By now, you know what Destiny is: a hybrid first-person shooter and massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, it throws players into a vast space opera as they fight four alien races to defend an embattled future Earth on the verge of collapse.

Or more reductively, you play as a space wizard and shoot aliens in the head to get cool new guns and make numbers go up.

It’s not a tricky concept to get your head around. But what Rise of Iron, the fourth expansion to the game, reveals is that developer Bungie has only just figured out what’s going on.

Rise of Iron brings Destiny into its third year, and picks up with the game’s wider story in a calm position. The two-year-long arc that saw players follow the Hive from Earth to the Moon, descend into the Hellmouth to defeat Crota, and then fly to Saturn to take on his daddy Oryx is now over.

In its place is a new, stand-alone yarn about the Lords of Iron: figures from Destiny’s prehistory whose last surviving member, Lord Saladin, is already known to fans through his association with the elite multiplayer activity, Iron Banner.

When the Fallen (that’s the alien race that has a personality, as opposed to the bug demons, the robots or the Space Marines from Warhammer 40K) reappears in a part of Earth that’s seen little combat for years, they unearth Siva, a forgotten technology that lets them reprogram their bodies, running the risk of Earth falling for good.

Destiny: Rise of Iron
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Rise of Iron feels like it was built from the ground up by looking at what players actually spent their time doing. Photograph: Activision

Just as 2015’s Taken King introduced players to the Dreadnaught, the floating home of Oryx, so Rise of Iron has its own new area: the Plaguelands, a section of Old Russia that’s been warped by the presence of Siva and colonised by the biohacker Fallen.

It’s extremely vast, a facet of the fact that this is the first Destiny expansion limited to current generation consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360 players will still be able to play Destiny, but their game world is forever frozen in September 2016). The first time you enter a zone of the Plaguelands called Lord’s Watch, and see guns firing off in the distance, you think it’s a classic Bungie skybox. But a few minutes zooming on your Sparrow vehicle and you’re actually there, up on top of the guns, trying to disable them.

Not quite so vast, though, is the main campaign. From the start of the first mission to the end of the last, it took me a shade under three hours, and I wasn’t rushing things. When Lord Saladin told me it was time to “finish this” I was genuinely confused – I’d barely started it.

But the end of the campaign is only the start of Rise of Iron. The Plaguelands, like the Dreadnaught before them, are more jam-packed with stuff than any of Destiny’s previous environments, and simply wandering around doing the odd patrol mission and shooting aliens in the head will soon have you finding tantalising threads to pull, exposing hidden mechanics and collectibles.

There’s dormant Siva to collect, hidden in difficult-to-access areas; there are Siva caches, which can be presented to the Archon’s Forge for a shot at a public event similar to last year’s Court of Oryx; there are dead ghosts, hidden chests and Iron Medallions to find – those last of which are part of a quest chain which grants players an updated version of the Gjallahorn, a rocket launcher which dominated the first Destiny.

(There’s also the raid. But the game came out a week ago, and although the raid itself was released soon after, we’re not quite ready to take on Destiny’s highest-level content quite yet. It will be rated separately.)

Against that background, then, it feels like the short campaign isn’t Bungie dropping the ball, but finally getting that the scripted single-player missions aren’t really what we’re here for. To an extent, it’s a shame: the missions in Rise of Iron are so much better than those in the original game that it feels like they come from a completely different team. From the large-scale stuff – this release actually has a coherent story – to the minor attention to detail, like the fact that for the first time, characters refer to your Guardian using actual gendered pronouns, as opposed to just calling them “Guardian” over and over.

But Rise of Iron feels like it was built from the ground up by looking at what players actually spent their time doing, and catering to that, rather than forcing them down the paths Bungie would like them to go. It’s not quite fan-service, although it does veer close to it at times: not just the reintroduction of Gjallahorn, but also small asides from your ghost about “living in your backpack”, and grimoire cards repositioning your character as an outstanding hero, rather than just one Guardian amongst many.

I like this sort of thing – but then, I would. According to the game, I’m edging up on my 40,000th kill; I’ve played through over 200 strikes; I’ve even won almost 300 multiplayer matches, and if you’d asked me before I checked that, I’d have told you that I didn’t play multiplayer much.

If you’ve never touched Destiny before, there’s still hope. The game is now available in a buy-once, play-everything bundle for a genuinely impressive £35. Given the stick Destiny received back when its first two expansions came out for £20 each – and containing much, much less than Rise of Iron does – it’s yet another example of how Bungie is learning as it goes.

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