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Destiny 2’s latest approach to difficulty is more frustrating than fun

Between Contest and Grandmaster, I haven’t enjoyed “hard” content in over a year

Destiny: Rise of Iron - Stormcaller in raid Bungie/Activision
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Bungie has changed the way it makes content more challenging in Destiny over the years, especially in raids and its Nightfall Strikes. In the beginning, Bungie increased difficulty by making fights more complicated. But in the past few years, Bungie has kept fights the same while making player characters weaker.

This new approach is often frustrating, as it takes away the joy of rising to meet a new challenge.

The difference between Contest and Hard Mode

The shade of Oryx, The Taken King, from the original Destiny
Image: Bungie

Bungie introduced Contest mode with the Crown of Sorrow raid in 2019. The studio also introduced the Grandmaster difficulty for Nightfall Strikes earlier this year. Both of these difficulties do more or less the same thing: no matter the player’s level going in, Contest and Grandmaster cap players well below the difficulty level of the activity.

For example, in Season of Arrivals, Grandmaster Nightfalls offer enemies at Power level 1100. But Guardians have their power capped at 1075, meaning they’re always at a disadvantage. Contest mode only applies to the first 24 hours of a new raid’s release, and sets an even playing field for all players.

In the original Destiny, Bungie shipped new raids and then added a Hard Mode difficulty a few weeks later. The studio continued this design in Destiny 2 with the Leviathan raid, adding a Prestige mode a few weeks after launch.

Prestige and Hard Mode made enemies a bit tougher, but also increased the mechanical difficulty of each boss fight. Destiny raids often allow for some slack — a failure by a single member here or there. The harder difficulty modes tighten some of that up, requiring good and safe play, yes, but also a higher tier of mechanical proficiency from all players.

The Golgoroth fight in the middle of the King’s Fall raid in Destiny: The Taken King involves a group of players jumping into a pit to shoot a giant Ogre in the stomach. Normally, players just shoot at Golgoroth until the timer runs out, then they leave the pool and repeat the fight. The Hard Mode adds the Unstable Light mechanic, which causes one party member to explode after a short countdown — harming anyone nearby.

The added mechanic doesn’t drastically change the fight, but it does require players to pay more attention and move out of the group if they’re chosen. All of Destiny’s more complex raid fights had similar additions on Hard. Each one felt like a new hurdle to jump over, rather than a burden to bear.

Less fun to overcome

Destiny: Rise of Iron - Heroic raid
The Wrath of the Machine raid in the original Destiny

When I beat something difficult in a video game, like that one Sekiro boss that kept giving me trouble, I feel elated. That’s how I should feel when I conquer something hard. But in my recent forays into Destiny 2’s Grandmaster difficulty, I just feel relieved when it’s over. Grandmaster doesn’t reduce the margin of error, it increases the likelihood for random bullshit. And it’s not the first time the design team has gone down this road.

I had a miserable experience with the Crown of Sorrow raid on Contest last year. After over 12 hours of playing, mostly on the final boss, my raid team was at each others’ throats. When the 24 hours expired and Contest mode finally dropped, we beat Gahlran in under an hour. We’d mastered the boss’ mechanics hours ago, but kept losing players to random, one-shot kills. It was an infuriating way to spend so much time in a game I love.

Bungie is continuing this strategy with Grandmaster Nightfalls. The first Grandmaster Nightfall I ever played was The Corrupted, an extremely long Strike added to Destiny 2 during Forsaken. It took my squad — as well as several streamers — over 10 hours to complete the Strike on the Grandmaster difficulty. On normal and non-Grandmaster difficulties, the strike takes about 20-40 minutes.

The Grandmaster version offers sniper enemies that kill in a single hit, swarms of Thrall that can melee kill you very quickly, and Champion enemies that constantly regenerate health. There is also a modifier that allows the boss’ boop ability — where she knocks you up in the air and tosses you backward — to fling you extra far, making certain parts of the fight nightmarishly difficult. Worse, Grandmaster only gives players a certain number of revives, and immediately kicks everyone back to Orbit if the entire team dies. Getting all the way to the boss only to wipe and have to start over was a frequent and frustrating occurrence.

The Grandmaster Nightfalls have since been much easier, but each is still more frustrating than fun.

Part of what makes this new difficulty approach so frustrating is remembering how much I used to love conquering Hard and Prestige Mode. Discovering a new Destiny raid and learning its mechanics is one of my favorite things in any video game. Adjusting old strategies to meet new, tougher requirements in Hard Mode is a close second.

Running through King’s Fall Hard Mode in the original Destiny strains me every time, but there’s nothing more satisfying than completing it with a well-oiled raid team. When you master the Hard mechanics, you make something you once thought impossible look like a piece of cake. It’s satisfying, and most importantly, it’s fun.

No matter how seasoned my Grandmaster team is, we’ll still fall to unpreventable frustrations. Added mechanics are concrete in a boss fight: you do it right or you lose, there’s no middle ground. But at least success is in my hands. Bungie’s latest approach takes power out of the hands of the player, and it makes victory that much harder to celebrate.

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