Destiny: The Taken King — The first 15 hours

The Taken King's first 15 hours are some of Destiny's best.

Destiny: The Taken King's creative director, Luke Smith, agrees with Destiny's critics about which parts of the game needed work.

"I felt like the story and the writing and the characterful nature of the game was an area that we had a lot of potential that we could capitalize on," he told me during a preview event at Bungie two weeks ago. Destiny has found a large, dedicated and vocal audience, with many players returning after last week's extensive version 2.0 patch, but the game's story remained one of its weakest aspects. Bungie went out of its way to bring more personality and fun to Destiny with The Taken King.

"I hope that when people get into some of the interactions between Eris and Cayde, they, like, smile! I fucking want people to smile when they play the game," Smith told me, taking note of my own chuckle while continuing his response. "Like, I love those two characters, I think that they play off of each other really well, and I think that we really, yeah, we really tried to improve those interactions. And just even mentioning that and seeing you smile, truthfully, it does warm my heart."

I smiled during the interview, and I had smiled while playing. What I played of The Taken King was more fun, more interesting, more entertaining and flat-out better than most of Destiny and its first two expansions, The Dark Below and House of Wolves. I'm working on a proper review of The Taken King, but in the meantime, here are my (spoiler-free) thoughts from the first 15 hours.

The story doesn't take itself so seriously anymore

Let's pick up the thread from above: the story. The plot of The Taken King follows from The Dark Below — specifically, from its raid, Crota's End, in which Guardians killed a Hive god named Crota. The Taken King begins on Phobos, one of Mars' moons, with reports of strange things happening to Cabal forces. The armored aliens are fighting blue-gray perversions of themselves, and the Vanguards soon realize that Crota's father, Oryx, is behind it all. He's tearing up the galaxy to get revenge for his dead son, "taking" the alien races you've been fighting in Destiny and enslaving them for his cause.

Bungie's writing team took some notable steps forward with Destiny's first two expansions. Those add-ons introduced intriguing and charming characters — Eris Morn in The Dark Below, and Petra Venj and Variks the Loyal in House of Wolves — who conveyed new bits of story with much more personality than the quest givers in the original game. And by House of Wolves, Bungie's writers had thankfully learned to back-burner Destiny's incomprehensible lore in favor of straightforward, coherent explanations of events.

The Taken King doesn't bring in new people in the same way the previous two expansions did. What it does do is make better use of Destiny's existing characters than ever before, fleshing them out in new ways. Eris and Cayde-6, the Hunter Vanguard, are the stars of The Taken King's campaign, and the other two class Vanguards, Commander Zavala and Ikora Rey, play important roles as well.

Destiny: The Taken King - Cayde/Zavala cutscene 1920 Bungie/Activision

Nathan Fillion has always been playing a version of himself as Cayde, who is stuck in the Tower but longs to get back in the field. The Taken King's story reveals a softer, more serious side to Cayde's roguish, ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission attitude. Eris and her existential dread serve as the perfect narrative foil for him, and the banter between the two — yes, you read that correctly: the banter! — is legitimately funny.

I'd go so far as to say that the writing in The Taken King is self-aware, in a sense: For all the intel on Oryx that Eris provides, you can sense the other characters occasionally rolling their eyes when she starts droning on about arcane Hive rituals and the souls of Hive gods. It feels like a reaction to the backlash against Destiny's confusing, jargon-heavy dialogue.

The new strikes are the best ones

Many of Destiny's strikes were poorly designed, with final battles that forced you to take on a massive boss who had way too much health while dealing with waves of difficult enemies. Those fights — we're looking at you, Valus Ta'aurc and Omnigul — often amounted to finding a safe spot from where you could pop out for a bit and fire away, slowly whittling down the boss's health bar.


Fighting the Taken is a fun new challenge

Destiny players have been shooting the same four types of aliens since the game launched a year ago: Fallen, Hive, Vex and Cabal. The Taken may look like zombie-esque reskins of those alien races, but the Taken versions of specific enemy types have different characteristics from the standard ones. For example, the Taken Phalanx carries a shield just like the regular Cabal Phalanx does, but the Taken Phalanx uses its shield to send out a strong short-range shock wave.

The Taken present combat scenarios you haven't quite seen before, which makes them innately interesting to fight on their own. But more than a few activities in The Taken King throw in Taken foes alongside the aliens you're used to, which makes those battles even more chaotic. Plus, killing the Taken is really satisfying, because they evaporate into a vortex when they die.

The Taken King comes with three new strikes, plus a fourth that is exclusive to PlayStation platforms. Each one is terrific in its own way, and they all felt more fun to play than Destiny's existing strikes. Granted, I only played through each strike once or twice, so I can't say whether they'll hold up over the dozens of times players will be repeating them over the next few months.

The Shield Brothers strike takes place on the Dreadnaught, the new destination in The Taken King that is a Hive fortress in the form of a spaceship. The battle at the end of it pits Guardians against two Cabal commanders: first one, then the other, then both at the same time. In Fallen SABER, you have to defend the bunker on Earth that the Warmind named Rasputin calls home. You must navigate puzzling environmental hazards on the way to a fight in which the room is just as dangerous as the boss, which is an overgrown Shank.

There's another Dreadnaught strike, The Sunless Cell, which evokes the first part of Crota's End with a hectic, terrifying boss fight that takes place in the dark. My favorite strike might be the PlayStation-exclusive one, Echo Chamber on Venus. A number of its smaller fights include raid-light mechanics involving relics that must be ferried to various receptacles, and the boss battle with a giant Harpy builds on that. It's a travesty that Echo Chamber won't be available to Xbox players for an entire year.

In essence, the boss fights in The Taken King's new strikes are interesting and tough because they're not as simple or boring as shooting a big bad guy until he's dead. And some of the encounters in the earlier parts of the strikes can vary each time through: The enemies might spawn from different locations, and they might be different types of enemies altogether. Even better, Bungie also updated many of the current strikes to add this variability.

Destiny: The Taken King - Echo Chamber screenshot 1920 Bungie/Activision

The Dreadnaught is a veritable Cave of Wonders

The Taken King marks the addition to Destiny of what is essentially the game's first new playable destination since launch, the Dreadnaught. Since it is a Hive vessel, it shares many architectural motifs and structures with the Hive's excavation of the moon. Even so, some of its spaces are dazzling in their design; it seems like Bungie's level design and art teams went all-out in building the Dreadnaught to reach new levels of creepy beauty.

The Dreadnaught is new to Destiny, so of course there's an inherent sense of discovery in exploring this never-before-seen area. But the spacecraft is more special than that. Bungie has packed the Dreadnaught full of secrets, adding to that discovery with a feeling of wonderment. I came across doors I couldn't unlock and chests I couldn't open; each one needed a special item or key. Some of those puzzles will likely become more clear with a bit of exploration and experience — or explanation from a friend — but others may require the collective power of the internet to solve.

One of those puzzles is the Court of Oryx, which is an area on the Dreadnaught in which players can trigger activities similar to public events. (For more details, check out our recap of Bungie's Court of Oryx livestream from earlier this month.)

Destiny: The Taken King - Shield Brothers Dreadnaught screenshot 1920

I had been picking up items with cryptic descriptions called runes from drops while on Dreadnaught Patrol. I had no idea what to do with them until I spoke with other colleagues at the preview event, who informed me that the runes were used to summon Court of Oryx events. We jumped into the Court of Oryx together, and eventually figured out that we had to charge one type of rune by completing Court of Oryx fights. That kind of communal puzzle solving represents the best of Destiny.

The jury's still out on the larger changes to Destiny

One week ago, Bungie launched Destiny 2.0, updating the game for all players regardless of whether they buy The Taken King. The massive patch overhauled many of Destiny's core systems, implementing changes like separating your character's level — the cap for which is being raised to 40 in the expansion — from their Light, which is now an average of the attack/defense numbers on all their gear. Now, your level just determines the gear you can equip, and you can increase your level simply by earning experience points. So in The Taken King, you'll measure progress by increasing your Light, not so much your level.

Let's break down the consequences of this change.

Now that all XP contributes to your level, the ramp from the old level cap (34) to the new one isn't very long. In fact, I dinged 40 in less than 10 hours of playing The Taken King. Under the previous system, in which your level depended on armor that could usually be obtained only from high-level activities — typically in random drops — it took me weeks just to go up by two levels.

The math associated with that change meant that Bungie had to revise the scale of attack and defense values while maintaining the actual damage output and shielding, respectively. So your 365-attack Black Hammer is now a 170-attack Black Hammer, even though it packs the same punch.

But Bungie wants you to move past your beloved Year One guns, unless they're exotic weapons that are being upgraded for Year Two. So as you play The Taken King, you'll start to see weapon and armor drops of the green variety (the lowly "uncommon" rating) that are still more powerful — i.e., carry a higher attack or defense value — than the fully ascended legendaries and exotics in your arsenal.

DestinyNo Time to Explain, an exotic pulse rifle

I found this frustrating, not only because I had come to know and love guns like Found Verdict, but also because legendaries and exotics feature interesting, special perks that don't appear on uncommon or rare weapons. Sure, sticking with one old weapon won't reduce your Light too much, since the figure is a weighted average of weapons and armor and the new slots for a Ghost Shell and an artifact. But it seems that the system will eventually force you to leave your current gear behind. (Correction: Light is a weighted average, not a simple average.)

Bungie said it changed Destiny's loot algorithm to be more rewarding in The Taken King. And indeed, I saw lots of weapon and armor drops, although I didn't see a single legendary weapon drop. That leaves one other option: buying gear from vendors in the Tower or Vestian Outpost. As of today, Legendary Marks have replaced Vanguard Marks and Crucible Marks as the currency for buying legendary gear (and more). In my time with The Taken King, Legendary Marks were hard to come by, and the combination of that and the lack of high-quality drops left me feeling like it was going to take a while to raise my Light significantly.

On more than one occasion during the event, developers at Bungie told us that they intend for The Taken King players to find better gear in the world, rather than having to buy it from vendors. And when I inquired about the Legendary Marks economy, Smith said that players won't need to worry about the availability of marks once they hit 240 Light or so. At that point, said Smith, it's possible to obtain marks from a number of sources, including the daily story and daily Crucible playlist; the weekly heroic strike; and dismantling unwanted legendary gear.

Destiny: The Taken King - Cerberus Vae III screenshot 1920

I didn't reach that figure during the event, so I'll have to assess the situation as I play The Taken King in the wild, so to speak, from today onward. I also didn't have the opportunity to try the "infusion" system that's new in the expansion. It seems like that mechanic will be the basis for improving the Taken King legendaries and exotics that you really love using. Instead of having to leave gear behind because you've found something with a higher attack/defense value, you'll be able to infuse those better items into the gear you already possess, raising the attack/defense attribute of that weapon or armor.

As for Bungie's quality-of-life improvements to Destiny with the 2.0 update, they're fantastic (and long overdue). After being able to turn in bounties from the pause menu during the preview event, I found it really hard to go back to the old way of needing to visit the Tower or the Reef. The new Quests tab in the menu isn't just a clear way to track ongoing activities; it gives you well-defined objectives and end goals, so I felt like I was making definitive progress every time I was playing. And an expansion of vault space is always welcome!

Destiny: The Taken King - 'Cayde's Stash' screenshot 01 1920

The Taken King may finally fulfill Destiny's potential

I don't want to get carried away after playing The Taken King for two days. The expansion seems to greatly expand the amount and variety of the game's content, but Destiny is built around repeating strikes, raids, missions and other activities over and over again. Once Destiny's millions of players have their way with the expansion, unforeseen exploits and other issues will likely arise. And Bungie didn't show us anything from King's Fall, the new raid in The Taken King. Crota's End has its merits, but it doesn't stack up to the quality or longevity of the Vault of Glass.

That's part of what makes The Taken King so promising, though: the collective sense of discovery that begins today on the Dreadnaught and will continue Sept. 18, once King's Fall goes live. I spent more than 15 hours with The Taken King, and it felt like I had barely scratched the surface of what it contains. That's an exciting feeling. Babykayak