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Destiny: Rise of Iron: The Kotaku Review

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A brief history for those who are new to Kotaku and our on-again, off-again obsession with this game. Destiny is a first-person action game in which players fly around the solar system fighting with aliens, evil cyborgs, and occasionally each other. Collectively, our staff has played over 2,000 hours. I account for more than half those hours on my own.

I have been playing Destiny diligently since it launched in fall of 2014. I’ve devoted full weeks in aggregate to raiding and striking and grinding along with my core cadre of friendly fellow players. I’ve played every mission and map and mode countless times, stopping and stalling and restarting and quitting in frustration. I’ve written thousands of words across dozens of reviews, interviews, and critical essays. I played and played until finally, in late 2015, I burned out.

Here we are, one year later, with Rise of Iron. Hello again, Destiny.

Throughout the many sea changes of the past couple of years, a few things have remained constant. Destiny still has some of the best first-person shooting of any console game. The control scheme and ever-elusive “game feel” are tuned to near perfection. Bungie’s art direction and sound design are so consistently good it’s easy to forget how much work goes into them. The gun names are still fantastic.

Destiny remains unpredictable and thrilling in the moment, and becomes increasingly predictable the farther you zoom out. In a given ten-minute boss fight, any number of exciting things could happen. A small mistake could call for an act of reckless heroism. A strong team strategy could lead to a gratifying, total victory.

Zoom out, and things feel thinner and more repetitive. The boss will fall, and some loot will drop. Some of it will be good. Most of it won’t be. You’ll fight the same boss six more times in the next few days, and you’ll get similar loot each time. I’ve probably killed the Archon Priest a hundred or more times, and those victories have blurred together at at this point. He cries out and vanishes in a tower of flame. Maybe he would’ve been better off in the Prison of Elders.

Zoom further out, and things become still more predictable. Daily and weekly challenges become a calming to-do list. Leveling up is an exercise in micromanagement and inevitability. Your routines become herd-like and predictable. You feel yourself being fed through the machine.

Zoom all the way out, and you’ll notice the ways the game has crept into your life. I have played more than a thousand hours of this game. I look at that number with wonder. Where did that time go? How did I do that? How many times have I replayed the same levels, the same bosses, the same maps? How can I still feel like I’m getting something out of my relationship with this oiled, mathematical mechanism?

This is how Destiny has been since it came out. The gears are just shinier now.

Rise of Iron is Destiny’s last substantive expansion for the foreseeable future, until an overhauled Destiny 2 launches in late 2017 or beyond. It consists of a brief new story campaign, a new patrol zone, a new competitive mode, a few new multiplayer maps, a couple of new or remixed cooperative strikes, and a new six-player raid.

It took me just one hour to wolf down the new story missions. The undercooked narrative spans five missions and barely has time to make any sense before it abruptly concludes. It centers on the Iron Lords, a group of ancient warriors best known for having their names attached to the Iron Banner weapons that PvP-minded Destiny players have been using for the past two years. I’ve been killed by a gun called “Felwinter’s Lie” a hundred times. Sure, I’d love to meet the guy it’s named after.

In Rise of Iron’s opening cutscene, we learn that Felwinter, Jolder and the rest of the Iron Lords died fighting off a self-replicating terraforming technology called SIVA that malfunctioned and turned into a cyber-plague.

The rest of the story is mostly conveyed over your earpiece during loading screens and is delivered with a stately dullness that harkens back to the misplaced mythic tone of Destiny’s first year. The swashbuckling swagger of 2015's The Taken King has evaporated, replaced with the chilly, mournful tone of a History Channel miniseries. Actors Lance Reddick and Nathan Fillion’s charming banter as Commander Zavala and Cayde-6 has been replaced with a couple of muttering action figures named Lord Saladin and Shiro-4. They are poor substitutes.

Saladin is the Iron Lords’ sole surviving member. After two years of overseeing the Iron Banner tournament, he enlists your character, a guardian, to help him fight off a SIVA resurgence. Your quest sends you careening from a snowy mountaintop to a hillside anti-air emplacement to a nifty final mission that pits you against the monstrous, SIVA-possessed corpses of Saladin’s fallen comrades.

The whole thing is a brisk muddle. I had to play it several times to fully internalize what had happened or what anyone was even talking about. SIVA exists mostly as an abstraction and thus makes for a poor antagonist, and Saladin’s stoic demeanor fails to find emotional purchase. Characters intimate that our failure might mean the end of civilization, but I couldn’t take them seriously. After the pan-galactic god-battles I’ve won over the past two years, SIVA barely registers.

In fleshing out the backstory of the Iron Lords, Bungie has undone a lot of what made them evocative and interesting. I used to wonder why the shotgun Felwinter’s Lie was called that. Who was this Felwinter character, and why did he lie? Rise of Iron may not tell his full story, but his death proves far less interesting than I imagined. Some of Destiny’s best stories thrive as half-told grimoire entries, and it’s too bad that Bungie’s first attempt to actively connect players with their game’s history is so dull.

By harkening to the past, Rise of Iron also inadvertently highlights just how drastically Destiny’s narrative has changed over the last two years. Remember when this game was about the Darkness and the Traveler? Remember when they hired Paul McCartney to sing an entire song about it? Those original story missions still exist alongside tales of the House of Wolves, the fall of Crota and Oryx, and now the SIVA plague. Taken as a whole, Destiny’s narrative is incoherent. It’s the patchwork past of a world perpetually under construction.

Rise of Iron loops back on itself in non-narrative ways, as well, mostly through missions that take place after the main storyline concludes. It resurrects famous old weapons and enemies like Sepiks Prime, Gjallarhorn, Thorn, and Randall the Vandal. One quest even has you create a new, upgraded version of the Khvostov, the very first gun you were given way back in 2014.

These quests connect us not with the history we’ve been told, but rather with the history we’ve played. Because of that, they resonate with a much greater vibrancy than any story the writers have scripted for voice actors to read.

The quest to re-forge Gjallarhorn is particularly gratifying. I had been playing Destiny for the better part of a year before I finally got one of those elusive, mighty rocket launchers. I watched as every one of my teammates got one. 2014 passed into 2015, and I listened to them crow over how cool it was, how powerful it was, how fun it was to use. I knew of other players who were in the same boat as me, but it was a cold comfort.

This was the first time I have ever coveted a virtual object. I didn’t know what to do with the feeling. Spring became summer, and I still didn’t have a Gjallarhorn. It became an unhealthy obsession. If I could just get this stupid rocket launcher, I could finally stop playing.

When I got one, I didn’t stop. I had a Gjallarhorn now, why would I stop?? I still remember that August, when the exotic storekeeper sold Gjallarhorn and the entire Destiny subreddit gloriously lost its mind. Gjallarhorn was discontinued a few months later in The Taken King, but it was never forgotten. I still have my original, though it has been useless for the past year.

Now players can go and build themselves a new one. The quest for Gjallarhorn culminates in a terrific sequence in which we finally construct an upgraded version of the beloved, temporarily banished rocket launcher and are given a huge field of foes to eviscerate. The music rises as enemy tanks and foot soldiers vanish in flames. Tracer rockets dance and crackle like fireworks. If a game must re-use old assets and weapons in order to give players their money’s worth, this is the way to do it.

Rise of Iron is on much sturdier ground when referencing this internal, player-driven history. Obvious fan-service remains obvious fan-service, but it’s much easier to care about gear I actually used and stories I actually had a hand in writing. Each time I watch Gjallarhorn’s signature wolfpack rounds streak toward a target, it stokes the coals of my memory.

How frequently I’ve found myself missing things that had been frustrating and miserable in the moment! I now miss the loot cave of 2014. I miss killing Crota with a LAN cable. I miss that summer of 2015 when Thorn and The Last Word were the only viable guns in Crucible. I miss the heavy ammo bug, and the very first Trials of Osiris. I miss staying up all night, only defeating Skolas after the sun came up. God help me, I miss spending part of last summer collecting all 50 calcified fragments.

I think back on those things fondly, however irritating they may have been at the time. How fickle and foolish our memories can be.

For those who prefer to fight computer-controlled opponents, there are two Destinys: There’s the casual Destiny, a fun space shoot-em up that you can drop into and out of and play at your leisure. Then there’s hardcore Destiny, which is as much about memorizing perk trees and maintaining mental spreadsheets as it is about shotgunning alien zombies.

For the more casual player, Rise of Iron offers a few new diversions but nothing particularly exciting. There is a new three-player strike, forgettable but for its wonderfully stressful final encounter. A few remixed classic strikes have also made their way into the lineup, though the game has been disinclined to serve them to me anytime I’ve entered one of the automated strike playlists. There is a handsome new patrol area called the Plaguelands, in which resides a new cooperative arena called the Archon’s Forge. The Forge is a lot of fun if you can get a large group playing together, but absent any matchmaking is ultimately too punishing and far-flung to be a rewarding way to spend one’s time.

The meatiest part of Rise of Iron—and the thing that will keep me and my friends playing for at least the next month or two—is the very thing that separates casual Destiny from hardcore Destiny: The new raid.

Destiny raids require six players to work together in constant communication. They never explain themselves, and part of the satisfaction of completing a raid comes from figuring out how to do so as a team. (If you ever want to witness the happy head-butting of modern male group dynamics firsthand, I urge you to watch an all-male Destiny team solve a raid encounter for the first time.) Once your group determines what everyone has to do in a given encounter, you must simply complete it without dying or otherwise screwing up. At their best, Destiny raids become a heady mix of problem-solving, strategic planning, and raw execution.

Unfortunately, raids also require players to attain a high character level, measured as “light” levels in Destiny. The road from 350 light to the raid-recommended 370 has been the worst kind of slog. Destiny’s loot system has received several revisions over the years, and this latest iteration takes a decent foundation and bungles it. Your light level is the average of the number attached to each piece of gear you have equipped. The fundamental idea is that whatever your current light, any new gear you get will match or exceed it, which allows for a constant feeling of progression. But the devil is in the details, and the details are a mess.

Strap in, it’s time for some numbers. Destiny items fall into three categories: Rare blue, legendary purple, and exotic yellow. (Green does not exist. There is no green.) Most blue items only go up to 340 light—well short of the raid’s suggested 370—while others go up to a more reasonable 365. Some purple items are capped at 365, while others go all the way up to 385. Exotic items are governed by their own numerical scheme. The game explains none of this.

In order to get those handy 365 blues, you’ll need to do a particular type of strike in a particular way, hurriedly swapping out armor after beating the boss in order to maximize your gains before the timer runs out and the mission ends. A day or two after Rise of Iron came out, players discovered the fastest, dreariest workaround possible, opting as usual for mindless repetition over the fun of actually playing the game. Poor Omnigul may never recover.

At one point last night, a friend hopped into our party to ask for guidance. He was at 327 light. What was the fastest way he could get ready for the raid? I didn’t even know where to begin. It was a sign that something has gone awry with Destiny’s loot. Getting raid-ready should not be this complicated and poorly explained.

I’ve been fascinated by the evolution of Destiny raids over the last couple of years. Counting the newest one, there have been four. Each raid represents a slightly different design ethos, likely the result of different creative teams. The Vault of Glass challenged players with hard-to-spot death globes that could wipe out an entire team, which forced teams to carefully prioritize their targets. Crota’s End required players to elect a hero to carry them to victory or defeat. You could be the first guardian across the bridge, or the one to grab a sword and go toe-to-toe with the final boss. King’s Fall drowned teams in arcane rules and afflictions, to the point that the final battle was less of a firefight and more of a high-wire dance routine.

Rise of Iron’s raid is titled “Wrath of the Machine.” It represents yet another, unexpected design ethos: More than anything, this raid seems concerned with making sure everyone’s working as a team and having fun. Its encounters are governed by rules that make sense visually and narratively, rather than by the screen-corner arcana that has so often dominated raid battles in the past.

Because of that, Wrath of the Machine is likely the easiest of all four existing raids. My team was only truly challenged by the final boss, and that was mostly because our light levels weren’t high enough to do enough damage.

The raid’s second encounter has all six players driving a massive Mad Max war rig across the top of the Cosmodrome wall, at one point running out as a team to grab replacement engine parts before the whole thing goes nuclear. It is a ripping good time, more technically ambitious than anything Bungie’s designers have tried in the past. It also requires explicit and consistent teamwork in a way that feels intuitive and approachable. It’s easy to explain what to do, and fun to go and do it. It took my team three or so hours to figure out how to beat it on our first time through, but now that we know what to do we can take a couple of newbies through in less than an hour.

The Wrath of the Machine is a more relaxed, forgiving affair than past raids. After spending months memorizing and rehearsing the complexities of the Oryx fight in King’s Fall, that’s a relief. The new raid likely won’t hold the same lasting appeal as some of Destiny’s more intricate challenges. I’m fine with that.

There is a third Destiny, one which I’ve played as passionately as anything in the game. That’s the competitive player vs. player Crucible, where guardians go to shoot each other in the face and complain about red bars. So far, the year-three Crucible has proven fun in small doses, but lacks the occasional thrilling bursts of streaky dominance that I’ve enjoyed in previous iterations.

Rise of Iron brings several changes to Destiny’s PvP. It arrives in the wake of a significant weapon rebalancing, showing up with a handful of new maps, the overdue addition of private matches and a new game mode called Supremacy.

Private matches, as I’ve already written, are a hell of a good time. I haven’t had this much fun competing with my friends since my collegiate days of split-screen Halo. Supremacy is more or less a lift of Call of Duty’s long-standing “Kill Confirmed” game mode. It’s standard deathmatch with a twist: In order to get credit for taking out an opponent, you must collect a glowing crest from his or her body without dying en route. If one of your teammates gets got, you can snag his or her crest and deny the opposing team the credit.

Supremacy has been time-tested in other games but remains in its Destiny infancy, and many players haven’t quite figured out how best to play. That means matches can be fun or infuriating, depending on how well your teammates understand the game—when to rush in, when to hold back, how to bait the other team into exposing themselves, that sort of thing. It’s a nice addition to Crucible, if perhaps an inessential one. I’m still holding out for capture the flag.

If there is one breakout star of the new Crucible, it’s the announcer, Lord Shaxx. Shaxx has played the role of Crucible Dad since Destiny launched, and has long been a cult favorite among competitive players. Voice actor Lennie James appears to have been made aware of this fact, and has brought a hysterical spate of new lines to the game, each one delivered with unhinged gusto.

Go on a killing spree or win a match, and Shaxx will go apoplectic with joy. “Take their crests, Guardian!” he cries, “Take them all!”

Hell yeah, Shaxx! Your wish is my command!

I played Rise of Iron with the same mix of joy, frustration, satisfaction and disappointment that has come to define the two years I’ve spent with Destiny. In addition to those familiar emotions arose a newer one: nostalgia.

At what point does a game begin to have its own internal history? How many patches, how many expansions, how many nerfs and buffs and epochal shifts until we begin fondly reminiscing about what used to be? After two years and four expansions, Destiny has exceeded that nostalgic tipping point. These days I’m just as likely to start talking about days gone by as I am about what’s to come. We’ve reached a plateau, and the future stretches to the horizon. Looking back, the peaks and valleys of the past two years look more like bumps and ditches.

Rise of Iron is an arrival, a remix, and a remembrance. It puts a sloppy bow on the Destiny we’ve been playing for two years, introducing a final chapter that will stretch until Bungie wipes the board clean and starts fresh with Destiny 2. It’s fun, in a funereal sort of way.

At the end of one of Rise of Iron’s later missions, you will find yourself looking down on the field of abandoned vehicles where the first Destiny mission began. Your little robot Ghost asks you to stand with him and take in the view. Oblige him, and he’ll reminisce about all you’ve seen and done together.

It’s a heavy handed attempt to inspire nostalgia for a two-year story that, taken in its entirety, has been cobbled together and vaguely unsatisfying. Sure, Ghost. I remember when you woke me up in that field of abandoned cars. You sounded like Tyrion Lannister then. You took me to meet a guy with no face, and he gave me a speech about The Traveler and The Darkness. I blew up some statues. A robot lady gave me a gun and then vanished forever.

Yet I still felt something, looking out over that snowy skybox. I remembered the friends I’ve made and the challenges we’ve faced over the last two years. I remembered the first time we beat Atheon, and how psyched I was to finally earn Thorn, and how I nearly lost my mind when Gjallarhorn dropped. I remembered the arguments we had over how to make it through the Thrall maze, and the time we stayed up till sunrise glitching our way to heights we weren’t meant to reach.

I remembered all the misguided ways Bungie has angered us, the poor decisions that have wasted our time, and the ways we’ve exploited the game that exploited us right back. I remembered those things, and so many more. That was the journey, not any scripted mumbo-jumbo about the Light and the Darkness and whatever else.

Ghost was still talking. I bit my tongue. Even if he could hear me, he probably wouldn’t understand.