Three months into Destiny's projected 10-year lifespan and there seem to be as many people burned out by its protracted grind as there are in thrall to it. The Dark Below, Bungie's first significant expansion for the game, isn't going to change that. It's not an overhaul in the style of Blizzard's ground-shaking expansions, or an introduction of new, exciting systems that can win back those who have turned their backs on the game. It is, instead, a sliver of content gently inserted into the existing world, prolonging that grind in a way that will delight as many as those who will despair.
There's no quick fix to some of Destiny's well-established problems. The story, delivered by a new vendor in the Tower named Eris, benefits from a clear through-line running across the new missions - you're hunting down the Hive Witch Omnigul, tracking her from beneath the Earth's Cosmodrome to the moon - but it's still muddy and cold.
The missions themselves, while moving away from the rightly derided standard of deploying your AI partner Ghost and then defending him against wave after wave of enemies, do nothing significantly new. There's a thin gesture towards the more varied mechanics used in the raids when, in the first new mission, you're struck by a curse that disables your boost jump, but beyond that it's the same noisy pursuit many players will be familiar - or, indeed, over-familiar - with already.
Likewise, the locations, while sending you deeper into the bowels of Earth and the Moon, don't particularly offer fresh or spectacular sights. The stand-out locale is reserved for the very first mission, an underground base full of brushed steel and sharp angles that feels like another, welcome step back into the more hard-edged sci-fi of Halo. Elsewhere, it's like you're retreading ground that's not quite so old - something explicitly true of the final bounties required to complete the story that has you patrolling the Cosmodrome in pursuit of half-hidden Hive enemies.
The Strikes, too, seem more likely to elicit a sigh than excitement when they swing around on playlists. The Undying Mind, a PS4-exclusive mission set in the immediate aftermath of the main game's climax on Mars' Black Garden, feels like an off-cut, a run through angry, busy mobs of enemies before facing off against an aggressive ogre. Will of Crota, a Strike that acts as the end of The Dark Below's story and takes place on the Cosmodrome's Jovian Complex, fares a little better. It's a crowded gauntlet run through thick swarms of Hive that climaxes in a multi-tiered annex where you face off against the plasma-spitting Omnigul.
The new Crucible maps seem stronger, even if it's a little too early to say how they'll bed in. Skyshock is a welcome addition to Destiny's small number of vehicle warfare maps, repurposing the Cosmodrome's Skywatch for an open-ended battleground patrolled by Pikes, while The Cauldron is a more close-quarters affair, the dark halls of a Hive dungeon providing a wonderfully murky backdrop to Clash matches that funnel players through tight, noisy choke points. Pantheon, a labyrinthine warren in the Black Garden, seems to be the real treat, though, with its exposed walkways and occasional extended lines of sight reassuring you that Bungie hasn't lost its touch with multiplayer map design.
It too often feels like Bungie's fumbling the grind, though. With much of The Dark Below's new content failing to spark, it's the more sweeping, fundamental changes to levelling that have the biggest impact, and the journey to the new level cap of 32 that's going to have a lasting effect on players. New vendors bring new gear with an all-new light level - a welcome addition for all those playing Destiny and not just ring-fenced for owners of The Dark Below, but delivered with a punch to the gut all the same, as so much of the gear acquired and invested in since launch only three months ago is rendered obsolete.
It's here where Destiny still hasn't quite convincingly married the needs of an MMO and a console shooter. Its desire to keep players hooked with new challenges gets in the way of players who rightly covet their hard-earned gear. The upheaval's an established trend in MMOs - but Bungie's insistence on moving the goal-posts so rapidly and so early in Destiny's life understandably leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth.
Still, it's a taste soon washed out once you're back up and running on the hypnotic treadmill of progression, working your way through new legendary weapons and armour and towards life post-level 30 - a requirement, it would seem, to take on the savage and punishing new raid, Crota's End. One of Destiny's most baffling decisions was how it kept so much of its very best content, the fantastic Vault of Glass raid, under lock and key; the variety and spectacle so sorely missed by most players was reserved for those who'd spent the best part of 40 hours grinding and were able to assemble their own fireteam. To see The Dark Below follow the same path is puzzling, and it's still too early to say whether the grind to be able to face Crota's End - or, indeed, the significant price tag to unlock it - will be worth it.
This is an early impressions piece based on one day of play. We'll have our full review - incorporating our take on the new raid - early next week.