House of Wolves - Rounding Out & Spicing Up the Content
Destiny has been a polarizing force in gaming since its launch last September. It came out to middling reviews and an incredibly vocal base of Bungie fans who expressed intense disappointment at the lack of the same kind of narrative drive they had come to love in the developer’s Halo series. Even still, people kept logging in and playing. According to Activision Blizzard, Destiny and Hearthstone combined had 50 million registered users as of March 31st this year.
Flying in the face of critical indifference and weathering blistering anger from the community is not new for online games, and Bungie has tapped into some of the classic moves of veteran studios who have kept long running online games filled with users well after their release date. They developed an intensely addictive loot system which they continue to polish and refine based on the feedback of their users. They are also adding a fairly steady stream of new content for players to engage with, just this week adding their latest expansion pack House of Wolves.
Lack of story is a very common complaint levelled at Destiny, and it is one that Bungie has attempted to address to a degree with expansion packs. Expectations for new, epic story content were high when the last expansion pack, The Dark Below, was patched in to Destiny last December. The missions offered there could be played through in a matter of a couple of hours, and all of the story unfolded through voice over communication with NPCs during missions rather than through interactive dialogue or cutscenes. While interesting, it still felt thin as far as story content and only expanded the boundaries of the Destiny universe by a wee bit.
House of Wolves, for better or worse, falls relatively in line with the content offered in The Dark Below in terms of story content. Again, missions are handed out by an NPC who provides some voiceover context about the purpose of the mission while the player runs around and completes the goals. The missions also mainly take place in areas of the game that are recycled from previous content, many times just run through in the opposite direction that they were the first time to make them feel a little less familiar.
There are a couple of bright points, however. The voiceover narration this time is occasionally delivered by two NPCs, one the Emissary to the Queen of the Reef and one an alien enemy traitor who is feeding the player intel as the missions progress. The interaction between the two of them creates opportunities for more personality and even comedy to shine, although to varying degrees of success.
The light-heartedness is a dramatic change from the melancholic tone of the original game and the first expansion. When the player’s robot companion in the original game, voiced by Peter Dinklage, cracked a joke, he was laughing in the face of the slow demise and extinction of the human race with a sense of gallows humor. In the humor of the new content, there is a sense of self assuredness and confidence, similar to the swagger of an action hero making her way to confront the final bad guy.
Bungie also used a couple of very interesting locations for some of the single player missions this time around, including sections of the Vault of Glass raid and areas that were only ever used in the very opening sequence of the game. Because of the open world nature of the game, it’s always possible to access these areas but it was really nice to see missions and combat encounters take place in spaces that not all players have the time or inclination to go visit while wandering.
However, it could be argued that story is not the primary source of the endorphins that make games like Destiny so addictive. Having a sense of context and a rich, well-developed world to play around in adds a lot, but Destiny has been clearly developed with the idea of a variety of repeatable content in mind. Hence, one of the banner features of the House of Wolves expansion pack: the Prison of Elders.
Story-wise, the Prison of Elders is something of a head scratcher. Apparently it is the collaboration between the Queen of the Awoken and the Nine, a mysterious faction only represented in the game by Xur, the shady vendor who appears in the tower only on weekends. The prison is meant to hold high value targets then make them fight one another for some reason. Maybe sport, maybe study? It’s not terribly well explained, and honestly the content is so fun the hand waving justifications for its existence are a secondary concern.
In essence, the Prison of Elders is an arena with a randomized mix of enemy types and clever modifiers. Players are challenged to take on four rounds of three waves each in large but manageable arenas, followed by a hectic boss battle. Each round has a different modifier, so between rounds players are forced to change up their weapon loadouts and skill setup based on the enemies they’re going to face and what modifiers are active.
For example, say a player is playing as a Warlock and the round comes up as a Hive round with the Airborne modifier. Airborne increases the damage done to enemies while the player is in the air, and Hive wizards usually have shields which are vulnerable to solar damage. It would make a lot of sense for the player to switch to their Sunsinger subclass, which deals solar damage, and enable the Angel of Light skill which means they can stay in the air longer. The next round, however, the Grounded modifier might become active and they might have to go against Vex enemies. Grounded makes players more vulnerable while in the air, so a quick change in build is in order.
The combinations and variety make for a challenging but engaging experience, and really force characters to consider what skills, weapons and armor they are going to take with them into the Prison of Elders. There are also higher level versions with a set sequence of enemies and modifiers, allowing skilled teams of coordinated players to plan out their setup round by round. Bungie also very cleverly made sure that players got a “Treasure Key” during the story missions, which ensures a maximally rewarding loot drop when completing the Prison of Elders for the first time.
In terms of additional PvP content, there are three new Crucible maps (plus one exclusive to the PlayStation platforms) and a new elimination game mode called the Trials of Osiris. The Trials of Osiris won’t be active until this weekend but first impressions from Bungie’s Twitch stream make it seem very competitive and aimed more at the end game PvP crowd. Basically teams of three square off and have to rack up nine wins before accumulating three losses, or they get eliminated from the competition. Using Passage Coins, which have been dropping liberally as PvP rewards since last week, players can re-enter the competition and buy buffs that will make it a little bit easier to progress further in the competition. Really, though, it all comes down to having a highly skilled fireteam.
The new Crucible maps introduce a new look and feel to the game, including “Widow’s Court” which looks like something out of a Hammer horror film. Unfortunately, in playing Crucible for the review only two maps came up in the new House of Wolves crucible playlist: Black Shield and the PlayStation exclusive the Timekeeper. Both were fun to play in and presented nice verticality and plenty of corners to sneak (or shoulder charge) around. The maps introduced in the last expansion pack have been added to the normal playlists, so that means that variety in the Crucible will increase which seems like a win for everyone, even those who are holding back on buying the expansion packs.
Finally, Bungie has also added a new strike called The Shadow Thief. It’s an interesting mission that ties tangentially into the overall storyline of the expansion, but doesn’t stray wildly from the (mostly successful) formula of the strikes that have come before it. The two most interesting parts of it are the introduction of a chase, where players are pursuing their target through the level rather than fighting their way to a big boss, and a fun close quarters encounter with some heavy artillery. It’s also nice to have some more variety in the random strike playlist. The strikes have always done a good job of being challenging without requiring air tight coordination between players.
Overall, House of Wolves is a worthwhile expansion. The Prison of Elders adds a new, challenging activity that has levels of difficulty suitable for a variety of skill levels. The story missions don’t expand the universe greatly, but expectations on that front seem a bit tempered after the disappointment with The Dark Below. Finally, more variety in the crucible and strike playlists is always welcome and will hopefully bring back lapsed players so there will be more people to play with and against. If you haven’t already been drawn in by Destiny, this expansion won’t offer you anything that will change your mind but it helps round out and spice up content for those who are already invested.
Gameplay - 9: The mechanics of Destiny were highly refined when the game was released, and have only been lovingly polished since. The classes and subclasses present a lot of variety in play styles, and interesting quirks of exotic weapons can make the game feel fresh.
Longevity - 8: Even though review scores have suggested otherwise, this game has some serious hooks.
Value - 7: For $17.50 as part of the season pass, both expansions are worth the money. If I had paid $20 for House of Wolves without knowing what to expect, I might feel a bit disappointed.