live service games, these are definitely among the more positive gripes. It’s backhanded praise, really. Destiny 2’s newest content is so refreshing that the core playlists feel old and busted by comparison, and the RPG side of the game has become so fun that what used to pass for end game difficulty now feels frustratingly limiting. I guess these are kind of good problems to have – Destiny as a whole has arguably never been in a better spot two months after an expansion – but they’re still problems.

Fortunately, The Witch Queen is so damn good that in addition to putting a spotlight on these issues, it shows us how some of them might be addressed. The difficulty of the expansion’s Legendary campaign was perfectly tuned, if a bit Champion-heavy, and feels like a good baseline experience for repeatable end game content to build on. If I could run a bunch of Strikes on par with that campaign for decent loot, I definitely would. 

Speaking of which, you know what’s better than Champions? The Hive Light-bearers also introduced in the new campaign. Like Champions, these Guardian doppelgangers add central threats to PvE encounters that you have to attack carefully. But unlike Champions, they don’t pigeonhole your entire build. I’m not saying Hive Guardians should be added to every activity – that probably wouldn’t work for lore reasons, among others – but I think the way players can approach them is a much healthier model for what an elite, end game enemy can look like. 

I’ll take basically anything that resolves the disconnect between build-crafting and core end game content. I think that would really help players enjoy… well, the whole game honestly, but especially the Vanguard playlist. That won’t save Gambit, of course, but at this point I honestly don’t know what would save Gambit. Maybe the second coming of Christ. 

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