Bungie’s Destiny is the biggest game of the year so far and apparently the highest-selling day one digital console release ever, but how does the actual game hold up against the massive expectations?
Well, if you’re a fan of Halo‘s tight gunplay, then you’ll be in heaven. However, if you’re expecting the kind of intense single-player narrative from Bungie’s days with Master Chief, then it may leave you wanting. But this is one of Destiny‘s main tricks; wide, open and full of excitement, it invites you to find your own stories.
And what stories they can be.
If you played the beta earlier in the year, the opening few hours will be immediately familiar. Nothing has changed, really; there’s still your choices of character design, the floating Ghost reviving you and guiding you through some immaculately balanced initial encounters, the journey into a lukewarm narrative that never really explains itself in any clear way. You’ll shuffle through straightforward quests that get you enough spaceship parts to first get you to the Tower, then to the stars beyond. The Tower is your hub, chock full of drip-fed missions and other players who can only communicate through the power of dance. This actually gives the game some much-needed humour; with voice comms disabled for anyone who isn’t on your friends list, communication turns into a Flashdance-style dance-off of call and response.
The story tries to disguise the fact that you’re being send on some basic shooty missions by unfolding a hazy story about a disappeared Guardian who had discovered some secret about the Darkness (the antagonists, not the band, although fighting them would be amazing). Oh, for some reason the Darkness wants to destroy a moon-sized visitor – called The Visitor – who turned up one day and bestowed amazing cool tech on the human race. You’re gently eased forward under the pretense of trying to solve this mystery, but as you’re likely to have zero interest in the plot, you’re more likely to just focus on the gameplay. So it’s a good job that the gameplay is so finely tuned; the main voice of the narrative is a constantly floating companion called Ghost, terribly voiced by perpetually bored Peter Dinklage in one of the least inspiring vocal performances I’ve ever heard. Maybe the blame should rest on whoever cast him – his characteristic dourness is totally wrong for this kind of character, and Ghost would have been far better in the hands of someone with some vocal flair, like Sharlto Copley. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Stephen Merchant – actually, somebody just mod Wheatley’s lines form Portal 2 into Ghost and make us all happy.
Eventually, you’ll have put in enough time to be given some choices on to how you’d like to proceed. It’s also the first true evidence of Bungie’s MMO aspirations with Destiny. Go to the map selection screen and you’ll have a few large area choices – The Tower, Earth, Moon, Venus and more later on – within which are contained Story missions, Patrols, and high-level Strikes. Story missions are self-explanatory quests based around go-here objectives and typical Bungie setpieces. Patrol is where the need for grinding levels shows itself and is just you in your chosen environment, with whoever else is logged on to your particular corner of the server, hunting down and taking on waves of various Darkness. If all this talk of exploring a sci-fi wilderness is already evoking feelings of the superb Halo 3: ODST, then you should know that Patrol feels very much like that game’s Firefight mode, except on a much larger scale. That fact alone might be enough to make you rush out and buy Destiny tomorrow, and you’d be totally justified. Finally, Strikes are designed for co-op play and feature huge enemies, such as heavily-armoured spider tanks, calling for roughly a million bullets to be taken down. Destiny may not have the full-throttle nature of a usual FPS, but there’s certainly enough variety to keep most players interested.
In fact, once you spend a few hours shooting through Destiny, it’s easy to see why the overall story has had to be given a less immediate feel. In order for the player to progress, there has to be a certain amount of grinding – story missions have set levels that make it very clear if you’re about to go out of your depth. Just like any other MMO, there is a need to slowly buil up skills in a non-story situation that allows you to progress. Maybe that’s why a few early reviews have criticised the game for feeling a little “empty”, but it’s a trade-off for the structure that Bungie were going for. By removing the urgency to solve the narrative mysteries, Bungie have allowed the players to explore the environments completely guilt-free. The next mission is always a puzzle piece to be discovered, not a vital countdown against insurmountable odds, so the pressure is off to truck forward. In a way, Destiny is the perfect encapsulation of Bungie’s “combat loop”design plan for the original Halo, where it was their aim to have 30 seconds of fun repeated until the final credits. With the narrative pressure reduced to “by the way, next time you get a chance can you…”, requested by a bored robot, it leaves the player to dive into the immaculate shooting elements. Combined with the looting system that successfully teases things that are just out of reach, it suddenly becomes extremely compelling. Much like Just Cause 2, Destiny is a game that you can play for ten minutes or three hours and still come away satisfied.
As soon as you fire off your first weapon, Bungie’s experience with the Halo series is on full show. Movement is light and fluid yet heavy in just the right way; enemy variants have delicious, thick silhouettes and do their best to stalk you from all angles; feedback from guns is thick and full of power. There’s crackle here too – not just in the fizzing electrified elements of the plasma weapons, but also in the wonderfully fantastical enemy designs that feature wizards, swords and genuine monsters. It’s a welcome break from the trend of military futures that are flooding the game space, and the first time a massively overpowered armoured warlord storms your position is not an experience you’ll forget in a hurry. Vistas are breathtaking, skyboxes so beautiful that I guarantee you’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time just standing and staring. Hell, there’s even a sit down and gaze wistfully at the sky button mapped to the d-pad. Bungie also haven’t forgotten how to put on a show, from the Return Of The Jedi speeder-bike that you can conjure from thin air for a speedy getaway, to the perfectly paced setpieces that usually throw you against a horde of deadly enemies.
For much of Destiny you’ll see other players working their way through the environments at their own pace. At first it can be a little off-putting, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t like to play online and is adverse to sharing my video game worlds with anyone, but other players can largely be ignored if you so wish. However, it’s the Strikes that are going to be a source of annoyance for single players – with anything other than an organised fireteam, they feel drawn-out and not particularly interesting. It’s frustrating to have a section of the game effectively walled behind getting a group of like-mined people together, but at least it doesn’t really effect any other parts of the game. There’s also a dedicated player-vs-player mode called Crucible – I’ve heard good things, which should be of no surprise when thinking about Bungie’s legacy with Halo multiplayer, but I’ve yet to try it out. I keep getting distracted by my own story.
And that’s the key part of Destiny I think, the element that will keep players returning again and again even when the weak story has been exhausted. Every time you step into one of the environments, new shiny gun in hand, you’re preparing yourself for a number of amazing, non-scripted moments that Bungie is so confident in handing you. Its soft narrative and laser-guided focus on the minute-to-minute gameplay leaves so many opportunities for spontaneous magic. Without the technology to capture footage on my PS3, it’s all reduced to oral legend – that time I jumped from a high building, summoned my Sparrow (speeder bike) and zipped away from a horde of angry enemies; that time I started a public event and stood back-to-back fighting waves of enemies with two other random players, each of us covering the other as we got stormed by a massive cannon-wielding armoured mountain; that time I followed an objective and found myself in a firefight between a level 26 Guardian and his similarly-leveled enemies, and all I could do was hide on a roof to watch the pyrotechnics below. It’s a good job I’m not playing on a PS4 or Xbox One, my hard drive would be full of captured footage after one evening. Incidentally, I’ll get the chance to test this theory out as, by buying Destiny direct on PSN before Jan 15th next year, it’s gifted me a PS4 copy for free that will transfer my save over.
The question of whether you should buy Destiny may have already been answered, but if not, think of it this way: if you’re looking for a tightly-would story of thrills and twists, then Destiny‘s lore will not be enough for you. However, if like me you were looking for one genuinely great game that you could unhurriedly sink your teeth into over the next year, then Destiny may hold exactly what you’re looking for. The gunplay of Halo, the questing of Borderlands, the loot itch of Diablo; if that sounds like your kind of game, then you should buy Destiny as soon as you can and get fighting. You have some moments to create.