I’ve been playing Destiny and Destiny 2 since all the way back in 2014. I’d say I’ve participated in pretty much everything that Bungie have offered across these two games and by and large I had a great time doing it. But over the last couple of weeks I’ve tried out The Division for the first time and it’s absolutely blown me away.
There are a variety of reasons why The Division stacks up so well against Destiny 2 and it starts from the ground up. Lets just get this out of the way: Destiny 2‘s core gameplay mechanics are rock solid. Bungie know how to produce quality gunplay and for all it’s content and narrative flaws, Destiny 2 still feels great to play. However, the shoot, loot and repeat gameplay cycle can only take you so far; you need something more…
Narrative And World Building
There are (or were…) a legion of Destiny content creators on YouTube who will tell you that Destiny has a rich world that is replete with fascinating tales of old glory and tantalising mysteries. What they won’t be able to tell you is at what point any of the hard work that Bungie put into the world building ever properly comes across in the actual game itself. Destiny takes the player far into the future to a post apocalyptic solar system that’s beset by all manner of alien monstrocities. It’s not a world that’s particularly easy to relate to so the developers need to work harder to put you in those shoes and make you feel like part of the world. Unfortunately it feels like Bungie spent more time writing jokes for Nathan Fillion to deliver as Cayde-6 instead of trying to write immersive dialogue to actually deliver the backstory to us.
The Division isn’t going to win any awards for the quality of the narrative (although unlike Destiny it was actually competent and coherent) but the world building is actually pretty great. Ubisoft obviously have a huge advantage over Bungie in this area as a plague ridden, lawless New York is a lot easier to conceptualise and relate to than space wizards fighting monsters in the future. On the other hand, because it is less fantastical it has less potential for a great escapist, fantasy. Fortunately The Division absolutely nails the world building in ways Bungie could seriously learn from. The game is set in a modern day version of New York where Manhattan is essentially a quarantine zone with almost no police presence and very little in the way of a functional emergency response. You play an agent sent in to sort the mess out and find the perpetrator. The story missions go a long way to setting up the antagonist factions but where The Division really succeeds is with the map itself.
Map And Level Design
Destiny 2 allows players to travel all over the Solar System to explore and fight on distant worlds. Sounds cool? Unfortunately it translates to wandering around a sparsely populated planet with yellow grass and then watching a loading screen until you get to a new sparsely populated planet with red grass. The exception is the wonderfully realised Oil Rig Arcology on Saturn’s moon, Titan. Although travelling on and off world is still just a loading screen. It’s the travel between planets and into and out of the safe/social zones that completely ejects me from the immersion of the world. There is practically zero fluidity in traversing the environment so you constantly feel like you are being kicked out of the experience.
The Division keeps you in the saddle at all times. The map is one, extremely detailed and beautifully dense location that feels awesome to just wander about in. There aren’t any loading screens unless you choose to fast travel between safe houses. Even when you enter the main safe zone the game simply forces you to walk through the lobby for a few seconds as it prepares the social space. This continual, in game presence keeps you as the player in the world. Even when we come to the incredible ‘Dark Zone’ the transition is as easy as climbing over a fence. The best feature of this map though is that it is jam packed with things to do. Not only that but with every activity that you clear the streets get a little bit safer as the rioters or other undesirable characters get neutralised by your character. This is a superb way to marry the gameplay elements of the missions, side missions and encounters you complete with the artistic presentation of the city as a lawless mess that you’re gradually fixing.
End Game Content
I’m a huge fan of the experience that a raid in Destiny 1 or 2 can provide. Unfortunately I’m not a massive fan of requiring six friends to actually participate in them. Bungie have provided a matchmaking facility but good luck finding 5 people who are able to communicate effectively enough to get through an entire raid’s puzzle fights. You’ll also be waiting a hell of a longtime to get that potential team together too. Even on the Nightfall activities which only require two other players it’s a bit of a dejecting experience to stare blankly at a matchmaking screen for twenty minutes. The real issue is that there just isn’t very much to do. You pretty much have repeatable side story missions, repeatable strikes and raids and then you have PvP in the crucible. And all of it for gear with a higher number next to it. Or you could always just go for a few cheeky micro-transactions and buy your gear instead…
Where Destiny 2 literally gives you a weekly checklist of things to do in the game The Division gradually builds a buffet of gameplay options for players as they level up. When I first loaded up The Division there were story missions, side missions and mini missions to complete on the map. I thought this was a decent amount of content to keep me playing and I pretty much thought I understood The Division. But as I levelled up more and more game mechanics were unlocked and new ways to play the game opened up. Upon reaching what I thought was the maximum level (30) I found that I instead was now ‘World Tier One.’ Now, in addition to the map based missions there are now PvP options, PvE horde modes, a procedurally generated system of dungeons to crawl, daily and weekly challenges, raid like incursions and, of course, The Dark Zone. All of these activities matchmake pretty well and the Dark Zone in particular actually marries the function of matchmaking with the actual tense gameplay of being in the Dark Zone. If I go in alone and come across another player I have the option to join up in a squad, attack the other player or to work together but stay in separate squads so that betrayal can still occur. Its a superb way to make for extremely tense gameplay but also allow people to matchmake as they play the game.
I understand The Division wasn’t always this jam packed with content and it has taken its time to grow into what it is today. But Destiny 2 was supposed to be the tried and tested, veteran and innovator of the genre. But it’s haemorrhaging players as they grow bored of the same old song whilst The Division is racking up new players like myself who are now very excited for The Division 2.