[Review] Destiny: The Taken King

Over a decade ago, a little MMO called The Matrix Online launched with a tagline, “The Matrix has only begun to give up its secrets.” The implication being that there would be so many things to uncover and enjoy in the game that fans would stay invested for a long time. Sadly, the game failed to deliver on that promise, and subsequently faded away into obscurity.

As I was playing the newly-minted Taken King expansion, and all the goodies it brought to the Destiny shared game world, it brought me back to those crazy, heady days of the early Oughts, when I had fallen in love with a deeply flawed game because of the backstory and lore (I’m a recovering Matrix fan), and that promise of rich discovery.

Except this time, Destiny (coupled with its 2.0 patch) is delivering.

Make no mistake, Destiny fans are understandably annoyed by how Year 1 played out. A flawed launch and barely comprehensible story coupled with outstanding gunplay mechanics gave birth to a passionate and vocal fanbase. For all the things Destiny did right (the Vault of Glass raid), there seemed to be twice as many missteps (legendary engrams decrypting into lower-tier rare items was a head-scratcher). Obtaining the game’s best loot – and there was a decent number of it – depended solely on random chance. You could run an activity that you could only do once or twice a week, depending on the difficulty you chose, and upon hitting certain checkpoints, you had a chance of obtaining a top-tier legendary or exotic piece of gear. And even then, Destiny‘s notorious loot algorithms could give you an armor piece for a totally different class (say, for a Titan even though you were running a Warlock) or give you that third No Land Beyond that no one needed.

Fans were frustrated, and rightfully so.

But Destiny is a long-term project, not unlike other online franchises such as World of Warcraft. And in the past Bungie has hemmed and hawed on whether Destiny was really an FPS MMO, an RPG shooter with MMO-like elements, or just Diablo with space magic. It would appear they have settled on embracing Destiny‘s MMO elements, and the game richly benefits from this.

Outside of re-casting the voice of your companion AI Ghost (goodbye Peter Dinklage, hello Nolan North), the “questification” of Destiny‘s missions is the single biggest – and brightest – change. For one, it streamlines the story into a more cohesive – if still inherently flawed – narrative. New inductees to the franchise (and let’s be honest, The Taken King has this subtext of mea culpa woven throughout) will have a much easier time of developing their characters and progressing through the various mechanics of the game.

Leveling is now separate from the true indicator of your strength, Light. You gain levels via XP from quests and killing baddies. Light comes with your equipment, and is the average of all your equipped gear. No longer will purple legendary gear become the be-all, end-all. In fact, even in endgame you will often find blue “rare” gear to be stronger than legendary gear, although a process of infusing stronger rare gear into weaker legendaries acts as a way of making the latter stronger, an excellent new mechanic that essentially replaces the weapon reforging from the last DLC, House of Wolves. At first the mechanic can be a little hard to wrap your head around, but once you do, it not only becomes a welcome and straightforward change, it also becomes addictive.

Bungie has stated that their improved loot and decrypting algorithms will be smarter about giving you gear you need. If you already are at a certain Light level, you are (in theory) more likely to have gear drop that will help increase your Light. The scale tends to flatten out as you approach endgame Light levels (around 280), but this will also be the time you’ll want to seek out running the new raid, King’s Fall, which contains 300+ Light gear.

The plethora of new gear to find, coupled with a new large area called the Dreadnaught and the various activities therein will keep veterans and new players busy for a long while. If it’s not the Court of Oryx player-activated public events (in themselves puzzles, complete with various runes to be uncovered, unlocked, and Tiers of enemies to beat), the more difficult Heroic Daily and Strike missions which feel like mini-raids, the updated older strikes with more dynamic enemies (like Taken being swapped in place of the usual enemies, varying placement and flow, etc.), the three new subclasses that can be unlocked for some incredible new skills (“You want to be Thor? We’ve got you covered”), or flat-out secrets that are accidentally being uncovered (looking at you, Black Spindle exotic sniper), Bungie has clearly taken to heart the first-year criticisms of “great mechanics, repetitive / minimum content”. Players are drowning in things to do, at least in these early days of the new expansion, and it’s great to see.

And this says nothing of the 8 new Crucible (PvP) maps or new Mayhem and Rift game modes. Rift plays like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare‘s “Uplink” mode, akin to Capture the Flag. Mayhem is absolute insanity as all supers and special abilities recharge at higher rates. The 2.0 patch included a long-overdue weapons rebalancing, and it arrives not a moment too soon. The old meta of the game’s PvP mode had grown incredibly stale, with broken mechanics of a few weapons leading to a boring style of play. Crucible is – gasp! – fun again, and hopefully Bungie will be more timely with weapon balancing in the future.

Players who do not upgrade to The Taken King and stay on vanilla Destiny (or Year 1 DLCs) are in for a rough surprise. They will still have access to “classic” PvP playlists and Level 20 PvE strikes, but no way to level up beyond 34 or play the Daily Heroic or endgame Nightfalls. Some have decried this “locking out” of early players, but again, this is Bungie embracing MMO fundamentals. New expansions often mean that players who don’t upgrade will miss out on most if not all the new meaty content. In the case of The Taken King, Bungie makes a compelling case to upgrade, but the frustration is understandable.

The biggest complaint leveled at Bungie regarding Year 1 of Destiny is the belief that we played a beta, and The Taken King (and version 2.0) is what the game should have been at launch.

There is legitimacy in that complaint, but it works both ways. During development for a game such as this, an alpha or beta can only provide so much feedback. Without the release of the core game and 2 DLCs over the past year, Bungie would not have been able to fine-tune their strategy and expectations to align with fans. When The Dark Below was (rightfully) criticized for its anemic content selection, the subsequent House of Wolves was delayed for improvements. Destiny‘s growth is an organic process, and without the first year of release and feedback, version 2.0 wouldn’t have become what it is. It’s easy to argue that this is what the game should have been at launch, but in all fairness, Destiny is a unique beast in the industry. There’s really nothing quite like it, and Bungie’s instincts on what they thought fans would gravitate to (or not) were not always correct. But again, this would never have been known without a year of growing pains.

All of which lead to the success that is The Taken King. While there’s still room for improvement, Destiny is in a great place. For players who gave up, it’s a great jumping back on point, and for new players it’s an excellently laid out experience that will have them wondering what us veterans were complaining about. The Taken King is the apology letter we’ve been waiting for.

All is forgiven, Bungie. Well… mostly.

Rating: A

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