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Destiny: Rise of Iron Review

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As the summer wraps up and the weather starts to cool, we’re reminded that fall is here. There are certain things you can count on to coincide with the arrival of fall -- the leaves start to change, football season returns, pumpkin-flavored everything permeates everwhere, and gamers get to enjoy the annual release cycle for numerous major franchises. For me, this means it is time for the latest Destiny expansion, Rise of Iron. Rise of Iron was created by a smaller team and is definitely not the substantial and robust content update players were expecting to arrive this fall (many, myself included, expected Bungie to release Destiny 2 this fall), but it still looks to quench the thirst of a player-base that is seemingly always craving new content morsels to devour.
I apologize for the delay in this review. It may have been because I’ve been really busy lately.. or it may have been because I’ve been playing too much Destiny again -- who can really say!?

When Destiny originally released back in the fall of 2014, the story received the brunt of criticisms. However, probably from years of playing Final Fantasy XI, I felt that Bungie had laid a foundation back then for future developments to be built upon. The expansions since then have taken many of the early ideas which were presented in the game’s initial release and used them to tell more robust stories. Rise of Iron builds upon the Iron Banner, a week-long crucible tournament which occurs once a month and which was introduced during the Beta. Lord Saladin, the character who oversees the Iron Banner, reaches out to players, asking them to investigate a new Fallen presence on an isolated mountain known as Felwinter Peak. Saladin has always been a mysterious figure, arriving for a week at a time, vanishing without a trace, and offering weapons named after equally mysterious individuals (a fact Bungie has used in the past to instigate new quests). While Saladin attempts to maintain his secrecy at first, the investigation soon reveals the Fallen have acquired a new technology, SIVA, a relic of Saladin’s past. Long before the Ghost awoke players at the start of the game, Saladin was a member of the first guardians, the Iron Lords. They rediscovered SIVA, a self-replicating nanotechnology developed during the Golden Age which they thought could return humanity to its zenith. However, SIVA spiraled out of control and the Iron Lords sacrificed themselves to seal it away. In Rise of Iron, Saladin tasks players with battling these Fallen who have merged with SIVA while looking for a way to avenge the Iron Lords by stopping the spread of SIVA.

In many ways, Rise of Iron is similar to Destiny’s first two expansions, The Dark Below and House of Wolves. For starters, it is a fairly short campaign -- the main campaign is comprised of only five missions and can be completed in around one to two hours. While the narrative structure of Rise of Iron is better than those two expansions, it is also a step backwards from last year’s The Taken King. The story is mostly told through conversations during load screens or communications from your allies. One of the most noticeable weaknesses is that Lord Saladin (Keith Ferguson) comes across as too formal and stiff and fails to bring the same character and charm to the campaign that Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion), Commander Zavala (Lance Reddick), and even Eris Morn (Morla Gorrondona) brought to The Taken King. The saving grace is Nolan North who does an exceptional job as the Ghost and has some especially poignant and emotional moments during this expansion. Still, the characters weren't the biggest flaw with Rise of Iron. Was it nice to learn about Saladin’s past? Sure, but in the end, the campaign feels like a fairly irrelevant side-story which doesn’t really add that much to Destiny’s narrative. Additionally, given the focus of Rise of Iron, I can’t help feeling that it would have helped develop Saladin and the expansion itself if Saladin had been more involved in the conflict against SIVA and the Fallen. I’ve mentioned before how Bungie would benefit from introducing NPCs to Destiny’s missions, but given the way Saladin talks about his allies and his personal burdens, this shortcoming is especially noticeable and detrimental in Rise of Iron.

Like those earlier expansions, the majority of the content of Rise of Iron focuses on a single enemy race -- in this case, the Fallen. After the initial skirmish, the Fallen forces begin to augment themselves and their technology with SIVA. These Fallen, dubbed the Splicers, exhibit new appearances and abilities which are upgrades over the typical Fallen encounters. Unfortunately, due in part to the limited number of Fallen enemy types, this change feels like a less challenging version of the Taken encountered last year. Compared to The Taken King, there’s no doubt that Rise of Iron lacks the same scope and breadth. Whereas The Taken King posed a system-wide threat, the Splicers and SIVA are mostly restricted to Earth. In all fairness, Rise of Iron was reportedly developed in nine months by a small team, so this smaller campaign is somewhat expected. Similar to The Taken King, completing the main campaign then opens up a number of additional quests. Honestly, having spent a lot of time with open-world games lately, I actually like the approach employed by Bungie -- forcing players to push through the campaign before allowing them to explore the world adds a sense of urgency and importance to the central campaign.

Rise of Iron also introduces players to a new social space, the Iron Temple, and a new area known as the Plaguelands. The Iron Temple opens up once players secure the outpost and serves as the base of operations for the campaign. Visually, the Iron Temple draws on knightly symbolism that has represented Saladin and the Iron Banner the past two years. Similar to the Reef before it, the Iron Temple contains new NPCs and quest givers as well as staples such as a Cryptarch, Vault, and Bounty Tracker. The Plaguelands builds off the familiar Cosmodrome, except now covered in snow. Only two areas are reused, however, and most of the Plaguelands are a new sight for players. The Plaguelands are covered in glowing technological vines to represent the ever-present SIVA infection and are littered with structures built by the Splicers and the remnants of the materials used in their construction.

Rise of Iron also offers players one new strike, two revisited strikes, and a new arena known as Archon’s Forge. The Taken King looked to break the bullet-sponge mentality of boss fights and presented new battle mechanics, but strangely, these fights seem to take a step backwards. While there are new mechanics involved in these three strikes, the final encounters require working through these added elements while repeatedly shooting at a boss. For instance, the newest strike, The Wretched Eye, sends players after a Splicer Priest while avoiding an impervious Ogre it has been experimenting on. Honestly, constantly avoiding the Ogre is more of an annoyance rather than a satisfying obstacle to overcome. Archon’s Forge is an interesting arena with some promise, but which falls short in many other ways. Similar to the Court of Oryx before it, the Forge requires players to farm triggers to spawn a variety of bosses. Unfortunately, due to inventory restrictions and the way Bungie has designed the triggers, players can only carry one trigger at a time. Bungie has since introduced a mechanism to get at least one trigger a day and increased their drop rate while battling in the Forge, but it is still not the best system. Worse, the Forge lacks the challenging mechanics that made Court of Oryx or even the Prison of Elders fun. Instead, each battle is merely a matter of mowing down every opponent present until a boss spawns and then rapidly dishing out enough damage to quickly take down the boss. The Forge also suffers from Destiny’s inability to easily group with people interested in the same activity. This is especially irritating if you’re attempting to initiate one of the higher-level encounters which require a crowd. Because of the way Destiny’s instances populate, you’ll often find yourself alone in the Forge and forced to exit and reenter in hopes of encountering a crowd.

For Destiny's most hardcore players, the most drawing element, and activity we'll inevitably revisit for innumerable hours is the new raid, Wrath of the Machine. Wrath of the Machine tasks players with delving into a Splicer den in the Plaguelands to deal a crippling blow to their efforts in the region. In some ways, Wrath of the Machine highlights the skills Bungie has developed in creating raids since the start of Destiny. Wrath of the Machine is a challenging endeavor which requires greater communication than previous raids. It introduces new mechanics, requires players to work together and in smaller teams, and continues the trend of putting greater pressure on each individual member to carry his or her weight. For instance, to enter Wrath of the Machine, players must divide into groups of two, and in each pair, each member must perform a different task. While this translates to three people doing essentially the same task, each one is mostly isolated and forced to stand on their own skill. Bosses present an interesting and challenging dichotomy -- does Bungie create bosses which are entirely mechanism dependent (such as Oryx in the King’s Fall raid) which means that players don't face any easier task for achieving higher levels, or do they rely on HP and damage-penalties based on level, which essentially turn bosses into bullet sponges. With Rise of Iron, Bungie has done a better job of balancing mechanics with the damage relationship. While there are mechanics to the boss fights, they are still mostly damaged through conventional means. Honestly, while Wrath of the Machine is currently a lot of fun, it is probably Destiny’s third best raid. While this sounds great, the problem is, Destiny only has four raids. I worry that Wrath of the Machine will end up feeling like Crota’s End in that players will feel an obligation to quickly and mindlessly burn through it in thirty minutes each week rather than repeatedly revisiting the raid for the challenge and accomplishment.

As ever, Bungie has also introduced new features to the Crucible for players who wish to test their skills against each other. For starters, players have access to a new game-mode called Supremacy. Defeating another player causes them to drop a crest which must be picked up to acquire points. Collecting an ally's crest denies the enemy points while picking up enemy crests rewards your team with points. Therefore, what matters isn’t the number of enemies you defeat, but the number of crests you pick up. As a result, someone like me, who typically hangs back with a sniper rifle or scout rifle with one eye glued to my radar, is at something of a disadvantage. Supremacy definitely rewards players who are more aggressive and willing to get close to their opponents. The second major addition to the Crucible is a feature players have clamored for since before Destiny’s release -- Private Matches. Players can now easily set up matches with their friends, dictate the game-mode, map, and various other rules. It doesn’t offer complete freedom, but it certainly provides enough options to satisfy players. I’ll be honest, I came into Destiny because of my countless hours playing Halo games. I love spending time in the Crucible and even if Bungie didn’t add any new features, every match is a new experience for me which is one of the things which keeps bringing me back to Destiny. That said, while I’m not the biggest fan of Supremacy, the fact that Bungie has listened to its fans and delivered on one of our biggest requests is definitely something that makes me smile from ear to ear.

As I said before, Rise of Iron is a smaller expansion built by a smaller team. Bungie has stated that they drew on nostalgia to inspire this expansion, and it certainly works. This expansion sends players to explore a new version of the first area they explored, tasks them with battling an advanced version of the first enemy encountered, brings back Year One favorites like the Gjallarhorn and Thorn, and even allows players to build an upgraded version of the first gun they used when starting out. In many ways, nostalgia is great, and it certainly works to keep players happy. On the other hand, part of me can’t help feeling that Bungie was looking to appeal to our nostalgia in hopes that we would ignore the delay in Destiny 2 and the flaws of Rise of Iron. I’ll be honest, I’ve poured a ton of time into Rise of Iron, so I definitely can’t say that it is a bad expansion. But part of the success undoubtedly comes from the fact that the refined gameplay mechanics are still present and are still capable of carrying the Destiny experience. As I’ve been working on this review and thinking how I wanted to evaluate Rise of Iron, I came back to thinking what role it is meant to fulfill. I think many would agree that Rise of Iron is intended to hold us over until the eventual release of Destiny 2 next year. Therefore, the big question that remains is whether there will be enough content to satisfy players for the next year. Right now, it's impossible to say. We already know there are mysteries and secrets which haven't been unlocked and Bungie has stated that they hope to avoid the massive lulls in content that affected previous years. Last year, Bungie promised players they would do a better job of balancing weapons (especially in regards to the Crucible). Give that they did a far better job in Year Two, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt to see if Rise of Iron is just an introduction to Year Three which will continue to be supplemented in the coming months.

Prove yourself worth and the Iron Lords will rise again.

All images owned by Bungie.