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Destiny 2: The Final Shape Asks the Big Questions

Those who have crossed the threshold of death and returned to tell the tale describe a bright light, a warm embrace, or a peaceful out-of-body experience. They speak of seeing their loved ones, or at least feeling a familial presence, and of an end to physical pain. A Buddhist might recognize such a moment as an end to dukkha, the universal suffering that comes with material existence, and finding something like nirvana. To cast aside the everyday, selfish needs of the body and be greeted by another realm beyond the known is a common theme in fantasy, and “Destiny 2: The Final Shape” explores this in its own way.

The original “Destiny,” released in 2014, begins with the arrival of the mysterious Traveler — a silent spherical machine god with the ability to terraform planets, bestow magical powers, and usher in an age of technological prosperity for the civilization it happens to favor in a given era. Centuries later, a small flying avatar of this Traveler, called a Ghost, finds a human skeleton in the rusted remains of what was once a car in Old Russia. The Ghost resurrects this pile of bones, and the player’s created character is born: the Guardian, a deathless human with the capacity to wield the Traveler’s Light. And with no memory of their former life.

A lot has happened in the near-decade since “Destiny” came out. Change is the great constant, and we roll with it, but every so often, we pause and take a minute to reflect on where we’ve been and what it’s all meant. And if you’ve spent thousands of hours playing the same video game across careers and births and losses and various world-altering events, that game is bound to accumulate meaning. “Destiny” and “Destiny 2” have had their ups and downs, and I’m not sure someone playing the original story campaign in 2014 would recognize, say, the acclaimed “Witch Queen” expansion in 2022 or the divisive “Lightfall” in ’23. It’s not the same game it was in 2014 or 2017. Nor are the people who play it the same audience they were ten years ago.

This is true for the game’s large cast of non-player characters, too. Commander Zavala, voiced by Keith David in the late Lance Reddick’s stead, is having a crisis of faith, feeling abandoned by the god he’s served for centuries. Ikora Rey (Mara Junot), a student of both death and resurrection, has grown world-weary and suspicious after so much loss and betrayal. Crow (Brandon O’Neill), formerly known as Prince Uldren Sov before his rebirth as a Guardian, wrestles with the tension between who he once was — and who he murdered — in a past life, and how best to do right by the people around him in the present. Finally, Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion), the lovable rogue Uldren killed back in 2018’s “Destiny 2: Forsaken,” is alive again despite the loss of his Ghost (and therefore the Traveler’s gift of immortality).

Cayde remembers what it was like to die and return to the Traveler’s Light, he says. He remembers the warmth, the peacefulness of that place, and being reunited with Sundance, his Ghost. The Traveler doesn’t speak to us in “Destiny,” but our Ghosts do, and Cayde believes it’s all connected anyhow: the Guardians, their Ghosts, the Traveler, the Light. Separateness, in other words, is an illusion; we’re all one. This belief alone is our common ground with the Witness (Brett Dalton), a many-armed god seeking to dominate and control all life in the universe.

We look for comfort and meaning in the familiar, finding certain patterns and shapes over and over — in nature, in mythology, in art. And “Destiny” is a big, gloriously weird tapestry of hard sci-fi and fantasy, inspired by everything from “Star Wars” and “2001” to “True Detective” and ancient Mesopotamian myth. Often, the game can be pretty opaque, while other times it’s a little obvious and simplistic in how it presents its concepts. (This is a saga of concrete Light and Darkness, after all.) But its final conflict is straightforward enough. A titan of smoke and shadow has imprisoned whole civilizations within its hivemind, bending victims’ wills to whatever purpose it sees fit and turning their bodies to stone. Humanity is its next target, it’s here, and the power of the Traveler is our only hope to stop it.

In last year’s expansion, the Witness tore a great triangular hole in the Traveler, and “The Final Shape” takes place almost entirely inside it. This leads to a plane of reality called the Pale Heart, a “surreal domain of memory,” according to the in-game map of our solar system. Cayde and his mentor once swapped theories for what might be inside the mysterious machine floating above the Earth. “Nothing,” said Cayde-6. To which his mentor countered: “Everything.” And he was just about right. The Traveler’s interior is cosmically, impossibly vast. Still, its terrain is also familiar to players who have played the original “Destiny” or the original “Destiny 2” campaign (which has been inaccessible since 2020). For some developers, this would be a ludicrous swing. But Bungie has been building worlds for a long time, and these environments are breathtaking in a way that “Destiny” hasn’t been since I first laid eyes on the European Dead Zone and Nessus seven years ago. The studio’s artists have set a new bar for themselves with the Pale Heart, a place I suspect I’ll be spending a lot more time in as the year goes on.

If “Lightfall” was a mess of proper nouns that lacked context, “The Final Shape” is a narrative triumph by comparison, doing its very best to bring closure to a decade’s worth of questions, conflicts, and player expectations. Where it stumbles on occasion is in its nature as a living game that unfolds over time. Some of the big story beats count on you having played the 2017 Red War campaign, or “Forsaken,” or the ongoing seasonal missions. And it strikes me as odd that some of the best moments in the “Final Shape” quest take place after you’ve beaten the campaign proper; the final fight against the Witness didn’t unlock till four days after the expansion, when the most hardcore players finally cleared the new six-person raid. But maybe that’s par for the course with a game like “Destiny 2” or “The Elder Scrolls Online,” where the developers aim to not only tell a story but to forge a hobby that people will dedicate thousands of precious hours to — and, on occasion, feel as though their time has been well spent.

I was surprised by the relatively low cost of victory, given how “Destiny 2” began with the Red War and “Forsaken.” There’s a heroic death I saw coming, and yet another character’s sacrifice reverses it almost immediately, leaving the status quo more or less intact. The Earth is safe and sound; the Tower and the Last City still stand; the Traveler and its Ghosts endure. I had a hunch we would lose at least one of these, especially once Cayde brought up that the Guardians’ oath is all about sacrifice in the name of the greater good.

The writing and performances shine throughout; David, Fillion, Junot, and O’Neill are brilliant in their portrayals of grief, even in a world where the dear departed can return from the afterlife for one last hurrah. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to “Destiny,” and Cayde in particular has always been one to lighten the mood, but the “Destiny 2” of today is a game that fully believes in itself. And, even though this closes the book on the Witness, there’s plenty of life and mystery left in Bungie’s shared-world shooter.

“It’s going to be very fun to play,” a “Destiny” developer told me in mid-2013, months after the first game’s unveiling. For nearly ten years, that claim has held true, with levels like the Vault of Glass raid, the Prophecy dungeon, the “Witch Queen” boss battle, and now the 12-player “Excision” mission taking the game to new heights. Shooting monsters with your friends is invariably a good time. There have been some dark periods, and players have come and gone. My interest has certainly waxed and waned over the years. But “Final Shape” feels fresh and inviting in a way that the series hasn’t since — well, since Cayde’s death in 2018.

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