Everyone loves a redemption story. On Tuesday, Destiny's second major expansion, House of Wolves, went live. I've been playing all week and good news: Not only is House of Wolves superior to its preceding expansion The Dark Below, it feels like the wholesale upgrade that Destiny desperately needed.
The story so far: In September of 2014, Destiny came out. It was really good, and also kind of bad. We couldn't stop playing. We became obsessed with the Vault of Glass raid, which was easily one of the most fascinating and strange things to be included in a big-budget game all of last year.
A few months later in December, The Dark Below expansion came out. The newly expanded game continued to be good but also kinda bad, and I published a lengthy review update. We played a lot of the new Crota's End raid, but soon realised that it wasn't as good as the Vault of Glass. In February, after about five months of dedicated play, a lot of people hit a wall.
In the intervening months, my own Destiny playing fell off considerably. I had so much currency saved up that I'd pop on on the weekend to grab a great exotic item or two from Xur, but my days of logging in and clearing every possible PvE activity — the daily story mission, the daily bounties, the weekly strike and nightfall strike — ground to a halt. My raid crew scattered, and our Tuesday night raid appointments went on indefinite hiatus.
That lengthy break likely has something to do with my positive reaction to House of Wolves. I fundamentally like playing Destiny, so it's nice to be playing again. But my enjoyment of the new expansion goes beyond that "hey, it's nice to be back!" feeling, for reasons I'll expound upon here.
I'll have a more refined view of House of Wolves over the coming weeks — I simply haven't played enough of the new stuff to give it the thorough critique it deserves. For now, I wanted to offer some rough early impressions based mainly on a few days of playing PvE missions and the new Prison of Elders co-operative challenge mode. Saddle up, Guardians.
Destiny Finally Feels Big
When The Dark Below launched, I sent an email to my raid buddies that read "Oh man, there's so much to do!" We all know how that turned out — The Dark Below was seen as a resounding disappointment — so keep that in mind. With that out of the way: After several days of playing House of Wolves, I still feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do.
With the new Reef social space, there are now two places to check in each day. (Two! I can't quite tell if it's sad how exciting that is. But it is exciting, so.) This serves to break up the Mission-Tower-Mission-Tower rhythm that had become so numbing in vanilla Destiny.
Between the new (fun) House of Wolves bounties, the two existing raids, the existing bounties and Dark Below story missions, and the new Prison of Elders challenge maps, PvE players like myself are finally presented with so many different things to do that it feels impossible to hit everything in one week, particularly across three alt characters. That's enhanced further by the fact that the weekly nightfall and heroic strikes have been untethered, meaning that there are now two separate special strikes to do each week.
It's freeing, in a way — I can let go of the urge to do everything and simply do whatever I want. I've already stopped thinking of Destiny as a big weekly to-do list. Instead, it's just a big list of things I might go do. And that's just for a PvE player like me — I haven't even touched on the new Crucible maps or the cool-sounding Trials of Osiris, which I'm looking forward to trying and which will likely just add one more thing to do.
In the past, I've argued that Destiny's biggest flaw was the fact that there wasn't enough to do. The infuriating loot system, the weird RNG, the repetitive bosses, the miserly drops; all were symptoms of the fact that Bungie was stretching a 10-hour game into a 300-hour game, and it showed.
With House of Wolves, Destiny finally feels big. It feels big for hardened veterans like myself, and it must feel huge for anyone deciding to start fresh. If you've been holding off on Destiny and are considering getting into it, you've picked a damned good time to start.
The New Story Missions Are Great
House of Wolves comes with a handful of new story missions, which you'll have to play through to unlock access to the more repeatable Prison of Elders. Where The Dark Below's story missions added a considerable amount of variety to vanilla Destiny's repetitive and predictable mission structure, House of Wolves is a leap beyond even that. These missions are… well, they're actually fun.
As my longtime Destiny buddy Mike Rougeau and I played through the final story mission earlier this week, he remarked that in any other first-person shooter, these missions would be seen as ordinary. Jumping puzzles, mid-level boss fights, varied terrain and pacing… standard stuff for a shooter in 2015. For Destiny, however, they feel like a revelation.
We may be grading on a curve, but… well, it doesn't really matter all that much. The improvements are still welcome. For starters, the story has a structure that makes sense: A rogue Fallen leader from the House of Wolves is trying to unite the other houses under his rule. If that happens, it would be bad. Each mission centres around a new house, with players racing to thwart the bad guy's efforts. After a single playthough, I could pretty clearly articulate what happened from the beginning to the end. It's a little depressing that I'm praising Destiny for clearing such a low bar, but hey, baby steps.
The new voice on your radio, a woman with the delightful name "Petra Venj," is also a big step up from both The Dark Below's monotone weirdo Eris Morn and vanilla Destiny's disinterested Dinklebot. At several points in House of Wolves' story, I actually laughed. At jokes!
Bungie appears to have come around to the notion that Destiny can't be taken all that seriously as a grand space opera. It's a fundamentally silly enterprise in which we kill the same bosses over and over again, where the most impressive thing anyone pulls off in a given week is often a choreographed dance routine. The new script has a nice sense of swashbuckling fun to it, aided greatly by the fact that Ms. Venj seems to actually be having a good time.
"Last week I was delivering court messages, today we're delivering explosions!" she enthuses during the first mission. "I love field work!"
Whoo! I'm excited, too, Petra! I actually don't want to write too much about what happens for fear of spoiling people, which marks the first time I've ever felt that way about Destiny's story. Suffice to say, the missions have some surprises that will make longtime Destiny players grin.
It's Almost Like Bungie Wants Us To Have Fun
For all its positive attributes, Destiny has always carried with it this lingering sense that it's screwing the player over. You'd finish a difficult mission and get a terrible reward, or watch someone with a lower Crucible score get an exotic weapon while you, the winner, got some useless bullshit. You'd spend hours levelling up an exotic weapon, only to have to level it up all over again. Here at Kotaku, we've been chronicling that dissonance for months now.
The weirdness of Destiny's random number generator will likely never be completely ironed out, but with House of Wolves, many of the more inexplicable ways Destiny used to screw players over have been addressed.
The improvements are most clearly evident in the new way Bungie is handling gear levelling. New legendary items no longer require you to level them up from a lower base stat — weapons start at a base of 331 damage, which is the same as all the gear you maxed from The Dark Below. Armour starts with the same light-level as maxed-out raid gear from Crota's End. The only thing you have to unlock are perks, which levels the playing field toward "ascending" any legendary gear to the new, higher level.
It's jarring to receive instant gratification while playing Destiny. Yet when I started playing on Tuesday, that's exactly what I got. The very first thing I did was take out my cherished Vex Mythoclast, spend an exotic shard, and watch it immediately level up to a max-damage, max-level monster.
Compare that with how The Dark Below handled exotic items. You had to wait for Xur to get your item in his rotating stock of upgradable gear, pay big money to trade it in, and then level it all the way up again from scratch. (Just writing that out, I still can't believe Bungie pulled that shit. I mean… damn.)
That night/day difference is emblematic of how House of Wolves treats players. You can immediately switch out your Crota's End armour for cooler-looking vendor gear without losing levels. You can immediately start using vanguard or faction guns without doing less damage. If you get a gun and you don't like the perks, you can reroll them for a small cost without losing any of the gun's power. Basically, you can immediately use your cool new stuff without paradoxically becoming less powerful as you work your way back up. What a concept!
There's a new level cap — 34 — and there are several different ways to get there. You can earn a small item that lets you boost any legendary armour to give you the light you need for level 34, rather than needing to earn specific, new armour. This is a smart solution to the problem the game ran into by tying level progression to specific armour. It makes it much easier to feel like you're making worthwhile progress no matter what you're doing or what gear you're earning.
I'm not really lauding Destiny for becoming player-friendly so much as I'm lauding the game for becoming less player-unfriendly. But progress is progress, and hopefully this is a sign of things to come. See, Bungie? Your game is fun! You don't have to invent ways to waste our time. Add enough cool stuff to do, and we'll keep playing regardless.
New Gear, Cool Gear
To some extent, Destiny has always been about loot. You play and play and play and play and you hope that you get some cool guns and armour. As of last week, most hardcore players had more or less exhausted the at-the-time available guns and armour. Most people had that one gun — the elusive Gjallarhorn or Hawkmoon — that they still wanted, most of us had pretty much everything that was worth having.That situation wasn't helped by the fact that most of the weapons introduced in The Dark Below were lacklustre, in particular the fugly, low-impact guns you could earn in Crota's End.
House of Wolves is already a success on the loot front, then, as well. At the end of the first mission, your character is given a gun called Vestian Dynasty. It's a new type of weapon called a Sidearm:
Vestian Dynasty is the coolest Destiny gun I've used in a long time. It's basically a fast-firing, quick-reloading phaser pistol that you swap into your secondary weapon slot, and it shreds enemies at close range. It's remarkable what a new type of gun does to shake up the way I play, though it does make me wish all the more fervently that Bungie would add weapon loadout shortcuts to let me quickly flip between different sets. (Always room for improvement, guys.)
With the other new gear, I've so far gotten a sense that Bungie has been paying close attention to the things players like. The new auto-rifles are high-impact thudders, rather than the pea-spraying chatterboxes of The Dark Below. The new armour isn't hideous hive-adorned junk; it's done up in the clean, futuristic aesthetic that Destiny pulls off so well. And while I haven't seen all of the new Exotic gear in action, things like this game-changing new Hunter helmet are certainly promising.
A Cell, From The Prison Of Elders
The new "Shadow Thief" strike is easily one of the most interesting strikes in Destiny. Similar to the new story missions, the strike's structure has been tweaked from the now over-familiar Destiny approach. It's constantly moving forward and shaking things up, and the setpieces that pave the way to the final encounter are varied and interesting.
The Prison of Elders, meanwhile, is a lot of fun and adds yet another bit of variety to the game. I haven't played a ton of it yet, but the basic notion — teams of three players fight through five increasingly difficult waves of Fallen, Hive, Cabal, or Vex enemies in an enclosed arena — seems sturdy and ripe for expansion.
Prison of Elders also isn't a huge time commitment, which is surprisingly refreshing. You can easily burn through a run in less than an hour, meaning it's possible to grab some friends and play for a bit after dinner without everyone needing to clear out their entire evening, as was usually the case with the lengthier raids.
Of course, you can spend an entire evening playing Prison of Elders — there are multiple difficulty levels and the level 34 and 35 settings are extremely tough — but it's possible to play for a shorter amount of time and still feel like you got something out of the experience.
Up until now, there's been this pervading sense that Destiny was as much promise as it was polish. It felt like we were playing a work in progress. With House of Wolves, Bungie has taken significant steps toward something resembling an endpoint. The Destiny of today simply feels more confident, like the people making it have learned from the successes and failings of the last eight months and have begun to build on that knowledge.
At the end of a successful Prison of Elders run, you're granted access to a treasure room. The floor opens, you drop down, and you're greeted with a lovely sight:
There's this huge treasure chest flanked by two smaller chests. The first time through, you're guaranteed to have a key to the big chest, which means that no matter what, you're walking away with a powerful exotic item.
You open the chest, and light floods the room.
That chest feels a lot like House of Wolves. A huge, glowing box full of treasure, waiting for you to open it up.
Now, now. I don't want to get carried away. This is Destiny, after all, and we've already been through the wringer a couple of times with this game. I'm sure that in the days and weeks to come, some of the shine will wear off. We will doubtless uncover new things to annoy us, to confound us, and to leave us scratching our heads.
Sill, House of Wolves has me more excited about Destiny than I've been in months. I'm excited about what it portends for the game's future, but I'm just as excited for what it is in the present. Destiny just got a hell of a lot more fun. For once, it's hard to complain.