Destiny: The Taken King review

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Bungie
Release Date Sep 15, 2015

If Destiny is the exact game the developers at Bungie have always wanted to make, then The Taken King represents the first time they've proven they may know how to make it.

The Taken King's designs are reversals of the mistakes made by Destiny and its first two expansions. Every facet of The Taken King — its expanded arsenal, its new mechanics, its mission design and even its character interactions — seems informed by criticism of Destiny and by the game's evolution over its first year of existence.

But The Taken King goes beyond mere correction: This expansion is clever in unexpected and forward-thinking new ways.

The Taken King shows Bungie might just know how to make Destiny good

The Taken King is built upon the sturdier backbone of Destiny 2.0, with all its systems benefiting from that update's quality-of-life improvements. The changes came just in time: The content that comes with The Taken King isn't hampered by friction from unfair loot systems or punishing progression sinkholes. The Taken King makes it clear how lackluster much of Destiny has been up to this point — once you hit the new content, you see a jarring quality leap.

The smartest thing The Taken King does is change the way you play, and given how long Destiny die-hards have played at this point, it's a necessary tweak. The Taken may have the same silhouettes as existing enemies, but none of them behave in familiar ways. Thrall teleport side to side as they march toward you. Vandals use bubble shields, and Goblins make nearby foes invulnerable, giving your enemies defensive capabilities. Phalanxes blast you backward with their shields, often when you're standing on a precarious platform.

Those trolling Phalanxes highlight a heavy focus on positional and movement-based challenges that permeates the new story missions, strikes and raid. Most boss battles don't just pit you against a bullet-sponge enemy; you're also fighting the room itself, avoiding hazards, pits and other features just waiting to kill you. The new subclasses all reward spatial thinking: The Nightstalker lets you pin enemies down, the Stormcaller allows you to punish grouped foes and the Sunbreaker lets you create empowering zones on the fly.

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The Taken King's story still won't knock anyone's socks off, but it's coherent, a vast improvement on what we've seen from Destiny so far. It expands on the world players have already traveled for hundreds of hours, adds backstory to its loot-filled battlefields, and gives a familiar cast of vendors and quest givers honest-to-God good, often funny dialogue, breathing new life into the entire universe as a result. The contrast between Cayde-6's cavalier attitude and Eris Morn's doom-and-gloom outlook is a particular highlight.

Bungie has also made significant strides with The Taken King's mission design. Destiny's repetitive, dull setup — go here, press a button, then kill waves of enemies while Ghost scans a thing — is almost completely gone. In fact, The Taken King's missions offer Destiny's best encounters yet, with Bungie continuing to spice up the typical alien shooting gameplay by throwing in platforming sequences, surprise boss fights and environmental puzzles. And the missions in which you unlock each of the new subclasses are especially terrific, both in how they introduce the new super attacks and in how they flesh out characters' backstories.

Missions are tracked in Destiny 2.0's helpful new quest log. Once you run through all of the expansion's new content, most of the quests merely offer tasks that push you to play the game in different ways. But these challenges give you something to do after completing the story, allowing you to make some headway even if you're not geared up for the high-level endgame content.

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Many of the quest lines take you to Destiny's new territory, the Dreadnaught. This Hive spacecraft contains several memorable waypoints, like the Court of Oryx, which is a public boss arena, and a gigantic crashed Cabal ship. It feels much bigger than it is, in fact, because of how much is hidden in its every nook and cranny.

The Crucible

The dust still hasn't settled on Destiny's player-vs.-player Crucible, where old strategies and trusted weapons became defunct overnight. That's a good thing — as fun as competitive play in Destiny could be, the imbalanced archetypes and heavily overpowered weapons made for an awfully repetitive experience.

The changes that have allowed for new play styles in the campaign have fascinating ramifications in the Crucible as well. Learning how to properly use — and properly counter — the new subclasses takes hours of practice. The new weapons also have a competitive learning curve: The terror you feel the first time a player blocks your shots and rushes you with a sword will be a memorable moment in The Taken King.

Bungie seems to have put more of a focus on having fun in the Crucible, aside from the challenging PvP steps in some exotic weapon quests. Crucible bounties are much easier to complete than before, and the daily Crucible playlist awards you with a dollop of Legendary Marks just for playing a single match, win or lose. And because level advantages and gear stats don't matter, there's still a place in the Crucible for your favorite Year One guns and armor.

That focus on fun extends to the very mechanics of the new competitive modes on offer in The Taken King. Rift is a sports-heavy take on the popular reverse-capture-the-flag formula, in which the flag is a ball that you slam-dunk into the opponent's goal, killing all enemies nearby. Protip: Walk into the rift backward and save a recording of what happens next. The Mayhem gametype jacks up ability recharge rates to a preposterous degree, turning the battlefield into a constantly exploding laser light show. It's wonderful.

The Dreadnaught holds tons of tucked-away collectibles, chests that don't always have obvious ways to open them and dynamic quest lines that make you face off against entire platoons of enemies. Regardless of how much time you spend scouring it, it always feels like there's more to discover.

Those secrets also make the Dreadnaught come alive in a way the other destinations don't. The realms of Destiny have always looked beautiful but felt hollow and static. The Dreadnaught makes the first decent argument to date in favor of Bungie's continued refusal to add an in-game map.

Exploring The Taken King is rewarding in meaningful ways, often distributing some of the best loot you'll find as you make your way toward the Light level necessary for the raid. Random drops are, on the whole, a bit more accommodating, but your best rewards — for a while, at least — will come at the end of long, challenging quest chains.

Destiny's new progression loop isn't completely unreliant on the ol' random number generator, though. The Taken King introduces a longer climb with a shallower curve toward the cap of Destiny's power ratings; Light level jumps slow dramatically toward the top. The better your gear is, the better your drops will be, but there are still some exasperating times where you're waiting for something to drop before you can try the endgame content you really want to do.

Waiting at the end of The Taken King is some of the toughest content Destiny has ever offered, but unlike past endgame content, it all feels fair. That's particularly true of King's Fall, the new raid, which requires maximum coordination with zero margin for error. It's the most challenging stuff Bungie's ever built for Destiny, but it doesn't cheat.

The Taken King's best content is often the stuff that highlights one of the game's worst remaining flaws: For an online game, it can be really hard to find people to play with. The Taken King's three best repeatable sources for loot — the weekly Nightfall, the new raid and the Court of Oryx — don't feature matchmaking at all, requiring you to use third-party websites to fill a fireteam if you don't have any friends online.

The release of The Taken King will also be frustrating to Destiny players who don't buy the expansion. As we noted in the update to our Destiny review for the 2.0 patch, Bungie's changes in Destiny 2.0 make the original game less viable. For all intents and purposes, Destiny and The Taken King are one and the same, and there isn't much of a reason to keep playing unless you buy the expansion — it's that necessary, and that game-changing, if you'll forgive the cliche.

What's more frustrating is that The Taken King's new hyper-challenging public events, which are intended to bring strangers in the same area together, have actually formed altogether new social disconnects. You can't matchmake into a group to bring down the Taken Champions that appear on patrol missions, and there's no way to guarantee you'll get backed up by nearby players when you go kick off the Court of Oryx. Hell, there's no guarantee there will be any players around in the first place.

We remain concerned about the longevity of the content in The Taken King; it's difficult to know if the quest log will remain populated with new activities three or four months from now. But Bungie's newfound ability to shake up repeat missions with secret side quests is a promising sign. The studio seems to be creating more of these "you had to be there, man" situations — players will tell tales not of loot caves, necessarily, but of awesome, live special events that happened.

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Wrap Up:

The Taken King is the make-good effort Destiny players have been waiting for

Destiny's myriad problems at launch were exacerbated by its promise: The game was that much more disappointing because Bungie's execution failed to follow through on the potential of the studio's purported dream project. Bungie took some moderate steps forward in The Dark Below and House of Wolves, but The Taken King feels like the first effort to make good on the hope that Destiny players have been holding onto for the past year and change. The Taken King finally makes Destiny not just fun, but great.

Destiny: The Taken King was reviewed using final "retail" PS4 downloadable codes provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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