Bungie marks Destiny's first birthday with The Taken King, by far the best (and most) new content the beleaguered loot shooter has seen to date. At $40, it'd better be a package with some bulk, and to be fair, expectations weren't especially high for Destiny expansions after The Dark Below and House of Wolves were each a little disappointing in their own way. But The Taken King more than clears that low bar. With a huge number of activities that almost all feel worth your time, a dose of much-needed personality, and some intelligent changes to the way players access new and old content, Destiny is finally becoming a game that's much easier to recommend without reservation.
The new, improved glue that more effectively binds the whole Destiny experience together isn't even exclusive to The Taken King. The massive "2.0" update that launched shortly before the expansion brings with it a new quest system that completely reorganizes and repackages all the content released to date into a more coherent, robust story progression. To be fair, this quest framework is right out of World of Warcraft circa 2004: NPCs give you quests, each with a couple paragraphs of flavor text and with some rewards waiting at the end, that send you out into the dozens of story missions, patrols, and strikes. It's nothing terribly original, but Destiny sorely needed this additional structure. The quests serve the dual purposes of finally give you a concrete narrative sense of why you're doing the missions you're doing, and giving you predictable, tangible ways to contribute to your character's level and gear progression.
Leveling and loot are also handled much more generously and sensibly in Destiny 2.0. The old, arcane light system forced you to depend on random armor drops (which the game doled out far too infrequently) to raise your level; now, your light rating is merely an average of all the weapons and armor you're currently using, and serves as a rough indicator of the difficulty level you're equipped to handle in the game's various activities. What's more, Destiny is now far more generous about both dropping random loot and giving you predictable pathways into buying specific better gear. Since the quality of the gear you're getting improves as your light increases, there's a leapfrog effect of getting better gear to get better gear to get better gear to... you get the picture. All this leads to a character progression system that's consistently more satisfying and less arcane than the old Destiny. There are also plenty of really fantastic-feeling, cool-looking new weapons in here, so the best part of Destiny--the shooting--is more enjoyable at every stage of the leveling treadmill than ever.
The other component in the great Destiny makeover is, of course, the new content in The Taken King, and it's both more abundant and significantly more interesting than anything previously released for the game. Whereas nearly every one of the game's previous missions was built around a simple theme of merely shooting everything in your way until the mission ended, The Taken King adds some of the unique mechanics that were previously reserved for the six-person raids into its new three-player strikes and even its core story levels. In between fights, your flying robot buddy Ghost helps you do some detective work. Bosses have multiple phases and use environmental hazards against you. In strikes, players will sometimes have to take on specific non-combat roles while others protect them. You get teleported around a bit. There's platforming. There's a stealth mission. There's a bait-and-switch or two. There's a lot of optional dialogue that fleshes out the world of Destiny and what you're doing in it. In short, there's just more variety across the board. It's all refreshing after so much of the original Destiny consisted of a constant, single-minded drive to kill, kill, kill. The game does include a new elemental subclass for each class, for when you do need to do a lot of killing, and each of the three subclasses has some really entertaining, over-the-top abilities that make them a lot of fun to use. What's more, the new subclasses and especially their super abilities allow each class to serve in roles, like area-of-effect damage and support, that they weren't really equipped to handle before. That increase in utility for each character type naturally gives you a lot more dynamic options to play around with.
While you can finish the initial eight story missions and see an ending of sorts in five hours or so, doing so opens up a large number of new side quest lines and objectives, most of which are also peppered with little bits of story that continue to flesh out the events of The Taken King, or, in some cases, provide some unexpected context for things you did in the first year of the game. (There's an especially neat mission in there for anyone who spent much time running the Vault of Glass.) Absorbing the story is more enjoyable than it used to be, since the sheer amount of dialogue and cutscenes in this expansion seemingly surpasses all of the storytelling that's existed in Destiny to date. The tone of The Taken King is also a bit more lighthearted than in the past; the game takes itself less seriously in general than before, and even pokes fun at itself here and there. Nathan Fillion's roguish robot Cayde-6 does a lot of the heavy lifting on this front, and I think it's telling that I even came out of The Taken King able to name any of Destiny's NPCs, much less tell you about their role in the story.
The Taken King adds a fifth "patrol" zone, a massive Hive capital ship called the Dreadnaught, to the game's existing lineup of Mars, Venus, Earth, and the Moon. The game badly needed more big areas to roam around in, but I'm of two minds on the Dreadnaught. On the one hand, it's chock-full of cool, mysterious little side activities and hidden areas to discover, like timed patrol missions, chests that require specific keys to open, and a repeatable public event called the Court of Oryx that lets you team up with people to take down unique, extra-hard boss enemies (and happens to be a fantastic source of loot). On the other hand, the Dreadnaught is all narrow walkways, tight corridors, and other bottlenecks that have you sort of inching your way through it slowly; you can't even hop on your little speeder bike and zoom around in it, because there's just no room. And while it's reminiscent of the Hive's subterranean complex on the Moon--which might be one of my favorite video game environments ever--most of the ship looks a bit muted and kind of visually uninteresting. Destiny needs more wide open spaces, so the closed-off nature of the Dreadnaught is a little disappointing, though at least there's a lot of worthwhile stuff to do in there.
And then there's the raid. King's Fall is the third six-person raid added to Destiny, and by far the most complicated and challenging one to date. The number of intricate, team-based mechanics is enough to make your head spin the first time you go through the raid. King's Fall doubles down on the sort of demanding cooperative encounters you saw in the Vault of Glass, requiring players to perform specific roles with exacting precision and the utmost speed. These can obviously get pretty frustrating when everyone is still learning the fights and coming to grips with what's required of them, but then there's an equally great sense of accomplishment when you finally master the fight, everyone is on point, and you have that one magic run that finally results in victory. Based on my first time through King's Fall along with a lot of community anecdotes, the game is also a lot more generous about dropping a lot of raid gear than it used to be. I vastly preferred the Vault of Glass loot's mystical-time-robot aesthetic to all the bone and sinew you see in the weapons and armor from King's Fall (much like Crota's End before it). But thanks to the great new infusion system, you can now expend higher-level gear to upgrade lesser items and bring them up to nearly the same values, so you're basically free to build an endgame character using any gear you want at this point. Contrasted with the incredibly restrictive old light system, infusing your favorite weapons and armor so you can keep using them as long as you want feels incredibly liberating.
It's worth mentioning that the way Destiny is now being packaged is a little confusing, depending on what you own. The Taken King itself is $40, as mentioned, which is a fair price for the stiff amount of content included. But you also need to own not just original Destiny but also both previous DLCs to play it. Anyone who's never touched the game is in for a hell of a deal, since you can get everything ever released for this game in a new, comprehensive $60 package. But if you only own the original release, you'll... also need to get that $60 package. This has led some people to the conclusion that they're buying the same game twice, though since the cheapest you could have bought all the add-on content piecemeal is $70, you're still coming out a bit ahead. Just know that if you're the sort of person who bought Destiny originally and didn't get too deep into it (and there are probably a fair number of you out there), you'll need to make an investment beyond just The Taken King itself to stay up to speed with where the game is at now.
Bungie has shown some initial signs of post-release support and ongoing content for The Taken King; one of the recent daily story missions ended in a brand new, ultra-hard objective that rewarded the few who were able to complete it with an exotic sniper rifle that isn't available any other way. That kind of unexpected, limited-time content goes a long way toward keeping the player base excited and playing the game--and there are some early signs that there are similar events coming down the pike. I dearly hope there's more undiscovered content like that in here, because the game has gotten so much better that my desire to keep playing it vastly outstrips the 40 or 50 hours I spent playing the new expansion. There's still plenty more improvement I'd like to see in a Destiny 2, or 3.0, or whatever they end up calling it; a vast, truly open-world version of this thing seems like it might be the last game I'd ever need. But The Taken King already represents a significant step up from the limited, confusing game that shipped a year ago. The progress Bungie has made here portends great things for the future of Destiny.