Destiny needed this expansion. The rinse and repeat formula of Strikes, grinding, Raids and loot, well, frankly, it was starting to get a bit overwhelming. Knowing that I'd already sunk in well over 100 hours, and then being acutely aware that I still had plenty to do if I wanted to get to the highest rank was, simply put, a little daunting.
The moment to moment gunplay, the kinetic splendour of the firefights, the deliciously over-powered supers, the lush visual design; these are things that endure and make Destiny one of my favourite games of the year. However, retreading the same paths time and time again has started to take its toll. I needed something new to play and, thankfully, Bungie has obliged.
As far as expansions go, The Dark Below is a little on the expensive side. It's £20 on its own, or you can pay £35 and get this and the next chapter at a slightly lower individual cost. That kind of money will buy you a whole new game, and so the stakes are high for this expansion. Does it deliver? Well, mostly.
The story-driven content, that is the missions that drag you to new locations buried away in familiar sandboxes, is decent. Like similar missions in the base game, they can be tackled alone or with a couple of friends. These assignments are handed to you in the Tower via a new character - Eris Morn - and like other vendors she must be levelled up by completing missions and bounties on her behalf.
Most of the expansion is focussed on chasing down a character called Omingul and preventing the ascension of Crota, and this takes place across some tense missions on Earth and the Moon. One highlight is a story mission set under Old Russia, where Rasputin (remember him) welcomes you into his underground bunker and Omnigul sits in a control room, protected, while minions of various descriptions swarm around, and where you must dodge glowing green circles of flame that spread across the floor and burn away health at an alarming rate.
The Wakening, another story mission, this time set on the Moon, is another decent challenge. I played it on Normal by myself and thoroughly enjoyed it, and the boss battle at the end, while not wandering too much from the standard Destiny formula, was a ferocious battle that required planning and a bit of skill. Playing it later on hard with friends was much less daunting, and therefore the experience felt a bit empty in comparison.
Variety, even in this expansion's limited capacity, is one of the strengths of the new content. There's no Dinklebot telling you to protect him while he uploads / downloads / overloads something, and it's a refreshing change of pace. My concern is there's just not enough missions here, especially considering that fact that we don't go to too many new places. Given that we're largely moving around existing environments, couldn't there have been more smaller missions added to bulk up the number?
This problem is amplified if you're playing on Xbox One. The second Strike, set on Mars, is decent, but it's PlayStation-exclusive (until the second half of 2015), which given the brevity of the story content, is a bit of a slap in the face. Even on PlayStation, it's great that there's some new missions that have been folded into the grind, to add a bit of variety, but really, given the asking price, I kind of expected just a little bit more in this regard.
There is, of course, three new multiplayer maps as well. As I spend a considerable amount of time playing Crucible matches, these are the highlight for me. Skyshock is set in Old Russia, and it's a larger map with plenty of opportunity to saddle up and blast away in the vehicles on hand (though, at the time of writing, it's not in the expansion mp rotation, just a week after launch, because of the Iron Banner event sitting in its place - much like Bungie did when non-expansion buying players were locked out of playing weekly and daily Strikes in the wake of The Dark Below's launch). I really enjoyed this one, particularly when engaging in close-quarters battles in the small structures in the centre of the arena, before peeling off and taking on snipers on the periphery of the map.
There's also two smaller maps - The Cauldron and Pantheon - and these are also very well put together. Both are compact and great for solo or small team play. Pantheon, set on Mars, plays out against the backdrop of the Black Garden, and it stars tight twisting corridors and an angular design. The Cauldron features larger connected rooms, with bones piled high like other underground Moon-based environments in the game, and it's probably my favourite of the three. Again, like the low number of story missions, a couple more would've gone down a treat.
There's plenty of new gear and loot for players to earn. Strangely, it seems that all the high level gear that players have slaved on up to this point is rendered largely obsolete by the new armour and gear, as the old stuff doesn't upgrade higher than the old level cap (30). If you want to hit the highest of highs, you'll have to dump the old stuff and start again on the new gear, and if the grind is starting to get to you, you likely won't appreciate this. That said, if you're prepared to grind you can now earn enough marks to buy top-level gear from the vendors. This, however, might be frustrating to players who really grafted to get their loadout exactly how they want it. Bungie seems to have found a sweet spot where nobody is really happy.
Getting this new gear takes us to the Raid, and my main issue with this expansion; it's quite exclusionist. If you've not hit the highest ranks then you needn't bother with Crota's End. Despite having played well over 100 hours, I'm still not able to compete, which is why the next part of this review is brought to you by GRTV's Nick Holmberg:
Bungie has again and again said that the high point of Destiny is the Raid. After playing through The Vault of Glass multiple times on normal and hard, with all three classes, I agree that it's some of the best content in the game. With The Dark Below coming out that meant I couldn't wait to jump in, or down into, the new Raid.
I have completed it on all three of my characters on normal, and the hard mode is coming out in January, and I like this one even better than the first. It's the best designed story mission in the game. All six Guardians in the fireteam need to work together to complete it, and when that works it's very rewarding. Both regarding getting that sweet new loot you receive at the end, but even more so from the feeling of completing a cool challenge together.
This raid is less about just shooting things and cleansing enemies, and it's more about tactics and working as a group, getting closer to your enemies. Of course, there is plenty of shooting in there too.
I'd say the new Raid might be a little easier than the first, and it's definitely shorter. That said, it's more fun to play. Even though we've found out how cheat through certain sections, we choose not to, because it's more enjoyable playing it. And I've helped other people getting through it without getting loot, simply because it's so much fun.
I completely understand that this is how MMOs work. You need to have a high level to compete in the high stakes missions. I get that. But time and again Bungie has stressed that this is not an MMO, but a shared-world shooter, and as such I feel like there should be a way I can access this content without having to carry on with the grind in order to pass through the last couple of levels. I enjoy the occasional Strike, and I really love the PvP, but now, if I want to play Crota's End, I've got to do some serious grinding and I'm not sure I can be bothered.
That's not true. I can be bothered. This holiday coming I'm going to do just that. It's on my list of things to do. I'm just acutely aware that it's a bit of a chore, and that I'm going to do it largely because I love the other parts of the game, and because I want to see this last piece of content and tick it off the list.
So I conclude this review with mixed feelings. I really liked some of the missions, they were expertly balanced and a nice change of pace, but there's just not enough of them. Some of the new loot looks great, but getting it basically wipes the hours poured into levelling up the old stuff. The multiplayer maps are brilliant, but again, a couple more would've have felt like better value for money. The Raid sounds great, Nick loves it, but I'm going to have grind away a bit before I can play it.
Destiny split opinion when it was released in September, and although I fell firmly on the side of positive, I'm a little more on the fence when it comes to The Dark Below. It's a good expansion, and if you're still playing every night, it's worth getting. It's just an expensive proposition, and not only in terms of the money it asks you to cough up.