New Details Revealed In Our Exclusive Destiny: The Taken King Hands-On Impressions
Bungie opened its doors to us a few weeks back to show off what the team has been busy working on in recent months, and gave us the chance to play not just a few select missions, but the full scope of what’s on offer in The Taken King. We have a wealth of in-depth details in our monthly magazine cover story, but we decided it was worth sharing more about our own personal experience playing through the content, along with some choice tidbits that we couldn’t squeeze into our 14-page cover story.
Ben Reeves and I each played a great deal of the content solo, and also teamed up for everything from Crucible matches to strikes. We sat down recently to discuss our takeaways from our time with the game. We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started.
Matt: Ben, we had a pretty cool opportunity a few weeks ago when we visited Bungie. They pulled back the curtain and let us play through as much of the expansion as we could, and share what we discovered with our fellow fans. Were you surprised about how much we got to experience?
Ben: I was blown away with how much they let us play the game. We sometimes get to play games on cover trips, but rarely to this extent. We spent a whole day getting hands-on time followed by a full day of interviews, which really helped me appreciate Bungie’s new approach to design. The game and story feel much more integrated and each area feels new and different. I think this is probably the best Destiny content to date. Would you agree?
Matt: Yeah, I’d agree with your points, both about their openness and how good the game is. It was awesome that Bungie was open to us exploring so much. I think it speaks to their confidence in this being a really stellar step forward for the franchise. For fellow fans and readers out there, it’s worth noting that Bungie showed us a work-in-progress version of the game. We’re going to talk about a lot of stuff today, and we’ve had a lot of interesting articles already appear in our game hub. But it won’t surprise me if some of what we saw is different in its final incarnation. With that said, the core experience is really solid.
So, amidst all we got to play on that day – any favorite things stand out?
Ben: Well, like I said, the story isn’t embarrassingly bare this time around. It’s an actual story, for one. And the game remains a blast to play with friends. I love the grind to collect new gear and weapons, and that push to 40 will really give me a lot of reason to start playing again. Collecting gear remains one of the main reasons to play the game, in my opinion. And now there are even more things to equip.
Matt: Yep. No doubt. There are so many new weapons. I think they’ve said that there are more guns in The Taken King than were present in the base game’s launch.
This is the first time they’ve really reset the weapon and armor economy. We were getting new green weapons that out-powered our best raid gear from Year One, even after the first mission. I also really like that the game seems to pay closer attention to what you would want. Creative director Luke Smith told me that the loot backend pays attention to what you need for a meaningful improvement, it offers variety in armor or weapon type from what you’ve recently gotten, and also tries to avoid repeating the same gear, although he admits that you’re not always going to get exactly what you want on every drop, which is good, because that would eventually get boring.
Ben: In terms of gameplay moments, one of my biggest highlights during my solo time was the mission to collect my new subclass. My primary is a Warlock, and the new Stormcaller class is a lot of fun to use. You’re basically throwing chain lightning, which allows you to turn large groups of enemies into ash very quickly. The mission to unlock that class basically lets you go all out with the ability to get a feel for how it works, which was very empowering.
Matt: I played around with all three of my guardians, but I spent the most time with my Titan. And I fell in love with that flaming hammer pretty fast. As you said, there’s a potent power fantasy at the end of those missions where they give you your super on an extremely fast recharge, and you go to town on whole squads of enemies. On the surface, it’s super fun wrecking so many enemies so fast. But under the hood, it’s a way for the designers to get you familiar with the super and its use very quickly, and then set you loose on the world. It’s a great idea.
Matt: You mentioned story before, which I don’t want to gloss over. It’s not as if they’re changing everything about their fiction or anything. It’s just that the new storytelling feels much more cohesive. Characters engage in more conversations, rather than everything being a declarative sentence without any context.
Ben: Agreed. The basic plot is simple: Crota’s father has returned to seek vengeance on the guardian that murdered his son (that’s you). You’re basically fighting a space devil, but I think the simplicity of the story makes it easier to follow what’s going on. I also loved how the story allows for some of the characters in the tower to interact more. It was nice to see Eris and Cayde better display their personality in these moments. It makes the Tower feel a little more alive and worth visiting.
Matt: I completely agree. Within the framework of that simple story, they can then stretch their wings as storytellers, and play with both the inherent zaniness of ideas (expressed through Cayde), but also the melodrama inherent to the setting, with characters like Zavala and Eris. I also enjoy how much The Taken King makes me feel like I’m the tip of the spear, so to speak. It’s something they experimented with in the base game, but it’s so much more powerfully expressed here. This story really casts your guardian as the true hero who breached the Vault of Glass, and brought down Crota. When the Vanguard needs someone to face Oryx, you are their first choice. I love that when you go to the Dreadnaught, you’re the one planting the patrol beacons for the guardians who will come after you.
[Next Page: We tour the Dreadnaught, and discuss leveling, gear, and new ghost shells]
Ben: What did you think of the Dreadnaught? At first I was a little annoyed that I couldn’t use my sparrow in this new zone, but since the action is more compact in these areas I ultimately didn’t really feel like I needed it. That said, the Dreadnaught was plenty big, and I think there are a lot of little areas in there that I still have left to explore. The space is full of disappearing platforms and hidden alcoves, and it challenged my platforming skills a little more than other areas, which I liked. I also know that there is one exotic weapon Bungie has broken into 50 pieces and scattered across the Dreadnaught, so I’m looking forward to watching the community collect those pieces and unlocking that special gun.
Matt: After you run around for a bit, the absence of sparrows makes sense. There are so many chasms, tight corridors, and battlefields that I think it might feel weird to be zipping around on a speeder bike. As someone who has spent hundreds of hours in various Patrol zones, it’s also really thrilling to have a new place to run around, and one where I feel like the enemies are a real challenge. Plus, the combat experience is more varied than I expected -- you’re running into Hive and Taken, but there are also a bunch of Cabal on board the Dreadnaught, engaged in their own fight against Oryx’s forces.
The other thing about the Dreadnaught is the way it acts as the broader endgame zone. There are a lot of quests, both there and in other places around the Destiny universe, that don’t open up until you hit level 40. Bungie has this structure called “The Taken War” which opens up after the initial story missions conclude. Some of those missions are really challenging.
Of course, that begs the question about leveling, so let’s talk about that for a bit. What was your experience like with the new leveling system?
Gear and Leveling
Ben: I love the new leveling system. It seems fair and it makes a lot more sense. Newcomers were always confused about the whole light leveling mechanic, and breaking light and gear off is a more straightforward system. I think longtime Destiny fans will be happy with it, because Bungie isn’t taking away anything from players; you get to keep all your existing levels. I also think it’s a nice touch that you can now sacrifice some of your weapons to upgrade other guns you actually care about, which gives you something to do when you get that fifth copy of a random exotic you don’t need.
Matt: I think it’s a smart move that a light value is inherent to all your gear now, even starting at level 1. Like with leveling, it offers a consistent and clear path to improvement, and it also gives Bungie a clear way to tell people what activities they should tackle. Every mission, strike, and raid now has a recommended light total as a guidepost for when you’re ready for it. Do you like the idea that light comes from both weapons and armor?
Ben: I think that’s also a smart move; it gives more value to each new piece you get no matter where it fits on your character. It’s great to see that light value number attached to your character. It’s a direct representation of your power and a good barometer to gauge the tasks and missions you can tackle with your friends. I also love how the wider range of gear gives you more opportunity to express yourself as a player.
Matt: Another interesting change shows up with your stats of intelligence, discipline, and strength. To be honest, that nebulous percentage value connected to those three abilities has always been a little unhelpful to me. What does it mean when I have 75% discipline? The new system breaks these stats down into tiers, and when you cross the threshold to the next tier, you know the exact benefit in number of seconds by which your grenade cooldown has been reduced.
I’m curious – did you end up getting any new ghost shells during your playtime?
Ben: A few, and I wish I still had them when I got home! I’m tired of having the same ghost as everyone else. One of the ghosts that I found had a cool orange/blue color scheme. However, these new ghost shells are more than just an aesthetic change; your ghost now boosts your light level, just like other pieces of gear.
Matt: Yeah, I remember at one point I got one called a Frontier Metropolitan Shell, and it had some neat perks on it [editor's note: an earlier version of the text incorrectly labeled the new shell as a Frontier Shell, which actually came with the original Collector's Edition of Destiny]. Sometimes these shells might offer a choice to boost intellect, discipline, or strength, and you have to choose which boost has value for your current build. The ghost shells also sometimes have cool effects, like the ability to sense nearby spinmetal or other resources. There was even a perk that offered increased glimmer for killing Hive.
It also seems as if Bungie is looking for increased ways to let you look and move the way that you want. Since you can now declare faction allegiance and get a faction badge, there’s no longer a need to put on a class item you don’t want. I’m really looking forward to wearing the Hunter cloak I like, rather than the one I need for more Dead Orbit reputation. In another nod to expression, I noted that the character screen now has a slot for equippable emotes right below my emblem selection. The game even lets you cycle through whether you show off your primary, secondary, or heavy weapon when you’re walking through social spaces.
We’re talking a lot about gear, which leads us to the Tower. After all the changes that we saw there, who is your favorite tower vendor now?
[Next Page: Changes to the Tower, a new item in Xur's inventory, and the overhaul of strike playlists]
Ben: I don’t know if I had a favorite vendor, but I know you really liked the kiosk that allows you to look at all your shaders and emblems. I thought that was a nice touch, and I hope they include other kiosks that allow you look at exotic weapons and gear as well.
Matt: Oh, man. I totally dig those kiosks. When I looked at the shader kiosk, for instance, it let me pick up any shader I had already attained, but if I didn’t yet have it, it showed me what I needed to do to get it. And yes! I would really, really love a kiosk that gave me access to all the exotics I had already collected, and let me pick them back up. However, just to be abundantly clear, that is not something we saw in the build we played.
Ben: On the tower, I also ran into Banshee, who helps kick off your journey to find the Sleeper Simulant exotic, which is a rad fusion rifle that charges up a blast that ricochets off walls. We wrote up a whole dedicated piece on its design, including video of the gun in use.
Matt: Well, you hit on my personal favorite new vendor. Not only does Banshee now play host to the Sleeper Simulant quest, he also has all that cool new weapon testing and Armsday stuff going on. He now has his own reputation, which you primarily gain by completing weapon tests in the field; these are basically an additional set of bounties you can tackle, but you have to use a particular gun he gives you. Once you hit a certain reputation tier, you can order Armsday weapons. These are special legendary weapons from one of the foundries, and you put in the order and wait for that day to pick up your new toy. It’s just one more weekly event to look forward to, much in the same way that Xur’s arrival on the weekend is so much fun.
Ben: Yeah, those sound cool. I think you spent a bit more time in the Tower than I did. Did you happen to notice if they are doing anything to improve the tower economy? I feel like there are a million different currencies in Destiny.
Matt: They’re making a move towards streamlining. Vanguard marks and Crucible marks have been replaced by Legendary marks as the main way to purchase legendary gear, which is a simple and (in my opinion) very reasonable change.
Similarly, an item called armor materials replaces the three class-specific items (hadronic essence, plasteel plating, and sapphire wire), so it’s far easier to earn materials on one character, and then use them to upgrade a different character. The Vanguard quartermaster offered me an option for trading in my plasteel plating for armor materials, so that transition should be pretty painless.
And before we stop discussing vendors, I wanted to mention one other cool thing I came across – a new item was in Xur’s inventory. In the build we played, he had an item called the Three of Coins, which you could buy to boost your chance of an exotic drop on the next boss you fight. I really like this idea as a way for players to have a good funnel for their strange coins if they have an overabundance.
Ben: Of course, all of these changes are great, but they won’t mean much unless players have some very compelling content to churn through in the end game. Strikes have always been an important element in Destiny. What did you think of the new strikes we played? It seems like Bungie has learned a few things from Destiny’s raids in that they’re full of more unique and tailored encounters and content.
Matt: I encountered some notable changes in the new strikes, and the team at Bungie described several others. One of the big focuses is replayability. At any given stage of the strike, we were told that Bungie has set up two or even three different encounters that could show up. Maybe it’s a fight against the Cabal one time, and a fight against the Taken the next time. Ammo spawns and even stationary turrets show up at new and different places. They’ve even recorded multiple versions of the dialogue, so that on a subsequent run at any given strike, you might get new tidbits of lore. To be fair, we only played these new strikes through once ourselves, due to time constraints. But as we played, the Bungie guys repeatedly pointed out ways in which certain encounters could be different.
The strike developers are also working on ways to curb AFK issues, including embracing something that the Prison of Elders has already done in House of Wolves. If you stay behind for too long and the rest of the party is moving ahead, you get teleported forward into the fight.
Ben: That’s good actually, because fireteams will need all of their players to stick together for some of these fights. There are a lot of enemies in strikes; much more than in a normal mission or even previous strikes, but this allows fireteams to create some really fun strategies. I loved unloading into a sea of enemies and knowing that you guys had my back. Of course, things really heated up during our boss encounters. What did you think of those? I think they are some of the more memorable Destiny bosses. Each one was a little different, and revolved around a new mechanic. For example, I really liked hunting down the Restorative Mind on Venus, which was basically a giant Vex machine surrounded by a rotating energy shield. We kept having to jump behind cover to dodge his massive energy blasts, but that rotating shield would sometimes try to push you out of cover.
Matt: Yeah, in that fight you also had to have one person running this arc core between different pillars in order to make the boss vulnerable, even as he blasted you. I honestly think that Restorative Mind fight on Echo Chamber is the coolest Strike boss in the game. It’s going to be a bummer for some folks, since that one is a PlayStation exclusive.
It seems that Bungie has recognized how much people liked the raid boss fights, and they’ve gone for a middle ground here. The bosses are less bullet-spongey than in many of the original game strikes, but they often require some raid-light mechanics to defeat. Even so, if you get into a situation where your matchmade teammates just aren’t helping, it’s still possible to win, but just a little harder.
The other thing with strikes is how focused they are on offering these little slices of story. For instance, The Sunless Cell strike has a great boss, which is a big Hive baddie that you confront in total darkness. But the lore is also quite fun. Apparently, the Hive once had some sort of civil war, and Alak-Hul, the Darkblade, led the rebellion against Oryx, along with his consort, Veroc. When The Taken King finally defeated Alak-Hul, he imprisoned him in the sunless cell for all eternity. As guardians, we go in to take the Darkblade out before he rises as a new threat that’s just as bad as Oryx. And what about Veroc? The story I witnessed stopped short of telling us all the details about what happened to her – which I love! It sort of teases out future elements of the Hive lore, and we get this peek into Hive politics.
Ben: Yeah, some of the lore details were above my head, but I really appreciate that the strikes are more replayable. However, the way players will tackle those strikes is changing completely. At least when we saw the game, the old matchmaking structure has been ditched in favor of one that caters to the new light system. So players will no longer dive into a strike playlist based on their character’s level. Instead strike playlist are broken into three categories.
The Vanguard legacy strike playlist is basically a list of all the strikes from vanilla Destiny and the last two rounds of DLC. Vanguard Ursa is a list of random heroic strikes that will award players with legendary marks and legendary engrams. And finally, Vanguard Marmoset (if you feel like monkeying around, I guess) is a list of strikes pulled specifically from The Taken King. This seems like a simpler matchmaking system for strikes and should give players a better way to dive into the content they want to play. Apparently, appropriate matchmaking now occurs behind the scenes.
Matt: If they end up keeping that Marmoset name, I’m going to laugh. It’s like they previously ascended all the way through fierce mythical monsters like Dragons and Rocs, so now the new option is a tiny, cute monkey.
Ben: I love monkeys. Don’t change it, Bungie.
Matt: Another thing I was happy to hear about were some changes on the way to Nightfall Strikes. When speaking with us, strikes design lead James Tsai told us that they’re making an increased effort to handcraft the modifiers each week on any given Nightfall. That’s a long overdue change, and I’m hopeful that we see some cool modifier combinations in subsequent adventures.
[Next Page: Our thoughts on Crucible play in The Taken King, including the feel of the new Zone Control game mode]
Ben: I’ve never been much of a competitive multiplayer guy – I’m more of a lover than a fighter – but I felt like I was able to hold my own during a few of our PvP matches with the dev team. I don’t know about you, but I liked the variety in the new maps. There is one that takes you to another tower and one set in the Reef. Did you have a favorite?
Matt: My personal favorite was Vertigo, which is an intriguing map in a floating structure hanging over Mercury. It does a lot of interesting things, including a one-way teleporter that can be used to either dominate the map, or if countered well, to get wasted by the enemy team. We’re going to have a lot more on Crucible maps later this month, including a walkthrough of Vertigo narrated by the designer and artist who worked on it. We also got a chance to play all eight of the new maps, as well as several new game modes. The brand new mode we played was Zone Control – did you like the focus on objectives in that mode?
Ben: Zone Control might be my favorite new PvP experience. I’ve always preferred those types of games that have you trying to lock down a specific area, and this mode definitely encourages teamwork over lone wolf run-and-gunning. In Zone Control, your personal kills don’t even matter, so you feel like you’re helping your team lock down a location just by standing there. I think Salvage is another great mode, and even though it's not new, Salvage fans will also be happy to learn that that game mode is now a full time PvP option that will always be in rotation. What’s your favorite mode?
Matt: I think my favorite might be Mayhem, if only because it has a very different feel from the existing Destiny PvP experience. It reminds me a lot of Rocket Slayer in Halo, because of its total insanity. I’m not sure I’d want to play all afternoon, but a few matches in between more strategic matches of Skirmish are great. Bungie has even set the target point value as 110,000 points (which get earned really fast through ridiculous point totals on a kill) because, you know, they’ve turned things up to 11.
Ben: Never mind. You’re right, Mayhem is my new favorite.
Matt: What about Rift? That’s a surprisingly sophisticated and challenging game mode. Did you wrap your head around it by the end?
Ben: Rift feels like one of those capture the flag-type games where there is only one flag in the middle of the map. One player must pick up an energy ball and then run with it across the map to drop it in their opponent's rift. It’s kind of a sport-type multiplayer mode, but it seems like there are a couple of different layers of strategy there. I was terrible at it, but I look forward to being terrible at it some more when the Taken King releases, because it was fun.
Matt: One of my favorite things about Rift is the way you can earn big points just for moving in the direction of the rift. It can be pretty hard to get all the way there if you’re fighting a well-defended team, but even if you get partway there, you get a healthy number of points. The reason I say that the game mode is sophisticated is that you’re really forced to pivot your strategy all the time. When the ball hasn’t been picked up, it’s all about clearing the center so one of your teammates can take it. When that happens, everything flips, and the team without the ball needs to play defense, while the attacking team protects their runner. Like you said, it has overtones of CTF, but a style all its own.
Ben: Another reason to dive into the Crucible every day is the new quests/bounties. It sounds like Bungie has retooled those a bit, so players can easily complete their bounties each week. Do you do a lot of Crucible bounties now?
Matt: I do when there are events going on, like Iron Banner. I can imagine doing a lot more moving forward, as I quite like the idea that there’s more story progression involved in participating, through interactions with characters like Shaxx and the faction leaders. Mechanically, the quests seem oriented to teaching solid Crucible tactics to players, which is frankly good for everyone who plays in the Crucible; it’s so frustrating when you’re playing on a matchmade team, and someone on your side just doesn’t get what’s going on.
There are a ton of new bounties. There are dedicated bounties for your class each day, fireteam bounties to complete with your friends, featured playlist bounties, Trials of Osiris bounties, and even weekly bounties that come with big rewards.
Well, we would be remiss to not talk about all the big stuff we learned about the raid, right? Just kidding. King’s Fall remains an utter mystery, but we did talk with Bungie a good bit about philosophy about raid design, which offered some hints about the new raid, and we’re planning to share some of that conversation later this month.
[Next Page: A discussion on what we do know about the new raid, King's Fall, and is The Taken King worth the money?]
Ben: We saw a lot of content when we were at the studio, but that was the one thing we didn’t see: The Taken King’s new raid. It’s been a long time since Destiny players have gotten to work their way through a new raid. Do you think Bungie is nervous about living up to player’s expectations at this point?
Matt: I think raids are, hands-down, the most complicated thing for Bungie to try and get right in Destiny, with the possible exception of weapon and class balance. The large six-person team size, the freeform encounters, the large play spaces, and the big loot rewards on offer all add up into an equation that makes raids wildly complex in both design and balancing. And while there’s been a lot of fan frustration over the last year related to problems with raid bosses, frustrating loot drops, and more, I have to say that in the balance, raids are one of the standout features that make Destiny different from anything else out there. Even with the frustrations (I was a Forever-29 for a long time waiting for my Vault of Glass boots…) the two existing raids have some phenomenal moments and encounters.
That’s a long way of getting around to answering your question, and saying that I would bet Bungie is more eager than nervous. No one at Bungie ever intimated this to me, but I have to imagine that the absence of a raid in House of Wolves was because the raid team was doubling down on this new raid, entitled King’s Fall. Luke Smith unabashedly claims that King’s Fall is “objectively and emphatically our biggest raid yet.” I don’t think you say that to a visiting journalist unless you’re willing to back it up.
Ben: Yeah, I’m excited to see what they do with the new raid, too. I feel like the story missions and strikes have raised the bar a bit, so we’ll see what Bungie does with this raid.
Ben: Switching topics, I know that Bungie has taken a good bit of heat over charging $40 for this new expansion, but after getting our hands on the game and seeing everything that The Taken King has to offer, do you think this is fair?
Matt: Everyone puts a different valuation on how they spend their money. The $60 game from September 9, 2014 has given me more entertainment hours per dollar than almost any video game I’ve ever played. For other players who didn’t like the game and quit after a couple of days, it was a terrible value proposition, because they didn’t like the grind or some other aspect of the experience. The Taken King polishes up everything that has come before, and adds way more new missions and gear than we were able to see during our day of playing, so you have to ask yourself if that’s a worthwhile investment.
Ben: Agreed, it’s easily twice the content that was in last year’s DLCs, and it feels like a meaty beast. I’m looking forward to playing the finished thing, and I wouldn’t feel bad telling my Destiny friends to buy the game on day one.
Matt: For entirely new players, especially, this is a huge package of content that is coming for $60. I’m certainly excited to already have my guardians knocking at the ceiling to get into the new content, but in some ways I envy folks who are going to dive in for the first time and get this big gaming experience in one giant gulp.
For more established players, it’s a more nuanced picture, value-wise. Is The Taken King worth $40? I certainly think so, as I can imagine myself playing this content for months, collecting new guns, confronting King’s Fall, and hanging out with my buddies every night. For someone else, it won’t have that value, and that’s just fine; this holiday season has a crazy number of cool games coming, and there’s nothing wrong with spending your free time elsewhere.
I would say that if someone offered this much restructuring of an old game along with this much new content at the same time, and they charged a lot less than $40? I’d think that would be pretty crazy. As of now, Destiny doesn’t have a subscription fee like World of Warcraft, nor does it have microtransactions like a lot of mobile games. Ultimately, the player base will offer up a clear message about whether they like this structure for monetizing Destiny when The Taken King comes out on September 15.
Thanks for reading, everybody. We’ve got a lot more to share about Destiny: The Taken King over the next few weeks. If you want to be among the first to see new interviews and conversations about Bungie’s game, click into our expanding hub of coverage, and bookmark it for future reference. We’ll have another big feature tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow!