Human After er All
After a year of lessons learnt, Bungie is making space magic with Destiny: The Taken King
Destiny’s Psions are annoying. The lowliest foot soldier in the Cabal wields a puny blaster and a damaging shockwave attack, but its favourite move is the duck behind cover, where it will happily stay until all its comrades are dead, only emerging to pop off a few pointless shots or fall even farther back. Throughout the first year of
Destiny, Psions have been safely ignored: you focus fire on the bigger, more obvious threats and leave the grunts until the end. In The Taken
King, the huge expansion with which Bungie is kicking off Destiny’s second year of life, you do that at your peril.
The new enemy faction, the titular Taken, is in fact a combination of all four alien races from the base game. They’ve been captured and enslaved by Oryx, a godlike being frequently referred to in the game’s lore and the central aggressor here. Now his forces have been dispatched around the solar system to do their new master’s bidding, with new abilities that fundamentally change your approach to their destruction. Vandal snipers, who previously turned notreally-invisible using a rubbish cloaking device, now protect themselves with Titan-like bubble shields. Their Captains are shorn of the feeble teleport that moved them all of five yards, and instead blind you with darkness grenades. Vex Hobgoblins fire three-way bursts of homing missiles. And Psions? Psions clone themselves. Let one dip behind cover and it will soon become two, then four, then eight, and the only way to stop that happening is to kill every single one – and fast. What was once the last thing on your mind is now the first order of business as Bungie forces you to think about the familiar in jarringly new, but thoroughly satisfying, ways.
The Taken are a fine metaphor for the current state of Destiny. With The Taken King, Bungie is not simply adding to the game as we know it today, it is also changing many of its fundamental elements, and much of its existing content. The Taken will be everywhere, forcing you to approach in brand-new ways the encounters and spaces you’ve seen hundreds or perhaps thousands of times before. The game’s new areas are about more than simply being sprinted through on your way to the next firefight, and bosses are no longer mere bullet sponges. The story finally makes proper use of all that expensive voice talent. Guardians’ progression has been overhauled to better smooth the transition between campaign and endgame. The loot system has been redesigned too, reducing the reliance on dice rolls, and high-level gear will be more widely, reliably available from a variety of activities.
The Taken King represents a root-and-branch reexamination of Destiny based on what worked, and really didn’t, in the base game. Just as Oryx could not raise his legions of Taken without the four existing enemy factions from which to draw, so The Taken
King’s advancements only make sense within the context of the prior existence and history of Destiny itself – a game that’s mechanically exceptional but structurally flawed, thin on content but almost impossible to walk away from. Destiny is evolving, and so is Bungie. Based on what we’ve seen from two solid days of playing The Taken King and talking to the people behind it, both have changed for the better.
You might not have noticed, but Nathan Fillion is in Destiny. He’s just one member of a voice cast that must have been assembled at significant expense and was almost entirely wasted in both the base game and its first two follow-ups. As Cayde-6, the Hunter class’s representative in the Vanguard faction, Fillion is reduced to the role of quest giver and gear flogger. He never moves, and speaks only a little. Indeed, every one of the Tower’s NPCs – Bill Nighy, Lance Reddick, Gina Torres, John DiMaggio, Erick Avari et al – are rooted to the spot and practically mute. Yet sometimes, as you draw near, Cayde-6 utters a single line that lays plain the extent to which Fillion’s acting chops have been thus far squandered in a game that takes itself far too seriously. “Sometimes you’ll just be fucking around in the Tower,” The
Taken King’s creative director, Luke Smith, explains, “and you’ll hear him whisper, ‘Take me with you.’ We talked about that a lot. Fillion’s so talented; how can we get more of the game’s narrative into his capable hands?”
The solution is simple and, like much of what Bungie is introducing in The Taken King, obvious: you give the talented actors behind those underused characters more of a role, and you let them be funny. New writers have been brought in, and are working to a quite different brief to the base game, which aimed for grand and mysterious but hit portentous and dreary. “The game’s fun,” Smith says. “Running round the world shooting monsters is fun. It’s a dark story if you get into it; there’s an opportunity for us to make some real dark stuff. But, you know, give me more Han Solo and not so much Obi-Wan.”
The new direction is apparent with minutes. The opening cinematic culminates in a huge dogfight between warring factions in space, the game finally portraying a universe at war. As we trek through a Cabal ship under assault from Oryx and the Hive, the mentally scarred and deeply unhinged Eris Morn (the primary quest giver in Destiny’s first DLC expansion, The
Dark Below) is made gentle fun of by Lance Reddick’s Commander Zavala. “Eris was a really strong, cool character in The Dark Below, but on her own she’s a little intense,” Smith says. “If you give her some light foils – even let Zavala, this really serious military guy, make a joke – there’s a lot of fun to be had.”
Indeed there is, and before long Cayde-6 finally starts to feel like a Nathan Fillion character, taking umbrage at Morn butting in uninvited on a Vanguard strategy meeting (“Eris, get your rock off my map”). We are perhaps 20 minutes into The Taken King and we are already more invested in Destiny’s story and its principals than we have been in 400 hours of play. Executive producer Mark
Noseworthy draws a comparison to the Toy Story films: that the Vanguard’s members presumably went freely about their business until you entered near-Earth orbit, at which point someone would shout, ‘Places!’ and everyone would rush to their mark and pretend to be made out of plastic and stuck down with glue. Bungie has changed all that with a single cutscene, then maintained it across the game.
“You see the Vanguard interacting while you’re not there,” Noseworthy says, “and you realise that while you’re out fighting battles, the people in the Tower are planning, talking about things. When you come back, they’re ready to sell you stuff, maybe give you some quests, but [now you know] they’re actually real people. A big part of the plan for year two was focusing the story on the characters. Who’s in the Tower that we can really pull out of there, both from a cinematic and storytelling perspective, and have them come along for the ride with you?”
One character who’s been along for the ride since the start is Ghost, the AI companion voiced in famously dismal fashion by Peter Dinklage. Dinklage is gone. In his place is a heavily voice-masked Nolan North, Bungie going so far as to have the new incumbent record Dinklage’s lines again. The shift in tone is immediately apparent here too, but there is far more to The Taken King’s Ghost than North delivering a better-written script with a little more flair.
Throughout year one, Ghost contributed little. It droned on about the mission, highlighted objective markers, scanned countless terminals and keypad locks while the next area loaded in, and that was pretty much your lot. Here, it can highlight invisible bridges, which we use to traverse vast chasms – the catch being that the path is only displayed when Ghost is active, and it deactivates when you sprint, shoot or jump. That’s no problem when there’s a solid path across an abyss. Later on, we encounter a series of small platforms to jump between, which of course disappear from sight the instant you leap towards them.
North’s Ghost is wittier, too, and while it retains its sceneryscanning role, it is now used more frequently and in less predictable ways. One campaign mission takes us through the arena where we fought Sepiks Prime, an early boss in the base game. Its carcass lies there on the floor, and can be scanned for a bit of backstory. It’s part of a desire, Smith says, to make up for Destiny’s lacklustre lore. This is a richly crafted world, and there’s plenty of detail on it in the Grimoire cards you unlock as you progress, but there’s no way of reading those in-game, all that text bizarrely ripped off the disc and stuck on a website. “We’re yet to meet our potential in getting Grimoire [material] into the game,” Smith says, wryly. “The thing we have done, though, is address the desire for lore with the Ghost. It’s a local, boots-on-the-ground purveyor of lore. In that opt-in way, there’s more of it in the game.” Crucially, scannable areas aren’t signalled until you draw near, and even then only by audio cue, Bungie encouraging you to take your time and explore your surroundings instead of just sprinting through them as before.
The trip past Sepiks Prime’s corpse takes us into and up the old colony ship that towers over the Cosmodrome, a gentle platforming sequence with a few devious tricks up its sleeve. Later, there’s a stealth section, though it’s played more for drama than difficulty, with enemy detection radii clearly communicated and safely avoided. At the climax of another mission, you’re faced with overwhelming odds and told to turn tail and run. Destiny has always been a fantastic shooter, but at times it has felt like that’s all it has going for it. Its storytelling struggles were not simply a matter of
“IT WAS REALLY IMPORTANT TO DESIGN THE TAKEN KING
SO THE ENDGAME WAS ACCESSIBLE TO MORE PEOPLE”
scriptwriting, but also structure. There is no sense of events unfolding when all you are doing is shooting a slightly different set of enemies in a slightly different arena. Now, Destiny’s story has a sense of pace. It has drama. And, as before, when the final boss goes down it is not the end of the game, just the end of its beginning.
The start of Destiny’s endgame was bewildering. When you reached level 20, your XP gains would no longer increase your level, or your power. Instead, you needed to seek out progressively better pieces of armour with an abruptly introduced stat rating called Light. You’d find some new armour, equip it, then level it up to increase its Light rating. Eventually, your character’s Light level would go up a tier, enabling you to take on more difficult challenges in the hope of getting better gear, which, in turn, would need to be upgraded. Doing so required huge amounts of materials that could only be found in chests and hidden corners of Destiny’s four planets. The only way of reaching the true level cap was by getting, then fully upgrading, a set of armour from the Vault Of Glass raid, where drops were regulated by a miserly RNG system.
The sum total of Bungie’s explanation of all this was a single paragraph of text that appeared when you hit level 20, and then vanished forever. The results, Smith admits, were predictable. “We saw players just… drop off, man.”
Noseworthy elaborates. “You’d get to level 20 and the progression game changes on you with the acquisition of Light, and that wasn’t [made] clear. Once you get past that hump – once you learn how it works and you understand all the mechanics of the endgame – you really start enjoying Destiny more. You look back on your entire experience, and it changes.
“When we were looking at The Taken King, we didn’t want to deny people what’s maybe the best part of the experience: to look back on all that content and understand how it all connects together, that the story you’re playing now is your story. It’s the story of the acquisition of power and gear, and playing with your friends. Those are the things you’re going to remember about Destiny when you’re 80. You’re not going to remember this one beat from the linear story; you’re going to remember the time you got Gjallarhorn. It was really important to us to design The Taken King in such a way that the endgame was accessible to more people.”
The main stumbling blocks in the vanilla game were the abrupt introduction of Light, the near-total absence of fresh content in which to seek it out, and the stinginess of the random loot system. Smith points out, fairly, that things improved through patches and DLC: drop rates became more generous, and gear upgrades became cheaper and easier. But that came too late for the people who played the game at launch, finished the campaign, and drifted away either confused by the game’s structure or frustrated by the sparseness of its content and its tight-fisted RNG.
“I spent the majority of last summer playing the game,” Smith says, “and I think we definitely knew we were erring, deliberately, towards something that was too stingy. I don’t think we really forecast the reaction to the transactional relationship between time and effort. We whiffed that. We could have done better.” When you load back into the Tower after finishing
The Taken King’s campaign, you are almost overwhelmed by things to do. Every major NPC and vendor offers up at least one quest of some kind – the Crucible Quartermaster has a job for you to do in PVP multiplayer, the Cryptarch needs your help decrypting corrupted engrams – and each will end with a guaranteed reward. The Taken King may technically be an expansion, but it introduces a larger pool of weapons and armour than the base game offered, and many items will be easier to come by.
When you’re done with the quests, you can play Strikes, which instead of appearing as you progress through the campaign are now high-level activities. Previously, Strikes were a series of fixed encounters ending with firefights against enemies that summoned waves of minions while you chipped away at their colossal health bars. Now there are multiple possible enemy waves for each stage of the mission, the game choosing one randomly when it loads in. And there is now a much greater focus on the mechanics of a boss fight. A new PS4-exclusive Strike, Echo Chamber, has you ferry a relic across the arena and deposit it in a statue – your movement slowed, and
A Titan soars into battle with the Suros rocket launcher
Bannerfall is a new Crucible map set in an abandoned, derelict equivalent of Earth’s Tower hub. It means that this hived-off multiplayer mode finally feels like part of Destiny’s fiction
Luke Smith led design on the Vault Of Glass and is now The TakenKing’s creative director
Weapon design and balance duties fall to Jon Weisnewski, sandbox designer at Bungie
Cinematics make The Taken King’s shift in narrative tone clear from the start, taking a far lighter approach. Every bit as welcome is the news that cutscenes can now be skipped entirely
The Taken King’s executive producer, Mark Noseworthy