Pre-release hype for AAA titles is a staple of the games industry; media speculation beats itself into frenzy as the numbers slide from the face of your page–a-day calendar, adverts begin to crop up in surprising places, gradually snowballing to being almost unavoidable by a week before D-day. Even the mainstream media takes note and delivers a poorly fact-checked, fist in mouth summary to the ire of gamers everywhere. It’s always a big deal.
But Destiny was the big deal. This was the gamechanger. We were all waiting with bated breath, anxiously charging our pads, spare batteries and spare spare batteries, arranging snacks and energy drinks in the shape of the Destiny logo around our front rooms in extended fits of anticipatory lunacy. We, the gaming community were chomping at the bit, nay, frothing at the mouth to get started; we may well have killed to get our hands on a copy.
Thankfully the fever pitch never reached levels resulting in grisly murder, despite the PR team’s best efforts, but what’s happened since release is a far cry from the reception that Bungie and Activision might’ve been wishing for. As is often the problem with creating such vast quantities of hype, Destiny hasn’t quite lived up to everyone’s expectations, but examining it as a work in its own right, detached from the build-up to its release, might allow us to evaluate what’s actually there.
There are three classes: Hunter, Titan and Warlock, and each of these finds its place in the regular class subsets, damage-dealer, tank and caster, respectively. You’re a Guardian and, as ever, it’s your job to protect what remains of civilisation. There’s a mysterious benefactor known as the Traveller and there is a mysterious darkness known as … the Darkness. It’s all a bit cryptic and the game at times seems to feel quite discombobulated about it all itself, but you have a gun and there are various units part of various factions, from the typical alien Fallen to the Terminator-esque, teleporting Vex to shoot at. At least we know some things are sacred.
Having been touted by its creators with the non-committal buzzword ‘shared world shooter’, Destiny is at major risk of an identity crisis. Doing away with industry frilliness, let’s see the game as it is, it’s an MMO. Whilst not ‘massively’ multiplayer in the same way that, say, the now veteran World of Warcraft is, lacking expansively populated hub towns and enormous throngs of players on single servers, it bears all the fundamentals of games in that genre and is multiplayer focussed enough to wear the mantle, if not proudly.
As an MMO, Destiny required a vast setting with almost limitless scope for innovation, and being set a sci-fi rendition of the future known universe, it certainly provides. This bountiful, rich setting is fertile territory for potentially infinite releases of new content, and an awe-inspiring proposition for a player to be met with. Bungie have capitalised most successfully here, rendering crystal clear space-vistas to bring even the most vocal sceptic to reluctant moment of silence. Eyegasmic is a term I would never use lightly, but with Destiny it really fits the bill. The visual sense of scale is present immediately, as the player awakes in the decrepit, battle-worn Old Russia, and persists throughout the playable world, from Earth to the Moon, to Mars, Venus and beyond.
To those familiar with the MMO framework, an FPS might initially seem unsettling, though what Bungie have forged here is really an FPS at its core, dressed up in the trappings of an MMO, to the point where only visits to the social hub, The Tower, really feel like an MMO and everything else, multiplayer or not, is recognisable shooter territory.
It’s good that the FPS features form Destiny’s core because these are what make up its greatest strengths in terms of gameplay. Clearly having learned a few lessons from a certain franchise, Bungie have exercised the same shooter magic that brought them success in the past; to the extent that Destiny certainly has a worthwhile claim to being Halo’s spiritual successor. The combat is tight and frenetic enough that Call of Duty fans will latch on instantly, but still has that signature ‘floatiness’ that was ever a hallmark of the Halo games. Or perhaps it’s just something to do with the gravity, after all ‘that wizard came from the moon’.
Bungie have woven a masterful aural accompaniment to the beautiful visuals, too, with an eclectic and unpredictable score, spanning a great range of genres, rarely missing a beat when it comes to meshing well with whatever’s on-screen. Credited as composing are the sadly fired Marty O’Donnell, Mike Salvatori and legendary Beatle, Paul McCartney and as sound work in games goes, Destiny has one of the best journeys going, as far as your ears are concerned.
There are issues, however. At its core, Destiny has a deep problem that permeates throughout, and it’s one of style over substance. This first became apparent early on, when visiting the hub after completing a few missions. While the setup and layout, with the gunsmith, quest-givers, postmaster et. al. all present and accounted for, was by the book, there was a certain eeriness to the place. And it wasn’t because it felt desolate, for desolate as it was, with the plot having Earth’s survival swaying drunkenly on a knife-edge and The Tower stationed on a planet having suffered a long and painful war, a measure of desolation is to be expected. No, the eeriness was derived from an immediately appreciable lack of depth, a feeling akin to walking through a town populated solely by cutouts, where the buildings are all front and no back. The inclusion of MMO elements such as vendors felt somewhat arbitrary without it being fleshed out; sure there were weapons for sale, but in a game that would give you so many great, superior weapons out in the field, what purpose is there for the lowly gunsmith? I almost felt bad; business must be slow. Picking up quests and collecting rewards felt pointless, upgrading vehicles and transports felt pointless, the sorts of qualities that distinguish an MMO from a regular RPG felt pointless – the content was ready and waiting but there was little motivation from the game’s side to actually make use of it.
This apathy spread as the game progressed, the levelling system, too, feeling somewhat redundant. The experience came, then came the levels, then came the upgrades, but there never really felt like there was much of a choice to be made, it was all on rails; an illusion; a façade. I was back in toytown and the visual and aural immersion was giving way to an experience veering towards the merely sub-sub-Broadway-theatrical.
The massive scale suggested by the aesthetic and the setting diminishes as the available worlds unfold, and shrinks further still as parts of these worlds are recycled with static mobs of enemies stationed in the same positions across various visits and missions. What jars the most though with expectations of limitless travel through space to countless worlds, zooming past stars with the universe at your fingertips, is being able to kill the story in around fifteen hours. Even with the promise of endgame raids, for a sense of enormity to hold in space, there must always be new story content to attack. These disappointments are somewhat compensated for by the exasperatingly entertaining open world events, but the crux of the title cannot be these fleeting stabs of destructive revelry.
I was starting to feel betrayed by the game as my excitement for it was rewarded with what felt like disingenuousness.
And then – a revelation! This is an FPS! This is an MMO! This is a mainstream developer and a mainstream publisher (Activision) trying to unite the communities of each in a commensurable way that satisfies and piques curiosity in equal measure. Combining the insane pace of an FPS with the often-complex nuts and bolts of an MMO would ruin the pacing and, particularly, would ruin the experience for core FPS fans. And remembering the core Bungie and console audience, this MMO-by-numbers makes a lot of sense.
As the story winds up a little too early, the Crucible and the pursuit of Vanguard points remain. The Crucible is your standard PvP multiplayer, with versions of the usual set of modes available across a series of maps. Here is also where Destiny feels most Halo, so there’s definite nostalgia value to be had. Points and status earned through successes here can be funnelled into rare gear for your character. Points earned completing Vanguard challenges can be utilised for similar purposes, but these are gained through completing strikes – Destiny’s take on instances / raids. The difficulty of strikes can be upped as your party’s strength increases for greater challenge and greater rewards, though as it stands we won’t really know what’s destined to become of Destiny until more details about further content emerge.
As it stands Destiny is an ambitious and valiant attempt to entwine two radically different styles of gameplay, and whilst it works to an extent, there’s always the background thought running along the lines of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Perhaps the flimsy MMO side of things will flesh out as Bungie’s ‘ten year plan’ gets under way, and if that’s the case we’ll have to reserve some judgement, but without all that Destiny is a beautiful looking and sounding shooter that fires up the heart and becomes a wholly comical and hysterical creature when shared with friends, and will still suck away at your life like a hungry time-hoover (particularly with those loading screens). Not one for the introvert.