7 & 7 Review: Destiny
Was there ever a more appropriate candidate for a 7 & 7 Review than the latest project from the game studio that has been famously obsessed with the number 7? As most readers probably know, Bungie has even staken claim to July 7th as “Bungie Day”, and even has a Trophy/Achievement in Destiny for achieving 777 Grimoire score. And yes, it is Destiny we are here to review today. From the studio than brought you Marathon (and a little franchise you may have also heard of in Halo) comes one of the most anticipated games of the year and the first salvo into their new 10-year commitment with publisher Activision. After spending a couple weeks with the self-described “shared world shooter”, could it possibly live up to the hype?
1) If Halo, Borderlands, and Mass Effect had a baby…
…it would probably strongly resemble Destiny. The comparisons to Halo should come as no surprise–its made by the same studiom, after all, and Bungie’s fingerprint is apparent in every aspect of the game that has to do with being a first-person shooter. Your Guardian moves like Master Chief, the environments largely consist of mini sandboxes, the gallery of enemy A.I. have distinct behavioral patterns, and the guns feel mostly like variations of the Battle Rifle, Assault Rifle, DMR, etc. (there’s even a “hand cannon” that’s basically a really strong pistol, a la Halo: Combat Evolved). There are occasional vehicular segments. The music is appropriately epic. Antagonistic alien races are generally ominous singular nouns (The Darkness, The Fallen, The Cabal, and more instead of The Covenant and The Flood). Even the competitive multiplayer (more on that in a bit) feels like it could’ve come from a Halo game. And of course, there’s a sci-fi sheen to the whole thing.
But as much as Destiny is unmistakably infused with Halo‘s DNA, there are many aspects of the game that aren’t Halo-y at all. Like Borderlands, shooting enemies causes numbers to cascade off their character models to indicate the damage dealt to them. Collecting procedurally-generated loot and materials are also central aspects to gameplay, especially once you’ve completed all the mission on offer. The game is clearly tuned to playing co-operatively, to the point where you actually cannot play this game offline. On top of it all, there skill trees for classes, subclasses, weapons, armor–Bungie has done a pretty good job adding RPG elements into the Halo formula, and it really makes Destiny stand out from the studio’s predecessors. And after our quest to Finish the Fight and save humanity from certain extinction, Bungie has promised a new, equally epic narrative journey across the outer reaches of our solar system (we’ll come back to that one too).2) The Sights and Sounds
Let’s just get one thing right out of the way: Destiny is a gorgeous game. Free from the shackles of an established IP, Bungie’s artists have let their imaginations run wild, fusing science fiction and fantasy visual notes into a truly spectacular-looking experience. It’s not as if it’s just a raw power thing either (though the game does flex those muscles on occasion)–it’s beautiful in the way Halo was beautiful, with vivid colors, detailed environments, cool armor and unique weapons, imaginative enemies, and a whole lot of variety in between. The game takes you from the ruins of Old Russia on Earth, to the mines of the fractured Moon, to the lush jungles of Venus, and finally settles on the red deserts of Mars. Each environment is visually distinct from one another and–despite sprawling across huge areas–carry a remarkable attention to detail in every room, nook, and crannie. All of the enemy races mirror this variety as well: the insectoid Fallen, demonic Hive, mechanical Vex, and massive Cabal enemy types all consist of several sub-classes that keep things fresh both visually and during gameplay. And despite iconic composer Marty O’Donnell’s departure late in development, the mesmerizing score holds it all together from the moment you hit the title screen. As an audio-visual experience, Destiny is an instant masterpiece that future generations of artists and musicians will be studying for a long time to come.
3) What happened to the Story?
Unfortunately, the narrative could not live up to same lofty ambitions as the rest of the game. While co-operative gunplay provides endless hours of joy and the art and sound make the world feel wholly unique, the story completely and utterly fails to provide that additional layer that would make Destiny a truly unforgettable experience. This is especially disappointing given Bungie’s increasing focus on story throughout their games (remember that Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, the studio’s last two releases, had explicit objectives of telling better stories to go along with the award-winning FPS gameplay) as well as their ambitious professions about their new universe. The premise of the story sets the stage well enough: centuries ago, humanity experienced a Golden Age and expanded our civilization to the heavens. Eventually, a “cataclysm” happened, instigated by a mysterious enemy known only as “The Darkness”. If not for the intervention of The Traveler–a giant white orb with arcane powers that now floats idly above humanity’s Last City on Earth–The Darkness would have wiped us out. Now, centuries after both the rise and fall of our once-great civilization, player-controlled characters called Guardians venture out beyond the safety of the Last City to reclaim our old kingdoms and push back The Darkness before it wipes us out for good. That all sounds awesome right??
Well, those 3 sentences are more story than you will ever actually get from the game. After starting off being inexplicably resurrected (because our character was already dead? what?) by an apathetic A.I. that looks exactly like a multi-angular 343 Guilty Spark, you blindly follow his guidance through several missions across the four locations we previously discussed as being so beautiful (Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars). At one point you make a brief excursion to the Asteroid Belt so you can meet the Queen of the Awoken (apparently a subsect of humanity that was cut off from the rest of civilization and as a result became pale-skinned and glowy-eyed) and her snarky brother, but they only serve to send you on a few more errands so you can prove yourself a competent warrior despite their initial dismissal of your capabilities. That’s pretty much it. There’s a bunch of extra lore you can unlock and go read about in the Destiny app or on Bungie.net, but as far as what’s in the game, there is–for all intents and purposes–no story to speak of. Just under-developed characters, vague objectives and plot devices, and a robotic companion who tries to feed you information but whom you never end up really listening to because you’re too busy shooting at things and/or bantering with your co-op buddies. The promise of the great narrative Destiny begins with crumbles almost immediately and never manages to stitch together anything remotely coherent, let alone great. The universe is brimming with potential, but Bungie flat-out failed in this aspect of the game.4) Online Co-Op at its Finest (Offline players need not apply)
Getting back to what Destiny actually does well, it must be noted that it’s is an online-only shooter. While missions can be tackled solo, they cannot be played offline–given my relatively stable internet connection, this was never really an issue for me, and in fact it invited some cool new design elements. For example, there are always other Guardians around you, often chasing after their own objectives. You might cross paths and team up to clear an area of baddies, and then you’ll each continue on your merry way. It’s a mechanic clearly informed by the MMO genre, without actually committing to being an MMO. Unfortunately, there’s little way to meaningfully interact with these random passersby other than a couple pre-determined generic animations–there’s no local area chat or easy way to join up with each other. However, you can buddy up with friends and form a fireteam of up to 3 players to tackle missions together.
At first the 3 player limit felt constricting, especially knowing that each instance of an area could contain many more actual players on their own missions. In practice, though, the game is finely tuned for 3 and offers plenty of fun and strategy as you rampage through the missions together. While respawning is usually possible at will, every mission contains one or two areas where death means you have to actually go back and reload a checkpoint, so it becomes very helpful to have partners around who can revive you instead. Combined with the finely tuned gunplay, peerless environmental design, and refreshingly intelligent (and very Bungie) enemy A.I., Destiny is one of the most fun co-op experiences out there. Just don’t expect to be given a reason to be shooting things. Outside of the story missions, open world-style “Patrol” missions let you freely explore the expansive environments and complete side quests, while more intensive, boss-focused Strikes and Raids (which, unlike the story missions, cannot be played solo) give you and your friends a platform to test your mettle and earn some new loot.5) Enter the Crucible
It’s not all co-op, although that is definitely Destiny’s bread and butter. Once your Guardian reaches Level 5 you unlock The Crucible, which is a fancy term for “PvP” or “Competitive Multiplayer.” Although technically existing within the rest of the game’s shallow narrative framework, The Crucible eschews any narrative responsibility, which actually suits it fine as a competitive multiplayer mode. Stat discrepancies normally at play during the rest of the game are neutralized, so every player is working with an equal playing field when it comes to health and damage dealt–although class-specific abilities still offer some differentiation, while custom loadouts utilize the same inventory as any other mission.
With those notable differences, matches in The Crucible are standard fare for most Halo veterans. With the RPG elements all but stripped, combat boils down to the ebb-and-flow of a standard Halo match, only with slightly less health and less of a reliance on grenades and melee attacks (although they are definitely still helpful). Power weapon pickups are replaced by ammo for your Special and Heavy weapon types, while certain maps also offer vehicles. Map design leans toward asymmetrical, but each is as tightly designed as any of the great Halo maps you’ve played before.
There’s really little of note in The Crucible but little to complain about either. It’s a fun distraction from the main gameplay loop and offers its own, well-polished sense of fun–just don’t expect a wide variety of modes. Some weapons and armor can only be purchased with points earned from Crucible matches, so the game definitely incentivizes you to spend at least some time shooting other Guardians. Refreshingly, The Crucible is also a great alternative way to earn XP–instead of being diluted into a grind like most games tend to do, XP is earned at roughly the same pace as in story missions, so it really comes down to where you enjoy spending your time.6) A Tale of Two Destinies
There are a finite number of playable missions in Destiny. Technically, there is also a level cap of 20. However, when the story is complete and your Guardian has maxed out, in a way, a new game begins. You’re encouraged to replay variations of previous missions, particularly the boss-focused Strikes, so that you can earn special loot that allows you to keep leveling up and in turn tackle even tougher challenges. A special attribute called “Light” is found in certain high level armor, and collecting enough “Light” points pushes your level up further and further. Meanwhile, XP remains important for leveling up weapons, armor pieces, and subclass skill trees. The game’s first raid actually requires you get up to at least Level 26, so the game essentially changes focus at 20 from prioritizing defense or damage stats to suddenly making Light the all-important attribute of any piece of armor. Up until Level 20, the loot system is present and operational, but it’s at this point that it really kicks into high gear and becomes the focus of the game, thus taking away much of the dullness that would otherwise pollute replaying levels with modifiers (it also helps that the minute-to-minute gameplay is very fun, and that pretty much anything is more fun with friends involved).7) To Infinity and Beyond
In some respects, reaching the end of the string of “story” missions results in a feeling of, “that’s it?” For all the pomp and circumstance, we ended up with a terrible narrative adventure. We ended up with only 4 celestial entities to visit (no Mercury, no outer solar system) and even within those entities we only got to explore one part of the planet/moon. I would have loved to see more of the ruins of Earth than just the sparse grasslands of Old Russia, or seen any at all of the “garden world” Mercury had become during The Golden Age. In the end, each environment contains about 6 story missions apiece, but while 24 missions might sound like a beefy Halo game, it feels much shallower given Destiny‘s stated (and oft-evangelized) scope.
The loot-centric endgame only fends off this feeling to a certain extent, but there is still a palpable feeling of “been this, done that” while you’re grinding for that next Legendary drop. Thankfully, Bungie has shown thusfar that they will remain active in introducing new tweaks into the online world of Destiny so that Guardians looking for a reason to jump back in and continue that loot grind at least have new ripples on the formula to keep it a little interesting. Already they’ve introduced the first “Raid”, a 6-player-only mission that has taken an average of over 10 hours to complete. But even on a more subtle level, new Crucible modes, new twists to Strike missions, and new bounties (objectives that give you an XP boost and varying types of in-game currency) have thusfar kept things fresh. Only time will tell how well Bungie is able to keep the same set of assets interesting–or how much new content the planned DLC will actually infuse into the world–but so far, I’ve yet to banish the urge to keep jumping back in for another round with friends.
Review: 6 (out of 7) — A few closing thoughts: Destiny is definitely a flawed experience, but in many ways it is a bold, ambitious step for a brand-new IP. Bungie nailed arguably the most important pillar of the game–the minute-to-minute gunplay–which should come as no surprise to longtime Halo fans, but is nevertheless a substantial achievement and one that will form the backbone of the game’s replayability. A solid roster of friends to play with and a stable internet connect are definitely musts, but assuming you can manage those, you will have a lot of fun with Destiny. Sequels will surely afford Bungie an opportunity to tweak mission structure, the loot system, and various other imperfect aspects of the game, such as fun-sapping bullet-sponge Strike bosses that take forever to kill. Despite the game’s achievements, its impossible to escape the feeling that Destiny falls short of the lofty ambitions it promises at the onset, particularly its anemic story that is neither grand nor memorable. One thing is certain, though: Destiny is a helluva good time.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 4 version.