The Dark Below Review: It’s All Dark

For people like myself that have been playing Destiny since the closed beta, we’ve been waiting a long time for new content. After running the Vault of Glass for the umpteenth time and doing the same bounties over and over again, I was looking forward to Destiny’s first expansion: The Dark Below.

Now, I’m not so sure.

Let me tell you a story. I ran the Vault of Glass tirelessly to get my alien-punching Titan his raid armor. After sifting through all the non-gameplay spaceships and the crafting materials that I couldn’t even use until after I got my new armor, I found them. The armor set used to belong to someone named “Kabr.” He seems like an important guy. Maybe I would even know who he is if all of Destiny’s lore wasn’t buried in the Grimoire Card section of Bungie.net.

I weathered the jealous comments of my raid group and then began to level up my fancy new armor. I was on top of the world (Venus) and was similarly excited to finally reach level 30. For the uninitiated, the only way to do that in vanilla Destiny is to get the raid gear from the Vault Of Glass.

That is, until The Dark Below came out. Now, you can buy gear directly from the vendors that will raise your light level past 30. Joke’s on me, right?

It’s true that you need a special item to make the purchase, something called a Vanguard Commendation. This is just one of the dozen or so currencies floating around Destiny now, something that was never explained in-game. Buying the new armor isn’t an instant upgrade to level 31, though. Even if you take that route, prepare for hours and hours of grinding without any of the satisfaction of facing the Vault Of Glass.

Let’s move on, though. There’s much more to talk about, like the overhauled exotic weapons. By their very nature, exotic weapons from vanilla Destiny (it’s so weird that I have to say that now) are less powerful than their Dark Below counterparts. The level cap was 30 in vanilla, while the cap is 32 in The Dark Below. Naturally, exotics from the higher-level expansion content will be stronger. This means vanilla exotics are, essentially, obsolete.

Or, they would be obsolete, save for an equally obtuse new exotic “exchange” system. If you’re stuck with a vanilla exotic, visit your favorite tentacle-faced friend Xur and turn it in for a new version of the same weapon with higher attack and re-rolled upgrades. This costs a ridiculous amount of Glimmer (the game’s least valuable currency until now) and resets the upgrade tree. I hope you’re free this weekend, because that’s the only time Xur’s around. Oh, you aren’t? Tough luck.

Furthermore, the three new story missions are nothing special. Their design is almost exactly the same as vanilla, where you follow a white marker through the map and shoot everything that moves. Dinklebot will tell you what macguffin to press square next to, and then you shoot more bad guys. I was happy to see a seemingly abandoned plot thread come back in the second mission, but it was forgotten as quickly as it reappeared. The last mission manages to approach epic, though, with a gigantic boss and some genuinely cool art design. Despite the new content sprinkled about, the three story missions and the two new Strikes mostly just recycle old environments and feel the same as all the previous content.

The story’s strongest point is Eris Morn, the new vendor and quest giver in The Tower. She is the first character in Destiny that speaks in-game about her past, her regrets. She has nuance, and a decent voice performance to boot. Amazing, right? Her voice replaces Peter Dinklage’s as mission narrator, and it’s a welcome change. Listening to her recall a memory from her doomed raiding party while I sped over the white wastes of our Moon was haunting. For once, the narrative is grounded in some semblance of character and not floating around in ponderous, clunky dialogue about the Light and Darkness.

Eris brings more than just story missions to the tower, too. She has special bounties relating to The Hive and is the faction representative of Crota’s Bane. Grind rep with her, and you’ll have access to new emblems, class items, and upgrade materials. She’s a nice little distraction from the other factions, and you can get some pretty cool stuff from her. Therein lies another flaw: you get great gear from these missions, completely circumventing the RNG that dictates all other drops. Pay $20, get good gear. See how this cheapens the experience?

Like I mentioned before, The Dark Below also ships with two new Strikes for Playstation 4 users like myself. One is set in a few “new” locations in the Cosmodrome on Earth. Anyone that’s been playing will be very familiar with the first three-quarters of the strike, as only the final boss fight occurs in a new location.

Likewise, the exclusive Sony Strike takes place in the Black Garden, and is almost the exact same gameplay path as the final story mission in vanilla. The only twist is that you start from the end and work your way back towards the “front” of the area. It’s essentially a mirror mode track in Mario Kart. The final boss is fun, though, and like most of Destiny’s best fights, it takes place in an open area with cover and elevated positions. It emphasizes mobility and teamwork instead of cheesy tactics.

If we’re going to talk gameplay, we might as well talk about the raid– Crota’s End. I won’t spoil anything, but like the Vault Of Glass, it’s the superior Destiny experience at the moment. The creativity that was omitted from the story missions can be found in Crota’s End. The new gameplay mechanics run with the concepts of darkness and ritual and it all starts with a plunge into the gaping maw of The Hellmouth. The Hive also have the most aggressive melee enemy– Thralls– and they rush you in huge, shrieking packs. The Vex in the Vault Of Glass do not have any such units, and thus the dynamic between the two raids is fundamentally different. It’s intense, it’s thrilling, and just like the best content in Destiny, it’s locked behind hours of grinding– even if you buy the armor that can elevate you to level 30.

What The Dark Below showed me, more than anything, is that Destiny is a slave to its genre. Beyond the hype, beyond the live-action trailers and stunt casting, Destiny is an MMO. We’ll scramble to gobble up all the content in The Dark Below to become level 32. Then, he House Of Wolves expansion will drop and the scramble will start all over again. I have a hard time feeling like I’ve made any sort of substantial progress this past week because I know that there will always be another expansion, another game on the horizon to make render my efforts meaningless.

In the end, The Dark Below gives Destiny players exactly what they want: more content. What this means, of course, is more grinding. Prepare to run the same bounties and shoot the same aliens in mostly the exact same places to get the cool new weapons and armor. For anyone still looking for compelling characters, storytelling, or substance, wait for Destiny 2. Or go play Dragon Age: Inquisition.

During my first time retreading the Black Garden for the new Strike, I caught myself gazing out over what Bungie has created. I was captivated by the sheer scope of it all– mountains rose in the distance, impossibly tall. Beneath me, trenches ran through flowered fields, all leading up to a mesa showered in the blue-green-gold of a distant nebula. It’s a beautiful world. A world that once filled me with excitement to discover the mysteries of far-off places, not grind bounties so I can level up my armor and chase the next carrot. If you want to level up faster, you can buy destiny power levevingdestiny.

Yes, a beautiful world indeed. A beautiful, empty world.