After the lackluster update that was Destiny 2.0, I was skeptical that an expansion pack for Destiny could fix all of the game’s problems, especially after the two previous DLC releases for the game were so forgettable. The Taken King happily surprised me in a number of ways but still carries a few giant, disappointing flaws that often reduce the game to a meandering grind with little reward.
To put it simply: The Taken King is the game Destiny should have been last year. Where was this grand good versus evil storyline? These fun missions that have you doing other things besides shooting wave after wave of monsters? And these boss fights! Gone are the bullet-spongey dudes you spend 30 minutes peeking out from a corner and taking popshots at; the bosses in The Taken King actually require you to use tactics and even solve a few puzzles. This is the sort of obvious stuff that should have been what the game was to begin with instead of one of the most expensive and hollow Early Access games ever made. With that in mind, I do believe that The Taken King is necessary to enjoy Destiny but its essentialness doesn’t make it great, even though the initial high you get off of finding traditionally non-Destiny qualities in Destiny (writing that isn’t garbage, for instance, or surprisingly effective moments of horror) might lead you to believe it is.
The Taken King begins with giant space gargoyle Oryx, the angry dad of the now very dead Crota, obliterating an entire fleet with his dreadnought. He’s coming after you because you killed his son. Well, maybe you did? Here’s the thing with Destiny: stuff happens whether or not you participate, which goes so strongly against the fantasy promise of the game: Become Legend. It doesn’t matter if you ever did the raid with Crota where you killed him in The Dark Below. The game acts like you did. And it doesn’t matter how many times you kill a boss in a Strike mission, they don’t ever really die. The only sign of progress you get is the armor and weapons you constantly acquire and recycle, which in the end, is probably doomed to be scaled down in power the next time Destiny rolls around with an expansion pack. The Taken King doesn’t fix any of this since nothing you do has any impact on the world around you, but its surprisingly lengthy and varied campaign does a good job of distracting you from the pointlessness of your deeds. Some missions you’ll be running through spaceships shooting aliens, which is standard Destiny stuff, but other times you’ll be sneaking around, cloaked, trying to avoid detection, or even dashing through mazes carrying a glowing intergalactic football for Silly Plot Reasons.
“Silly” is an apt word for The Taken King’s story and writing in general. At Destiny’s launch we were presented with this huge world filled with non-characters yakking incessantly and puking up random tropes and concepts from every other famous sci-fi/fantasy property ever made. It was just pure nonsense, and the absurdity was compounded by the fact that you had to go online to read the game’s scraps of story in the hopes of making heads or tails of anything. The Taken King is much more straightforward: there’s a bad monster who wants to kill you, kill him first. And a lot of the reason that story works is because Bungie leaned hard into their love of sci-fi and got geek fandom idol Nathan Filion to basically be Firefly’s Mal Reynolds again—just as a robot snarking at you in your helmet this time instead of a spaceship captain. His voice guides you through the campaign, cracking jokes and keeping the tone light, occasionally poking fun at everyone around him. All and all it’s a pretty fun yarn that doesn’t wallow too much in its stupidity or play out with the annoying sort of self-seriousness that the original game did.
The new subclasses are cool additions that don’t dramatically shift how the game is played but are at least entertaining. My personal favorite is the Hunter’s Nightstalker class, a subclass that lets you shoot a magic bow with arrows capable of freezing and damaging multiple enemies, which is delightful for players that love setting traps. The Warlock’s Stormcaller, which lets you shoot lightning from your fingertips Darth Sidious style, is also pretty great. The biggest addition to the game is the insect hive-like Dreadnought, a new giant level to run around, and it’s well designed, with massive arenas and hallways that serve as great backdrops for intense firefights. It does teeter on the edge of recalling Mass Effect 2’s Collector Base a bit too much sometimes, but it’s still much more interesting than Bungie’s ho-hum takes on Mars and Venus. The Taken King’s biggest achievement is that it gives players a lot of new things to do that are probably strong enough to bring them back for each activity a handful of times without annoying them with the repetition, which is something that vanilla Destiny just constantly failed to do.
While the expansion does bring a huge amount of content to a game in desperate need of it, Bungie still hasn’t gotten around to creating a matchmaking service for all of the game’s events, so for some of the best parts of The Taken King you have to take it upon yourself to gather two-to-five other players to do these sections that you’d otherwise just be locked out of. This design is obnoxiously inaccessible for a large number of players, especially those with hectic schedules, and it needs to be fixed. However, the biggest issue here remains that the game never makes it feel like your actions have interesting consequences of any kind. It never rewards you for your efforts with something that feels as though it’s all for you, like maybe a futuristic version of the customizable apartments you can purchase in Grand Theft Auto V. The only quasi-permanent stuff the game gives that doesn’t degrade are your vehicles but those are incredibly disappointing; your spaceship is basically a fancy loading screen and the various speeder bikes you can buy all have the same level of functionality. A few mechanics centered on players owning something tangible in the game beyond their armor and weapons would probably help them feel like they have a stake in this universe as opposed to just being someone who runs around in whatever direction they’re told and shooting at things to save a world they probably don’t care about in the first place.
The Taken King then is still a grind, but it’s one that disguises itself well and will probably entertain players for a good while, maybe even those who initially found Destiny to be abysmal. Perhaps the best that can be said about this expansion is that it’s ultimately a step in the right direction for one of last year’s most disappointing games and offers a glimmer of hope that Destiny might, within a few years time and a handful of updates, actually be a consistently great game rather than a pile up of both great and poor design decisions that frustrates just as often as it delights.
Destiny: The Taken King was developed by Bungie and published by Activision. It’s available on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.