While it’s not fair to say that The Taken King is what Destiny should have been a year ago, the sprawling expansion resolves every compunction I had against recommending the game—except one.
The Taken King is the result of constant feedback from critics and Destiny’s rabid fans about dearth of content, a lackluster story, and systems of advancement tied to luck and repetition, all of which were huge letdowns after Bungie and Activision had promised an epic adventure and delivered nothing of the sort in September 2014.
While some abandoned the game after that early disappointment, others trucked on because there was something compelling about Destiny despite its flaws. The art design was gorgeous. The graphics were some of the best we’ve seen on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with realistic shadows and lighting effects and a polished smoothness.
The shooting was tight. The movement was precise and responsive. The craft of Destiny’s construction—the scaffolding on which Destiny’s story and systems were built—was beyond reproach.
The first expansion, The Dark Below was light on content but began to fill out the game’s lore and introduced a new quest system. The second, House of Wolves took meaningful steps to fill in the narrative, introduced fresh activities, opened several new spaces for players to explore. Now The Taken King has addressed almost all of Destiny’s shortcomings.
The Taken King, in its first 10 minutes, has more personality than Destiny’s entire debut, and delivers moments that may shock veteran players who care about the Destiny universe and its lore. Nathan Fillion delivers a wonderful performance as the Exo robot Cayde-6, with Fillion’s trademark, roguish charm.
Understanding the value of your weapons and armor and how to level your character is intuitive. Players have been given agency in how their characters evolve. Even simple changes to inventory management do wonders to make Destiny easier to play by giving players fewer systems to wrestle against.
That one remaining reservation about recommending Destiny? You really need some friends to play it with. If you’re not a social online gamer, Destiny might not be for you. The Taken King has made the need for a three-player Fireteam more important that it’s ever been.
There are six story missions in The Taken King that advance Destiny’s timeline from Year One, into the new world of Year Two.
The Guardians are warriors brought back from the dead by Ghosts—floating artificial intelligences—to defend humanity from the threat of extinction. The Guardians have spent the past year defending Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars from four-armed Fallen pirates, the necromantic Hive, time-traveling Vex, and militaristic Cabal.
Now, as Year Two begins, a disabled Hive Dreadnaught floats within a hole it blasted out of one of Saturn’s rings, and the Guardians have invaded the ship.
The inside of the Dreadnaught is yellow with decay, filled with monstrous statues and glowing portals and wicked chains hanging from the ceiling like something out of Hellraiser. The scene draws perfectly on everything Destiny players have learned about the undead-looking soldiers and dark sorcerers of the Hive.
Oryx, the Hive King who commands the Dreadnaught, has also raised an army of Taken, enemies who were ripped out of our dimension and transformed into far more dangerous versions of themselves, armed with abilities that Destiny players have not yet had to face.
The arrival of the Taken is preceded by a translucent black smog shortly before liquidy blots of Darkness appear as a portal that disgorges Taken. They show up in old Strike missions, making oft-repeated content fresh again. They pop up all over the original four maps. You might be patrolling the Mothyards, the gravesite of old transport planes in the Cosmodrome on Earth, and suddenly the Taken appear and come rushing at you.
When the six main story missions have ended, The Taken King’s quest system opens up, and almost all of Destiny’s supporting characters dish out quests. They’re precisely what you’d expect from a massively multiplayer online game: a chain of missions to kill things or retrieve stuff, followed by a reward.
While questing is old hat to MMOs in general it’s new to Destiny, and the sheer number of quests we’ve been hit with over the past week is almost overwhelming. Where Destiny has been criticized for a lack of things to do, now there is no shortage of things to do.
Destiny’s lore has to date been buried in the Grimoire, a series of short stories that players unlock by achieving certain tasks. Anyone who wanted to read about the world of Destiny in the Grimoire had to either head to Bungie’s website, or start using the official Destiny app for iOS and Android devices.
To get the most out of some of the quests, you really need to have done your reading in the Grimoire. That’s a bummer for new players who will miss out on context as they may not have read the Grimoire, but for veteran players who are read up on Destiny’s lore, some of these quest missions finally place the lore into the game, where it belongs.
Each of Destiny’s three character classes—Hunters, Titans, and Warlocks—now each have an additional subclass with new powers and abilities. Hunters earn a bow that traps enemies, for crowd control. Titans summon flaming mallets that can be arced into the sky like mortars or used to smash enemies at close range. Warlocks turn into something reminiscent of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, floating through the air and shooting bolts of lightning that make short work of just about everything.
Character experience levels are still in the game, and still feel as extraneous as ever. Year One characters could be a maximum level of 34. The Taken King raises the level cap to 40. You’ll possibly hit that during the six story missions alone. Bungie may as well ditch the traditional MMO leveling system altogether.
What actually matters is your Light level, a measure of how much damage you do and how much damage you can take. Light used to be tied exclusively to what armor you were wearing, and the high-level armor you needed for a high Light level was difficult to come by.
Now, your Light level takes into account every piece of gear you’re wearing and every weapon you have equipped. Your Light level is the average between all those numbers, and the potency of every item is measured on the same scale. If you want to access Destiny’s best content, you want to achieve a Light score of 290.
Where Destiny mostly worked on systems of luck and random chance in Year One, now the game acknowledges your Light level and more often drops gear that might actually be useful to you. Compare this to a year ago, when Destiny was first released and players were shooting into caves out of desperation to score gear.
Finding gear is still a very important aspect of Destiny, but it’s no longer what primarily defines the game.
All of these systemic improvements are important to why The Taken King is a successful expansion, but it’s the little things that make The Taken King so enjoyable.
In the past, when you summoned your Ghost to check mission objectives, it merely floated in your palm. Now, Ghost will scan objects in the world, and the scans reveal tidbits of story and context.
Maybe it’s a computer terminal in a Cabal warship. You hear a little beeping noise, Ghost’s icon appears in the corner of the screen, and when you summon your Ghost, he turns to look at the object he wants to scan. Where Ghost was previously just a UI element, now he feels more like part of the world you inhabit while you’re running missions.
In Year One, managing your vanity items like Jumpships and decorative Shaders and Emblems, was a pain the ass at best, juggling them between up to three characters, or moving them in and out of your vault, or, in the worst scenario, having to delete them to make room for new ones. The Taken King introduces a kiosk system that allows players to access every vanity item they ever unlocked. None of it needs to stay in your inventory if you don’t want it to.
Bounties—small objectives that eventually lead to big rewards—also used to be an annoyance. You could only accept 10 at a time, and then had to return to the Tower (the home of the Guardians) to turn the bounties in and get the rewards. Now you can take up to 14 bounties at once, and when they’re completed turn them in right from the UI, without having to interrupt whatever else you’re doing.
Where Destiny used to have a dozen different currencies for buying and upgrading items, now there are only three truly important currencies. All of this streamlining and optimization of systems in The Taken King means players have fewer headaches getting in the way of enjoying the content.
The lingering problem with Destiny is its continuing lack of proper social support for players, which in a typical MMO is unthinkable.
“Shield Brothers” and “The Sunless Cell,” the two new three-person Strikes in The Taken King, play with the Strike formula. One of them pits Guardians against multiple boss characters, while another plays with light, darkening players’ vision and making them wonder where the giant Hive creature with the giant sword is lurking.
The new multiplayer mode, Rift, is like a version of capture-the flag, where teams fight to collect a Spark, and then use it to light up the other team’s Rift. Making sure the fastest player on a team—different character classes can be faster than others, and equipment can also increase a player’s speed—carries the Spark is a good idea.
A new cooperative activity called the Court of Oryx, located on the Dreadnaught, allows players to summon Hive mini-boss enemies for short battles that take place on a timer. Each mini-boss, or combination of mini-bosses (they appear simultaneously in some cases) have a unique strategy that players must employ in order to win the battle.
All of these new activities benefit greatly from teamwork. It would be useful for Destiny players to have some sort of in-game tool to find other players to form groups for the new Strikes, or Rift battles, or the Court of Oryx. But the best Destiny provides are open chat channels that let strangers jump in together, and anyone with experience on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live may hesitate to jump into an open chat and face the potential verbal abuse from other gamers.
Then there are Raids, which are impossible to succeed at with random players and no voice chat. You can’t even get into the new Raid, King’s Fall, without a group of people because it’s locked against entry by individuals.
Websites like the100.io and DestinyLFG.net can help you meet new players if your friends aren’t already into Destiny. The challenge, then, for new players is finding people who aren’t Year One veterans more interested in playing the new content than helping out fresh players to the game. It’s the classic problem faced by all MMOs. When an expansion comes out, it renders all the previous content obsolete and stratifies the player base.
Destiny is ultimately a game about community, and you need to decide whether you’re willing to put time into a game you can’t fully experience on your own. If you step into the official forums on Bungie.net, become active on the Destiny subreddit, or participate in the Planet Destiny community, eventually you’ll find a stable group of Guardians to form Fireteams. But you’re going to have to put the work in.
Destiny is also a game that requires a significant amount of time to get the most out of it. Year One veterans cite numbers like 700 hours total play time. I’ve put in 1,100 hours, myself.
If you’ve never wanted to play World of Warcraft because you think it will take too much of your life, the same concern applies to Destiny.
If you’re willing to do the social networking and accept the time commitment that Destiny requires to reach its endgame content, you’ll be treated to the first massively multiplayer online game built around the core of first-person shooter gameplay, a unique entry in the world of video games, and a growing universe where you and your fellow Guardians are all that stand between the Light, humanity’s last hope, and the Darkness that threatens to wipe us out forever.
Disclosure: Our Xbox One review copy of Destiny: The Taken King was provided by Activision.
Illustration courtesy of Activision