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The good, the bad and the pay-to-win of Destiny's spring update

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The loot is good, the microtransactions are dangerous

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Bungie released its big spring update for Destiny on April 12. With this patch, Bungie has made some welcome improvements to several of the game's most flawed mechanics, but at the same time, introduced some troubling new problems to annoy Destiny's loyal but long-suffering players.

What's good?

Well, for starters...

The new loot system

Before this update, loot drops in the hard-mode King's Fall raid could have Light levels ranging from 310 to 320, and every drop was rolled randomly. So anytime you got a particular item, you only had a 1-in-11 chance of getting a perfect 320 Light score.

That meant that players had to farm the raid for months if they ever wanted to reach the maximum Light level. I did the raid every week on three characters, starting with the first week the King's Fall raid was released and ending in January, after I'd cleared all the hard-mode challenges six times each. I never hit 320; I had 3 characters whose average Light was 319.

Destiny loot

This prolonged gearing process didn't introduce any challenge to the game; the raid was never more difficult than it was the first week the hard mode was out, when players had to face Oryx at a huge Light-level disadvantage. But every subsequent loot drop made our Guardians stronger, while Oryx stayed the same, and within a few weeks, a fight that had seemed nearly insurmountable had become kind of a snooze.

But we still had to farm him for loot. For months.

The Spring update has introduced a newer, smarter loot system that is a huge improvement. Now, the quality of your drops from high-end activities is determined by the quality of your equipped gear, and your drops can roll up to 5 points higher than the average Light of the stuff you're using, up to the new cap of 335.

Loot using this system drops from:

  • raids (normal-mode drops are capped at 320 Light and hard-mode drops can hit a maximum of 335 Light)
  • faction reputation packages
  • Iron Banner
  • Trials of Osiris
  • the new level 42 Prison of Elders challenge mode
  • Nightfall strikes
  • weekly Crucible rewards
  • the strike-specific legendary drops that can rarely drop from playlist strikes
  • exotic engrams

This means that, whatever your Light level and however you play, your Light will now increase if you play a lot of Destiny. But doing the weekly lockout activities, especially the hard-mode raid, will give you a lot more drops, a lot faster. The system will now reward you for your time playing instead of ignoring the fact that you're farming.

Destiny April update screenshots

Improved Infusion

One of the big changes to the way Destiny loot worked in The Taken King was the addition of the Infusion system. If you had a piece of armor or a weapon you liked, but its Light score was low, and you had another piece of armor or weapon for the same slot with a high Light score, you could destroy the higher-Light item to raise the Light level of the piece you wanted to use.

However, if the difference in Light between the two items was more than a few points, the infused item would only get about 70-80 percent of the difference. So to raise a 310 Light gun to around 320, you would probably need to infuse three higher-Light pieces into it to avoid the infusion tax.

That's been eliminated with the new update. Now, if you infuse a 280 Light exotic from the kiosk with a 320 Light raid drop, the exotic will go all the way to 320. This is a tremendous quality-of-life improvement that fixes one of the most annoying aspects of Taken King loot.

The Nightfall is relevant again

The weekly Nightfall strike was a pretty important event on most dedicated players' schedules in the first year of Destiny. It had a high chance to drop exotic gear, and therefore represented one of the better opportunities in any given week to get hold of a Gjallarhorn or some other coveted rarity.

The new Three of Coins items from Xur have replaced Nightfalls as the primary source of exotics in second-year play, and the loot drops were of lower Light than those from the raids prior to the spring update. If you were doing King's Fall, there was really no reason to bother with Nightfalls.

Now, however, the difficulty of the Nightfall has been bumped up to make it a little more interesting — it's now a 320 Light activity — and it now drops rewards up to 335 Light, depending on your Guardian's Light level. That means Nightfall drops are basically as good as hard-mode raid drops.

So, the Nightfall matters again!

We can disable the HUD

One small, but very cool, thing Bungie added in this update is an option to disable the game's HUD so you can take screenshots and video clips without name plates, chat boxes and other UI elements cluttering up the image.

It's under the Settings menu, in Accessibility, next to the video options for colorblind players. It's great!

Destiny April update screenshots

What's Bad

Bungie is leaning hard on the Live Team

Destiny's first year of content featured two $20 expansions that each came with major new content additions: the Crota's End raid in The Dark Below, and the Prison of Elders in House of Wolves. These areas had new environments and new campaign stories.

Bungie has since pushed all the responsibility for supporting the game onto a small group of developers it calls the Live Team. These are the folks responsible for things like the Sparrow Racing League and the Halloween and Valentine's Day events that Destiny offered after the launch of The Taken King.

Bungie seems to be struggling to produce enough endgame PvE content to keep the community engaged

That stuff was a lot of fun, and Live Team updates are a great way to keep players interested between major content drops. But the Live Team doesn't have the resources to make those major content drops, and Bungie seems to be asking that of them in this case.

The new Prison of Elders uses existing models and existing environments. The bosses don't have any complicated mechanics, and the difficulty level is low for what is supposed to be the new high-end PvE activity. People are clearing it solo.

There's nothing here like the Skolas fight from the original Prison of Elders. This update comes with a number of quality-of-life changes, but it doesn't bring us much new content, and what it does bring is far less difficult and interesting than Destiny's previous endgame releases.

Bungie really needed to get something new out of its raid design team to keep engaging the sort of players who like stuff like hard-mode raids. At this point, those players could clear King's Fall blindfolded, and the new Prison of Elders will provide little resistance against them. They'll get to the new maximum Light within a couple of weeks and then many of them will stop playing.

Destiny April update screenshots

Bungie's Eververse microtransactions continue to flirt with "pay to win"

The business model Bungie has adopted in Year Two hinges on funding free events with optional microtransaction purchases through Tess Everis and the Eververse Trading Company.

In the past, these have been mostly cosmetic; they've been selling us new dances, cosmetic Halloween masks and new Sparrows. But they started selling level boosts for cash a few months back, and now they've taken things a step further.

The new package for sale in Bungie's store is called Sterling Treasure, and it contains a random legendary armor piece from one of two new sets. The big draw is still cosmetic; one of the sets makes your Guardian look like the Taken, and collecting that full set of armor gets you a special emote that makes your character shiver like the Taken enemies. You can get a couple of packages per week for free by participating in various in-game activities, but you probably won't get enough to outfit your characters unless you buy more.

The armor you get from the packages has a Light level of 3, so you have to infuse something into it in order to bring it to a useful Light level. So Bungie isn't yet selling high-end Light levels, at the very least. However, legendary armor pieces come with randomly rolled perks.

Destiny micro

For example, a helm can have an extremely beneficial perk that immediately triggers your health regen when you pick up an orb, or it can get a much less useful perk that does something like give you bonus melee energy when you get an orb. Similarly, chest armor gets a perk for bonus ammo capacity for random weapon types; you can get more sniper ammo, which is very useful, or you can get more fusion ammo, which is generally a lot less desirable.

In order to get the exact set of perks you want on your armor, you'll generally have to keep hunting legendary drops until you find one with the perks you want. Or, you can just buy a bunch of these boxes for $2 each.

If you play a lot of Destiny, you'll probably get armor with the perk rolls you want eventually, as you pursue the maximum Light level.

But, like the paid leveling boost, this is another example of Bungie offering a gameplay shortcut to players who purchase microtransactions.

A step forward, and a step back

The changes to the loot and upgrade systems in Destiny's April update strip a lot of unnecessary grinding out of the game, and that's a good thing. As Bungie becomes more adept at managing the economies of an RPG-style progression system, hopefully we'll see the game continue to move in this direction.

However, Bungie seems to be struggling to produce enough endgame PvE content to keep the community engaged. We want a new raid, and the Prison of Elders isn't a replacement for that.

Further, Bungie also seems to be increasingly comfortable with letting paid microtransactions influence gameplay, which is bad for the game in the long term. The problem is that it's likely these are immensely profitable, and it's tempting for a company to favor short-term profits over the long-term health of the game.

This update seems to show that Bungie is aware of the community's concerns about loot, and is addressing them, but the studio needs to pair this more streamlined and humane progression system with more frequent PvE endgame releases in order to keep the community engaged.