It's not hard to feel cynical about Destiny. The massive hype balloon surrounding the game didn't exactly pop so much as whine to deflation. Players finally got to sink their teeth in the follow-up to the seminal Halo franchise and found it was as tough and tasteless as boiled leather. Since then, things haven't exactly been looking up. The Dark Below, Destiny's first expansion was, to put it mildly, equally as deflated. Introducing a hamfisted progression system that was confusing and tiring, Destiny made a routine out of committing one of the bigger sins of gaming: actively punishing its most dedicated players.
Leading up to the launch of the game's second expansion pack, House of Wolves, it's easy to see why a considerable portion of players were jaded. As news broke that Destiny would be abandoning raids for its endgame in this new addition, people wondered if House of Wolves was shaping up to be even slimmer than The Dark Below. House of Wolves is still too fresh to say for certain, but the expansion has me feeling more hopeful about the franchise than I have since before launch. House of Wolves is, if anything, a cautious step in the right direction—one deserving of equally cautious optimism.
Arguably the biggest change to the game is the new gearing system, which shrugs off the old method like a bad nightmare. Instead of grinding for handfuls of ascendant materials, players are now hunting for one of a few different resources in order to upgrade their legendary and exotic gear. The process is streamlined, but the true value is in how approachable it is. If you abandoned Destiny during launch, making up for lost time is easier than ever. Players can also breathe a sigh of relief, as their progress on exotic and legendary gear they already own will now remain intact as they work to upgrade them. Destiny no longer feels like a battle against the game itself.
But the improved multiplayer functionality, the new gear system, or even the new story missions—forgettable as they were—aren't the reason to feel excited about Destiny again. It's that Bungie has finally seen the light and shifted their focus towards getting players into content that is dynamic and inherently repeatable.
Destiny's biggest problem has always been that in its quest to combine the best of Halo and massively multiplayer online games, it ultimately settled on fusing the two worst aspects of each. The market for games like World of Warcraft is shrinking considerably, driven to a slow death by the rampant misuse of a handful of the same rote mechanics. Destiny promised to be something new, but as players began digging into the endgame of Bungie's supposed prodigy, they found the same elements that had stifled innovation in online communities for years.
The idea of running the same highly scripted content over and over for marginally better rewards is flawed in its entirety. Destiny's greatest mistake was basing its original offering and The Dark Below on these principles, but House of Wolves is a startling pivot away from repetitive content and towards experiences that set the stage for dynamic and refreshing gameplay. Tossing out raids might have alarmed fans, but Bungie's bold decision strikes closer to the latent potential Destiny always had.
Prison of Elders, Destiny's new wave-based endgame, pits you and two others against hordes of oncoming enemies in a series of trials taking place on different stages. The first wave always starts off by tossing a couple throngs of baddies your way, but the second and third waves mix up the formula by introducing randomized time-sensitive objectives players must complete in order to survive the wave. Killing specific enemies before they make their way to a marked location or defusing bombs—the objectives themselves are not the focus. What they accomplish, however, is providing a backdrop for thrilling mayhem. Rushing through hordes of enemies to defuse a bomb while teammates cover you with suppressive fire is a refreshing change of pace from the rigid dance that raids became. It opens the game up to a more fluid sense of action, which in turn gives rise to surprising situations and clutch encounters.
The stages and enemies in Prison of Elders are randomly chosen from a handful of set pieces, making each incursion into the Prison a potentially new experience every time. Furthermore, that randomized sensibility is brought forward into the new endgame PvP matchmaking mode Trials of Osiris, and the Wanted bounties that see players hunting down targets in Destiny's open world.
Scripted content is fine, but its novelty is lost the moment players are forced to experience it multiple times. Even the most thrilling encounters become a mind numbing routine before long. Destiny has been playing into this problem since day one, forcing players to repeat the same story missions and strikes as payment to buy their way into the "true" endgame. House of Wolves seems intent on changing that.
Those changes result in a game that feels more alive and brimming with choices than ever. No longer will players need to spend hours grinding content that feels removed from what they actually want to be playing. House of Wolves puts its best experiences in your hands from the start, resulting in an expansion that feels immediately rewarding.
Ditching the emphasis on running the same scripted missions and raids over and over again is likely one of the best decisions Bungie has made. The fluid nature of House of Wolves adds a depth that will keep the game from rusting much longer than its previous expansion. Destiny has been surviving on its barely realized potential for too long, but the game feels closer to exposing that potential than ever. The big question is: will Bungie continue to go boldly in this new direction, or will they slip back into the path of least resistance?