Gambit is one of Destiny 2’s coolest ideas that I never want to actually play, and while Bungie is improving the mode, it still needs work.
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The launch of The Witch Queen also saw Bungie making a series of adjustments to Gambit, a mode the studio had released way back with the Forsaken expansion. I’ve always found Gambit to be a really interesting addition to Destiny 2, and one of the things most unique about the game. It’s a Destiny take on what might be a horde mode in other games, where you take on waves of enemies, but it’s structured to be more strategic. Gambit is a mode I’ve always really liked–at least, on paper.
I’ve leaned into Gambit a little more with the recent addition of the new Labs feature, which makes some slight tweaks to the formula, seemingly both to add some variety and to gather player data for Bungie to make greater changes down the line. And I find I’m still torn on it. I like Gambit as an idea, but it still isn’t quite as compelling as I wish it was.
First, let’s talk about what Gambit does right, and how the new changes continue to improve it. Gambit succeeds with a single brilliant idea: player versus environment versus player. Instead of being content where you play alone or with friends against AI enemies, or being a straight arena shooter where you play against other humans, it melds the two formulas together. You’re on a team of four players, fighting AI enemies, but competing against another team of humans. Most of the time, the mode is just a race to kill as many enemies as you can as fast as you can, but occasionally, one player gets to jump into the other team’s arena and mess them up, potentially stalling the opposing side’s progress in the race, or, at the very least, dividing their opponents’ attention.
All of this, to me, is really smart. Before Gambit, PvE and PvP activities in the game were drastically removed from one another. They had their places in the world, but they were a lot like playing two different games. You never face down another Guardian when you’re out in the Solar System, and Crucible matches never tap into what’s fun about high-level PvE content. They were two sides of a coin that never interacted with each other, and that fundamentally made them feel like two separate games, in a lot of ways.
Gambit changes that by melding both kinds of play into a single experience, and it’s also just really clever. Gathering and banking motes dropped by enemies is a good way to force you to think about how you prioritize combat against regular enemies, and while most of that combat is fast and frenetic, it also creates a cool risk-reward system where you get punished for overextending yourself or getting greedy. The reward, of course, is that you get to mess up the other team’s progress by banking more motes at once, placing tough enemies in their arena. But the invasion mechanic is the cleverest bit of all, where you can actually jump into the opposite team’s arena and maraud around like a monster yourself. That same idea sees a ton of popularity in, say, the Dark Souls games, and it functions in Destiny just as well as it does there. It’s a brief bit of player-versus-player experience that scratches a similar itch as the Crucible, but also feels very different from what deathmatch play is like.
We’ve seen Gambit go through a number of iterations already, and the recent changes have been strong ones, I think. They’ve slowed down the speed at which Gambit matches wrap up and have made the match a little tougher to win, but not quite as punishing for one team over another. With just a little experience with the Labs alterations, I also think that the whole system is a good idea. Throwing new wrenches into the Gambit formula is enough to add a little freshness to the mode, like this week’s reversal of what triggers the ability to invade–instead of earning the right through banking motes, you now give the other team the ability to invade when you bank enough motes. I’m not sure it really has a major impact on overall strategy (more on that in a minute), but it does shake up the dynamic of the mode in a way that makes it a little tougher for one team to run away with a match.
The major win of Gambit, though, is that it’s a mode that really appeals to newer or more casual Destiny 2 players, at least in my anecdotal experience. I encouraged a group of friends to jump into Destiny 2 with the Beyond Light expansion, and they got pretty heavily into the game. The thing they liked most was Gambit, as far as I could tell. It was a mode that allowed them to use their PvE skill while still in competition with other players, but it didn’t send them out to get stomped against more experienced Guardians in the Crucible. We’re generally a group of older players, so they don’t have a ton of free time available to dedicate toward developing the intense PvP skills necessary for climbing Crucible ranks. Gambit, on the other hand, is an excellent speed that really appeals to them.
Again, it’s anecdotal, but I’ve seen this same sentiment echoed among a lot of the newer and more casual Destiny players I’ve interacted with. Gambit lets them experience the rush of competition without the pain that can be associated with playing in the Crucible. Something I always try to remember and reiterate to my die-hard Destiny pals is that Bungie is trying to make the game appeal to as wide a variety of players as possible, not just those of us who raid every week and burn up all the high-level content we can. And even if we are not necessarily major fans of Gambit–I think most of my regular Destiny-player friends aren’t really into the mode, and a few actively dislike it–that’s okay, because it serves other parts of the community.
All that said, I think there are elements of Gambit that are currently lacking, and that’s disappointing to me, someone who wants to enjoy Gambit and thinks it’s a good idea. I know I just got done saying that it’s okay for Gambit not to be for me, but I do think the mode could be for more of us, and it’s leaving a lot of players behind. In essence, my issue is that Gambit is too casual, and because of that, it never feels weighty or exciting enough to draw me in.
While I think the competitive race element of Gambit is cool, it lacks stakes a lot of the time. Your only real interaction with the other team, outside the occasional invasion from one group or the other, is in numbers. As the other team dunks motes in their bank, you see those motes reflected on a scoreboard. You interact with the fruits of the other team’s labors, the blockers they send to your bank that you must kill before you can continue to score points, but it’s still a really disjointed way to compete. And while Gambit’s recent adjustments make this feel like less the case, you can still just get manhandled by the other team, with their score suddenly rocketing up and a ton of blockers appearing in your arena. You have no idea why this is happening (or why your team isn’t matching it), most of the time. It’s like getting beaten up by a ghost.
Gambit only peripherally feels like a real competition, and therefore, winning and losing doesn’t really feel like it matters because it’s not fully within your control. It’s rare that you reflect on a match, thinking, if I had played better at this moment, I could have been victorious, or we employed this strategy and thus we overcame the other group. Everyone plays Gambit more or less the same, and usually, the reason you win or lose is because you better exploited weapons that the meta has made overpowered. In fact, this was just the case–ever since The Witch Queen, a buff to Exotic primary weapons was misapplied in Gambit, making the hand cannon Eriana’s Vow ridiculously powerful. If you weren’t using Eriana’s, you were getting demolished by teams who were. In the past, the same goes for weapons such as the Truth rocket launcher, or using the Titan Thundercrash Super with the Cuirass of Falling Stars Exotic armor. If you weren’t using those things in Gambit, you were getting absolutely walloped by people who knew better than you.
These issues are why I really liked Gambit Prime. Though it had its own problems, Prime represented a tougher, more involved version of Gambit that was meant to feel like a real competition. It came with some great ideas, too–like role-specific armor that encouraged you to complete a specific job as a member of a Gambit team. One person was meant to be a dedicated invader, another was meant to shred enemies, a third worked as a defender to fight off blockers, and the last could be a fast-moving mote collector who could inflict a ton of hurt on the other team. It added to team cohesion that inspired different approaches to play, and it encouraged trying and working together in Gambit.
The trouble was (apart from its integration with The Reckoning, my least-favorite activity ever), nobody played Gambit Prime the way it was meant to be played. Players joined into matches with their own agendas, barely worked together, and competed against each other for the chances to invade or collect motes. Prime didn’t really work and it’s good that most of its best adjustments were rolled back into Gambit proper, but we lost some major potential when that happened, not the least of which was the role-dedicated armor and its many cool perks.
Maybe that potential can be realized through Gambit Labs; maybe it means that Gambit needs a full rework. Maybe we’ll just never have a Gambit that feels like an exciting event for players like me, rather than a slog to get a Pinnacle weapon or a specific shader, to be otherwise ignored most of the time. After all, it is fine for a piece of Destiny 2 to appeal to different kinds of players other than me. But I do think there are ways that Gambit could be improved for everyone, and that would make it more viable for more players. They specifically involve making competition clearer and more forceful, making matches tougher to win, and making teamwork more important. Gambit Prime was able to do some of those things some of the time–again, on paper. But its ideas were steps in the right direction, and I’d like to see Bungie push back in that direction again one day. Gambit is one of Destiny 2’s smartest ideas, but I wish I had more drive to actually play it.
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