As a DLC bundle, The Dark Below is very much like Destiny at launch. It’s a diamond in the rough, with quite perfectly formed and just plainly fun gameplay, but it’s also marred with inconsistencies and disappointments that ultimately detract too much from the experience as a whole. And yet, so many people continue to play.
The new story missions weave a new tale with the insidious tendrils of the Hive reaching out towards Earth once more. Whether you own the DLC or not, the number of Hive in the Cosmodrome has increased noticeably, rituals that summon the Blades of Crota are a regular occurrence too. Crota’s resurrection is nigh, and his greatest lieutenant, the wizard Omnigul, is trying to pave the way for his return.
This noticeable escalation is also heralded in the tower by the return of Eris, a character whose three glowing eyes seep darkness from beneath her bandaged face, and with a twinge of insanity in some of her dialogue. She is the sole survivor of a party of six that braved the Hellmouth, and it’s with her direction that you’re able to take on Omnigul’s invasion plan.
It’s a shame that the main thread of this story is concluded so quickly, comprised of just a trio of missions and culminating in the Will of Crota strike, since they’re actually rather good and open up new areas of the Cosmodrome and the Moon. The PlayStation exclusive strike, The Undying Mind, meanwhile returns to the Black Garden and the Vex, in a similarly refreshing re-use of an area.
These new missions had a number of quite pleasing highlights and moments of experimentation, which still following the familiar formula. One takes away your ability to double jump, another features a pristine military installation, and my highlight from the Will of Crota was a protracted and quite literal uphill battle as Omnigul threw wave after wave of enemy to stop you. In fact, Omnigul is a much more tangible antagonist throughout a more coherent and better told story, which is accompanied by the voice of Eris rather than your Ghost.
Those missions are augmented by the Urn of Sacrifice quest, providing you with a series of simplistic challenges – though melee killing cursed thralls is particularly tricky to get right – that ultimately lead to a further mission on the moon, which disappears once completed. Hopefully this and the first story mission will be made freely re-playable in the future, and independently of Xur’s weekend visits for the urn.
Of course, the real highlight and draw is with the new raid, Crota’s End, which sees a team of six head down into the deepest depths of the Hellmouth on the Moon to, well, put an end to Crota. Once more it forces you to work absolutely as a team, to observe the world around you, come up with potential solutions and then put them into action. From the opening moments, where you fall into the heart of the Hellmouth and then stagger around in near total darkness, right through to the end, it rekindles those same feelings from the Vault of Glass that have diminished with time and familiarity.
Requiring at least one level 30 player to start and presenting you with a number of level 32 characters to take down, it is brutally and almost prohibitively difficult, but still quite compelling. It has also, perhaps indirectly, led to a major overhaul of the armour and weaponry across the entire game which has, to my mind, worsened the overall experience and especially so for existing players.
Tying into the end game, all of the legendary armour and weaponry you can now buy from the vendors within the tower and receive via legendary engrams is more powerful than anything you were able to obtain prior to the DLC. Newly acquired weapons now reach 331 damage, which outstrips even the Vex Mythoclast, while new armour can reach 33 light and so level 31. Level 32 gear is still the preserve of the drops from the new raid – which require new radiant materials to upgrade – and exotics.
However, this can all largely be seen to invalidate all of your existing equipment. Why would you wear level 30 gear from the Vault of Glass when you can just buy something better? True, it’s been made more awkward by needing to rank up vendors to obtain commendations and some things are more expensive, but those reaching level 20 today will have to grind and purchase just a single set of armour to reach 31 as those who played from the beginning have fought their way through to buy and earn at least three sets.
The way that exotic gear is being treated is similarly exasperating, tied as they are to Xur. You can buy some things from him new and with improved stats, or you can upgrade your existing gear to the improved stats but have to level it up again, providing it’s within his random selection for that week.
There’s naturally been a mad scramble to get enough strange coins and glimmer together to afford his offerings this past weekend, but it’s almost insulting to regular players that buying a new set of an exotic item you already own actually costs you less than upgrading that item to the new higher level. This off the back to completely changing the upgrade requirements from requiring ascendant materials to exotic shards without any prior notice.
It’s frankly a little bizarre that Bungie have so drastically altered the balance of the game’s gear so soon after launch and in such a way that its effects ripple far beyond the DLC itself. With the Iron Banner event returning tomorrow – an event in which our character’s level, armour and stats do provide a particularly profound advantage – opening up new gear to everyone was necessary, but to me it feels as though this has been mishandled. The same could be said of how daily and weekly missions are handled, adding the new missions into the rotation, but blocking players without the DLC for a day or a week from playing them.
Given Bungie’s penchant for changing the game at the drop of the hat, this kind of thing is potentially quite damaging to retaining the community that’s built up around the game. Who’s to say that they won’t yet again alter the upgrade system for exotics in a few weeks? What changes will be wrought upon the game to allow for a level cap increase for the House of Wolves DLC?
And yet I’m still playing. For now.