Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Michael Schade, CEO of Rockfish Games, the studio behind Everspace 2, which launches in Steam Early Access next month.
Today, I'd like to make a warm shout out to the team at Bungie for Destiny 2: Beyond Light! Even though our "unofficial" punch line for Everspace 2 is "imagine Freelancer and Diablo had a lovechild," Destiny 2 has inspired us in so many ways by making a top-notch, fast-paced sci-fi looter shooter with starfighters.
So while I started looking at the title as a professional to learn from Bungie's excellent art and world design, as well as their rock-solid looter shooter mechanics, it didn't take long for me to become a huge D2 fanboy.
I heard about Destiny when it was announced in 2014 but was occupied with rebooting Rockfish Games as a new PC and console game studio and making sure our first Kickstarter succeeded. I came back to give Destiny 2 a shot when the base game became free-to-play for PlayStation+ members on PS4 and was immediately hooked, going on to binge-play every DLC, and finish all content from two season passes.
"Since I played the three expansions pretty much all at once, it was obvious to me how much of a leap forward Forsaken was in terms of story content and loot, but also in world design and storytelling"
After catching up with the development history of Destiny as a franchise, I realized that I had coincidentally picked a great time to play as Bungie had obviously worked hard to address all sorts of critiques and knocked it out of the park with Forsaken. Since I played the three expansions pretty much all at once, it was obvious to me how much of a leap forward Forsaken was in terms of story content and loot, but also in world design and storytelling.
I recently got back into Destiny 2 to prepare for the launch of Beyond Light, which did not disappoint at all. Bungie's new DLC is an absolutely stunning major expansion for an already massively successful sci-fi looter shooter. I've been having a ton of fun every single day since release, and I'm genuinely impressed with how smooth the launch went. On my trusty PS4 Pro, Europa and Cosmodrome make Destiny 2 look like a new game, and I'm constantly taking screenshots to share them with our level designers and art team for inspiration. Bungie's color and lighting, world design and sense of scale is one of the finest in the entire video games industry, and there is so much to learn from. And yes, that epic soundtrack, goosebumps everywhere...
I mean, just look at these screenshots I took on PS4! Even though there is less detail compared to Destiny 2 on PC, it's like playing a sci-fi shooter with "concept art overpaint shaders" enabled (which might actually become a thing for enabling ray tracing to keep frame rates high while enjoying improved lighting even on less powerful hardware, but I digress).
Notice the horizontal icicles on those cubical structures as a subtle tell that Europa is a place with harsh weather conditions, yet another great new visual effect that has also an impact on gameplay. When a snow blizzard suddenly kicks up in Beyond Light, you can barely see the gun in your hand! You easily lose orientation and just start panic-shooting in the direction of "where red is." Speaking of red, subsurface scattering is some of the finest I've seen in video games so far, and I genuinely wonder what the glowy bits under the ice are all about...
From an environmental storytelling perspective, there's a lot happening here. You'll first notice that we're in a cavern, indicating there might be more to discover under the icy planes of Europa; second, massive structures with familiar details like handrails etc. illustrate how large this place is; third, the sign in the lower right teases a Lost Sector within the vicinity, encouraging you to further explore the area; forth, seeing even bigger structures in the backdrop lets the player visualize that this cavern is connected to the open-world, creating an illusion of a persistent game world even beyond the playable area.
Kudos to Bungie's lighting team. I have no words for how awesome this looks, and it's even more impressive on a big TV with HDR on.
Granted, having an ice planet in a space game is an obvious choice because you can worry less about adding flora and fauna which can make dev costs go through the roof. Especially if handcrafted whereas a 100% proc-gen approach never really delivers on the promise of a living and breathing, planet-wide ecosystem. Speaking of ecosystems that wow, let's step away from the frozen caverns of Europa to have a look at Nessus as a fantastic example of how the team created the illusion of an entire planet covered with a mix of lush flora and mind-bending, high-tech terraforming.
A great example of less is more: Nessus features a stunning planetary biom, based on an extraordinary mix of maybe just a few dozens of beautiful organic props in warm, high-saturated colors in combination with highly-distinctive geometric shapes featuring iconic sci-fi tech hard surface materials. This, plus significantly more game world verticality than any other planet in Destiny 2, defines the planet's unique visual identity. Nessus is so carefully and compellingly designed, the playable area spins an amazing illusion of being on a bizarre planet full of mystery beyond what you can explore.
Note how Vex structures add contrast through hard surface appeal, the geometric shapes and sci-fi details make the beautiful, lush nature of Nessus stand out; you can immediately tell that big things are going on, making you curious to find out more.
If Nessus wasn't bizarre enough on the surface, later during the vanilla Destiny 2 main campaign, you delve into a mesmerizing underground world filled with some challenging platforming puzzles between unstable, time-shifting objects within one of the weirdest settings I've seen in a video game (if you don't want to experience it for yourself, go watch this). The quest around saving a beloved side character being trapped in a never ending time-loop, led by one of the best AI quest givers I can recall, having utterly hilarious banters with your companion Ghost and the person to be rescued, felt like nothing I've played in Destiny so far or any other shooter; yet another great moment where I thought, "Man, this is REALLY good, can't stop playing!"
I could go on for hours about Bungie's excellence in art and world design as well as storytelling -- the story mission in the Prison of Elders is where Destiny 2 is firing on all cylinders like a big-budget blockbuster action movie, except you're right in the action yourself -- but let's talk about gameplay. It's widely said that gunplay in Destiny 2 is some of the best in the FPS genre, so no need to elaborate on that. What surprised me was how seamless solo missions, Lost Sectors, public events, and strikes blend together.
At first, I didn't care about playing with other Guardians, especially as a n00b not too crazy about embarrassing myself as such. Then, I found myself getting side-tracked by public events at the EDZ and clearing lost sectors rather than progressing through the main campaign. Interacting with other players during these smaller events helped me feel comfortable enough to move on and even start trying out strikes, giving a great way for new players, like myself at the time, an early taste of endgame gameplay.
I really dug every beat of the main campaign and numerous side quests in Warmind, Forsaken, and Beyond Light. Story character design and development improved with every expansion. Even the voice acting of side characters is top-notch, featuring some hilarious lines that never get old even after completing a public event or strike beyond counting.
"Even after 120+ hours in Beyond Light, currently sitting at season pass rank 65, I haven't unlocked everything"
Contrary to some early critiques about Beyond Light not featuring enough new content and the main campaign being too short, I continue to enjoy my time with the game. Bungie built on deep, established lore and over 100 hours of story content, bringing back beloved characters and refreshing some old content. While we saw many reused and reskinned assets, what was delivered was plain fun. Even after 120+ hours in Beyond Light, currently sitting at season pass rank 65, I haven't unlocked everything.
Likewise, although many much-loved legendaries were sunsetted, which annoyed quite a few veteran players, it makes perfect sense for any loot-heavy RPG expansion to retire gear when a major MMO add-on drops. I'd played LOTRO for about five years, so I was used to the fact that with every add-on my entire gear became unusable. In Destiny 2 though, dismantling old gear for much-needed resources to infuse new loot with higher power levels felt like everything I had done was contributing to my current experience. Actually, I genuinely enjoy being "forced" to hunt for new gear and try new loadouts while still keeping my precious Exotics and complete Catalysts for that extra oomph.
Stasis, the new Super ability, is another smart addition. This isn't just another icy class ability that primes enemies to be finished with another weapon as seen in other games. Because it has a huge AoE radius and also stuns bosses, Stasis significantly changes how Supers are used efficiently for both long-range and melee attacks, as well as adding options for crowd control or max DPS on a single target depending on your primary goal; this makes Stasis much more tactical than any other long-cooldown Super ability in the game, especially during Strikes where it is most efficient for Guardians trigger their Stasis consecutively.
It doesn't hurt that Stasis looks and sounds absolutely stunning and even has a platforming component as you can cast ice on any (!) surface and use it to reach new heights and attack enemies from where least expected. If Stasis, with its even deeper skill tree, isn't bringing a fundamentally new core gameplay mechanic to the table for all classes in Destiny 2, I don't know what is.
Less prominent than Stasis, but going deep into crafting, the all-new Wrathborn Hunts are another great gameplay mechanic worth analyzing from a game designer perspective. Bungie introduced tweaking drop chances for legendary loot with the Prismatic Caster in Season 11, enabling Guardians to gradually increase their chance for a specific weapon or armor piece by completing bounties and farming special engrams in any world activity. Wrathborn Hunts take this concept even further, now not only can you pick some item you desire from a certain pool, you can even invest to maximize your chance for a "god roll" by grinding special resources, which can be earned through bounties again but also randomly drop from any event.
Since this is a super powerful mechanic to obtain almost exactly the loot item you want, you have to jump through a few hoops before that sweet weapon or armor piece drops with your preferred stats (here's how it works); At first, I was completely overwhelmed, then it clicked for me: Bungie found a way to make every step of the process being worth your time by combining each task with a choice of other activities like completing bounties, strikes, gambit and crucible matches.
The player in me thinks: "Cool, no matter what I do in Beyond Light, it'll always be fun and bring me closer to my next goal (getting that special loot, increasing my power level; unlocking the next season pass rank, etc.)!" From a game design / commercial perspective, I'm thinking: "What a brilliant way to drive player engagement by introducing a new, compelling incentive for playing various parts of the game and reward Guardians for playing together."
Well done everyone at Bungie! If we should ever consider making an online space shooter, I might shoot you an email. But first, I need to increase my power level; heard that new raid in Beyond Light is absolutely bonkers...
Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.