Alone in the universe
Destiny has a problem with definite articles. In Bungie’s last franchise, Halo, you were the Master Chief, stoically underdeveloped savior of the universe and perennial badass. In Destiny, you’re a Guardian, one of hundreds (or thousands or millions, it’s never entirely clear) of errand boys and girls on a non-stop rampage around the Solar System. That turns out to be a more important distinction than it might initially sound.
Case in point: The only friendly characters you encounter throughout the entire game are: one, other Guardians; two, people whose entire lives seem to revolve around outfitting Guardians with whatever they need for guardianing. No civilians to set the stakes or give anything you’re doing a human anchor. No personalities, only archetypes and professions. If not for a single skybox of a distant cityscape, I’m not sure I’d believe for a moment that there’s an outside world to save, just a lot of guys with guns running around and propping up a clearly unsustainable hero-based economy.
Any game, of course, requires a suspension of disbelief, but Destiny barely even tries to encourage it. What little façade there is comes off as so perfunctory and purely functional that it feels like, at any moment, you might walk through the wrong door and see all the two-by-fours propping up the sets. No matter how much technobabble they pay Peter Dinklage to spout or how many races of aliens they invent, Bungie’s universe fails at a fundamental level if it doesn’t have that spark of truth, and I’m barely even getting a flicker. Right now, in this first outing, it’s mostly an empty, hollow, boring place.
There is, at least, the sense of destiny promised by the title, but it’s not the sweeping cosmic kind it should be, where you’re marked for greatness in the face of overwhelming adversity. It’s the death-and-taxes variety—the mundane, foregone conclusion. Everyone you walk by is saving the world; eventually you’re going to have to, too.
To be fair, it’s not an easy problem to fix. Despite whatever terminology Bungie may prefer, Destiny is patently a game built from two very different and occasionally conflicting traditions, the narrative first-person shooter and the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. The narrative FPS thrives on the immersive power fantasy of being lone champion (or, in the case of co-op heavy games like Borderlands, part of a ragtag team of lone champions) on a finite, epic quest. The MMORPG is about surrounding you with as many other human players as possible and presenting you with an infinite supply of things to do. The gulf there is obvious. Solving the technical and design limitations around getting both types of gameplay to work together is merely the first step.
But Destiny doesn’t do much of anything to resolve that inherent tension. More often than not, it seems to be dodging the question entirely. It builds a universe and tells a story—albeit an exceedingly weak one, with a vague sense of purpose, no clear enemy, and not a single central character with an actual name(!)—and it provides replayable content with systems that allow you to get something out of those repeat visits. Neither half really seems to recognize or care that the other exists. You dart back and forth between both, guided not by any internal logic, but by level recommendations and a metagame layer that encourages you to always push for more XP, better loot, more gear upgrades.
Perhaps, then, Destiny is just a case of systems over style. It’s an approach that’s worked wonders for titles like Diablo, and it’s certainly a compelling enough line of thought here, mostly because the basics of gunplay are so immediately and effortlessly good. Few games have managed to make the act of pulling up iron sights, tracking an enemy, and landing the fatal headshot so natural or rewarding on a controller. Each weapon type has its own personality and weight that just feels, for lack of a less mystical term, right. It’s clear that Bungie’s “30 seconds of fun” design philosophy is still alive and well, if by nothing else than the frankly obsessive amount of tuning and polish that appears to have gone into the simple act of firing a bullet.
But that’s Destiny’s only unqualified triumph. Class abilities are fun enough to use, but they don’t seem to mesh with one another in any meaningful sense, and teaming up with other players to take on challenges never really calls for defined roles or any special sort of teamwork. You’re mostly a jack-of-all trades among other, slightly different jacks-of-all-trades, and occasionally you revive them when they’re downed or pick up the orbs they drop when using their super-attacks to charge your own. Loot drops are relatively rare and low in variety compared to the traditional RPG approach, which cuts back on the amount of inventory micromanagement but also slows the sense that you’re progressing your character—especially in the late game (but more on that in a bit).
Beyond that, though, any systems are only as good as the gameplay opportunities they enable, and Destiny stumbles there as well. Bungie clearly knows how to stage phenomenal firefights that make great use of novel combat spaces, but they’ve somehow struggled to put those talents to good use. Any great first-person shooter is fundamentally a battle about controlling ground: You manage your sight lines and inch forward into an unfamiliar, hostile environment as you slowly convert it to a known, safe space.
Destiny undermines this principle in two key ways. The first is the open-world areas, which routinely spawn in enemies in the same locations and same numbers a minute or so after they’ve been killed. Not only does this further spoil the illusion, making it clear that every enemy you kill is just the gameplay equivalent of a pop-up scare in a theme-park dark ride, eager to reset for the next visitor, but it also makes these fights feel meaningless in a sort of existential way. You can witness, in near real time, just how little of an impact you’ve had on the world. You might as well be firing bullets into the ocean in the hopes that eventually the waves will stop. Eventually, it’s easier to just hop on your hoverbike and drive around them, especially once the meager XP gains stop being worth the effort.
The second, more troubling issue comes from the traditional, roped-off encounters of the campaign (the instanced ones, if you’re up on all that MMO lingo). There’s no problem with respawning here, but somehow the fights feel every bit as throwaway, as though they were generated by a spreadsheet rather than carefully designed and balanced to take advantage of the level design. Most areas follow the same basic pattern, whereby you fight through rooms of enemies to reach an objective, then defend it against wave after wave of enemies. It’s all very rote, and the minor variations in enemy design do little to change up the sense that you’re basically repeating the same firefight from the start of the campaign to its finish.
The dedicated side missions known as Strikes, it must be said, do feel a bit more handcrafted and are therefore considerably more fun to replay. Still, they’re never particularly memorable, and they have a bad habit of culminating in boss battles that feel like chipping away at a brick wall with a miniature hammer.
The encounters’ pervasive mediocrity is especially problematic in light of Destiny’s endgame. Once you’ve reached level 20 and cleared out the campaign—about 12 to 20 hours of work, depending on how well you maximize your time—all that’s left to do is revisit the same content you’ve already completed with different difficulty modifiers in the hopes of getting better loot. There’s a system whereby certain armor actually enables you to raise your level further through a stat called Light, but it’s woefully slow going. In my experience, it took eight hours of constant play just to get from 20 to 21.
Then again, replayability has never been an issue with the multiplayer in first-person shooters, and Destiny steers this side of things with a much steadier hand. The Crucible, as the PvP component is known, really feels like an evolution of Halo, with many of the same strengths (long, suspenseful firefights and excellent map design) and weaknesses (iffy netcode that leads to a lot of traded kills and questionably balanced shotguns and sniper rifles).
Smartly, multiplayer progression is entirely unified with the rest of the game, meaning you can bring in all of your current gear and abilities and earn drops and XP just for playing. To keep things from getting lopsided, the game works some behind-the-scenes magic to make sure high-level players don’t get huge stat advantages against newcomers. This process, however, has such a hugely equalizing impact that I personally never felt like any of the gear I equipped actually ended up mattering. My godlike, über-rare shotgun seemed to get kills at exactly the same rate as the plain-Jane one I had back at level five. Admittedly, it’s probably the right move from a balance standpoint, but it also means that the gains you make in multiplayer will only really be palpable if you keep returning to the Strikes and story missions.
In the interest of fairness—and at the risk of stating the obvious—Destiny’s connected nature means it’s not a static experience. Next week, Bungie will be opening up the game’s first raid, which should help add life to the endgame (provided you’ve got the time and five friends to help out). Updates will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future, adding new content, tweaking balance, and responding to feedback from players and critics.
But as it stands right now, at this moment, it’s hard to escape the sense that Destiny is a disappointment, a waste of several interesting ideas and an enormous amount of potential. Given how long they’ve been talking about their future plans for the franchise, it’s clear Bungie and Activision were banking big on this project. Like Halo before it, they no doubt wanted Destiny to be the game, the sort of phenomenon that spreads into the mainstream and redefines what the average person thinks of the industry. Instead, well, it’s just a game. Funny how that works.
|Developer: Bungie • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 09.09.2014|
With a lifeless world, a hazily plotted, repetitive campaign, and an endgame that quickly resorts to a slow grind for marginally better loot, Destiny fails to deliver on the promise of its concept and the enormous potential of its gameplay systems.
|The Good||Shooting feels solid; PvP is enjoyable enough.|
|The Bad||Too little content and too much repetition to justify your attention in the long run.|
|The Ugly||An actual line of dialogue from the game: “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain.”|
|Destiny is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review.|