Talk of the Town: Destiny (E3 2013 Eyes-On Demo)

My initial experiences with Bungie’s ambitious new project, Destiny, was one of utter disappointment. This had nothing to do with the game itself, mind you, but rather the 2+ hour wait I endured to get into what I thought was a playable demo, only to find out that I had in fact stumbled into a dreaded “eyes-on” live demo played by Bungie employees. Further fueling that disappointment was the revelation that it was the same demo played at the PlayStation conference that I had already watched–without waiting–on the internet. Being one of the titles I was most looking forward to seeing at my very first in-person E3, it’s hard to quantify in words the extent to which I was let down.

It should say something, then, that I was still able to walk out of that demo with a smile across my face.

Bungie opened the demo by dropping into Old Russia, a dilapidated wasteland marked by a giant wall of unknown purpose or origin. The player, of course, is a Guardian–a special human who Bungie likens to a “knight” and whose job it is to venture throughout the solar system to stamp out threats to humanity, presumably to pave the way for a renewed attempt at interplanetary expansion. (In case you’re not familiar with Destiny‘s premise, the game is set on the Last City of Earth 500 years in the future, after humanity has already explored the heavens before being beaten back by a lost-to-legends menace and is only now regaining the strength to venture out anew).

Playing on a PS4 (notable only because of in-game button prompts and the glowing LED between the hands of the Bungie players), our demo man confirmed that this was, in fact, the same demo shown during Sony’s press conference. However, he rewarded our tenacity in sticking through that line by first turning around and showing a vast expanse of Old Russia. “All of that space,” the demo man said referring to the sprawling valley that would simply be a painted backdrop in most games, “is entirely playable area. When you play, you’ll be able to go there, and wherever else you want.” He demonstrated this by throwing a grenade as far as his Guardian was able, and we all watched it take a couple bounces off a distant hill before finally exploding. It’s worth noting that, despite all the space that could be seen from that vista, there was nary a landmark or enemy to fill it. While that’s understandable given the inherent nature of an E3 demo, it didn’t paint much of a picture as to what would entice players to actually explore that much open environment.

As the demo officially kicked off, another Guardian appeared to accompany the one we were following on-screen. There was no menu or loading of any kind, so it was unclear how she was brought in the world, but the inference that she was a known friend suggests that she just “hopped in” from her end and was seamlessly placed into her friend’s game. The two Guardians then proceeded to enter the massive wall, and after showing off the lighting engine with a meticulous crawl through the industrial hallways, a mouthy AI companion referred to as a ‘Ghost’ magically triggered some circuits to make the dark hallways come to life with light (and then, strangely, was never seen or heard from again).

This action, of course, caught the attention of the enemies lurking inside (called “The Fallen” and vaguely resembling the Prometheans in 343 Industries’ Halo 4) and the demo’s first firefight commenced. Bungie’s legacy creating Halo‘s signature feel is clearly evident in the way Destiny plays, even from my purely observational viewpoint. Guardians are not Spartans and The Fallen are not the Covenant, but the way both the players and enemies move, the way enemy AI reacts to your movement, and the way gunplay in general is handled is very Halo-esque. Destiny is very much a game built upon the studio’s pedigree, but without the restrictions inherent with having to fit new ideas into an existing world. When it came to guns, player appearance, and enemy types, its as if Bungie let its designers and artists run wild with any and all ideas that would still fit into the basic skeleton of Halo‘s polished framework.

There was one, loud, noticeable exception to this: magical abilities. Now I’m not sure if it’s actually called ‘magic’ as it was never referred to by name during the demo, but for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to it as such. Like your weapons and armor, it appears that magical abilities will be customizable; the ability on display during the demo dropped the camera into third person as the Guardian charged a ball of energy and blasted it forward, not unlike a Street Fighter hadoken. The magical attack appeared to do a hefty amount of damage, knocking off about a third of an ensuing mini-boss’s health bar in one fell swoop after it took several rounds of ammunition to get that far.  That mini boss also dropped a glowing orb once defeated, which was revealed to be the first appearance of loot in the game. The gun picked up by the demo player, dubbed “Thunderlord,” was imbued with lightning-charged ammunition and he briefly showed that the gun had its own spec tree for making upgrades. It’s clear that Bungie is going for a high level of replayability and customization in as many facets of Destiny‘s design as possible.

As the demo proceeded it opened into a large field on the opposite side of the giant wall the the Guardians had just blasted through, where they were met by another friend. In another hint at the game’s expansive arsenal, this third Guardian was sporting what was only referred to as a “wolf gun” and was encrusted with a wolf emblem at the end of its bazooka-like frame. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see if the gun actually fires wolves because at that moment an alien cruiser warped into the atmosphere and dropped a massive boss-like enemy into the fray. An overlay on the HUD revealed this was a “public event,” which MMO players would consider akin to an “instance,” and suddenly there was another fireteam of Guardians occupying the same space. Together, the 7 Guardians (I have no doubt the number 7 is quite intentional as those folks at Bungie have the same affinity for that number that we do) proceed to chip away at the boss’s substantial health bar, until it was finally defeated and a sizzle reel was queued for the audience.

And with that sizzle reel came the smile that I walked out with. Like is to be expected with any Bungie product, especially one shown in such a controlled environment, there was a very high level of polish to everything. Destiny has sounded like a remarkably ambitious project from the day it was announced, and seeing the demo solidified that that scope didn’t just apply to the game’s story, settings, and release schedule, but also to more nuanced gameplay elements like loot, magical abilities, guns, and the ways which players can play with one another. It’s tough to judge such an expansive game from such a small slice, but Bungie does appear to have a firm grasp on its vision, and the studio’s esteemed pedigree leaves little room for doubt. One thing I will note is that the game didn’t wow me visually; it looked good, but in the way that Halo 3 looked good in the early days of the Xbox 360 in that it came off as an optimized version of the best-looking games on the current platforms, rather than the jaw-dropping, definitive step up displayed by Ryse or Metal Gear Solid V. That doesn’t detract from the immersion, though, especially with another fantastic score from the legendary Marty O’Donnell, and the brilliant art direction that permeates the world. Suffice to say I am eagerly awaiting stepping into Bungie’s new journey with my own hands on the controller once Destiny finally arrives in 2014.

 

 

Jason Ragatz

Follow me @RaggySays

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