Developer: Bungie Studios
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
Genre: Online Shooter, Action, RPG
Editor’s Note: I’ve taken quite a bit of time to explore the interstellar shoot-em-up adventure that is Destiny. As a result, the review is a little late, but I felt that Bungie’s new game deserved a considerable playthrough to give it justice.
Below are my findings based on my in-depth experiences with the shooter.
Destiny is a prestigious game that was set to be a revolutionary marriage of sci-fi shooter and online multiplayer RPG, but like many missions to the stars, Bungie’s dream game didn’t quite take off.
To understand how Destiny fell short, we have to take a quick look at the role that marketing hype plays in video games, and how this affected our expectations for Bungie’s sci-fantasy epic.
For the last two years or so, all eyes were on Bungie’s newest project. It was supposed to be the biggest thing the devs have ever attempted, and it was to be their magnum opus. They called it Destiny.
This new undertaking looked to be the perfect arrangement of sci-fantasy and action-packed shooter. From the start it whisked us away on a fanciful story filled with offworld planets, aliens, advanced technology and the magic of any space odyssey.
The story itself felt like something that Isaac Asimov dreamed up; an archetypal struggle between a mysterious force known as the Light and the malevolent planet-eating Darkness was entrancing. The quintessential heroes, known only as Guardians, were infused with the power of the Light to fight the terrors of the night–and to save humanity from its smoky tendrils.
Mystery played a huge role in Destiny‘s hype, and the devs took advantage of this by understandably keeping things under wraps, feeding us scraps here and there at major trade shows like E3 and the Tokyo Game Show.
We didn’t know too much about the game, but from what we saw, it looked to be a definite game-changer. Here was a game that promoted social interaction in seamless drop-in drop-out co-op across whole planets, a game that featured customizable heroes with their own deadly skills.
And a game that was filled to the brim with incredibly potent space guns.
The partnership with gaming juggernaut Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI) meant that Destiny would be a massively-scaled journey the likes of which we’ve never seen. The level of hype for the game created a sizable gap that has proven to be the folly for many different mediums, whether film, games, or even music.
Destiny couldn’t ever live up to the incredible expectations from the public as a result of the major adverts and media focus; Bungie’s new game was destined to be undermined by its own potential.
An unfinished universe: storyline, missions and characters
Destiny as a whole largely feels like a game that was shipped too early. There are very blatant holes missing in various sections, including story, meaningful character development, truly immersive activities and even loot mechanics.
Players are pulled into a galactic story that briefly prefaces the Golden Age of the Traveler, where the mysterious semi-divine sphere bestowed the gift of Light upon the Solar System. The Traveler terraforms hostile planets like Venus to make lush tropics teeming with plant life, and as a result humanity was propelled to the stars.
But this Golden Age was brought down by the Darkness, a malevolent entity that spreads chaos and death in its wake. Players never really know what the Darkness is; instead we’re met with a convoluted bunch of enemy factions–the brutish Cabal, the cunning Fallen, robotic Vex and diabolical Hive–that all vie for control and destruction of humanity.
The Darkness–and its warring factions–slowly eat away at the colonies that stretched across the stars, forcing humanity back to the Tower, which stands above the Last City on Earth.
Here Guardians, special ultra-warriors infused with the power of the Light, stand against the tide of the Darkness and search for a way to repel its wake.
Even here Bungie’s once-great magnum opus is marred by severe holes.
For example, players never get to actually interact with the last city on earth; from the Tower we can look down upon it and see its futuristic skyscrapers, but there’s this sense of artificial plasticity in the whole thing.
Bungie doesn’t tap into that human element at all; we never get to see the last bastion of humanity we’re fighting for, we never get to see who we’re fighting for.
There are some denizens in the Tower, but they are NPC fodder and usually have no actual bearing. The same for the game’s handful of vendors–even the Speaker, who actually communicates with the Traveler, is rote and mechanical.
This is a great fault in the story and takes away from the emotional and personal elements of the game. Destiny is branded as a kind of RPG-shooter, but it considerably lacks the deep and dynamic story arcs that role-playing games entail. Instead we’re left with a game that grinds like an RPG but trumps meaningful story for frenetic Call of Duty-like elements.
The story so far…
The story itself is broken up into an array of missions across various planets like Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars. These missions further the storyline, but they seem clipped and minimalist rather than content-rich.
Every planet has its own Strike–some, like Venus, have two–along with a free-roam Patrol mode that allows players to scout the planet’s regions for smaller missions and to collect items like Relic Iron for weapon and armor upgrades.
The planets all have a set region that’s used by the Strikes, Patrols and missions. These regions are public game “worlds”, and at any given time players pass through these public zones throughout their endeavors. This intuitive mix of live drop-in drop-out co-op is a landmark for the game, and gives players the chance to easily recruit teammates if they find themselves in over their head.
As far as character development, player Guardians are stale and lack any sort of real substance. They have no actual personality other than the quintessential space marine that kills in the name of good. Most of the other NPC’s lack any sort of dynamism as well, and serve the same function as an ATM of sorts for items and loot.
Sadly, Peter Dinklage’s performance as the floating Ghost companion substantiates this claim even more. The Ghost was lamented as insufferable way back in the Beta, and his amazingly cheesy, mechanical dialogue hasn’t improved any in the final game. If anything it’s worse now, as we expected improvements.
Rather than being helpful, witty, snarky or even rude, we get such bland uninteresting interactions that the Ghost feels like a hindrance.
My friends and I have also dubbed the Ghost as “Windows 98” on account of how long it takes him to upload/download/unlock doors. The little floater essentially brings back the horrors of Goldeneye 64‘s diabolically sadistic Control Room mission, as you’ll have to set him off and kill hordes of baddies while he tedious hacks a door.
Addictively tedious: game mechanics and gear-grinding
Destiny is an extremely addictive game. Despite its faults, Bungie has tapped into a troubling trend that we’ve seen all too often in modern gaming: the promise of more content at the expense of time.
Rather than delivering the promised feast of an expansive MMO-shooter to hungry gamers, Bungie gave us enough to barely sate our ravenous appetite. And they continue to do so, bit-by-bit, with an array of updates that roll out every few weeks or so.
However it’s important we look at the entire scope of their plan. Activision affirms that Destiny is a decade-long endeavor, and since it’s not subscription-based, we’re looking at a few releases (most likely a trilogy of games) along with a dazzling array of expansions. Two of these said expansions were released during the game’s launch.
Combined with a feasible business approach to sort of lockdown content behind paywalls (based on the first two paid expansions we can assume more will be coming), Destiny will be inherently updated and patched at a moderately slower basis.
Activision and Bungie have found a new way to combine the time-consuming MMO-style grind for gear with the action-packed sentiments of multiplayer FPS games. This union–or fusion–is a unique intersection that accounts for much of the game’s addictive factor.
Players simply can’t stop playing because they want to complete their character, which is only natural. But unlike other grind fests, Destiny‘s story arc isn’t part of the grind–it’s more of an afterthought that you can avoid completely to progress.
True there’s always something to do in Destiny, the activities sort of lack substance. As of right now Bungie has improved the selection a bit with activities like the Queen’s Wrath and Vault of Glass raid, but these are things that arguably should have been included upon release.
The grind feels artificial and wholly based on the same allure of leveling up in, say, Call of Duty. Rather than bridging the gap between meaningful character and story development, players only get stronger so they can complete more endgame content–and at this point the Vault of Glass raid and Weekly Nightfall Strikes comprise Destiny‘s challenging endgame content.
Destiny is incredibly addictive, but this addiction last substance and immersion in so far as the activities that are completed.
Unlike other MMO’s, there’s no point to keep playing once you’ve hit level 30 and mastered your gear. The only thing to do is make a new character to keep things fresh, rather than be introduced to fresh new content by the developers.
Endlessly grinding for loot is filled with tedium thanks to the drop ratios. Bungie has made an improvement in this regard, but it took them almost a month, making it too little too late. Players have to grind out reputation in Vanguard strikes or PVP matches in the Crucible to buy specific gearsets, some of which call for higher ranks.
A bigger slap to the face, though, is spending all this time leveling up your Crucible ranking only to find a legendary that’s the same or even better than the one you just bought.
Exotic items are quite rare and don’t drop very frequently, but Bungie has tried to remedy this with exotic bounties. The key word here is tried. The requirements for these bounties are absurd and remain some of the most consuming time-sinks in the entire game.
Here’s a quick for instance: to charge my Depleted Handcannon and turn it into the exotic pistol known as Thorn, I have to complete a laundry list of demands.
- Complete The Summoning Pits Strike on the Moon.
- Earn 500 points by killing Hive enemies on the Moon.
- 2 points per kill. Hallowed Knights or Acolytes give 20 points.
- Use Void Damage to defeat Guardians in the Crucible. Death will slow your progress.
- Must get 500 points. 5 points gained per kill with Void damage. 2 points lost per death.
- Obtain an Infusion of Light from The Speaker.
- Trade for one Mote of Light.
- Kill Xyor, the Unwed in a level 26 version of The Summoning Pits Strike.
- Xyor spawns amongst the waves of enemies, so Phogoth must remain alive for her to spawn. Once she is dead, it is not necessary for Phogoth to die).
- Return to the Speaker to claim your reward.
The worst part about exotic bounty rewards is that you can find these items out in the wild. Imagine spending hours and hours charging the pistol, dredging along and blasting Guardians with your Void-powered shotgun, only to find the Thorn pistol out in the open somewhere.
Bungie could have remedied this simply by making these guns exclusive to the bounties themselves, but instead players can find them in random drops throughout the Solar System.
Game Mechanics: Call of Duty meets Halo meets Borderlands
At its heart, Destiny is a shooter that melds the authentic frenetic action of Call of Duty‘s pinpoint accuracy with Halo‘s intergalactic war on aliens and Borderlands-style loot fests.
Combat is fast-paced and enthralling, making for some of the most engrossing firefights in recent years. Guardians team up in fireteams of three to dispatch a horde of monstrosities, some of which are titans that hulk within the heart of the Moon itself, in terrific and devastating battles of wit, cunning and trigger-pulling accuracy.
The sandbox style FPS mechanics afford for a massive amount of tactical strategy, and this is further exemplified with the superpower sof each class. The Hunters, Titans and Warlocks each have two different subclasses at their disposal, making for a nice blend of skillsets that can be tapped for any given situation.
All classes have some things in common, though: they all use a melee attack as well as a powerful grenade in conjunction with their special abilities. Both the melees and grenades vary widely from Hunter to Titan to Warlock, and thanks to the requisite cooldowns, must be used tactically.
The Titan Defender’s Ward of Dawn skill makes a massive dome that shields allies from harm, and can even boost their weapons and give them overshields for a short amount of time.
The Hunter’s Bladedancer tree allows them to go invisible for a spell, making for perfect resurrections. The Warlock can fire up his Sunsinger skills to reduce his teammates special cooldowns while blasting three fiery grenades and even resurrecting himself.
These skill trees make up the bulk of the game’s RPG elements, but Guardians also have three main stats that boost combat proficiency. Discipline reduces your grenade cooldowns, Strength reduces the cooldown of melee attacks, and Intellect allows players to use their supercharged ability more often.
Speccing the right stat is extremely important for certain situations and varies widely to class preference. Flashbangs, for example, are an amazingly useful tool for Titan Strikers and can be buffed with heavy Discipline. On the other hand Titan Defenders need hefty Intellect to throw out their powerful shields more often to protect the entire fireteam.
Along with these skills and stats Guardians can equip three guns at a time; one primary (scout, pulse, and auto rifles, handcannons, etc), a special (fusion rifle, sniper rifle, shotgun) and a heavy (decimating rocket launchers and machine guns).
Special and heavy weapons can be infused with elemental affinities like Arc and Void that deal bonus damage to certain enemy classes. The Hive, for example, are weak against Solar, whereas the Vex are weak against Void damage.
Destiny‘s combat is extremely fluid and graceful, and can often be challenging. But there are a few basic things that can hinder performance, especially in the Crucible, where communication is key.
Bungie still has a discrepancy between your actual team and your in-game fireteam, making it so that your teammates cannot hear you unless you send out a separate fireteam invitation. This is true for every mode of play, whether its Crucible or Strikes or missions, and can often be the difference between victory and defeat.
The gear-grind struggle
Gear grinding is the other half of Destiny’s heart. There’s many ways to find gear: it can drop out in the wild, be rewarded upon completion of missions and strikes, and can be bought from NPC’s. Gear can’t be traded–another major oversight that’s included almost universally in every online-RPG-style game.
Finding end-game quality gear, though, is a chore in itself. And once you find the gear, you’ll need to upgrade it with materials like Spinmetal, Ascendant Energies and Shards, Plasteel plating and Weapon Parts. To amass the huge quantities of mats to upgrade gear requires hours of farming, which in itself can be annoying, but Bungie has found a way to keep things interesting.
To be able to upgrade your gear you have to first level it up. That’s where bounties come in. Netting EXP doesn’t do anything for your character after you hit level 20. The only way to progress higher is by gaining items with higher Light.
When you earn EXP from bounties or killing enemies it’s instead applied to the items, which unlocks various tiers of enhancements like higher defense or Exotic-specific skills.
Blue and above items have a range of tier-specific unlockables that add to the effectiveness of the weapon or armor, and also improve the Light bonuses when upgraded.
By completing regular bounties during your mat farming runs, you can ensure you don’t lose your mind searching for that oft-hidden rockface of Relic Iron. The Ascendant materials, though, are random and are usually given by getting Gold tiers in public events. Maxing out certain bits of gear requires up to eight Ascendant materials per tier, ensuring that you’ll keep playing if you want to be the best.
Upgrading items in Destiny is frightfully tedious and arguably unnecessary, but Bungie has found a way to augment the experience with various events and the like. Even still it lacks substance and actually remains one of the only things you can do in the game after you reach a certain point–which is a hallmark of a badly designed multiplayer-online game.
MO’s are supposed to have an expansive wave of content to ensure that players don’t get jaded or “burnt out” on the experience; to keep things fresh.
Bungie is only recently tapping into this, and to be fair they are addressing some key concerns. Even still the overall game feels rushed and unfinished, and has a general air of incompleteness about it–an incompleteness that’ll be filled in at a later date, when it’s convenient (or paid for).
Conclusion: An imperfect fate
Destiny is an interesting spectacle of a game that’s been crushed by the weight of its own hype. Bungie hasn’t delivered the game-changing open-world shooter that was promised, but instead has ushered in a sort of unified mixture of addictive gameplay with snippets and miniature pieces of added content.
The experience does redeem itself in various ways, however. The game’s interplanetary environments are truly incredible, painting mesmerizing backdrops of unreal intergalactic beauty, but even this splendor seems somehow hollow. The worlds are stale even in their wonder, lacking a true sense of immersion–in a sense they seem to be visually vivid and not substantial, not real…not whole.
The absence of any real meaningful character development and messy plot holes pretty much tells players that the game’s story is still a work in progress. The events are anti-climactic and feel tacked-on rather than the deep and profound experience that accompanies most RPG-style games.
Destiny‘s principle trouble is that it’s suffering from an identity crisis. It tries to be too many things without wanting to take the time or effort to fill in certain blanks. In its current form, Destiny feels like a sort of shell or maybe a puzzle that has its borders completed, but is blank in the middle.
Although there is plenty missing in the game, Destiny will keep you busy for quite some time. The game has a way of pulling you in regardless of the absence of plot or character development. It’s cleverly designed to hook players and keep them going until they max out their character, in which time there will be a new morsel to chew on while we wait for the main course.
And that’s the real problem with the game; even a month after release, gamers are still waiting for the main course.
+ Amazing Graphics & Visuals
+ Frenetic FPS Action
+ Strategic Skillsets
+ Array of Weapons & Armor
– Loot Upgrades are Tedious
– Minimal Storyline
– Lack of Character Development
– Major Plot Holes in Story
– Non-Combat Content Lacks Substance