Over the past few days I had the opportunity to take a break from reviewing the incredibly long PC RPG Divinity: Original Sin (68 hours in with the end still not in sight!) by suiting up as one of humanity’s last Guardians. After three focused days with the beta, I can say with confidence that Bungie has put what it learned from years developing Halo and successfully read the gaming landscape to create an FPS title that will stand the test of time.
The Destiny beta was previewed on PlayStation 4.
How does one describe Destiny? Destiny seems like a hodgepodge of various elements copped from other famous science-fiction games, movies, and books that were then rolled up into one package, streamlined, and then given some of the characteristics of an MMO (I thought about putting in the dictionary definition of destiny here instead, but decided that would be too obvious). The physics of the movement is very Halo-esque, giving the player a sensation of great power and fluidity, while eschewing the frantic pacing of titles like Call of Duty or Titanfall. Meanwhile the gunplay is heavily influenced by Borderlands. The aesthetics and setting have Star Wars influences written all over along them (imagine that the Deathstar was sentient, good, and didn’t blow up planets and you basically have the premise for Destiny). Finally, the story is a mix of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End both of which were written by Arthur C. Clarke.
And here is the thing: All of those disparate elements come together feeling new and fresh, which is a real achievement! I walked away from my weekend with Destiny having enjoyed myself and feeling optimistic about the game’s future. However, I don’t think it is enough to tell you that I had this positive reaction to Destiny, instead I’m going to attempt to explain why.
One of the main attractions of Destiny is how it empowers players. It goes about this in a variety of ways, but first and foremost, it conveys power through movement and terrain traversal. As usual for an FPS, players can toggle between normal running and sprinting, the pace of which is not frenetically fast, but instead instils a feeling of accuracy and control. It is a small touch, but it works. Jumping represents a major contributor to the empowerment of movement in Destiny. At first it seems like a more toned-down version of Halo’s high, floaty jumps, but upon reaching level three or four, players unlock the double jump and it changes everything. In my mind, Titanfall was the first FPS that truly embraced the notion of verticality and freedom of movement. I played Titanfall and felt like I was seeing what the new trend in multiplayer would be; Bungie, much like Respawn, realized that it needed to get away from the landlocked mentality of last-gen’s shooters. I won’t say that Bungie looked at Titanfall and tried to emulate it; Destiny has clearly been in development for years, too long to make such a fundamental change to its entire structure and gameplay dynamics. Destiny and Titanfall both happened to hit on the idea that giving players more options in how they move makes the game a great deal more fun and allows for a more flowing feel to the entire affair. Oh, and the speeder bikes that you can summon almost anywhere control very well and lend the maps a sense of scope while finally allowing you to see what it would be like to ride one of the speeders from Return of the Jedi. Those are pretty sweet.
Beyond movement, Destiny takes a running leap (har har) right out of the gate in regards to progression. Completing missions and killing enemies grants experience that adds up over time to level characters. Over the course of the first few missions players level up frequently, about a level per story mission, and find new equipment everywhere. Each level rewards players with a new ability, a variation of one of their existing abilities, an upgrade for core power, or a boost to base stats. New equipment comes in the familiar rarity color coding made omnipresent by Diablo (now go ahead and tell me that Diablo wasn’t the first game to start this sort of color scheme, Diablo was the first I could recall), though the best equipment typically drops in the form of schematics that must be decoded. Uncommon or rare weapons also gain experience the more they are used and can be upgraded once they’ve been used enough in battle. All of this comes together to give players a real sense of escalating power. Now, I can’t speak as to how this will continue on in the full version of Destiny, since the beta caps progress at level 8, but I’d imagine that, similar to other MMOs, the pace of power growth will slow dramatically during the mid to late game compared to the early sections.
And make no mistake, Destiny is an MMO despite the marketing of it as being a “shared world.”
Destiny takes many design decisions found in a typical MMO and applies them to a first-person shooter in a remarkably deft manner. The elements are there, from random events, to raids (called Strikes), to sidequests that branch off from the main story missions, to seeing the numbers indicating damage dealt pop up with ever successful shot to an enemy. At any given time I could see three or four other Guardians pursuing side missions or participating in random events, but social interaction never felt forced on me or like it took me out of the experience. The strange part is that this all comes together very well. I have my gripes with the Borderlands series, but being able to team up with friends and shoot your way through a campaign was undeniably fun. Destiny captures the essence of that co-op experience and applies it on a wider scale. In fact, the gameplay really does remind me of Borderlands, albeit with more mobility, except that Destiny manages to both make the gameplay its own and appropriately tone the entire affair.
That tone is what will make Destiny such a success. Undoubtedly many kids under the age of 17 got their hands on the M rated Borderlands and Borderlands 2, but think of how many more copies Borderlands would have been able to sell with a T rating from the ESRB. On June 26 the ESRB announced that Destiny will be rated T, which widens the audience quite a bit. Combine that with the Star Wars vibe that the title exudes, the sweeping scope, the gameplay which can be enjoyed with friends, and the lack of a subscription fee (ignoring, for a second, PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live), and to me that seems like something that will be astronomically big. It will be innocuous enough to get by most parents while still appealing to the youth demographic and it will be interesting and edgy enough to pull in the older crowds.
Now, from all those glowing statements about what Destiny does right, you might be thinking that this is the most perfect game to have ever existed or that I am a goon paid for by Bungie. Neither of those assumptions are correct for there are a number of areas in Destiny that fell short. Many people have pointed to Peter Dinklage’s voice acting performance as something that detracts significantly from their experience. I would never presume to try and invalidate the feelings that other people have, because gut reactions to things can never be “wrong” in any quantitative sense. However, I do think that this is a case of people signaling out a surface-level, lackluster element and pinning their frustrations on it. While Peter Dinklage at times certainly gives a phoned-in performance* (which could very well detract from some players in-game experience, it just didn’t significantly alter my own), the main problem with Destiny isn’t that the performances aren’t as nuanced and deep as they could be; the main problem is that Destiny’s narrative doesn’t know how to begin its story.
I don’t want to be overly critical here because Destiny is still months from release and could very well have some of the beginning story elements locked away. However, the product on display in the beta is clunky. It is never sure of how much or when it should dole out information. My character awakens to the line, “you’ve been dead for a long time,” and immediately, without any questions asked, the game placed me into the action. Now, this is a good way to grab a player’s attention, but it comes with a number of questions that demand answers after that action is concluded. Those answers never came. I was whisked away to the last human city, Tower, where I was given general background information about the state of the world and my character’s place in it, but those don’t satisfactorily answer why or how my character was brought back from the dead. There are lots of logic things that can be overlooked in the name of drama, but it was really irritating to me to hear my character speak and somehow fail to ask how he was brought back from the dead. That’s kind of a big deal. If technology is advanced enough to bring people back from the dead after “a long time” how is humanity in bad shape? This serves as a great example of one of my biggest complaints regarding Destiny, because there are numerous times when important details about the world seemed to go unexplained or ignored. Players are simply told to accept the quirks of the various races and events in Destiny’s story without enough context to make sense of it all.
The previous paragraph was a minor complaint. That might seem odd, but the story of Destiny is such a secondary (possibly tertiary) concern that it won’t be something that affects most players experience with the game, because the refinement of Destiny’s gameplay trumps most of the minor quibbles it has, story or otherwise. One of those nitpicks goes to the AI, which seem to encounter invisible walls from time to time that can be used to pick off enemies or manipulate them into doing stupid things like running out of cover for no reason. Melee enemies in particular seem to be hit on the head with dumb. Jumping to a high elevation causes them to mill around helplessly like lost puppies. If I had to pick one more smallish complaint, it would be that the sidequests scattered throughout the exploration mode are largely uninteresting and seem to exist mostly out of obligation.
Despite the annoyances and the narrative concerns, the heart of the matter is that Destiny is fun. The diversity of inspirations works to make the journey through a devastated Earth and beyond seem new instead of rehashed. It is visually exciting and delivers moments of tense action, comradery, and a sense of adventure. All other concerns aside, the bottom line is that Destiny is such an enjoyable experience that trumps almost any other criticism you could level at it.
Destiny releases September 9 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
* Regarding Peter Dinklage: Here’s the thing, folks, Peter Dinklage is a very talented actor. He has a real flair for the dramatic and is capable of turning an audience to putty in his hands through his tone of voice. While it is true that the end result of his voice acting in Destiny sounds less than stellar, we don’t know why he sounds that way. Making a video game is a highly collaborative process. It could be that he found the lines too ridiculous to say seriously; it could be that he just didn’t care; it could be that Dinklage acts best when physically present on a set (to my knowledge, he has only ever done voice work for one other property and that was for Ice Age: Continental Drift in 2012); but it could also be that the people directing him didn’t know how to get what they wanted or they made the call that what they recorded was an acceptable final product. It is important to remember that Peter Dinklage doesn’t have the final say on what goes into Destiny and that others are making the call that those lines were read appropriately. Finally, in Destiny, Dinklage voices a robot and, to me, he sounds very robot-like and detached in-game, which could contribute to why some of his lines sound so lifeless. He’s undeniably a great actor, capable of compelling work (Here is a brilliant scene from Game of Thrones Season 4, spoiler warning and all that), but for that talent to shine it require people in a number of other capacities to recognize what the game needs and bring it out of Dinklage.