Even before its release, the first expansion pack for co-op space shooter Destiny was attracting controversy. Now that it is available, the £20 add-on, called The Dark Below, is at the very centre of an ongoing debate about how publishers generate additional revenue from their games after release.
Simply put, publisher Activision is charging players £20 for ... not much. The pack includes three new story missions, three new multiplayer maps, two new co-operative multiplayer strikes (although one is exclusive to Sony’s Playstation) and a new six-person Raid, Crota’s End, aimed at the highest-level players.
The sparse new content takes a surprisingly long time to get through, though, because of the many gates the developer has put in the way of progress. For instance: before the flagship new strike can be undertaken, players must complete all three of the new story missions, plus four further “quest” bounties, taking them from Earth to the Moon and back. Those bounties are new gameplay in the most nominal fashion only, asking players to kill old enemies in old locations for a slightly different reason.
However, where the pack shines is in introducing a sense of continuity missing from the original game. Missions in Destiny - even those that ostensibly formed the core of the story mode - felt disconnected from one another, with only the bored ramblings of Peter Dinklage telling players why this particular alien threat was related to others.
The Dark Below shows Bungie paying attention to the lessons of MMOs like World of Warcraft, with a quest chain that actually works to build anticipation, giving players a view of the strike’s boss right from the start of the first new mission, and establishing her as a threat from the off. It is not quite the focus on story which some players were hoping for, but it feels like actual in-game world building, which has been notably absent until now.
And sparse does not necessarily mean bad. The new missions are among the best in the game so far, as is the main strike. Reports from the devoted few who have already managed to crack the Crota’s End raid suggest that it lives up to the quality of the Vault of Glass, although the new Crucible maps are more of a mixed bag, with Skyshock in particular clearly built for the currently non-existent Capture the Flag mode.
But in a way, talking about the quality of what you get with the Dark Below is moot, because of the way it has affected the base game. It is not an expansion pack; it is a subscription fee. While Destiny is nominally playable if you do not buy the Dark Below, the expansion has gated off a lot of stuff from players who have not bought in. Gone is the ability to get new Cryptarch engrams from Vanguard Strikes or play Heroic or Nightfall strikes (at least for this week; that might change in the future), and as time goes on that list looks like it will keep rising.
Viewed that way, the calculus changes somewhat: £20 for a three-month subscription, or £35 (the cost of the first two expansions if bought together) for a six-month one, is fairly reasonable. And when comparing the Dark Below content to what is introduced in a typical massively multiplayer online (MMO) game patch, rather than expansion pack, the material comes off more favourably. If so, that would make the inevitable Destiny 2 more akin to a full MMO expansion pack – and since players are likely to be able to carry their characters over, the comparison stands.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Dark Below is how it shows the areas Bungie is trying to tighten up, versus those where its offering to users is “deal with it”. Content will continue to be locked away behind a fair amount of grinding, and the price of entry (in cold, hard cash) probably is not going to fall any time soon. But since its launch, there has been an undeniable slickness to the way Bungie has presented what are fairly tired old mechanics, and the Dark Below shows no sign of that attention to detail dropping.
At this stage, it should be clear that Bungie is serious about its much-proclaimed intention to build the game as a ten-year franchise. The Dark Below is a good start at achieving that goal, but players will expect more in the future, and detractors will continue to ask questions about how publishers are transforming the idea of post-release content from added extras to gated community.
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