Talk to Bungie about Destiny and it will readily admit the game's imperfections. Speak to the Destiny's passionate fanbase and they will likely tell you many of the same gripes, only louder. Plenty played Destiny during its inaugural year and kept playing through the game's many ups and downs. Others did not. By Bungie's own metrics - three million loyal players logging on every day - the game sounded nothing short of a success. But many who tried the shared world shooter left for good, feeling burned by expectations of the vision Bungie had laid out.
"Level 20 was a shelf point," Destiny: The Taken King creative director Luke Smith says to me. It's been a couple of months since our last meeting at E3 2015 and I'm at Bungie headquarters in Seattle to play through all of the new expansion on the developer's test servers. Well, all of the expansion apart from its new raid - there are still folk at Bungie yet to be allowed into that.
The Taken King arrives today, a week after Destiny's 2.0 update made sweeping changes to the game regardless of whether you shell out for its new expansion or not. Chief among 2.0's alterations was a retooling of the confusing Light system that originally gated the top third of Destiny's levels. Progression beyond level 20 meant learning the game's secondary gameplay loop: grinding old content, playing raids and hoping Bungie's random loot generator was feeling generous enough to hand over a full set of raid gear.
"People were playing Vault of Glass week after week, for months, waiting for one set of boots," Smith continues. It was far from ideal. Post 2.0, levelling is XP-based all the way up to The Taken King's new cap of 40. Your level is used to unlock new missions, quests and loot, while a separate Light value now determines your attack and defense stats. This splitting of the two systems means that players can reach 40 without difficulty (I hit it shortly after completing the expansion's main story) and still regularly grow their Guardian's power after discovering something in the game's world. A couple of new items will also increase the chance of rare loot dropping, while the Tower Gunsmith now delivers Legendary weapons in a fresh weekly event. "We're trying to stack the deck more in the player's favour," executive producer Mark Noseworthy adds.
Discovery is at the forefront of The Taken King and was the key consideration when Smith and his team designed the expansion's new area. The Dreadnought is an enormous spaceship parked out in the rings of Saturn, the personal command carrier of Hive god Oryx. The part you explore is fairly compact and completely alien from the the open plains of Earth's Cosmodrome (you can't even use your Sparrow). But the location's secrets more than make up for its somewhat dingy interiors, the lack of a Bungie skybox made irrelevant by areas humming with technology to unravel.
There are treasure chests with locks to break and keys to find, plus the Court of Oryx area where bosses can be spawned with the right materials. It's a destination players will want to spend hours exploring, unpicking. "The Dreadnought represents an opportunity to tempt a large group of players who will explore it this year," Smith continues. "And hopefully it will create community too, which is what Destiny is all about."
The majority of the Dreadnought is left for you to explore outside of The Taken King's story, as part of a wide array of activities that take place in the wake of its events. The final mission brings Oryx's plans to a head then pushes you back out into the Solar System to deal with its consequences. Introducing a threat to all of Destiny's factions means that you will be checking in with many familiar faces, as multiple quest lines develop to continue the tale further. It's a far cry from the Destiny that launched a year ago, where the end of the story meant the end of the game's supply of new content. Bungie's vastly improved emphasis on story and character - and Destiny's cast now actually having some - is another major shift.
The Taken King's story succeeds not because of the simple tale it tells (invading enemy threat, entire inner System in danger) but in the way it does so - giving life to the characters that players have spent the past year walking past as stationary NPCs in the Tower. Nathan Fillion's Cayde-6 is allowed to comfortably steal the show, although Lance Riddick's Zavala and the wonderfully loopy Eris Morn get some great lines as well. There's also far more life to Ghost, your floating robot buddy once voiced by Peter Dinklage and now by Nolan North. Dialogue in the opening moments of The Taken King offers more insight into your character's origins and Ghost's relationship to you than the entirety of Destiny 1.0.
The new campaign opens in a dazzling cut-scene as Queen Mara Sov and her forces meet the Taken army and Dreadnought in an enormous space battle. After Bungie's lacklustre approach to story last year, these scenes make a clear statement. New areas in existing locations are also woven well into the expansion's tale, as you take a whistlestop tour of the inner Solar System from the depths of Crota's burial chamber to the top of the Cosmodrome's towering spires. New areas feel like they are both adding something to Destiny's story as well as just being an extra set of rooms in its world, while the agency of the Taken threat at last acts as a meaningful plot motivator.
Destiny in its first year was a game about grinding and replaying content without much guarantee of a reward. It had a moment to moment gunplay that appealed to many, and a compulsive attraction that kept regular players continually coming back. But its lack of a wider forward plan and the unreliability of progression understandably left many without a desire to do so. With The Taken King, Destiny tackles its issues with progression, story and character head-on. Leaving Bungie, the impression I got was that the studio saw Destiny version 2.0 as a fresh start for the game, and is hoping it has done enough to convince players of this too.
Eurogamer's full review of Destiny: Taken King will follow once we have played the game on live servers and after the King's Fall raid goes live this weekend.
This article was written following a visit to Bungie's studio in Seattle. Activision paid for travel and accommodation.