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What's The Verdict On Destiny: House Of Wolves?

by Matt Miller on May 26, 2015 at 01:01 PM

Since its launch in September, Destiny has always encouraged social engagement as the key to full enjoyment of the game. Raids and Nightfall strikes acted as end-game experiences squarely targeted at group play, but demanded you do your own work to form and solidify the teams that would enter those spaces. With House of Wolves, Bungie has doubled down on this strategy, offering two brand new gameplay modes that are a ton of fun, along with some of the most interesting gear and weapons yet seen, but the best of the new content demands a pre-formed group.

House of Wolves opens with several new story missions, taking Guardians into some pitched battles that nonetheless unfold in mostly familiar locales. While several of these missions reuse old areas, it’s often in compelling ways – particularly a memorable descent into the Vault of Glass, this time with different goals than the last time you visited. We also finally get to explore a few long-locked new areas, like Kings’ Watch and the top of the Vex Citadel, both of which made my list a few months back of locations we most wanted to visit in the game. The story mission battles are smartly paced, with some fevered combat encounters against large numbers of Fallen foes, and these encounters are friendly to both lone wolf Guardians and fully formed Fireteams.

After the much decried story of the original game, the story content that unfolds in these House of Wolves missions continues to make strides in the right direction. It’s increasingly apparent that Bungie recognizes the cool elements of the science-fantasy world it’s created, and is capitalizing on the potential through intriguing locations like the Reef and a couple of memorable characters, like Petra and Variks. Even so, House of Wolves still leaves the Destiny player base hanging, with the bulk of the most interesting fiction locked away in out-of-game grimoire cards and rarely fleshed out through the missions themselves. From a storytelling perspective, House of Wolves’ biggest triumph is the way the evil aliens are beginning to interact with each other in surprising ways. This expansion’s big bad, Skolas, recognizes the tremendous power of one of the other races’ technology, and tries to capitalize on it. 

The new strike is a worthy addition to the growing catalog of 3-man, match-made experiences. Shadow Thief takes us up onto a Fallen ship for a running fight against a powerful Fallen mercenary. The mid-level tank battle is fun, and I like the opportunity to explore another Fallen spaceship. Especially if you play on PS4, the nine distinct missions now available make the strike playlist experience varied, easy to enjoy with or without friends, and available for a broad swath of levels. 

[Next Page: Entering the Crucible, and the new approach to equipment]

I had fun facing off against my fellow players in all four of the new Crucible maps. The standout is Widow’s Court, an Earth-based map that feels reminiscent of many modern-day shooter maps, like those you might see in Call of Duty, with long sniping sightlines and lots of cover points formed of ruins and rubble. Thieves Den is a symmetrical affair with open Control points interconnected by a number of tight, corner-heavy corridors. Black Shield feels most in line with Bungie’s previous Crucible maps, with a nice mix of medium range firing lines, as well as a number of opening and closing doors that act as choke points to combat. In discussions with players, you either love or hate the PlayStation exclusive, Timekeeper. This insanely tight, small map leads to constant throwdowns, with little in the way of a breather. One control point near the center is almost impossible to hold for long, sitting directly below a hole from which attackers can bombard you. Taken in total, the new maps leave me with a similar impression to the new strike; more variety is really starting to add up in the Destiny experience, helping to keep any given game session fresh. 

The broader Crucible experience now feels significantly more rewarding than before, thanks to a massive buff to end-match drops and XP. To put it another way, you now have to play about half as many Crucible matches to get the same rewards as before. Plus, the daily crucible playlist has better rewards, encouraging players to try out playlists outside of their comfort zone. In particular, the guaranteed acquisition of Passage Coins from your first round of the playlist each day feeds in well to the weekend Trials of Osiris event. 

I’m a big fan of Bungie’s approach to weapon and equipment in this expansion. The new ascension mechanic means that you can take any legendary or exotic weapon or armor you love and bring it to the level cap. Along with a really astounding array of brand new legendary gear, there’s now far more variety in the look of level-capped guardians, which adds to the aspirational quality Bungie has always said it's shooting for with its Guardians. 

It feels like Bungie is starting to get very close to the optimum balance between the different weapon types, with the exception of auto rifles, which as of this writing feel painfully underpowered as a primary weapon slot option. A new weapon type, the sidearm, joins the fray, and I really like the way it feels; I hope we get more sidearms in future expansions, as there are only a couple of distinct pieces this time. I also like a lot of the other new guns I’ve gathered in House of Wolves so far, especially since many of them can now be reforged at the gunsmith to get just the perks you’re hoping for. The three new exotic weapons are some of the coolest looking armaments in the game, but what seems to be a painfully low drop rate for the elder cipher weapon bounty means that many players may never get to try them out, which is a bummer. 

[Next Page: Confronting the Prison of Elders and the Trials of Osiris]

Two brand new end-game oriented game modes are the most thrilling features of House of Wolves. The PvE arena-based Prison of Elders is significantly more robust and interesting than many fans suspected it would be, and far more than just a rehash of other games’ wave-based Horde or Firefight modes. Conditional modifiers and critical objectives demand careful teamwork for success, and the pressure rarely lets up. While it’s not a replacement for a raid, Prison of Elders provides some fierce engagements, especially on the higher level challenge modes. The final level 35 Skolas fight is extremely challenging, and is certain to be a hard-won triumph even for veterans of Vault of Glass and Crota’s End.  

Prison of Elders’ over-the-top treasure room is a blast to look at, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the current method of garnering keys for the big final chest. Right now, the best method is a boring process of farming for keys that already feels tedious after just a few days. While some great rewards are on offer without a key, it seems counter-intuitive to include such an exciting reward space, but have many players unable to access the most appealing treasure. I’m all for the key mechanic, and even for making it challenging to get one, but players need a concrete path to success, rather than a tiny chance garnered from occasional patrol events.

I can’t say enough good things about the other new game mode, Trials of Osiris, which offers up some of the most intense and strategic PvP shooter play I’ve ever played. The scorecard-like Passage is a smart way to impart a sense of investment. Players try to hit nine wins before three losses, and even choosing when to spend Passage Coins for Supplies has a strategic component. The rewards are great, including some awesome looking Egyptian-themed armor, and for the very best players, access to a gold club-style social space and special adept weapons, which add elemental damage to existing Trials weapons. 

While I’m sure some players would love for Trials of Osiris to be open all the time, I actually like that it’s set up as a weekend activity – a tournament that you can look forward to all week. The Elimination game mode in Trials of Osiris demands constant communication, regularly shifting tactics, and strong knowledge of the weekend’s map. Choosing when to deploy your supers, paying attention to enemy player weapon load-outs, and psyching out the enemy team on radar are all important factors for success. It feels different from standard Crucible, and if you have a team with good chemistry, it’s absolutely addictive. The worst thing I can say about Trials is that until you find that good team to play with, you’re likely to face some frustration.

[Next Page: The dilemma of matchmaking endgame activities, and whether House of Wolves is right for you]

Both the higher-level challenge modes of Prison of Elders and Trials of Osiris demand that you enter the game with pre-made teams. I’m torn about Bungie’s choice in this regard. Both of these new modes only work well when your teammates communicate and work well together, so I can see why the developer doesn’t want to leave things up to match-made chance. However, many solo players don’t have any interest in wading into the untamed waters of the various looking-for-group sites that have cropped up online, and those players also have no way to hit level cap or even access most of the game’s most interesting weapons. Increasingly, it feels as if Destiny needs to implement more robust in-game group finding options within its social spaces, allowing players to advertise what they’re looking to do, and join up together. At the same time, it’s a shame that so much of the game supports solo play, but  shuts down that option in the endgame; more high-level options for lone players would be a welcome addition as the game moves into its second year. 

In both story and structure, House of Wolves feels like an appropriate wrap-up to Destiny’s initial arc. While I’ve been enthusiastic about Destiny since its launch, the two major expansions along with several significant smaller patches have made the game far better now than at launch. I’m happy to see that Bungie is moving away from level-cap as the definitive end goal, and is now embracing the idea of choice at level cap. How do you want your Guardian to look? What abilities do you want to accentuate in your play style? How does your loadout differ when confronting PvE instead of PvP content? By putting the answers to those questions in the hands of players, Bungie has offered increased agency and investment to playing your in-game characters, which is absolutely essential for the long-term viability of the game. 

A week in, House of Wolves is offering a lot of new content to dig into and discover. If you were a player who fell away from Destiny months ago, frustrated at the pace of leveling, then I strongly encourage diving back in and seeing how much smoother the experience now flows, even though I feel that solo players are still left a little out in the cold. Longtime raiders needn’t worry that Prison of Elders won’t offer a similar challenge; while raids and arenas are structurally different, they both offer great team-based co-op. Players who wanted meaningful PvP endgame can now embrace Trials of Osiris. In short, unless you fall in the camp of staunch Destiny haters on principle, House of Wolves is well worth a try. For more detail about what's on offer in House of Wolves, check out our full feature summary

With a week of play behind us, some of you undoubtedly have your own impressions to share; feel free to offer up your opinion of the new game modes, maps, and missions in the comments below.