I came to the first Destiny late, only after final expansion Rise of Iron was released, long after most of my friends had hit the level cap and duly departed. It meant that my experience of that game was an odd one – I found a wealth of story content, enough to keep me busy for weeks, enough that by the time I was done with it all I was pretty much done with the game. Near the level cap, and with few friends still exploring the system, Destiny lasted only as long as its story for me, and its infamous end-game mostly skirted me by.

So it was with some trepidation that I reached the end of the Destiny 2 campaign, unsure what lay ahead. Despite months of anticipation for the game, would I be bored by the late game grind, and drop out after an hour or two? Or, perhaps equally worrying, but it be all-consuming, taking over my life as I spent every waking minute grinding through the same Strikes and Patrols on loop in the endless pursuit of slightly larger numbers?

Luckily, it’s neither. Or both. Sort of. But in a good way?

Destiny 2 has, for arcane reasons best known to its creators, two levelling systems: conventional levels that you raise by earning experience points, and which cap at 20; and Power Levels, generated by averaging out the stats of all your assorted gear, and which currently caps at 305. Most players will hit level 20 when their Power is around 200 (around the end of the campaign), and it’s easy enough to level Power up to 270 or so from there.

“You can spend the rest of the week getting on with your life.”

That’s when it gets tricky though. Regular loot starts to drop at or below your Power level, making it almost impossible to increase your level other than through specific drops named ‘Powerful Gear’. They’re locked behind a handful of activities – the Raid, Nightfall Strikes, Public Events, and PvP matches in the Crucible – and you can only unlock each of the three sets once per week, with some bonus ones for contributions to your Clan.

It sounds complex, but it essentially boils down to this: to continue levelling at around the fastest possible rate, you only need to play for a few hours a week, and get through the Raid, the Nightfall, and a handful of PvP matches. That’s it. And you can spend the rest of the week getting on with your life, safe in the knowledge that you’re not missing out on vital in-game progression, because there really isn’t much more you could do.

Except that isn’t what’s happened for me. I’m not playing a handful of hours a week as I grab the major drops and then leaving it be – I’m still playing Destiny 2 every chance I get, losing whole weekends and evenings to the game, just as I feared I might. There’s a difference though – instead of obsessively logging hours to max out my gear drops, reducing the game to nothing but grind, I’m only playing because, well, it’s fun. It feels sort of weird.

“I’m only playing because, well, it’s fun. It feels sort of weird.”

Inevitably, the first priority each week is working through the newly reset Milestones for their high-level loot, but finishing those up doesn’t fully scratch my Destiny itch for the week. That’s something other players have complained about – resenting the fact that meaningful progress halts after a few hours – but for me it’s strangely liberating, freeing me to play those sections of the game that aren’t directly tied to major loot drops.

For one, there are the Adventures littered across each planet – mini missions that tease at the edges of the overarching Destiny story, hinting at characters and events left absent from the main campaign. They also often feature brilliant set pieces that you can’t find elsewhere, like a memorable early Adventure that sees you drop a series of bombs onto approaching enemies you’ve lured into a trap.

They’re great fun, but without any major gear rewards they’d be easy for min-maxers to miss, and even the average player could be expected to feel a perverse pang of guilt at “wasting” time spent on them – as if time spent exploring the narrative and gameplay is any more wasted than that spent grinding to the level cap.

It’s not just story content though. The new setup frees players to explore each of the four main planets to find the Region Chests and Lost Sectors, scouring the map for these (occasionally ingeniously) hidden goodies and along the way gaining a new appreciation for Bungie’s intricate level design.

Just as often though, my gameplay demands aren’t even that sophisticated – sometimes it’s enough to just wander around Nessus or Io, or even hang about one of the game’s two social hubs. It’s a chance to play around with the physics engine, test out emotes, or even just enjoy the view for a while, without the pressure to actually do anything.

It all harks back to one of my prevailing thoughts about Breath of the Wild earlier this year – both games break the longstanding link between gameplay and rewards, by daring to suggest that sometimes, just maybe, playing a game is actually its own reward. Radical, I know.

Don’t get me wrong – Destiny 2 still has loot. Loads of it. And it’s still inextricably tied into the core gameplay systems – this isn’t a total move away from the ‘shoot things > get things > shoot things better’ reward loop that’s long proved so compulsive. But there at least seems to be a recognition that some of the best bits of the game live outside that loop, and that by capping rewards, maybe a few more players will branch out and just enjoy the game for its own sake.

In the meantime, we just had a weekly reset and I’ve got some gear to grind.