The beta is over! That’s the joke we’re all going with, right?
In this case I think it’s okay to be derivative since the statement is certainly accurate. The original release of Destiny was a year-long beta program that cost £50 up front and introduced an additional £35-40 worth of incremental upgrades and content that Bungie knew wouldn’t fix the problems their game released with. As a stop-gap measure to make Destiny a viable platform that players will want to come back to for the greater part of a decade, The Taken King is their first real success but it also amplifies many of Bungie’s initial design failings that remain unaddressed.
Some of that success can be found in the myriad quality of life improvements that have been brought to the table. I outlined many of these in an article on the 2.0 update but the most significant would have to be the new leveling system. Gone are the days of using specific high-powered gear to level up, a system that originally robbed Destiny players of the ability to customise the fabulous future-wizard of their dreams. Light is still there but it’s now its own discrete system sitting side-by-side with your character level which maxes at 40.
Light uses an average of the attack/defense values of all the gear you currently have equipped and appears to be what largely determines the damage you can withstand and dish out. This means that swapping that rare hand cannon with a 290 attack you’ve been carrying for that badass legendary auto rifle at 280 attack might actually decrease your light level which may lower your overall effectiveness.
That’s alright though, because if you still want to use that auto rifle you can just infuse it which will sacrifice the hand cannon and raise the attack value of the rifle to an average between the two. Infusion stands in as Destiny’s new crafting system and it goes a long way towards making all the loot which drops in the world potentially useful in shoring up the gear you actually want while discarding the stuff you don’t need. In other words those blue engrams that Master Rahool used to decrypt by the dozen may actually drop something that will make your character more effective instead of going straight in the dustbin. It also means that any piece of gear you like can potentially be a contender if you infuse it enough.
Bungie’s heart also appears to have grown three sizes as Destiny is far less stingy now when it comes to finding Legendary and exotic gear in the wild. Xur even sells a consumable item called the “Three of Coins” that will increase the chance that the next ultra level enemy you defeat will drop an exotic engram. This effect stacks so that even if you didn’t get that drop you can just pop another Three of Coins and your chances will be even better next time. Take a few of these in to the heroic strike playlist (which also adds a legendary engram drop buff the longer you stay in the playlist) and you should have no problem getting yourself ready for the weekly Nightfall strike starting at light level 280. After just a week of consistent play my Guardian was already geared up with full legendaries and a handful of exotic weapons and armor from the year two set.
That’s something to take note of. Year one and two gear is now separated by a pretty wide statistical gap. Year one stuff ends around 170 while year two can go up to 310. That means those year one weapons you loved (Thorn, Gjallarhorn, Vision of Confluence) will drag your light level down so much that they are virtually useless in PvE. Keep in mind though that since all weapons and armor are normalized in PvP those items will still carry advantages due to their unique perks that will absolutely make them useful in the Crucible.
Oh, the Crucible. Destiny’s PvP mode where Guardians train to take on the coming darkness by offering up their lives in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. Don’t stop and think about the lore here, the existential implications are as nightmarish as my time with the Crucible itself. I still don’t find the core adversarial experience in Destiny to be much fun although I will admit it’s much more well-balanced than it used to be. Rift adds a little variety but is ultimately just a capture the flag mode that blends in nicely with the rest. I was unable to play the new mayhem mode with amplified supers and abilities because it never showed up in the rotation which is unfortunate since it was the PvP addition I was most looking forward to. Destiny also offers a daily reward of 15 legendary marks (the new unified currency which is used to buy new gear and infuse weapons) to play a single round on the featured crucible playlist. That’s more than enough reward on its own, and combined with the overhauled Crucible bounties that are much easier to complete, I see no reason to not drop a few minutes on the adversarial side of things each day.
On the PvE side of things, you find a mixed bag. The new story is a vast improvement over the disinterested, ineffective sci-fantasy pulp Bungie churned out for the initial release. Much of the story is still told through narrative dumps and exposition instead of dialogue and character interaction (which is a no-no for a visual medium) but the bit of voiceover work that is there holds your attention and even disseminates some interesting bits of lore here and there. I’m not sure whether Nolan North’s Ghost is better than Dinklage’s, but his dialogue certainly is and the relationship they’ve created between Morla Gorrondona’s Eris Moren and Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6 is so good you might actually find yourself chuckling here and there. Chuckling! At some dialogue in Destiny! Take that in. It’s the highest praise I can give the writing team trying to salvage this thing.
The story is tied to the new questing system Bungie has also developed. Now instead of just receiving a blip on the system map to tell you where to go next, you’re actually given a multi stage quest that will sometimes include patrol objectives or other tasks you will need to accomplish to advance. This gets you playing other parts of the game to try to accomplish multiple tasks at once and optimise your time. The rewards for some of them are pretty great as well and the ability to track them on your HUD is also a nice touch.
The actual story missions themselves don’t fare very well. There are a couple of nice set pieces early on with some surprisingly varied mechanics. There’s even a full-on stealth mission and the quests to obtain the new Guardian sub-classes meld mechanics and storytelling in some ways Destiny hasn’t really tried before. But soon enough everything just devolves in to the same game of whack-a-mole Bungie has relied on since day one. By the end your ghost is cracking jokes about the abattoir of death traps and never-ending spawns you’re put at the centre of in order to create the nut-crushing sense of difficulty Bungie wants but doesn’t care to spend the time developing, balancing, and play testing, so screw it; just throw a couple more majors in there and let them spam their super abilities and we’ll call it a day, right?
This is especially frustrating because when you play the new strikes they’ve put in place you can see that Bungie is capable of making something fun, challenging, and thought-provoking when they actually take the time to bother. Most of the new strikes involve unique mechanics that have players (even random players) working together as teams and exploiting the advantages they’re given. One I particularly like has a fireteam member grabbing an electrified relic and delivering it to a receptacle in another corner of the room while the other members distract an invincible boss that only lowers his shields once your relic runner succeeds. It’s pretty exhilarating to silently fall in to rolls with your fellow match-made Guardians in a heroic level strike, covering each other using the mechanics you learned gradually while grinding things out in the lower light levels. The new strikes are simply Destiny at its best and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
The new Dreadnaught patrol zone is also a gem filled with secrets and mysteries that have yet to be fully uncovered. Boxes opened by strange runes litter the corridors and the delightfully obtuse nature of the Court of Oryx (the Dreadnaught’s version of public events) will have you coming back again and again to try out some new item or quest that appeared in your inventory. This sense of discovery is something that had been sorely lacking in Destiny and it’s nice to see the confidence and trust for their audience that Bungie is displaying here.
Unfortunately that confidence and trust doesn’t translate to everything; I have no idea if I can recommend the raid because Bungie’s willful resistance to include group finding tools or match making for their highest level content means that I would have to find or organise a coordinated group of five other players to push through it – and I’m afraid there just wasn’t time prior to this review. I will get to it someday, but on my own terms since that’s clearly what I’m supposed to do. Since Bungie themselves have admitted that the raids aren’t meant for every player I think it’s more than fair to reject King’s Fall as a piece of core content necessary to judge the experience that The Taken King is offering.
In fact, Bungie’s “this content isn’t for you” attitude remains my biggest criticism of Destiny as a whole and The Taken King in particular. Before there were other far more glaring flaws that took precedence over Bungie’s desire to draw influences from the Souls series of games. Now with the majority of those problems fixed there seems to be only one thing keeping me from enjoying it: Destiny wants to punish me. The world of Destiny (at its highest levels) doesn’t want me there. It wants me to fail, but unlike the aforementioned Souls series that every developer suddenly wants to imitate but no one actually wants to put the work in to, I often don’t see the light at the end of the darkness I’m surrounded by. Destiny isn’t a duel between equals: it’s a bad dungeon master that believes a good game is one that he can win. Well he can always win, can’t he? He’s God here. The fun for me is when I win; when I feel powerful; when I’m rewarded for my efforts without a single moment wasted. Bungie hasn’t found that balance yet. Much of the late game still feels like a needlessly punishing grind as it embraces artificial difficulty before fun. The result of this is that players resort to slow, timid, careful, boring play in order to keep from wasting time when they should be taking risks and having fun. It took From Software until Bloodborne to get that formula right. Maybe Bungie will manage it with Destiny 2.
The Taken King is, of course, every bit as beautiful as vanilla Destiny was but due to the fact that all of its assets are recycled, I’m not sure that can be held up as a strong point. The new Taken enemies are simply re-skins of the existing enemy types with some new abilities and the Vex’s teleport, the Dreadnaught looks almost identical to the caverns beneath the moon, and all the strike bosses are still just larger versions of the same enemies the Taken are already reusing. Everything about Destiny‘s presentation has remained par for the course with no innovation or creative direction on display.
So what are we left with? The Taken King is still my favorite game to hate. God, how I hate it sometimes. In its current state if you have never played Destiny before it is more than worth the £45 investment to pick everything up and jump right in. For those who have been with it since day one and already paid that £45? Well… do you still play? If not, then what’s here probably hasn’t changed enough to make it worth the full price of admission again. It’s still Destiny. The first 10-15 hours of initial discovery are still its best but once it settles in to the loot treadmill and cranks on the dial that governs the difficulty curve it becomes painfully obvious that there are others out there that still do it better. It’s equal parts exhilaration, exhaustion, and boredom, but I’m sure I’ll still be playing it on and off for the next year.