Bungie’s newest game, the most pre-ordered new IP in history, is entertaining. The gameplay is tight, the environments are gorgeous, and the character designs ooze cool. In fact, it seems like many of the design choices in Destiny revolve around a rule of cool, as if Bungie was constantly asking, “Will this be cool? If not, scrap it.” The result is a game that looks superb set in an inviting universe populated by interesting and diverse enemies. If that’s the case, why then does Destiny feel so hollow?
Note: As of the writing of this review, end-game content such as raids have not been unlocked. The review will be updated when raids unlock next week.
Playing Destiny just feels good. Players are given a kit of abilities and weapons and tasked with eliminating groups of enemies that all behave in different ways. Do you want to save your rocket launcher ammo for the boss or is the large group of clustered enemies rushing toward you worth the shot? Take the time to reload your auto rifle or go in for the melee attack? Use your super move or attempt a headshot with your throwing knife? These are questions you’ll be asking yourself constantly, often with only a split second to come to a decision. All of these choices come together and feel fluid in-game.
The same feeling of fluidity carries over into competitive multiplayer. Initially, there will only be one game type to choose from, but others will unlock as players level up. Control is similar to many capture point-style modes found in other games, while Clash is traditional team deathmatch under a different name. Rumble is a standard free-for-all brawl. The Skirmish mode is interesting. It pits two teams of three against each other, emphasizing the importance of team work. Finally, Salvage tasks teams of three to battle over possession of relics. With a decent number of well-balanced maps, multiplayer is sure to be a draw for a number of people. It does have a few problems, though. Notably, despite the tag of “Level Advantages Disabled” it seems like there is still a noticeable power difference between well-geared or leveled people and players who are just starting out. Hopefully a patch can balance the competitive multiplayer a bit better. There are also a great deal of weapons that can insta-kill: shotguns, fusion rifles, headshots with the hand cannon, sniper rifle, and each playable class’ super move which has the capacity to instantly kill multiple enemy players. Not to mention the vehicles which, though nerfed since the beta, still empower people to a frustrating degree. These instant death situations are plentiful and they lead to a lot of deaths that feel cheap.
Though players can team up on story missions or wander the large maps in Patrol mode, Strikes are the highlight of Destiny’s cooperative multiplayer. They require a degree of teamwork to claim victory and can’t be pulled off alone. They tend to culminate in large boss battles against enemies with ludicrous amounts of health. They are long, feature tons of bad guys, and test the limits of player skill. In other words, they’re one of the best parts about Destiny.
Destiny truly shines when it comes to the visuals. I would love to see a feature in an upcoming patch that allows players to completely disable the HUD. The vistas are so gorgeous that it seems a shame to have some of them hidden behind objective markers, a radar, and ammo counter. It is refreshing to see that, even though Destiny has aspirations to be a serious shooter, it isn’t cut from the same washed-out cloth as many other FPS games. Destiny isn’t afraid to access a rich and vibrant color palate. Each area feels different, distinguished in part by variances in architecture, color schemes, and terrain. The pitted grey surface of the moon feels totally distinct from the rainy and tropical climes of Venus. Similarly, the human buildings on Earth feel at odds with the alien fortresses on Mars.
Every change in scenery is accompanied by a new enemy entering the mix. There are four alien races so far: the Fallen, Hive, Vex, and Cabal. Each race has their own unique enemy types and tactics. The enemies are distinct from each other to a pleasing degree. It is easy to recognize the difference between the lumbering forms of the Cabal from the wiry, mechanical forms of the Vex. I got the sense that each of these races has a history, a reason for why they are in the Sol system and utterly hostile toward the human race. But I only got an impression, never any moving story sequences or moments to illustrate why I should care about them, other than the fact that they look cool. As players progress, they will unlock portions of lore in Destiny’s Grimoire. However, the Grimoire is inaccessible through any in-game means. You are forced to either go to Bungie’s website or download the free Destiny app to a mobile device. To me, locking off the background information to separate devices seems like a bizarre design decision.
There is so much to like about Destiny. When it comes together, it feels sublime and there are glimpses of greatness. However, more often than not, it comes up short on its potential. A major contributor to this is the narrative, which feels like it was treated as a secondary or maybe even tertiary concern when balanced against the gameplay and visual design. Whenever someone might want Destiny to be more than functional, it can’t seem to rise to meet that desire. That’s a shame because there is so much potential in the Destiny universe, so many events alluded to that would be interesting to explore (at one point the Peter Dinklage-voiced robot casually tosses out that at one point the entire planet of Mercury was transformed into an evil machine!).
Here is a brief synopsis of approximately half of the story present in Destiny:
A sentient mechanical eyeball voiced by Peter Dinklage resurrects the protagonist to help defend the last city on Earth from the coming Darkness. The two then go off on a series of excursions that put them in contact with an old AI named Rasputin that somehow is connected with the Moon. While on the Moon, the duo crosses paths with a mysterious person (with no connection to Rasputin) who indicates they should check out Venus, because there is an even worse evil there than the aliens that live underneath the surface of the Moon and have been invading Earth.
This is indicative of where Destiny’s story goes wrong. It doesn’t bother to create coherent events that run together or make sense. Instead, it opts to go for just a series of events that happen. The Rasputin AI is used to get players from Earth to the Moon and is never mentioned again until one of the last missions in the game (which happens to be a side mission, not one of the core story missions). There is this concept known as economical storytelling which just means that every element of your story should be essential. Nothing is gained by including Rasputin into the narrative of Destiny, other than getting the player to the Moon. Furthermore, Bungie associates a lot of important language with the AI. Destiny refers to the AI as a Warmind and tells the player that it has the potential to save mankind from extinction by reactivating old defenses, but we never see any of that happen, aside from a giant communications array rising from the ground.
The tell-don’t-show approach spills over into other parts of Destiny as well. The most obvious example of this is the stakes into which players are continually asked to invest themselves. The old “aliens want to destroy the world” cliché just doesn’t hold up as well when you are trying to tell a compelling narrative in video games these days. Why should we care about the last city on Earth? For all the player knows, everyone in the city is already dead since we never see any of them. Guardians all seem to live in Tower, the central hub of Destiny. You can see a few non-guardians wandering around or running shops, but other than that, there are large stretches of buildings far below. Those buildings are as close as players ever get to having a reason to care about the human race (other than the fact that the people holding the controller and playing Destiny are, presumably, human themselves). Then there are the other issues with the narrative like the constant use of ambiguity. At times it feels like players are fighting against concepts instead of factions of aliens with their own goals and agendas. The clearest example of this is the often mentioned “Darkness” that is coming. What is it? I’ve finished the story and I have no idea. The game just tells you it is bad and that it almost destroyed all human life. I guess it is hard to see the threat posed by the Darkness when Earth is already overrun with several different alien races that want to destroy the remaining humans and the nearest planets house aliens that also want to kill everything.
Why even mention the Darkness at all if it has nothing to do with the central plot? Clearly it is a set up for future expansions, but it serves no purpose in the narrative of Destiny as it stands currently and is bafflingly present in many of the dialogue exchanges throughout the game. This is the opposite of economical storytelling. I understand that video games contain different story structures than more traditional forms of media, but the fact remains that Destiny wastes a lot of its narrative time on inconsequential elements of its universe. I think that is where Destiny’s story went wrong. It took the building of a giant universe as its story’s central mission instead of building the world as a part of the narrative. We are meant to envision a large, rich game universe as Destiny throws around terms like Warmind and concepts like the Darkness. It is an attempt at world building that largely succeeds, at the cost of a coherent narrative that players will be able to enjoy.
Now, this could all simply be attributed to lazy writing, but it seems to me that a project as big as Destiny would have to be a bit more self-aware. I have a suspicion that the narrative is intentionally structured this way. Destiny is rated T by the ESRB, which means it can be sold to younger gamers under the age of 17. While Destiny’s plot might not make much sense on paper, in practice it moves at a breakneck pace through vastly different scenery and enemies. Propelling players forward as fast as possible through the story is much easier when you don’t worry about things like character development, stakes, drama, etc. Many younger players, ages 12-16, could very well be utterly beguiled by the stylish combat, gorgeous scenery, and downright cool vibe Destiny throws out. The big sounding words and concepts impart a sense of scale that will leave the upcoming generation of gamers feeling like Destiny is one of the coolest games they’ve ever played, though they will struggle to articulate exactly why that is and what makes it so great.
Though Destiny slips up and falls completely flat from a dramatic standpoint, it is still blast to play, which is why I can’t find it within myself to feel angry toward what it does or fails to do, just a bit of realistic disappointment. The opening mission holds such promise. Resurrected from the dead by a Ghost, it is a mad dash away from oncoming Fallen forces through rusting cars and timeworn corridors. Things seem so large and big as Ghost rattles off crucial details of the situation. Then you acquire weapons and armor and learn how to use them in your first real encounter. The fighting is fast, flashy, and leaves you feeling great as you take off in your newly acquired spacecraft. It feels so reminiscent of Star Wars that it kindles a bit of hope that the experience of Destiny might be something utterly unique and magical. What else could the game have in store? As you spend hours and hours making your way through the various missions and game worlds, it becomes clear that there isn’t much more to Destiny’s gameplay than what you experienced in the first mission. In fact, I can only think of one mission where I was required to do something other than shoot bad guys until the game allowed me to continue and that was a mission where I got a sword to slice up bad guys until the game allowed me to continue. The potential of the first mission is never realized. In fact, as Destiny continues there are more and more opportunities for interesting scenarios and interactions, but nothing ever comes of them. By the end of the campaign it felt like all that had been accomplished over the course of several days was the creation of a blank slate universe to which Bungie can add content as they wish.
It is hard for me to conjure any animosity toward Destiny. It plays well and looks great, but the story is deeply flawed on numerous levels. It has nothing to say about which I feel offended other than way it undermines its own narrative, which just makes me feel kinda sad. The multiplayer is fun, though frustrating at times, and teaming up with friends to blast away at digital aliens in a Strike is good fun. Destiny is a worthy first-person shooter if all you are looking for is a shooter with neat visuals and tight gameplay. If you are looking for a story that will stick with you for years to come, Destiny is not that game. Perhaps the expansions will contain a story worth your time and attention, but until then enjoy the fun. Time will tell for certain, but I think the lesson to be learned from Destiny in five to ten years is that while a fun experience is pleasurable, it is also ephemeral. High quality stories are pleasuarable, too, but they also last.
Destiny is currently available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. This review will be updated when raids are released next week.
Update: Having experienced Destiny's raids, they do not significantly alter my opinions regarding Destiny's end game content. The lack of matchmaking for raids will prove to be a considerable barrier for players with less than the five highly levelled friends required to participate.