“Destiny 2’s” Forsaken expansion is the most interesting thing to happen to the series in four years. The grind of leveling up and collecting relevant gear is slow and steady again, and exotic items feel truly rare and meaningful for the first time since the launch of the original “Destiny.” What’s old is new again, but Forsaken also innovates and reinvigorates; this joint effort from Bungie and High Moon Studios outdoes even 2015’s “Destiny: The Taken King.”
The original “Destiny” was a weird game. Its incoherent narrative and inscrutable lore gave players a mystery to puzzle out, and reasons to keep playing, and those who wanted to try to really understand it could read more of the story in prose form at Bungie’s website. “Destiny 2” did away with that approach, by and large, trading the Clarke-and-Kubrick vibe for mainstream blockbuster action in the vein of Bungie’s earlier success, “Halo.” But Forsaken rolls back the clock on that, too, introducing a new library of unlockable in-game lore and a whole lot of interdimensional strangeness — portals between realities, outlaw alien gunslingers, lots of teeth and tentacles. The first “Destiny” had players hunting down robot time lords and a literal heart of Darkness outside of known space, and Forsaken finds that footing again. “Sometimes I forget you’ve killed a god,” says a new character called the Drifter (Todd Haberkorn). It’s comforting to know that Bungie and its partners haven’t forgotten, either, how odd this game can be when it’s at its best.
The fan-favorite character of Cayde-6 (Nolan North), a posthuman “exo” in a robot body, is the driving force of Forsaken’s main story line. In the opening mission, players accompany Cayde on a mission to secure the Prison of Elders, a facility located in the asteroid belt where some of the solar system’s fiercest criminals are kept in cryo-stasis. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and a lot of these creatures bust loose. At this point, the game quickly throws a lot of proper nouns at you: Crows, Screebs, Ravagers, Scorn, Barons. It can be hard to keep track of who’s who, but that’s probably what the lore tab’s for. Long story short, where the good guys — the Guardians of the Last City — wield a power called Light, these various combatant races have been corrupted by some form of capital-D Darkness, which we’ve fought and heard a lot about since “Destiny’s” beginning. Forsaken provides further clues as to the nature of that Darkness, but it also reinforces the truism that, at least in “Destiny,” sometimes questions are more illuminating than their answers.
Things go especially sour for Cayde when the Awoken prince, Uldren Sov (Brandon O’Neill), kills off the beloved Hunter with a round from Cayde’s own prized revolver, the Ace of Spades. (“This is what I get for playing nice,” he says.) Suddenly, Forsaken becomes a spaghetti-Western-style revenge story set among the asteroid belt, with the player hunting down Prince Uldren and his Barons one by one. It’s in some ways the ultimate distillation of “Destiny’s” tried-and-true formula: kill some monsters, get some bigger guns, level up, repeat. The new hybrid arena mode, Gambit, in which two competing teams race to slay a large “Primeval” boss before the other can do the same, is the perfect icing on that cake.
Part of the first “Destiny’s” charm was its Mad-Max-on-Mars aesthetic, and Forsaken’s frontier setting brings that tradition back in a big way. With the Tangled Shore, Bungie and High Moon rediscover the virtue of painting with negative space. There’s more to see, more places to explore than are necessary for telling this particular story; it reintroduces the joy of poking around in caves and finding treasure chests and bits of discoverable fiction. It’s a dangerous, exciting corner of the “Destiny” universe that lends itself to a greater suspension of disbelief when it comes time to grab a weapon and shoot things. In Forsaken, you’re given the option of brandishing a bow, and it’s a welcome and overdue reminder of why players gravitate toward Bungie games in the first place. It recalls the self-justifying thrills of the “Halo: Combat Evolved” (2001) pistol. Its idiosyncrasies might make it impractical or inefficient in certain scenarios, but it’s just too fun not to use.
At the edge of the Tangled Shore, there’s a watchtower that overlooks the birthplace of the Awoken, humanity’s descendants, and Forsaken’s story leads the player there in good time. Beyond the tower is a place called the Dreaming City, where ancient monstrosities lie buried — but, one presumes, not for long. Just when Forsaken appears to be over, and the title card fills the screen, the Dreaming City opens to the player, along with new endgame challenges and quest lines, including one where Cayde gets to have the final say on what happens to his most treasured possession, “the Ace.”
Over the last few years, Bungie’s online shooter has gone through countless iterations as fresh content’s been added and fans’ demands have been addressed. There’s a constant tug-of-war between conflicting notions of what, exactly, the game ought to be. Forsaken feels, more than any build of “Destiny” since September of 2014, like a proclamation that those who make the game know it better than those who play it. And that’s worth celebrating.