Reviews

Destiny – ambitious, flawed, and somehow compelling

The hype train bearing Destiny has taken us on a wild and bumpy ride, and now that we’ve reached our destination, I’m not sure we’re in the right place.

From the earliest announcement of the game, the amount of expectations heaped on the house that brought us Halo was heavy.  We expected a shooter, but when we heard how multiplayer would work it sounded far closer to MMO mechanics.  Could Destiny be the game that makes shooters social and capitalize on the incredible advances in the online RPG space?  The potential for an entirely new genre of shooter lays in the hands of one of the most capable studios in the business.

Destiny lays the bulk of its deep story roots at your feet with an opening cinematic that describes the arrival of a massive moon-like planetoid that entered our galaxy to protect humanity from a vicious alien threat.  Cornered and devastated, the human race has been all but culled, forced into a single city called The Tower.  Under the watchful eye of the moon-like planet called The Traveller, humanity’s Guardians prepare to strike back.  Only one issue – you are long-since dead.

Pulled out of a Russian junkyard adjacent to a rundown dam, a mechanical companion called a Ghost (voiced by Game of Thrones alum Peter Dinklage) somehow resurrects your body and starts you on your path to becoming humanity’s salvation.

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We aren’t alone in the universe any longer.  While humans have inhabited the Earth for thousands of years, the Awoken and the Exo now join them in their darkest hour.  These races are purely cosmetic, as are the handful of visual variants and hairstyles, but it does add some much-needed variety.

There are three classes in Destiny – Titan, Hunter, and Warlock.  These archetypes serve as the base for your character, with each filling a specific role as the game unfolds.  Hunters become highly effective ranged warriors, Titans are devastating up close, and Warlocks use magic to eviscerate their foes.  At level 15, you’ll receive a subclass that further specializes your character into specific roles.  Earning levels through XP, equipping new armor and weapons, character creation, and travelling with friends – it’s easy to see the comparisons with the traditional MMO model.

The stories tell of a golden age long ago

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As with any RPG, story content is absolutely paramount for Destiny.  Bungie has created entire worlds stuffed to the gills with compelling characters and lore.  Unfortunately it’s that history that makes the world of Destiny that much more confusing.  Destiny tends to throw a heaping helping of word salad at you in between missions, though much of it is narrated by Ghost, containing more “to be continued” dangling plot threads than a season of Lost.

The last bastion of hope for humanity is The Tower.  More than just other players milling about, there are quite a few shopkeepers and, of course, your trainers.  The problem is that they, despite celebrity voice acting, are simply static storefronts.  For instance, Commander Zavala, the Titan Vanguard, tends to toss out quotes from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but he never moves from his position in the Tower, and his only purpose is to give rewards and sell gear.  He could be replaced by a vending machine, and that’s disappointing for someone who is supposed to be a Commander of humanity’s last hope.

The story, like the game, gets better the closer you get to the endgame.  You’ll meet some very interesting characters that open new plot threads.  That said, it seems like the team is purposely holding back the more interesting story arcs of these characters for the two expansions already on the horizon.  And if this is the part where somebody tells me “Oh, all of the story is told through the Grimoire cards you earn!” then I’ll remind you that this is a first person shooter, not an e-book.  If I wanted to read a story, I’ve got a copy of A Song of Fire and Ice sitting here begging for my attention.

That Wizard came from the Moon!

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Graphically, there are very few games currently that can challenge the visual awesomeness of Destiny.  It’s as if the early concept art we saw came to life, realizing every drop of potential.  The three races are distinct enough to be visually striking, and every piece of gear is unique.  Similarly, each area you’ll visit is a massive change from the previous.  Abandoned tunnels and sewers, lush jungles, barren moons, and red-dusted planets await.

Each of these unique locales is accompanied by an extraordinary array of ambient noise. If there is one thing that Bungie has never fallen short on it has to be sound.  Each weapon has punch and impact, every environmental effect crisp and powerful.  None of it, however, compares to the incredible music in Destiny.  Reacting to the situation at hand, Destiny has no shortage of absolutely mesmerising music.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a version of the game (including the Ghost edition) where the soundtrack is included.  Here’s to hoping Activision and Bungie release it for purchase – it’s that damned good.

This path should lead us straight to the grave.

There are few who would dispute that Halo and Call of Duty routinely battle for the crown in the first person shooter genre.  Destiny would have big shoes to fill.  And fill them they did, though sometimes the shoes feel a little tight.

Destiny strings its narrative together through a series of story-based missions.  The missions are balanced for one to three person fireteams, doled out with level suggestions.  As you embark on these missions you’ll likely find, as we did, that on the surface the areas seem to repeat a great deal.  While that may be true, there are scores of unexplored nooks and crannies just waiting to be discovered.  While there are plenty of people complaining about “lack of content” in Destiny, there are easily four times the stories talking about the latest secret they just stumbled upon.

Pushing into the multiplayer arena, Destiny is a great start with a few missteps.

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Competitive multiplayer couldn’t be more in the wheelhouse of Bungie – it’s in their DNA.  As of the time of this writing, there are five modes of PvP multiplayer available once you hit level 4 with your selected character: Control, Clash, Rumble, Skirmish, and Salvage.  Control is a 6v6 mode that is best described as capture and hold.  Clash is also 6v6 and better known as simple team deathmatch. Rumble knocks the player count down to just six, giving players deathmatch without the team part.  Skirmish and Salvage are both team-based, but reduce the player count to 3v3.  Skirmish is once again team deathmatch, but focuses more on tighter maps.  The final mode, Salvage, asks players to recover alien relics and bring them back to the home base for points, with the first team to hit 10,000 points being declared the victor.  All of the modes work, although it is sad to see a lack of capture the flag and a heavier emphasis on deathmatch.  That said, given Bungie’s propensity to add modes on the fly, I suspect we’ll see more classic modes appear.

If there is one knock that hurts social elements in this game most, it’s the matchmaking system.  If you build a team of friends and expect to join a Crucible match as a team, you’re gonna have a bad time.  Teams are regularly shuffled, cutting off teammates entirely.  Also, it’s very likely that when you start off in Destiny’s multiplayer you’ll be a level 6 player matched up with a level 26 character on the other side. Sure, bullet damage is equalized, but characters still retain their weapons and armor, as well as all of the abilities they’ve earned.  This means a Level 25 is far more powerful than any lower level character could be, regardless of any damage softening.  I’m not sure what the matchmaking system is doing in the background, but certainly there are enough players plus or minus three or four levels that could play together, no?  It creates a barrier to entry for new players.

Bungie has done great cooperative gameplay before; we saw it in previous Halo titles.  When patrolling the world with friends, the game shines bright.  That said, I’ve not been as irritated with pickup groups in a very long time.  There are missions called Strikes that tell a compact story, punctuated with bosses and sub-bosses to fight.  The problem?These fights can be absolutely dull.  The bosses in the game seem to have literally hundreds of thousands of hitpoints.  What’s worse is that, through the beta, and now in every Strike I’ve participated in for the final release, I have yet to keep a fireteam through an entire mission.  They’ll drop, usually during a boss fight, leaving you to spend upwards of 30 minutes to finish it alone.  These areas are usually blanketed by “the Darkness” – an unexplained smokescreen that restricts respawn.  When you are the only one left in the Strike, you are always the last Guardian standing, and death means starting that extended boring fight all over again.

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If there is one area that, as an RPG fan, drives me absolutely nuts it’s the loot system in Destiny.  To put it simply, there just isn’t enough of it.  That 45 minute boss fight?   You get nothing but experience for it.  In that 45 minutes you could go face-bash a bunch of random enemies on a patrol mission and get more XP with less frustration.  I’m not expecting a Diablo amount of loot hitting the ground, but there is very little feeling of accomplishment when you take down a walking cannon on six legs only to get nothing for your efforts.

I mentioned that Destiny gets better as you play longer, but that’s not 100% accurate.  It might be accurate to say that Destiny gets better when you hit the soft level cap of 20.  After the level cap you can continue to push your characters with legendary loot (that you’ll likely buy due to the tight-fisted drop system) and incremental bumps as you continue to earn new skills in your selected class or sub-class.  By earning “motes of light” you’ll be able to push your levels beyond the 20 mark. I’m not sure why they felt the need to have a secondary level system instead of letting players just continue to gather XP – it seems arbitrary.   As you push higher in levels and need new gear, you’ll have to pay for them with glimmer (the currency in the game), but you’ll need Crucible (rewards from PvP) or Vanguard (earned in Strikes) marks.  Just because you’ve hit the level 20 mark doesn’t mean your character is done growing.

“Double jump if you can hear me, Ron”

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Destiny shines most when played with friends. They are far less likely to drop out of your Strike, there is a good chance they know what which end of the gun faces toward the enemy, and it’s really the only time you’ll hear another player in the game as voice is heavily restricted.

The team at Bungie made some conscious decisions that have received a mixed reception from fans.  The first I ran into during my first play with readers here at Gaming Trend.  I couldn’t find a headset to use on the PlayStation 4, so I was left with no method to communicate with my team beyond the very limited emotes mapped to the D-pad.  Since there is no text chat support, I had to do a bunch of double-jumping until my team figured out that a double-jump is a yes, and a single jump is a no.

Having played games for a very long time and watching my sanity erode as the shrieking voices of 10 year olds saying the most inane or horrifying things imaginable, I can understand why Bungie restricted voice chat.  It tends to ruin the experience, and unless you have a coordinated team of adults, it doesn’t often add anything good to the mix.  Unfortunately, with the matchmaking business I mentioned earlier, you’ll be cut off from those friends sooner rather than later.

As an FPS with MMO elements, Destiny succeeds on most levels.  As an MMO with FPS elements, it’s a bit of a mess.  It’s easier to think of it as simply a shooter with persistent elements and leave expectations of true RPG trappings or an engaging storyline at home.  The universe of Destiny is a compelling one, full of rich opportunity, solid PvP and cooperative play potential.  It’s just a shame that the social elements are so very broken.

Destiny is the sort of game that will need to breathe before it’s appreciated. The team has launched the first free raid upgrade yesterday, and they promise far more universe-expanding content in the immediate future. As it stands now, it feels like a strong foundation coupled with a thin story and some baffling missteps on the MMO aspects of the formula. When Destiny is a shooter, it’s amazing, but when it aims to make that a social activity it falls on its face. Like Bungie’s previous efforts, history will prove it to be the classic it aims to be.

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