Welcome to the third and final installment of our Game In Progress review for Destiny 2. Over the last several weeks, internet culture editor Clayton Purdom has been grinding his way through Bungie’s massive sequel, and in this final dispatch, he takes on its ultimate challenge: Leviathan.
The entrance to Leviathan, Destiny 2’s raid, looks like a gate to hell. Not the charred and molten hell of Dante, but rather a golden palace of endless honeycombed opulence, a fortress that suggests what corporeal pleasures lured Lucifer out of heaven in the first place. You begin by jogging a surprisingly long boulevard toward a phalanx of guards who merely stand legion, the rare case of an enemy not immediately firing upon you in Destiny—suggesting, intimidatingly, that they have better shit to worry about than you. Eventually, you find your way to the entrance, clambering a mile up to the top of the planet-sized spaceship fortress, and look back toward the place where you originally landed. The planetoid Nessus rises as a soft crescent of green against the inky abyss of space, with that golden entryway cutting a slice of white and gold light through the bottom. You turn toward the entrance. The doors croak open.
Reader, you do not need me to tell you that what lies within is an absolute nightmare, but I am here to tell you that it is. Last Sunday, I gathered five friends of reasonable skill level and experience, two of whom had spent the day poring over walkthroughs and assembling notes in advance, and the majority of whom had completed several Destiny raids before, and attempted to venture to the center of this golden contraption to shoot its steely heart to sparking oblivion. The raid is divided into three specific arenas, after which you take on a boss; at three in the morning, after six hours, we had completed one of those arenas, scampering back to the tower frayed and exhausted and with only a few scant engrams to show for our trouble. I joked that at least we’d unlocked the most legendary engram of all—friendship—but I’m not sure that was even the case. It was more of a sort of shared Stockholm syndrome. The next night we journeyed back in, spent four more hours securing the second room, and returned to the tower to cash in our meager rewards, pained by the knowledge that all of our progress would soon be erased by Destiny’s servers with its weekly reset.
Leviathan has gained a reputation as the most mechanical of Destiny’s raids, each of its rooms a byzantine puzzle designed around the theme of the ship owner’s wanton hedonism. These concepts provided Destiny’s artists with a fresh launchpad for visual invention, and the resulting splendor helps soften the blow of what its designers chose to do with the concept: turning each room into a punishing, glibly unfair exercise in trial-and-error puzzle-solving and instant-death difficulty spikes. The Pleasure Gardens are a gloomy jungle, full of wheezing oboes and ill-advised stealth; the Gauntlet is a glittering Double Dare-style obstacle course built upon hair-trigger communication; the Baths are an all-out war against sweltering golems amid pools of poisonous soap. The final boss is a multidimensional challenge combining elements of all of these—platforming, shooting, shouting the word “blades” to people you’ll probably never meet in real life, apologizing for fucking things up for everyone, and hitting reset a lot. These are not “good” pieces of game design. They break many of the fundamental rules and conventions that guide an engaging and rewarding video game challenge, but that’s also not really the point. A mountain does not owe fairness to its climbers. The reward is being at the top despite that.
As little fun as crawling through that dog-strewn garden was for six hours on a Sunday night, when it was all over, the vaulting roof lit up with fireworks, and I cannot say I didn’t feel in that moment a sense of relief akin to those of other great, difficult games I’ve played in the past. Never mind that this wasn’t the tightly choreographed dance with death of Bloodborne or Ninja Gaiden, nor the diamond-tight memorization of Super Meat Boy—it was fucking over, at least for a second. The flood of relief whetted my appetite to see the raid through to its conclusion, weekly reset be damned.
After the last installment of my review, in which I confessed my shameful inability to get five friends together for a day or two of raiding thus far in life, I received a cavalcade of responses telling me to, well, 1) git gud, thus verifying the thesis of the article, but also 2) join them and their crew on an excursion into the Leviathan. It’s worth noting the volume of people in the latter group, who were eager to dispel the notion of “gamer” toxicity or the unapproachability of Destiny’s endgame death-cult. I spoke anecdotally in that article about the inability of most of my friends to make the leap into full-fledged clan-meeting gamer-dom, despite Destiny’s best intentions, and I can speak, anecdotally again, about the surplus of smart, fair, level-headed people who have found a perfectly normal way to fit that into their lives thanks entirely to the game. The Guided Games system, now out of beta, seems to be pretty smoothly helping people make the leap, too, leading people to hopefully find their way into the same helpful, friendly company I eventually found myself.
I accepted one invitation from a group who said they enjoyed taking new people through Leviathan and could, on a good run, clear the whole thing in 45 minutes, a frankly baffling prospect to someone who days earlier had spent 45 minutes arguing over who should stand on what plate in The Gauntlet. Sure enough, we did it, although it took closer to 90 minutes with them dragging my sorry ass to the finish line. Watching that team work together—and, due to the six-person strictures of the raid design, competently performing more than a few essential functions along the way myself—I got a different sense of the purpose of the raid. Rather than an impossible ordeal or a once-in-a-blue-moon convergence of schedules, it’s a sort of puzzle box to exercise dominion over, its solution never in doubt but its various arbitrary mechanical difficulties each an obstacle to be outsmarted. If games are, as the designer Raph Koster argued in the influential A Theory Of Fun For Game Design, a series of patterns for us to learn and devour, the raid is just a particularly complex pattern for six people to devour at once. Difficulty is never the point; mastery is.
At this point, the raids have been consistently praised for their obtuseness and sense of variation, a set of ever-raised stakes that leads to the increasingly left-field mechanics seen throughout Leviathan. A bit of stealth seems like an interesting variation upon the Destiny format, but a timed, one-strike-and-you’re-out, semi-blind sneaking challenge is like a Mario game turning into Crusader Kings II at the last second. Difficult and unexpected, sure, but why are we here again? On the other hand, slicing through this challenge with the efficiency I did in my second run felt like catching a pass in the end zone against the Seahawks. I may’ve just held out my hands as the ball breezed into them, but damn if it didn’t feel good.
Even better and more rewarding, at least to my disposition, was my second team’s exploration of the Leviathan’s guts. Because this is a spaceship, beneath the ostentatious golden temple of its overworld is a full, completely optional underbelly, a maze of belching vents of steam and pale blue industrial chasms and glowing red tubes that we crawled through like parasites in the guts of some great mechanical beast. The juxtaposition between these glittering halls of wealth and the shadowy pipeworks underneath shows Bungie’s design ethos at its best. While on my first run we slaughtered countless enemies parading through the front door, on my second, we sneaked in through the side, emerging from radiator vents in the challenge rooms and leaving via Indiana Jones-style secret passages.
While a lot of these pathways were gated by the sort of obtuse logic that dominates the raid, it still showed what a bolder but more tightly conscripted level looked like in Destiny. Ever since players got through the first game’s original raid, they’ve been clamoring for the main game to take more cues from the boldness presented there. But for all its improvements, Destiny 2’s player-friendly level design still dictates that everything be an elaborately decorated hallway. After all this time, Leviathan’s feeling of traversing an actual three-dimensional space, let alone one full of richly designed narrative flourishes, is bracing. It’d be nice to feel it sooner, and more frequently.
Ultimately, I still think the raids are an almost indescribably weird thing for the game to foist upon its players as the ultimate goal to grind toward. The Leviathan is beautiful and terrible, rewarding and infuriating—the utmost manifestation of Destiny’s ethos. Ask 10 Destiny players what they’d change about the game, and you’ll get 10 different answers; it’s a sort of Rorschach test of game design, its ambition and playability sucking players in but leaving them invariably displeased despite (or because of) all their investment. And your beefs may say more about you than they do about Destiny. I’d love to see its flirtation with vehicle-based combat in the single-player campaign fleshed out into sweeping, emergent battlefields, but then, I’d also probably rather be playing Halo 3. I’d love its dungeon-crawling mid-game grind to lead to an actual dungeon to crawl through, but then, I’m more at home with a JRPG than an MMO. It’s deeply flawed but compulsively playable, beautifully designed but cynical, childish and sublime, full of tactile weaponry of unsurpassed character and groan-worthy characters of grating dialogue, a fantasy world of masterful vision and a broken Frankenstein’s monster of different genres.
After the triumphs of Halo, Bungie set out to make the ultimate video game, and in a way it has. It’s a singular document of what’s good and bad about the medium, full of promise it’ll probably never achieve and artistry of the sort you’ve never dreamed. I will, in other words, see you in December, when they’ll release Destiny 2’s first round of downloadable content, and we can complain about this shit all over again.