I didn’t review Destiny when it launched a year ago. At the time, I had no console (blasphemy!), let alone a copy of Bungie’s megahyped online shooter. But I eventually picked up a PS4 and a copy of the game, and like many players, was disappointed by what I found.
The epic science fiction story implicated by the terrific concept art was hidden away in a mobile app; missions were perfunctory shooting galleries; the game’s core progression mechanics were so arcane that I quickly gave up. Sure, Bungie’s knack for shooters made the shooty business feel great, but that alone couldn't sustain my interest in a game whose hasty ground-up rewrite was clear well before details of it emerged. So I left the game alone. I had other shit to do.
Then this year’s big expansion, The Taken King, hove into view, and whispers started circulating (courtesy, no doubt, of Activision’s formidable marketing department) that it had reversed a lot of vanilla Destiny’s biggest blunders. It’s more accessible now, they said. There's actually a story now, they said. We’ve even replaced Peter Dinklage’s notoriously flat voice acting, they said. Could it be true? Could Destiny finally have become the game it was destined to be?
Yes and no. The new expansion vastly improves the existing game, and its new content is the best Destiny material yet, but claims of it being “like a completely new game” are grossly exaggerated. Rather, this is a streamlined version of Destiny: still not exactly the game I wanted, but one that - I am ashamed to say - has had me playing well past my bedtime on numerous occasions.
The Taken King’s storytelling is much improved over Destiny, but that’s not a high bar to clear. There are actually cutscenes and mission dialogue to be had now, for example, which makes you feel like you're actually doing something important. It’s still weird seeing your character in cutscenes knowing your fireteam is invisibly along for the ride, but at least there’s something there. The story - involving Crota’s dad, the titular king Oryx, feels big and apocalyptic, the kind of dense science fiction promised by pulpy ‘70s novel covers. The Taken King at least looks like it’s telling a real story.
But even with all of its storytelling improvements, The Taken King’s nonsensical plot (about Summoning Crystals, ruptures in spacetime, and so on) still lacks humanity. The characters have had personality and banter dropped into them, but it feels like a patch sewn over the same obtuse blend of mysticism and technobabble that made the base game so perplexing. Sure, Nathan Fillion’s character has more attitude now, but does delivering Destiny dialogue ironically really make it any better? At one point, Fillion’s character follows up a line with “there’s a joke in there somewhere.” There may well have been, but nobody at Bungie wrote it.
But while Destiny’s narrative may be a lost cause, thankfully the already-good gameplay has gotten even better. Missions now feel like actual video game levels, with scripted sequences, platforming, and stealth adding variety to the experience (though, I mean, it’s still Destiny). One mission even subverts expectations by undercutting its own mission-complete screen, which made for one of the most exciting moments in the game.
Even after the main quest is over, there’s a ton of things to do. Several new strikes and a raid are available, for players wanting to test their skills (and gear) against ridiculous odds. A new co-operative zone in the jaw-dropping Dreadnaught location offers the ability to fight ever-tougher bosses (adding to the wave-based Prison of Elders activity from the House of Wolves expansion). New character subclasses grant arc-based abilities, which saw me quoting Emperor Palpatine as my character flew around shooting lightning from her fingertips. And of course, there are new additions to the (extremely) competitive multiplayer, but given that I filed the same number of grief reports as I played matches, my response is, basically, “fuck competitive multiplayer.”
The quiet triumph of The Taken King, though, is its tweaking of the core Destiny experience. Many elements that used to be turnoffs have been turned around. Bounties can now be turned in anywhere, reducing the frequency of otherwise-pointless trips back to the Tower. Nolan North’s much-vaunted replacement voice acting as the Ghost injects a little life into the robot, even if I do secretly miss Peter Dinklage. There’s even a quest tracking screen, which organises the game’s many missions and strikes into quest lines, making it clear what to do next and why. Just a couple lines of context makes all the difference, and it’s a good thing, too, because The Taken King’s post-story content would be impossible to manage otherwise.
Best of all, character and gear progression has somehow been made comprehensible and satisfying, with just a few important changes here and there. The levelling system now functions on a purely XP-driven basis, while Light (the confusing stat that used to define one’s level) is now an easy-to-grasp average of one’s attack and defense ratings. With Light functioning that way, acquiring new weapons and armour feels more exciting (even beyond Bungie’s outstanding weapon design) - and you’ll find new gear far more often, with drops and engrams coming more frequently in combat and more reliably as quest rewards. To get the very best gear, you’ll still need to hunt for arcane items and resources, but you won’t feel as left out if you don’t want to bother with that nonsense anymore.
Destiny: The Taken King is a testament to game-as-service that feels richer, less random, and more fun than the game Destiny started out as. It’s telling that the base game is being phased out in favour of a "complete" package: this is much closer to what Destiny should have been from the beginning. Despite retaining many flaws, The Taken King brought me back to Destiny after nearly a year idle. With its simpler progression mechanics, it now scratches that brain itch to keep levelling up that defines MMOs. If I just do this strike, I’ll get a new weapon; if I just complete these bounties, I can afford this new helmet. I now find myself thinking about Destiny when I’m not playing it. Bungie finally did it: I’m hooked.
God damn it.