Deep in the bowels of a massive spaceship lodged in Saturn’s rings, I’m on the hunt for a dark alien race. Well, sort of. I certainly planned on hunting them, but now I can’t seem to pull myself away from the galaxy’s least likely slot machine.
Here, in this cavernous dungeon lit a sickly yellow, I’ve stumbled upon a quartet of fellow Guardians who’ve harvested special runes that act as magic coins. When inserted into a statue, they inexplicably initiate a fight with one of six bosses—frightening creatures with names like Lokaar and Krughor. We leap from a ledge to a central platform and battle these dark lieutenants and their minions to the death. Victory, which takes little more than a minute, opens a treasure chest that spews rewards based on chance. If you’re lucky, you win a “legendary” or “exotic” piece of equipment needed to improve your avatar’s gear. If not, some scrap for a few spare bits of currency.
It’s a novel encounter at first, but my new friends are flush with these runes, so we keep repeating the task over and over. Insert rune. Jump onto platform. Kill stuff. Grab reward. Jump back on ledge. Insert rune. By our 30th attempt, we’ve become incredibly efficient—moving and gunning together with an unspoken rhythm, like we’ve rehearsed a very violent synchronized dance routine. But there’s also a certain robotic joylessness to it. Forty-five minutes have passed, and we’re still feverishly awaiting a chance to win Destiny’s jackpot—a neat gun, a helmet with a slightly bigger number attached to it to improve our “light leve.” Is this what Bungie meant when it named the game’s third and biggest expansion The Taken King?
I wondered at the context of that title after it was first announced. “Take” and “taken” are remarkably flexible words. Has a king been kidnapped? Is he in prison? Wait, could he be in love? Nah, that’s delusional. The Taken King sounds nearly Shakespearean, but the author isn’t the Bard; it’s the video game developer who most famously penned a tale about a super-armored space marine fighting aliens. As its previous year of Destiny proved, there’s no time for romance or due process, only running and gunning. Not that I’m complaining—I’d much rather play Halo than a video game adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s just an observation that prepared for me the truth.
Turns out, the Taken King is Oryx, the super boss who patiently awaits your impolite intrusion into his mega fortress called the Dreadnaught. He’s a hammerheaded demon-god thing who’s enslaved hordes of corrupted aliens and forced them to wage war against pretty much everybody. (This above all: To thine own self be true, Bungie.) The word “taken,” in other words, refers to the zombie-like creatures “controlled by force or artifice” by Oryx.
But is this really the only meaning? Between my mind-numbing session at the Dreadnaught’s casino royale and a 10-hour marathon spent obsessively barreling through The Taken King’s endless objectives, quests, and modes, I’m thinking Bungie could secretly be the King and I’m one of the “taken.” If not in the “evil powerful guy literally using mind control” way, then at least in the “addictive game that insidiously stimulates the pleasure center of the brain” way.
That might sound like a perversely backhanded compliment, but it’s true. Destiny hits so many first-person-shooter sweet spots. The moment-to-moment gunplay remains as seductive as ever. Your character controls like a finely tuned Italian sports car—albeit one that can double jump in low gravity on the moon. The thrill of successfully targeting an alien’s grotesque head and watching it pop in a fountain of sparks never dulls. And the raids! These five-player descents into the Vault Of Glass and Crota’s End require such a high level of hand-eye coordination, experience, and communication that reaching the end feels immensely satisfying, like you’ve climbed the Mount Everest of shooters.
Much of what was missing from Destiny was simply more of it. In the game’s infancy, it felt as empty as the deep space you frequently commuted through, highlighted by the fact that the primary method to obtaining the right blend of stuff needed to conquer raids or square off against well-equipped opponents in multiplayer was to repeat a shallow pool of “strikes” (story missions on harder difficulty levels). At some point, I imagined that my blue-skinned, emo-coiffed Guardian felt like he was trapped in a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day.
Over the last year, and especially now with The Taken King, Bungie has added more to see and do. Early Destiny was content trotting out the same flavor of objective—shoot your way from point A to B and stop occasionally to fight some massive enemy force while your little robot companion hacked into some sort of electronic device ever so slowly. Variety, even if it’s still variations on vanilla, is the spice of The Taken King, with missions that allow you to rest your trigger finger while you scale to the top of some planetary installation or use stealth to sneak past powerful foes.
There’s also a wisp of a coherent narrative in The Taken King, though it’s buried deep under an avalanche of sci-fi mumbo jumbo. But maybe that’s okay. Not even Isaac Asimov could have written a compelling backstory to explain my motivation for firing a rocket launcher at the face of a 20-foot-tall winged space lord. What’s most improved here is the voice acting. Bungie wisely chose Nathan Fillion do much of the vocal heavy lifting. His roguish robot Cayde-6 does little more than channel Fillion’s Han Solo-like “Mal” character from Firefly, but he’s at least having fun with the dialogue. That’s more than you could say for Peter Dinklage, whose distractingly flat performance as your Ghost has been mercifully replaced by Nolan North, who at worst, manages to blend in with the background noise of explosions and laser-gun fire.
Some of The Taken King’s improvements come at a steep cost. Bungie completely overhauled and streamlined the game’s economy and loot systems, mostly for the better, but turned my vault full of once bright and shiny toys into a junk drawer in the process. Due to Destiny’s handy iPhone app, I’m keenly aware that I’ve spent exactly 240 hours and 47 minutes in care of my Hunter. Much of that time was in pursuit of material gain, and it all somehow felt worth it at the time. I still faintly remember my exultation when I lucked out and randomly acquired the much sought after Suros Regime rifle before my friends last year. Or when I fell in love with my exotic Red Death pulse gun after stringing together a 12-kill streak with it in the Crucible multiplayer mode. No matter. Within 15 minutes of playing the first story mission of The Taken King, I found a weapon with a higher level than the Regime or the Red Death lying around on the ground. It’s like when a new government takes over and inflation hits and your wagon full of money is suddenly worth less than a loaf of bread.
And to keep up with the virtual Joneses, here I am in the Dreadnaught dutifully gambling for new gear. This cold, sinister ship feels more like a palace imagined by Slayer than Caesar’s Palace, but then again—both are dark, windowless places full of elaborately constructed Skinner boxes. At some point, it dawns on me that my new friends-in-loot and I have become the sad souls playing the dollar slots in Vegas at 2 a.m.—sitting alone with watered-down drinks in hand, blank faces peering into a screen, moving only to insert another token and pull the lever. But so what. They can’t stop, and I can’t stop, and none of us can stop and oh god, will I hit it big tonight?