Destiny: The Dark Below Review

  • First Released Sep 9, 2014
  • PS4
  • XONE

The best of times, the worst of times.

Three months after the release, the chances are very good that you know how you feel about Destiny and how you will likely feel about The Dark Below. If the problems that have left many a player crestfallen, even angry, in the weeks and months since the game hit haven't affected your need to keep at the constant grindstone week after week, then The Dark Below at least gives your daily runthrough a nice kick in the pants for a few days.

The scenario is that new non-player character Eris Morn is one of six warriors sent to go kill big baddie Crota (whose sword you wield during one of the early missions on The Moon in the campaign). She is the only one who survived, and she is now enlisting the help of Guardians to help finish what she started. Eris as a persistent storyteller is a good one, a better one than your previous companion (known affectionately as Dinklebot) at least, and her desperation and post-traumatic stress disorder lurk behind every word. Of course, that story is in one ear and out the other, as it is with most of Destiny's campaign content. You get an initial mission in the Cosmodrome as an appetizer, and it's there to introduce the new screaming female wizard baddie, Omnigul, and a new debuff called Weight of Darkness that comes into play when you start the raid called Crota's End.

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From there follows a random spewing of new content, all to get your character good and ready to take on Crota's End, the main event. Ultimately, instead of building on Destiny to offer something we haven't seen or fixing some of the game's biggest issues, all The Dark Below does is amplify everything both good and terrible about Destiny. The core mechanics haven't changed and don't need to, since the gunplay is the one thing that Bungie nailed right out of the gate. The campaign missions to stop the Hive from resurrecting Crota are challenging, occasionally unique (one of the early sections involves a hectic firefight in planetary AI Rasputin's core while classical music plays as a warning siren), but ultimately meaningless. Most of them are all too similar to the missions you’ve played hundreds of times before, and the rewards are paltry, with the exception of the new fusion rifle Murmur, which at least has some elemental tricks up its sleeve. The same goes for the PlayStation-exclusive Strike, which is disappointingly, painfully short. Better rewards can be had in the new Daily and Weekly Heroics, though these two missions are tied directly to the add-on, so should you not splurge on The Dark Below, there will be weeklies you will not have access to. As it is, the two current missions, even if you manage to roll deep with a fireteam, are aggravatingly difficult.

Because of these limitations, to stand even a ghost of a chance with most of the new content, you must grind and grind often. The Dark Below ostensibly requires you to be level 28, but there's very little in the pack that approaches doable or fun until you're at 29 or better. The new multiplayer maps--Cauldron, Pantheon, and Skyshock--are fun enough, though fairly nondescript as far as multiplayer maps go, not giving nearly as much of the verticality that the original maps deliver so well. Skyshock in particular can be a vast, empty nightmare on small-team playlists or a frustrating, sniper-filled hellhole when there's more.

Nightfall has arrived. Are you ready to face the darkness?
Nightfall has arrived. Are you ready to face the darkness?
No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided

All this is Destiny's biggest post-game problem in a nutshell: After level 20, the game, at its worst, actively impedes you from having fun, and at best, it artificially extends the amount of time you need to spend with it. Even with the tweaks that have been made--the ability to purchase upgrade materials from vendors instead of farming, improved weapon drops, the new level cap--everything you do is in aid of reaching arbitrary goals. The list of grueling tasks continues to grow, and you can add the brand new insanity that is upgrading Exotic equipment to the list. (If you had Exotics before purchasing The Dark Below, then your progress is now dependent on Xur even having your item in stock that week to upgrade it, unless you are lucky enough to find the new version of the Exotic as a drop.) The add-on exacerbates the frustration by making the new content reliant on your Guardian being at the highest level possible, which, as it always has, relies on repeating content you've already seen countless times already. Arguably, the game tries to compensate by making new gear accessible to whoever can afford it from vendors, but that has the added effect of rendering the last two months of many players' work useless, especially the folks who struggled through Vault of Glass.

Ironically, the most fun part of the DLC is a quest to fill a special urn, purchased from weekend vendor Xur. It's a five-step quest in the vein of the Exotic Bounties, with a nice, varied set of objectives and no level requirements. The quest also contains what's possibly the most enjoyable objective in the entire game thus far, where, instead of participating in a normal Public Event in Earth's Skywatch, you get a message stating, "The enemy is moving against each other," which triggers a large-scale Fallen/Hive war, involving every enemy type from both factions. In the middle of the chaos, you must kill a tough-as-nails boss knight called Urzok the Hated. The quest is pure madness, and any players passing through can participate; it’s the kind of event that Destiny should provide far more often. Upon killing Urzok, a quest on The Moon opens up and asks you to kill waves and waves of higher-level enemies using one of Crota's swords, all while the floor is pitted with fiery panels of death. It's hard, but at no point does the mission feel unfair, nor does it seem as though your enemies are there just to soak up bullets. It's Destiny at its most clever, and though the reward doesn't necessarily justify the effort, the game would shine so much brighter were it to provide more of this brand of fun rather than expecting you to spend 20 minutes in the Crucible to earn three more pathetic marks so that you may one day afford your 75-mark weapon.

The PlayStation-exclusive Strike isn't much of a selling point.
The PlayStation-exclusive Strike isn't much of a selling point.
No Caption Provided
No Caption Provided

As mentioned, all of this is the lead-up to the big show, which is Crota's End. Much like Vault of Glass, it involves a lot of organization: Bungie still offers no raid matchmaking and expects you to have friends that own Destiny and are willing to coordinate play times. Crota’s End also brings with it plenty of rough fights, along with an over-reliance on "somebody needs to stand here and wait" puzzles. The raid doesn’t do much creatively with the landscape, perspective, enemy placement, or enemy types, but there's at least some combat variety and plenty of visually stunning backdrops to ogle when you get a moment to pay attention. The first moments are almost awe-inspiring, beginning with a leap of faith into an endless abyss, along with a horde of Thrall and a steadily dying light that eventually restricts your ability to move altogether. It's then 20 minutes of fumbling around in the dark with your team, trying to activate new sources of light, and many a mad dash away from lamps that explode once lit.

What follows is a series of last stands in which you must wait upon panels to magically build bridges between one platform and the next, and are then beset upon by high-level bullet sponges. Vault of Glass started similarly, though the stakes are higher here: endless waves of thrall and durable knights swarm you, all while you try to coordinate who remains on platforms, who picks off the Thrall, and who functions as a veritable team medic. It isn't uncommon to simply stall for time just long enough for a single gunner to make the run across a platform--and there's very little in gaming as satisfying as the sigh of relief when most of the team is dead, and someone still manages to cross the final bridge. Collectively, these encounters feel like an attempt to do something beyond the norm, but the challenge makes it a demanding adventure that won't necessarily end in victory. As expected, Crota’s End is highly difficult, and as with Vault of Glass, while there's a recommended level of 28, you're not making a dent in the thing until you hit 30-32, which, of course, involves repeating content, over and over, until you get there. To be fair, however, reaching level 30 is certainly easier now than it once was.

If you're interested in The Dark Below, you know what kind of game Destiny is. You're okay with the grinding. You have a like-minded clan that you play with frequently. You've been level 30 since October. You spend two or three hours a day racking up resources just in case. You are the Destiny player the game wants, which essentially means that you are a farmer. You find out what kind of product you want, and you invest the herculean time and energy needed to obtain it and then nurture it with constant love to bring it to fruition until you decide to destroy it and plant something new in its place. This is Destiny’s circle of life, and The Dark Below does just enough to feed it, if not enough to make it thrive.

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The Good

  • Beautiful new backdrops and art
  • Smaller missions and challenges are enjoyable
  • New raid is well-crafted, if ridiculously difficult

The Bad

  • More disposable story
  • Terrible new upgrade system for exotic equipment
  • Time/grind investment too great for too little reward

About the Author

Not counting grind time, Justin Clark was able to get through the new Dark Below content in about five hours, spent many more with the Crota's End raid, and one quiet hour lounging on top of a bus in Skywatch contemplating the meaning of life before Urzok went and spoiled it for everybody.