When is the best time to review an expansion for a massively multiplayer online game? If you ask developer Bungie, they'll tell you Destiny isn't an MMO, but its shared-world questing and shooting, its collecting and grinding and levelling and looting, make it similar enough that there is little real distinction. And with The Taken King, Bungie has embraced a new vision for Destiny - one that many hoped it would deliver last September - following an overhaul, expansion and polish for the game.
The Taken King has now been out over a week, and I've seen numerous appraisals arguing that its changes progress the game into the experience it originally should have been. But it's not been a sudden turnaround. Slowly but surely, Bungie has been edging Destiny into this state ever since its first add-on launched last December. That's not to say that all has gone smoothly - first expansion The Dark Below had its own missteps - but Bungie has continued to note feedback and found ever more solid footing in the follow-up House of Wolves add-on last May. Patch 2.0, released a week before The Taken King, must also be given credit for laying much of the expansion's groundwork, whether you pay for it or not.
In some ways, The Taken King is also a regression: a step back to an earlier version of Destiny that the public never saw. This version of the game once included more story, had more personality, but for whatever reason it was retooled a year before the game's final launch. It's still tantalising to think that the plans for this version of Destiny still lie somewhere in Bungie's vaults - that it once might have seen the light of day had things turned out differently. It's the version that we hear about now and then from former employees and the version that many fans were expecting when Destiny eventually did launch, with so much character and class excised. But it would be unfair to say that The Taken King has just reverted to that earlier version of Destiny. The expansion has used ideas from it, along with improvements cooked up throughout the game's subsequent year of development while the game's story was retooled, plus every bit of learning from the past year post-release, too.
Bungie still won't call Destiny an MMO, but now more than ever before it can be identified as one. The 2.0 update retooled the game's entire weapon and armour system, streamlining progression up to Destiny's top level just using XP but keeping its Light level system for progressing your character's strength further, giving you incremental upgrades at a faster rate and for far longer. Characters now have a third subclass to explore and choose from, widening the range of options available to players for different activities. Do you choose the ever-useful Warlock Sunsinger class with self-resurrection or the new electrical Stormcaller that turns you into the Emperor from Star Wars? The "questification" of Destiny's pre-existing story missions prior to The Taken King has changed the relationship that players now have with the game's cast of characters, while the expansion itself finally gives them some freedom of expression, some time to show their personality, and it also moves the story of Bungie's universe on in meaningful ways.
However, as with any online experience, the story that the game tells is only half of the tale - the rest is formed by those who team up with others to experience it. The Taken King features a cinematic campaign, but after that you are launched into a lengthy array of post-game activities which open up their own lines of quests, rewards and activities with other players out in Destiny's public spaces. The Taken King's new Dreadnaught destination is a prime example. A beast of a spaceship parked out in the rings of Saturn, this location serves as the command carrier of the big bad guy, Oryx, during the story campaign, and then as your new playground for many, many hours of exploration after. Destiny's original planetary areas were largely just spaces for you to run or fly through, to chase a bounty or to endlessly farm materials. In comparison, the Dreadnaught is a box of puzzles, a giant treasure trove that holds all manner of secret chests, keys, rituals and runes to decipher.
A couple of nights ago, I was wandering around the Dreadnought doing something - I can't remember what - accompanied by a couple of friends. We found a new area, a chasm covered in narrow platforms that only became visible when you pulled out your Ghost. Navigating over, falling, failing, dying and then retrying, we made it to a chest that required The Scent of the Worm to open. Did anyone know what that was? One of us had an idea. We backtracked to a tunnel nearby where a mossy mist slowly rose out of the ground. And we just stood there. Was my screen turning green? Suddenly there was a timer ticking down and now we had to make it back, running, all the way to the chasm with the invisible platforms once again. It took a couple of tries but we worked out a system where two of us would stay keeping sections of the platforms visible while the other person would make a clear run. And, together, we all got to the chest at the other side. What lies in that chest is for players to find out - what sticks with me is getting there.
Here's another story from The Taken King's first week, one which spread around the Destiny community like wildfire. Last Friday the game's travelling merchant Xur turned up with a new trick up his sleeve - an item named the Three of Coins which would boost your chance of getting the game's best loot from the next boss you killed. As things go in MMOs, people quickly worked out a strategy to farm this boost over and over. A particular mission had a checkpoint that let you retry its finale over and over if you killed its boss and yourself at the same time ("just run up to the Archon, point your rocket launcher at your feet and fire"). This technique's efficiency for gaining high-level loot so soon after the expansion's launch was so tantalising (and so unlikely to have been intended by Bungie) that when I logged in to Destiny the following morning I heard the broken voices of friends who had stayed up way past their bedtimes repeatedly trying the method before it could be patched out, and who were now armed with a haul of exotic items as a reward.
Destiny's new raid, King's Fall, is specifically designed to provide more experiences like this. Created and tested by many of the developers who built the Vault of Glass, the game's original and best raid experience, it is another activity designed to challenge the most seasoned Destiny players. Like Vault of Glass - and unlike the game's other raid, Crota's End - it is an experience designed from the Dreadnaught floor up to test the teamwork of all players in your fireteam of six. All of you must work together, split your party at specific moments, assign roles and support each other to survive its trials. There are also key moments where you and your fireteam can take a breather and spend time trying sections that let you play with some of your other skills - again, like Vault of Glass' jumping and stealth sections that acted as palate-cleansers before even tougher fights ahead.
When's a good time to review an MMO? After a week, The Taken King is still yet to reveal all of its secrets, but the impact is clear: with this expansion, Bungie has changed the foundations of Destiny for the better. This expansion is far larger, its focus far wider than anything that has gone before, and it has lifted the entire Destiny experience as a result - whether you start the game now, return after some time away or never stopped playing. By focusing on improvements to the game's story, as well as the stories players will forge themselves, Bungie has made The Taken King a hugely successful addition.