Bungie Reinvents Its Shooter From The Ground Up
Destiny has been a divisive game. Disappointed with a lackluster story and more abbreviated content than they had hoped, some players abandoned Bungie’s latest project only days after launch. Others have stayed, pouring hundreds of hours into the fledgling game, embracing the taut gunplay, beautiful art, and social engagement. No matter which side you fall on, it’s safe to assume you have an opinion about Destiny, and Bungie has been listening. After two smaller downloadable packs, The Taken King arrives this September, hovering in a nebulous space between expansion and sequel. We visited Bungie for two full days of playing the game and talking to its creators, and discovered a project far more ambitious than any of us expected.
A FRESH START
The Taken King is bigger than you think. Two previous expansions have set our expectations of three to five story missions each, a few new multiplayer maps, and a raid or arena for end-game engagement, along with new legendary and exotic gear to keep the collection experience alive. The Taken King has far more expansive additions in store.
The September release does two things. It reorganizes the existing experience, from the flow of quests to the way leveling and gear upgrades work. Then it offers a wealth of new gameplay experiences more extensive than both of the previous expansions combined. New quests provide a more meaningful sense of involvement and progression.
Story missions are deeper, more narratively driven, and often buffered by cinematics. The end-game experience – where Destiny’s most devoted players spend the bulk of their time – is far more than a grind-focused afterthought, and comprises the entire second act of The Taken King’s storytelling and gameplay arc.
My first inkling of The Taken King’s scope comes as I boot up my Titan on Bungie’s test server and launch the opening cinematic. An unfamiliar voice narrates a musing on the nature of the Traveler, and I realize I’m hearing the return of my Ghost, a character absent from The Dark Below and House of Wolves releases. While the voice has a similar cadence, it’s undoubtedly a new actor. Nolan North has joined the cast to voice your ever-present companion, and his commentary is a regular accompaniment throughout the upcoming story. For the sake of consistency, North is also re-recording all the original dialogue from the base game. “We wanted to actually go back and take all of the Year One content and weave it into ‘questification,’” says creative director Luke Smith. “To not weave it in would lead to this abrupt experience, where you play DLC 1 and 2, and suddenly the game-interaction model changes. We wanted Nolan North’s version of the Ghost to wake you up at the start of the journey at level one and follow you all the way to level forty.”
Opening thoughts from the Ghost flow seamlessly into the single most epic cinematic yet seen in the series. It’s a declaration I don’t make lightly, and one that I don’t expect anyone to refute once they’ve seen it. The Awoken Queen has gone to war against Oryx’s encroaching fleet. In a colossal space dogfight out among the rings of Saturn, Prince Uldren leads squadrons of Awoken fighters into a hail of weapon fire and destruction. Aboard her flagship, Queen Mara Sov joins in the fight, showing for the first time what makes her such a feared leader. Without spoiling the conclusion, the titanic outer-space showdown reveals both the might of the Awoken and the overwhelming threat posed by the arrival of Oryx. You’ve murdered his son, Crota, and he’s here for revenge.
With the stakes of the conflict established, my Titan heads to Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. Upon landfall, regular conversation between my Ghost and the Vanguard members back on Earth illustrate the increased focus on character and story. As I explore, occasional objects in the world offer a chance for a deeper narrative. “You’re going to hear these cool little audio pips, and it indicates something is scannable nearby,” Smith says. “The Ghost becomes this opt-in purveyor of lore. He’s going to tell you about a weird worm, or a creepy statue, and maybe it’s going to lead to some interaction between him and another character, like Cayde or Eris.” My first scan is of a dead Cabal soldier, and my Ghost relays additional detail on the creature’s military regiment.
Newly composed music swells through these early story missions, and the fighting is intense. The new Taken foes may have the shapes of existing enemies, but after being whisked away to Oryx’s dark dimension, they’ve returned with potent new powers that challenge players to fight in new ways. Rift-like windows into this other dimension are peppered along my route, reinforcing the threat of something unknowable and alien intersecting into the world. After a climactic fight against Oryx’s foes, the collapsing base forces me to flee to my ship with the Taken hot on my heels.
With a taste of conflict against the Taken, I head back to Earth. A dedicated cinematic scene involving the Vanguard leaders offers more character development than all of the base game’s storyline put together, establishing relationships, antagonism, and humor amongst the guardians’ leaders. While the Vanguard discuss the Taken threat, it’s time for me to take a closer look at my revamped Titan.
THE NEW GUARDIAN
The developers I speak to at Bungie are focused on delivering fun and rewarding character progression for all players. They want to address the hopes and desires of a very active (and vocal) fan base, but also strive to make the game accessible for new players and draw back in players who originally disliked something about the game. One big stumbling block has been the hard-to-explain leveling system that begins after 20, which was notorious for its unnecessary stalls and roadblocks.
The Taken King resets the system in favor of a more unified passage from level one to the new level cap of 40. Experience points from missions, bounties, and enemy kills now contribute directly to progression, even after level 20. “Character level should be deterministic and earnable by a player in a way they understand,” Smith says.
Simultaneously, gear continues to play an important factor in the developing power of your guardian. The light system is being revised for a streamlined and consistent experience from 1 to 40. “As your character level is going up, it’s letting you find and equip more powerful gear,” Smith says. “The conflation of gear and character level led to this place where your identity was determined by things outside of your control. We don’t want to do that. We don’t want only four slots that contribute to this number. We want every piece of gear that you get to have the potential to be something that excites you or makes you more powerful.” Weapons, armor, class items, and even your Ghost shell all offer perk customization as well as increased power and light for your hero.
Existing Year One legendary weapons and armor are still equippable, but expect to find gear with higher attack and defense values with which to replace it very early. Those items may even be white and green commons. Bungie wants Year Two to reinvigorate the collection and experimentation experience of the game, and that can’t happen if everyone is still using Vision of Confluence. “It’s hard to look at Fatebringer and imagine not using it; it’s one of my favorite guns in the game,” Smith admits. “But at the same time, I definitely feel like some of our players are ready to play with some new toys. And we’ve built a whole bunch of new toys. There are definitely some weapons that you are going to find better versions of – there’s going to be something that replaces that sniper rifle that you love.”
As your guardian ascends through new white, green, blue, and eventually, purple armor and weapons, Bungie wants players to engage with the gear that appeals to them both visually and functionally. As an alternative to using or sharding your new high-powered legendary weapons and armor, you can also improve an item you like by sacrificing another piece from the same gear slot. I saw a work-in-progress version of the system, and while the details and name of this process are still being finalized, the intent was clear. “It enables a player to customize the way they want to look, and the weapons they want to use,” Smith says. The mechanic extends to exotics as well, allowing players to power up exotic weapons and armor that might have a lower attack or defense value.
Other changes to the character screen are less obvious. Intelligence, Discipline, and Strength abilities now have numbered tiers to strive toward. “Tiers are digital thresholds that you cross to reduce the cooldown on your core three powers,” Smith explains. “Instead of a percentage, we want to tell you the time in seconds that your ability is going to come back in. It will be a lot of fun for people who like to tinker with their build.”
Your choice of whether to wear your helmet in social spaces now also extends to your character screen. Equippable emotes are now available below your emblem selection. Holding L2 on the pause screen gives an instant glimpse at the energy types equipped on each weapon. New item and subclass visual icons have been designed for quick recognition at a glance. Everything has been reorganized for ease of use and freedom of customization.
BACK TO THE TOWER
The Tower may not look very different in The Taken King, but Bungie retooled nearly every vendor and interaction under the hood. The biggest change is the overwhelming number of available quests that unlock at set points throughout progression. Some show up after this first mission, others only start after the story has concluded, and still others are dependent upon finding mysterious items or dismantling a particular w eapon. Quest lines change the flow of the game, providing narrative roots to your actions. Quests from the ominous Eris Morn lead to the rediscovery of a forgotten weapon type.
Quests from the Vanguard members carry the main story forward. Even the Cryptarch and Gunsmith might have new tasks connected to them. In every case, each quest step is noted on a dedicated page of your character screen, and you can choose which quests to track on your HUD with the press of a button.
Quests don’t just add new content, but reorganize older content. The base game’s Sword of Crota mission now flows seamlessly into The Dark Below storyline. The Vestian Outpost opens up after you meet the Awoken Queen for the first time. All of the original missions have been reordered, contextualized, and placed within a larger quest framework. Even older subclasses, like my Titan’s Striker and Defender subclasses, have dedicated quest lines that explain their use and place within the world.
Beyond quests, the Tower holds a number of other fun surprises. The Gunsmith has dramatically increased in importance. He has his own reputation meter, which can be leveled up by testing out common prototype weapons in the field. “You can check out these weapons – you’re borrowing them,” Smith says. “Test weapons have a built-in challenge, like kill Hive on the Dreadnaught, or use this sniper rifle to get headshots in the Crucible. You can check out as many as you want at a time, up to your inventory capacity. It’s like a bounty that’s built into the weapon.”
Hit a certain reputation level with Banshee by testing his guns, and he’ll open up Armsday purchases. Once a week you can pay glimmer to order a new legendary weapon – like a Suros pulse rifle – and on Wednesday that weapon arrives with a random set of perks.
To go along with Armsday, The Taken King introduces weapon foundries as a way to allow further customization of your loadout. “The weapon foundries came from this notion that we’d created some pretty awesome exotics, like Suros Regime and Hard Light,” Smith says. “We wanted to do something with these foundries that we had this fiction and lore for. If humanity was in a struggle for its survival, weapon manufacturing would become part and parcel for what that economy looks like. Foundries were built after unearthing all these old exotics, which the players did in last year’s game.”
Häkke, Suros, and Omolon brand weapons each have their own signature visual style, but they also organize their action and stat talents in distinct ways, so as you level them up they shoot in fundamentally different ways. For instance, Häkke pulse rifles shoot four bursts instead of three, and Omolon focuses on energy-based attacks. “It’s about making the guns look different, but also feel different. We want players to develop an affinity for these weapons, and develop a favorite,” Smith says.
Cruising between vendors, I note that new Legendary Marks streamline and replace older Crucible and Vanguard marks as the primary way to purchase legendary gear from vendors. Throughout my hours of play, several activities provide these new marks as a reward. In another move toward streamlining, the three class-specific armor upgrade items, like Hadronic Essence, are replaced with the singular Armor Materials item – making it easy to have a shared pool for all the guardians on your account.
My Titan visits the New Monarchy vendor to discover that the three factions now allow you to pledge allegiance (only one at a time) in order to gain reputation with them. You’re no longer forced to wear a class item you don’t like just to gain the rep you need. He also lets me turn in motes of light, weapon parts, armor materials, or ammo synths to gain rep – a handy tool for leveling up a faction for those players who have an abundance of any of the above.
Near the guardian outfitter, I come across a new computer console dedicated to shaders. In its display, I can pick up any shader I’ve already acquired on my account. It also shows me all the shaders I don’t have, and exactly what I need to do to get them. The same sort of system is available for emblems. Both functions should provide at least some relief to overstuffed character vaults, if not the full overhaul players are hoping for. “We’re still bumping into a technical limitation for vault space,” Smith says. “We are exploring options for getting stuff out of players’ inventories via these kiosks that we’ve placed around the tower, but we’re still working towards a solution that we’re excited about.” As I’m bouncing from vendor to vendor, a tap of the triangle button changes my displayed weapon – which gun looks best with my current armor? The question is forgotten as I meet with Commander Zavala – it’s time to work for my new subclass.
COMPLETING THE TRIANGLE
Every class in The Taken King has a potent new subclass to acquire and upgrade, and Zavala offers a dedicated quest line to introduce me to the Titan’s solar build. To continue to defend the Last City, Titans need new powers to hold the line against the Darkness, and those powers can be found among a rogue mercenary clan of Titans called the Sunbreakers. I head to Venus for the first step of tracking them down in a dedicated (albeit brief) story mission. A second short mission follows on Mercury, the story contents of which I won’t spoil here.
It’s enough to say that the Sunbreaker quest is built to give some story background, but also sneakily teach you how to handle the new subclass. The mission includes a fight against a large number of Vex. To stand a chance, your new Super goes into overdrive, recharging only seconds after completion, and letting you fling out flaming hammers like they’re going out of style. Instead of taking days to learn the feel of the new Super, you get familiar with its usage in just a few minutes. Moreover, a dedicated fight lets you indulge in the power fantasy of a raging god of fire whose hammer one-shots whole squads of enemy troops.
Later in the day, I try out the Hunter Nightstalker missions – which focus on tracking down a lone-wolf hunter who has gone missing – and the Warlock Stormcaller quest, a shamanistic ritual in which Vanguard Ikora Rey indoctrinates you into the power of the storm. Both echo the Sunbreaker quest in tutorial function while establishing the narrative behind these new powers.
With the addition of these three new subclasses, every class now has access to each of Destiny’s elemental forces: arc, solar, and void. Having played with all of them, it’s hard to separate my sensation of unbridled enthusiasm from the excitement of something new. I feel safe in declaring everyone is in for a treat with their new abilities. The Hunter’s support-oriented Nightstalker abilities provide a whole new flavor; pinning whole groups of enemies (or guardians) is a blast, and I’m amazed at the utility of both the new smoke grenade and the handy dodge.
While they might not admit it, Bungie players regularly cry out “Palpatine!” as the new Warlock super triggers, sending a roving engine of electrical destruction surging across the battlefield. The Titan’s Hammer of Sol feels like the ultimate battle cry call-out. In one mission, a whole squad of Taken emerge on a bridge in my path, and I trigger the super. The distant sound of hammer against anvil rings in time with my Titan brandishing his weapon, and all hell breaks loose.
THE EXPANDED CRUCIBLE
After delving into the story content, it’s time for some competitive play. The Taken King introduces at least three new modes of play. As revealed at this year’s E3, Rift is an objective-focused experience about carrying a ball of light across the map to the enemy’s rift. Mayhem goes for total chaos by dramatically increasing the recharge of supers, grenades, and charged melees. Zone Control offers a new variation on the familiar Control game type, in which kills don’t matter. Teams score points only for taking and holding control points, putting the full focus on the objective over personal glory.
I tried all eight of the new maps. With a year of experience informing structure, these new Crucible maps take more chances on interesting mechanics and design, offering new challenges for dedicated Crucible players. “At a high level, we always make it a high priority to visit new and exotic places in the Crucible that you either won’t have seen before, or maybe you’re getting a sneak preview of something you might see in the future,” says Crucible design lead Lars Bakken.
The catapults of the Mars-based Crossroads map recall Bungie’s previous work on Halo, and its abundant man cannons. The PlayStation-exclusive Sector 618 challenges players to lots of jumping between gun battles, as the center of the map is dominated by platforms. Ghost Ship brings the Crucible into the Reef for the first time, and players should notice low grav effects on physics objects and ragdolls as they wander through an abandoned Fallen Ketch ship. Bannerfall plays out on one of the Last City’s other towers, and offers an excuse for fighting guardians in a space that looks just like the game’s familiar social space. Frontier is a showpiece Rift map set out beyond the edge of the Last City, with a dangerous sniping lane down the middle, and a bridge that acts as a potent bottleneck for skirmishes. Exile takes us to a Hive prison cell deep in Oryx’s fleet; three main lanes traverse the map, including an outside path looking out on Saturn’s rings, and a lower level that demands players think about what’s both above and below. Memento returns to Earth’s European Dead Zone for a highly vertical map among the ruins of the golden age. My personal favorite new battlefield is Vertigo, a floating Vex platform above the surface of Mars that includes a devious one-way teleporter.
While a wealth of new maps and more objective-based game modes are welcome, many players will be even more thankful for some of the less obvious changes on the way to the Crucible. It now has dedicated quest lines built to introduce new and returning players to the best way to play. “In The Dark Below and House of Wolves, you had these specific quest lines that introduced story characters,” Bakken says. “What if we took that approach to the Crucible, and had Shaxx, the faction leaders, and even Shaxx’s quartermaster pushing you through these quests and introducing you to the Crucible – something that we did a terrible job of doing when we launched Destiny?”
“We also rethought what a Crucible bounty is – they’re much simpler and faster to complete,” says senior designer Andrew Weldon. “When we give you a daily bounty, you should be able to go pick them up and get all of them done.” At long last, bounties that can’t be completed on a given day (like playing Salvage when that game type isn’t an option) will no longer show up. Every single day, there is one bounty specifically for your class, helping to encourage more varied subclass play. Fireteam bounties encourage you to enter the Crucible with your friends. Two bounties every day are for the featured playlist, helping to ensure players don’t miss out on the rewards that come with that game type.
You can also expect on any given day to find one particularly challenging bounty to confront, very much in line with the kind you see in Iron Banner. Trials of Osiris players have three new bounties every weekend tied to that playlist. The Crucible now includes five weekly bounties as well, each with enviable rewards. Finish all five and you succeed at a sixth weekly bounty that offers a particularly big reward, such as a legendary or exotic weapon.
Players can also expect to encounter more evenly matched opponents. “We’ve redone our matchmaking algorithm, so now you should be able to get much better matches, and the system should be able to understand you in a much quicker amount of time,” Bakken says.
While they likely won’t be ready at launch, the team is working hard to find solutions to ongoing problems with cheating and lag switching, especially in regards to the Trials of Osiris, including more automated ways for the system to detect and remove offending parties.
While the matchmaking changes weren’t apparent in our play session, several hours with the new Crucible maps left me excited. Taken together with the abundance of maps and modes from the base game, The Dark Below, and House of Wolves (all of which will now be available to all players), time spent in the Crucible feels robust and varied. The new battlefields, bounties, and quests demand players think in new ways about the multiplayer game, and that’s just the injection needed a year in.
CONFRONTING THE END GAME
Quantifying the story missions of The Taken King is tricky, as they’re spread across a core campaign, subclass-focused events, exotic quests, and additional tasks that open up later. Eight lengthy story missions frame the opening arc of the narrative, tracking your guardian’s infiltration of the Dreadnaught and assault against Oryx. One sequence included a vertigo-inducing platforming sequence as I climbed up one of those looming Cosmodrome colony ship rigs. Another favorite moment found me fleeing a horde of Taken soldiers through underground passages of the moon. My infiltration of Oryx’s Dreadnaught brought me into contact with a marauding group of Cabal and their crashed ship. In another mission, as the Vanguard’s forward scout, I set up the very beacons I would later use to complete Patrol missions onboard.
The biggest surprise in The Taken King is the work that has gone into the endgame once those initial story missions conclude. Previously, story missions carried you up to a certain point, then dumped you into the broader world to grind for progress. In The Taken King, the initial batch of story missions to track down and confront Oryx is like the first act of a play, and the second act includes numerous additional story missions, strikes, guided exploration for hidden secrets, player-triggered public events, exotic weapon quests, and the capstone event: a massive new raid entitled King’s Fall. “The raid coming in The Taken King is objectively and emphatically our biggest raid yet,” Smith says. “It is a journey that we hope players and their friends are going to remember. It raises the stakes again for what the raid team is expected to deliver.”
With the main story arc complete, I returned to the Tower to find several brand new quests, many of which revolved around an event called The Taken War. As I quickly discovered, difficulty is tuned up significantly on these narrative events. Without spoiling the fun for veteran players, I undertook a mission into the Vault of Glass called Unsealed Paradox, which finally provides some answers regarding the fate of Praedyth. This was the beginning of just one of several discrete story arcs spread across Destiny’s locations.
Smith has described the Dreadnaught as an “inscrutable loot-filled fortress,” and after a couple of hours wandering through its depths, the description seems apt. Built with the end-game player in mind, this massive new locale is filled with secrets, and I only scratched the surface in my initial explorations. As a home to both Hive and Taken soldiers (along with the occasional invading Cabal) the Dreadnaught has a visual identity that stands apart from previous Hive destinations. If the caverns through Earth’s moon were the Hive’s missionary church, the Dreadnaught is the h ome cathedral.
Within the Dreadnaught, towering curved architecture defines cavernous interiors, with statues and shrines arranged for some unknown religious symbolism. Invisible platforms hover in the space between vast chasms, appearing only when you call forth your Ghost for a scan. Hidden alcoves beckon just out of reach of a jump. Locked chests sit in darkened corners with no defined path to access. Strange item pick-ups present a mystery; at one point I picked up a wormspore – a concentrated transmutation that reacts to both light and darkness – but with no idea what it does. The impression is one of secrecy and danger. “Now that you’ve killed Dracula in his castle, you’re going to get to run around and loot it,” Smith says. “You’re going to see this ongoing feud between Hive, Cabal, and Taken. Through your adventuring on the Hive ship, you’re going to find a bunch of arcane objects that you can use to summon ultra bosses. We’re experimenting with more treasures to find, and places to explore.”
In between excursions to the massive Hive ship, the post-story endgame also includes four new strikes, plus three remixed older strikes that introduce the Taken into previously familiar encounters. Feedback from Year One has led the strike team to design more tactical encounters, albeit without taking the focus away from fast action. “We saw an appetite for teamwork,” says strikes design lead James Tsai. “We realized we didn’t need to be quite so protective of players griefing each other. We are always keeping that in the back of our heads, but we’re finding that strangers can work together.” After playing the new strikes, two features stood out – lots and lots of enemies to match the increased firepower of high-level guardians wielding devastating new subclasses, and the presence of several “raid-light” mechanics to keep things mentally engaging.
The Fallen Saber strike takes us back to Earth in response to a distress call from the warmind Rasputin, and deep into an underground Seraph Vault to fight a super-powered variation on a Shank amidst an environment of constantly shifting cover. The Shield Brothers strike heads to the Dreadnaught, where two Cabal leaders aim to blow the ship up with you still aboard. The final fight is against not one boss, but two, one with a devastating melee smash and a second with a mortar cannon strapped to his back. The Sunless Cell offers a glimpse into Hive politics, as we hunt down a towering Hive Darkblade named Alak-Hul, who has been imprisoned in a completely dark chamber for rebelling against Oryx – here’s hoping you like fighting bosses in utter blackness. Echo Chamber is a PlayStation exclusive, and includes some notable raid-style mechanics. You head to Venus and hunt down the Restorative Mind, a Vex machine seeking to revive the Nexus Mind you destroyed in an earlier strike. The end encounter includes a constantly rotating energy shield, a boss who is only vulnerable after the placement of a special item, and the need to regularly hide behind cover to dodge a devastating gaze attack.
New strikes within The Taken King aim for replayability. Many encounters alter enemy configuration on subsequent playthroughs between two or even three potential fights, often rotating in different enemy species. The team has even recorded multiple versions of the narrations, so subsequent replays offer increased insight into the storyline and background of the strike. As if to prove that old content isn’t immune to this restructuring, Dust Palace, Undying Mind, and Cerberus Vae have all been rebuilt to allow the Taken to suddenly descend into an encounter.
My early sneak peek of The Taken King has made me eager to explore the final version. As to the question of whether The Taken King is an expansion or a full new game, the hours I played left me with an answer that lies somewhere in the middle. Whether it’s remixed strikes, redesigned level progression, or a wholly reimagined approach to storytelling and questing, The Taken King transforms the existing game into something new. Simultaneously, the impressive influx of new missions, locations, and gameplay dramatically broadens the scope of the Destiny experience. Fledgling players have a lot to explore on September 15, with a full year’s worth of imagination and redesign to fuel their adventures. For veteran guardians, the biggest surprise may be just how fresh this growing universe can feel a year after the adventure began.