Destiny has very much been our go-to game this past year. Flawed it may have been when it launched last September, it was still a masterclass in first-person shooter design. It also proved to be something of a conundrum for critics, and had the mixed reviews landed on day one, perhaps it might not have drawn in the crowds that have sustained it since. But the reviews didn't land on day one, and a sizeable player-base was drawn into Bungie's new sci-fi world, enough to outweigh the negative response thrown at it from some quarters.
The biggest criticism levelled at it by far, and something we flagged in our own review, was the disjointed and botched delivery of the narrative. Bungie might be able to craft brilliant lore, but their ability to tell a cohesive story has been questionable ever since they delivered their masterpiece, Halo: Combat Evolved. While there has been high points since then - Halo 3, Halo: Reach - there's been nothing to rival their first foray into the world of Master Chief.
That doesn't change with The Taken King, this is not Bungie's best work, however it is an improvement over what we've been playing in vanilla Destiny. The story is mildly entertaining and it's told with more care. There's cinematics in-between each major story mission, personality is afforded to the characters around you, hell, some of it's even funny thanks to a show stealing vocal performance from Nathan Fillion. There's one notable change, which comes in the form of a new Ghost, now voiced by Nolan North. We're surprised to say that we actually miss our old Dinklebot (so-called after voice work by original actor Peter Dinklage), and while North does a solid job, there's faint echoes of Guilty Spark in there that for some reason we can't shake loose.
So it's a more personable, enjoyable experience, at least from a narrative perspective, which will certainly speak to the crowd that want to play Destiny, but not for hundreds of hours. There's a story campaign to complete, but it won't take too long to blast your way through to its conclusion, and while some might be disappointed by its relative brevity, it's not long before it becomes abundantly clear that there's plenty of endgame content for players to busy themselves with, and we're not just talking about grinding the same content over and over in order to level up (although this is Destiny, so there is an element of that).
New endgame content is now better facilitated by an overhauled and much improved questing system. Now there's a page devoted to tracking your progress across a range of activities, so you can keep an eye on how many of a certain type of enemy you need to kill, or which Crucible bounties you've yet to complete. It's a small thing, but it makes a huge difference to how you approach the game, and the grind has been elegantly transformed into something more purposeful.
Another part of the game that has been significantly improved, in this instance thanks to a more simplistic approach, is resource gathering. There's still plenty of depth, with interesting new items coming into your possession all the time, but now most of your actions will feed into gathering a singular currency needed to buy high end gear from the various vendors dotted around the social hub. Legendary Marks can be earned in a variety of different ways (see here for more details). It's a more transparent setup and now everyone will have a much easier time earning better gear, and you won't have to be a lore master to understand the intricacies of the new system. Is it as clear as it could be? Probably not, but it's a step in the right direction.
One of the things that impressed most during year one was the arsenal of weapons on offer, and the mystical hold that some of them held over the community (Gjallarhorn and Thorn, for example). While it remains to be seen if there's similar gems waiting to become objects of lust, causing players to pray for fortuitous loot drops, the basic weapons on offer here are, once again, great. Stylish design, enjoyable physics, a wonderful range of options even within each weapon type; Bungie are masters at this particular facet of game design and they've carried on where they left off.
With great gun design comes great gunplay, and surely this is where Destiny shines brightest. Obviously this is a matter of opinion, but we're just going to say it, we think that Bungie does the basics better than anyone else. The Taken King continues their fine work in this area, and the combat remains top class. The weapons feel great, there's a huge amount of variety, and the feedback from each weapon is significant; they all feel tangible.
The solid AI also makes a return. As before there's a variety of enemy types, and Bungie has maintained a decent amount of differentiation on the battlefield, with opponents behaving diversely, often displaying tactical nous that's bordering on impressive. It's true that when turned up to the hardest difficulty setting enemies do become bullet sponges, but we're not sure there's an alternative solution, and on normal difficulty everything feels balanced. Even boss battles are improved, and the studio has realised some interesting scenarios.
The soundtrack is top notch. They've really built upon last year's epic score, adding plenty of futuristic beats and discordant loops. It looks good too. Praise should be heaped on the art direction, because the use of lighting effects in The Taken King is second to none. Darkness plays a pivotal role here, from balls of blinding pitch black that temporarily blind you, to the atmospheric missions where there's hardly a drop of light to guide you on your way (one example is a battle with Alak-Hul, an enemy boss that you can only see via the light that comes from your muzzle fire). There's some terrific Giger-esque scenery in the aptly named Dreadnought, an environment that's edged with gothic influences, even if the colour palette feels a little drab. Destiny has never looked better, from the new sandbox through to the effect-heavy Taken enemies that you encounter along the way.
The Taken throw new challenges into the mix, with things like duplicating enemies and plenty of short-distance teleportation to keep you on your toes. They are very much a remix of existing enemy types in terms of visuals, but they do have some interesting new abilities to contend with. They don't just frequent their space-based home either, instead they've infected the whole game, and you'll find them on patrol just about everywhere, dropping in and out of existing sandboxes and adding an extra dimension to the already chaotic struggle for power that's been raging across the solar system.
There's several new Strikes for players to battle their way through, and these are on top of a selection of story missions that can also be revisited. Throw in the quests and bounties, and you've got a decent amount of content. Then there's the new Raid, King's Fall. It's a return to a more Vault of Glass-like challenge, with puzzle sections that feature disappearing (while moving) platforms, and hard as nails boss battles. Coordination is most certainly required from the six-strong teams that attempt it. We liked it, definitely more than Crota's End, and particularly while there's still a significant challenge that players haven't worked out how to cheese.
We've got this far and we haven't even mentioned the Crucible. There's eight new maps all told, and there's some genuine highlights. Crossroads features teleportation and energy cannons that catapult players between areas. Bannerfall is reminiscent of the Tower social area that all players have frequented so often. Memento is based around a crocked spine of a street that runs down the centre of the map. There's a good selection, and the roster is now overflowing with options of all shapes and sizes. The only complaint is that those who prefer PvP will still have to venture into the world of PvE if they want to level up quickly; Bungie has made it easier to advance via competitive multiplayer, but it's still far from optimal.
There's some nice new features, including total domination, where if a team is in the process of getting thrashed, the game will automatically shut down early. There's also a couple of new modes. Rift is the major talking point; it's a team game where both sides contest a regularly recharging "spark" and must collect it and take it to the opposition base in order to "light their rift". It's not so good lone-wolfing it, but it's a decent team mode. Mayhem is pure carnage, and with a faster recharge on all abilities and grenades, it's a constant stream of explosions and destruction. Both are good additions.
When playing through all the new content you'll have the option of doing so using one of the three new subclasses that arrived as part of this expansion. We played primarily with a Hunter, but there's a new subclass for each. Titans have been running around with burning one-hit-kill hammers, Hunters are now better suited to crowd control thanks to their new all-tethering bow, and they couldn't have made the Warlock subclass cooler if they'd tried, with Guardians gliding through the battlefield while unleashing lightning from their fingertips as they go. For players with multiple characters on the go, there's plenty of new tricks to learn and tactics to explore.
We've been gushing praise, but there is a couple of minor negatives. Firstly it's totally disheartening to see a whole year's worth of hard work going down the pan, which is what happened when Bungie made all our old gear redundant, but it was a necessary evil and we see the benefit even if from time to time we still find ourselves gazing longingly at our old exotics. Still, once we've been playing for a while we can envisage ourselves going back to legacy favourites such as Hawkmoon and upgrading them for year two.
Yes there's plenty of new content here for players to get stuck into, but is it good value for money? Although they're calling it an expansion, they're not really pricing it as such over in the UK (it's £40 here). It feels much bulkier when compared to the previous, smaller expansions, but it is still expensive, especially when you consider what they're paying for it on the other side of the Atlantic (a much more reasonable £25). Dedicated players will, however, get their money's worth.
The only other criticism will be more significant for some than it is for others, and that's the grind. Like it or loathe it, it's a big part of the game, and those who can't abide revisiting content and putting a new spin on an old challenge will likely score The Taken King lower than we have here, but it is what it is, and we don't mind that side of things. In fact, we enjoy it, and just as we've done for a full year now, we intend on revisiting the game regularly in the months ahead. Destiny is a great shooter, and The Taken King is a fantastic continuation and evolution of last years' release. It builds on the base game and improves it in almost every way, and while it might be pricey, it's an essential expansion for fans (and a great starting point for newcomers).