For the most part, the success of "Destiny 2" is as simple as the fact that Bungie increases the drip.
I could play the "Halo" studio's 2014 shooter for hours and raise the power level of my exotically masked Guardian next to none. I could run and triple-jump the same route five times to scavenge upgrade materials, I could patiently whittle away the health bars of five bullet sponge bosses, I could go back and forth with fellow Guardians in the player-vs.-player Crucible arena for five matches — and I'd have maybe one piece of better, level-boosting gear to show for it. Progressing through "Destiny" felt like floating through space with only the rarest flicker of propulsion.
Two years of expansions like "The Dark Below" and "The Taken King" seemed to ease the process. But while better gear did become less elusive, the sudden rise of my Guardian's level upon the expansions' release was mostly superficial: Bungie just raised the level cap, so the resulting power vacuum suggested a burst of progress while maintaining a relative status quo. The weightless feeling remained, and "Destiny's" ever-changing economy of marks and shards and motes didn't diminish that feeling, either.
By the time of final expansion "Rise of Iron" a year ago, I gave up the grind, the extra time and effort I surrendered in hope of receiving some intangible thing. Not only did I no longer have cause to expect that thing, but after 80 hours (which is paltry in comparison to some players), I no longer knew why I wanted that thing in the first place. Online and open-ended, "Destiny" wants to be the last game you will ever play — but if it is, it's only because "Destiny" deconstructs why you play games in the first place. It's only because "Destiny" forces you to ask yourself, "What's the point?"
The success of "Destiny 2" is that it does a much better job answering that question.
I can play this sequel for hours and raise my Guardian's power by five levels guaranteed. And in the process, I can all but disregard upgrade materials. I can shoot bosses and see their health deplete at an encouraging rate. I can play Crucible matches and just enjoy the mayhem. Progressing through "Destiny 2" feels like riding a spaceship — one I actually want to be on.
There's more to the journey than better gear, though. Storywise, "Destiny 2" inherits The Light, The Last City and the other placeholder nouns from the first game's frictionless space opera. But like "The Taken King," the sequel orders them into a basic but passable revenge plot. This one stars The Red Legion, an elite army of the hulking Cabal, who were put to disappointingly low use in the first game despite their tiny heads being so fun to snipe for bonus damage. But when The Red Legion attacks The Last City and steals The Light, you get a compensatory glut of shooting galleries.
Also returning are the buggy Fallen, the decaying Hive, the robotic Vex and the four races' inky doppelgangers from "The Taken King," The Taken. The lack of a new fifth race disappoints, however, as does the addition of only two new variants, a Cabal berserker that dual-wields swords and another Cabal whose electronic shield can be disabled with a few bull's-eyes. Bungie's usually solid enemy AI also staggers more often in "Destiny 2": A few clusters of Vex, including one highly powered boss, didn't turn hostile even as I emptied clip after clip into their vulnerable bellies.
The difficulty level of the sequel drops, too. Though it works in some distracting puzzles and platforming, the segments aren't nearly as involving as those of the first "Destiny's" raids. Bungie is more ambitious with the sequel's presentation, introducing four visually arresting new hub worlds on which to slaughter the aliens alone or with friends or strangers. It also sets the action to a fantastic soundtrack of pulsing electronic sounds and stirring strings, though the latter is a bit overdone when it accompanies you bloodying a bunch of Cabal dogs after The Last City falls.
Shooting was one aspect of "Destiny" that didn't need changing, and Bungie indeed maintains its inscrutable thrill. Somehow, after 30 hours with its sequel, that thrill persists. Somehow, the fiery clang of its guns, the flash of their firing and the rumbling of my controller feel, in concert, the way I imagine it feels to shoot a gun called Vigilance Wing or Skyburner's Oath. And somehow, when my precision shots crumple the gleaming frames of the Vex and raise geysers of alien fluid from the collared armor of headless Cabal, it's far more satisfying than something so rote should be.
That shooting is rote as ever in "Destiny 2," but the way Bungie structures it — and the game's leveling system — is refreshingly streamlined. Along with the main campaign are the new adventures, effectively sidequests, which see your Guardian tie up loose ends for class leaders Cayde-6, Zavala and Ikora, as well as a cast of new friendlies introduced by the sequel. Patrols and public events also return to provide a quicker pathway to rewards. The events are far more frequent, thankfully, and joined by a new public target system that works the same way.
In the first "Destiny," converting all those bullets into better gear meant navigating a web of materials and currencies. In "Destiny 2," it's much less complicated. Your Guardian simply levels up with each class leader and friendly by completing activities on their world and collecting materials from it. Ditto Crucible master Lord Shaxx and his newly four-on-four arena, another welcome change. The smaller rosters at once make teamwork more urgent and room-clearing chains of Guardian super moves more rare.
Meanwhile, high-end guns and armor drop at a greatly increased rate from enemies, engrams and completed activities. And dismantling yesterday's gear gives you more than enough gun parts and legendary shards to level up speedily with the quartermaster and clean out Xur's weekly stock. No more blue guns from purple engrams. No more grinding for randomly awarded Strange Coins.
With this systemic overhaul, the bargain that is playing "Destiny 2" becomes more transparent than that of the first game. Bungie is more straightforwardly saying what you give and what you get, and the balance seems much fairer. It's the same matter-of-fact ethos that gave us names like The Light and The Last City. In "Destiny 2," it's the same fixed gaze at the fourth wall that gives us a Red Legion bodyguard before the final boss named Final Guard — and then, that boss taunting you with the first game's tagline: "I have become legend."
But, by continuing to live at the surface level in "Destiny 2," Bungie still can't stop your own gaze from turning inward. Again, I ask myself, "What's the point?"
After 80 hours with the first "Destiny" and 30 with its sequel, I'm agnostic about the answer. There's still the raids, the Trials of the Nine, the Nightfall Strikes. And thanks to a new matchmaking system for those modes, I can experience them on PlayStation 4 even though my friends play on Xbox One. But the system's still in beta, and I've been unable to join a match so far.
When I can, I suppose those modes, and their veneer of purpose, will chase away the empty feeling that ensues when the thrill of shooting aliens and looting their ravaged environs temporarily fades. And when their purpose fades, too, "Destiny 2" will pull me back in with an expansion, and another, and another. It will continue giving me things, and I will continue giving it my time, shooting and leveling up forever as Bungie and Activision deigned when they first conceived "Destiny," the last game you will ever play.
And I will continue to question why. I will continue to wonder where this spaceship is going.
If you play
GAME: "Destiny 2"
TL;DR: Steadier progression and a meatier story, along with several less noticeable improvements to the "Destiny" machine, make this sequel a more purely enjoyable experience than Bungie's divisive 2014 shooter.
GENRE: Action adventure
CONTENT RATING: Teen for blood, language and violence
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (also available on Xbox One and, on Oct. 24, Microsoft Windows)
PLAY: Single player, online co-op and multiplayer
DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of the "Destiny 2" collector's edition from Activision and played the game for about 30 hours prior to writing this review.