There's two pertinent questions to ask when considering the second DLC expansion for Destiny, House of Wolves. The first: is it better than the first expansion, The Dark Below? The second: is it good in its own right? The answers: yes and yes (mostly).
House of Wolves injects some new modes into Destiny that are much needed and nicely complement the original spread of content. There's no Raid in this second expansion, instead players are given two new end-game activities. The first is a PvE wave-based mode, and the second is a weekly high stakes PvP tournament. Instead of focusing on the six-player antics that Guardians have been partaking in via Crota's End and Vault of Glass, this new content is more centred around three-player activities.
This is good news and bad. Bad because there's no Raid, and Destiny players love a Raid - first because it's initially a punishing challenge, then later because it melts into an exercise of cheesing through and completing these missions in the shortest, most painless manner possible. We're promised another Raid this year, but how and when this will be delivered remains unclear.
The refocus on smaller Fireteams is good because there's plenty of people out there who enjoy Destiny but lack the friendship circles required to complete the six-player missions. The new three-player modes - Prison of Elders and Trials of Osiris - offer options to players who perhaps aren't so interested in playing in larger parties. These modes are also markedly different to what's come before; another positive.
Prison of Elders first. It's a three-player wave-based mode that borrows ideas from Horde and Firefight, and throws in a bit of randomness for good measure. There's different tiers when it comes to the challenge on offer. The Level 28 mode offers matchmaking and is easily bested. There's no matchmaking in the Level 32 / 34 / 35 modes, although there is some good loot to grab and a marked increase in difficulty. Alas that challenge often ends with Fireteams penned in cover while fighting for survival as waves and waves of high level enemies bombard the area with explosive weapons. It's not very nuanced.
There's a limited number of arenas to battle through, and each houses a different enemy type. There's a few mission types, but they don't extend much beyond shooting the bad guys in the head and capturing the odd objective. The main positive that we've taken away from Prison of Elders is that it offers an alternative way to play. There's not a huge amount of variety, and it doesn't stand up after extended sessions, but it's a nice change of pace and an opportunity to play something different in-between Heroic Strikes and all the Raiding.
Much better is the Trials of Osiris. It's a weekly playlist that drops players into really intense PvP battles, each match taking place on the same map. It's a shot in the arm for competitive shooter fanatics, and these players represent a section of the Destiny community that have been much neglected. As in Iron Banner your equipment really matters, and going in under-powered is a recipe for disaster. We did so and suffered accordingly. Players with maxed out Level 34 characters naturally have better armour and superior weapons, and in a mode that focuses on small Fireteams and where the tiny details matter, this is telling. We were rarely overwhelmed, but all too often the lack of punch in our guns coupled with our slightly lesser armour meant we were dying when perhaps we would have prevailed with better gear.
Because of the action taking place on a solitary map, it allows for a meta game to evolve over the course of a match. Each contest is a best of nine affair, and both teams have ample opportunity to change up tactics to try and throw their opponents off course. In close matches it comes down to key moments/factors: what weapons are your opponents carrying, who's used all their supers and when, who can get to the heavy ammo, is there a Warlock on the other team that can self-revive?
If you can win the overall match the result is marked on your scorecard. You have a safety net of three losses (four if you grab a boon that wipes off your first defeat), and the more wins you get, the better the potential prize when you cash in your card. The loot includes armour pieces and legendary weapons, and there's plenty of incentives to jump back in if and when you come up short of that perfect nine for naught run.
Trials of Osiris is an excellent mode for PvP fans. It's stablemate, Prison of Elders, is solid, albeit unimaginative PvE fun. The rest of the content found in this expansion, however, is less exciting.
There's story missions that rehash previously visited locations, and given the pricing of the package, this feels like a low blow. The storytelling and voice-over that accompanies the mission is certainly more entertaining and lighthearted than previous offerings, but the missions on offer are still somewhat underwhelming. Bungie had ample opportunity to extend out from their current sandbox maps, and include totally new areas with new bosses and interesting new set pieces to battle through, but they simply haven't done that. There's a couple of flashes of originality in there, but far too often we're left with a feeling of déjà vu. The lowest point of all, when you battle through the same section of map in two the different missions, just from different directions.
To be fair, what's here is a bit better than the missions that came in the first expansion, and the new Strike is solid. But being "a bit better" isn't quite enough in this case. Either give us a few new missions in new areas, or, if you have to remix old locations, give us loads and loads, and then rub a bit more imagination into them. Once again the story content feels like a secondary endeavour.
The new multiplayer maps are a solid, welcome addition to the current roster. With The Dark Within maps folding into the general playlists for all players, there's four (three if you're on Xbox) new maps to fight over. They're all on the small side, no doubt part of the focus on three-player activities, but we liked them all. Their inclusion in this expansion will likely be overlooked by many, but they'll be a big deal for those who like to frequent the Crucible.
Timekeeper is the PlayStation exclusive, and it's Vex architecture built into the dusty Martian landscape. Also set on Mars is Black Shield, and while plenty of battles take place outside, it's really all about battling over the middle ground inside the base. Thieves' Den is all twisty corridors cut into rock and punctuated by Fallen furnishings, the map being set on Venus. Our favourite is Widow's Court; the Earth-based map is moody and atmospheric, with ruins and long sightlines defining the encounters that take place therein.
PvP loot drops are a good example of one under-the-hood tweak that has changed the tone of Destiny perhaps more than any piece of individual content. Loot drops are much more generous now. Within days of the expansion launching many players had maxed out three different characters to full rank, and this is not in-keeping with the Destiny of old, where before it would have taken much longer to level up a character. Whether that's a good thing or not, we'll leave up to you to decide, but the drops are better and more frequent than ever before. For example, on the fourth or fifth game we played in the Crucible on the day the expansion went live, we got Gjallarhorn in a random drop.
It'll be interesting to see if there's enough variety in the range of new weapons and armour pieces to support this more generous approach. One factor that should help ease this as a concern is that you can now ascend old weaponry and armour, in a stroke offering players the chance to improve their old gear found Raiding in Vault or Crota, bringing them up to a respectable, competitive standard.
Considering it as an overall package, there's plenty of positives to be taken from House of Wolves. Bungie has diversified Destiny somewhat, and now there's a variety of different end-game activities to engage with. Are they all of the highest calibre? No. Trials of Osiris is great, the multiplayer maps are decent, and the loot system has - in our opinion at least - been improved. Prison of Elders is a nice distraction, but it's going to need more variety if it's to be a staple part of the Destiny diet. The new social hub included in the expansion is nice enough, but it's basically window dressing. The story content is lightweight and a little bit underwhelming.
It's a mixed bag, then. Especially when you consider the cost, which is steep no matter which way you look at it. That said, it's certainly a step in the right direction for Bungie's MMO shooter. Once again we're left with a feeling that we might have been treated to more and better, but it's still an improvement on the first expansion, and it enhances the overall package.
When it comes down to moment-to-moment gameplay beats, in our opinion Destiny remains unrivalled in the shooter space. House of Wolves buys the developers more time to perfect the formula while devising better Strikes and story content (and maybe pull together that new Raid), and they surely need to improve in this area if they're going to draw in new players, let alone retain the old ones. At the end of the day House of Wolves improves Destiny, and fleshes out the experience, but only just.