Rise of Iron pushed me past the 500 hour mark in Destiny, but I'd have gotten there regardless.
I've been playing a lot again, spurred back by this summer's Moments of Triumph checklist. Destiny is still, for my Glimmer, the best-handling console shooter in the business. It is an incredible game to play with friends. At its best, Destiny has provided some of my most cherished gaming moments of the past two years, from clutched victories over bullet sponge bosses and selfless teamwork in the game's demanding raids, to the incredible collaboration of its community, where strategies are discovered and passed on via word of mouth as players try to get an edge on Bungie's opaque systems.
Destiny can be a fantastic experience, but it often is so despite Bungie's own intentions. There's another side to Destiny, where its repetitive tasks can be frustrating, time-consuming and unrewarding. It can feel downright unfair. Rise of Iron doesn't improve this status quo one bit.
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.
Destiny's developer Bungie has recently got into the habit of referring to last September's release and the two subsequent expansions as falling under Year One, as if they're talking up an origins story of which this much maligned, much played massively online shooter is the subject. There's certainly a neat arc there: the somewhat downbeat beginnings, with Destiny initially slumping under the weight of expectation, before it limped towards a nadir with The Dark Below's slim, far from stimulating addition. All of which sets up The House of Wolves, the final expansion before - we fully expect - a more substantial overhaul that marks the beginning of Year Two, as the third act redemption, where all of Destiny's latent potential is untapped.
House of Wolves doesn't quite do that, of course, but it does deliver an overhaul of systems and a stream of modes and features that are the best thing to happen to Destiny since its launch. Fan grievances are addressed, the hamster wheel grind has been sprinkled with more regular treats and it's a delight to still be surprised, even after some 15 hours spent with the expansion, by new tweaks in some of Destiny's farther flung corners. What really makes House of Wolves fly, though, isn't to be found in the laundry list of what's been added. It's somewhere beyond that, and somewhere far more exciting. With this expansion, it feels like Bungie has remembered some of that magic that has made Bungie games so special in the past.
You'll sense that in the instant spectacle of the first of the new campaign missions. Within seconds you're sitting atop a purple Pike, a bloated speeder that hoarsely skims through a canyon as it spits out mines that bounce off the encroaching crevices, and then seconds after that you're face to face with a heavily armoured Walker that's spraying the air with plasma. It's a real statement of intent, and one the rest of the campaign - which can be polished off in around two to three hours, though your mileage will vary depending on what difficulty you engage with - sees through. House of Wolves leans heavily on the highlights of the shooter's first eight months, even stretching to one explicit late-game reference to the very best that Destiny has had to offer in its life to date. Many of the locations are lifted from elsewhere, though what's been lifted and how it's been used still has the capacity to surprise.
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.
Price and availability
Available now on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 and PS3: £19.99, or £34.99 as part of the season pass
For all the countless millions spent on publicity for Bungie's "shared world shooter" Destiny - for all the phrases like "shared world shooter" it has contributed to the video game world's industrious output of meaningless buzzwords - the developer and its publisher Activision have repeatedly failed to communicate exactly what this game is. This is hardly because it is such a novel concept that it has to be experienced to be understood. It's not. It's because they have been reluctant to use the elevator pitch that surely convinced Activision's top brass to open their chequebooks in the first place: "What if World of Warcraft looked and played like Halo?"
We assumed they were just being coy, precious or wary - perhaps all three - but they also had half a point. For all the many inspirations Destiny takes from WOW and its breed of massively multiplayer games, it is not your traditional MMO. The networking technology is different, the multiplayer dynamics are different, the scale and structure of the content are different. It is a more intense, more compact style of game, but also a more fractured one. Although you'll often see other players around you - even when you're soloing a story mission - it struggles to create the immersive world and sense of community that the best MMOs inspire.
Some have been quick to dismiss it as a kitchen-sink hybrid: a bunch of derivative, focus-tested features slapped together without thought for how well they coalesce. That's understandable, but unfair. The deeper you penetrate into Destiny's systems, the more you'll appreciate how subtle, finely crafted and distinct this hybrid is. The ingredients are (almost) all familiar, but the recipe is quite unusual.