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The Taken King is the weird, wandering sci-fi shooter Destiny dreamed of becoming

Eris Morn was the bearer of terrible things. Though that might have seemed evident from her three green eyes and morbid tones, it was the systems that rode in on her glowing green coat-tails that were the true villains. Her arrival in Destiny’s first expansion, The Dark Below, brought with it the most cynical and abusive structures of Bungie’s grand experiment. Her currencies bloated the game with useless knick-knacks, her missions dragged an empty story across a handful of hours, and in her wake, players’ progress was reset on exotic weapons and armor—tens of hard-invested hours promptly turned to dust. Though the newest expansion, The Taken King, might present its central villain Oryx as bringing a blight to the solar system of Destiny, nothing he can do could replicate the blight that Bungie itself inflicted on its own players with The Dark Below. That early misstep was one that Bungie have spent an entire year trying to reverse, and The Taken King is their grand correction.

Eris Morn is Destiny‘s resident expert on the Hive

It seems fitting, then, that Eris Morn should once more take a central role. She is, after all, Destiny’s resident expert on the Hive, the race of skeletal monstrosities that Oryx spawned. But in The Taken King, she also has the fitting role of representing what Destiny once was. Melodramatic, potentious and occasionally ridiculous, her voice echoes throughout the story missions of The Taken King, which task the player with gearing-up and boarding the vast dreadnaught in order to defeat the titular monarch. Across these missions and their handful of cutscenes Eris is on call to deliver the kind of ambiguous and overwritten dialogue that plagued Destiny in its original form. However, in a revelatory moment of self awareness, Bungie actively poke fun at this mode of address, in the form of Cayde-6, another one of the original game’s many vendors, now repurposed to great effect.

Voiced by Nathan Fillion, known for his portrayal of wisecracking space-cowboy Malcolm Reynolds of the ill-fated TV series Firefly, Cayde is barely more than a re-hash of that same character—if he had been forced to lay down his weapons and take a role in mission command. Early on it’s easy to roll your eyes at the broad jokes that accompany his narration, but it’s difficult to maintain that cynicism. There’s an endearing streak that runs right through The Taken King, something that feels surprisingly foreign to Destiny. As with many of the other changes here, the addition of humor makes it hard to imagine how bad this vast space opera once was. Not that you have to imagine: a quick revisit of the old story missions reveals that character dialogue rarely stretched beyond variants of “watch out!”, “wait here!” and “let’s go!” The recasting and retconning in of Nolan North as the Ghost has done precious little to fix this, only succeeding in confirming that it was the writing, not Peter Dinklage’s performance, that killed the character stone dead. In The Taken King Bungie seem to have come across a revelation—that every bit of VO is an opportunity to offer the player something fresh, or funny or meaningful. It may not hit these goals at every turn, but the writing in The Taken King is infectious in its enthusiasm. I’ll admit when I landed on Venus and my Ghost bemoaned the data left behind in underground vaults across the planet, I almost missed it, having spent a year learning to ignore the floating droid. “Don’t worry little files, we’ll come get you one day!” he chirruped, and I found myself cracking a smile, something I can’t recall having done in Destiny for months. Even Eris finds redemption when at the end of a strike she intones the names of the fireteam she had lost in her formative descent into the Hellmouth, a plot line set up in The Dark Below. In such an emotionally atrophied game it feels like a significant gesture.

The Taken King picks up ideas and characters and finds a purpose for them

This drive towards worthwhile narrative allows The Taken King to recontextualize much of what Destiny is. The first two expansions to the original game, The Dark Below and House of Wolves, contained closed and half-abandoned narrative arcs that failed to build meaningfully on the disparate pieces of the existing universe. Despite this, The Taken King picks up ideas and characters introduced in both of these DLCs and suddenly finds a purpose for them. As with any significant transformation, in Destiny this is a systemic change, manifested through the new quests. A simplification of the odd conjunction of bounties and missions that Bungie had bolted together into a barely workable model for the first year, quests allow characters to give easily trackable tasks to the player that lead to both new missions and predictable rewards. More importantly, the quest structure allows Bungie to narratively frame the typically repetitive and basic tasks that form Destiny’s basic structure. Killing a hundred Fallen on each planet they appear, for example, is turned into a quest to eradicate the last of the House of Wolves. This questline pulls on both the player’s past actions, a scattering of lore about how Fallen houses operate, and the quest-giver’s merciless quest to regain power over his own race. Even in such a peripheral questline there are shades of grey, and plenty of groundwork laid for what seems to be the player’s implication in the inevitable rise of Variks to the prophesized position of Kell of Kells. The Taken King finds these dormant political struggles and character arcs everywhere in Destiny’s world.

The standout narrative of The Taken King suffers from the same problem as much of the best lore of the original release—it exists entirely outside the game. The Books of Sorrow, unlocked by retrieving each one of the 50 calcified fragments scattered across the Dreadnaught and its activities, can only be read in the grimoire, Destiny’s online lore database. Despite this, these chronicles are worth the effort, revealing a rich backstory to the Hive, perhaps the game’s most underdeveloped race. Charting the fate of an insignificant royal family, and their betrayal at the hands of one of their own, The Books of Sorrow demonstrate the best of Bungie’s now-signature love of myth, ephemera and grand science-fiction ideas. Despite the variable quality of the writing, there is a love of language and a sense of imagination behind this origin story, with evocative terms such as “Ammonite,” “Stormjoy” and “Helium Drinkers” remaining potently ambiguous. Mirroring William Gibson’s tendency toward poetic terminology rather than clear exposition, there is a genuine elegance to The Books of Sorrow, and a monolithic mythical style that leads to pleasantly poetic formations such as “The Honest Worm,” “Long Thought” and “The Leviathans Dirge.” Though it is a shame not to see such strong work integrated into the game more completely, The Books of Sorrow do manage to reflect back on The Taken King’s universe, subtly recontextualising the Hive. You may still massacre them in their hundreds, but knowing that this world-rending race were born from both pain and hope colours them with melancholy.

The new experience-driven levelling system is a kind of double bluff

Though these acts of narrative framing may be The Taken King’s greatest success, there are subtle systemic changes that equally twist Destiny’s tropes into more compelling versions of their former selves. The new experience-driven levelling system is a kind of double bluff, with the endgame still hanging on acquiring ever better gear. Hitting level 40 is, like 20 before it, simply a platform from which to build a charter powerful enough for the top-tier challenges. From that point on light level takes over, a value that is averaged across all of your gear. The result is a granular crawl, with a single improved piece of gear able to push up your light level by one or two points. More importantly, this higher ranking gear can now be acquired from all activities, and is not simply locked to the time-consuming process of running six-player raids. This decision blows Destiny’s progression system wide-open, suddenly making it possible for players to pick and choose which activities they want to focus on. It’s a choice that seems towards an overall move away from the behavioural manipulation of random rewards for consistent actions, and while Destiny will never give up on that easy form of player engagement, The Taken King feels like it is reaching towards higher levels of pleasure and satisfaction. In fact, within the corridors of the Dreadnaught, The Taken King manages to construct gameplay that is compelling for its own sake.

The Dreadnaught is a Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski cathedral, hacked out of the ground and cast into Saturn’s orbit. Vast and labyrinthine, it is the dream of every teenage dungeon master—somehow subterranean, even when floating in the void. This eroded trope is hammered through with a Ron Cobb tribute act, Alien’s Nostromo in everything but name—sophisticated science fiction fantasies hard-cased in ceramic and worn steel. In Destiny: The Taken King, you begin each new exploration of Oryx’s flagship at the conjunction of these two universes, the yawning gothic nave abruptly ended by the tail section of a starship marked by honeycombed thrusters, glinting like the stained glass in a rose window. The high brow of Tolkien and Clarke, the pulp of Guardians of Middle Earth and Guardians of the Galaxy, all shunted up next to each other with brute force. This is a science-fiction universe willing to give a bow to its rogue, a hammer to its berserker, and Sith lighting to its mage without even blinking an eye. Perhaps that is to be expected from a universe where hobgoblins are already robots and wizards come from the moon, although The Taken King seems eager to continue to mix this confluence of culture.

the Dreadnaught is a series of layered spaces that reveal hidden doors and tucked away caves

This dungeons-and-lasers design ethos is not simply a visual conceit—the gothic Dreadnaught and that chunky Cabal ship lodged inside it are the headline additions to the game, bringing with them a different approach to Destiny’s world design. Rather than repeat the wide vistas and loading corridors of the other planets, the Dreadnaught is a series of layered spaces that reveal hidden doors and tucked away caves long after it seems you’ve learned an area. Closed chests give you no clues other than the name of the key that will open them, the keys giving you short riddles in case you have missed the chest so far. Mysterious items drop from randomly appearing mini-bosses which lead you to hidden-away terminals and strange technologies. It’s a design approach that, while relying heavily on lock-and-key puzzles, feels full of potential. With Destiny, Bungie has always displayed an interest in pursuing the interlocking design of Dark Souls and, while the Dreadnaught is woefully unsophisticated in comparison to Miyazaki’s masterful topographies, it is distinctly more rewarding than any of the game’s previous locations.

The peak of the Dreadnaught is perhaps the most Souls-like element of The Taken King: the court of Oryx. An arena for summoning bosses into public zones, it allows players to simply turn up and engage in jolly co-operation without a mic or a fireteam. Crucially, the bosses that are summoned are not Destiny’s typical bullet sponges, but instead represent lightweight versions of the game’s Raid mechanics. Enemies come with invulnerable shields that must be brought down through careful co-ordination, something which isn’t always easy with a group of randomly selected strangers. This struggle is part of the fun, and, while a time limit punishes poor tactics, a respawn is always seconds away. Once a large enough group of Guardians gathers, these battles are elevated into spectacular light shows, the combination of abilities making it impossible to judge what’s happening. As long as a player in the group has runes to keep summoning, it’s easy to sink hours into these battles, simply because they feel genuinely fun. The only sticking point is that there’s no way to guarantee you’ll find a group of guardians using the court, making it a fairly unpredictable diversion.

Now Destiny seems to be aiming towards being a broader church

The Court of Oryx, along with the opening up of the levelling system and the narrative focus of the questlines, feels like Bungie suddenly taking a strong hold over Destiny. The Taken King and the accompanying 2.0 update have significantly expanded the scope of what it means to play the game. No longer reducible to the image of a group of strangers shooting endlessly at a cave in the hope of getting fancy new guns, The Taken King feels like the start of a process of shaking off the manipulative systems that have defined the game up to now. There was a time when Destiny felt solely dedicated to its min-maxers, those players who would happily run the same events three times each week with different characters, just in the hope of a single loot drop. Now it seems to be aiming towards being a broader church—the explorer’s map, the warrior’s battleground, the materialist’s horde. The meeting place, the lonesome frontier, the boundless funfair.

However, The Taken King merely sets Destiny on these vectors of development; it does not fulfil them. The renewed focus on narrative framing may make quests feel like worthwhile activities, but these missions all too often rely on rehashes of the same routes we have followed in the original game and its expansions. It is testament to the quality of Bungie’s combat that this is even possible, with their combat bowls still able to feel alive on the hundredth trip through, but this far into the game’s life cycle the four original planets feel distinctly played out. The new race, the Taken, help to enliven combat with a series of abilities that force the player to use their agility, driving them out of position with long burning grenades, unpredictable movements and screen-blackening blasts. Yet they are spread so thinly over the quests and missions that they fail to make significant impact on Destiny’s day to day. When you find yourself killing the same enemy groups in the same areas as you were a year ago, something clicks: a painful sense of time lost. Though The Taken King is ostensibly a success, the year ahead will be a tough one for Destiny, with only two expansion packs between now and the next serious overhaul. It was December 2014 when Eris arrived with her black box of torturous mechanics, which leaves me to wonder what December 2015 might bring.

Writing about Destiny can occasionally feel like sports journalism

As it was on launch, Destiny is a game that is forever looking forward. Its update schedule is as much of a compelling narrative as its plot, while Bungie’s willingness to drastically reinvent themselves marks it out as a surprisingly unpredictable entity. Writing about Destiny can occasionally feel like sports journalism, the political shifts and structural changes becoming ultimately more interesting than what happens on the pitch. In fact, it’s possible to take an almost academic interest in Destiny and its development, its subtle shifts in manipulative systems like the calculations of some vast hive mind. The Taken King is a reminder that this vast hive mind is made up of individuals, and that in Bungie’s case, many of them are masters in their field. The Taken King’s changes in framing allow it to emerge, finally, as not simply another yearly franchise, PR-managed and monetised into artistic oblivion, but as a vast and strange construction defined by its inconsistency, enthusiasm and downright weirdness. Destiny is not without its cynical elements, but what other yearly franchise of its kind would house something as idiosyncratic as The Book of Sorrows or reach so strongly towards multithreaded narratives that might take years to come to fruition?

While Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty feel as fixated on monolithic weight as the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Taken King presents Destiny as a fluid many-faced thing, more in the vein of Game of Thrones. Like Thrones, it is difficult to know if the open structure will lead to diminishing returns, as its once-strong ideas come to dead-ends. Perhaps, like the millions of Thrones fans that may one day remember that they didn’t like fantasy after all, Destiny will eventually lose its audience to more conventional and less ambitious shooters. But for now, The Taken King suggests that this strange juncture, this meeting place of fantasy and science fiction, of marketised politics and wide-eyed escapism, still has the ability to surprise and confound as much as frustrate and annoy. The Taken King shows Destiny is willing to reach for everything it might be, and it’s hard not to look forward to what comes next.