The first time I heard about Trials of the Nine, Destiny 2's premiere PvP mode, it sounded like a pain. My issue wasn't anything to do with the mode so much as it being time limited — you can play it over the weekend, but not during the week. "What if I want to play on Wednesday?" When I eventually had the chance to experience the Trials, however, it became clear why Bungie had done this. Trials of the Nine is designed to feel like a special event, and everything is about how the mode and matches are framed.
Trials of the Nine is very much endgame content, unlocked when your Guardian's hit level 260 and already has some Crucible (PvP) experience. But that's not enough to enter. The first barrier is simple: you need a team of four. You can't enter Trials solo or with a buddy, it's four or nothing. And this means that Trials of the Nine, somewhat similar to the game's endgame PvE Raids, has to be approached as a commitment.
It's easy to skip over this stuff, because it's minor and of course it happens outside the game, but it's part of the overall experience. In my case, this past Sunday four of us had a messaging group going on and agreed the time we'd log on. You go through your day knowing that, come 9pm, it's Destiny time. And you're logging on for one thing. Everyone turned up slightly early, unsurprisingly enough, and as the game mode launched for the first time there was, for me at least, a tightening knot of excitement in the stomach.
Trials of the Nine takes place on a single map, with a single game mode, and this rotates each weekend. For us it was Emperor's Respite and the Counter-Strike-inspired bomb mode, Countdown. As the match starts you see the map from above, while a voice talks about how badass the Trials are, and then each team of four is shown in detail — the camera focuses on your Guardian as they pull an emote (in my case a silly dance, yaass), and shows what you've got equipped. Unlike every other mode in the game Trials locks your loadout, so there are no surprises on this battlefield. Just hundreds of MIDA Multi-Tools.
All of this is in aid of making Trials feel important, and it works. The fireteam requirement forces players to get a team together, almost guarantees they'll be using voice chat, and the one-off nature of the Trials means every player is taking it just that little bit more seriously than vanilla PvP. The biggest problem most online shooters have is they can feel like solo experiences, where even though a player may be on a team their focus is really just on the K/D (the perfect example of this is Call of Duty). The barriers to entry here mean that your focus is the team.
That also means that the standard of opposition is much higher than usual. In Countdown there are two bomb spots, and teams take turns to attack and defend — the first to win six rounds takes the match. In the opening matches our team was a little bit clueless, and we got stomped by well-drilled opponents. But the nature of Trials is in that old-school aspect of playing the same map and mode for that entire weekend. By our second match we knew the map much better, and had started to adopt some of the tactics we'd seen. It was still a loss, but felt less hopeless. By the third and fourth match we had some moves, and were starting to act and feel like a team. In the fifth, it was neck-and-neck until the final round.
Reader, we pwned them. One of the beauties of Trials is how the victory conditions are structured. The dream is to get seven wins in a row, while losing no more than two games. But it doesn't start counting the losses until you've won a match. So, while we did go in and get mauled for a few games, they were basically practice rounds. Once you've shown you can win, shit gets real.
It inculcates a certain mindset. The best way to play online team shooters is, and I know this is obvious, as a team. When I was a younger man this was the case all the time; but take it from me, as you get a bit older it's not quite so common. When we won that first match in Trials, we earned it through communication and strategy as much as headshots. Repeating the same map and mode lets you learn and prepare and try different things, indeed it encourages it.
An example would be the defence rounds. Emperor's Respite has two bomb areas, Entry and Patio, with the former more enclosed and the latter open with long sightlines. In-between them is a large room and various level architecture. In the early matches we'd split into two pairs, guard both sites, and try to rotate when it became clear which site the attackers were focusing on. This was not an enormous success. Either four opponents would swarm in on the two, get the kills, and bunker up — or we'd get confused on the rotations, all four of us bearing down on one distraction while his mates planted at the other side of the map.
After a couple matches of this, we started holding the middle room instead. You can't actually see either bomb spot from this room, but you get a great crossfire position into Entry, are right next to Patio, and have the option of jumping over to their middle side to start flanking. Most importantly the whole team was relatively close and, when the enemy made a serious move, we were able to respond together with full force — rather than waiting for rotations.
I'm not saying this is Hannibal-level strategy, but defending the bomb spots at one remove ended up working beautifully for us. One member of the team began peeling off to go on little flanking rat runs, picking up kills in the side tunnel and from the back. We began to split automatically towards different entrances when we knew where the team was focusing. Keeping together also let us make more use of the limited revive mechanic.
Though this helped us towards several famous victories there is, sadly, no happy ending. That's the nature of Trials. We managed to score two victories before succumbing to three defeats, ending a glorious run and a glorious evening. When I play shooters online, it usually feels like I win as much as I lose. In terms of the numbers in Trials, on the other hand, it was many more losses than wins — if memory serves, we lost seven games and won two.
You might think that wouldn't feel great. But those two wins meant more to me than anything else I've done in the Crucible. The standard of opposition was high, I was in a real team, and all eight players wanted it bad. I don't always want PvP to be super-competitive and intense, but it feels absolutely appropriate that Destiny 2's 'endgame' PvP demands serious commitment, skill, and teammates.
Besides, the reward is amazing. For winning just one match, each of us was granted access to the Spire — a new social area. Once there, you're greeted by one of the game's most jaw-dropping sights. A gleaming tower, surrounded by a sheer drop, stretches towards the sky. Metal lattices loop around it, suspended in air and crossing-over each other. On the ground floor, where we arrived, there's purple sherbet and a new merchant; as well as a launchpad that, if you're a noob, sends you to your death in the void.
It judged me to be a noob.
You can access more of the spire, and earn the launchpad's respect, if you win more matches in Trials.
I enjoyed the Crucible in Destiny but Trials of Osiris, the predecessor to this mode, arrived long after I'd lost interest. As a package Destiny 2's PvP feels so much more complete and Trials of the Nine is the cherry on top. It's something unusual, something to strive for. The restrictions and the way the whole mode is framed are what makes it feel unique, a Seriously Serious competitive PvP experience — and now, for me, a big part of the endgame attraction.
I'll be back, Bungie. Seven wins is the dream and, I suspect, will remain a dream. But that won't stop us trying.