This week Iron Banner made its return to Destiny 2, the first post-Shadowkeep release. I jumped in and finished the bounties and questline yesterday on one of my characters, probably for the first time since vanilla D2 or even the first game. It was interesting getting back into it and seeing how it fits into the game in 2019.
Iron Banner has been an event since the very beginning of Destiny. It’s a PVP event held by Lord Saladin, the (thought to be) last surviving member of the Iron Wolves, a group of Guardians who did some cool shit ages ago. In practice it adds a PVP game mode, usually Control where power levels are turned on, meaning higher level players do more damage to lower ones. It also has its own loot pool, usually including a cool fantasy inspired armour set that makes you look like a knight or samurai, and a suite of weapons that have defined metas in the past.
Iron Banner found its footing in the game as a catchup mechanic of sorts. Back in vanilla Destiny when the ‘forever 29’ meme was alive and well, it provided a crucial alternate path to top level gear alongside the raid, the idea being it was somehow more hardcore than regular PVP because of the power level thing. In reality it’s just been a convenient way for Bungie to give players a loot injection when they needed it, since it’s a temporary event with parameters they can control. In D2 it’s been mostly a monthly event with a similar function, although changes to PVP and the swinging scale of how difficult achieving max power has been year to year has raised questions as to why it really needs to exist.
The current Iron Banner works like this: Lord Saladin has a questline for playing the mode and getting kills with specific weapons, and four bounties that reward pinnacle gear and tokens to hand in for more loot, also just for getting kills and capturing points. You finish all of these while playing it, get some loot, and are then free to keep playing for more tokens and random non powerful drops as you see fit.
So, what’s my problem it? The short answer is it’s boring. More specifically, there is zero stakes to it, and doesn’t really serve a function in the larger context of the game. In all my games I played yesterday it was just a simple matter of equipping whatever weapon the quest was asking me to use, and mindlessly running between control points gettings kills and capping the points. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose; sure you get five tokens as opposed to three for a win but as long as I was making progress on those bounties and quest it’s irrelevant.
I wasn’t alone in this behaviour either. One of the weapons the quest calls for kills with is a fusion rifle, and it was a common occurrence was for players to run straight at me charging their weapon for a point blank shot. This gave me plenty of time to react, and while they usually got the shot off and killed me, I’d almost always take them down too. This isn’t smart play, but it doesn’t matter because everyone just wants to get the quest progress done, especially when it requires the use of weapons they might not enjoy. In one of my games there was one poor soul, probably a first time New Light player who typed in fireteam chat ‘focus on points not kills’ as a means to rally the team to fight for the lead. I didn’t have the heart to break it to him everyone on his team running around like idiots with fusion rifles (including me) really weren’t paying attention to the socreboard. It’s not like people were intentionally throwing matches, but there’s simply no real rewards for playing well over just completing the challenges.
Iron Banner as a ‘pinnacle’ PVP mode makes even less sense since they added the competitive playlist to the game. Between that and Trials of the Whoever when it existed, it’s never been the premiere PVP event. Add to this that the one defining feature of power levels enabled adds nothing to the gameplay in practical terms (I know it does change the amount of damage you do but it’s really hard to notice while playing and doesn’t meaningfully change how you approach gunfights) and it just feels like it lacks identity.
I do like that it has its own surprisingly robust loot pool, but the fact it’s being added to at a time when other parts of the game are crying out for new gear to chase feels questionable. Why does this Iron Banner have a new armour set when Shaxx and Zavala haven’t been given one in over a year? This is a time when there are the most brand new and returning players present in the game. If they’d rerun some of the older sets for us to grab while giving the development time to something more permanent I really can’t see anyone complaining.
With the recent addition of the seasonal artifact giving a passive power bonus just for playing, Iron Banner also loses its purpose as a catchup mechanic. Leveling is easier than ever so we just don’t need a loot injection like we used to. The drops are pinnacle, which theoretically is important for hitting the real hard cap of 960, but currently that system is completely busted and almost impossible to make gains in without perfect RNG, so it’s functionally useless for even the most hardcore player. Casual players are already getting passive boost from their Artifact and probably don’t have time to even complete the regular weekly sources of power, so again, who is this event for?
The frustrating thing is that I really can’t think of ways to improve it in the form it currently exists in. I don’t like criticising something in a game without at least offering some way it could be improved, but the more I think about it the more I think that it should be completely taken back to the drawing board and redesigned from the ground up. It was created at a time when the best they could do was slap a coat of paint over a PVP mode, add some loot and call it a day. Destiny is in a better place than it was in 2014 and capable of so much more.
Bungie really should just give it the Trials and Faction Wars treatment and leave it by the wayside until they find a way to make it a meaningful addition to the game. Putting that development time into other spaces would benefit players so much more than a temporary loot grind that makes us all act like idiots in the crucible for a day, just to satisfy some arbitrary quest design and disappoint that poor New Light player who just wanted his team to focus up and go for the win.