Destiny is one of the strangest games I’ve ever played. Talking with another Playboy editor recently, we realized that while most games are comparable to individual films—they come out, we experience them, we move on—Destiny is more like a TV show. Like a show that got really good in its second or third season, Destiny is better now than it was a year ago, and it’s getting even better with the launch of “The Taken King.”
The developers at Bungie—the studio that brought gamers the original Halo almost a decade and a half ago—have spent the last year figuring out exactly what they want Destiny to be, and “The Taken King,” the $40 expansion that’s available starting today, is the realization of that. Sure, it makes the first year of Destiny feel like a half-done pilot in comparison, but that’s become part of the myth. I don’t think there’s ever been another game that’s changed so much over such a short time, and that inspires such crazy devotion from fans—myself included.
I visited Bungie headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. earlier this month to play “The Taken King” for two days straight. Bungie imported my existing characters—although they renamed my account “Thermodynamics” in the test build they set me up with—which meant I got to have the experience of bringing all my gear and progress into the game’s new world.
On the surface it doesn’t feel that different. With “The Taken King,” you’ll head to the Tower and pick up bounties to shoot stuff across the solar system, do weekly and daily activities for various rewards, and compete with friends in the multiplayer Crucible. But the game’s entire ecosystem, from the currency you use to buy and upgrade weapons to the way you level up your character, has been totally redesigned, and for the most part things seem to make a lot more sense in “The Taken King” than they used to.
One of the funny things about Destiny is that the game is always “live"—no one is playing offline, and everyone is having the same experience—but Bungie doesn’t force anyone to buy expansions like "The Taken King.” All these changes and general improvements get applied to everyone’s experience. Meanwhile those who actually buy the $40 expansion get access to new story missions, new, tougher strike missions, and a new raid—the biggest, most demanding and most fun levels in the game—plus countless new weapons, new character classes, and, maybe best of all, a huge new area in which to do patrol missions, hunt for secrets, and shoot the shit out of some aliens.
That area, the Dreadnaught, is unlike anything we’ve previously seen in Destiny. It’s the massive ship that big bad guy Oryx brings to town and parks in Saturn’s rings, and it’s where you’ll ultimately face him down. But it’s also an awesome place to go with your friends and just poke around. It’s far more dense and lively than any other space in the game, and there are tons of crazy things to find, many of which players won’t begin to understand until the internet hive mind has some time to dig more deeply into them.
Take a look at this footage I captured at the studio. Playing with some other journalists, I found an item called an “Agonarch Rune.” I charged the rune up with methods that still aren’t clear to me, then forgot about it—until, exploring a crack we’d found in a dark corner somewhere, we discovered a terminal that let me use it. It opened a door into a large area, where we faced waves of enemies for around ten minutes:
That’s just one secret that we happened to uncover in the Dreadnaught, and there’s a lot more than that going on. Some of these tie into the game’s new quests system, a new screen in the pause menu that keeps track of all the tasks and missions you’ve embarked on. (By the time I was done with the story missions, I had around 20 quests in progress—that’s a huge improvement in a game that often leaves players wondering what to do next.) Yet other secrets on the Dreadnaught, like a weird mission that involved killing lots of enemies and—no joke—dancing in a specific spot, are more hidden and enigmatic.
Some Destiny players prefer fighting one another to killing aliens, and “The Taken King” has plenty for them to do as well. There are new modes, like Mayhem, which lets competitors use their powerful “super” abilities more often, and Rift, which tasks teams with grabbing an item and scoring it at their opponents’ bases; there are seven (or eight, for PlayStation players) new maps; and, most importantly, there are new weapons and abilities that will change the way you play.
Destiny’s competitive multiplayer has for months been dominated by just a handful of super powerful weapons, so I’m particularly excited about the influx of new guns and strategies in the Crucible. One new-ish weapon type—sidearms—I think is going to be a player favorite, while the new super ability for Titan characters, the Hammer of Sol, feels like Bungie’s apology for a full year of Titans having inferior abilities compared to the other two classes. I stuck with these during my time in “The Taken King”’s crucible, and made a montage of how much Guardian ass they kick:
Destiny’s Shotguns are still good, sniper rifles can still kill players with a single bullet if you hit them in the head, and fusion rifles are suddenly very usable again. But sidearms, I think, are going to dominate the Crucible for a while.
Now is a really great time for Destiny players who put the game down months ago to get back into it, while new players will find the most friendly and robust version of the game that’s yet existed. That said, the transition to “The Taken King” won’t be easy for super-dedicated players who, like me, never stopped playing at all. Almost all the guns that we’ve been using up to this point are useless in most of the expansion’s new missions, especially the high-level stuff like strikes and the new raid. It feels bad leaving your favorite guns behind, especially when the new weapons you’ll replace them with are better in level only.
What I mean by that is the bulk of the new weapons you’ll find for at least the first dozen hours of “The Taken King” have higher attack numbers, so they do more damage to high-level enemies; but their core stats and perks almost universally suck. Getting deep into “Taken King,” I felt like I went from having dozens of viable weapons that I loved, to literally just one or two, even after more than a dozen hours in the new content. That will work itself out over time as you find more and more good weapons, but it’s still a rough transition.
It doesn’t help that Bungie further de-powered some of the guns that were already being left behind by the math, like previous high-level guns with certain perks that no longer work like they used to; the “field scout” perk, for example, no longer grants extra bullets to a gun’s magazine, so guns like Fatebringer, Praedyth’s Revenge and Corrective Measure—personal favorites for lots of players—aren’t what they used to be, even in old content and in the Crucible. There’s nothing fun about that, and it feels like major overkill.
Hey, at least “The Taken King” has some really amazing music. Here’s a snippet from one of the new tracks by composers Michael Salvatori, C. Paul Johnson and Skye Lewin:
And it’s not just the music. The writing in the original game was always mediocre and occasionally terrible, but in the new missions it’s downright good. The expansion’s story, of an evil alien come to take revenge on players for killing his son in earlier missions, should be pure nonsense, but there are new cutscenes and character moments that finally take advantage of great voice actors like Nathan Fillion and Lance Reddick, and it all works surprisingly well. Plus, the Ghost’s new voice—video game voice acting veteran Nolan North has replaced Peter Dinklage—is way more emotive and fun than its previous dour persona.
I wrote in May, when Destiny’s second expansion, “House of Wolves,” launched, that Destiny was finally good. I’ve been wrestling with my obsession with this game for the last year, going through multiple phases: first, skepticism, as I struggled to determine whether the game was any good at all; then, denial, as I played and played but whined and moaned about everything wrong with Destiny; and, finally, acceptance that I was going to keep playing, mixed with hope that the game really would improve, its many issues being fixed and improved over time so the great video game underneath could show through.
With “The Taken King,” Destiny still has a lot of problems. But this is also the best the game has ever been, and based on the game’s journey over the past year, it seems it will only get better from here.
For even more on Destiny and “The Taken King,” read my full—and very long—interview with the expansion’s executive producer, Bungie’s Mark Noseworthy.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games but mostly concerned with getting (even more) sweet Destiny loot. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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