If you haven’t already read our thoughts on Bungie’s latest expansion to their hit shooter, Destiny, make sure you check out Cole’s impressions here. In summary, Rise of Iron is really good. It adds more of everything that Destiny players love about the game without dramatically changing it in the same way that The Taken King did last year. I’m taking my time with the new content, but I’m loving every minute of it. Still, I’ve had this nagging feeling as I’ve been exploring the Plaguelands that something’s missing from Destiny, and the other day, as I let the title screen idle on my Xbox while I was doing some chores around the house, I pinpointed exactly what it was. It’s missing Marty O’Donnell.
Destiny ranks up in my top three titles over the past three years in terms of pure time investment, but I burned out hard in the vanilla game. I picked up The Taken King last September after reading how heavily it had changed Destiny for the better, but I didn’t actually step back into the boots of my 20-something hunter until just a couple of weeks ago. As a result, I’m experiencing two expansions at once, and I’m blown away by just how much better Destiny is now compared to its state at launch. My hunter’s a sword-wielding, arrow-flinging badass, and there’s a wealth of compelling quests left ahead of me to complete.
It feels like a return to form for Bungie, who’s proved themselves again as masters of their craft. And yet, I’m reminded from time to time that this isn’t exactly the same studio whom I fell in love with fifteen years ago when Halo: Combat Evolved launched. My frequent visits to the tower, including the loading screens of my ship flying through space, evoke bittersweet nostalgia for me because those are often the places where Marty O’Donnell’s music most obviously returns to the spotlight.
Don’t get me wrong, the scores composed by Michael Salvatori and crew for the game since O’Donnell’s surprising and abrupt termination are still good, even great. Rise of Iron’s theme is tragic and sweet and epic, evoking the heroic spirit of the fallen Iron Lords around whom the expansion’s story revolves. Likewise, I’ve had The Taken King’s soundtrack on non-stop repeat in my office the past five days, and I’ve grown particularly fond of the tracks “Regicide,” “Remembrance,” and “The Awoken.” Destiny’s always featured some of the best music in the biz, and that hasn’t changed as the game’s grown and matured.
There are times, even, when the new scores feature rhythmic beats and motifs that conjure up visions of Halo for me, and I’ve found myself wondering how much of it may have been originally scored by O’Donnell (to which I assume Bungie still owns the rights) and how much of it is simply the result of his influence on the studio’s legacy. But for the most part, it’s changed. Destiny’s a different game now than it was, better in virtually every way, but it’s different. And Bungie’s different, too.
O’Donnell had been one of the last remaining pre-Microsoft members of Bungie prior to his termination. The studio’s full of new faces now, with many of the veteran devs having gone one to form new studios, including Microsoft’s 343 Studios who are responsible for all things Halo. The same heart still beats at Bungie’s core, as evidenced by Destiny’s unsurpassed gunplay and absurdly grandiose lore, but they’re changing and growing and evolving as a studio, not always for the better and certainly not always for the worse.
Returning to Destiny these past few weeks has been both a familiar and new experience for me. At times I feel like I’m reconnecting with an old friend. At others, I’m forming a relationship with a brand new one. That’s never more clear to me than when I hear O’Donnell’s music juxtaposed with the newer scores. It leaves me longing for or mourning over a studio that will never exist in the same way it did fifteen years ago, but it also leaves me excited and elated for Bungie’s future.