Published on: Sep 16, 2015 @ 19:34
If the House of Wolves was the light at the end of the tunnel, The Taken King is golden, glorious day. Bungie’s latest expansion feels like the rewarding culmination of a mass of disparate features coming together to make something that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Make no mistake, despite all of the ferocious efforts at rebranding and re-selling the Destiny experience, this is still very much the core Destiny game you’ve come to know – with much more to do.
The in-joke that we’ve all been playing the “Beta” until now has been unfairly reductive of an incredible community experience, but when examining what the new game offers at the content level, it’s hard not to agree – however ruefully. Bungie has sensibly and sure-footedly implemented a slew of improvements, as well as a wealth of new quests and challenges, and has finally attempted to resolve the dissonance between Destiny’s vibrant, behind-the-scenes story, and its aggressively bland actual plot. The result is an expansion that feels familiar, yet novel, and an enjoyable campaign that awakens its players to the wide world that they will no longer simply be inhabiting – but in which they will actually live.
The war for the future of the galaxy begins much like any other: with a pre-emptive strike. Guardians are treated to the vocal stylings of Nolan North as Ghost, who details the circumstances in which they were called to be the defenders of the universe, fighting back The Darkness at the behest of the almighty Traveler. Ghost’s monologue is tightly scripted, and brimming with mischievous energy, and immediately sucks the player into the story. The orchestra swells and dips with his cadence, and the score by Bungie’s latest team of composers is well-suited to its material. No sooner has Ghost finished when a second VO sneaks in.
It is Mara Sov, Queen of the Awoken. A people wary of betrayal, and besieged on all sides by treachery, the Awoken once again find themselves at the center of the action, as the wicked Oryx, father of Crota, has laid intergalactic siege to a vanguard of their strongest fighters. Sov pronounces her strength and intent to fight, and a gorgeous cutscene showcases a true space battle between Oryx’s simple, yet devastating dreadnaught, and the Awoken’s mobile and creative defenses. If there was any question whether Destiny has moved on from House of Wolves, it is eliminated when Oryx strolls confidently into his chamber, and wipes out the entire Awoken fleet with a single blast of malice-infused energy. The Queen is presumed dead, her allies slaughtered or scattered, and Oryx himself is marching to revenge.
Such begins the Taken King, and it’s hard not to be impressed. This is coming from the same game that once kicked things off with Bill Nighy’s Speaker, who delivered inscrutable exposition in a thankless role that scattered any momentum the admittedly intriguing premise generated. Early Destiny was a tale of whiplash and anticlimax, but The Taken King hums along confidently, interweaving cutscenes with personable VO, all the while maintaining a brisk pace and a sense of urgency.
A lot of this is thanks to the more prominent role for Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6, a wise-cracking sentient Exo robot, whose Han Solo style and devil-may-care attitude play nicely off of the solemnity of Commander Zavala, and the unhinged mysticism of Eris Morn. Along with level-headed Ikora Rey, the cast that has been relegated to the sidelines finally gets a chance to flex their chops. They’ve been paying attention, it seems, to the player’s heroic exploits since the beginning, and there’s no other Guardian they’d rather entrust with their missions. It’s a nice bit of validation, and this sort of dynamic feedback was sorely lacking from earlier iterations of Destiny. The quartet have plans for your Guardian to infiltrate Oryx’s Dreadnaught and eliminate him as a threat. It’s never as easy as it sounds, though, and the Vanguard encounters onerous obstacles to their endeavors at every turn. Cayde sends the player to steal a stealth drive from the Warmind, Rasputin – much to Eris’ consternation – and Eris herself eventually has to help the Guardian pass as an Ascendant Hive. This mission even features a brief, but fun, stealth component that sees the player return to the very room in which Crota perished to siphon the essence of his soul. All of the best laid plans aren’t enough to prepare the Guardian for Oryx himself though, and as the radio cuts out, and the player enters his chamber for the big showdown, the sense of accomplishment feels truly earned.
In spite of this, the story is a little inconsistent when it comes to how it presents the player’s character. Bungie has spent the better half of the past two months selling the idea that Oryx is coming for a very personal revenge, but the story The Taken King presents is sometimes far grander. In the first mission, Guardians behold his terrible visage, and he intones “You took my son! I will take you!”.
At this point, Oryx is consistent with his own mission statement. However, during the ironically titled “Regicide” mission, Oryx refuses to even face the player, claiming “You are not worthy to face me.” He claims he’s conquered worlds, and that an insignificant worm is not worth his time. So which is the real message? Bungie seems to have a hard time deciding what the focal point of the story is. Is it the classic video game journey of a character powering up to face a seemingly immortal boss with lofty aims? Or is it a kill-mission for a rage-addled psychopath who will stop at nothing to wreak his vengeance?
They’ve settled, perhaps wisely, on the player’s character as a bit of a cipher. Agents with agendas act around the Guardian, but the Guardian, aside from a couple of facial expressions exchanged with Ghost, doesn’t say a word. Whether this is budgetary limitation with the voice actors, an intentional creative choice, or somewhere in between, it’s hard not to be thrown a bit by the marked contrast between Bungie’s marketing – all sound and fury, wisecracks and bravado – and the story that unfolds in The Taken King. Thankfully, North’s Ghost provides a healthy amount of feedback, speaking for the Guardian in response to Cayde and the others when the Guardian can only remain silent. While a blank slate with an NPC mouthpiece can be a very effective tool for allowing a player to inhabit their character (see: Zelda), sticking to one interpretation would help it ring true more consistently.
Speaking of Zelda, Bungie has adopted some tropes and tricks that strongly resemble the classic dungeon-crawler, and many of its sequels. Several boss fights, especially those from the new Strikes, have been segmented into a more traditional phase design. The player avoids the boss’s increasingly nasty tricks and attacks, and is rewarded for their patience and intuition with a window of opportunity in which to really lay into him.
Bungie has largely ditched permanently vulnerable bullet sponges in favor of more aggressive, transiently-damageable (but weaker) bosses. One fight with Oryx seems to have been pulled right from the Forest temple, where the winged demigod surveils the player radially from a safe distance, before emerging with a potent melee already primed. The player must damage Oryx as quickly as possible following his errant slash, before he retreats to repeat the process while summoning additional enemies. The Strike bosses from The Echo Chamber, and the Sunless Cell have similar patterns, revealing times in which it is prudent to attack, and others when it is simply smarter to turn tail and live to fight another day.
As far as the core game is concerned, some of the same issues are still there. Once-bitten, twice-shy on the subject of power creep, Bungie’s new weapon perks leave a lot to be desired. Most seem to have been designed in a vacuum in which the plausibility of the scenario in which they could be useful was not considered. There are a couple that counter-intuitively encourage a Guardian to stay in a fight, even when about to die, and too many others that simply have “a chance” to activate, highlighting Bungie’s maddening love of RNG. Proc rates almost always have to be determined by the community, and almost equally frequently turn out to be too low.
Re-used environments also stick out like a sore thumb when contrasted with the sinister vibrancy of the Dreadnaught – but The Taken King manages to make the most of them, subverting the rules you thought you knew, and playing with how your fights unfold. One mission sees your Guardian returning to claim a piece of Crota’s Soul, and rather than have you fend off waves of enemies, you’re immediately sent packing as an insurmountable foe is unceremoniously forced into the room.
This encounter, and many more, are made threatening and real by the new enemy faction: the Taken. They’ve been covered before, but it really can’t be re-stated enough what a breath of fresh air they are. Cynics will undoubtedly point to Destiny’s penchant for re-skins as their foundation, but the similarities end there. Taken foes are persistent and deadly, and possess a wide range of abilities that impede or otherwise frustrate your attempts to eliminate them. Captains are now sporting Solar shields, and fire spheres of Darkness that essentially flick a light-switch when they come into contact with the player. Taken Hobgoblins are able to grant immunity to a nearby ally, which a perceptive player can interrupt by shooting the first Hobgoblin. It’s not uncommon to see chains of invincible Vex, and having to maneuver to pick off the vulnerable one is an excellent way to keep combat fresh.
The Taken powers fit their design well, too. Bungie has done a great job making their new faction feel – just – wrong. They’re inserted into a dimension in which they don’t belong, and this transferal leaves dimensional tears. When defeated, they are sucked back into their portals as if through a drain pipe. The whole experience of downing a field of Taken, only to see it appear perfectly normal a minute later, really contributes to the feeling that Oryx is omni-present.
And you have to stay on your toes, too. Continuing the strategy of House of Wolves, Bungie has opted to reinvigorate their old environments, throwing in pockets of Taken here and there. Lieutenants are on the prowl in the Cosmodrome and beyond, and coordinated teams of Guardians that are up to the task of taking them on may even have the fortune (or misfortune) of summoning a Champion. Unless the player is prepared, it’s a fairly good chance “Guardian Down” will be heard more than once, as these foes are as deadly as they are tough.
Chances are though, if you don’t stumble onto this sort of thing on your own, the game is going to lead you there eventually. Bungie has lived up to their promise of “questification” and then some; a Guardian who breezes through the initial campaign is really only getting started. Upon arriving back at the Tower, the player is inundated with quests and requests from its vendors, each of whom is given some sort of small role in the larger narrative framework: Banshee, the Gunsmith, is testing weapons to take on Oryx’s forces, and needs your help; Eris Morn wants assistance in collecting and studying Calcified Fragments from the Dreadnaught itself. Veteran players will take an early tour to collect their spoils from Year 1, and even the short throwaway expressions of gratitude from the Tower NPC fixtures go a long way to combating the sense of innate distance between Guardians and their environment that Destiny has long been trying to shake.
It’s this ongoing fight that really begins to pad out the game’s length. While the story itself will only demand a few hours of your time, amassing gear and enjoying the new and remixed old Strikes is a job that will take significantly longer. Cayde ‘n Friends have much more difficult missions with “The Taken War,” a series of quests that sees you returning to the Vault of Glass to investigate rumors about Praedyth, and tackling Taken forces wherever they’ve set up shop. By the time the player has finished the majority of these quests, he’ll probably only be scratching the surface of exploring the Dreadnaught, conquering the Crucible, and demanding the floor in the Court of Oryx. If he gets tired of his new subclass, he has the opportunity to experience the story again on another character.
Bungie’s new subclasses are leagues ahead of the old when it comes to sheer inventiveness, and players will be itching to try out all three when they get a taste from their teammates of what each is capable of. Guardians will likely want to replay the story at least once, and the XP granted to them will give a leg-up on their second character, with the option to use the Spark of Light if starting completing from scratch.
The Taken King’s raid, King’s Fall, will be dropping later this week on the 18th – but Guardians are not simply standing around, having exhausted all available content. Instead, they’re scrambling to put together a reasonable arsenal and appropriate armor to be able to handle Destiny’s highest calling. Bungie has nailed the first part of their release, as The Taken King has delivered on most, if not all of its promises.
With an exciting story, a deep and meaningful post-game, and loads of new gear, bounties, and all the trimmings, it’s plain to see why those who already loved Destiny have been hooked by The Taken King. The next step will be the difference between a game that retains its audience, and one that launches Destiny as a true ten-year franchise.
King’s Fall is coming, and if it can measure up to what Bungie has done so far with their release, then the future of Destiny is very bright indeed.