Spring is here, the birds are chirping and a new Destiny expansion blooms before us. I know this analogy doesn’t work for you Northern Hemisphere dwellers, but the point is you can (almost) set your watch to it, so what’s good and bad in the first week of Shadowkeep?
Out of all the yearly expansions that Bungie have released, Shadowkeep is by far the most complex in terms of wide reaching changes to gameplay systems, content structure and storytelling. The short answer is things feel different, which is good in many cases, and potentially bad in some. What I’m most excited about is that Bungie are experimenting with what they can bring to the game to add choice and complexity. I wrote in a 2018 GOTY post that while Forsaken was the best expansion they’ve made in terms of scale and grandeur, the lack of innovation in gameplay structure made it wear out its welcome much faster than I expected. If Destiny just served up the same loot grind year after year, I wouldn’t be coming back very often. I’m extremely pleased to see Bungie taking the first steps towards adding depth and choice to the game, even if some of these systems are far from perfect.
So, let’s start at the beginning with the story and playspaces. I will spoil the whole two plot points of the campaign, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to see it. The Moon is haunted and we’re here to get to the bottom of it. Through a short series of missions we discover one of the big pyramid ships we’ve been teased with throughout Destiny’s existence is slumbering deep in the Moon, and along with resident goth NPC Eris Morn, devise a plan to enter it. Why we’re so set on entering the ship of our most ancient and dangerous enemy that we don’t really understand is never addressed, I guess they just needed some short term goal to get us a face to face introduction.
There’s no way around it; the campaign is short, and the entire middle section acts an introduction to some of the repeatable activities you’ll be doing in the end game. After entering the Pyramid and coming face to face with a baddie who’s taken your mirror image, you’re unceremoniously thrown back to the Moon spawn point with no explanation as to how or why they let you out of their obvious trap. You compare this to Forsaken’s Barron killing romp through the Tangled Shore and it pales, yet I’m happy about it to an extent and I’ll tell you why.
Long, traditional campaigns have never made sense to me in Destiny. Story missions are great peppered into questlines to add impact, but front loading a bunch of them into a content drop before players get to the static, ‘real’ content feels like a waste of resources and doesn’t result in a satisfying narrative. Bungie talked a big game about wanting to create an evolving world and I hope this is a sign of that. If throughout the seasonal content we get consistent story beats that move the world forward in a meaningful way, and if we look back after a year and see this as simply the first step towards a much grander narrative then I’ll be happy.
Let’s talk about the Moon, which so far has been a contentious topic in the discussion. Is it a dirty reskin thrown together by lazy devs, or has it been poked, prodded and transformed into something so completely different it can be considered brand new? The answer is, shockingly, somewhere in the middle. Let’s just get real for a second; Bungie isn’t reusing the original Moon map because they want to, or think it’s the absolute best choice for the content. It’s simply a reality that the last year took a huge toll on the team and designing an environment as huge and original as what we got in Forsaken simply wasn’t possible. In that context then, I think they’ve actually done a good job at reutilising it. There’s a great atmosphere across the planet, with the specters of dead guardians calling out in terror, reliving their final moments repeatedly. The newly added Lost Sectors are pretty interesting and by far the most intricate incarnation of them. Each have their own unique encounters that give them more reason to exist than just an easy place to farm kills when you need to (although they do still work well for that). The collection of grindable weapons focused around the moon are interesting as well. As someone who isn’t playing Destiny every week of the year I applaud the realisation that giving players targetable grinds that can result in good guns is very player friendly. Plus every weapon in the set looks pretty dope.
What I’m less thrilled about is the ‘signature event’ of the Moon, called Nightmare Hunts. These are basically miniature strikes where you run through some part of the Moon, and end with an iconic boss from somewhere in Destiny’s past. The issue is they’re boring. There’s three different hunts you can do right now, but nothing about them changes run to run, and it’s simply killing Hive until you get to the boss, which have no unique mechanics apart from the frustrating immune phases after x amount of health has been lost. On the rewards side they’re also uninteresting as they simply have a chance to drop the bounty style items that get you the Moon weapons. Unlike the Vex Offensive which we’ll talk about soon, you don’t get a chance at getting the Moon weapons as random drops after completing them, so they just feel like a chore. This may be subject to change with the new difficulties being added this week, but they seem fairly generic across all content so I have my doubts.
There is of course a brand new shiny raid that released over the weekend, which unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to jump into yet. I have seen a lot of other people play it and everything I’ve seen/heard looks good and I’m excited to get into it when I can.
The other major component to Shadowkeep is the seasonal content, themed around the Vex and the Black Garden. There are a lot of new things for seasons in general so let’s break it down.
First up is the Season Ranks, A.K.A the battle pass. This seems fine so far, it’s surprisingly nice to get those smaller rewards at a decent rate and just acts as a nice meta-layer to the regular grind. I do wish they found a way to integrate it into the game more naturally, as for a game that takes its lore as seriously as Destiny, it’s a missed opportunity to add another fun character who gives some narrative direction to it.
The second component is the Seasonal Artifact. This little do-dad also levels up (separately to the Season Ranks I think) and had a kind of skill tree where you pick different seasonal mods to chuck into your armour. These mods range from discount versions of existing mods, to whole new ones that add mini perks, like:
These in a vacuum doesn’t seem super interesting, but I love the experimentation. Like I said earlier, Bungie need a way to explore how to add more decision making into the game, and this is the perfect way to do it, because if they make something horribly overpowered it just goes away in the next season. I fully expect to see a lot of interesting things come out of this in the long term, and I’m glad it exists.
Something I’m not so crazy about is the bonus power you also get when you level up. This is simply extra power levels that are added to whatever your gear gives you, although it doesn’t affect the power of your loot drops. I guess I just don’t know why this needs to exist. In Shadowkeep leveling has been made easier, by giving blues and regular legendaries a chance to drop at your level, possibly replacing that one gear slot that’s lagging behind. So far it hasn’t been a struggle at all to gain power, so why do we need this on top? It technically has no limit to the amount of power you can gain, it’s just a time sink to get it. This means the most hardcore players will be sitting at the gear cap of 960 with a bonus pushing them into the thousands by the end of the season, while casual players might not be at any gear cap but also have a much smaller power bonus, potentially not being high enough to do the harder content they probably aren’t interested in anyway. I’m not saying this system is hurting anyone, I just don’t understand what issue it’s trying to solve. We’ll have to see how this plays into later seasons because right now it just seems weird.
Coming along with this season is its associated event, the Vex Offensive. It’s a fairly low difficulty event where you run through the Black Garden killing Vex in waves culminating in a boss. There’s a few weapons and an armour set associated with it, which drop like candy. Although none of the loot seems meta defining, it’s nice to have a constant stream of rewards for something that is eventually going away. The event in general seems pretty basic compared to something like The Menagerie from last season, but that makes sense considering it’s temporary. It’s also going to evolve over the course of the season so it’s another wait and see situation as to how fast it loses its luster.
If all of that wasn’t enough of a wall of text, let’s finish up with some scattered thoughts about the few things I haven’t yet mentioned.
Armour 2.0 seems fine so far, although I think in the long term it may reveal itself to be more of a quality of life improvement and need some spice to actually solve some of the larger issues with what to do with armour in Destiny. Also the whole elemental affinity thing seems really arbitrary and lame and needs some kind of change to make it more player friendly.
The new unit types that need special mods on your weapons to kill effectively seem pretty poorly explained. Right now when I encounter them I just quickly look for the symbol over their health bar and check what mods have a symbol to match. In a campaign so thin they easily could have dedicated a mission to teach you about each basic effect of each one, considering it’s the first time Destiny has ever introduced a whole new mechanic like this. Even when you have the right counters for the enemy type they just go down like a normal yellow bar, so it feels more like a chore to fight them rather than adding another dynamic element to combat.
One aspect of these mods that has raised a lot of ire in the community is currently they are limited to be used with certain weapons only. If you want to counter these enemy types you currently have to use an auto rifle, SMG, hand cannon or bow. This is bad because it limits what type of loadout you can bring to some of the hardest content the game has to offer. Sure, Bungie probably expected players to coordinate with each other to spread the counters across all players, but in reality a lot of the time you’re doing matchmade activities with random people, meaning synergy just isn’t going to happen. They might need to relax the requirements for fighting them effectively, maybe by adding an extra mod slot put those specific mod in. I’m definitely not against them experimenting with new combat encounters like this and I hope they can refine them into something interesting over time.
The general loot pool for random drops is looking very tired at this point. Even me being someone who didn’t play constantly last year, I’m rolling my eyes at getting random loot drops I’ve seen 100 times. Hopefully some of the season content that gets retired can be put into this pool, along with updating the year 1 weapons so they actually function like the newer ones, something that should have been done long ago.
The final (I promise) thing to mention is the Doom-style finishers that were added. After the first day of playing around with it, I’m pretty sick of them already. They’re occasionally useful when you’re a few shots short of finishing off a yellow bar, but I feel like they break up the flow of combat more than I expected. They also put up this black fog around the background when you activate them, and the fact I can’t figure out why they do that bothers me way more than it should. The only thing I really like about them are the mods that make them cost a portion of your super bar to give ammo to all your team-mates, because at least I get something out of it, and discourages other players from using it too often and getting in the way when I’m trying to kill something.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, Shadowkeep is complex in terms of how it changes Destiny going forward. In many ways it’s a first step towards a brave new future where Bungie are actually-for-real-no-jokes-finally making the game they really meant to make. The fact there’s signs of experimentation with game mechanics in a more significant way than anything we’ve seen is great, but a lot of the talk about creating a living world and dynamic seasonal content is a promise for the future. Most of what I’m enjoying about Shadowkeep is dependent on Bungie following through on these promises, so for now I’m happy, but we’ll need to see how things transpire.