We know what you're thinking: how does this day-one review of The Taken King exist already? Let's rule out the use of time-travelling Vex technology early on. In reality we just visited Bungie HQ and had our personal account cloned onto a private server (read: 3x Guardians, all levelled to the 34 max, all packing every decent gun available thus far). Except Necrochasm. Because screw you RNGesus.
What followed was two full days of power-levelling, not to mention an epic showdown with the Hive God Oryx. He wanted us dead for killing his son, Crota, in honourable single combat. Clearly nobody told him we actually ganged up on his offspring with five other mates, yanked our network cable at the right moment to disable his son's AI, and then unceremoniously shanked him in the back. Maybe keep that on the down-low.
We could tell you more about that main story, and the sizeable aftermath plot entitled 'The Taken War' which opens up after a few hours, but we don't want to spoil it. That fact in itself is significant. There are characters worth caring about that have individual arcs. There are outcomes and plot-twists of a meaty nature that can be spoiled. In comparison, the plot of vanilla Destiny wasn't so much a narrative feast as it was peanut butter on a playing card.
All you really need to know is that Bungie has wisely promoted the most interesting Tower quest-givers into fully fleshed out personae. We found ourselves chuckling at the comms banter between hoodoo-spouting Eris Morn and the zero-bullcrap Commander Zavala (Lance Reddick).
But the clear standout in both the big-budget cutscenes and the plethora of minor side-quests has got to be Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion). This roguish, smartass Hunter is your main point of contact throughout, and we found ourselves greedily looking forward to every exposition of his maverick schemes.
This is a satisfying (albeit short) tale that puts all its cards on the table in a straightforward fashion. Clearly it's quite a step up from having all of the major plot beats reduced to Grimoire entries on an external phone app. And absolutely none of these new characters figuratively stick their finger up at you and say “I don't even have time to explain why I don't have time to explain”.
Another sizeable improvement in The Taken King is Light and levelling. Light in vanilla Destiny was this confusing cliff where players fell out love with the game en masse when the progression system went haywire at level 20. Up until that point you had deterministic control over how to increase that level number over your head (shoot stuff to get XP to become 'awesomer'). Life after 20 meant chasing legendary gear that would eke you up to 30, but was doled out by a cruel and unmerciful RNGesus.
Your character and your gear are now split into two numbers. There's the two-digit one above your head that can be quite quickly pushed up to level 40 max, and then there's a three-digit number below it which represents your 'Light' (a number average that tells the world how potent all of your equipped stuff is and how bad-ass you are). Interestingly, it's not just boomsticks and the fetching ensembles you wear that feed this number; The Taken King now also factors in Ghost Shells, collectible Artefact trinkets, and the wearing of Class Items now have a use beyond keeping up with the Space-Kardashians.
Forget how much time you've put in thus far, because your elite, fully-levelled 34 Guardian will start in The Taken King as a Light 140 scrub. Once the main narrative wraps, your end-game will be to build yourself up to a respectable Light to access the seven new Strikes, and then eventually you'll need to amass gear to earn you entry into the Light 290 Raid content. We just barely cleared all the major content in two days and scrimped and saved our way to Light 260. By our calculations, you'd probably need an additional two days of grinding to get 'Raid ready' to 290. (A quick note: The Raid content releases a few days after launch and we'll be revising and scoring this review to reflect the quality of it.)
Levelling is now straightforward and a pleasure. Back in the old days, you had to pray that you'd be issued the right gear for four armour inventory slots. A total of 10 slots matter now, and it means that any one slot no longer has a massive impact on your personal growth, or in-game damage output/resistance. All those numbers are stretched out to a three-digit gradient that smooths down the odd difficulty cliffs that used to rort you. (Example: the hard Crota Raid was quite do-able as a 32, but if you were 30–31 you may as well have been firing a water pistol and wearing arse-less chaps strengthened with balsa armour plates.)
You can still get your retail therapy on with gear-selling Tower vendors, but we noticed a conscious effort to move away from making Guardians transact their way into power, most likely because it runs counter to the power fantasy. Your everyday shlub on the street acquires goods for Earth dollars (or interest free terms and idiocy). A hero who wields space-magic really ought to earn the tools of the trade on the battlefield while saving humankind.
To that end, The Taken King overhauls the much-maligned RNG loot system. In our playthrough, we never once found ourself punching the TV when the game handed out duplicate items, or a POS drop of inferior goods. The Taken King seemed quite attentive to what we owned, and what were gunning for next. Better yet, there's a new Infusion system that lets you liquefy any Legendary gun you don't want, and then you can pour its power into something you do prefer. In this regard, every loot drop matters and is worth chasing. That's a massive step up from the sadistic, lucky-dip-dick-kick that was vanilla Destiny.
Another alternative to capitalism is the freebie-fest that is Arms Day. These are effectively weekly bounties where you borrow a prototype gun from the Gunsmith and run it through its paces. Use that attitude-adjuster to turn heads into canoes and you get to keep it. You can also be guaranteed to earn specific loot from the half a dozen or so new Strikes. They're all quite a bit better than the mindless shoot-a-thons you're used to, too. There are Raid-lite mechanics in here, such as shifting environmental hazards, that keep things fresh. Randomised enemy encounters should keep the diehards happy for months and months.
Speaking of enemies, The Taken are utter pricks to deal with. Every single footsoldier variant will push you out of your tactical comfort zone in some way. OP melee-hitters are always out to belt you into another postcode, multiplying enemies will overwhelm if they aren't eliminated quickly, and snipers camp in bubbles that shrug off return fire. Last but not least, Taken Captains throw massive hadoukens that reduce your point of view to that of an absinthe bar pub-crawler.
If you're after challenge, The Taken King has it in spades. It'll also give you a very respectable story, a raft of interesting multiplayer variants and maps, and each of the three new subclasses are a joy to unlock and unleash in PvP and PvE both. Best of all, that wonky old framework of the original game has been bent back into a much better shape.
We had minor issues with the odd load hitch between areas, and the inventory menus took twice as long to load in our build [note: these now seem to have been patched]. Otherwise, it's clear to us that The Taken King has been given the royal treatment by a developer serious about fixing a false start. Give this MMO-shooter another shot. There's plenty of gravity here to keep you in orbit for ages.
Post launch update: The end content for Destiny: TTK, entitled “King's Fall”, has proven to be the best Raid since that 2011 Indonesian action film. We were among the first in the world to attempt it with a motley fireteam of Light 290-295 members, and our 3am attempt resulted in a Destiny endorphin rush that we've not felt since that first Vault of Glass clear.
Things that impressed us: the increased need to work as a tight-knit group in close proximity (that borders on claustrophobia in some areas). There are also thrills to be had from splitting into groups in order to cover defenceless relic runners and debuffed buddies, and best of luck with the split-second timing you'll need to control multiple, randomising ground plates. The jumping puzzle we could take or leave (but that's probably just the jetpack-less Hunter in us talking).
We're not going to spoil the final areas for you, but if a quality Raid experience was a major factor in your decision to return to the Destiny fold, you may now buy with confidence. Bungie has put quite the cherry on top of what's been an extremely decent do-over of vanilla Destiny. Experience it in all its cheese-less, non-FAQ'd glory today, before its mysteries and challenge get ruined by the Internet.