If evidence were ever needed that surface content alone does not maketh the experience, Destiny’s first expansion is it. While its new additions sound just fine on paper, those sturdy bricks of content have been attached with some rather crumbly cement indeed, making for an overall expansion that doesn’t feel entirely focused upon giving. I’ll come to all that in due course, but first, let’s get into what’s new.
The three new Story missions are the weakest part of the package. Short and inconsequential, and still making use of too much previously-seen level architecture, only the third really matches the original campaign’s high-points. It’s also worth noting that although providing a very welcome new source of Ascendant leveling materials if replayed on level 30, for some bamboozling reason, only the second and third missions stick around. The first disappears from the game upon first completion, a decision as confounding as it is unwelcome.
Much better is the new Strike content. Main offering, The Will of Crota, (‘main’ in that it appears on both PS4 and Xbox one) is a classically rampant tour de force for Destiny’s combat. Aggressive to a degree that will take aback even seasoned players, it really comes into its own when scaled up through Destiny’s Heroic and Nightfall-level mission modifiers. Frantic, prolonged battles become tight, strategic masterclasses of spatial control, zone defence, and the ever dangerous knife-edge between holding and attack. This thing has legs. Damn long ones. Less impressive, but still fun, is the currently PS4-exclusive Strike, The Undying Mind. Making good use of the original campaign’s climactic Black Garden stages for a series of wide-ranging, multi-levelled turf-wars against relentless Vex forces, the focused, united front required brings out the best in Destiny’s co-op. Come the final confrontation though, it all gets a bit familiar, by way of another, slightly modified Vex Hydra boss. Alas, a somewhat damp end to a Strike with much greater potential.
But the Raid. Good Lord, the new Raid. Hive-themed, as is the rest of the expansion, the moon-set Crota’s End is an incendiary piece of design. I’m eager to avoid dropping spoilers while discussing it, such is the inherent, shared joy of discovering and overcoming the unique, arcane demands of its environmental combat-puzzling. In that brilliantly human respect, it’s entirely up to the standard of The Vault of Glass; a ‘level’ as intelligent as it is savage, as hilarious as it is brutal, and designed from the off as a generator of fantastic anecdotes.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you right now that I have not yet finished it, but I can categorically state that the few hours spent clocking just its first, ‘easy’ bit at the weekend (before being smashed to pieces by the second) provided some of the smartest, funniest, most intense gaming camaraderie that I’ve enjoyed all year. This thing really is shaping up to be something special. As The Dark Below’s big bad endgame content, it’s also the best signifier of the expansion’s long-term scope for levelling. Given my team’s difficulty with a mix of level 29 and 30 players, and the way that the new level cap of 32 will – as its predecessor did – demand supremo Raid gear to reach, I reckon we’re looking at a decent run here.
The Dark Below's new content centres on Eris, a long-lost Guardian now burnt-out and broken after years lost in the Hive. Her Story missions have a much stronger narrative thread than we've seen before. but alas, there aren't enough of them.
But with talk of long-term development, we run into problems. Stemming from misguided moves in terms of both progression systems and overall content offered, The Dark Below comes packing some infuriating issues. In fact, with several inexplicable balancing decisions made across the board, presumably intended to – unnecessarily - bring all players in-line with the new content, the expansion manages to find a way to piss you off, whatever level you’re currently playing at.
First up is the economy. Now flooded with new Legendary gear, specced to match The Vault of Glass’ raid drops in order to shorten the levelling time for mid-tier players wishing to play Crota’s End, the Tower’s new marketplace effectively vetoes the significance of the real, post-level 20 Destiny journey. It also means that, while still a fantastic place to play, the Vault of Glass itself has lost much of its meaning, as the levelling power of its special drops has been superseded by common or garden, store-bought gear.
Obviously this isn’t great for anyone, providing a stout kick to the nuts for Destiny’s most dedicated, long-term player base, while robbing newer players of their own development path. But it gets worse. As ‘new-spec’ Legendary weapons have been introduced, they’ve even made those hard-won Exotics obsolete. Bungie’s solution? You can now reforge your yellows – from a limited selection – with trader Xur at the weekends. You’ll get boosted to a new, vastly raised minimum damage output, but have to re-unlock all your perks. Fine if you only have a couple of Exotics, but an utter nightmare for the most committed collectors. Those guys in mind, its bamboozling that Bungie didn’t take the simpler, more sensible approach of just extending Exotic levelling trees.
Mapping the future
The three new maps for Crucible PvP are a high point of The Dark Below. Let's go through them in sequence, shall we?
Destiny's first Hive-themed Moon map is a tight, frantic series of chambers, surrounded by a wider, cliff-side plateau stacked with raised platforms. Excellent, controlled anarchy.
Set in the Black Garden, Pantheon's intricate series of tight, angular tunnels makes it a masterclass in tense corner-defense tactics, that miraculously avoids descending into a cramped spamfest.
And before you go thinking this is all just a big nerd crying that someone has taken his pretend toys away, lower-level players get another slap. This tarring of all players’ needs with the same brush of systemic change has a contradictory effect in the all-important Vanguard playlists. Traditionally an economical means of progression for all, the Daily Heroic Story missions in particular were as a convenient, bite-sized, and enjoyable way of guaranteeing Ascendants in quick, even solo runs. But the new TDB Stories arbitrarily offer only level 30 Daily play. Even for my level 29 and-a-half Warlock, they’re impossible to solo in that formulation. Anyone below me when these things hit rotation is categorically screwed. But even when the Dailies use traditional content, the unfathomable loss of the level 28 difficulty sweet-spot, in favour of a too-wide jump from 26 to 30, now makes the challenge either inadequately rewarding or off-puttingly tough. A needless and frustrating fracture in a previously streamlined and universally pleasurable system.
But none of this would be anything like the problem it is if The Dark Below just delivered more content. The first 100+ hours of the original game provide an immense number of eclectic, scalable, eminently masterable activities over which to spread the great levelling journey toward the ultimate Vault of Glass pilgrimage. After a week’s play, it’s apparent that The Dark Below’s economy and leveling structures have expanded at a disproportionate ratio to its playable content.
By providing new, higher-level currencies with which to punch through to Crota’s End, without dramatically adding to the ways in which I can earn those currencies, the overall sense is that the coming month or two will provide an intensified sense of grind with an amplified sense of repetition. While all three new Crucible maps are excellent – vast, sprawling, versatile arena Skyshock in fact amongst my favourite of all – they’re not enough to disguise the fact that although a perhaps necessary artificial roadblock, the new Crucible Commendation requirement for vendors is simply overcome by the same old means.
Similarly, the minimal number of Vanguard options - lessened further once you remove the first Story mission, and the second Strike, if you’re an Xbox One player – leaves a healthy amount of leveling to do over a rather scant number of new activities. Factor in the notion that if it follows suit, next year’s House of Wolves expansion may provide a similar leap-frog over the current new gear, and you’re suddenly left wondering what the point may be in even trying.
By taking the tack it has, while The Dark Below does provide some utterly fantastic, individual experiences, it also feels more like an incremental update or map-pack than a full-blown expansion, and one which – through several ill-thought-out attempts at balancing and compensation - actually removes almost as much as it gives.