Published on: May 21, 2015 @ 05:24
At its heart, Destiny has never been about redefining a genre. It may have been marketed as the best of the FPS and MMORPG worlds mashed together, but it has emerged as a force in gaming because of an adherence to predictable structure over taking too many risks.
We know what to expect when we explore, because it is built on a gameplay core that is immediately recognizable. This has made Destiny both accessible and reliable, and in a world in which ambitious games are no longer guaranteed to be either of these, Destiny has almost paradoxically become a sort of comfort food.
When Destiny was released, we were introduced to its addictive yet simple charms, and in many ways, the quality of its expansions and additional content is judged not by how they reinvent the wheel, but by how they manage improve the solid foundation.
House of Wolves is the latest and best example of these improvements packaged into not just a palatable dish, but a genuinely enjoyable offering that mixes old with new.
Confidence over Secrecy
Being the first major expansion since Crota’s introduction, it must inevitably draw comparisons to The Dark Below. There has been concern that the lack of a raid would leave the House of Wolves feeling a little light on content. While nothing can quite match the intensity of running a raid for the first time, Bungie has made the smart decision to focus on sustainability over trying to just “wow” its customers on day one.
This priority shift was reflected in the months preceding the House of Wolves release, in which Bungie shrewdly revealed much of its new expansion in calculated press releases, featuring community guests who were ostensibly given free rein with their questions. This strategy spoke to a company confident in its product, or at least one that that wanted to pre-empt accusations of a lack of transparency in communicating with its playerbase.
Of course, this moral high ground would have eroded completely if House of Wolves had not held up. So we arrive at the question, is the House of Wolves any good? Is the story compelling? Is there enough to do? And, above all, is it any fun? To answer any of these, we have to take a look at how it compares to another release still fresh in our memories: The Dark Below.
Unlike the House of Wolves, Bungie was quite tight-lipped about the actual meat of the The Dark Below. Destiny was promised new story missions, strikes, a new raid, and more gear, and all of this was sugar-coated with PR speak and teased as vaguely as possible. When The Dark Below arrived, we found everything we were promised – and not much else.
The story missions were brief and familiar, though polished and superbly voice acted. Crota’s End, the much-hyped raid, was atmospheric and challenging, but it was also buggy, exploitable, and confusingly short, being seemingly padded with unnecessary length in its stronger-than-you’ll-ever-be enemies. It didn’t match the Vault of Glass in its intricacy or depth, and in its early stages was treated as an amalgam of cheesy solo challenges.
Bungie was handcuffed for weeks, scrambling to undo exploit after exploit, fending off challenges of telling the player how to play the game, and anxiously coming up with strategies for encouraging team play without outright forcing it. In the meantime, players voraciously tore through Eris’ faction quests and bounties, quickly tiring of her challenges as they had the Vanguard ones before her. They were given a Daily Heroic that featured two of three new story missions an astounding once every-other-day, souring them on what were truly well-designed and enjoyable tests of skill.
It was a disappointment; The Dark Below was being undone by its own ubiquity. The game behind it had remained the exact same, and impatient players had psyched themselves up for what they had determined must be enough to keep the most hardcore players satisfied until the next expansion. This has all led to many melodramatically declaring that Bungie’s next release would be a “make-or-break” moment.
Fast-forward to March. Bungie has been making sojourns into the community, soliciting explicit feedback, and crafting patches that grant requests that have been on the back-burner for weeks. The overall Destiny experience continues to grow thanks to UI improvements, weapon balancing in PvE, Weekly matchmaking, and other quality-of-life additions. In the meantime, Bungie has been pondering how to create a lasting, quality PvE experience that could stay fresh despite even the most hardcore players slavish and workmanlike approach to playing it.
Enter the House of Wolves
The announcement that there would be no raid was met with derision and skepticism, and Bungie knew that the Prison of Elders, and moreover the House of Wolves at large would have to sate the desires of its most vocal players. In the end, they hedged their bets. Prison of Elders was fashioned as a simple but ever-shifting combination of challenges, in order to avoid being in the unenviable position of having to live or die by a single piece of content, i.e. a raid.
The rest of their resources went into beefing up the Crucible with the Trials of Osiris, a new experience in PvP for Destiny that hopes to attract or maintain the more hardcore community, and may even prove to be a foundation for competitive matchmaking down the line. Both of these feature weekly rotations that tweak just enough parameters to be considered “new every time” and both are woven into a labyrinth of new factions, currencies, gear, and cosmetic rewards that will easily prove to be desirable collectables for the hoarders and obsessors among us
Perhaps once bitten, twice shy, Bungie has smartly eliminated much of the high-minded and ambiguous concepts that drove Destiny’s original story in its new expansion, and confused those who played it. The story in the House of Wolves is refreshing in its relatability and scale.
The role-playing allure is mostly gone; if you aren’t game for being a gun for hire, you’re not going to find much fulfillment here. Truthfully, most of the personality in Destiny has always come from outside sources: Eris, the Queen and her brother, and even Dinklebot.
House of Wolves continues the tradition of an authoritative VO doling out quests and providing backstory and exposition, but ups the ante by expanding the cast to two talkative members. These are Petra Venj and Variks the Loyal, an entertaining duo voiced with enthusiasm by their respective voice actors. Petra, played by April Stewart, is a former foot-soldier who earned favor with the Queen for her service in the Reef Wars. She’s excited to be back on “field duty,” even if that just means accompanying you in a headset while you do your thing.
Her voice is lively and her lines energizing, but it’s Variks who ends up stealing the show. His unique delivery, vocal tics, and coy sense of irony all combine to create arguably the most interesting character with any real narrative heft that Destiny has seen thus far. One of the most amusing moments in the DLC comes when Variks “translates” a vulgar Kell’s garbled rantings, sparing you the literal translation but effectively communicating the sentiment behind it.
Your Guardian is not so much the fated hero of a people, but a mercenary, brought in to exact revenge on a traitorous band of villains. The story progresses briskly from the moment you’re thrown in to combat. You’re tasked to track down a particularly murderous Fallen leader named Skolas, a Kell from the House of Wolves.
Skolas still has treachery on the brain, but you manage to catch up to him mighty quickly. Wielding an arsenal of new toys like the Heavy Pike and Scorch Cannon, you corner him on Venus and it looks like it’s game over. Unfortunately, he flees to orbit, leaving you to deal with his loyal foot-soldiers. From here, it’s a chase, as Skolas attempts to rally by coercing the various Houses of Fallen into further rebellion against the Reef.
You’re hot on his heels at every turn, breaking the Winter, Devil, and King Houses one-by-one, until Skolas is left with nowhere else to turn. In desperation, he mounts an offensive into the Vault of Glass, hoping to use forbidden Vex technology to turn the tide in his favor.
Variks the Loyal, who had previously served as a scribe under Skolas himself, gives a unique perspective on the mindset of the warlord you’re pursuing. His periodic translations show Skolas as deluded beyond belief, claiming himself as the “Kell of Kells” and Variks’ own backstory reveals that even he found Skolas to be an extreme example among the already vicious Kells.
None of this bodes well for the free people of the galaxy, especially when Skolas’ final gambit is in play. Using the misappropriated Vex tech, Skolas plans to pull the members of his House through time and space, and only you stand in his way. But there’s no retreat; Skolas knows it’s all or nothing, and you have to capture him alive.
Change of Pace
Overall, the story is quite a change from the Dark Below. Both deal in revenge, but while Eris was often cryptic and melodramatic – and Morla Gorrondona’s voice acting sold this impressively – Petra and Variks are much more straightforward. The Dark Below was the story of an ill-fated fireteam being hopelessly outmatched against dark forces beyond their reckoning. You were the arm of Eris’s wrath, but you were alone, both narratively and in combat.
While it’s still all you on the front lines in the House of Wolves, your place in the prevailing arc is much more comfortable. It makes sense that a surprisingly adept mercenary would be caught up in more than he bargained for, and the tactical assistance from Petra and Variks is a stark contrast to Eris’s frenzied demands and the isolation of The Dark Below.
It’s worth noting that the House of Wolves storyline is just flat-out longer. There are more missions, and they consume more time. The Dark Below had the Fist of Crota, which served as a short introduction to Omnigul and your goal, the Siege of the Warmind, and The Wakening, and it was over. Crota’s End could be seen as the culmination of your work, but Eris was noticeably absent and only had a canned “Crota is vanquished” response to even remind you that you had done anything of note.
The House of Wolves has three questlines that meander through several different planets, all tied into one strong objective. In between instanced quests, you’re called on to collect various parts on patrol, or to participate in the new Strike, which puts the overall experience at around 3 hours, depending on how leisurely or aggressively you complete it.
You’re also encouraged by Petra to accept any number of Queen’s Wrath bounties, in which a swarm of Wolves will present a high-priority target that will require the utmost strength to conquer. These populate otherwise barren patrol vistas with a real sense of danger that is a welcome return for a game that sold itself on an idea of exploration.
Ultimately, it’s a bit of Big Game Fallen Hunter, with the real prize Skolas waiting for you for when you decide to give the other Wolves a break. There’s no more nebulous talk of Light and The Darkness by Bill Nighy as the Speaker, or the Exo Stranger’s ice queen routine, and the game is better for it.
Better, Not Perfect
Still, there are several downsides for those who were looking forward to what might prove to be a new experience. The format is essentially unchanged. You land on a planet, often in an environment you’ve previously visited, and progress through the missions, killing everything in your way. No matter how the story cleverly frames any of your actions, they all boil down to shooting until no one else is shooting at you anymore.
Petra Venj unintentionally lampshades the strangeness that she isn’t joining you – she’s excited for fieldwork, but “fieldwork” in the end is just her talking to you. Why isn’t she actually with you fighting the Fallen? Or even some of the Queen’s Guard if she’s too busy? The game doesn’t really provide enough of an answer for this.
In the last mission, she tells you she’ll be supporting your assault from nearby, but the only indication of this is a lone Reef ship beaming up the humbled Skolas in the final moments of the story.
The more Bungie draws attention to the world around your Guardian, the more frustrating it is that you’re always alone. You can bring your friends along for the ride – and it’s a good idea to do so – but the Awoken of the Reef, or the loyal Fallen, are nowhere to be seen. The House of Wolves would have been a perfect time to introduce a companion mechanic. It could have done wonders for combat and narrative variety and would have cemented the House of Wolves story as leagues ahead of The Dark Below or vanilla Destiny.
Though House of Wolves is worth at least a couple playthroughs, it seems clear that Destiny has plateaued on how it can tell a story through the current means. Players begin to notice recycled wave fights, locations, bosses, and the lack of any objective other than killing their enemies. Skolas is an amusing quarry, but goes down just like all the others.
The House of Wolves had a chance to deliver on DeeJ’s promise of a “fresh approach to storytelling” but instead just gives us the best version of what we already know. Will this be enough for most people? Probably – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The House of Wolves is fun, but “fresh” is debatable.
HoW > TDB
Destiny is a new game these days. The earliest iterations of the game saw Guardians fighting the unholy amount of gating and inaccessibility bogging down a space shooter with grinds, grinds, and more grinds. The return on investment was arbitrary and seemed designed at points to just wear you down.
Today, the grind is arguably no less important. However, you’re no longer fighting the game itself to excel at it. Destiny encourages you in every way to embrace the grind. Currencies that used to mean the world to you might be obsolete, but you can exchange them with the Speaker for relevant ones. The Crucible might be necessary if you want enough marks to buy a weapon from your favorite faction, but your marks are doubled for every win and loss. You might have to rely on RNG for a Legendary engram or weapon from a package, but your chances are increased for these in tons of events, and you have the ability to reforge what you get for your dream roll.
Taken individually, these changes are small episodes of relief, but as they begin to pile up, we see an encouraging portrait emerging. Destiny wants to keep you busy, but it doesn’t want to put up stop signs. If having an arsenal of the best weapons with the best perks is important to you, you’re going to need a whole bunch of Motes of Light, which means playing more Destiny to make that possible. But Destiny isn’t forcing you to do this.
Destiny says “Hey, you can just Ascend something you liked using before HoW – it’s no skin off my nose.” The House of Wolves is this laissez-faire mindset: the Prison of Elders and its spoils are open to you, as long as you have the Treasure Keys to loot it; and the Trials of Osiris can be attempted again and again, and upon claiming a reward, you can head back in to try to do better.
Everything is fair game, and daily and weekly lockouts like Bounties and the Nightfall/Weekly Heroic Strike are now much more in balance with activities like Crucible playlists, and the Level 28 Prison of Elders matchmaking.
The House of Wolves doesn’t feel like a terminus… like a beginning. This is not Bungie throwing its hands up in the air and saying “here goes nothing.” Destiny now has enough content to keep players busy – perhaps even until Comet. What’s more is that all of the content has been made relevant again. You’ll be sorely tempted to collect everything new that you can, but your success in the House of Wolves is not dependent upon it. Instead, this is an expansion that allows you to play according to your own preferences.
It is not without its weaknesses, but most importantly, it doesn’t introduce any new ones. Destiny is still yearning for additional features and improvements, but the House of Wolves set its sights on attainable goals, and knocked them out of the park, bolstered by a core game that has never been stronger.
Best of all? If Bungie’s recent pattern of changes has been any indication, things can only get better! Sit back and enjoy the ride, and give those Fallen what for, yes?