Mars spirals above you as your boots land on the surface of Phobos, the red planet's largest moon. But for the first time in Destiny, you and your fireteam don't feel alone. Ships of the Vanguard soar overhead, the might of the Tower behind you, their radio chatter in your ears. Down the dusty path lies chaos, a Cabal base that's being evacuated. But you aren't the danger here, and neither are the militaristic Martian conquerors. They are fleeing a threat far larger than themselves, one that The Taken King will see you slowly meet, comprehend, and then shoot in the face.
Destiny's first major expansion opens in a shower of fireworks and a mission packed full of story teasers on a location never before visited in the game's campaign. From the moment it begins, it's evident that The Taken King is a step up from the two add-ons that Destiny players have seen before. Which is good - and not just because of that price-tag. It's good because it marks a step-up in the story-telling ability of the game, something so sorely lacking in last September's vanilla release.
"Phobos is a place you're going to start off... and probably going to return," The Taken King creative director Luke Smith told Eurogamer at E3. But the real meat of the expansion will take place on the Dreadnought, the command carrier of the game's legendary Oryx, father of Crota. He's parked out by Saturn - the furthest that players have ventured from Earth so far - and stands ready to take the whole of the inner solar system by force. Angry old Oryx is rather annoyed that you killed off his son back in The Dark Below - with his own sword, no less - and has turned up on a quest for revenge.
How do you take over a solar system full of various races? How does Bungie change up the enemies you face without creating entirely new ones? Handily, the developer has an answer to both of those questions in the form of the Taken, Oryx's army of familiar enemy types that have been jazzed up with startling new powers. "Oryx rips them out of this dimension, burns whatever makes them Cabal [or whatever race they are] and re-purposes them as his dark army all over our solar system," Smith continues. "Each member of the Taken race has a unique new ability." We met several of these during our hands-on time with the game, including a new version of the Cabal's Psion that will split itself in two, amoeba-like, creating a seemingly never-ending supply of foes if not dealt with quick enough.
But anyway, back to that Dreadnought. It's just a ship, right - how big can it be? "The Dreadnought is really our big new destination," Smith answers. "It's also our big new take on how we do destination design. It's our goal to create this place where players can converge and run around the world together, have moments of shared goals. We're also adding in things we've seen that players enjoy - areas full of secrets and mythology like the Vault of Glass - and weaving them in.
"While you're exploring you may find things like far-off treasure chests that are hard to get to. Even when you get there you might not have the key to open it. You'll have to figure things out, turn to your friends for help, maybe even the internet. We have an amazing community who I'm sure will be excited to put together the pieces we're leaving you."
Expect an area as big as Earth's Cosmodrome or Venus' Ishtar region, with its own brand of patrol missions, bounties and more. And, as dictated by the story of the Taken and Oryx's invasion, these new gameplay elements will also reach existing areas to refresh them too. "We have some patrol types that are evergreen - kill a bunch of monsters - but also some new ones," Smith teased. "Those new patrol types will also be woven back into the existing destinations [Earth, Mars, Venus, etc.]. The Taken are a cosmic, solar system-spanning threat. They're going to show up in places you already know. When the expansion launches, they're going to be everywhere."
The Taken King is the largest addition to Destiny's story since the base game arrived and, despite its smaller size, looks like it will surpass the original's lacklustre approach to lore. It represents a "commitment to story", Smith notes. "And skippable cut-scenes. We're listening." Oh, and Peter Dinklage? "The Ghost is a part of Destiny and he will return in Taken King," Smith reveals. With new and returning elements, The Taken King continues to build on Bungie's slow evolution of story output since the original game's release.
"In The Dark Below you met two new characters. Eris, the quest-giver, and Omnigul - maybe our first proper named villain. She just turns up and shrieks, but you know that shriek. In House of Wolves you meet Petra and Variks who have a conversational relationship. And as they talk you can learn more about the Reef and the context of the world. Take those two things and look at The Taken King. It represents that learning being woven in."
The Coming War, that explosive first mission set on Phobos, sees the return of two established characters: Commander Zavala, voiced by Fringe and The Wire's Lance Reddick, and Eris Morn, as unhinged as ever. They act as guides through the experience, as other characters have done before, but also inform the player from their position back at The Tower that the mission they are on and the enemies you are meeting are part of something bigger. Their return, alongside other familiar characters, are part of Bungie's plan to really add character to the game - so it's not just about blasting through alien meat.
"People have said, 'hey Bungie you're asking a lot of questions about the universe you have created'," Smith said. "We're going to start answering them this autumn. Our proper nouns - The Darkness, The Nine - represent seeds of a plant that we would like to pour water on and grow. Just as we've done with Oryx - he's name-dropped in the base game but also in The Dark Below. And it's now because of players and their actions that the events of The Taken King take place. And it allows them to think, when they're running around The Taken King, how their actions will reinforce the series in the future."
Intriguing stuff, but back to the present - and there's plenty more that will arrive with The Taken King to keep players occupied. Bungie has already announced three new subclasses, one for each of the existing classes, each with their own supers and skill trees. Warlocks can enjoy a pleasing electrical storm cloud, Titans can fire flaming hammers while Hunters get a suped-up sci-fi bow. New weapons, armour, a fresh light level (still to be locked down) plus other surprises will also feature.
Oh and then there's the new Raid - Destiny's ultimate end-game activity type, of which there are still just two. All Bungie has said so far is that it will take place on the Dreadnought and build upon everything the developer has learned to date. "We conducted two very specific experiments with Vault of Glass and Crota's End," Smith concluded, when pressed on if the event would require need to be unlocked or instead be playable straight away. "Did you like the race when everyone knew where the starting line was or did you like having a mountain in the distance that everyone was getting ready to climb? We haven't yet decided which one we'll use - we're going to figure that out over the summer as we look at the game."