When I reviewed Destiny’s Taken King expansion a year ago, I wrote about how the game hadn’t grabbed me in its first twelve months, but that the expansion improved its systems and storytelling to the point that I was finally on board. At the time, I was impressed. Bungie had turned an unwieldy, developmentally troubled behemoth into a solid game - if still an occasionally perplexing one.
Now, Destiny is my great shame, eating up far too much of my free time and conscious thought as I mainline strikes and Crucible matches with my clan Uber Party Squad. I've strengthened friendships through this game, and scraped dangerously close to deadlines because of it. Like Gollum with the One Ring, I hate and love Destiny, much as I hate and love myself, but I’ll happily defend its unique brand of silly space magic any day of the week (but slightly more on Wednesdays).
Bungie’s latest (and final) expansion to its massively multiplayer sci-fi shooter, titled Rise of Iron, doesn’t reinvent Destiny in the way that The Taken King did. Rather, it’s made up of refinements, expansions, and nods to the past that give current or lapsed players a lot to like, but likely won’t attract anyone new to the party.
Rise of Iron broadly centres around the emergence a new threat - the red, glowy, cybernetic substance Siva - and its use by the game’s alien pirate race, the Fallen. The Fallen have jacked themselves up on Siva, building up quite the ‘roid rage, and in the process have opened up a vast new area of the game: the snowy yet lava-filled Plaguelands. In the main storyline - brief as ever - players reform the long-lost Iron Lords and uncover the tragic tale of their demise at the red tentacles of Siva. Though somewhat silly, it’s no dumber than your average fantasy storyline, and there’s actual emotion behind longtime Iron Banner representative Lord Saladin and his crew. But in typical Destiny fashion, the story isn’t really told within the game, beyond the odd hint and voiceover. Still, it’s one of the better narrative offerings from Destiny to date.
The Plaguelands themselves represent, allegedly, Destiny’s largest sandbox space yet, but they lack the freshness of The Taken King’s Dreadnaught setting. Maybe it’s because the Plaguelands are essentially assembled from pre-existing assets, while the Dreadnaught was all-new; maybe it’s because a snowy hellscape is an inherent downer to seasonally depressed types. But the activities found within the Plaguelands are strong as ever - particularly the new Quarantine patrols and Archon’s Forge public event. These have a big emphasis on temporary weapon pickups like alien cannons and comically metal fiery axes, serving the sole purpose of empowering players in a fun way.
It wouldn’t be Destiny without a massive library of new loot - or an unhealthy amount of grinding required to collect it. True to form, many of the quests outside the main storyline consist of doing missions, patrols, or strikes over and over again in order to tease out random drops, or to satisfy an arbitrary requirement from a quest-giver. Some of the treasure hunts are absolutely maddening, with the Gjallarhorn quest in particular requiring the discovery of tiny collectibles hidden in locations so esoteric it’s a miracle anyone found them before the wiki guides had been written.
One exception is the quest to construct an upgraded version of the game’s very first weapon: it takes players back to the very beginning of their Destiny adventures, and it’s remarkably successful as a piece of nostalgia. Between the well-designed missions, the ridiculously customisable weapon at their conclusion, and the borderline-saccharine scriptwriting, it’s weirdly touching - for a game about space wizards and rocket bikes.
Indeed, capitalising on longtime Destiny players’ nostalgia seems to have been a major thrust in Rise of Iron’s development. Fan-favourite weapons like the Gjallarhorn and Thorn are back. One of the new strikes is a Siva-infused version of the very first, complete with a heavy metal remix of its musical score. The new social space features both a pack of wolves - long an icon of the Iron Banner multiplayer event - and the platforming challenge to end all platforming challenges. Armour and weapons can now be customised to even greater degrees. Even PvP has been refreshed, with the new Supremacy mode providing dynamic multiplayer madness, and private matches finally giving groups of friends the chance to goof off with one another. All in all, Rise of Iron is packed with references to its past two years, creating a discombobulating sense of closure in a game designed never to end.
And you know what? The core gameplay of Destiny is still some of the best around, goddamn it. Sure, the emphasis on loot drops and timed events are transparently cynical attempts to keep players playing. But the moment-to-moment gunplay is simply fantastic, offering clear and satisfying feedback with every shot fired, and Bungie’s knack for designing unique weaponry - even within a few set archetypes - is unparalleled. The “pop pop pop” of the MIDA Multi-Tool, the bursts of purple death caused by a well-placed Telesto shot, or the quiet “pew-pew” of a good sidearm can't be driven from one's lizard brain easily. Superpowers, triple-jumps, and dance moves are just the gravy on top of a loot metagame that’s actually fun and absorbing. And if you’ve got friends playing with you, it’s a hundred times better.
If you’ve played Destiny at all in the past twenty-four months, Rise of Iron is a fine addition that will no doubt be worth the money, given how much time this game sucks away from you. It’s both an expansion and an ending, making it harder to recommend to new players (who would have to purchase the game in a bundle anyway). Though there’s a lot of content here, it definitely feels like Destiny 1 is winding down and Destiny 2 - roughly slated for release next year - is hoving onto the horizon. There’s increasing chatter about what the full sequel will bring to the game, and I'm excited about it. With Rise of Iron, Bungie has tied a neat little bow on a game that started as a clumsy experiment and grew into a handsome online experience. Thanks, Bungie. Uber Party Squad forever.