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Destiny's new Prison of Elders mode is a lot of fun - but it's no Raid

House of Wolves closes in.

Everything about expansion two for Bungie's "shared world shooter" Destiny makes sense to me. The changes to the competitive multiplayer portion of the game we reported on last week give PvP, for the first time, a proper endgame. The new upgrade system means any Legendary or Exotic weapon and armour piece can be made level 34 - without it losing progression. And the new Prison of Elders arena mode, revealed by Bungie today, is a cool twist on wave-based fighting and a lot of fun for three-player Fireteams.

But, having played Prison of Elders, I just can't shake the sense of disappointment about House of Wolves not adding a new Raid.

Bungie has its reasons and I get them. I imagine Destiny's Raids, which are designed for six players and require a level of communication and strategy beyond the rest of the game, are impenetrable to many. Without matchmaking, Raids require groups of players to manually form Fireteams. This just isn't feasible for a lot of people.

The Prison of Elders is for Fireteams of three players, and there is a relatively easy version that supports matchmaking. Almost all Destiny players should be able to play this mode and have fun doing it. And while you have to play the harder Challenge versions of Prison of Elders to get the best loot (the level 35 version drops the new damage type primary weapons, for example), Prison of Elders - unlike the Raids Vault of Glass and Crota's End - offers something for everyone. Senior designer Matt Sammons describes Prison of Elders as a bridge between Strike level difficulty and Raid level difficulty, and its inclusion certainly fills a gap.

But as House of Wolves fills a gap, it opens up a new one. My Destiny clanmates and I had an expectation House of Wolves would bring with it a new Raid. We had hoped to rekindle that sense of wonder and excitement we had while exploring the Vault of Glass for the first time, working out its systems and its mechanics. It is a hope now dashed.

The other side of this strange coin is a perfectly valid one: not all Destiny players are part of a clan and not all Destiny players care as much about the Raids as I do. Vault of Glass remains one of the best first-person shooter experiences I've ever had, but loads of Destiny players are yet to even try it. Now Destiny has been out for over half a year, perhaps it's time Bungie added modes and activities accessible to all.

"We love Raids," Sammons says during a recent trip to Bungie's offices in Bellevue, Washington.

"Bungie is working on Raids. Raids will come in the future. But with House of Wolves we wanted to focus on what we wanted the endgame to be, and that was the Prison of Elders. And because it has both this matchmade and the non-matchmade version, we feel like it's addressing our whole audience, all the way from casual players up to players who love that difficult endgame content."

Bungie's desire to open Destiny up to players of all levels ties into the new gear upgrade system, which, to my mind, is the most exciting thing about House of Wolves, and evidence the developer is listening to criticism of its game.

The Dark Below expansion failed to hit the mark for a number of reasons, but chief among them was the soul-destroying gear upgrade system. Not only did it render pointless the many hours Destiny players had spent upgrading their Exotic items, it made existing Legendary items in the game redundant as their statistics could not be boosted to compare with Legendary items introduced by the DLC. In short, Destiny punished those who played it most.

Bungie messed up here, and it admits it. So, House of Wolves corrects the problem and improves the system. Now, all Legendary and Exotic items can be "Ascended" to boost their statistics so they're relevant for a Guardian at the new level cap of 34. All of a sudden, Vision of Confluence is one of the best weapons in the game, and that dusty Vault of Glass armour now needs a polish. The best thing is that Ascending an item does not reset its progression, so if you've already maxed out your Suros Regime, it'll stay maxed out.

In theory, players of all post-20 levels will be able to acquire gear and, eventually, elevate it to the point where it takes them to level 34. Perhaps they'll run Vault of Glass and Crota's End for the first time along the way, but no longer will the level cap be locked behind the latest Raid or the brutal Iron Banner PVP mode. It's a smart move.

"Now we're a ways out from the game launch, we're going to have people who are different levels," creative director Christopher Barrett says.

"So we want to make sure we have content that's appropriate for all of those people. It's definitely something we need to think about more than when the game launched or with the last release [The Dark Below]."

Of course, there's still the matter of the infamous Destiny "grind". Destiny players gobble up new content in ravenous fashion, and so a common complaint is new activities do not keep players occupied for long enough. Barrett points out that House of Wolves should avoid falling into this trap because Bungie will curate the harder Challenge versions of Prison of Elders with each weekly reset, preventing endgame players from chewing through the Arena in just a few days. But even with the easier version there's a sense of variety. Prison of Elders will be different each time you play it, as it randomises the order in which you tackle its various alien-race-specific environments and thus the boss you battle at its end.

I expect House of Wolves will have a new type of grind, however. To Ascend a Legendary you need a new material, called an Etheric Light. We know this can drop from the Weekly Nightfall Strike, The Prison of Elders and Trials of Osiris, as well as from hitting certain ranks with Iron Banner. But what's the drop rate? It may take some time to get your old-school Legendary weapons to attack power 365 and your armour to 42 light. And then there's the Prison of Elders gear, which revolves around a loot system all of its own and a fancy treasure room set underneath the prison's airlock.

What this really boils down to is the thorny issue of variety in Destiny. The Raids are so loved by players because they're different. Vault of Glass has a platforming section, a stealth section and complicated, multi-stage boss fights that involve players being transported to a new space in time and balls of energy that ring out like bells. For a game so bogged down by repetition, Destiny's Raids are a welcome change of scenery.

House of Wolves has some of this going on. Prison of Elders contains four huge rooms, one for each of Destiny's alien races. Each room offers a brand new environment (the Fallen room is a highlight), with wave-based combat spiced up by new trap and critical objective mechanics, random modifiers - some good, some bad - as well as the chance to play around with the new Scorch Cannon Relic weapon. There are five new bosses to fight, too, each with a unique gameplay gimmick. One I went up against was a Cabal Ultra Centurion whose shield damage type rotated throughout the fight. The idea here is you either set out your Fireteam so each Guardian has a different weapon damage type available, or you risk swapping guns mid-fight. Whatever strategy you use, the gargantuan Cabal's shield must be taken down before its health is burned. Then the shield rotates and you have to react.

Barrett says each of the Prison of Elders bosses features a similar twist, although he refuses to reveal what these are. And we haven't yet seen Skolas, the Kel at the centre of the House of Wolves story and the boss found at the end of level 35 Prison of Elders.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't just create big bullet sponges," Barrett says. "That's something we know has been a critique of the game, and we feel it ourselves. So we wanted to try and make those encounters and those bosses much more dynamic and involve much more interesting strategy."

The new Strike mission, called The Shadow Thief, has moments of "newness", but they're tempered by disappointingly familiar environments. You once again assault the Temple of Crota on the Moon, but this time fight your way inside the Wolves' ketch. There you hunt Taniks the Scarred, a tough Fallen boss who pops up at different points throughout the level to test your resolve before retreating deeper into the alien ship. There are a few unique elements to the Strike, such as an indoor fight against a Walker tank, a few new Shank variants and even a jump scare, but I suspect The Shadow Thief will seamlessly slot into Destiny's revolving door of weekly Nightfall Strikes with little fanfare.

I'm more hopeful for the new story, which Bungie teases will offer a substantially different experience than the story missions already available. House of Wolves adds five new story missions (each with a new, third tier of difficulty to make them more accessible), new Bounty missions that tie into new Public Events, potentially more time with the new Scorch Cannon weapon and Heavy Pike vehicle. I expect the new traps will come into play on these missions ("We've always thought of the Fallen as pirates laying traps inside hideouts," Barrett says). Oh, and watch out for stealth captains, too.

Bungie says House of Wolves' story will reveal more about the mysterious Queen and her relationship with the Fallen - an intriguing plot point vanilla Destiny skimmed the surface of, much to my annoyance. It introduces a number of new characters who you can interact with inside the new Reef social space. One of these, Variks the Loyal, is a Fallen who stuck with the Queen even after his kin turned against her. He speaks the Fallen language and at times translates for you. I'm quite looking forward to digging into new fan theories sparked by Variks' dialogue.

"We wanted a clear, simple story players would be able to understand that we could pay off in what the player's doing through the missions," Barrett continues. "That the dialogue in the individual missions is clear and takes the player on a journey. There's a clear villain players understand, and they're able to capture him at the end."

House of Wolves, then, is perhaps better thought of as a course correction than a new direction, an expansion designed for everyone, not just grizzled old raiders like me. Bungie promises new Raids are coming alongside new planets to explore, and, I hope, a new, third subclass for each Guardian type. None of this will make it into the game with House of Wolves - and amid all the excitement around better progression and a more accessible endgame, for me that remains a disappointment. Perhaps raiders will have to wait until The Taken King, currently believed to be the often referenced "Comet" expansion due out later this year, for Destiny to rekindle that Vault of Glass magic. Until then, more - and better - Destiny for everyone.

This article is based on a press trip to Bellevue. Activision paid for travel and accommodation.

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