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Destiny: The Dark Below review

Hive out of ten?

Three months is a long time in Destiny. Since the game launched, the cycle of shooting and looting has taken us around the galaxy many times and the repetition is not doing the content any favours. The bounties, dailies and weeklies have become overfamiliar, while the descent into the Vault of Glass Raid has gone from 'mythical aspiration' to 'a couple of hours on Tuesday night'. It seems contradictory to complain that a game I've spent 200 hours playing is running short of things to do, but such is the nature of MMOs: they take over your life, so they need to keep the content coming.

Unfortunately, three months is not a long time in game development, so The Dark Below hasn't had much opportunity to address this. But Destiny's first expansion has a fair stab, introducing several new story missions, a Strike (two if you're on PlayStation, thanks to an exclusivity deal that runs until the back half of 2015) and a Raid, plus three multiplayer maps and a number of weapons and armour pieces. Can these things reinvigorate a game where the novelty of the content is wearing off for many players, leaving us to contemplate the emptiness of the gear grind that lies beneath?

The starting point for The Dark Below is Eris Morn, a new NPC who arrives in the Tower with news that the Hive are trying to awaken Crota, whose sword you got to play with on the Moon. Rather than sprinkling new mission icons around the galaxy map, Eris gives you fragmented tasks that resemble the original game's exotic bounties: sometimes you take on a new mission or Strike; sometimes you have to perform a sequence of tasks in different areas of the galaxy. As well as giving out quests, Eris acts as a vendor for items and materials and you need to level her up to obtain rare kit.

The Dark Below's story is more clearly told than the main game's, but it's still pretty threadbare and hardly worth mentioning.

The missions themselves are a mixed bag. Most of the expansion is about pursuing Omnigul, a ferocious Wizard who needs to be chased through sections of Earth and the Moon until you corner her in the Will of Crota Strike, and while there is a bit of variation in the traditional Destiny mission formula, it's fleeting. The first mission's boss robs you of your boost jump, while Wizards lace the ground with glowing circles called vestiges that inflict damage whenever you stray into them. For the most part, though, you're doing the usual dance: bouncing, shooting and retreating while prioritising targets in a mixture of familiar and occasionally new terrain.

The new Strike is fun though, revisiting the scene of a popular story mission on Earth before descending into the Jovian Complex beneath Skywatch, where you fight your way up a hill past Ogres, Knights and Thralls. Omnigul herself is holed up in a control room nearby where she patrols an elevated platform, supported by an expansive menagerie of Hive threats, forcing you to pick her off cautiously while holding your ground just outside her chamber. Like the best Strikes, it's a great mixture of acrobatics and coordination strewn over several fierce encounters, and it should keep testing you each time it comes round on the weekly rotation with a new set of modifiers.

Beyond that, the content stretches further as Eris hands out daily bounties and additional story quest steps, but don't forget to head into the Crucible as well, where the new maps seem to be a hit. Skyshock is a much-needed new vehicle map set on Earth, where its wide open spaces, undulating terrain and sprinkled buildings mean it's a haven for snipers. Personally, though, I had much more fun with Cauldron and Pantheon, a tight pair of maps that breathe new life into Rumble and Clash. Both weave open cliffside areas, rat runs and larger chambers together expertly in a way that suits a variety of approaches, and Pantheon, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Black Garden, is symmetrical, which gives it a different feel to Destiny's other maps.

The new PlayStation-exclusive Strike, Undying Mind, makes decent use of the Black Garden but the boss is effectively just the Nexus again with a different shield.

Elsewhere, the bar for elite players has been raised again and the only way to hit the new level cap of 32 is to obtain a set of gear from the new Raid, Crota's End. As with the Vault of Glass, it's a hell of an undertaking, requiring a fireteam of six friends to coordinate their efforts against imperious challenges. To give you an example, one section involves splitting your team in two and tackling a pair of Wizard and Shrieker combos on opposite sides of the battleground simultaneously, all the while you're being hacked up by super high-level Knights, before breaking into a central chamber from both sides to wipe out a mini-boss, who will kill your entire team instantly if you haven't done all of this quickly enough.

Crota's End is a different sort of challenge to the Vault of Glass. Whereas the Vault's Relics, Oracles and cleansing rituals often kept you on the back foot, Crota's End brings in swords that send you toe to toe with tougher enemies, while Thralls keep you on the move as you deal with resilient and aggressive Hive enemies like Knights and Wizards. It also lacks the Vault's quieter moments, preferring another corridor full of Thralls to anything like the Gorgon's Labyrinth. Beating it will still be a feather in the cap of any Destiny player.

You are also likely to notice the prevalence of a new weapon across all these locations, because partway through the story everyone unlocks a legendary fusion rifle called Murmur, and it's one of the highlights of The Dark Below. That's partly because it has the unique ability to switch between arc and solar damage - something Omnigul plays into by cycling her overshield between arc and solar defence - but mostly because it looks and sounds so striking. The sights light up like a runway as it charges and it leaves a telltale metallic ping hanging in the air that you start to hear everywhere you go.

The acquisition of unique and exciting gear is one of the main reasons we play Destiny, of course, so it's no surprise that The Dark Below highlights that - but Bungie shows less wisdom in how it handles loot in other areas.

I haven't got my hands on any of the new exotic weapons, but I've got my eye on Dragon's Breath. RNGesus, hear my prayers.

In particular, it feels bizarre that Destiny players who have spent many hours levelling up legendary and exotic gear see that progress effectively reset by this expansion. New legendary items - available from vendors to all Destiny players - boast higher damage and light levels, which none of your existing equipment can be upgraded to obtain. Even gear from the Vault of Glass and Iron Banner is now effectively obsolete, unable to propel you beyond level 30. The weekend vendor, Xur, will sell upgrades for your exotics from time to time, but any work you've put into levelling them beforehand is effectively erased, and when it comes to raid gear you will also need new ascendant materials unique to The Dark Below to unlock their potential afresh. It's hard enough to get excited about repeating those journeys, but that's before you consider that the next expansion, due out in just three months, may well pull the same trick.

Technically, this is how MMO expansions are supposed to work. As Bertie discovered when he went back to World of Warcraft nine years later, enemies that once took hours of careful study and practice to defeat can now be swatted aside in an instant. Old content will have a sell-by date: the idea is that you use existing gear to earn new gear, which replaces it. But this approach hasn't worked for Destiny. Having placed so much emphasis on levelling gear through repetitive grind, rubbishing that progress and expecting us to repeat it is harsh. And as we come to terms with the forced obsolescence of elusive gear that we've invested so much time in, it's equally galling to see vendors selling superior equipment to anyone who simply grinds Vanguard or Crucible Marks, something that takes much less skill than beating a Raid.

Hopefully Bungie will think twice about this approach in light of how it's gone down, but something else it might want to reconsider is the way it's handling daily and weekly heroic missions. For the first week of The Dark Below's release, content exclusive to the expansion was placed in rotation and the developer has said this practice will continue. That's good news for people who bought The Dark Below, but anyone who merely bought the original game three months ago - it wasn't cheap and that's not exactly a lifetime - will no longer be able to use those playlists when expansion content is in play, making it harder for them to obtain elusive rewards. Why not just have specific playlists for the new content?

The Dark Below feels like an early misstep for Destiny, then. Multiplayer fans will appreciate the new maps, the bounty-style quest steps are a good idea and there is certainly plenty of stuff to do and unlock, but in a game where the content has worn thin so quickly, taking aim at our precious loot just at the point we finish upgrading it is a huge mistake. It may be the accepted wisdom in other MMOs, but it doesn't suit Destiny, and Bungie will now have to find something else that does. In the meantime, the developer will need to hope that this expansion, which should have reinvigorated the game as players grew bored of it, doesn't send them on their way instead.

If you need a little help with The Dark Below's raids, take a look at our Crota's End walkthrough.

6 / 10

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