The one-year anniversary of the release of Bungie’s science fiction epic Destiny is fast approaching. Since hitting shelves last September, Destiny has polarized both critics and fans, receiving generally positive reviews but with many gamers expressing disappointment in the game’s simplistic storyline. Nevertheless, the game has been a success for Bungie, landing as the third best-selling retail game in the U.S. in 2014, and claiming 16 million registered players as of January 2015.
Destiny will mark the end of its freshman year with The Taken King, a new expansion that will release on September 15, 2015. In addition to a digital release, Destiny will also receive new retail versions that will bundle the core game, The Taken King, and all the other DLC from year one. With a new year of content on the horizon, geek icon Wil Wheaton recently sat down with four of Bungie’s staff to discuss both the past and the future of the franchise as part of a new PlayStation series entitled “Conversations with Creators.” The line-up for this first episode of “Conversations with Creators” includes Bungie co-founder Jason Jones, design director Luke Smith, senior environment artist Jason Sussman, and design director Ryan Ellis. The full episode, running almost 40 minutes, can be seen via the embed up top.
Whatever Destiny‘s faults, one of its greatest strengths is the rich and detailed science fiction universe Bungie has created for the franchise, a future where mankind spread out through the solar system in a golden age of space exploration, only to be chased back to Earth by hostile alien forces. Players take the role of Guardians of humanity’s last city, warriors tasked with pushing back the darkness and perhaps rebuilding mankind’s former glory and retaking what was lost. Looking back at the earliest days of what would become Destiny, the Bungie team says they were hoping to create a universe that felt both inviting and hopeful.” As Bungie co-founder Jason Jones puts it, “We wanted to create a game where, even if somebody wasn’t playing, if they walked by the TV and looked at the game, it made them curious. A place you’d want to come back to.”
One of the most intriguing elements of Destiny is the fact that it takes place in our own cosmic “neighborhood.” While it’s always a blast to follow Star Trek‘s lead and explore strange new worlds, there’s something to be said for transporting players to the worlds of our own solar system, planets that can feel all the more real and accessible since gamers have spent years learning about them in school. Perhaps the most recognizable and iconic of those worlds is Mars, and the Bungie designers say they spent a lot of time early on looking at real Martian locations such as the enormous volcano known as Olympus Mons. That combination of real-life locations and a heavy layering of mythic science fiction is at the heart of a design philosophy Bungie calls “idealized reality.”
“Even though those pictures of Mars from NASA are stunning, recreating that in a video game? It’s a little dry,” says Ellis. The question Bungie’s designers would ask is, “What would make this more fantastical than it already is?”
With The Taken King, Bungie is tasked with a way to make those worlds players have spent a year exploring feel fresh and newly engaging. The Taken King‘s storyline will pit players against Oryx, the father of Crota, who served as the primary villain in The Dark Below, Destiny‘s first DLC expansion. Smith describes the narrative thrust of The Taken King like so: “Bad guy shows up in town. Brings an evil army with him. You and the Guardians of the City are gonna bum-rush his fortress in the sky and take him out.” Oryx will be raising an army across the solar system, meaning Destiny players will now have plenty of new reasons to revisit locations that have become overly familiar. In Oryx, Smith says The Taken King will give players “this sort of aspirational villain who’s going to haunt you and taunt you throughout the campaign experience.”
But what about the other worlds of the solar system, the outer planets that Destiny hasn’t yet visited? Ellis is coy when asked about the topic, replying only that “We’ve got a lot of years of Destiny ahead of us, and a lot of planets to visit.”
In addition to new missions, weapons and gear, and a new raid, The Taken King will also introduce three new subclasses to augment Destiny‘s established trio of Hunters, Warlocks, and Titans. Titans will add a subclass called the “Sunbreaker,” and the video shows a bit of a Sunbreaker in action, wreaking havoc with flaming hammers. As Smith puts it, the Sunbreaker is “a fire-hammer-wielding version of Thor, throwing hammers that light the world on fire.” The hammers even create pools of fire that make the Titan stronger while he stands in them.
Not to be outdone, the Warlock will add the “Stormcaller” subclass, which will let players “float around blasting people with electricity,” according to Sussman. “It looks very much like the Emperor from Star Wars.” Warlocks will also get a snazzy new grenade creates that blasts out a wall of purple flame guaranteed to ruin the day of nearby enemies.
While Destiny has developed a strong and loyal player base, how the game develops in its second year will be crucially important to the franchise’s continuing growth. The Taken King and any further expansions are a chance for Bungie to learn the lessons from the game’s first year of existence, and improve on problem areas such as the anemic storyline. They’ve got a game that can be addictive and fun, and a science fiction universe with huge potential. Year two could be the chance for Bungie to lure back those players who tried the game early on but weren’t impressed enough to stick around, as well as enticing in gamers who might not have given Destiny a shot yet.
Destiny: The Taken King will release for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One on September 15, 2015. It lists for $40, but for seriously die-hard Destiny gamers, there will even be a special Taken King edition of the PS4 console, which is, frankly, gorgeous.