Destiny: Rise of Iron has had two weeks to prove itself to the community. Has Bungie finally nailed it? Is it time for the jaded to return to the fold?
Destiny: Rise of Iron isn't really "finished" yet; there's a calendar chock full of events and shiny, shiny new loot to assess before we can say, however many months later it is, that we Had A Good Time. This is the new connected games-as-service future, see - but today let's talk about what we've got so far.
The main story sequence in Rise of Iron demonstrates Bungie has been listening to feedback. It's short, since many people barely bother with story content. It's straight forward, since a lot of people struggled to follow past storylines. There are lots of grand set pieces in interesting environments, since people asked for less follow-the-waypoint-to-the-boss-fight mission design. And it tells us more about the Iron Lords, because that's something people wanted to know.
Apart from the set pieces, which are good fun, the story sequence also demonstrates that Bungie should never listen to us ever again: Rise of Iron's story missions aren't that great. The storyline never really moves beyond "shoot the big bad". Saladin is far less intriguing than he was as a masked event vendor, and the other NPCs (bar Iron Banner's Efrideet, who has the advantage of introducing some brand new lore concepts) are dull as old milk. They certainly can't match the chemistry of Variks and Petra in House of Wolves, or Cayde-6, Eris and Zavala in The Taken King.
The story also suffers from the lack of an antagonist, which is a step backwards from the Skolas and Oryx sequences. It's hard to take SIVA seriously as a threat when we never see it do anything except in the final Rise of Iron story mission. Saladin never stops bleating about how SIVA must be stopped and how the Splicers can't control it, suggesting an escalating threat, but the effects of SIVA on the landscape of Old Russia are completely static from start to finish. It just sits there in great looping tentacles, as menacing as any other static set dressing - which is to say, not at all. Nobody's ever like, "These non-interactive crates must be stopped! Quickly, Guardian!" because that would be ridiculous - right?
Destiny has always struggled to hit a balance of show and tell and Rise of Iron is no exception. The most interesting stuff is buried in the Grimoire, and usually hinted at rather than made explicit. As ever, Bungie skirts around those aspects of its lore that we find most interesting, throwing out some little hooks for probable Rasputin and Clovis Bray storylines. Will they bear fruit? Maybe - we're still waiting on whatever happened with Eris at the end of The Taken King to make sense, after all. But at this stage I almost don't want these ever to pay off because as mysteries they're terrific, but if the story of the Iron Lords is any indication Bungie's not good at rewarding our curiosity.
Luckily, practically nobody cares about Destiny's narrative except me and there's so much more going on in this expansion which is well worth celebrating. Destiny's gunplay has always been excellent but in Rise of Iron Bungie has made some subtle balance changes that make using the highly-textured arsenal feel much more dangerous, while still offering the chance to achieve a beautiful flow of actions.
Much of this has to do with the new Splicer variant enemies, which alone of all of Destiny's factions are near-universally equipped with decent aim. Bar snipers (Vandals, Hobgoblins) and boomer types (Knights, Minotaurs) most standard enemies pre-Rise of Iron would just spray wildly, so you took more damage running into projectiles than by standing still and letting them zing past you; medium range was the safest place to be at any time.
Right now I’m really enjoying the need to be tactical and hit hard and fast in every single encounter if I want to survive.
Now everyone seems to be able to lodge lead in your body, and add clean up, territory control and effective use of cover are paramount. For the first time I've found myself adjusting my glass rogue Hunter build to favour toughness instead, and although I hope to go back to agility when I hit cap, right now I'm really enjoying the need to be tactical and hit hard and fast in every single encounter if I want to survive.
Enemies seem a bit tougher, too. As a mostly solo and PUG player I find it a bit frustrating not to be able to just single-handedly smash through shielded enemies with my special or heavy weapon, but there's no denying the appearance of shielded and elite enemies now clearly punctuates encounters. The sheer durability of these units means that unless you have a modifier like Small Arms you frequently need at least two players to get them down in anything like a timely fashion. Like most co-op shooters Destiny is at its most satisfying when you work together to lock down territory and create crossfire, and occasional throwing one of these regenerating bullet sponges in the mix teaches you to do that, fast.
Similarly, the new Supremacy mode is serious fun because it so strongly encourages co-operation - not to mention returns snipers to a support role, or to the ranks of the very best players only, which makes a very welcome change from the standard meta. The new maps are gorgeous and well-differentiated, too.
I'm a scrub so I don't really want to make extended comments on PvP, but I will say I'm personally enjoying it right now more than ever before (and was even before the latest, excellent Iron Banner incarnation showed up). Maybe this is just because the weeks after a major launch bring in plenty of new and casual blood, meaning I'm not always being matchmade against the serious PvP hounds, but even when I'm badly outclassed, Supremacy is a good time: there's so much potential to act in a support role that you don't have to be sharpshooter to make a contribution and be rewarded with a glowing comment from the delightful Shaxx.
Whether you're into PvP or not there's so much to do in Rise of Iron; I try to play about 10 hours a week, which is casual by Destiny standards, and I don't think I'll be done for weeks yet even though I don't really run alts. Along with a stack of great new quests, the Rise of Iron Record Book is a great motivator and moreover guides you to try activities you'd maybe overlook otherwise. It's just one of several similarly clever systems, like the generous daily public event rewards and weekly quests.
The new public PvE arena Archon's Forge does need some work to make it more accessible, as it's often difficult to get a group going, but it must be said increasing the SIVA Offering drop rate in the last hotfix and pointing people at the arena with multiple weekly bounties is improving matters.
By making strikes the primary pre-raid grind activity and overhauling the strike loot system, Bungie has managed to inject life back into an activity that had always seemed pretty pointless.
Even strikes, the also-ran activity, have improved markedly. By making strikes the primary pre-raid grind activity and overhauling the strike loot system, Bungie has managed to inject life back into an activity that had always seemed pretty pointless beyond the weekly Nightfall and maybe some quick Legendary Marks. Although there's an unacceptable slowdown between 350 and 355 (which perfectly justified the Omnigul farm; Bungie, do something about this grind), strike loot remains relevant right up to raid level and even beyond as long as you always wear your best gear to the party.
Since you don't need a pre-formed group, the loot is almost always useful, and the difficulty of Heroic encounters has spiked markedly, the Vanguard playlists have finally become something people want to do to pass the time rather than a forgotten icon on the director. It's fantastic to see this concept make sense at last.
When you reach raid level you'll want to dive right in; the loot is great, and the raid hits a really nice balance between accessibility and the satisfaction of challenging execution. Provided everyone's Light is high enough the mechanics are far more flexible in terms of what classes and subclasses you need, and although getting your whole group to co-ordinate and execute properly isn't exactly easy, there's generous room for error if everyone immediately pulls up their socks and refocuses.
Each encounter builds on skills learned in those that came before (and presaged in story missions and strikes), and enemies hit a little less hard than I'd expected based on earlier raids. Some people have said it's much easier than past raids, and given my first PUG made it to the final room in a few hours with only one experienced player on board, they may well be right - but we can expect hard mode to be far more brutal.
Just to get negative for a moment: the new microtransaction system in Rise of Iron is truly rubbish. I'm not massively anti-microtransaction these days and I even dropped some cash to buy emotes in The Taken King, which had a pretty good system of retiring old stuff to random selection loot bags and giving you multiple ways to earn the same stuff in-game (even if many of them were time-limited).
The new microtransaction system in Rise of Iron is truly rubbish. The ornaments system was heavily promoted as one of Rise of Iron's selling points, but now it turns out that you need to fork over a hefty wallop of cash if you want to change your look sometime within launch month.
In Rise of Iron, the economy is balanced in such a way that it takes weeks to earn enough currency in-game to install a single ornament, and months to complete a full armour set. The ornaments system was heavily promoted as one of Rise of Iron's selling points, and felt like Bungie was making good on its regular promises to allow players to customise their characters look - but now it turns out that you need to fork over a hefty wallop of cash if you want to change your look sometime within launch month.
This creates a real haves and have-nots divide which is just no fun even when it is purely cosmetic. The haves are also pretty annoyed by all this because you can only buy ornaments and silver dust in random loot bags, which means Destiny's notorious RNG could have them throwing money at the game endlessly. Now Bungie's stuck in a situation where it could provide players with more in-game opportunities to earn silver dust, but that's going to piss off those who've paid the cover price over again trying (and possibly failing) to get the cosmetics they want. Goodness knows how it is going to resolve it; refunds and inventory retractions all round, I'd say.
Apart from the microtransactions, the painful grind between 350 and 355, and the underwhelming story missions, Rise of Iron is pretty much everything I wanted from a Destiny expansion: tense but fluid action, increased difficulty, better loot, cool weapons and outfits, an improved PvP experience, stacks of grimoire cards and a bunch more checklist quests to merrily tick my way through.
Over the years Destiny has evolved from a content-light roulette spinner into a world that welcomes you back daily and weekly with the teasing prospect of bigger, better and brighter loot. The really hardcore always run through the content so quickly they'll never be satisfied, and the casual (or solo) never get to see the endgame activities that show off the genius of Bungie's gunplay and encounter design. The happy medium, like me, are pretty much guaranteed a good time in Rise of Iron.