Also On: Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
Editor's Note: This review is a work in progress no more. See the final grade below!
Destiny: The Taken King, and the game-changing Destiny 2.0 update, is sort of Bungie’s sincere apology for not quite shipping the product that they intended to one year ago. They released a very playable, highly compelling and gorgeous game on 4 platforms, but failed to deliver on a number of fronts. Mind you, these "flaws" didn’t stop me from putting in 200+ hours over the year across the base game and two expansion packs. For better or for worse, I consider myself a fan of Destiny, even though I'm not the type who can run a trio of max rank characters across weekly or daily activities or jump into a raid at any time of the day or week. I’m confident that there are no other console games over the past couple of generations that I’ve put more time into, and that includes the more recent Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy titles and other traditionally lengthy adventure or RPG titles.
One thing to note in covering Destiny: The Taken King. Bungie’s Destiny massive 2.0 title update is free for all, even those who only own vanilla Destiny from last year. Even though the update has been available for several days now, it’s difficult to evaluate TTK without delving into the changes that 2.0 brought about. The update is a huge one (in terms of game design and file size) which affects brand new players and existing players alike as it essentially touches every aspect of the game. The more straightforward leveling and currency systems make a huge difference in smoothing out the uneven difficulty curve that many players faced in the original release. Instead of hitting a brick wall at certain levels tiers due to circumstances that are largely out of a player's hands, 2.0 makes increasing a character’s rank less of a grind and more of a natural progression of just playing the game.
In 2.0, new Destiny players will have a more streamlined campaign which better integrates events which take place in Expansion I: The Dark Below and Expansion II: House of Wolves into the experience. The studio also went through the trouble of having Nolan North replace Peter Dinklage as Ghost, your Guardian’s spritely robotic sidekick. The social space and central hub of all things Destiny, The Tower, has received somewhat of an upgrade as well, with vendors serving new functions and selling new wares, more useful character interactions, and kiosks scattered about to better serve the clientele. Managing your expanded vault space, bounties, quests, gear/loot is overall, more elegant than it was in Destiny year one, which makes it a way better experience for gamers. Oh and loot drops are both more frequent and more rewarding, which we assume will please damn near 100% of even the crankiest Destiny players. Destiny: The Taken King or not, one year later, Destiny is much, much better game for everyone; but I digress.
So now that we’ve cleared the air regarding Destiny 2.0 — back to The Taken King. We recently had the opportunity to spend 15 or so hours with the expansion which took us all the way through the campaign (to level 40, light level ~221) and included a limited amount of co-op, competitive and endgame activities. The Bungie engineers were able to clone our own Guardians for the event, thus giving us a better feel for what we would be playing at launch. Along the way we were also able to pick Bungie’s collective brains regarding TTK and their philosophy for the franchise moving forward. One thing was abundantly clear, the studio is on the right track to fix their missteps from Destiny 1.0 and is striving to deliver a franchise that’s satisfying and enjoyable for players and fans of the studio.
The story and campaign for Destiny: The Taken King is significantly better than what was available in the original release — even if you include the pair of expansions. With more story scenes, supporting characters, dialog and drama, the Destiny: The Taken King experience is more cinematic and compelling than what we got a year ago. The campaign kicks off with Awoken Queen Mara Sov’s forces fighting off Oryx’s “Taken” army before coming face-to-face with The Taken King’s insanely powerful Star Destroyer-esque Dreadnaught. Killing his son Crota obviously didn’t sit well with the Hive God, so he’s understandably pissed off and looking for revenge. So yet again it’s up to the Destiny Guardians to save the day by assembling into fireteams, infiltrating the behemoth of a cruiser, and picking a fight with Oryx himself.
Vanguard representatives Cayde-6, Commander Zavala and Ikora Rey — in addition to a few other familiar faces — are there to support the Guardians throughout their new adventure. Along with Nolan North’s more emotive and talkative Ghost, Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion doing some fine work) keeps things fun and light as a bit of comic relief. All in all, the Destiny: The Taken King’s campaign is fairly meaty, especially for an expansion, although not terribly difficult for experienced players. With my level 34 – 40 Titan Striker I probably dedicated around 4 – 5 hours playing through the story with a few “misadventure” deaths thanks to a some platforming sequences and an especially pushy Cabal in a certain chapter. Finishing the campaign is not where Destiny wraps up of course. Eliminating Oryx is just the first act in a much larger endgame initiative dubbed The Taken War, and players will be loaded up with more than enough quests, tasks and rewarding activities to keep them busy for a very long while.
So yeah, the campaign is a rather small part of the overall Destiny: The Taken King package. Bungie has crafted 4 new PvE (co-op) Strikes, a pair of new PvP (competitive) Crucible modes with a whopping 8 maps, and many hours worth of adventure within the sprawling Dreadnaught location itself which includes the multi-tiered Court of Oryx public event, bounties and a number of other (sometimes mysterious) tasks. The new Strikes in particular are more dynamic and interactive, and even many of the old Strikes have been reconfigured to include Taken forces which provide for some needed variation. Bosses are less of bullet sponges than before and put up a more interesting fight which will usually require greater cooperation between Guardians to successfully complete. One thing to note, PlayStation players get access to one exclusive Strike (the clever Echo Chamber) and an exclusive Sector 618 Crucible map through 2016, so Xbox players get 3 Strikes and 7 maps in total.
We don't doubt that some player will jump into The Taken King just for the deadly new Guardian subclasses. Since I’m primarily a Titan player, unlocking the ass-kicking Sunbreaker subclass and flinging around solar-infused hammers was nearly a religious experience. Warlocks get a similarly wild Arc-powered Stormcaller subclass, and Hunters can unlock a Void-powered Nightstalker. There’s no doubt that players will see a lot of Guardians running around with these newfound powers after running through the campaign since they are just so much fun to play with.
You also can’t discuss Destiny and not mention loot, rewards and gear. Yeah, many of the exotic and legendary equipment will be outclassed the minute that players pick up The Taken King and play through a bit of the game. While some select gear has made the transition to year two status (or will in the future), many will not. These legacy weapons and armor will still have a place in PvP play to some extent, but moving forward, players need to get used to earning fresh new equipment and working towards maximizing their loadouts. There’s a significant variety of weapons, armor, and gear in the new TTK arsenal, and every piece you pick up, decrypt or earn, may have stats or perks making it worth holding onto; even uncommon or rare drops, including class items, ghost shells and the new artifact slot. As mentioned earlier, since the 2.0 update, the reward system is more generous and intelligent, so the chance of finding stuff that you’ll actually want to equip is much, much greater than pre Destiny 2.0 and The Taken King. The best gear can only be picked up by TTK players, so those who stick with the original product will likely be paired with more powerful Guardians at one point.
The Taken King’s more cinematic approach to the campaign puts the focus on Bungie’s incredible art design. The dramatic lighting, skyboxes, set-pieces and effects are still crazy impressive, and even with an insane amount of on-screen action the game performs wonderfully. The Dreadnaught is massive, foreboding and creepy and serves as an interesting planetary location for a number of activities. The audio in Destiny doesn't often get enough acclaim, so I just need to throw some kudos Bungie’s way for the quality soundtrack and effects. The tension-building score kicks in at just the right time during the campaign and Strikes and does a fantastic job in setting the mood throughout. As for settling the game's most divisive argument: I for one much prefer NorthGhost over DinkleBot.
If there’s one thing I still dislike about Destiny, it is the relative difficulty of grouping up with random players to perform certain activities in the game. I sort of understand hard mode raids being locked away for pre-formed fireteams at first, but at this point, not having an in-game option for other high level co-op events or multi-step quests seems like an unneeded barrier for those who can't easily find time to group up. I play Destiny at unreliable and irregular times throughout the week, so having matchmaking, grouping, and/or enhanced drop-in/drop-out functionality would be a huge plus for me (and I’m sure other gamers in the same situation). Yes, a number of independent services exist online to facilitate grouping, but that still requires extra time and effort that could be better spent playing the game. For instance, if 3 similarly leveled solo players are playing the same exact campaign mission and difficulty, why not have the option to dynamically group them up for that session? We’re sure many of these changes would require more engineering work on Bungie’s side, but it’s still something that many dedicated players would likely appreciate.
There's also the potentially confusing upgrade path for existing Destiny players. Gamers need to do their research on which is the best option, primarily for those who are looking for limited, bonus or premium edition content. Forty dollars to access the base content may be steep depending on what players expect to get out of The Taken King. If it's hundreds of hours across all activities, then it's a bargain; if it's just the campaign and some casual competitive play, notsomuch. I expect to fall within the former group.
As the disclaimer at the start of this review pointed out, this is a work in progress review. We wanted to give readers our honest opinion of what we’ve played so far, so it’s not fair to assign a letter grade to Destiny: The Taken King quite yet. With that being said, unless the endgame content or server infrastructure really falls apart over the next couple of weeks, we are inclined to give Destiny: The Taken King a “definitely buy” recommendation. So we will definitely be back with a grade later on. Either way, Bungie appears committed to continuously improving and expanding the Destiny universe for the foreseeable future, so those who make the decision to “Become Legend” won’t have to worry about being easily forgotten.