It's been a rocky old road for Destiny, but it's finally found some smooth terrain with The Taken King – the title's biggest expansion to date. The new content marks the second year of Destiny's life, and with it comes the realisation that Bungie has taken a rather large step forward in crafting something special. It's undoubtedly taken a lot of practice for the prestigious developer to get its ambitious vision more in line with the expectations of players, but all of the hard work has been worth it. The simple truth is that Destiny is now a better game than it has ever been.

However, there's also no denying that Destiny is still Destiny – it's just been tweaked, altered, and streamlined into something much more cohesive. Almost every aspect of the game has been fine-tuned, and while it's still not quite the perfect looting experience, it's come a heck of a long way since the days of potentially grinding for hours on end to gain nothing of worth.

This is mostly thanks to how the new loot system works. Instead of stumbling across equipment that has fixed statistics, you'll now find that engrams scale to your light level. An average of your currently equipped gear's attack and defence properties, your light level essentially determines how strong your Guardian is. Watching it increase bit by bit is the new hook that keeps you playing beyond seeing out the story missions and conquering the co-op content – it's the light at the end of the tunnel, if you'll pardon the pun.

Loot's a lot more plentiful, too. Even when you're out and about on standard patrol missions, engrams tend to drop quite frequently, and when coupled with the new system that we've already mentioned, it's clear that the release has far more respect for your limited free time. Even when you've reached the higher light levels and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find gear that's an improvement, there's still a sense that you're working towards something – and that's absolutely crucial.

Not quite as crucial to the title's longevity is its story, but it's still something that The Taken King takes far more seriously than the core release ever did. Continuing on from the events of the base game and its first couple of disappointing add-ons – The Dark Below and House of Wolves – it's the same vague nonsense about darkness and evil aliens, but it's presented in a way that actually keeps you relatively interested. Nolan North's performance fills your accompanying Ghost with some welcome emotion, and several other characters appear in very well acted and directed cutscenes which help push the narrative forward. Sure, it's pretty basic stuff, but it finally feels like Destiny's telling a tale that's worth listening to.

The story missions themselves are also a real step up from what we've come to expect. The opening objective, which sees your Guardian head to one of Mars' moons, is a linear expedition that throws some set pieces into the mix, and the result is a mission that better resembles a stage from a Halo or Call of Duty campaign. As a whole, The Taken King's story-based offering is defined – it's a component that's no longer hard to find among the copious amounts of shooty bang bang.

The end of the plot isn't the beginning of the grind, either – at least, not in the way that you may think. Upon the story's completion you're given a massive amount of quests to fulfil, each of which branch off into subsequent tasks and propositions that add some real meat. Suddenly, the all-new quest tab on the main menu makes a lot more sense, and pursuing these missions is fun – especially when you're raking in the rewards.

So far so good for the expansion, and it gets better still when it comes to playing with others. Great co-op gameplay has always been something that Destiny's been able to fall back on, with three-player Strikes and six-player Raids keeping many fireteam friends coming back for more. The Taken King arrives bearing four new Strikes and remixes several older ones in a bid to both keep them fresh and make them more challenging. This means more enemies, more three-way firefights between factions, and more engaging action. Randomised events can also occur at set intervals, bosses usually explode in a shower of engrams once you've pumped enough bullets into them, and the more consecutive Strikes that you play without returning to orbit, the greater your chances of obtaining rarer loot. All in all, Strikes are another fine example of how Bungie's reworking of the game's existing mechanics has culminated in a much richer experience.

This is also true of the title's Raid, which is arguably the most daunting endgame challenge yet. Combining puzzle elements with intense team-driven situations, the King's Fall Raid is currently the expansion's ultimate test of skill, and like those that have come before it, it demands time, patience, and a lot of coordination. It's safe to say that it won't be for everyone, then, but it is worth noting that the Heroic Strike playlist – which hosts the most difficult Strikes in the game – is actually a decent alternative for those who perhaps aren't too keen on Raids, particularly since bosses can drop exclusive, powerful gear.

In many ways, it's now easier to enjoy Destiny at your own pace: you're not forced to tackle the release's endgame content over and over again in order to feel like you're accomplishing something. Whether you like to prance about on patrols or slaughter newbies in the Crucible, there always appears to be something waiting around the next corner. It could be a new reputation level topped off with the gift of a legendary engram, or it could be the completion of a lingering quest that leads into another string of objectives. The game's gotten very good at directing you from one activity to another, and that's precisely what was needed to keep Guardians from feeling as though they'd hit a dead end.

It's not all rainbows and exotic engrams, though. The biggest thing holding The Taken King back is its steep price point, which is bordering on the same amount that you'd pay for a regular retail release. Now, this expansion certainly isn't Destiny 2, but it is an evolution of the game that many of us have been playing for 12 months. With that in mind, veteran players will want to snap this up, but it's harder to recommend to those who have become disenfranchised with Destiny – after all, this isn't a re-imagining of Bungie's latest but a refinement. Having said that, there's also never been a better opportunity for interested onlookers to jump in and see what they've been missing.

Conclusion

Destiny: The Taken King rolls all of the lessons that Bungie has learned over the last 12 months into one expensive but excellent fix, and the result is a game that finally feels whole. The fresh content is some of the best that the title has to offer, while the numerous reworked systems breathe new life into an experience that has been struggling to find solid ground. The Taken King lights the way forward for the sci-fi shooter, and while it's not the brightest of glows, it's clear that Destiny's darkest days are over.