Destiny: House of Wolves review: Guardian of hope

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Bungie
Release Date May 19, 2015

House of Wolves is a step forward for Destiny, but not a giant leap.

The expansion certainly goes further than its predecessor. December's The Dark Below felt like a perfunctory add-on that delivered few meaningful changes, let alone improvements, to the Destiny experience.

House of Wolves brings much more to the table, which is a double-edged sword: There's now more to do in Destiny, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better game. At first I was blinded by how much more I liked this expansion than The Dark Below, but over time, the shine wore off.

There's now more to do in Destiny, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better game
Destiny: House of Wolves - army of wolves three Guardians 1920

House of Wolves kicks off with required story missions, which originate in a new social space called the Vestian Outpost. Located in the Reef, the home of the alien race known as the Awoken, the Vestian Outpost feels completely different from the Tower: A perpetual purple twilight combines with a minor-key musical intro to lend an imposing sense of foreboding to the place.

House of Wolves' new quest givers aren't nearly as dreary as Eris Morn, who spun PTSD-tinged tales of woe in The Dark Below. Awoken agent Petra Venj and Fallen leader Variks the Loyal team up to shepherd you through five missions and three quest lines, and they each bring some much-needed personality to Destiny. Venj is eager to participate in "field work" again, even if that just entails serving as your guide, and her can-do attitude is infectious. Meanwhile, Variks' sly humor slithers out of his mouth with an unnerving croak.

Variks and Venj are Destiny's best-written and best-voiced characters yet, with dialogue that generally favors clear explanation of events and conflicts over the inscrutable jargon and lore of the game's universe. A vicious Fallen leader, Skolas, is attempting to unite other Fallen houses to create a formidable rebellion against the Awoken. It's your job to track and capture Skolas. This presents a clear objective that unifies all the associated missions, like a story should. Destiny's main campaign is impenetrable sci-fi gobbledygook, but the more focused narratives in The Dark Below and House of Wolves prove that Bungie is indeed capable of telling a comprehensible story.

The missions suffer from The Dark Below's problem of retreading old ground — I'd estimate that only about one-fourth of the story takes place in never-before-seen areas. But Bungie at least manages to make some of the recycled content exciting: It's fun to revisit locations like the automobile graveyard from the very opening of Destiny and the Vault of Glass itself, and see them in new contexts with different objectives.

Destiny: House of Wolves review - Petra Venj crop 720

House of Wolves maintains that momentum with its new strike, The Shadow Thief, which is perhaps the best one in the entire game. The first third of the strike takes you through familiar areas on the Moon, and then you get teleported to the boss' spaceship, a new setting, for the rest. The tight quarters of the ship make for some tense combat, and unlike The Dark Below's Omnigul strike, you can actually hurt the boss during a few encounters prior to the final battle with him, which makes for a far less annoying fight.

But that's the only distinctive element of the strike, and I found myself wanting more than Destiny's typical go-here-kill-stuff flow. For all of Bungie's promises that House of Wolves would evolve the game's storytelling techniques, missions still amount to little more than shooting aliens on a variety of planets with up to two other teammates. House of Wolves' new missions are some of Destiny's best-executed, but I couldn't shake the familiar feeling of staleness.

I couldn't shake the familiar feeling of staleness
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That's where House of Wolves' two new modes, the Prison of Elders and the Trials of Osiris, come in. Both are unlike anything else in Destiny, and both are terrific. The Prison of Elders is a "horde" mode à la Firefight from the Halo series, pitting three Guardians against waves of enemies. The challenges rotate among four different difficulty levels from 28 to 35 (one level above the new cap of 34).

As is Bungie's wont, only the level 28 option supports matchmaking. This remains frustrating; the absence of matchmaking is even less forgivable here than it is in Destiny's raids. The Trials of Osiris doesn't support matchmaking, either, and this issue exemplifies a larger systemic problem with Destiny: a lack of options. This was a problem when Bungie introduced the Firefight format in 2009's Halo 3: ODST — which the developer smartly remedied in 2010's Halo: Reach — and it's even less acceptable now.

Destiny: House of Wolves - Prison of Elders airlock 1920

Each Prison of Elders run throws four rounds of three waves of enemies at you, with a final boss round. New gameplay modifiers akin to the skulls seen in nightfall strikes — like Trickle, which greatly reduces the recharge rate of your special abilities — can completely alter your squad's approach to a particular round. Mid-round objectives force you to change up tactics on the fly. The higher-level challenges, like the best of Destiny, require you to formulate strategies between rounds and execute on them. And the gaudy treasure room at the end would make Scrooge McDuck blush.

This being Destiny, there's always a catch. The treasure vault contains two small chests and a large one; the normal ones are unlocked, but you need a special key, yet another piece of loot, to open the big one. That's the one with the best stuff, of course. As ever, Guardians are slaves to Destiny's capricious loot algorithm — the keys are just one more drop to hope for, another one of the tiny carrots on the stick Destiny hits you with.

House of Wolves does offer an arena in which Guardians succeed solely by their skill: the Trials of Osiris, a three-on-three elimination mode in Destiny's competitive multiplayer component, the Crucible. Each match is a best-of-nine affair, with individual rounds lasting two minutes. Gear statistics and Light levels matter, as in the Iron Banner. The setup is the perfect proving ground for Guardians who have been honing their PvP skills since Destiny's launch: Teamwork and communication are of paramount importance, but one skilled player at level 34 can destroy an entire squad in mere seconds.

Destiny: House of Wolves review - Trials of Osiris crop 1080

Buying entry to the Trials of Osiris — which only runs Friday to Tuesday, with one map selected each week — will allow you to play until you win nine matches or lose three. A unique reward awaits those few Guardians who are talented enough to run the table and go 9-0: The Lighthouse, an exclusive area on Mercury.

The Trials of Osiris is an intense, heart-pounding experience. Many of my matches came down to a deciding ninth game, and nothing in Destiny comes close to that do-or-die final round's tension, excitement and potential for elation or heartbreak.

Your access to Trials of Osiris loot depends solely on how many wins you can rack up on a single entry, so skill and strategy win the day. This setup feels in line with Bungie's larger changes to Destiny's systems and gear structure with House of Wolves, most of which apply for all players regardless of whether they buy the expansion.

House of Wolves' new weapons and armor don't make your existing gear obsolete. Instead, you can "ascend" your old items. Legendary gear is upgraded with a new token, Etheric Light, while exotic gear requires exotic shards. The latter is easy enough to come by, but I haven't seen a single Etheric Light drop in all my time with House of Wolves so far.

Ascending weapons or armor won't reset the progress you've made in upgrading that gear, which corrects a serious misstep Bungie made with The Dark Below. And if you don't like the perks on your shiny new House of Wolves weapon, you can re-roll them. These tweaks offer Guardians more avenues than ever to improve their game and rank up, and they relieve much of the frustration produced by Bungie's previous efforts. The changes in House of Wolves reduce the sense that you're playing Destiny without making meaningful progress.

Wrap Up:

House of Wolves offers something for almost everyone

House of Wolves finally starts to follow through on a bit of Destiny's promise. There's something in it for everybody, from PvP fans to co-op players to the five people who care about the game's story. The expansion doesn't fix most of Destiny's myriad problems, and it doesn't meaningfully change the moment-to-moment experience of playing the game. But House of Wolves is the first time since Destiny launched eight and a half months ago that I feel a glimmer of hope about the game's future.

Destiny: House of Wolves 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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