What’s wrong (and right) with Destiny: The Taken King

Recently, I got back into a couple of games I haven’t played in a very long time: Shovel Knight and Destiny.

As a quick primer, Shovel Knight is one of the greatest indie games ever made, which I have discussed beforeDestiny is one of the most expensive console games ever made – both for its developers and its players.

The two games couldn’t possibly be more different, in style, gameplay, tone, genre, impact on the video game industry, you name it. But they both had big DLC expansions come out recently, so I played them both. And never have I seen a stronger contrast in DLC strategies.

In one corner, a $15 game that provided one of the most complete, polished gaming experiences of the decade. Shovel Knight released free DLC content that effectively creates a completely new start-to-finish game experience by tying a new playable character/mechanic (and story) around mostly familiar settings.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows brings a new playable character (Plague Knight, a stage boss in the main game) with a drastically different play style, new areas in each stage, new areas entirely, and a fantastic narrative that works seamlessly and humorously with the main game’s plot. On top of that, the game added new “challenge” modes for veterans of the game to test their skills.

Playing as Plague Knight gives the feeling of being an entirely new game, despite the fact that it consists of 90% the same exact level design. But Plague Knight’s bomb-jump mechanic completely changes the way you traverse the stages, despite the design being near-identical.

In terms of stage movement and platforming style, if Shovel Knight is Mega Man, then Plague Knight is Mega Man X with the dash boots and a double jump. It’s that different, and that’s not even getting into the fact that Plague Knight has a ranged attack compared to Shovel Knight’s melee.

Again: this DLC was a free add-on. Do you own Shovel Knight on a device with Internet connectivity? Then you own this DLC, and every other bit of content that has been released for the game on your platform.

In the other corner, we have a $60 game, which gets surprisingly close to feeling like a complete gameplay experience after you buy the $80 (and counting) worth of DLC.

My experience with Destiny has been squarely lukewarm from start to finish. Do you ever have one of those games that you would never have thought twice about playing normally, but you have a couple of friends/family who play it, and then it just sort of became a thing, because social co-op with people you like consistently makes games way better?

This is Destiny for me. And Destiny is… well, it’s fine. Really, it’s fine.

I know it’s a polarizing title, but why does such an average, safe game elicit such strong emotions from people? It’s a decent game, no better or worse, and it deserves to be treated like an decent game, no better or worse.

I imagine some of the vitriol comes from the game costing $500 million to make, and delivering an experience that felt thin and unfinished at launch. A year later, it’s only barely starting to get to what should probably have been the starting line. That’s understandable, and I’ll address it in more detail later.

For now, let’s jump right to The Taken King DLC/expansion. It’s probably best to think of this as an expansion, since Destiny’s whole thing is to be a console FPS MMORPG.

My initial impressions on The Taken King were actually pretty positive, as far as what changes it makes to the base game. It certainly makes the overall Destiny experience better.

Bungie really went all-in making wholesale changes to their XP/leveling system, their loot system, attack/defense values, gear upgrading requirements (and what those upgrades actually do), pretty much everything.

Yeah sure, aiming it is fast, but obtaining it sure wasn’t, am I right?

Surely some people who went hard on min-maxing their characters under the previous rules were a bit disillusioned with the change, as random enemy drops in the first mission far outclass that exotic rocket launcher they spent 25 hours farming (you know the one). Rubbing salt in the wound is that Bungie decided to nerf the previous high-level equipment by cutting its attack power in half, rather than just expanding the scale.

It’s the same end result, but it’s one of those little UI things that irks you. Suddenly your prized exotic weapon with 300 points of attack power has 150, for no thematic reason at all other than “you bought the new expansion.” Having a 300-damage weapon and then finding common drops that do 350 because you’re in a new area? Fine. Cool, even. Having your 300-damage weapon bumped to 150 and then finding common weapons at 175? That feels stupid, and it goes unexplained.

Still, the changes appear to be a positive on the whole, keeping the spirit of the old system while simplifying some of the more confusing aspects. For example, XP level and “light level” (a value which basically equates to “overall equipment strength”), once inexplicably tied together, are now separate values.

That means gaining XP feels good again! You level up, stuff happens! I’m no Call of Duty fan, but they at least understood that leveling up, even when empty and cosmetic and meaningless, feels good. They literally instituted a system where you level everything up forever.

I’m obviously not advocating a meaningless leveling system in an MMORPG, where levels are practically the whole point. Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. Levels feel really easily attained, and then there’s a sort of roadblock in terms of progression.

I’m just saying, it should at least take a little more than an afternoon to hit your level cap in an MMO. Leveling feels great for about 3-4 hours, at which point you hit the new level 40 cap and it’s back to farming equipment until the next expansion. It’s obviously a misunderstanding of the genre to complain too much about that, but it still seems short.

The next thing to notice is the acting changes. Nolan North does a decent job as the Ghost, replacing Peter Dinklage’s condescending, bored monotone – however pleasant his timbre – with a more energetic, spastic-yet-witty performance in the vein of C-3PO.

Hey Guardian! I sound less like your existence bores me now! But I’m not as annoying as Claptrap!

This is merely the first step in what is, overall, a very successful attempt at fleshing out actual personalities for actual characters. Granted, we’re talking about a grand total of about 3 memorable NPC characters now, but it’s a step up; having finished the base game, I would have been hard-pressed to actually name a single character in the game aside from “Ghost” and “Guardian.”

It seems like Bungie understood this, and effectively made Cayde-6 (voiced by Nathan Fillion) the primary NPC in The Taken King. Cayde’s dialogue is solid, and the voice direction gives Fillion the freedom to put as much dry wit as he can into his character. In many cases, Fillion is actively deadpanning overly melodramatic lines from other characters, which would likely otherwise be intended seriously. In short, Fillion even makes other characters’ lines better.

Despite the improvements to the writing and voice acting, a dead script with an uninteresting villain can only take things so far. Destiny is a huge offender of telling its story, not showing.

Yeah, this Oryx guy is a really bad dude, right? How do you know? Well, he took all these enemies you’re used to and painted them black and made them slightly more powerful.

How does he do that? Uh… something about dimensional shifting? I don’t know, you don’t really get to see him do it. He just says some ominous stuff about “taking” people, and then you go back to shooting them normally. And then Cayde and your Ghost and Eris Morn start feeding you more lines about Light fighting Darkness, and how Oryx is a super bad guy because he’s like, really Dark. Like, even Darker than the other Darkness guys you fought when Destiny was just a $100 game, not a $140 one. And believe me, those guys were way Dark.

YO LOOK AT ALL THIS DARKNESS CAN YOU EVEN HANDLE DARK ALIEN SAM FISHER

I get the feeling this is Bungie’s attempt at theming here. But there’s no subtlety to it at all. I mean, let me see if I have this straight. Light means good, Dark means bad? What do “light” and “dark” actually, like, DO in this universe?

Is that it, Bungie? Care to add any wrinkles to that paradigm? No? Can we at least see why Darkness is the bad thing? No? Okay, we’ll go with the superhero cartoon explanation: “This guy is bad because we said he’s the villain, something something destroying the world and DARKNESS is taking over the universe HE MUST BE STOPPED SHUT UP.”

Look, I can accept the vague idea that bad guys are bad as a MacGuffin for a glossed-over story. For most people playing your average FPS, having the game point and say “shoot this in the head or glowing area” is all the plot they need. Those people will be right at home in Destiny.

But that’s just it. Destiny wasn’t intended to be “your average FPS.” Bungie spent a half-billion (that’s $500 million or $500,000,000) dollars on developing this experience, and what we have is a $140 game that is an above-average shooter with a below-average plot and (now, after The Taken King expansion) a system for leveling and loot drops that has finally improved to acceptable.

And that’s the core problem. Destiny isn’t a bad experience overall, it’s merely a victim of its own high expectations. Granted, Bungie is complicit in building those expectations through what was obviously a very successful marketing campaign. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But the game has been out for a year now, and it has cost its early adopters roughly the price of three games now, just to get the content that brings the game up to speed with its competitors in the MMORPG and FPS genres. Not exactly what you want from a game once billed by its executive producer Joseph Tung as “a game-changer in the way that Halo was a game-changer.”

Well, Halo almost single-handedly made the FPS genre the most popular in America for over a decade, and popularized the concept of online multiplayer (or, as most of the newest generation of gamers knows it, “mutliplayer”).

Destiny‘s contribution to the FPS genre is to be a shooter as passable as an average Halo game (which, in fairness, is pretty good). Destiny’s contribution to the MMORPG genre is to add a shooter to it. Adding in MMORPG-style loot/leveling systems, raids, and a class system is fine, and in fact has been done successfully in a very notable recent FPS series.

That series will remain nameless, but it looks like this.

Adding those systems in a way that is so busted, it took $80 of DLC updates to put it at an even acceptable level for the genre? That’s not “changing the game” in the way they probably wanted.

And worse still, this isn’t the skippable kind of DLC that provides an optional side story or something of the like. People playing The Taken King and people playing vanilla Destiny are essentially playing different games, in a way similar to how Halo and Halo 2 are different games. If you want to keep playing Destiny as the “social experience” its supposed to be, you’re on the hook for this $40, whether you like the changes or not.

I know the concept behind Destiny‘s pricing model is that of an MMO. And certainly, World of Warcraft’s expansions over time haven’t been cheap, and they’re also essential to regular players, so this matches with that.

What is this, like $300 plus subscription costs here?

But WoW provided several novels’ worth of story and gameplay content with their expansions, in addition to standard stuff like level cap increases (of ten) and new gear. Destiny has about a half-dozen new 20-minute missions and a raid in addition to new gear and a level cap expansion (of six). The value proposition simply doesn’t match.

Now, for new players, who have jumped into year 2 of Destiny with an $80 bundle, maybe that value proposition gets a little easier to justify. And that probably irks people who have haunted the servers for the first 12 months and spent $140 and countless hundreds hours with the game.

But I’m going to defend Bungie/Activision on this one. Giving new players everything they need to get in on the ground floor of the game for a reasonable price is actually common to basically every MMO. It’s a good way to expand the player base, which is crucial to an MMO’s survival.

It’s no different from Blizzard offering new WoW players the game plus every previous expansion for all of $20. And in many ways it’s better, as Destiny doesn’t require a subscription fee (huge difference), and there’s no “skip directly to level cap in exchange for money” option… yet.

And so Destiny continues to be the same as it ever was: A good game and a poor value. Not great, certainly not revolutionary, but certainly better than its haters give it credit for, and certainly not as good as its fans (apologists?) would have you believe. And it is getting better over time, as more content is added. If Bungie’s (or more importantly, publisher Activision’s) promise of supporting the game over the course of a decade holds true, perhaps Destiny will eventually be one of the best games of its era. Eventually.

But in an era of successful free-to-play models like those found in World of Tanks, indie games that cost $10 and $15 shooting up review boards and sales charts, and “chapter” releases over time like Life is Strange and any Telltale game, we have to wonder if this is the new face of triple-A game pricing: As development costs go up, so too does the post-purchase cost to loyal players.

If that’s the case, I think I’ll stick to Shovel Knight.