“Destiny: Rise of Iron” is a reflection of how successful Bungie has been in its original plan for occupying players’ time and it’s another attempt to finish what it began in 2014. The downloadable expansion tells the story of Lord Saladin, a side character from an earlier expansion who handed out armor and weapons for completing special feats in the game’s player-versus-player matches. In “Rise of Iron,” we learn that Lord Saladin is the last surviving member of the Iron Lords, a Teutonic band of warriors who watched over the abandoned wastes of the Russian Cosmodrome, the original game’s first major zone, while trying to defend against the last remnants of the Fallen, one of the four enemy races in the game.
All of the Iron Lords except Saladin were wiped out 100 years ago during a suicide mission to prevent the Fallen from taking control of something called SIVA, a metastatic nanotechnology that strangles the landscape in fiber-optic cables and causes powerful mutations in any life-form it infects. Subsequent generations of the Fallen have rediscovered this magical SIVA stuff and suddenly Saladin is in need of recruits for another suicide mission. What better volunteer than someone who has spent 100-some hours playing a first-person shooting game?
As with the game’s three other expansions (“The Dark Below,” “House of Wolves,” and “The Taken King”), the pretense of new story missions is the biggest selling point for “Rise of Iron,” but it turns out to be the least significant piece. The five missions — most of which take place across a new snowy zone on Earth called the Plaguelands — can be run through in two or three hours and are hard to distinguish from any of the game’s other missions. But there is no finishing “Destiny.” After resolving Saladin’s story, there are a half-dozen long and laborious quest lines to chase, most of which involve returning to the game’s older areas to sniff out a few new collectibles: pieces of the core SIVA hardware or lost fragments of armor left by the original Iron Lords.
The biggest incentive to stick around is the new raid “Wrath of the Machines,” which, like the game’s other raid levels, takes what could have been a 15-minute single-player level and floods it with infinitely respawning enemies, obscure puzzles that involve running artifacts back and forth across a sea of enemies, and bosses who are invincible until you stumble across the one obscure condition that causes them to lower their shields. It’s fun in the way that binge-watching a season of a television series is, a triumph of gluttony that focuses the senses and leaves one drained and almost numb to the touch. Perhaps because these experiences are so thoroughly arbitrary and exhausting, Bungie insists they can be had only with people in your console friends list and not the random strangers with whom you can play through every other part of the game.
To access the new raid, you’ll need to rank up your character to the maximum experience level of 40, after which point your primary currency switches from experience points to “light” points, a combined average of all your armor and weaponry’s ratings. To improve, you need to shift from the linear grind of menial tasks to playing the odds that a new piece of equipment will drop while you repeat one of a few dozen missions, side activities or competitive multiplayer matches. To offset the blind chance, you can accrue a third type of currency, Legendary Marks, by completing a handful of Bungie-selected daily activities, which you can use to buy a piece of Legendary equipment from a vendor. Fifteen hours after finishing “Rise of Iron’s” main story missions, and with eight of the 10 item slots filled with Legendary equipment, I was still 20 light points short of the recommended light level to start the raid.
“Destiny” might have failed to live up to the dramatic heritage of the “Halo” games, but it has excelled in creating an economic honey trap, an inescapable web of overlapping currencies to ensure that even when you’ve played everything there is in the game, you feel like you haven’t done it all. There’s always an item withheld, a leftover side quest that you forgot was in your queue. The shooting is pleasurably meaningless, and the promise of all of “Destiny’s” different currencies and steep exchange rates are tolerable because, one hopes, at some point the economy will produce some new tool to heighten the animalistic pleasure of pretending to kill.
Those improvements never come — weapons feel inescapably similar regardless of level. But there is a kind of cruel artistry in continually making people expect change. With “Rise of Iron,” Bungie seems to have perfected the art of baiting expectations and then postponing them, making a game out of the waiting itself. To paraphrase what O. Henry said of New York, “Destiny” is really going to be something when they finally finish it. “Rise of Iron” makes it feel like Bungie is only just starting.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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