Destiny 2: The Witch Queen’s campaign is about going backward. Bungie helped make a name for itself with its Halo campaigns, and now it’s evoking those — and those of other beloved first-person shooter campaigns like 2016’s Doom reboot — to promote Destiny 2’s upcoming expansion.
Unlike past Destiny campaigns, and more like dedicated first-person shooter campaigns, The Witch Queen promises story-focused missions that feature large scale battles mixed with exploration.
“We call this the ‘definitively Destiny campaign,’” said Joe Blackburn, Destiny 2’s game director, in an interview with Polygon. “But we’re bringing that out, you know, to players who might have just picked up Destiny  and just finished New Light. [We’re thinking], how can we get that experience to them in a way that is not going to totally trounce them and feel like, ‘Oh, my God, this game is so hard; I’ll never be able to play it,’ but feels like it’s cut from the same cloth? And so as you finish the campaign, and you’ve gone through a bunch of those experiences, and you start getting into things like dungeons, or raids, or offensives, or you know, secret missions, all that stuff feels more familiar to you; it feels like the same game.”
“When we compare it to something like a Doom or Halo, it’s that more epic single-player experience where those missions can kind of really [come into their own], which hasn’t been as much of a focus in the last two years until now,” said project lead Blake Battle.
As a longtime endgame Destiny player, it was easy to see those touches in small places during The Witch Queen campaign’s second mission, which I watched the entirety of for a recent preview. The game funnels you in certain directions, but Bungie seems OK with players finding their own way, or discovering secrets naturally. It’s certainly a more guided experience than the mystery-heavy raids and dungeons, but even watching the mission play out in front of me, it felt like Bungie was testing the waters with more complex ideas in what is typically a simple activity.
But still, Destiny has a major gap between casual and hardcore players, and getting players into the endgame is a difficult task. However, it’s one that potentially benefits all players, as it allows for a stronger narrative connection between endgame experiences and the campaign.
Knowing that Blackburn wouldn’t spoil the expansion’s upcoming raid, I asked him about the gap between campaign and raid bosses. Expansion main villains, like Eramis from Beyond Light, often meet their end in the campaign, so story-only players get a satisfying conclusion. Bungie has departed from this approach in the past, with Oryx serving as the raid boss for both the King’s Fall raid and The Taken King expansion, or even Riven serving as the Last Wish raid boss after pulling the strings in Forsaken (although, even in Forsaken, Uldren met his end in the campaign after being advertised as the villain). But facing a boss that’s never seen in the main campaign’s story (i.e., The Sanctified Mind in Garden of Salvation) can make the raid feel like a side activity, rather than the culmination of an expansion.
Blackburn told me it’s a complex issue, and something Bungie is always trying to solve. How do you give players who don’t take part in raids a satisfying end to an expansion while also tying the narrative into something a large chunk of players will never experience? You have to increase the number of players who engage in those more complex activities, otherwise half of the audience will always feel unsatisfied.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re on this journey to this epic raid that you’ve talked about, and you’re going up steps, you’re going up steps, and then suddenly, there’s a big canyon and the rope bridge is out,” said Blackburn. “And then you’re like, ‘how do I do this?’ And everyone’s like ‘you just gotta jump,’ and you’ve probably never been in a looking-for-group environment before, you’ve probably never been in something hard like this before, you’ve probably never dealt with these kind of mechanics before. And it feels like you’re taking all this stress at once. And a bunch of people just say: ‘Are you fucking crazy? Like, I’m not gonna jump over the canyon.’
“I would love to get to a point where we didn’t feel like we had that canyon, and we still might have to step up the stairs, but Destiny will hold your hand all the way. Because I think one thing that we’re also pretty passionate about is keeping those raid experiences special, right? Not super interested in saying, ‘Hey, you can just go tour a bunch of the raid spaces’ or, you know, do a really pared down version of the experience. We think a bunch of what makes that special is this reliance on cooperation, taking your friends through it.”
Blackburn has a good poker face, but as a longtime Destiny player, I suspect we won’t face down The Witch Queen herself in the expansion’s raid. Instead, players will likely see the conclusion or turning point of her story during the campaign, where every Destiny player can see it. Still, The Witch Queen expansion’s campaign improvements offer some hope that I could be wrong, and that even if I’m not, we might see Lightfall’s big bad meet their end in a raid. It’s all just speculation, and it’s impossible to know if we’ll even beat Savathun at all during The Witch Queen, let alone in a raid or campaign mission.
On the subject of Savathun and her brother Oryx, I asked Blackburn and Battle about how the team navigates the narrative surrounding important locations either left behind in the original Destiny or removed from Destiny 2. Is there going to be a moment in The Witch Queen campaign where players feel like they should be visiting Oryx’s ship, The Dreadnaught — a thematically similar space to Savathun’s Throneworld not available in Destiny 2, added in Destiny’s Taken King expansion?
“We just have to operate within our technical constraints, and we then do the best that we can do within those constraints, right,” said Blackburn. “‘OK, let’s write the best story that’s going to be really centered around the Throneworld and Savathun.’ And, so I don’t think players that maybe didn’t get to play Taken King, or are experiencing this story now are like ‘Oh, to complete this story, I’d really need to go back and visit the Dreadnaught.”
However, Blackburn pointed out that the Destiny content vault exists — a kind of rotating table of content from Destiny and Destiny 2 that Bungie can pull in and remaster with enough lead time.
“As we start telling stories in the future about other characters, we start looking at, ‘Hey, when’s the right time to bring something back?’’’ said Blackburn. “Like, if we need this piece to be able to tell the story [...] this is how we’re gonna do it back. And I think that’s an exciting avenue for us as well.”
A good example of what Blackburn is talking about seems to be the return of Mars in The Witch Queen. The planet doesn’t exist as it once did — in either the original Destiny or Destiny 2 — but Bungie had a good reason to take the location out of the DCV and do something different with it, giving players a staging ground for the expansion.
Could the Dreadnaught come back when it makes story relevant sense? Of course it could, and maybe Bungie is hiding some surprise for players in what promises to be an already surprising campaign. But more importantly, Bungie and Blackburn don’t feel constrained by the content that is and isn’t in Destiny — they know where the series is headed, and can twist the story or bring an important location out of the vault on their terms.