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



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

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