For better or worse (mostly worse), one measure of success for an online multiplayer game is when its servers tank during a key launch. That's precisely what was happening around 2 a.m. PT this morning, when Destiny: Rise of Iron, the online "shared-world" shooter's fourth expansion, unlocked for players around the globe. And per publisher Activision Blizzard's most recent financials, there are 30 million of them. Jubilation among those who stayed up till the wee hours to get a headstart on the grind turned to disbelief and frustration as they were met with login queues that cracked the hundreds of thousands. It prompted the expected slew of bleary-eyed reactions. Thankfully, Bungie seems to have licked the server issues a few hours ago, to the relief of diligent Guardians who called in sick to report for duty. And that's good news for the rest of us who got no such reprieve.
Every Destiny expansion is accompanied by a surge of interest among new and lapsed players, and there's an air of finality around Rise of Iron. It might just be the last expansion before the sequel drops in 2017, and if you've spent any amount of time in the thrall of a multiplayer online game, that thought alone could trigger some serious FOMO. If you're wondering whether Destiny's third – and possibly final – year is a worthy conduit for the bulk of your spare time, here's a breakdown of the expansion that'll kick it off in earnest.
What's new in Rise of Iron?
In terms of sheer quantity of stuff, Bungie puts Rise of Iron halfway between last year's House of Wolves and The Taken King, the biggest, most recent expansion. No huge surprises when it comes to the spread: there's a six-player raid (details are scant, but it drops on Friday, 9/23), an open-world sandbox zone, and a three-player strike (in addition to two old ones that have been retooled). There's also a new competitive multiplayer mode that'll feel downright familiar if you play Call of Duty, and three new PvP maps.
Framing it all is a campaign – brief at around two hours or so – that delves into Rise of Iron's backstory. As is typical with Destiny, the campaign is just a flashy preamble to the core experience. As soon as you're done with it, expect to be gradually goaded in a dozen different directions, with quests guiding you toward the stuff that actually matters in Destiny: the raid, the strikes, the PvP. In short, after you beat the story, the ever-involving chase for better loot begins in earnest.
As before, you can do the new strike with random players just by queuing up. It's called the Wretched Eye, and true to its name, the final boss wields a gruesome rifle rigged with a Ogre's eyeball that shoots lasers. The raid, Wrath of the Machine, is the main attraction, and requires some premeditation. You have to form a group of six players by actually talking to them, so hopefully you've kept your friends list populated.
So what's the backstory?
Remember Lord Saladin, the guy that comes to the Tower every few weeks to host the Iron Banner PvP event? He's Rise of Iron's star, and this is likely the best story decision Bungie has made yet. Starting with Destiny's first expansion, executive producer Scott Taylor says that Bungie has learned to anchor its stories on strong characters. If this sounds like Game Narrative 101 to you, then you probably weren't around during the pre-expansion days, when Destiny caught no end of grief for its scattered, patchwork story.
Rise of Iron is focused on a key point in Destiny's prehistory. Before the Vanguard – the military order that your character belongs to – there were the Iron Lords, a legendary cadre of men and women who defended humanity against threats terrestrial and interstellar. To better protect Earth's embattled population, they sought a superweapon named SIVA. Turns out it was actually a vile techno-virus that was out to consume the world. Only two Iron Lords survived, and one of them is Saladin. Now SIVA is back, and he needs your help to contain it.
The Iron Lords have names that resound with mythic weight, like Radegast, Jolder, and Efrideet, which adds a patina of history to Destiny's science-fantasy setting. Players have been earning weapons bearing their names for years by participating in the Iron Banner PvP event, and they've often been among the most powerful that you could attain. As a fan, it's super cool to see their stories manifest so tangibly in the game.
Has the world gotten any bigger?
The biggest chunk of new real estate in Rise of Iron is the Plaguelands zone, near Old Russia on Earth. "It has all the learnings of the Dreadnaught," Taylor says, referring to the zone added in The Taken King, which was unique to Destiny at the time due to how finely-textured it was compared to old zones. He promises lots of "weird secrets" and "cool little rooms" in this SIVA-blighted wasteland, overrun by Fallen who have been frightfully infected by the virus. The Plaguelands' focal point is definitely Archon's Forge, which is basically Destiny's latest answer to horde mode – an enormous arena where you fight wave upon wave of enemies in increasingly daunting configurations. If you're familiar with the Court of Oryx from The Taken King, it's that, but with a little more structure.
At least half of Destiny involves downtime, though, as you form groups, play quartermaster, or just dawdle about waiting for things to happen. If you answer Saladin's call, you'll be spending quite a bit of time on Felwinter Peak, Rise of Iron's new social space. It has all of the amenities of the Tower, along with some solemn monuments to the fallen Iron Lords, and an adorable pack of wolves that Saladin keeps as pets.
I haven't played in a long time. Will I even recognize Destiny?
If you haven't played in a really long time, you'll likely be surprised how much the interface has changed, but it shouldn't be too much of an ordeal to pick up where you left off. Destiny is pretty good at directing you toward stuff your character can handle. If you want to cut straight to the new stuff, though, Rise of Iron comes with an item that lets you boost a single character to the current max level of 40. Not light level, mind you, the separate metric that gets higher as you acquire better equipment. The new max is 385, and if previous expansions are any indication, you have an ordeal ahead of you before you reach those heights.
Besides all the ancient history around the Iron Lords, there are also some thoughtful callbacks to Destiny's most beloved weapons. Given how prominently it's featured in the expansion's marketing, you probably already know that the mighty (and exceedingly rare) rocket launcher Gjallarhorn is back, the irony being that now, there's a quest in place that guarantees everyone can get their own. Thorn, the hand-cannon that began its life as an underpowered bauble and eventually came to dominate PvP, returns as well, hopefully in a less game-breaking state. And in what may be Destiny's best joke yet, the ratty Khvostov auto-rifle that you get at the very beginning of the game now comes in an exotic variety.
Chronic late adopters be wary, though: with Rise of Iron, Bungie has left behind the previous console generation, so if you're still playing on a PS3 or Xbox 360, you'll have to upgrade if you want to continue your journey.
Is Destiny 2 still a thing?
Of course it is, but if you ask anyone at Bungie about it, the best you'll get is a smile and a nod. Latest official word is that Destiny's real-deal sequel will be out in 2017, and if that holds, there's a decent chance that Rise of Iron is the last expansion we'll see before it's out.
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