The Taken King is Bungie as Paul McCartney playing the hits on a sold-out stadium tour. The studio’s prior series, Halo, was a Beatles-level phenomenon, but upon launch last year Destiny was more like Wings. (Halo 3 is Revolver, ODST is Sgt. Pepper, Reach is Let it Be, and Halo 4 is Oasis.)
All of this is to say that, following Destiny’s muted reception a year ago, Bungie is back to its crowd-pleasing best. The Taken King, Destiny’s biggest expansion to date, is a colossal overhaul of a game with colossal scope. To be clear, Destiny remains an unusual beast whose hybrid of FPS action and MMO leveling won’t be for everyone. Although I liked it a lot the way it was, I have to admit there was a somewhat masochistic element to my relationship with the game. But The Taken King does a lot to turn Destiny into a more consistently entertaining experience for players new and old. It’s an expansion in every sense of the word.
It starts with the campaign. The Taken King’s single-player story mode deviates significantly from Destiny’s both by being fun to play alone and by actually having a story. Gone is the disinterested Peter Dinklage as your constant companion; in is a chirpy, C-3PO-esque Nolan North and a likable supporting cast.
The Taken King doesn’t really have any new characters — they were all in the base game or subsequent expansions, just seriously underused. Here, though, the cutscenes and in-game dialogue are given space to shine, with the back and forth between cocky droid Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion) and spooky mystic Eris Morn (Morla Gorrondona) a particular highlight. The Taken King is breezy, self-aware, and somehow actually funny, which is not a thing I ever expected to write about Destiny. And there's a clear plot — it’s a simple one, sure, consisting of little more than "a scary bat-creature called Oryx wants to kill you with his transdimensional minions," but it’s a lot more to go on than the original game’s vague sci-fi musings.
The Taken King is breezy, self-aware, and somehow actually funny
The campaign is short, with just eight standard missions — many of which, in true Destiny fashion, see you literally retread old ground. Each is full of inventive tweaks, though, the tightly paced scenarios frequently proving a match for Halo's best moments. And things open up once you're done, with more missions and a fresh new quest system that gives you far more impetus to keep on playing than the original Destiny ever did. These quests take the form of a list of galaxy-spanning tasks, often with a reward at the end; it’s a more encouraging structure than Destiny’s prior endgame, which leaned heavily on repetition and grinding in the hope of exciting loot drops.
The Taken King features four new strikes (only three on Xbox), Destiny’s special missions where three players team up to take down powerful enemies, and each has some of the best design seen in the game to date. The PlayStation-exclusive Echo Chamber, for instance, forces one player to assume an important support role, carrying items to terminals that temporarily disable an invulnerable boss. The Sunless Cell, meanwhile, culminates in a pitch-black battle that provides one of Destiny’s tensest moments so far. Too many of Destiny’s original strikes boiled down to tests of endurance against uninteresting monsters with interminably long health bars, but The Taken King does a great job of shaking things up.
One of the biggest additions to The Taken King is Destiny’s third raid, King’s Fall. Of all the things that Destiny does differently, raids are the most different; Bungie has taken a staple feature of MMOs and applied it to FPS action in a constantly thrilling way. Raids have a high barrier to entry — you need to level up a lot, and have five friends willing to come along for the multi-hour ride, because there’s no automatic matchmaking. But that barrier is important, because communication and camaraderie are what makes Destiny’s raids so special. You really have to work together with people you know and trust, each member playing their role and performing to a high level to get through complex battles. It’s like the first-person shooter equivalent of a well-executed football play, except you need to work out the rules of football first.
The third raid alone will make The Taken King an essential purchase for many Destiny players. I haven’t finished King’s Fall yet, but what I’ve seen so far has been frequently astonishing, with a puzzle-heavy design that’s closer to the classic Vault of Glass than its less sophisticated follow-up Crota’s End. To give you some idea, I played for four hours straight with some friends last night, and can’t wait to get back and finish off the boss we got damn close to defeating. We worked out a strategy that I'm pretty sure is the right one, and pulling it off will be worth the effort.
King’s Fall aside, the long-term beating heart of The Taken King’s endgame is likely to come from the Dreadnaught. Oryx’s twisted, titanic battleship is the setting for much of the campaign mode, but it’s also the first major new area for players to patrol since Destiny launched. It’s a vast, cavernous space, with more to do than any location seen in the game so far. A lot of attention right now is going toward the Court of Oryx, where players can meet up to summon increasingly powerful enemies. But much of the Dreadnaught’s appeal lies in its arcane secrets — locked chests with obscure keys, closed doors with no obvious way to pass. Destiny’s earlier areas felt spent as soon as you’d been through them a couple of times, but I don’t think that’ll be the case with the Dreadnaught.
Surprise seems to be a key element of Bungie’s new approach to Destiny. One day last week, players whipped themselves into frantic excitement as it emerged that taking an unmarked route on the daily heroic mission — a rotating story quest that gives you a chance to earn valuable currency once a day — took you toward a punishing fight with a brand new exotic sniper rifle at the end. This is the kind of thing that could have gone undiscovered were it not for the obsessive way Destiny players have taken to seeking out every corner of the game. As it is, the entire internet found out about it within hours, and lit up with triumphant cries and anguished surrenders. One Verge staffer, who will remain nameless, stayed up til 3AM after playing for hours and didn’t even get the gun in the end. That’s what Destiny can do to you at its best, and that’s the kind of thing Bungie will hopefully deliver more often.
There's a lot more I could say about The Taken King — its new subclasses that change the way your favorite character plays, its new leveling system that gives you more freedom in which gear you equip, its countless little tweaks that fix a lot of long-standing pain points. But Destiny is an MMO at heart, and there's only so much I can tell you today about how well it'll hold up over time. What I can say is that Bungie has overhauled Destiny into a more accessible and logical experience, widening the potential pool of people who it can sink its hooks into.
Halo wooed almost everyone who picked it up, and Destiny always had the same action chops; what it didn’t have, and what it now does, is a sensible framework to make that action almost infinitely replayable. That means a campaign with actual characters and story; it means diversity in design; it means a constant sense that there’s something new to do.
Paul McCartney knows in his heart of hearts that the Beatles had better hooks than Wings, and Bungie is learning the same tricks. With The Taken King, Destiny could well become a stickier, more addictive Halo for those yet to be convinced.