[Review] Destiny: House of Wolves

Destiny launched in September 2014 after years of hype and anticipation. And when the dust settled, the game wound up becoming a financial, if not critical, success. While the game boasts some of the most satisfying gunplay mechanics in a first-person shooter (FPS), Destiny‘s strange identity crisis, incoherent story, and short, repetitive content continued to frustrate fans. It wasn’t a true MMO (Bungie preferred to call it a “Shared World Shooter”), but contained MMO-like aspects such as leveling and loot systems as well as raids. But even though the loot system was terribly broken early in the game’s life, that there were odd design decisions (such as having the vast majority of the game’s story available outside of the game), and feeble DLC that felt like Bungie was phoning it in (we’re looking at you, The Dark Below), fans were undeterred and rabidly clung to the game.

But as the release of House of WolvesDestiny‘s second DLC, approached there was a sense from parts of the community that this was a tipping point. Through patches, multiple in-game currencies, nerfs, arbitrary progress roadblocks, and “cheese” (re: exploits) patches, Bungie seemed more intent on forcing you to play the game the way they intended as opposed to providing new content to a game that sorely needed it. It was also an opportunity for Bungie to show they had been listening to customer feedback regarding the bare-bones content of the previous DLC, The Dark Below. While things were off to a shaky start with the announcement that there would be no new raid included with House of Wolves, but rather a new PvE game type called “Prison of Elders” as well as a new PvP mode “Trials of Osiris”. This was among other new things such as story missions and plethora of gear and items.

After putting in a few weeks with the DLC, I can say that Bungie did a lot of things right with House of Wolves. But after the sheen wears off, we’re left with a solid update that appears to build a foundation for Destiny to grow on in the future, but makes some of the same frustrating mistakes that make it a chore to play at times.

Destiny‘s story is famously disjointed, partially as a result of an abrupt change of direction (and departure of the game’s original writer) only a year before release. As a result, the game’s story was cut up and moved around to fit the new direction, in a manner that would make William S. Burroughs proud. Peter Dinklage’s flat voice work as your Ghost companion didn’t help, and it’s very telling that in both subsequent DLCs, there are no new lines from your Ghost. Whenever it makes a rare appearance, it is oddly silent.

What we do see here, in what is now a Destiny staple, are the voice-overs that precede each mission.  Petra and Variks provide the bulk of the new voices, and provide a more favorable turn than the creepy and clearly psychologically damaged Eris from The Dark Below. Variks, one of the Fallen loyal to the Queen, is particularly fun to listen to as he takes unusual glee in the missions and destruction you’re about to bring upon the House of Wolves.

The new quest chains work better than the ones in The Dark Below, providing more variety in the missions as well as a few surprises. While the game does re-use a number of areas (Destiny sure does love recycling), there are some new mechanics and areas that are interesting enough to keep things fairly fresh (I’m waiting for a multiplayer map that makes use of those new transporters). There are also weekly Queen’s Bounties you can pick up that take place during Patrol missions, which are mini-horde mode fights and vastly more interesting than the stale Public Events that the game has had since launch. Not to mention that defeating one of these public “mini-horde” battles yields a rewards chest with loot drops for gear ammo synthesis, and Treasure keys.

Treasure keys are the new hotness. They are used in one of the major new features of the game, the Prison of Elders (PoE). PoE is essentially a horde mode with a twist. They take place in one of several arenas against Hive, Fallen, Cabal, or Vex. Each game of PoE is made of 5 rounds, and each round consists of 3 waves of enemies you must defeat. Each wave can have its own set of modifiers (such as the traditional Arc / Solar / Void burn and new ones such as Small Arms and Exposure), as well as objectives (such as disable mines or kill the target).

The fifth round is against a boss, often with its own unique mechanics to defeat them. After completing a run of PoE, you are treated to a room that you must carefully make your way down to, and have three chests available for you to open: two small side chests and a large center one, for which you need the aforementioned Treasure key. While the smaller chests can drop Motes of Light, Strange Coins, glimmer, and other smaller rewards, the larger chest has a chance of dropping an Exotic or Legendary Queen’s gear. It’s all random, however, and there are no guarantees on what you may receive.

There are a few levels for Prison of Elders: 28, 32, 34 and 35. Level 28 is repeatable, but later levels you can only use a Treasure key once a week for each, and must wait until the weekly reset on Tuesdays before using one again.

Prison of Elders is a great mode, but flawed. It is a “curated” experience, meaning that bosses and modifiers are changed weekly (except for the Level 35 boss, who never changes, for reasons). Bungie stubbornly refuses to include Matchmaking on anything outside of Level 28 PoE, which can be very frustrating for players not in a clan or who have trouble finding others to play with. And some of the boss mechanics thus far feel unnecessarily frustrating, resorting to either bullet sponges and/or waves upon waves of enemies for “fake” difficulty. Of course, this doesn’t stop intrepid players from finding ways to cheese the system. Another major annoyance for PoE is that there are no checkpoints; you must complete the 5 rounds in one go.

Whereas Prison of Elders is the new endgame for PvE, Bungie did not ignore the PvP segment. Trials of Osiris is a 3v3 mode where you play in the new Elimination mode. Teams race to win 5 rounds in a match. Levels and weapon damage values matter (like in Iron Banner) and you can revive teammates. You win rounds by eliminating all of the players on the other team.

Trials of Osiris is possibly the best – and most frustrating – part of House of Wolves. It’s not frustrating because of poor design. It can simply be frustrating because if you’re not very good at PvP (and I’m no beast in the Crucible), and you can’t find 2 other players that are good and you can gel with (remember, no Matchmaking in Trials either), then you are going to get wrecked. Which is all the more frustrating because the best new gear in House of Wolves is from Trials of Osiris.

The Prison of Elder and Queen’s weapons are okay, but are mostly garbage next to the Trials’ weapons. The PoE weapons have odd perks that do extra damage to Shanks and Dregs. What?! Dregs are the least fearsome enemies in the game, and while the new suicide-bomber shanks are annoying, they’re not this grave threat. These perks are laughable at best and downright useless at other times. Trials’ weapons also have the opportunity to obtain primaries with elemental damage (solar/void/arc). Trials’ armor looks very cool and has useful perks. There is a disparity here that is maddening because it can lock out players who don’t have the “skill” to obtain the best gear in the game.

Other beneficial additions in House of Wolves include new multiplayer maps; a new method of upgrading any Legendary or Exotic piece of armor or weapon to the new level and damage caps; a new Strike; the Speaker can exchange various currencies; Commendations are no longer needed to purchase vendor items; engrams drop rates have been increased, and more. All of these were based on requests from the community and it was encouraging to see Bungie act upon them (as well as act quickly on some of the common complains from the initial release of House of Wolves, such as the scarcity of Treasure key drops).

House of Wolves is like night-and-day compared to The Dark Below. While the latter inspired a deep cynicism to Bungie’s strategy and practices regarding Destiny, the new DLC offers hope that the company is starting to “get” what the community wants from them and the game. It still has a way to go, but there is finally some optimism creeping in that the lackluster launch is finally giving way to some growth for the game. It’s become clear that Bungie is hamstrung by their support of last-gen consoles, but hopefully it will not prevent them from delivering on a greater amount of content from the game. If Bungie can find new ways to make boss fights challenging (no bullet sponges, no artificial difficulty) and enhance the way they deliver the story so as to quicken the pace for new content to arrive (don’t strictly rely on voice-overs, but include the ability to tell story dialogue via text. We can read, you know…) they have a real chance to boost Destiny‘s potential. House of Wolves‘ longevity may still be up in the air, but at least it shows that Bungie is adapting. And that in itself is huge.

Rating: B

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