Destiny: The Dark Below review: no light above

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Bungie
Release Date Dec 9, 2014

The Dark Below is the perfect expansion for Destiny — it's just as grandiose and ultimately shallow as the main game.

Destiny suffered from two glaring problems at launch: a lack of content, and a lack of variety in that content. Those issues were compounded by the game's MMO-inspired structure, a progression system that forced players to repeat the same few activities ad nauseam in order to rank up.

As a quote-unquote expansion to Destiny, The Dark Below is presumably meant to address those two major concerns.

In most respects, it fails.

The Dark Below is less oasis, more mirage

Assessing The Dark Below by the numbers is a grim yet instructive exercise. The expansion contains three story missions, one strike (two on PlayStation platforms), one raid and three competitive multiplayer maps, along with powerful new weapons and armor to strive for. That may seem like an oasis in a desert to experienced Destiny players thirsting for new content, but it's mostly a mirage.

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The story missions come from Eris Morn, an intriguing new character in the Tower. Morn is terrified of the threat that the Hive and their god Crota present to Earth, and rightfully so — her dialogue and quest descriptions paint a picture of a battle-worn PTSD sufferer. It's a smart way for developer Bungie to lend a modicum of story-based motivation to the missions and bounties she offers.

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A few segments of the three missions evince some of the more interesting design sensibilities that dot Destiny's original raid, the Vault of Glass. One battle restricts your character's special movement ability (like gliding or double-jumping). These new wrinkles add some mild think-on-your-feet challenge. But for the most part, you'll be shooting the same enemies in many of the same locations you've been trudging through since Destiny's launch, whether on Earth or the Moon. I repeatedly asked other players, "Wait, this isn't a new area, is it?"

The answer was usually "no, not yet."

I completed all three missions within an hour. There's no way to replay the first one, so The Dark Below really adds just two new missions to Destiny's story and grind rotation. Finishing them unlocks the ability to play the expansion's main new strike, The Will of Crota, in the weekly heroic and nightfall setups. You retread ground in Old Russia for much of that strike, and it suffers from the same poor design as a number of the existing strikes. On the highest difficulty levels, the boss and its minions do so much damage that I was forced to hide in the area before the last room and pop out to take potshots. The boss' excessive health saps all the fun out of the battle.

I don't find Destiny's PvP much fun, either, which I remembered soon after re-entering the Crucible to check out The Dark Below's new maps. The Cauldron is my favorite of the bunch, a rat's nest of interconnected rooms that bring everybody together for fast-paced close-quarters battles. I didn't enjoy my time with Skyshock and Pantheon because I spent most of it dying and respawning. Map design aside, The Dark Below doesn't change the way Crucible works, and it still fails at the basics. You can't even see which map is up next, let alone vote on multiple choices.

Editor's Note

While Polygon's reviewer has not completed The Dark Below's raid content, after discussing the matter with staff members active in Destiny who have played the DLC, we have determined that completing the raid is unlikely to affect our overall impressions of The Dark Below. Our reviewer will complete the raid as soon as possible, and will update the review if it substantively alters his opinion on the game.

As with Destiny, The Dark Below's raid is by far the best part of the package. The first part of Crota's End is the most frenetic, exhilarating sequence in all of Destiny, and everything in the raid brings out the kind of teamwork that the best cooperative games foster. My teammates and I devised jargon on the fly to refer to various objects and actions, guided by members of the group who had completed segments of the raid before. The more we played, the more of the puzzle we unlocked. Frustration set in, though, once we figured out what to do but still failed, thanks to problems that sometimes seemed like bugs.

Crota's End feels like a complement, a response, to the Vault of Glass. If your Guardian's alternate sub-class was useless in the old raid, try it out in the new one — Bladedancers finally have their day. And you may find yourself completely revising your class abilities, not just your weapon loadout.

There's so much good game design in the raid that it makes the rest of The Dark Below look even weaker. There's a sense that with The Dark Below, Bungie is further complicating the confusing, poorly explained systems that make up Destiny. Every new currency or upgrade token that the expansion introduces — and there are more than a few — is just more fodder for grinding through two additional Light levels.

Wrap Up:

The Dark Below fails to earn the term "expansion"

I've gotten all the way to this point without mentioning The Dark Below's price of admission, a steep $19.99. The problem isn't just that, and I wouldn't feel much better if the cost were much lower. The Dark Below is thin on content, and it fails to expand the scope of Destiny in any meaningful way. Bungie has adopted language from the MMO genre to describe this DLC as an "expansion," but the studio doesn't establish any legitimate claim to the term.

Destiny: The Dark Below was reviewed using a final PS4 download code provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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