Amid all the the common sense quality of life improvements Bungie announced for Destiny 2 last week, one change to the way the first game works took me by surprise.
The Crucible, one of my favourite modes from Destiny, has seen its player count reduced from 12 to eight. That's 6v6 down to 4v4 - across all modes.
As the gameplay reveal ended, I found myself puzzled by the decision. I don't remember seeing any huge call from the Destiny community for Bungie to cut the number of players on a Crucible map. One of the reasons I love the mode is because it's uniquely Destiny. It's fast, frenetic and packed with crazy abilities popping off left, right and centre from multiple players. Surviving and dominating in such an environment is a thrill. So I was keen to go hands-on with PvP to see how it felt for myself - and speak to Bungie about the decision.
The Crucible mode playable at the event was Countdown. Countdown is a Counter-Strike-esque bomb plant/defuse mode, where players spawn on either offence of defence (when the round ends you swap sides and roles). The goal is to plant a bomb at the enemy base and then defend it until it explodes. Each round is worth one point. First team to six wins.
Teamplay is crucial - as it was in the 3v3 Trials mode in Destiny 1. The pressure's on not to die, because you have to burn a revive token to revive a teammate - and they're limited to four per team per round. Power weapon ammo is only granted to the one player who pulls it, which limits the use of everything from a sniper rifle to a grenade launcher. Under these constraints, working as a team is key.
Countdown felt slow for a few reasons, chief among them the reduced number of players on the map. But there's more to it than that. It felt like some of the speedy movement options players have come to know and use in Destiny 1, such as "skating" (this is the process of picking up speed by spamming jump as you fall), have been removed for Destiny 2. I also couldn't find a "blink" (teleport) ability, perhaps the Hunter's most useful PvP skill, at all in the build I played.
There's more - it felt like the time to kill had been increased versus Destiny 1. I'm not sure if this is because of an increase in Guardian shields, Guardian hit points, lower damage weapons or a combination of all three, but it definitely felt like a less lethal experience than what I'm used to from Destiny 1.
Certainly there's an increased tactical element to The Crucible this time around. In Destiny 1, you'd often get crushed by players who pop a surprise super as you turn the corner. You'd think, well, there was nothing I could have done to win that encounter. Now, each Guardian is represented by a "super" icon at the top of the screen, and it fills in gold when the super is available. Also, the build I played had universal cooldowns because Bungie had ditched the Intellect, Discipline and Strength stats that affected the time it took for on grenades, melee and supers to recharge. So, the cooldowns will always be x seconds irrespective of class or equipment. This, in theory, makes engagements a bit more predictable because you know what abilities a player can use.
So, you chuck in an increased time to kill, a game mode designed to promote teamwork and fewer players, and it's easy to see why Destiny 2's Crucible felt a bit more manageable. Everyone, it seems, has calmed down a bit.
It turns out, this is exactly what Bungie was going for when it decided to go to 4v4 for Destiny 2.
"4v4 as we started to dig into felt really good," Bungie's marketing director and sometimes writer Eric Osborne told me at the Destiny 2 event. "It allows fundamental team play that is vital to the Crucible. It also became something that was really great for players who weren't playing a lot of Crucible, or new players to come in and be able to read what was going on better. So, pick up and play and learn the ropes and determine what was happening at any given moment. That format we think satisfied both ends of that spectrum better."
This point is key - with Destiny 2 Bungie hopes for a fresh start to the series. It's not a reboot, more a second chance to nail the Destiny experience. And so, the developer expects a flood of newcomers and lapsed players will get stuck in when the game comes out in September.
The Crucible as it has ended up in Destiny 1 is a brutal affair, with veteran players dominating through the use of powerful weapons, equipment and Guardian builds honed over the last few years of play. Bungie no doubt saw Destiny 2 as an opportunity to reset The Crucible, providing an experience lapsed players can immediately understand. The move to 4v4 feels like an important part of that.
The change in the way heavy ammo - now called power ammo - works is a case in point. Power ammo now spawns after 30 seconds and it's available only to the player who pulls it. This severely limits the amount of power ammo doing the rounds at any given time. When you couple this with the fact sniper rifles, fusion rifles and shotguns are now power weapons, I expect we'll see high damage weapons have less of an influence over your average Crucible match. It'll be more about your skill with the likes of auto rifles, hand cannons and the new sub machine guns.
Speaking to Osborne, it seems there's more to the decision to go with 4v4, though. Sticking to 4v4 across all modes means the designers can create more refined maps.
"We can design maps purposefully around the 4v4 format and create experiences that are honed," he said.
"If you played Countdown on Midtown, the map and the mode are specifically designed for 4v4 play. We have that defined set of criteria that we know, we don't have to worry about like, this map has to be designed to support 10 different types of modes and 10 different types of team configurations, so we can make much more tactical and purposeful decisions."
Funnily enough, it feels to me like Bungie's tweaking Destiny's Crucible to play a bit more like old-school Halo's competitive multiplayer. Bungie's Halo games were slow, with a longer time to kill than, say, Call of Duty. Competitive Halo was a lot about knowing when and where power weapons would spawn. And I remember pumping hundreds of hours into 4v4 Team Slayer back in the day - and loving it.
It's hard to form an informed opinion on 4v4 based on just an hour with Destiny 2's Crucible (I played on PS4 Pro and on PC), and in a first hands-on situation, it was easy to succumb to muscle memory built up over hundreds of hours of play with Destiny 1. It all felt pretty familiar, but I can't help but lament the loss of Crucible's trademark brutal insanity. A part of me wants Bungie to let Destiny be Destiny when it comes to PvP - warts and all. If we want to play Halo, well, we can play Halo, can't we?
And while I get what Bungie's trying to do and why it's trying to do it, I'm still a little puzzled by the decision to make 4v4 the only was to play Destiny 2 PvP. Why not leave a couple of 6v6 modes in there? Why not add a few 8v8 modes? Why not add a Destiny 2 equivalent of Halo's wonderful Big Team Battle mode? Perhaps we'll see those sort of things further down the line as part of an expansion. But for now, we know what we're getting when Destiny 2 comes out in September: a more considered, easier to manage Crucible.
This article is based on a press trip to Los Angeles. Activision covered travel and accommodation costs.