I recently visited Bungie's mall-sized Mother Base for the second time in my life, and the emotions inside me were the utter opposite of the fangasm I felt in 2014. Year-ago-Adam was wowed by the scale of this Graceland. He was ecstatic to see the first reveal of a 10-year thing called Destiny. His notepad was already bursting with excitable questions, at least two of which included the phrases “Halo MMO” and “Peter Dinklage OMG”.
God, I want to slap 2014 me. From a running start.
In 2015, I'm stomping into Bungie HQ, annoyed. I'm disillusioned by the fact that so many talented people gathered together in one place – in this case a repurposed movie multiplex – could botch a concept so badly. I'm also extremely skeptical that they've got what it takes to affect a u-turn, and this time my notepad is filled with grievances to chase up. In in-game terms: my super bar is full and I'm out to Titan smash this control point.
It's a fairly well-documented fact that vanilla Destiny was undercooked. Personally, it wrecked my fun right out of the gate with its weird ammo bugs and some run-ruining Raid glitches. Many of my casual gamer mates didn't even progress to that high-level content because they were irked by a barebones excuse for a story which shrugged at them and said: “I don't even have time to explain why I don't have time to explain”. (And that's a direct script quote.)
Last but not least, players of every skill level got burned by a loot system that felt about as fun and fair to participate in as that Holy Grail lucky dip in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was worse than that, actually. No Grail diary or online FAQ could lead a penitent player to their Raid pants or a Gjallarhorn. In the end, some other Guardian who joined late to a multiplayer match, and contributed zero kills, randomly earned *your* excalibur.
All of these missteps quickly changed the public's perception of Bungie as a can-do-no-wrong developer. About a week after launch you could see the epithet “Bungle” being used in gaming forums; typically in the sorts of online spaces where folks also use the phrase “Crapcom” whenever a Street Fighter update doesn't go their way. After Destiny's two stop-gap DLCs arrived (The Dark Below and House of Wolves) the nickname lost some popularity, but still sorta had some legs in it too.
Plot-twist: I'm repeating all these negative things, but I still log onto Destiny every other day. I have three characters, all levelled to the 34 max, and a grimoire score of 3500. Vanilla Destiny has been out roughly 12 months and my stats say I've (somehow) lost at least one full month to this blackhole. It's not something I bring up at dinner parties. Please don't tell my wife.
Most of this addiction can be attributed to the pure social element: I've organically fallen in with a dozen or so reprobates who log on after work to shoot shit and 'the shit' (aliens and conversation both). I'd also have to say that this merry band of mine keeps returning to Destiny because, as a shooter, its mechanical fundamentals are immensely satisfying. My Hunter flits about the battlefield like some sort of neon panther. Popping alien heads off never, ever gets old.
Be that as it may, I need something more than lovely, kinetic gunplay to sustain me, and every active Destiny player I've met echoes this sentiment. Bungie's original release is well past its used by date. It's rustier than the Old Russian cosmodrome I scavenge through ad nauseam. That being the case, I made myself a promise before boarding the plane to Bungie: if the next two days in The Taken King send me to the same old locations to do the same old crap – provide covering fire for a mouthy drone who hacks doors like old people shag – then I'm going to bladedance Bungie's PR several new buttholes
Before I can utter a single whinge to my hosts, a controller is thrust into my hands. The opening cinema plays, a tractor beam acquires my brain, and then The Taken King repeatedly smacks me in the gob for two days straight.
Bungie was good enough to clone my account to provide immediate access to my fully-levelled Titan, Warlock and Hunter. This means I have three Guardians bristling with basically every exotic or decent legendary gun you can earn thus far (except Hawkmoon, because RNGesus has forsaken me).
It's also worth noting that I have been stashing a heap of completed 5000 XP bounties and Daily Public Event rewards. The end result: in five minutes flat I power level up from 34 (which, translated into the new Light levelling system, is 'Light 140') to the new cap of level 40. Curiously, that still keeps me at Light 140. More on that in a second.
At this point a Bungie handler wanders past my station and catches sight of my level 40 character. I see one of his eyebrows rise. I share his surprise. Have I just peaked in 5 minutes flat?
Thankfully, no. Not even close. As I continue to smash story missions, and side-quests dedicated to unlocking the fantastic new subclasses for each Guardian, it becomes apparent that level 40 means diddly squat. The big quantifier now is Light: an average representing the combined attack/defence potency of 10 gear/gun/item slots. The old system rated a player's worth on 4 bits of elusive armour, and this became the source of ludicrous difficulty spikes, not to mention a great deal of elitist dickery and player exclusion.
The new end game is to reach Light 290 in order to earn access to the new Raid. This once epic Hunter of mine is only a filthy Light 140 scrub. That won't do at all. I spit on my hands and get ready for a new grind.
Take the pro tip now: forget your old gear – precious Raid rewards and Xûr bought exotics both. Chuck 'em in your vault (which has now doubled in size) or slag them into the new non-class-specific upgrade material. Being that I don't give a crap about my “cloned gear”, I embrace this concept immediately and spend the next 12 hours or so voraciously hunting down any Common (white) and Uncommon (green) gear which all consistently outperform my old stuff while earning me precious Light increases. The bumps in power are only ever measured in single digits, but every time my legend inches forward there's a triumphant sound effect that sends a goofy shiver down my spine.
Going in, I thought that ditching Fatebringer, Gjallahorn and Vision of Confluence, would cause unbearable separation anxiety. It's actually liberating. I'm loving the sea change of discovering a host of new favourite weapons (some of them experimental boomsticks 'on loan' from the Gunsmith via his new weekly bounties). I feel like I've broken up from a manipulative relationship with those old death-dealers of mine. I'm playing the field again. I'm meeting new people, in this case the titular Taken with my sword (a new heavy weapon type).
Better yet, my continued growth is now reliant on a system that is less RNG and more attentive to what I have, and what I hunger for next. If I ever earn a gun type that I detest, I just crunch it down like an old beer can and infuse its power into a weaker weapon that I prefer more. I never once find myself pissed off about a loot drop that's not enhancing my effectiveness in some way. Ask any Destiny player out there; this is a massive step in the right direction.
I'm also impressed with the challenge presented by the Taken. These ethereal bastards quickly belt me right out of my old tactical comfort zones (often literally with stupidly OP melee hits that slingshot my stupid arse off a cliff). Psion enemies now multiply if not culled quickly. Snipers need to be bum rushed when they camp in bubbles that regen their health. And I guarantee that Taken Captains will become the new bane of your existence when they saturate your sight-lines with hadoukens of blinding hate. To say combat is exciting again is an understatement.
The Taken King is also bursting at the seams with new ways to scratch that trigger finger of yours. Once the satisfying 'main story' wraps, in roughly 16 quest steps and a handful of hours, you'll gain access to a considerably larger aftermath thread called The Taken War, not to mention half a dozen or so Strikes. The latter offer a helluva lot more replayability, thanks to randomising enemy encounters, and there are quirky Raid-like mechanics peppered throughout. If you sprint in expecting mindless shootfests that end with a big bad bullet-sponge on steroids, you've got a date with the death-screen.
Couple those Strikes with an expansive new tomb ship – the puzzle-filled loot palace that is Oryx's carrier – and The Taken King feels like it has twice the content of vanilla (and I haven't even touched the Raid yet, which is traditionally where Bungie delivers its most memorable Destiny content). A lot of my hours were lost with a three-person fireteam in the new Court of Oryx public space. Essentially it offers community-driven, on-demand boss battles. Providing servers are populated, you might find yourself informally 'folded in' with two random three-person fireteams, and the nine of you will need to go hammer and tongs on a series of creative boss encounters.
Can a gaggle of uncommunicative Guardian strangers band together to kill lethal beasts under very specific (and difficult) conditions? Best case scenario: I think the Court will be a place where a lot of friend requests will be exchanged after epic battles. That, or the hate mail messaging will flow. Either, or.
I've no doubt this sort of community interaction will make for a fine addition to the Destiny experience, but the biggest improvement over vanilla has got to be the single-player narrative. Along with a greatly improved Ghost companion (thank you, Nolan North), Bungie has wisely singled out the most interesting Tower denizens and transformed them from one-liner-wonders into characters worth caring about.
I particularly loved the mid-mission banter between the nonsense-spouting Eris Morn and the no-bullshit Commander Zavala (Lance Reddick). However, the real show-stealer here is Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion), the smart ass rogue of a Hunter who is your main point of contact throughout. I found myself looking forward to every single interaction with him, be it in a grandiose mid-level cutscene or just a casual conversation during the multitude of minor side-quests on offer. Fillion can narrate my life, basically.
I walk away from The Taken King with no scowl on my face. The only concerns worth mentioning are the occasional load hitches between areas, and Bungie's reworking of its inventory system made the menus take at least twice as long to populate. That sure pissed me off when my back was against the wall and I needed to pop an ammo synth or switch subclasses. [Update: the latter complaint seems to have been patched away].
This is a sizeable u-turn that deserves the moniker 'major expansion' and it goes a long way to dispelling the snide handle that is “Bungle”. What I finished really does make the original Destiny release look like a beta, mostly thanks to an overhaul of the original framework and a king's ransom of exciting new content. I'm quite taken by it. I think you might be too.
Disclosure: Adam Mathew travelled to Bungie as a guest of Activision.