For some people who play games, especially those that regularly read the internet, there is that persistent little voice that exists. A voice that chatters away in the brain, trying everyday to convince its host that video game publishers are sickening, sweaty sub-human creatures who eat turkey legs with their bare hands in boardroom meetings and smoke cigars lit by a match struck on the cheeks of orphaned children.
Their sole purpose in life is to squeeze you like a weeping lemon until every last dollar falls out. They care not for morals or ethical behaviour. All they want, regardless of consequences, reputation or bad press, is your goddamn money. And they will step on every one of your beloved childhood video game memories in order to get it.
Destiny’s publisher is Activision. A company which has long held the position of an immoral money-hungry hog beast in the eyes of gamers. Their history has been rocky; appearing to value revenue over customers for several years. But since the launch of Destiny, Activision has been relatively quiet on the ‘Terribly Awful Contempt For Customers’ front.
In 2012, during their now infamous court battle with former employees of Call Of Duty-developer Infinity Ward, certain existing contracts with Activision were revealed by the Los Angeles Times. These legally binding contracts showed the initial decisions made with another developer, Bungie, in regards to an upcoming game entitled Destiny. Already two years into development when the court case spilled the beans, the contract stipulated that Bungie deliver a new Destiny every two years with a significant piece of add-on content (codenamed Comet) every alternate year. This is the first mention of what would later become The Taken King. At this stage, at least on paper, it reads like a guaranteed lock to provide them with a continuous pipeline to your wallet. What a bunch of bastards, right?
After 4.6 million people played Destiny’s Alpha and Beta, the full game launched in September 2014. Two expansions later and most people thought they knew everything Destiny had to offer. Including me. I had taken my Hunter (an Awoken gentleman with fabulous hair) as far as I felt I could go. Subconsciously, I had hit a wall with Destiny after realising that a LOT of grinding was needed to satisfy the needs of its ever-so-slightly obtuse Light leveling system. I loved the look of Destiny. The feel of combat. The breadth of its universe. But my interest had started to drift away into other areas. I hadn’t even realised.
Destiny was in the past for me. I was aware of new content on the release calendar but it didn’t fill me with the same ravenous excitement that the Alpha or Beta had.
But then everything changed with Destiny 2.0. One week before the release of the Taken King expansion, Bungie released a huge 18GB update. In addition to preparing for the upcoming expansion, the update made significant changes to Destiny’s framework. Quests were now displayed in detail, loot items dropped more frequently and the level progression was now both easier to understand and easier to attain. Destiny had become way more rewarding overnight. The wall that I had hit months before had crumbled before my eyes. When the Taken King itself released, this feeling started to increase. Every action I did seemed to matter. Every place I went was exciting. Every piece of gear I used felt rewarding.
When it started to become clear what Bungie had planned in the long-term for this universe, a lot of comparisons were made to the MMO style of experience such as World Of Warcraft. A long-standing ‘platform’ for a game that would be forever changing, updating and evolving. The main difference between Destiny’s galaxy and WoW’s Azeroth was that this universe would exist solely on a console. Believe it or not, there are still people who love to play games but have never touched an MMO. So when Destiny launched, it was unlike anything the PS4 and Xbox One had seen. A vast mixture of role-playing and social adventure. Certain parts of the game required your friends (or strangers) to complete. It was new, exciting and perhaps most important of all, perpetual.
Destiny’s third and largest expansion, The Taken King, was released last month and over the course of a few days, what initially seemed like a selection of new quests and features, gradually revealed itself to have an incredible amount of layers. Faction reputation was now clearly shown; tracking exactly how much XP you were earning with the Vanguard, Gunsmith, Future War Cult, Cryptarch and so on.
The brand new Quests screen was a stroke of genius. Laying absolutely everything out in front of you in one easy-to-use menu, it shows each section of game progression for you to monitor and understand. For instance, you’re almost finished with the sixth step of this quest and two new bounties. If you complete those, you’ll rank up with more Crota’s Bane experience and probably unlock a new quest line. What about forging a sword? Crucible bounties? How many more Taken Champions do you need to defeat before you can return to The Reef and kneel before Petra Venj? Everything is displayed in such an ingenious way, it’s no wonder I have fallen victim to playing it into the wee hours almost every night since its release. One more quest step. One more bounty. A few more upgrades. These tantalising carrots existed before the arrival of The Taken King but now everyone can plainly see the stick.
So much of what was buried under the surface of Destiny has now burst forth with glee in The Taken King. Cut scenes that breathe life into characters in the Tower. The ability to easily progress forward in story, experience, gear and sub-classes. And stand on the battlefields of Phobos laughing as multitudes of engrams fall like candy from the sky. Regardless of what you think of Destiny itself, The Taken King has rejuvenated the entire universe. It is not optional. The more you play, the more it becomes clear how much Bungie didn’t even mention before launch. The amount of content buried on Oryx’s Dreadnought alone is staggering.
The Taken King rewards long time players with incredible benefits and opens up the Destiny universe to new players like no other console game has even attempted. Whether Bungie had most of this content locked down long ago or if it is a living, breathing reaction to what players wanted from a new expansion, it is an extraordinary leap forward for console gaming. It not only brought Destiny back to life for a lot of people but cements its position in the console landscape as a universe that is just getting started. This just doesn’t happen. Not on this scale and not to these lengths. Most games are beaten and shelved within a month of launch day. Destiny is now into Year Two and is more thrilling and rewarding than ever.
But still, even with all these exciting upgrades, Destiny isn’t perfect. A few improvements could still be made. For instance, the game’s backstory and lore is mostly sealed in unlockable Grimoire Cards which, despite being earned in the game, can only be viewed on Bungie’s website or in the Destiny app. This decision still seems crazy because a large part of the substance of Destiny’s world is sitting right there, ripe for the taking. If there was another menu screen in the game dedicated to this lore – what a difference it would make. What a fascinating hole of fiction we could fall into.
For example, a friend recently explained to me that Eris Morn was once a Guardian. A hunter, trapped for years beneath the surface of the Moon after a mission-gone-wrong, Morn had to adapt to live in the environment of the Hive. Hence her horrifically transformed eyes. When she finally escaped, she then decided to help the Vanguard. Taking up residence in The Tower in preparation for the assault on the Hive boss, Crota. Now, I know there is narration and the odd paragraph in the menus but I didn’t feel like I got even get half of this information via the game’s story and I’m the type of person who hangs on every word when playing a story-driven game. So when I heard it in full detail from a friend, I was dumbfounded by this awesome slice of fiction. And I subsequently discovered the majority of Morn’s story was locked up in Grimoire cards. As I mentioned: crazy.
However, as a result of The Taken King, niggling problems such as these can no longer be forgotten. Not forever lost to the history of a game’s launch day. Bungie has transformed what Destiny is and what it could be with this expansion and made it highly unpredictable going forward. Changes can be made, rules can be broken and fundamentals can be shaken. Negatives can be opened up with a light at the end of the tunnel towards a positive. Maybe someday, the Grimoire cards could end up in the game.
Bungie will enjoy an unprecedented long term intake of sales with the Destiny platform. Yes, what they’ve delivered is very similar to the framework of World Of Warcraft but because this is in the world of consoles, the potential for Destiny and games influenced by its vision seems like a major shift. Microsoft and Sony have gone to jaw-dropping lengths trying to emulate other platforms with cameras and motion controls. They tried to throw anything at the wall to see what stuck. Then along comes Bungie and makes a change for them.
Destiny validates this ‘always online’ future we all had fears about at the start of this console generation. We might not realise it yet, but it may forever change how a significant portion of big budget console games will be designed and released. There’s more ‘games-as-platforms’ on the horizon for the console market and any fears for their quality are significantly lessened because The Taken King exists. It’s an incredible achievement not only in terms of what it adds to Destiny but what it represents for console game development. It seems a surprising antithesis to the caricature of the money-driven turkey-stained publisher I described earlier. A welcome reprieve from the notion that multi-million dollar games are a stagnant commodity forever trapped on a plateau.
This universe feels a lot more decisive now that The Taken King has settled in. It is laser-focused on a vision of both an expansive universe and quiet, personal achievement. Characters that were once half-heartedly present in your adventure are now a crucial part of the story. The new quest system has made progression almost unstoppable and a constant reason to keep playing after you promised you would stop. That unobtainable gear that your high-level friends had been bragging about is now superseded by even more amazing items. And the extent of new secrets hiding in every dark corridor has still not been completely traversed.
The fight of Earth’s last remaining survivors now feels decidedly more compelling for every Guardian that ever set foot in The Tower. I’m filled with a resounding sense of purpose now. Who knows what I’ll find? What’s around the next corner? What does Destiny have in store for Year Three?
This post originally published on Kotaku Australia on October 28 2015.