Destiny has rarely been out of the cultural conversation since its launch last year, from bitching about drop rates through sharing exploits to conflicted think pieces. It's a love/hate game among a player-base that neither developers Bungie nor publishers Activision won't reveal the (presumably massive) scale of, and now The Taken King, which is technically not the third expansion but the kick-off to Year Two, is here to set hopefully everything bang (bang) to rights. Can Bungie nail its second launch? I had a chat with two of the game's senior designers, and then played The Taken King for nearly 12 hours straight to find out.
The most immediate change, long overdue but very welcome, is what Bungie calls "Questification", a silly word for fixing the esoteric, obtuse and downright weird progression system and in-game economy. "We play the game incognito with fans all the time, for genuine feedback," Jacob Benton, open-world designer on the game, told me, and obviously the progression quirks comprised a common complaint. "We're always on Twitch, Reddit and Twitter. We're our own harshest critics and we hope something is fun, but until it's out there in the open..."
That's where community comes in – both the fans and creating a sense of being in one. And the dynamic will continue. "Just because we're launching now doesn't mean we're stopping what we've been doing with the fans," Benton says. "I want people to come away saying, 'Today I played with people I've never played with... I made new friends'." The philosophy seems to have worked. The loot and quests themselves are now more varied, often borrowing popular mechanics from old exotic bounties or being tied to being in a fireteam to encourage buddying up, which addresses constant Year One complaints of poor matchmaking options and how bad the (PvP area) Crucible was if you didn't have a mate or two to coordinate – or at least commiserate about Thorn and The Last Word – with.
Aside from community, lore and improved narrative flow was the priority for story content designer Ryan Paradis, who describes his perfect Taken King player experience to me as: "Today, I learned so much about the Destiny universe... now, I understand so much more." He's largely vindicated, as the new "main" story missions and strikes centred around taking down the pissed-off Hive-Daddy of vanquished villain Crota very deliberately make up for complaints of a fragmented, schizophrenic story, cringe-worthy dialogue and repetitiveness, and include plenty of surprisingly good self-deprecating in-jokes about it all.
Two remarkably influential series helped with the process. "Dark Souls has so many secrets," Paradis says, "and that's the kind of thing I enjoy, seeking out and solving those riddles, and one way or another I think that worked itself into The Taken King. And, of course, everything is an extension of The Legend of Zelda, when you had that feeling of getting on the bus and saying, 'Did you find that... does that exist?'" These moments are pure fan service, and to be more specific is to blaze a spoiler all over these words, but they're very welcome. "I've been playing a lot of EVE too, the community and their stories are everything to that game," Paradis adds, although sadly my hope for Guardian-run Ponzi schemes is apparently a misfire.
So far, so much improved. But like so much of Destiny, beyond the initial thrill, some things still feel under-baked in The Taken King. For example, a quick stealth segment changes up the pace and forces you to peer out from under your muzzle flash for once and really appreciate the enemy Hive up close – but it lasts for all of 45 seconds and you never get the opportunity to revisit the mechanic, much like that tiny, tantalising turret section from previous expansion DLC House of Wolves.
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The same thing occurs in an awesome segment in the excellent new "Fallen S.A.B.E.R." strike where one player-controlled Guardian must stumble around carrying an artefact through a narrow corridor full of electricity pulses while comrades defend him or her from exploding, while snipers take shots throughout. It feels like the kind of level design and proper co-op encouraging mechanic that should be in every strike in some form, and its effectiveness is harshly accentuated by the longing for more.
Still, combined with often genuinely funny dialogue (and the seductive drawls of voice actors Nathan Fillion and Nolan North), great boss encounters and hugely satisfying new sub-classes, the new mission and strike content is a critical hit.
Patrol, the more exploratory and traditionally grind-heavy hub mode, has also received a much-needed overhaul. "We know it could have used more variety, and we wish we had more time to fully flesh out that mode," Benton states. "Learning how best to utilise this new sandbox, making it feel more alive by having higher level enemies out in the world" were key for Paradis, and it shows – tooling around the Hive spaceship Dreadnaught now involves huge pitched fights between Cabal and Hive, quicker and more varied missions and secrets that trigger quests lying around. Benton adds "we wanted to have gigantic ultras walking around, smashing everyone, but giants walking around in space would have been a little crazy... [but] a lot of stuff doesn't get cut forever." Paradis agrees: "There's something we cut from the original game that comes back for The Taken King, something no-one seems to have discovered yet." Which makes me sad, because it's probably not sparrow racing.
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Unfortunately, the Taken King himself (pictured above) is not going to be stomping anyone. After so much hype and growly threats of not being worthy to face him, Oryx stands around spawning his weakest henchmen while you casually unload your portable munitions depot onto his face. And then, tantalisingly, he transports you to a foggy arena with the promise of his final form – only to laconically float by and swat ineffectually at you with his sword. It's a bafflingly weak encounter, especially after the strength of the run up, and it makes you wonder, considering his son Crota could bring a giant, apocalyptic eye to his farewell party, if Oryx was forced out of retirement.
So what's in store for the coming months? "This is the first time I've seen a multiplayer FPS in the way that Bungie makes their games... We have an awesome sandbox and it's learning how to fully utilise that to craft wonderful experiences for the players," Paradis claims, somewhat elegantly avoiding the question. Still, Destiny Year Two, post its 2.0 patch, already feels like the game we deserved. And if you've never played, enjoying it all the first time with the new gubbins under the hood is going to feel like the game you never knew you needed.
Destiny: The Taken King is freshly out for Xbox and PlayStation consoles
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