It was a year ago when Destiny hit consoles, promising a new era of super-connected online shooting.
The first new series from Halo developer Bungie since 2001, it combined the meaty gunplay and polished exterior of that series with the deeply satisfying loot-gathering of a game like Diablo. On top of all that was a smattering of World of Warcraft-style massively-multiplayer content such as raids and public events.
Those first few weeks flying around in space with your AI “Ghost” buddy in tow were glorious, even if Peter Dinklage’s delivery as the sidekick was so bad that simple adjectives like “bored” and “wooden” fail to do it justice. But as the novelty wore off, so too did the shine. For something so clearly standing on the shoulders of giants, there was a bizarre failure to learn the lessons of the past.
Where World of Warcraft has spent the best part of a decade iterating and improving MMO mechanics, Destiny seemed intent on reinventing them from scratch. The game launched with almost no matchmaking functionality for any serious play, requiring players to put themselves into teams of three to six friends manually. Bungie insisted on treating co-operative and competitive play the same for balancing purposes, ensuring that weapons were frequently bizarrely overpowered or completely useless. Earning high-level loot, explicitly required to participate in the game’s high-point, the Vault of Glass raid, was an exercise in frustration and destructive psychological loops to the extent that players chose to stand outside a cave shooting low-level enemies for hours on end to earn rewards, rather than play the game “as intended”. Those are problems World of Warcraft experienced at launch, too – over a decade ago.
Worse, Bungie had seemingly forgotten its own history. Where Halo’s sprawling space opera presented an engrossing world with memorable characters and fully-realised motivations from the off, Destiny’s plot was a forgettable, confusing mess, with plot threads left hanging, foes whose motivation was barely more than “space zombie”, and voice acting which took an all-star cast (Peter Dinklage, Nathan Fillion and Bill Nighy all play a role) and couldn’t eke a memorable line from any of them. Rumours of a wholesale rewrite months before release, stripping the majority of the plot out and shoving it in a companion “grimoire” app, were never confirmed, but lapped up by a player-base eager for some explanation as to how the developer could misstep so spectacularly.
A year on, I am still playing Destiny. Because for all that it gets wrong – and it gets so much wrong – it remains a phenomenally-executed game, offering moments of pure joy I’ve seen very rarely in any game before and since. Through two expansion packs, Bungie has ironed out some of the flaws present in the original game, retooling the hoarding instinct at the game’s heart to something more productive while steadily introducing more and better matchmaking to help those players (like me) who find it hard to pull a group together at short notice. I love it, but I’d taken to habitually describing it as “my favourite bad game of the year”.
Well, finally Destiny’s actually good.
Its latest expansion, The Taken King, comprehensively fixes the game’s most glaring flaws from the bottom-up. Even Peter Dinklage is stripped out, with everything – including pre-existing dialogue – now voiced by veteran videogame voice actor Nolan North. A new quest mechanic links together previously disparate missions into a coherent thread, boosted further by actually-interesting cutscenes, a first for the game. Nathan Fillion gets the chance to wisecrack, and it’s briefly like Firefly was never cancelled.
The game’s story picks up where the second expansion, House of Wolves, left off. Following the death of Crota, leader of the Hive (read: space-zombies), his daddy Oryx is out for revenge. He arrives in a dreadnought, blows a whole in one of saturn’s moons, and sits there daring the Guardians, last saviours of humanity, to come for him.
And come you do. The game’s new story missions provide a compelling core to the game, seeing you break into the Dreadnought, explore the area, and take on Oryx himself. While the first two mini-expansions to the game were criticised for being little more than remixes of existing content, this one is all new: the Dreadnought feels worthy of becoming the game’s fifth major location, and the Taken, the new race that fights for Oryx, are welcome as a fresh face.
When they were initially revealed, there was concern that the Taken might be little more than reskinned versions of past foes: in the lore of the game, Oryx “takes” creatures from other races, infuses them with his power, and puts them back in the world to fight for him. But in practice, they feel more than different enough from their past selves to justify their inclusion. Where Hive Thralls sprint towards the player, Taken Thralls lumber slowly, before teleporting to a whole new position in seconds; where Cabal Phalanxes hide behind their shields, shooting over the top, Taken Phalanxes gain a weapon capable of firing you backwards at speed.
But as with the base game, it’s when the story ends that the real Destiny begins. This time, that’s even more explicit: upon claiming the reward for finishing the last mission, a number of quests immediately open up, pushing the player towards the new strikes, encouraging them to revisit old areas to battle the Taken there, and reminding them that the Crucible, where player-versus-player combat congregates, is still there.
Sadly, also like the base game, the progression mechanic falls apart just before the end. Although the game caps out at level 40, a new “light level” measures the quality of your gear. Raising that to 280 is relatively trivial, involving earning the newest late-game currency (“legendary marks”) and buying gear from the vendors. But to run the newest raid, King’s Fall, requires a light level of 290, only achievable so far through lucky drops or the once-a-week special “nightfall” strikes.
It makes sense that the raids are limited to the highest level players, demanding strict teamwork and a deep understanding of the game’s mechanics. But if the King’s Fall comes anywhere near the quality of the Vault of Glass raid from the original (and I’ve not yet been able to play it for myself, so it remains an open question), it’s a crying shame that the vast majority of Destiny’s players will never load it up.
Even so, The Taken King is the first time since launch that it’s been possible to say to new players that now is the time to start playing Destiny. The flaws have been ironed out, and the future’s bright.
However, there’s one final sticking point. The “Legendary Edition” of Destiny costs £40 new, and contains the base game, as well as all three expansion packs published to date. The digital download of the Taken King costs … £40 new. And contains just the download.
The discrepancy isn’t quite as bad in the US, where the download costs $40 (£26), but it’s also not just a case of rip-off Britain. Someone who’s been playing Destiny since day one will have paid around $100 or £100, depending on where they are, for the content that now functions as an effective demo. Worse, if they paid that and decide not to buy the Taken King, the base game has had content removed in the runup to the expansion: high level strike playlists, as well as a number of side quests and other activities, are now only available to those with the latest expansion.
As a result, it’s best to think of Destiny as mimicking the subscription model of a game like World of Warcraft, but through the medium of overpriced expansion packs rather than a monthly subscription fee. It changes the calculus somewhat, pushing players to pick between going all-in or not playing it at all. There’s not really such a thing as a casual Destiny player; or at least, not for long. But that’s fine by me. I’ve got more aliens to shoot in the face.
This article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 22nd September 2015 11.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010