In part, you could chalk that up to “Destiny’s” weak backstory, which could be uncovered by perusing its website or companion app. But my main gripe with the game was structural. Once a character reached level 20 — the soft-level cap — progression rates tapered off precipitously. It was possible to level up steadily through activities before level 20. After it, though, advancement became a slog. The only way to rise in the ranks was to up the quality of one’s armor, or in the game’s parlance, its Light Level. (Seriously, inventory management is a big deal.)
Basically, this meant that the only way you could reach the game’s higher tiers and unlock its raid — the major showpiece — was to grind through the same levels repeatedly for the chance of scoring a rare item drop from a slain enemy to augment your Light Level. For players like me, who leaned toward the game’s co-operative instead of its competitive modes, this was a stumbling block.
Abstaining from the game while your friends trudged along their painstaking path meant the possibility of finding yourself, later on, too underleveled to make a significant contribution to a fire team. On the flipside, tackling your own level-appropriate missions with overleveled friends — who can handily kill everything for practically no reward — meant suffering the knowledge that you’re probably wasting their time. At a certain point, the game’s design seemed to say: okay, you’ve made it this far. Are you in or out?
As Polygon reported, the developers at Bungie knew that the leveling system needed to be revised. Now with the “Taken King” they’ve extended a hand to lapsed players such as myself who figured they’d never again play with their more committed friends. Players who download or buy a physical copy of the “Taken King” receive a Spark of Light that auto levels a character to 25. (Stupidly, I used mine on a level 23 Warlock instead of giving it to one of my lower level characters.) From there, progression zips along at a rapid clip until 40, the new soft-level cap. This is key since late-game momentum is what “Destiny” lacked in its first incarnation.
After reaching level 40, it’s possible to strengthen your Guardian’s offensive and defensive capabilities by raising his or her Light Level. Now, however, all of your main equipment, not just armor, contributes to this all-important stat that serves as the gatekeeper to the “Taken King’s” most challenging fare such as its Nightfall strikes — weekly cooperative missions — and the King’s Fall raid, which are respectively pegged at Light level 260 and 290.
Structurally speaking, these tweaks have made “Destiny” a far better game, or definitely one that’s more approachable for less hardcore players. Play for an hour and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a little better off than when you started. Sure, it may take well over a dozen hours to outfit a level 40 Guardian with the appropriate gear for a high-end event but at least you can rest easy knowing that your efforts won’t be routinely stymied by some uncharitable algorithm.
Coming back to “Destiny” after a year, I can’t help but feel that I better understand Bungie’s vision. “Destiny” isn’t a sci-fi game with big ideas or interesting characters like “SOMA” or “Mass Effect” but rather a mechanically excellent first-person-shooter that doubles as a virtual community center where you perform activities with friends or engage in pick-up games with strangers.
Though, I’ve heard some reviewers praise Bungie for the steps they’ve taken to infuse “The Taken King” with a sensible narrative, what’s on offer only rises to the level of a cheesy action movie. “The Taken King’s” cut-scenes do to spiffy up “Destiny’s” presentation, but they’re still padding for scenarios in which you shoot aliens. This is a game that sells itself on the optimal flow of its firefights and in that respect it always delivers. Just don’t expect any more than that at present.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.