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Destiny: Crowning the Taken King

As Destiny: The Taken King hits today, Shacknews Select takes a look back at the first year's financial success, responses to criticisms, and near-incomprehensible story--all leading up to our hands-on impressions of the new expansion.

Making Sense of Destiny

Destiny's story can be difficult to follow even for the most ardent of fans. Our own review of the original release called it an "incomprehensible melange of space mysticism." Much of this problem is due to the way the story is hidden away behind Grimoire cards, making the exact sequence of events more opaque than a standard storytelling structure. When placed in proper sequence and with the various factions and terms explained, it becomes much clearer.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Destiny (Main Game)

Ages ago as of the Destiny timeline, but sometime in the future for us, a gigantic sentient moon-like entity called the Traveler appeared in our solar system. It uplifted humanity by sharing its knowledge and technology, which expanded the human lifespan threefold and terraformed both Mars and Venus for colonization. Humanity experienced a Golden Age, and spread across out to the far reaching stars.

After centuries of prosperity,  the Golden Age came to an end when the Traveler's nemesis, a force called The Darkness, caught up with it. This event, known as The Collapse, led to the near annihilation of the human race. Humanity was driven back to Earth, where the Traveler made its last stand against The Darkness, and sacrificed itself for the sake of the human race. Its body still hovers in low orbit over earth, hiding humanity's last remaining city (named The City) under its shadow. Although it is dormant, it still powerful enough to protect The City and bestow special powers on its inhabitants.

However, The City has come under repeated attack, and it would only be a matter of time before The Darkness or some other alien species broke through. In response, the Traveler created small, flying, sentient drones called Ghosts, which resurrected fallen beings to become Guardians. Three races were chosen for this purpose: Humans; Exos, sentient robots created during the Golden Age; and Awoken, a race born out of the Collapse. Guardians are tasked with repelling the threats against humanity in an effort to retake the galaxy and hopefully bring life back into the Traveler. 

You were resurrected among the ruins of Old Russia, after having been dead a long time. After being introduced to the Traveler's advisor, The Speaker, you were brought to the Cosmodrome. Humanity once launched its outer space expeditions from the Cosmodrome, but it was now being picked clean by Fallen. You also discovered an old Russian A.I. Warmind named Rasputin. As a Warmind, Rasputin was designed to defend Earth. When you found him he was still functional, but acting with unknown intent.

Your next mission took you to the Moon to search for a lost Guardian, who died searching for a means into the Hive Fortress. By tapping the memory of the Guardian's Ghost, you learned that the Hive were preparing a massive invasion against Earth. Naturally, you quickly got to work on shutting the invasion down. You disrupted the Hive ritual used to drain power from the Traveler, destroying a powerful weapon called the Sword of Crota and disrupting long-range communications in the process.

This raised the question of who the Hive were talking to. Your Ghost suggested that they were communing with their "god or king" but won't be doing so anymore. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious woman commonly referred to as Exo Stranger contacted you, asking you to come to Venus to face a new enemy.

On Venus, Exo Stranger introduced you to the Vex, a robotic hive mind race called "an evil so dark, it despises other evil." She begged you to head to the Black Garden, the place where the Vex are born, and rip its heart out. Only then could the Traveler begin to heal. Your Ghost recommended that you speak to the Awoken who refused to take sides in the war, and now inhabit the Reef.

At the Reef, you met Queen Mara Sov of the Reef and her creepy brother Uldren Sov, who offered to help you locate the Black Garden in exchange for the Vex Gate Lord's head. You made your way to fight the Vex Gate Lord, eventually decapitating him and presenting his head to the Queen. She told you to bring its eye to Meridian Bay on Mars, which would open the gate to the Black Garden.

Mars was occupied by the Cabal, a militaristic race that uses gigantic exosuits to simulate the heavy gravity of their homeworld. The Cabal were also trying to break the encryption on the Vex Gate, but without much success. After breaking through the Cabal Exclusion Zone, you made your way to the Garden's Spire, where you charge up the Gate Lord's eye. 

In the Buried City of Mars, you found another Warmind that has fallen under the control of Rasputin. Your ghost mentioned that "he's everywhere now," implying a darker future. The Vex had also gone to Mars, and your Ghost realized they were heading back home, to the Black Garden. 

Through the Vex Gate you found the Black Garden, a city beyond the reach of space and time. The heart of the city was a very literal heart, suspended in mid-air. The Vex were worshipping it, and came to its defense by summoning three giant statues. Defeating them destroyed the heart, and thus lifted the shroud of Darkness from the Traveler. 

At a gathering of Guardians, The Speaker gave a rousing speech in light of their collective victory. However, the Exo Stranger watched with a more cynical eye, and told you that the fight is just beginning.

The Dark Below

Following the destruction of the Black Garden's heart, a trader and former Guardian named Eris Morn arrived at the Tower. Eris warned of the return of Crota, a prince that the Hive worship as a god. Eris was the lone survivor of a failed attempt to kill him, and asked current Guardians to help purge Earth of the Hive by killing the Fist of Crota. Doing so halted the Hive, but those that remained attacked Rasputin. 

The battle to destroy Rasputin, known as the Siege of the Warmind, was led by an apprentice of Crota called Omnigul. She tried to flee when on the verge of defeat, but the Guardians hunted her down and and killed her.

With that taken care of, Eris declared that the Guardian were ready to confront the Hive directly on the Moon, and stop their ritual to awaken Crota from his deep slumber. To this end, Guardians sought out The Soul of Crota and destroyed it, along with the Hive Wizards trying to raise it and all the other creatures sent it to protect it. 

House of Wolves

Queen Mara Sov of the Reef ordered the Reef opened to Guardians. However, it came with a catch. Using a vendor named Petra Venj as a go-between, she recruited Guardians to hunt down the House of Wolves--a Fallen House that once served the Queen, but broke the alliance under the command of Skolas, a captain who seeks to unite all the Fallen houses under one banner. He'll do that by killing the heads of all the other houses and taking command of their troops.

You started by protecting the House of Winter, and found out that Skolas is pretty unpopular. In fact, rival houses like Devils and Kings positively hated him. They believed him to be a traitor at the battle of Twilight's Grasp, where Devils, Kings, and Winter all joined forces to take the City. They would have been successful had the House of Wolves joined them, but the Reef Queen interfered and held them back. Despite this, The House of Winter fell under Skolas's control, and his dream of becoming the fabled Kell of Kells, a mythical leader of all the Fallen Houses, is slowly becoming a reality.

After stopping Skolas's elite assassins and stopping an invasion of the Cosmodrome, you went to Old Russia with a Fallen Vandal named Variks to prevent Skolas from taking over the House of Kings. Petra communicated with the Fireteam via radio, but the signal was disrupted by multiple jammers. Guardians had to fight through enemies to reestablish contact. Eventually, the Guardians made their way to the command center, where they encountered and defeated two King Barons and a Wolf Baron. With Wolves dead, the Kings are out of Skolas's control, but remain a threat to the City.

Undeterred by this failure, Skolas launched a massive assault against multiple Vex strongholds across Venus's Ishtar Sink. His goals seem like madness at first, but his end-game soon became clear. The Wolves planned to break into the Vault of Glass, a device designed to control spacetime by harnessing the power of a creature named Atheon. The Wolves successfully breached the Vault and tried to tap into the Oracles within, giving Skolas access to the Vex network. The Guardians destroyed the Oracles and killed the Wolves, but that didn't prevent Skolas from outfitting his army with Vex technology.

The Queen contacted the Guardian and requested that Skolas be taken alive, which made the task of defeating him that much more difficult. The Guardian Fireteam set down near the Citadel, a massive Vex fortress on Venus. Skolas attempted to use the technology he stole from the Vault of Glass to pull the entire House of Wolves through time. However, the Guardians found and defeated Skolas before he could succeed. 

Weakened, but alive, Skolas was surrounded, then taken by a Vestian ship. Queen Mara Sov contacted you directly to congratulate your accomplishment personally.

Half-Billion Gamble

Following a much-publicized $500 million investment from Activision, all eyes were on Destiny. Bungie had a successful pedigree with the popular Halo series, but Activision was still making an enormous gamble by counting on the developer to make lightning strike twice. Those funds were said to be put towards development costs, as well as a massive marketing campaign.

To compare, Grand Theft Auto 5 is estimated to have cost roughly $260 million. That comparison isn't quite as direct as it may seem, since Destiny has always been pitched as a 10-year deal spanning multiple games. Still, that made Activision's roll of the dice all the riskier, since it was counting on not just a successful game, but the start of a successful franchise.

The company was quick to tout its first-day sales of $500 million, purportedly making its investment back in just 24 hours, though its claims were met with some degree of skepticism from industry watchers. Specifically, the press release had focused on "sell-in" figures, also known as the units sold to retailers and distributors, rather than "sell-through," or the units that make it into consumers' hands. This is a common tactic for a publisher looking to puff its chest, but in the case of Destiny, it was just the start of a puzzling trend.

For months, Activision was especially guarded and cagey about Destiny's sales numbers. As Kotaku observed, it spent months making a long list of boasts unrelated to sales, ranging from hours played to concurrent players. One of its oddest habits was to combine figures like revenue or registered users with Hearthstone, the digital CCG from Activision subsidiary Blizzard. This had the double-edged effect of obscuring both Destiny and Hearthstone, as journalists and investors alike were unable to tell where one ended and the other began.

The numbers were impressive, but the message was clear: Activision is doing very well, so don't sweat the details.

Only recently have we gotten a slightly clearer understanding of Destiny's success, from an unusual source. Court documents released in the course of a recently settled lawsuit from former Bungie employee Marty O'Donnell gave us more details than Activision investor calls had in months. According to the documents, Destiny sold 6.3 million units in its first month, amounting to an additional $47.5 million in revenue on top of the $500 million from day-one sales and pre-orders. 

We have a better idea of its player base too, thanks largely to a simple process of elimination. In May, Activision once again combined Destiny and Hearthstone, claiming 50 million registered players between them. Near that date, Blizzard itself boasted 30 million registered players for Hearthstone, leading to the conclusion that Destiny has 20 million of its own. That's double the 9.5 million registered users number that Activision's Eric Hirshberg had cited in November, so the holidays must have been very kind to Destiny. Still, as Hirshberg observed, it's not an exact count. Some players have multiple identities, and others might have lapsed.

As The Taken King hits, Activision's investment is being put to the test in a way it hasn't since launch. While it has been undoubtedly successful so far, business-focused publications like Forbes have raised concerns that Destiny is too traditional to fit into the Activision ouevre. World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and Skylanders are all consistent revenue streams with constant monetization hooks. Destiny has released a handful of downloadable content packs, but nothing about it feeds a continuous stream of cash. 

The Taken King is Destiny's first large-scale expansion, and as such it's more expensive than previous DLC packs. In absense of a new packaged release this year, it's filling the gap. Destiny is following a more standard monetization model, though. While Activision has likely made its money back and then some, it will want Bungie to make good with consistent success. That makes Taken King the next gamble, and one to watch as we gauge its success.

Rocky Terrain

Despite its marketability, though, Destiny was met with a merely moderately positive critical reception that foretold fan concerns. Some have been addressed through a variety of patches, but others remain.

Every Guardian’s story starts out the same in Destiny, although the journey they take and how they progress through the game’s expansive world differ greatly from player to player. The opening scene of Destiny has a Ghost making its way through Old Russia. The Ghost can be seen scanning several human remains looking for something. A Guardian. It finds you, resurrects you, and warns you that you’ve been dead for a long time and you won’t understand much of what you see. That’s quite the understatement considering many players still don’t know what exactly is going on in Destiny, thanks to its vast expanse of under-explained lore.

While Guardians made their way through Destiny, we felt secure in the way Bungie handled character progression as it appeared to be a cookie-cutter first-person RPG experience. Players would kill aliens, complete missions, and hand in bounties to earn experience. That’s not all as we were presented with new armor, weapons, and various crafting material, among other things. But once we hit level 20, Destiny’s Light system would come into play, and that’s where many players became frustrated with the game.

Prior to the release of Destiny 2.0. Guardians would progress beyond level 20 by equipping gear that would infuse them with Light. The problem with the system was it now demanded players to farm for their gear in order to level up, which is why Loot Caves became so popular. What made matters worse was Bungie locked away certain content, such as Raids, unless Guardians reached a certain Light level. Players were understandably frustrated with how Bungie had configured progression in Destiny. To make matters worse, we all learned what an absolute jerk the Cryptarch could be.

Destiny’s Cryptarch is an NPC able to decipher engrams Guardians pick up during their adventures, making him a necessary gatekeeper to achieving higher-level gear. At its launch, the Cryptarch could be quite unfair in what kind of gear he would reward Guardians, often giving them something that was well below the item type that was promised. Shortly after Destiny’s launch, Bungie made some tweaks to the Cryptarch to make things a little more fair, but the studio would continue making tweaks to the NPC throughout the majority of Destiny’s first year. It’s a shame the Cryptarch couldn’t also decipher Destiny’s story.

While Bungie’s previous Halo series had a full-fledged story, Destiny feels like it’s a work in progress as there are still many aspects of the game that aren't quite filled in. We learned about the various alien life that have set out to control the universe, such as the Fallen, Hive, Vex, and Cabal. Throughout Destiny’s campaign, players will focus on one of these species, specifically stopping them from completing a ritual of some sort that would cause them to control everything.

The majority of its story is told through a Guardians’ Ghost companion, which could be one of the reasons why it was hard to keep track. Another reason could be due to reports of its story receiving large cuts prior to the game’s release, which would be slowly pieced together with the launch of future expansion packs. The Dark Below and House of Wolves did help round out Destiny’s lore a bit, but players still had a lot of questions that were left unanswered. What sparked the return of the Darkness? Who exactly is the Speaker? Why is Xur obsessed with Strange Coins? 

To its credit, though, Bungie has fielded complaints with a level of grace, and has been open about some common complaints and how it would address them. Most of these adjustments have come in the form of a large series of updates.

Emergency Repairs

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Taking on the Taken King

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