Review: Destiny 2’s Shadowkeep expansion ushers in a bold new age of accessibility and rewarding gameplay

Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

Given how much positive buzz Bungie’s Destiny franchise has been getting as of late, especially in the wake of the studio’s split from Activision, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the franchise has seen its fair share of low points. Often it’s felt as if Bungie was its own worst enemy, building fans up with hype and anticipation time and again only to let them down with yet another disappointing launch or greedy monetization scheme. All this while the studio pushed back against labeling Destiny as an MMO franchise for fear that it would give the wrong impression.

Thankfully, kicking off Destiny 2’s third content year with a bang is just the start of what the newly released Shadowkeep expansion accomplishes. It also proves beyond a doubt that Bungie is able to learn from its mistakes. The positive changes brought to Destiny 2 extend well beyond the scope of Shadowkeep, but for fans who have stuck with the shooter sequel since its rough beginnings, this newest expansion perfectly encapsulates the grand new vision Bungie is putting into motion for year three.

Old Haunts

The major draw of Destiny 2’s Shadowkeep expansion is the return of an iconic location from the original Destiny: Earth’s Moon. Returning Destiny NPC Eris Morn has discovered an ancient evil deep below the Moon’s surface, an evil that’s not only corrupting the planet’s resident Hive but also summoning nightmare manifestations of past foes. The players and their Guardians are naturally called upon to assist Eris in stopping this new threat, but to do so they’ll have to confront enemies long thought dead as they venture into a new Hive stronghold: the Crimson Keep.

Shadowkeep wastes no time in thrusting players directly into the center of this new Moon-based conflict. Eris Morn is the focal point of the expansion’s story campaign, but players can also freely explore the Moon’s patrol zone, one that’s populated by new and familiar landmarks alike. Having played the original Destiny myself, I couldn’t help but smile as I drove my Sparrow through recognizable mini-regions like the Anchor of Light and the Hellmouth, regions which have naturally been touched up for their Destiny 2 debut.

The story campaign itself doesn’t kick off with the same narrative gusto as the Forsaken expansion did a year ago (it’s hard to top the one-two punch of a prison break and a major character death), but it still has plenty of drama. Fans long lamented Eris Morn’s absence from Destiny 2’s previous story campaigns, so Bungie wisely put her front and center not only as the player’s contact but also as the vehicle for driving the plot forward. Other NPC’s like Ikora and Zavala have their own cameos, but this is very much a story about Eris and the player’s Guardian having to reckon with their pasts while facing down a new alien threat.

If you’re the sort of player who lives for Destiny lore, Shadowkeep’s new campaign definitely won’t disappoint, especially since it so cleverly combines the new Nightmare-infested Hive with the familiar Moon locale. Of course, said campaign is only a small part of Destiny 2’s full Shadowkeep/Year Three rollout.

Come and Stay Awhile

It’s hard to discuss the Shadowkeep expansion without also mentioning the new free-to-play Destiny 2 ‘New Light’ experience since the two launched simultaneously, but I’ll do my best to specifically outline which features fall under the Shadowkeep purview and which don’t. As I mentioned above, Bungie is implementing some grand and pretty ambitious changes for Destiny 2’s third year, including making the game free to play for all.

Those who never purchased any version of Destiny 2 before can now hop in and give the game a try absolutely free, and the amount of content that’s available without having to pay any money is, quite frankly, astounding. Bungie clearly recognized that one of the best ways to curry favor is to remove as many barriers to entry as possible. This in turn helps New Light players see Shadowkeep as an optional add-on which boosts the game’s total value rather than an obligatory purchase that’s needed for the “full experience.”

Judged on its own merits, Shadowkeep is well worth the price of entry ($35 for the base edition, $60 if you want to spring for the Deluxe version) since it also fully unlocks the potential of Destiny 2’s new seasonal content format. Rather than make players purchase a new expansion every few months, Bungie is instead implementing months-long content seasons that include both free and paid features. The paid track for the first Year Three season, the Season of the Undying, is included as part of the Shadowkeep purchase, and future seasons will only cost $10 per to fully unlock.

Each season is defined by a battle pass-esque seasonal rewards track that includes both free and premium unlocks. These unlocks range from Glimmer and Enhancement Cores to new cosmetic armor styles, melee finisher animations (more on those in a moment), and a season-specific artifact that grows in power alongside the player and can be augmented with unique buffs and mods.

Bungie has done away with the traditional 1-50 leveling track, replacing it with a more streamlined leveling system in which all XP earned contributes to their global seasonal rank. This creates a more straightforward and rewarding leveling experience since all XP a player earns from any action or activity and on any character is funneled directly into their seasonal progression, allowing the player to focus more on powering up through gear drops and boosting their artifact.

Since traditional leveling is gone, friends can also freely group up and collaborate, even if one is a Destiny 2 newbie and the other is an experienced pro. It’s yet another way that Bungie is using Shadowkeep and New Light as a way to bring players together rather than driving them apart with artificial barriers (as expansions in other MMO games tend to do).

Sock It to Em

It may be minor in the grand scheme of things, but one of my favorite new features included in Shadowkeep is the new melee finishers system. If you played id Software’s 2016 DOOM reboot, Shadowkeep’s melee finishers function similarly to DOOM’s stylish melee executions, only less violent and gruesome.

When you critically damage an enemy in Shadowkeep, they’ll start to flash (again, much like in DOOM) and a circular icon will appear above their head. Move in close and press the dedicated melee finisher button (clicking the right stick on PS4) and the camera will zoom out to a third-person perspective so you can watch your Guardian stylishly dispatch their wounded foe with a unique melee move.

Each of the three Guardian classes starts out with a basic default melee finisher animation, but additional animations can be unlocked either via the seasonal progression track or by purchasing them from Destiny 2’s in-game shop. I was never really tempted to spend money on Destiny 2’s cosmetic microtransactions in the past, but for the pleasure of watching my Titan take down his enemies with a flourishing spin kick or a powerful haymaker punch, I wouldn’t mind purchasing a little Silver on the side.

Chasing Shadows

Destiny 2’s Shadowkeep expansion has done a lot to reinvigorate the shooter sequel, but its execution hasn’t been perfect. Unsurprisingly, the expansion’s initial launch was plagued by network issues as droves of players logged on to play its new content. These network issues caused some noticeable lag and sent me back to orbit a few times during my first playthrough, but they weren’t severe enough to fully derail my enjoyment. They did prompt a little emergency maintenance on Bungie’s end, but the worst appears to be over as of this writing.

What did derail my enjoyment a bit was the expansion’s slight over-reliance on bullet-sponge boss encounters, especially during its latter half. I also didn’t enjoy having to slog through several padding missions that forced me to complete bounties or grind overworld tasks to advance the story, but I get that such missions come with the MMORPG territory. Taking in the Shadowkeep expansion as a whole, there was definitely much more about it that I enjoyed than not.

Sci-fi space opera first-person shooters may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone who is at all interested in the genre owes it to themselves to at least give Destiny 2 a shot, especially now that the cost of entry is nothing more than the time it takes to download the game.

Shadowkeep may have been designed for those who are already invested in Destiny 2’s world and story, but the way it augments both the game’s F2P shift and players’ never-ending desire to chase loot is also indicative of something greater. Bungie wants to prove it’s not afraid to embrace change, to take the feedback it has received these past two years and use it to build a better, more rewarding shooter experience. If Shadowkeep is the result of those efforts, I’d say Bungie has certainly succeeded in meeting those goals.