Destiny: House Of Wolves
Ever since Destiny’s release, Bungie has assured its players that they are being listened to, that the studio’s 500-strong team is working around the clock to shape this ambitious, yet flawed, online shooter into the game its fans want and deserve. It has rarely felt like the truth, the studio’s portentous, in-universe communications dismissing long-standing grievances while it works to its own agenda. Finally, eight months and change on, Bungie is starting to deliver: House Of Wolves is the work of a studio serving its players, rather than catering to the whims of those within its walls.
Had you told us a few months ago that one of the solutions to Destiny’s many knotty problems was yet another addition to its convoluted morass of currencies, we’d have laughed you out of the room. Etheric Light is exactly that, a single-use item used to ascend legendary weapons or armour pieces to the new maximum level. It saves the launch game’s loot pool from obsolescence, letting you raise 300-damage weapons to 365, and armour to the new cap of 42. It affords the player a long-overdue say in their endgame loadouts, letting them choose the guns, gear, perks and look they want, rather than insisting they pick from a tiny pool of raid drops and exotics. And crucially, there are well-defined ways to acquire a few guaranteed Etheric Lights each week, eliminating the need to run raids over and over in the hope of the drops to push you to the level cap.
Which is just as well, really, since there’s no new raid, although what arrives in its stead turns out to be a good deal less repetitive and caters equally to both PVP and PVE players. For the latter camp, there’s Prison Of Elders, a Horde-a-like mode spread across multiple stages and four difficulty levels, the lowest of which is randomly generated every time you load in. The others are picked by Bungie’s design teams each week, a sign of a developer finally recognising that its players are not as enamoured of generative algorithms as it is.
While the action itself lacks the craft of a raid, putting you in a series of enclosed arenas and having enemies spawn from all around, this is more than an extended shootout. Capture zones, mines on timers and VIP targets to kill lure you out of cover, while boss fights introduce raid-like mechanics such as buffs and detainment bubbles. A different gameplay modifier is applied to each stage to further mix things up; many will be familiar from Weekly Nightfall Strikes, but there are plenty of additions too. The most telling is Brawler, which increases the damage output of your melee blows. It seems an obvious apology for Lightswitch, a widely loathed modifier affecting only enemy melee damage and the cause of many a sudden, unseen death.
Each Prison Of Elders difficulty level yields a guaranteed reward – Etheric Light to max out existing guns and armour, Weapon and Armor Cores to buy new max-level gear – as well as the standard RNG drops. Destiny has never celebrated its loot with much finesse, just a sound effect as the weapon name and its icon appear on the right-hand side of the screen. Here, you claim your new toys from chests in a glimmering underground treasure room straight from the Scrooge McDuck school of design. Sadly, the weapons you’ll find there aren’t up to much, and as the weeks roll by we’re finding there’s progressively less incentive to revisit. Happily, something far superior awaits in the Crucible. While PVE players have had a weekly route to endgame gear throughout Destiny’s life – albeit one at the mercy of Bungie’s stingy RNG – those seeking to reach the level cap while only playing its adversarial multiplayer component have had to wait for Iron Banner, a seven-day event running every four weeks. That returns, and is the same infuriating monthly festival of lag and bullshit as before, but it is no longer PVP’s headline act. That honour now rests with Trials Of Osiris, a weekend event that puts two teams of three players on a single map, awards a point when a full team is wiped out, and a win to the first team to five points. Lose three matches, and you’re out, but the rewards start coming after just a few wins, and if you win nine games without reply, you head to an area on Mercury that houses an enormous treasure chest containing some of the best new weapons in the game.
Whether you make it to Mercury or not, Trials is remarkable, a thrillingly tense and deeply tactical multiplayer mode that ranks alongside the Vault Of Glass raid as the best Destiny has to offer. Both make similar demands of the player: constant communication, a willingness to climb a learning curve that is not so much steep as sheer, a mix of careful planning and quick, reactive thinking. That five-round structure is unique to Trials, however, and represents its greatest trick, allowing just enough room for adaptation to opponents’ strategies and some dramatic swings in momentum. The standard is frighteningly high, and puts into even starker relief the PVP game’s balance problems (if there’s a God in Heaven, the poisoninflicting Thorn will have been nerfed by the time you read this), but it is, despite little niggles, essential.
As a package, House Of Wolves puts Destiny’s first expansion to shame; as part of a whole, it means that Destiny is finally so full of things to do that we’re struggling to keep on top of it all. Instead we just pick what we feel like: Destiny is, at last, about what you want to play, how you want to play it, and what you want to look like while you do it. Yes, it should have been that way from the start, but it proves that Bungie has been paying attention, and now recognises that an online game should not be defined by its developers or their algorithms, but its players. The studio’s image, and Destiny itself, are all the better for it.