Destiny's end-game has been uncoupled from the Raid grind. Long live Destiny.
House of Wolves changes Destiny in important ways. This second expansion has been in the works since at least October 2014 - right after Destiny itself shipped - and despite not adding a Raid, feels far more substantial than The Dark Below.
Just glancing over the content list - five story missions, one Strike, a new social space, four Crucible maps, Trials of Osiris and Prison of Elders - you should already feel that. But given how easy it was to blow through The Dark Below's content, I forgive you for being cynical. I was a bit cynical, too. But House of Wolves genuinely changes everything. Where The Dark Below applied band-aids, House of Wolves stitches up wounds.
Where The Dark Below applied band-aids, House of Wolves stitches up wounds.
For a start, as of the release of House of Wolves, the level cap goes up to 34. All your gear is redundant, but, and here's the really good bit, it doesn't stay redundant, because you can bring it up to level 34 in a process called "ascending".
Wait, wait, wait - don't flip out! I know you've been burned before. Remember how The Dark Below introduced Exotic upgrades? Once it hit, you needed an Exotic Shard to fully upgrade an Exotic, and if you had a pre-Dark Below Exotic, you needed another one to upgrade it to the new level cap of 32. If you upgraded an Exotic, you had to re-purchase all its perks, grinding for XP to unlock each one.
It wasn't a great solution. It was a pain in the arse. House of Wolves, though, has a great solution. If you have a level 32 (or level 30 or level 31 or whatever) Exotic or Legendary, and you wish you had a level 34 version, you obtain and use one Etheric Light item.
One item. It instantly upgrades. Whatever perks you had unlocked and purchased remain unlocked and purchased. No more upgrade materials or glimmer required. Any perks you haven't yet unlocked, you still have to earn, but you'll never have to repeat the process during or as a result of an ascension.
The old Exotic upgrade system has been ditched entirely. You can still need Exotic Shards to unlock the final perk on an Exotic (you can buy them from Xur or dismantle an Exotic to get one), but the whole Xur upgrade system is just gone. And good riddance, honestly.
Bungie was a bit cagey as to whether the new system will work with every piece of equipment, but they kitted me out with unlimited Etheric Light materials during my visit and I was able to upgrade my Vault of Glass and Crota's End gear, as well as a motley collection of Legendaries and Exotics I had in my inventory.
Can we just talk for a little bit about how good a level 34 Vision of Confluence is? It's good. It's real good.
You don't need more Glimmer, Ascendent or Radiant materials to bring your pre-House of Wolves gear up to 34. The only thing holding you back from hitting level 34 is collecting Etheric Light, which is, naturally, a pretty rare drop. It's not that rare, though; You can earn it in the Trials of Osiris, The Prison of Elders (more on that next week), the Iron Banner and the weekly Nightfall.
You have to work for it, kid; it won't just be handed to you. But the exciting thing is, you definitely don't have to Raid to get to the level cap. As well as all the ways to earn level 34 gear included in House of Wolves (more on that next week, too), you can just upgrade whatever you want with Etheric light.
The only thing holding you back from hitting level 34 is collecting Etheric Light, which is, naturally, a pretty rare drop. You have to work for it, kid; it won't just be handed to you.
This is a big deal. Destiny Raid veterans will tell you running the Raid over and over again to get the top gear is a pain. Moreover, the Raid sets are keyed towards the Raids themselves, so you miss out on all the perks lower level gear could give you in the Crucible, or even just general PvE activities.
Raids remain, for me, the ultimate Destiny activity; the most fun, and the most challenge. But it's great that I only have to do them because I want to, or because I'm trying to earn a rare weapon or piece of gear - not because they're the only guaranteed path to the level cap (after all, Iron Banner is an intermittent event).
Whether you earn unique level 34 gear through one of a variety of activities, or upgrade the gear you have, you can hit that cap without ever doing a Raid - and that's really important to some people.
As well as decoupling the endgame from the Raid grind by providing alternate routes to the cap, House of Wolves also makes gear choice matter. Because you can have any piece of Legendary or Exotic gear at level 34, some of those lower-level pieces with great perks can be combined in unique builds. I can't wait to see what builds the community comes up with as it explores the possible synergies.
To recap: in addition to the several different level 34 sets on offer in the base game, any Legendary or Exotic is potentially part of a level 34 set, so players are going to look different, depending on their preferences. Maybe they'll even maintain separate sets for Raids, PvE and PvP. I'm certain we won't see what we saw in the days before The Dark below launched: nearly every player level 30, wearing the exact same equipment, having seen and achieved all the same things.
It's a small cosmetic thing, I guess, but very cool - and much closer to Bungie's original promise that our gear would tell our unique stories. Combined with Prison of Elders and Trials of Osiris, new endgame activities we'll be talking about very , very soon, it brings Destiny one step closer to the smooth, slick, replayable experience I have always believed it could be.
Destiny: House of Wolves launches on May 19.
Brenna Hillier recently visited Bungie's studio in Seattle to preview House of Wolves. Activision provided flights, accommodation and hospitality.