Destiny: The Taken King
360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
One year ago, Destiny’s campaign ended not with a bang so much as a poorly stifled fart. It was appropriate, in a way – the storytelling of the previous dozen or so hours had been largely guff. But it was a disappointment nonetheless, the most hyped game of 2014 closing out with a whimper, watching wordlessly as you stumbled into its baffling endgame.
What a difference a year makes. The Taken King’s story arc ends with an explosion; not of polygons and particles, but of things to do. You return to the Tower hub area and everyone wants a piece of you, offering rewards for a job well done and suggestions on what you might want to do next. Your quest log spreads to a second page, then a third. After 12 months spent running and re-running, week in and week out, the same missions and raids, it’s a little overwhelming. It is hard to even know where to start.
The beauty is it doesn’t matter. Everything has its own reward, and a guaranteed one at that. The base game’s RNG systems are still around, but that matters far less when turning in a quest so often yields desirable weapons and armour. Randomness usually works in your favour now, with even the lowliest rank of enemies able to drop powerful gear when killed. Throughout Destiny’s first year, we could count the number of times we saw a legendary engram in open play on our fingers. The Taken King had that licked within a day or two.
Even some exotics, Destiny’s rarest gear, have become fixed rewards from certain tasks. One of the more humdrum quest lines ends with the surprise reward of a brilliant scout rifle. Other exotic quests are more challenging, demanding extreme proficiency with certain weapons, completion of some of the game’s toughest challenges, or that you strip the vast Dreadnaught ship belonging to title villain Oryx of its dozens of glimmering collectibles. Exotics can even be found more often in open play, with a new item, Three Of Coins, boosting the chance of bosses dropping them in engram form. Destiny has changed a lot with The Taken King, but perhaps the most rewarding tweak is the way loot visibly springs from bosses, rather than drops being heralded by a line of text or icon popup. Seeing a hulking space demon explode in a shower of blue (containing rare gear), purple (legendary) and gold (exotic) engrams is a buzzy thrill that even now, with a hundred hours played across three intoxicating weeks, has yet to lose even a fraction of its power.
The Taken King rains loot, then, as any good loot game should. Yet while the wider availability of top-tier items is one of this expansion’s most refreshing tweaks, Bungie’s greater achievement is its reinvention of supposedly lesser gear. Rare items are, as before, the most common kind of drop past the level cap, but are now vital additions to your loadout all the way through to the endgame. While legendary and exotic gear will have better perks, a rare drop’s attack or defence stat is based on your current power level. Meanwhile, your Light rating – the measure of your overall power – is now a three-digit average of the base attack or defence values of everything you have equipped, not the sum of a stat tied to certain pieces of armour. You might be wearing a legendary helm with a defence of 280, then pick up a rare with 295. Early on, you’ll equip it to push up your Light, powering you up to access tougher missions. Later, you’ll use it as Infusion fuel to boost the stats of gear that better complements your playstyle.
It is a simple change that has had a dramatic effect on both Destiny’s minute-to-minute action and its bigger picture. Every drop, no matter the rarity, now has at least the potential for meaning. Progress up the new, three-digit power curve is steady and almost constant, a vital change from the launch game, where it could take weeks to climb a single level. And Infusion means a much greater level of control over what your characters look like and how they play. Twelve months ago, the sole way of hitting the level cap was by wearing armour that was only available from the Vault Of Glass raid. You can reach The Taken King’s Light cap of 310 while wearing, and shooting, whatever you like.
These changes only tell half the story; the old Destiny’s problems ran far deeper than the way its content was structured and its gear doled out. Happily, Bungie has addressed these issues too. Storytelling is vastly improved, the tone overhauled to suit a game in which your sniper rifle reloads itself while you throw flaming hammers at space wizards. While Nolan North taking Peter Dinklage’s role as your Ghost companion made headlines when it was announced, the real star is Nathan Fillion, whose talents were so weirdly wasted last time out. Fillion’s Cayde-6 is wry, charming and a key player throughout the campaign. He is Captain Mal, quest giver and cutscene-quipper, and a key factor in aerating the stuffiness of the former Destiny. The missions are better too, with stealth, escape and platforming sections adding variety to a game that was previously wary of asking any more of you than simply shooting at things until they explode.
The exception to that rule was the Vault Of Glass, the core offering’s fantastic six-player raid, where fights were as much about puzzle solving as precision shooting. The Vault’s lead designer is The Taken King’s creative director, and the influence of Luke Smith’s philosophy can be felt all the way through the game. It’s especially prevalent on the Dreadnaught, the colossal Hive ship that plays host to many new story missions and strikes, and that’s unlocked for patrol once you finish the campaign. Like Destiny’s planets, it’s a series of instanced areas with respawning waves of enemies and chests full of upgrade materials. Unlike the
Progress up the new threedigit power curve is steady and almost constant, a vital change from the launch game
others, it’s filled to bursting with secrets – complex cave networks, faraway ledges, mysterious terminals and chests that can only be opened with specific keys – and your inventory slowly fills with curious objects that hint at their purpose with Souls- like descriptions.
And if mystery’s not your thing, there’s the Court Of Oryx, where you can summon boss battles and any passing player can join in. Activated with a rune of one of three tiers – the first spawning a single boss fight, the second combining two of them, the third kicking off a battle with a recommended Light level of 300 that changes every week – they’re a fine way of blowing off steam, and yet another path to a loot drop in a game that is now enormously generous with its gear.
What of the gear itself? In a way, The Taken King’s new additions to the armoury are less exciting than what came before. We are yet to find anything so overpowered as a Fate bringer or Gjallarhorn, but given the new emphasis on mechanics over bullet sponges, there’s no need for it. Instead, weapons have situational benefits. Since the game practically throws loot at you, it makes perfect sense to have certain tools be of use in specific situations. Raid weapons, for instance, automatically reload when stowed, prompting a shrug of the shoulders at first and a Eureka moment when you realise they’re almost essential in parts of the raid itself. Ah, yes, the raid. The Taken King may have improved
Destiny in almost every respect, but that was hardly the highest of bars to clear. As such, King’s Fall was always going to be Bungie’s biggest test – one it passes with a lengthy, varied sequence of boss fights that require patient puzzle solving and near-perfect coordination to surmount, interspersed with environmental challenges that lighten the mood a little with every slapstick demise. Better than the Vault Of Glass? Perhaps. We’re postponing judgement until the other difficulties launch, but it’s at least as good as the finest co-op experience around, which seems like praise enough.
Bungie has done a remarkable job with The Taken King, but not a perfect one. Some of its quests are too reminiscent of the Destiny of old, making you hang around in public spaces waiting for events to appear, killing time and the same old groups of enemies spawning from the same old places. Some waits are even more tortuous: we stayed up far too late one Thursday night to complete a frustrating part of an exotic quest, only to be told our handler was waiting on some parts and our reward wouldn’t be ready until the following Wednesday. And while the new structure has done wonders for the PVE game, it has made a mess of the PVP Crucible. Quests demand wins, so players are quitting at the hint of a loss; each day, one gametype doles out valuable Legendary Marks for completing a match, meaning many aren’t even trying to compete.
All of this is fixable, however, and while six months ago there’d have been reason to doubt Bungie’s ability to put right Destiny’s many little failings, The Taken King is a game made of fixes. It uses preexisting flaws as the foundations for something that is better in just about every single way: bigger, more coherent and, best of all, immeasurably more generous. With that comes, appropriately, a puzzle for Bungie to solve. How do you continue to build on a game that has so few chinks in its lustrous, gleaming exotic armour?
Strikes are now among our favourite pastimes, thanks to a buff to drop rates the longer you stay in the playlist, and a piece of armour exclusive to each one. This boss can drop a natty pair of Warlock gauntlets, for instance