I’m still on-the-fence about the idea of “reviewing” a game like Destiny this soon. Because it’s an MMO, it’s hard to tell where to be legitimately unhappy and where to just hope that the problems get fixed with the release of new content. The game shines when the action kicks up; taking your fireteam of three Guardians into a frantic firefight of lasers and massive sword-wielding aliens while running from a giant, angry boss spitting plasma from its mouth is just as exciting and fun as it sounds.
But Destiny doesn’t focus on the journey as much as it does the destination: player levels and loot become the name of the game, and that makes it easy to ignore so much of what Destiny does right and focus on what makes it so frustrating.
I can’t say it’s a bad game. Or that I want to stop playing it. But I can’t say it’s a good game, either. And I feel like I should stop playing it; if I didn’t have so many friends playing it, I just might. There’s a part of me that feels things will get better with time, with tweaking, patching, new content. I just hate feeling like I need to justify my gameplay.
If the destination of Destiny is loot, then the journey is the gameplay, which is some of the best you’ll find in a first-person shooter. The fusion of styles of Activision and Bungie, responsible for genre-setting franchises Call of Duty and Halo respectively, meld together seamlessly in Destiny: health regeneration, loose, swaying vehicle controls, and floaty aerial combat from Halo blend with the semi-realistic weapons, quick kills, and down-the-sights targeting which made Call of Duty so popular. Destiny lacks the multiplayer match customization that both franchises offer standard now, but I’d be surprised if I didn’t see that in a future content expansion.
As a campaign-centric gamer, I find myself spending a surprising amount of time in the Crucible, Destiny’s player vs. player battle arena. The five gameplay modes are fairly basic: 6-on-6 capture-centric Control, 6-on-6 team deathmatch, 6-person free-for-all, 3-on-3 team deathmatch, and 6-on-6 deathmatch with more vehicles. Still, because the controls are so tight, the maps are so well-designed, and because the weapons you gain in the player v. environment missions can be used in PvP, duking it out in the Crucible gave me a satisfaction I never found in either Halo or Call of Duty’s multiplayer arenas. Typically over-powered deathmatch weapons like shotguns and sniper rifles are only allowed as secondary weapons as well, pushing players closer together and making combat more frantic.
Outside of the Crucible, the world in the campaign is stunning. Anyone who tells you that Destiny isn’t visually amazing is lying to you. And though I’m typically not the person to gush about graphics, the visual masterwork at play in Destiny enhances the atmosphere in wonderful ways. Though I’ve tons of unsavory things to say about Peter Dinklage’s voice acting as the “Ghost,” (your navigator through the game that brings down any tension or excitement with flat, less-that-robotic narration) one line he says at the beginning sticks with me: “Well, you’ve been dead a long time. So you’re going to see a lot of things you won’t understand.”
Constantly, whether I’m blasting my way through lost ruins in Russia on Earth, exploring a majestic castle on the Moon, or battling through the jungles of Venus, I felt new, nearly overwhelmed, and captivated by the scenery. Coupled with the gorgeous, energetic soundtrack, I felt the part of that capital-H Hero the universe needed to fight back the forces of evil. It’s just a shame the in-game story doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
You play a Guardian, one of multiple nameless heroes revived from the dead by a Ghost to fight on the side of The Traveler against The Darkness. Both the Hive and the Fallen stand in your way as you try to…make your way to the end of each level? Honestly, there’s just not a whole lot to take away from Destiny’s story aside from many capitalized mysterious nouns and a generic “fight to save the universe” plot. But my hope is that this initial release is just meant to set the framework for what will become a layered, intriguing storyline.
Details about the plot rest in the Grimoire, a database of information which fills as you complete objectives and kill enemies in the game. Unfortunately, you can only access these entries either via your computer at Bungie’s website, or through the Destiny app on a smartphone. It was a peculiar choice to require you to step away from the game itself to learn more about the game’s world, especially considering the mysterious nature of Earth, the Moon, and Venus just make them all the more appealing to explore.
So, poor story aside, why can’t I feel comfortable calling Destiny a good game? Because there’s such a poor balance of risk versus reward.
Last night I joined up with colleagues Cory and Grayson, fellow Popzara editors, to play Destiny. All of our characters were at or above the soft level cap of 20, opening plenty of missions and content for us to explore. Instead, we shot at a cave for about an hour.
The Loot Cave exploit takes advantage of a loophole in Destiny’s programming, allowing players to easily kill wave after wave of enemies with no real risk of injury. Since Destiny’s experience system allows players who are just nearby a kill to get experience, everyone gets benefits from just standing nearby. And since Destiny spawns each character its own loot with no fear of someone else coming to take it, everyone can run into the cave after a few minutes of mindless trigger-pulling and harvest plenty of ammo and weapons, some of which can be Rare or Legendary.
It’s just as boring as it sounds. And yet, almost without fail now, any time you walk by the “Loot Cave,” you’ll see multiple players just sitting there, almost literally shooting fish in a barrel.
Our team farmed the Cave for roughly an hour. After getting no items of any real substance (I pulled one “Legendary” item, but it was unusable for my character’s class), we decided to take on a Strike mission. My character was level 24, Cory’s was 22, and Grayson’s was 20, so we took on a Level 22 Strike. After about 30 minutes of cycling between fighting, reviving friends, and dying, we headed back to shooting the Cave.
Occasionally, the Destiny Gods bestow an item to you actually worth having, but more often than not looting in any situation is just failed attempt after failed attempt. Grayson described shooting the Loot Cave as “pulling the handle of the slot machine at the Destiny Casino.” Sitting on the floor of my living room, pulling the right trigger on my PS4 controller while I ate snacks, I visualized sitting on a stool in front of a lit slot machine, pumping in nickel after nickel.
Grayson’s not far from the truth. And the saddest part is that the world of Destiny is so, so damned beautiful outside of that casino.
The issue is the soft level cap. You reach levels 1-20 simply via experience, meaning you can conquer mission after mission regardless of items and make progress towards a stronger character. But once you hit level 20, the only way you can make your character stronger is to gain “Light,” a special item attribute attached to rare gear. There are additional features to unlock in the game after level 20, including the level 26+ exclusive Vault of Glass, the deadly six-man raid which, according to many sources, breathes new life into the game. But there’s no efficient way to get items with Light; whether clearing missions or battling in the Crucible, it still feels like pulling the handle on that indomitable slot machine.
Strike missions cause the frantic gameplay I described at the beginning of this review; a team of three Guardians (random or otherwise) drop into essentially a boss fight mission with hordes of enemies and a big baddie at the end. Initially, you can clear Strike missions by yourself if you’re just patient enough; on harder difficulties they become nearly impossible with coordination, teamwork, and focus. They’re the apex of Destiny’s PvE, and yet it’s pretty difficult to feel any drive to take them on later in gameplay. Easy strike missions drop useless loot and aren’t worth the time, while clearing a 2-hour battle with multiple deaths and attempts at coordination can leave with you with just as many useless rewards: underpowered “rare” gear, crafting items, or weaponry/armor that’s unusable for your class. Lots of risk, little reward.
This almost goes double for the Crucible, which doles out Crucible-exclusive gear at the end of each match, but at a completely random rate that seems to have nothing to do with in-game performance, equipment, or much of anything other than random chance. It’s actually a little depressing to go through a particularly good match, then see that you didn’t get a single reward for your battle finesse. Sure, each match gives you Crucible Marks, special currency to buy advanced weaponry, but items require so many marks it’s dismaying.
But if you want to get to the Vault of Glass, you’ll need to get to level 26. And if you want to get to level 26, you’ll need to get some seriously quality gear.
Back to the Destiny Loot Cave Casino.
So, if the looting is bad enough to break the game experience, why can’t I call Destiny a bad game? Because when you add friends into the mix, Destiny becomes something very special.
Destiny may not be an MMO to compare to World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, or Wildstar, but there’s no denying that it’s at its best when played with friends. Somehow, the game is still fun even when you’re just standing around with one or two buddies shooting at a cave. But the sparks really fly when you’re coordinating an attack on an enemy spawnpoint in multiplayer, or focusing your fire on a particularly nasty magic-wielding wizard that’s tearing up the team. And yes, there’s joy to be had when you finally win at the Destiny Casino, and you get to brag about your phenomenal new loot you just got. Hell, there are even laughs to be had when you get good loot that you can’t use, so long as you’re sharing the experience with friends.
Really, the key to enjoying Destiny is sharing it with friends. When exploring the world alone, the game feels somehow hollow, empty in a way that only gets filled by the banter of friends and teammates. But that filled game world can be damn-near magical.
A quote from Cory, while the three of us stood and shot at the Loot Cave: “If this many people are just sitting around shooting at a cave, then there’s obviously a problem.” Considering there’s so much else to do in Destiny, Cory’s exactly right. Destiny’s loot-and-level issue nearly wrecks the game. But there’s so much to explore, so much to see, and so much to enjoy in Destiny that it’s worth the shot, particularly if you’re playing with friends.
I have to remind myself that Destiny, whether we like it or not, is being developed as an MMO: its content will release in waves, new abilities and quests are planned for the future, and the designers likely have brand new gameplay mechanics to reveal to gamers when the first expansion releases. Those new mechanics could completely rejuvenate the world of Destiny. In the meantime, we’re all just Guardians fighting against the darkness…and, though I want it to, I’m not sure Destiny will win. For better or for worse, I’m still fighting the fight…I’m just not sure for how long.