When Bungie debuted Destiny a year ago, it was about as divisive as a game could get. Some players criticized Destiny for its poor storytelling and glaring endgame flaws, while others were hooked by its excellent shooter mechanics and challenging raid. Others had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Destiny, myself included. This was even reflected in our review at Gaming Trend, which summed up the experience as, “…ambitious, flawed, and somehow compelling.” It was clear at that time that Destiny had enormous potential that fell short in many ways.

The Taken King marks the beginning of what Bungie is calling “Destiny: Year Two.” Although it isn’t a sequel to Destiny, in a lot of ways it’s a fresh start for a game that has a lot of room to improve. I’ve put a ton of time into vanilla Destiny, and didn’t always enjoy my time with it, so after having the opportunity to play through The Taken King, I’m relieved to say that it is a dreadnaught-sized improvement over Destiny: Year One. The loot system, story, boss fights, and social elements in vanilla Destiny were disappointing in a lot of ways, and The Taken King addresses every single one of them.

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The first improvement that players will notice about The Taken King is its story, which now features prominent characters, and a proper story arch. The story begins when Oryx, father of the recently-slain Crota, arrives in our solar system seeking revenge against the Guardians who slew his progeny. Without spoiling anything, his very arrival causes a major shift in the universe, and it’s one that will definitely have a long-term effect on the world that players inhabit. And it doesn’t stop there — Oryx, who has the ability to “take” intelligent beings and strip them of their free will, begins to build an army to destroy humanity. In the events that follow, the story only becomes more dark, mysterious, and epic.

About halfway through the campaign of Destiny: The Taken King, I realized that, for the first time since the launch of Destiny, I cared about the story. Character personalities are showcased a lot better than in Destiny thus far, and interesting relationships between certain characters are clarified. Cayde 6, the character that’s voiced by Nathan Fillion, plays a major role in the story arch in particular. This is something that Destiny has sorely needed, and it’s great to see that Bungie has taken the time to improve the player’s interest in the Destiny Universe.

The main story of Destiny: The Taken King wraps up with a few compelling plot twists/cliffhangers that should hold players’ interest in the Destiny Universe in the future, but The Taken King doesn’t stop there. In fact, the events of the main story are only the beginning of a larger saga within Destiny: The Taken King called “The Taken War.” Once players have completed the story missions, The Taken War is fully underway, and players are invited to explore the solar system and prevent The Taken from gaining a foothold in the ongoing conflict. The good news is that there is a ton for players to do, and it is made even better by telling various mini-stories throughout this expanded campaign. The one downside here is that Bungie still relies on “The Grimoire,” a series of lore entries that are accessible via Bungie.net or on the companion app, to tell a good portion of the story. This is one idea that Bungie could easily ditch, or at least make the entries available natively in Destiny like plenty of RPGs are keen on doing.

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Destiny: The Taken King heralds the beginning of what Bungie is calling “Destiny 2.0,” which is a complete overhaul of many of the basic mechanics of Destiny. This includes how leveling works, how players become more powerful, which currencies/materials are important, weapon balancing, and a ton of other elements within Destiny.

Leveling beyond level 20 no longer requires players to grind for armor with light, instead relying on a standard experience-based system that was previously used for levels 1-20. Since “light level” no longer determines character level, endgame activities are now much more accessible to the average Destiny player, which was not the case in vanilla Destiny. It also provides Bungie with the opportunity to repurpose light level, which is now simply a system that boosts a player’s attack/defense for each level gained. This stat is determined by weapons, armor, and accessories that the player has equipped, but luckily this is no longer a barrier for players, since light’s role has been lessened. In addition, Destiny: The Taken King offers players many ways to increase their light level via the new loot/infusion system.

The loot system in vanilla Destiny was (rivalled only by the story) the biggest shortcoming of all. Players were required to grind, and grind, and grind, by playing the same levels in PvE and PvP, with no guarantee that they would ever get the gear they desired. This is, without a doubt, no longer an issue with Destiny: The Taken King. Several measures have been taken to ensure that loot drops more often and is more rewarding, but more importantly, lets players become more powerful by doing the things they love, instead of feeling forced into weekly events.

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The first way that the looting system has been overhauled is simple: loot drops more often, and is now intelligent enough to detect which items you’ve yet to acquire, and make those drops more likely. You read that correctly — you won’t have to run the same raid a couple dozen times just to find the hand cannon that has been eluding you. The second way that the looting system has been improved is via the infusion system. Now any legendary or exotic items from year two can be infused by breaking down more powerful items in order to boost that item’s power. This means that you can use whatever equipment you want, and make it more powerful through infusion, so you don’t need to chase down a specific set of armor or weapons just to feel relevant. As an added bonus, this also means that not every guardian is going to look identical at max level, which breathes new life into Destiny’s social aspect.

One of the biggest improvements in Destiny 2.0 is that Bungie has embraced the RPG side of Destiny. Now all quests can be found in a quest log that tracks progress on various quest lines. Completing the first phase of a quest may result in a second part revealing itself, maybe even a third and fourth part. Completing these quest lines usually results in great loot, and some sort of conclusion to whatever was happening during the quest’s plot. Whereas vanilla Destiny rarely had quests that lasted beyond a single-serving strike, or canned story mission, Destiny: The Taken King allows its inner-RPG to show by borrowing from a genre that it should embrace more often.

Another way that Destiny: The Taken King allows itself to become more of an RPG is via the collections system. In Destiny’s first year, loot was a bit nebulous, as there was no guide for which items were available without the aid of the Internet. Worse yet, once the player obtained a new item, they were then responsible for storing it in their very limited vault space or discard it if they didn’t think they’d need it. The collections system solves both of these problems by giving players complete lists of all of the unique exotic armor/weapons, shaders, and emblems, each with a short description of how to obtain it. Now players have a checklist of items to unlock, and if they discover an item, but don’t have room for it in their vault, they can simply dismantle it and order another one using a terminal.

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In the first year of Destiny, strikes could be somewhat painful experiences, specifically when it comes to the big boss battle at the end. Each boss was a bullet sponge that players had to spend twenty minutes hiding in a corner and shooting the boss in the head until it finally died. In Destiny: The Taken King, this issue has been eliminated completely, as the new strikes each have bosses with a unique challenge that requires teamwork and strategy to overcome. One boss lurks in the shadows and sneaks up behind players with a giant sword, while another is invincible until the player carries an artifact to a guarded goal point. The new strikes represent some of the best casual experiences available in Destiny so far.

The new modes and maps in PvP also add a much-needed variety to Destiny. Rift is a capture-the-flag gametype, which finally addresses the common request for more objective-based multiplayer modes. Mayhem, on the other hand, is a gametype where everyone’s supers and special abilities recharge extremely quickly, which is just absolute chaos, and a lot of fun.

The Taken King adds more maps than any other installment of Destiny so far, including the original release. The quantity of multiplayer maps in Destiny has not exactly been overflowing, so this boost presents a great value to PvP fans. More importantly though, the maps are better than most of the maps that Destiny has had so far. While many of the maps we’ve seen before in Destiny have been a little on the forgettable side, the new ones add a lot of variety by introducing things like teleportation gates and man-cannons to the multiplayer sandbox.

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As is usually the case with Bungie games, the presentation and gameplay of Destiny: The Taken King is top-notch. Environments and weapon effects look even better than vanilla Destiny, and an entirely new score has been added that has a much darker mood to align with the expansion’s tone. The gameplay of Destiny: The Taken King remains largely unchanged, aside from weapon balances, which finally put an end to the hand cannon dominance since the last weapon tune. Now all weapons seem viable, so players can use the weapons they choose.

The Taken King introduces one new subclass for each of the three guardian classes in Destiny. The Warlock class now has “The Stormcaller,” an arc-based class with an ability to go Palpatine on one’s enemies by shooting lightning from the player’s hands. The Hunter class has been given a void-based subclass called, “The Nightstalker,” which includes a sweet void bow that tethers enemies to one another and does a ton of damage — more importantly, it serves as the Hunter class’ support class. Finally, the Titan class is given a solar-based subclass called “The Sunbreaker,” which gives titans the ability to throw flaming hammers at their enemies, and can only be described as “f#$king awesome.” Each of the new subclasses gives their respective guardian class something that they have sorely needed, and balances out the distribution of badass a little more appropriately.

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Of all the ways that Destiny: The Taken King was able to improve upon the core game, one area that needed very little improving was the endgame raid, so it is no small matter when I say that Bungie has managed to blow their previous raids out of the water. For those of you that aren’t familiar with them, a raid in Destiny is a cooperative endgame activity that requires a group of six guardians to overcome monumental challenges. Raids are unique, as they require the players to solve puzzles and defeat enemies,  by utilizing an unprecedented level of teamwork and communication in any shooter to-date. In vanilla Destiny, The Vault of Glass endgame event was the one part of Destiny that stood out above the rest of the game as a masterpiece, but in Destiny: The Taken King they have somehow managed to top themselves.

“King’s Fall,” Destiny: The Taken King’s new raid, is Bungie’s most ambitious and challenging creation so far. The puzzles are tricky and require quite a bit of trial and error to pull off, and the entire affair is incredibly challenging without ever feeling unfair. With more bosses, incredible environments, and a final confrontation that is worth every ounce of effort players put into reaching it, King’s Fall is bigger and better than anything we’ve seen in Destiny.