Is ‘Destiny: The Dark Below’ above, or below, expectations?

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Destiny: The Dark Below
Bungie
Activision
PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One

For almost three weeks guardians have been hazarding “The Dark Below” in Destiny‘s long-awaited first expansion (some might find the term “expansion” misleading, as it does not expand the map or playable areas much).  Three new areas have been opened up to players, two beneath the Earth and one beneath the Moon, on two of the three newly added story missions and on the latest strike.  The rest of the expansion, with the exception of the raid, will take you to the same places your journey as a guardian has already taken you.  However, with several new hurdles to overcome, a series of new bounties, new weapons and gear to unlock and upgrade, and new objectives called “quests,” the DLC actually does freshen up Destiny quite a bit, almost in spite of itself.

The expansion kicks off with a snazzy little video peering deep into the Hellmouth, a gargantuan crater in the moon, and giving players a brief glimpse of Crota, the Hive enemy-type’s dark prince, who’s worshiped as a deity.  The video is voiced over by newcomer to the Tower, Eris, the only one of her raiding party to survive a fatal encounter with Crota.  Immediately Eris is given more backstory than any other vendor or non-playable character in Destiny.  The player is told how she survived years hidden in the deep pits of the Moon, hidden amongst the Hive.  Once she escaped, it became her sole purpose in life to help guardians destroy Crota.  The character of Eris drives the DLC.  The expository intros and epilogues to each new level and the strike are all given by her.  A single story thread connects all of these missions as well, something the original story missions ineffectively did, in which Eris calls on guardians to track down and kill Omnigul, the Will of Crota, in an effort to prevent the summoning of Crota.

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Here lies the first major missed opportunity of The Dark Below.  While the new story missions and strike do contain a continuous narrative thread, this is only a slight improvement in the way of Destiny‘s story-telling.  The introductory video, available to all players, even those without the expansion, serves as little more than an advertisement to entice players to buy the DLC.  The rest is left to unsatisfactory voice-overs, somewhat taboo in their habit of “telling” the player what’s going on over “showing” them.  What players deserve and expect is something akin with the cut-scenes present in the Halo franchise on top of AI voiceover throughout each level.  Instead, Bungie has left us with something far more comparable to Respawn’s poor story attempt with Titanfall, infamous for its emphasis on matchmaking over any form of story.  While an improvement, The Dark Below still feels like a missed opportunity in terms of improved narrative presentation, especially when the story being told, one including a nether-knight God in the form of Crota, being summoned from another mysterious dimension, is such an intriguing one.  Instead, the true bulk of the story remains buried in the recesses of the Grimoire, part of the companion phone app.

Eris further pushes the DLC by providing a new set of bounties, not too unlike ones offered by the bounty vendor, but perhaps offering players a reason to change the way they play, at least for a short period.  These small challenges keep bounties from getting stale while allowing players to raise their reputation with Eris’ own system.  While many of the rewards for said reputation system are less than enticing (shaders and emblems), some of the later rewards available around rank three and four make the bounties more worthwhile.  To begin with, she carries the newly introduced Runed Cores, necessary to upgrade new weapons.  She also carries Embalming Orbs used to evolve a common weapon, Husk of the Pit, into a legendary weapon, which can then evolve in to a quality exotic weapon, the Necrochasm, a process new to Destiny.

More interestingly, Eris also allows players to exchange the new upgrade materials at reputation rank four.  Consequently, a player can exchange Radiant Energy, used to level up weapons from the new Crota’s End raid, for Radiant Shards, used to upgrade the raid’s gear.  This is a huge help, unavailable with the games previous upgrade material. While players will undoubtedly have to repeat the new raid several times over to get all of the raid’s loot and reach the expansion’s new level cap of 32, it won’t be nearly as much of a hassle.  Or at least it wouldn’t if the ability to exchange materials didn’t come so late in the new reputation system.  Unfortunately, reaching rank four with Eris requires hours of grinding gameplay for a system that levels up exclusively through bounties.  Perhaps if a class item assisted the growth of the Eris reputation system it wouldn’t be as bad, but as it stands, Eris makes players work questionably hard for a quality end goal, but with little reward in between.  One wonders how many players will even bother with the tedious system.

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The raid itself, Crota’s End, is as radiant as the materials it gives out.  The four-part challenge pits players against the dark, armies of adversaries, time, and requires exceptional teamwork and coordination to accomplish.  New puzzles combined with old mechanics work to the raid’s advantage.  While portions of the raid can seem antagonizing at points, especially when attempted with a sub-par team, completing the raid brings a huge sense of accomplishment on top of bestowing a brilliant stash of new weapons as rewards.  Though some won’t like it, in using a new form of upgrade material, Bungie has efficiently prevented players from burning through the new content overly quickly and kept guardians growth to a more gradual pace, more effectively leveling the playing field and giving players the chance to take their time and enjoy the game.  Perhaps the only scruples to be had with the raid is that it does require a quality team, leading to some hostility to those tackling the raid for the first time, and claiming the raid has a level thirty difficulty seems mighty inaccurate.  The enemies faced within Crota’s End are not only 32, but I’ve yet to see or hear of the raid being completed by solely level 30s and wouldn’t recommend attempting the raid until you’ve reached level 31.

This brings us to perhaps the most questionable design choice of the entire expansion.  With the release of The Dark Below came some major changes to the Tower and the vendors therein.  Each faction of the Tower now offers gear that reaches level 31, and weapons which exceed the previous damage cap of 300.  What this did was allow players with and without the DLC to exceed the previous level limitation to better tackle the raid and all the other challenges which received a difficulty increase, namely Nightfall Strikes and Daily Heroics.  In one way this made the previous raid, The Vault of Glass, still relevant as many players suddenly needed many more shards to upgrade gear to help them reach 31.  On the opposite end, however, the rewards given in The Vault of Glass are suddenly under-leveled and no longer valuable, their best use perhaps being to break them down for the materials they give.  This is unfortunate as these same rewards used to be the best in the game.  To prevent this, perhaps improving the previous raid gear to help players reach 31 and limiting the vendor gear to help players reach 30 would have still increased the value of vendors while not undermining the value of the past raid.  Further, rather than expanding upon what each vendor carries, each vendor’s selection has been rotated out to make way for new weapons and gear.  Perhaps for the sake of variety and giving the player more options, the vendors could have simply carried upgraded versions of old loot as well as new items.

While some elements of the expansion are less than ideal, Destiny: The Dark Below will give many players exactly what they have been craving.  New challenges in the form of three missions, a new strike, a new raid, a couple of quests (which operate as mini-story missions with the benefits of a bounty), higher difficulties, a new level cap, and a slew of new weapons and gear will come as a breath of fresh air for many a tired guardian.  On the other hand, continued limitations within the story,a lack of new settings, and some mediocre design choices will inhibit Destiny‘s first expansion from revitalizing a game that is already receiving a lot of flack.  All that said, the DLC is an enjoyable addition to a good game and a must have for those faithful to the title.

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