The King is dead. Long live the King.
Grinding is something of a dirty word in gaming. Basically it means repeating the same process over and over in an effort to improve your character, usually by levelling up, getting new gear, or increasing your reputation with an in-game faction. Grinding is also one of gaming's trickiest balancing acts, and compelling players to complete the same tasks repeatedly is a huge challenge. The rewards need to be worth it, but these rewards have to be rare enough to not be arbitrary; not too rare though, or no one will bother. Like I said: tricky!
Destiny's first year has been a bit of a grind, but despite its lack of character, unfair loot drops and tedious repetition, it has become a huge success. There was always the promise of what Destiny could be. The tremendous shooting mechanics and world design were a diamond dulled by a few mistakes, and eventually, its developers -- Bungie -- would get the formula right. It's taken a year and three expansions, but I think they've done it. The Taken King transforms Destiny. The skeleton is the same: embark on missions for new gear and improve your character, only now, there's meat on the bones.
The game's spectacular opening cinematic is the precursor to a story that, when compared with the anaemic effort in the original Destiny, is practically Shakespearian. Oryx is out for revenge for the murder of his son, Crota, the big boss in The Dark Below expansion. The story gives your missions purpose beyond the simple hunt for gear and the levels on offer in the campaign are significantly more memorable as a result. Much of the story's success stems from how it is told. The missions are still introduced by broadcasts from the tower, but it's amazing what a bit of personality can do. The bland, overly serious characters of old have a new lease of life and finally seem capable of speaking to each other. I've played Destiny for many hours, but before The Taken King's release I would've been hard pressed to name a single character in the Tower. Now I actually look forward to what Cayde-6 and Zavalla have to tell me.
It's not just the story that makes the missions in The Taken King memorable; a concerted effort has been made to make each feel distinct. No more is it a case of killing everything until a door unlocks, and large, open areas don't always mean a battle is about to ensue. Enemy encounters are much less predictable and more exciting, as are the layouts and objectives. One level is almost entirely vertical, requiring players to leap their way up a dilapidated tower. Another has players sneak through an army of Hive in third-person view. The much needed gameplay variety found in these levels is exactly what a game based on repetition needs and these are the missions I will be happiest to return to again in high level nightfall quests.
As much as I love sneaking and jumping, Destiny is a game about shooting things with fancy guns and Bungie's new enemy types are a lot of fun to shoot. The Taken are existing adversaries that the King, Oryx, has enslaved to his will, granting them new abilities and a spectral, otherworldly visage. All of Destiny's old enemies -- The Hive, Cabal, Fallen and Vex -- have taken alter-egos and learning what they can do is as exciting as the first time you met a Hive Wizard, or Cabal Colossus. Taken can appear anywhere turning same old fights against same old enemies on their head. They even appear in earlier strikes altering encounters and bringing variety to Destiny's most played content.
The new strikes have received the same invigorating treatment as the campaign. The bosses are far more tactical affairs now, with more in common with those found in the games raids. They still require a lot of damage to put down, but teamwork is a requirement, particularly on heroic difficulty. One notable encounter features two powerful assailants: one peppers the arena with mortar fire, whilst the other charges at you, causing major damage if he connects. A ring on the floor warns of the impending mortar shells whilst the charge is only telegraphed at the very last moment. The unpredictability of the attacks requires constant vigilance and concentration on the part of the player and helps the encounter stay fresh and exciting.
Tying much of the expansion's content together is the brand new patrol zone, The Dreadnaught. Oryx's personal ship is gargantuan, and its twisting halls and seemingly out-of-reach areas demand to be explored. The dreadnaught is a puzzle in of itself, full of hidden chests which can only be unlocked by certain items, I'm sure there will be a guide in no time explaining what keys opens which chest, but for now figuring out how to get inside these treasure troves is a great diversion from the usual patrol missions and material hunts.
It's not just Destiny's content that has received a shot in the arm; the levelling and loot systems have also been overhauled. Light no longer affects what level you are; experience alone will see you to the new level cap of 40. Light now represents how good your gear is and the game's harder content shouldn't really be attempted until you've reached the recommended light level. Separating light and experience has the added benefit of creating a more satisfying sense of progression. Your light level can reach over 300 and most new gear pieces will raise your level by at least 1. This tangible buff bringing you ever closer to Destiny's best content is a compelling reason to keep grinding. Thankfully the grind is not as severe as it used to be. Loot drops are more frequent now and I finally felt as though the rewards represented my achievements. Far from lessening the sense of accomplishment and effort, the consistency of the loot pushed me to keep playing strikes and keep stabbing away at a tough raid bosses because I knew I would receive an adequate loot drop at the end of it all.
Once your light hits 290 you are ready for The Taken King's crown jewel, its raid. The King's Fall is, as you might expect, geared around taking down Oryx. This is the largest raid Bungie has done so far, and each boss requires communication, teamwork and skill just to figure out its weakness, let alone kill it. The platforming seen in the campaign has also found its way into the raid. These sections are a welcome diversion between bosses and serve as a better pallet cleanser than waves of elite enemies.
If competitive multiplayer is more your thing, top level gear can also be earned in the Crucible. With eight new maps and a new mode (Rift) -- which works as a Capture the Flag variant where both teams battle to bring the "spark" back to their camp -- there is more variety in the crucible than ever before. The new maps are up to Bungie's usual high standards and once again show their mastery of multiplayer design. The seemingly haphazard placement of buildings and cover is in fact perfectly situated to generate pockets of combat and push players towards each other.
Rounding out The Taken King's bevy of new content are the three new subclasses, one for each guardian spec. My Titan can now hurl flaming hammers at the enemy, which is as epic as it sounds. Warlocks hover and spray lightning from their fingers and Hunters have a bow that roots groups of enemies to the spot. These new abilities cleverly plug gaps in the guardian's arsenal: Titans now have a ranged super ability, whilst the Hunters new skill benefits their group in raids and strikes.
The Taken King still suffers from some dull end-game missions, particularly those that ask you to seek out certain patrol missions on planets which can take far too long to find, but on the whole the expansion is a huge step up in terms of variety. Rather than an endless string of bounties, there are several quest chains that only start when the campaign ends and it's easier than ever before to gain reputation with factions by turning in motes of light and crafting materials for a boost.
There was never any doubt that Bungie knew how to make a shooter, but what was clear a year ago is that they weren't too sure of how to incorporate one into an online RPG. The Taken King, in contrast, is a game that embraces its inner MMO by adding branching quests from multiple sources, achieving a more satisfying balance between reward and effort, and creating new zones that encourage exploration. This expansion feels like what Bungie always set out to do. The shooter and MMO now sit in a state of harmony and the resulting experience is a great one.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a digital copy provided by Activision.
Images courtesy of Activision Publishing.