Editor’s Note: this isn’t a full review of Activision/Bungie’s Destiny, that will be coming soon. These are my thoughts after playing through the game’s campaign, an online adventure, and believing the hype. Let’s get to it.
I don’t pre-order games. Well, that’s kind of a lie. I’ll drop by the afternoon before a title I want comes out and drop five bucks in order to get whatever tidbits they’ve cut from the game to sell as a pre-order bonus. When it comes to the usual paradigm of giving Gamestop a $60 interest-free loan for several weeks in exchange for the promise of an upcoming piece of plastic, though, that’s not my bag. I’d actually argue it’s one of the most damaging things happening in games right now and a prime example of the anti-consumer mentality of the gaming industry.
I also don’t usually go to midnight game launches. If it’s that special something from a series I’m really into, I might brave the lines and pick up a new release at midnight, sure. But I never really saw it as an actual “event” or shared cultural experience. It’s picking up a game and reconciling with the fact that I’m going to feel like shit at work the next day. No big deal.
That said, I’ll admit that I did pick up Bungie’s new FPS/RPG/MMO hybrid experiment Destiny at midnight on launch day. Yes, I even pre-ordered it. In my mind, I did both for good reasons. Borderlands (the most obvious “inspiration” for Destiny) is one of my favorite game series, the game’s alpha/beta previews were fun, and it was fun being swept up in the game’s unavoidable hype-train. Naturally, as Bungie has proudly announced, this hype-train isn’t going to be derailed by pre-release reviews because letting people know what they’re getting for their pre-order dollars just isn’t conducive to business.
Am I surprised that the New Hotness isn’t actually the paradigm-shifting tour de force it was sold as? Not really. It’s a videogame, it’s got good and bad points. Am I disappointed? Sure; disappointment is hype’s best friend, after all, and you don’t prevent pre-release reviews of media unless you have a reason to do so – something we see all the time in the film industry. Do I deserve to be disappointed? Well, I did preorder it and attend a midnight launch…
Let’s start with the bad: Destiny’s much-vaunted story and setting, to put it plainly, are nonsense. Bungie apparently subscribes to the Capitalize Something To Make It Sound Important school of writing, but then neglected to attend any of that school’s other classes, such as Exposition 101 and Remedial Showing Not Telling. You play as a Guardian, a defender of the City, which is the last bastion of human life and which is under the protection of a mysterious white sphere called the Traveler. Sometimes you’ll fight Goblins or Wizards. Your powers include Light and the primary opponent works under the auspice of the Darkness. At least Pronunciation is Never an Issue. Your character is revived from the dead to work in the interests of the City, though your previous life and the philosophical implications of this act are of course ignored entirely.
Naturally, all of this capitalization is imparted on the player via very pretty and very unskippable cutscenes. My co-op partner and I eventually reached the point where we decided that the cutscenes were a convenient moment to grab a drink. Maybe that was the intention. The characters, such as they are, aren’t going to keep you going through the game. The central character, a floating robotic “Ghost” voiced by Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones fame, can’t seem to decide if he wants to be an informative assistant or a purveyor of witty banter. Dinklage does the best with what he’s given, for what it’s worth. I kind of feel bad for him. Having completed the game, it’s not at all a spoiler to say that there’s no resolution whatsoever and you’re left in the dark much as you started.
What exposition and fluff details exist are available via the Grimoire, an online-only encyclopedia of the type you normally access through the game itself. Grimoire “cards” are obtained through various feats in the game, such as killing a certain number of each type of enemy. You also unlock small perks via certain cards, again typically by killing a whole bunch of a given enemy. It would’ve been very convenient to have this information accessible in-game…though, well, it also would’ve been convenient to have the “perk” system explained ingame as well, since it’s not. In any case, the Grimoire helps make Destiny’s plot and setting a little more bearable and it’s a pretty interesting read.
Still, it doesn’t answer even all the basic questions; I still don’t know, for instance, what the Hive enemy faction are beyond “the bad guys.” I’m not entirely convinced Bungie knows either.
“But how does it play?!” cries the world. It’s Halo with the experience levels and some sprinkling of the loot system from Borderlands. Boom, done. This is a Bungie game, so the gunplay and movement feel nice and fluid. Weapons have a satisfying kick and handle pretty much like you’d expect them to. Several varieties of primary, secondary and heavy weapon are available; primary weapons are generally several types of rifle with varying degrees of automatic fire (along with the Hand Cannon, an awkward heavy pistol that doesn’t really compare to the longarms), secondary weapons include a shotgun, sniper rifle and beam cannon and heavy weapons include rocket launchers and machine guns.
Unlike Borderlands and its rocket-firing shotguns, there’s very few cases where the randomized loot in Destiny deviates from its weapon class in terms of performance. It’s more than a little disappointing that pretty much all Scout Rifles feel like other Scout Rifles, for instance. Things loosen up a little as you progress through the game but you’re never going to see the kind of variety that Borderlands offers. The highlight of Destiny’s loot system is the fact that many items are upgradable; guns, for instance, can offer bizarre perks like randomly giving you your bullet back if you miss a shot. It’s cute, but even these perks are usually mundane enough to be worth a chuckle and little ele.
“More than a little disappointing” actually sums up the impact of most of the game’s RPG elements on how Destiny plays. Levels and the damage values on weapons aren’t so much a representation of power as they are a means of gating content. You’re a gunslinging, alien-slaughtering badass from level one, wielding guns that feel pretty much like the guns you’ll have at level fifteen. You might have a few more character abilities at level fifteen, sure, but the sizable cool-downs on pretty much everything your character does outside of running around and shooting means that these abilities don’t come into play as often as you might like.
So, then, the main difference between levels one and fifteen is that at level fifteen, you won’t die in one shot to level fifteen enemies and you’ll do significant damage to them in return. This is highlighted by the fact that progressing through the story directly isn’t really possible without some degree of irritating level grinding, lest you run into a content wall posed by enemies that look and fight exactly the same but prove impossible to kill. The maximum level is 20 and it’s fairly easy to cap out in a couple afternoons of play if you’re willing to endure the aforementioned level grinding. Once that happens, the endgame as it stands consists largely of running a random playlist of instanced dungeons or pvp maps to grind up currency for gear upgrades.
On the bright side, RPG elements like character classes and subclasses are a neat concept and feel pretty different in practice. The real highlight of the character development system to me was that Destiny forgoes the snore-inducing percentage-based increases offered by pretty much modern game with RPG elements. A new character ability almost always offers a significant and noticeable addition or sidegrade to how your character controls. As mentioned, the cool-downs on most actions are pretty painful (can’t let you have too much fun at once, after all) but later gear offers means of alleviating this a bit.
Each class is split into two subclasses that feels significantly different from one another. The Hunter, for instance, starts as the Gunslinger which focuses on precision fire. At level 15, you can instead switch to the Bladedancer, which focuses on melee combat. I’d wager a kidney that more subclasses will be one of the things Bungie want to sell as DLC; only having two subclasses for each main class smells more than a bit fishy. Hope your wallet’s ready, in other words.
So if your level is up to snuff and you’re using appropriately-leveled weapons, you’re good to go clear some content. This content takes several forms: you run around and shoot the mans, you run around and shoot the mans while defending a point or run around and shoot the bigger, more scary mans. You’ll do these in a variety of very, very pretty locations. It’s highly repetitive and the lack of noticeable character progression means that if you’re not here for the shooting, you’re going to find Destiny outstaying its welcome very quickly. The best parts of the game take place toward the end of the approximately ten-hour plot, where you’ll find some very pretty and interesting set-pieces that end up marred by the fact that you’re doing the same shit that you’ve been doing for the whole game.
The fact that the game is (very technically) an MMORPG means that you’ll be running into other players in the world as you engage in frantic man-shooting. This was one of the most-hyped features of the game and the ostensible reason that Bungie didn’t allow pre-release reviews. Naturally it’s all hype: heavy use of instancing means that you probably won’t have much to do with them outside of Patrol (free-roam) or Strike (instanced dungeon) missions. Even then, most players aren’t that communicative and the content is basic enough that coordination hasn’t been hugely necessary. Life is cheap in Destiny, so reviving a downed comrade only takes around four or five seconds; keeping everyone on their feet and blasting away is usually enough to solve your problems.
Oh, and there’s PVP too, with associated currencies and gear to load up on. Have you played Halo? You’ve mostly got it then. The maps are very pretty and the gameplay is basically what you’d expect. Levels are scaled so that players are generally on even ground, though playing PVP will earn you rewards that can also be used in PVE.
That’s pretty much it, really. It’s Halo with fewer guns and a lot more busy work keeping you from getting to the business of murder. If you wanted more Halo and are willing to endure the level and gear grinds, Destiny is here for you and will accept you with open arms. If you wanted more Borderlands, well, that’s coming out next month.
Naturally Destiny will gladly accept your credit card with open arms, since we’ve already got confirmation of several DLC packs to be released in the coming months. This is The Year Of Our Lord 2014, after all: our game-changers so far have been Watch Dogs (a watered-down Grand Theft Auto clone), Titanfall (a watered-down Call of Duty clone) and now Destiny (a watered-down Borderlands clone). Naturally, all of these games have wanted to sell you more of themselves because OF COURSE you haven’t had enough already. At this stage of my time with it, I predict that Destiny is going to go the way of Titanfall and Watch Dogs: people will care because they’ve been told to care for about two weeks, then it’ll fade into obscurity.
And yet I pre-ordered it and went to the midnight launch. You know, this is making me feel kind of ill, guys. I think I’m going to go have a lie down.