I’ve played Destiny for something like 130 hours, and I still don’t know why it’s called “Destiny.” The threadbare storyline is beside the point, though; right now, the more intriguing destiny is that of the game itself. Billed as the next major franchise from Halo creators Bungie, it’s hard to remember a new property making its debut with such fanfare and landing with such a mixed reaction.
Destiny launched to nonplussed players bemoaning its repetitive structure and perceived lack of content. “There was this expectation, as the studio that made Halo, that we were going to deliver something very similar,” says Bungie marketing manager Eric Osborne. But as much as I and many others came to love the game, its design is not quite as mainstream as its marketing. And come September 15th The Taken King, Destiny’s biggest expansion yet, will have a couple of jobs to do: gain new players and keep the existing base from dropping off.
Despite its FPS exterior, Destiny is not a game that you’re meant to complete and put back on the shelf; it’s more like an MMO without the subscription fee. And since you don't pay that fee, Bungie and Activision’s job is to hook you into an addictive loop, convince you to keep playing, and ultimately sell you additional content. “There are great games that last an hour,” says Osborne. “There are games like ours where you play it and it becomes a hobby.” Over 20 million people have now played Destiny, and of those who picked it up at launch, the average playtime sits at 177 hours, according to Osborne.
Destiny’s runaway steam train of hype has helped sustain the game in one respect; a lot of players undoubtedly bought the "season pass" for the first two expansion packs without knowing anything about what was included, or even whether they’d enjoy the base game in the first place. While those expansions, December’s The Dark Below and May’s House of Wolves, have been relatively minor in terms of actual content, they each did enough to the game’s underlying systems to keep players coming back. But if you bought the season pass in advance, of course you were going to check out these expansions. The issue facing Bungie is that, one year into Destiny, the studio now has to go back to all its players and ask for more money.
The Taken King will cost $39.99, twice as much as each previous expansion (new players can get a bundle with everything to date for $59.99), but it has a ton of extra content that, on paper at least, fits more with most players’ traditional idea of value. By including more tangible additions, like large playable areas, The Taken King might almost feel like a new game itself. First and foremost is what Osborne describes as a "full campaign," offering an extensive amount of story missions centered around Oryx, a bat-like alien god who’s built up an army called the Taken by ripping familiar enemies out of our dimension and sending them back with new abilities. When matched with the original Destiny base game and both of its expansions for a total of $60, The Taken King will offer far more than the original release did at the same price last year. If you're interested in Destiny but have been holding out so far, this will be the time to jump in.
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I played through a truncated version of the first new story mission, and although it doesn’t reinvent too much about how Destiny works — gunplay remains best in class, of course — it does feel flashier on a production level than just about anything in the base game. The storytelling continues the lively tone hit on in House of Wolves, with characters bouncing back and forth in your earpiece as you progress, though it wouldn’t be Destiny without the odd clunky line. ("YOU KILLED MY SON, CROTA!" Oryx booms like a disappointed school principal at one point. Crota is the final boss in a raid called Crota’s End, and he appears with "Crota, Son of Oryx" above his head. Thanks for the reminder.)
The biggest criticism of Destiny’s original campaign was the lack of mission variety; almost every objective involved placing Ghost, the diminutive Peter Dinklage-voiced robot, next to an object of interest and fighting off waves of enemies while he worked. While the two expansions improved this a bit, Bungie is aiming for a lot more variety in The Taken King. "We’re treating the campaign very differently," says Osborne. "It’s going to be much more characterful and quest-driven. You can see that evolution happening [with the expansions], and we’re really happy where that’s going."
If you’re still playing Destiny, though, you’re probably more concerned with the multiplayer-focused endgame content. The Taken King’s biggest addition in that regard will be a third raid, offering up another lengthy and complex mission requiring deep coordination between six players. Bungie isn’t saying anything about this one yet, even refusing to confirm the somewhat predictable notion that it will involve taking on Oryx. "He’s the central threat, your goal is to stop him, so I think it would make some sense if he were to appear in the raid," was Osborne’s coy answer.
The nature of the raid will play a big part in how The Taken King is received among Destiny players; the original game’s Vault of Glass still stands up as one of the most audacious and original examples of FPS design around, whereas The Dark Below’s Crota’s End is more straightforward and somewhat less revered. Both raids have valuable items that don't ever drop elsewhere, so dedicated players often go through each raid multiple times a week. And by the time The Taken King is released, there won’t have been a new Destiny raid for almost nine months, so expectations are high.
Another major addition is the first new character subclasses since Destiny’s release; I played through the E3 demo with all three. The new Titan subclass is called Sunbreaker, and its headline feature is a super attack that lets you throw flaming hammers. Hunters get a subclass called Nightstalker, which has a shimmering purple bow that fires bolts of void light capable of pinning enemies to a single spot. And my personal favorite was the hilarious Stormcaller Warlock subclass, which sees you flying around horizontally with powerful lightning crackling at your fingertips like an unholy marriage between Superman and Emperor Palpatine.
The expansion will also come with new strike missions and multiplayer maps, along with big new areas to explore. But just as important as the content is how Bungie will handle Destiny’s underlying systems and the rollout of new gear. The Dark Below upset many players, for instance, by introducing a punishing method for boosting items to the new, more powerful standard; just bringing a single weapon up to par could require hours of grinding and weeks of hoping that your upgrade would randomly go on sale. House of Wolves won praise for rolling much of this back, but that’s not to say that Bungie thinks it’s hit on the right formula. "We are absolutely going to make some changes as we go," says Osborne. "The last thing I would describe Destiny as is static. We have a lot of great ideas based on learnings from the first year."
The Taken King feels like it could be a semi-sequel of sorts, designed as it is to propel Destiny into another year. But is this a game that can survive beyond that, or will Bungie feel the need to start afresh with a Destiny 2? "We’re really perceiving it now in terms of years," says Osborne. "We’ve got Year 1 under our belt, The Taken King’s gonna kick off Year 2 — we think we’ve got a good head of steam, and then beyond that we’re going to figure it out as we go."
Any Destiny sequel would have to work out a way for players to keep their characters; Activision has already hinted as much. "One of the very important things for us in the game is player persistence, the idea that I’m building a character and my time is valuable because I’m contributing to this legend that I’m creating in the world. So we never want to lose that," says Osborne. But as for whether we’ll see that full sequel? "Hopefully people have learned that we like to defy expectations. I think The Taken King is going to be a really great big step forward, and from there we’ll keep moving." But will Bungie be able to entice those who didn’t bite the first time? That may depend how well The Taken King is received when it launches on September 15th.