After Bungie’s split from Microsoft and passing the torch with the Halo franchise, the question on everyone’s mind was what was next for the venerable developer. Besides a few earlier titles like Marathon and Oni, the folks over at Bungie had been working exclusively on Halo for nearly a decade. Earlier last year we finally got our answer when their next shooter Destiny was officially unveiled.
Leading up to E3, we got the opportunity for some extended hands-on time with the Destiny alpha. Rather than say a 15 minutes demo on the show floor, we got to dive deep on the initial starting levels of Destiny. And I have to say, Destiny is the first games that’s given me serious thoughts of it truly being a “next-gen” console game.
Everything centers around the self-described “shared-world shooter” experience. While Destiny has many of the trapping of a typical MMO, it’s more akin to splitting the difference on a cooperative shooter and a full-blown MMO. It’s bigger than the former, but it has a more narrow scope than the later. It might not be breaking new ground when compared to games like Planetside, but it lends itself well to the trappings of being developed for a console audience in mind, nor is it Destiny‘s goal to go for shear number of players on screen.
For instance, when you enter the world there will be other player sharing the space, but it’s not necessarily all the players in the game or server. You’re free to work together with these other players or go off hunting on your own, though there will occasionally be public events that encourage you to lend a hand as they are practically impossible alone. What the game loses in some functionality it makes up for in cutting out some of the complexity, and Destiny is handling all the details of behind the scenes making it more ideal for the jump-in and jump-out nature of consoles. Want to get a team together to tackle a mission? Destiny can match you up quickly and get you into the action.
It manages to capture that secret sauce of letting you solo on your own but while still feeling connected to other players. If you see someone in trouble you can run over and revive them, finish off that tough opponent together and then simply go your separate ways without needing to jump through a bunch of mechanical hoops or loading screens. Granted, the game is a lot more fun when you’re in a fireteam with a few of your friends.
Destiny takes us back to the post-apocalypse setting, though in this case it’s post-apocalypse set after a “Golden Age” of humanity’s advancement. After expanding across the solar system humanity collapses back in on itself, reduced to a single city on Earth that’s saved by the appearance of “The Traveler”, a big white sphere that hovers over humanity’s last bastion. Guardians, the player characters, are now attempting to push out and reclaim lost lands only to be beset by alien species that have moved in during the interim. The alpha was pretty light on story elements, and it’s the aspect of the game I’m most eager to see more of. Bungie has always done a good job in making sweeping and epic single-player narrative, but I want to see how this transitions into a space designed for multiplayer. You’re just a Guardian, not the Master Chief. Sadly some of the voice-over work sounds a bit phoned in, but hopefully this is only placeholder for the alpha.
To start the game, you’re going to need to create your Guardian. There are three races to choose from, but besides some dialogue differences they are purely cosmetic. There are Humans, obviously, but surprisingly, and it’s not yet been fully explained, there are two other races to choose from. The Awoken, which appear like ethereal or supernatural humans of sort, have all manners of abnormal skin and hair colors. The Exo are androids or robots of some kind, and where the other races customize their hair, Exos are adding various antenna and technological elements to their faces.
There’s actually a heavy emphasis on character customization from what I experienced in the alpha. There are new ship models to purchase, which don’t appear to have any other affect than to give you something new to look at during loading. Emblems change how your name appears in certain windows, and each class even has an entire item slot dedicated to a class specific cosmetic item. Some of these customizations are only unlocked by reaching certain status and rank with in-game factions, so this may indicate at least part of what Destiny‘s endgame plan is.
There are also three classes to choice from in Destiny, each of them standing as a pillar of certain play styles. Titans are the bruisers and tanks of the bunch, favoring close range combat with the ability to soak a lot of damage. Warlocks draw their power from the Traveler and wield magical powers along with specializing in recovering from damage quickly, though they still do a great deal of shooting. Finally, the Hunter fills in the last leg of the triangle, fulfilling the rogue-ish and agile character niche. The characters are further defined through additional gameplay mechanics like their grenades, super-powered ability and even how they traverse the map. The Hunter, for instance, can double jump, eventually upgrading to a triple jump, while the Warlock can instead float and drift for a time. There does appear to be additional specializations that unlock later, but we were capped at level 8 for the alpha.
Surprisingly, weapons are not however locked or tied to any specific class, at least at this stage of the game. A Warlock can use and equip a sniper rifle just as well as a Hunter. Weapons are instead broken up into three general classes: Primary, special and heavy. The primary slot encompasses a mix of varying flavors of assault rifle, the special slot brings in your sniper rifles, shotguns and a few more exotic weapons, and the heavy weapons are understandably the big guns. Enemies drop ammo when they die, but the green and purple ammo boxes for special and heavy drop more rarely. While the ammo is not limitless, and you’ll frequently run out on harder sections or when enemies are not spawning often, it is however interchangeable and that green ammo box will feed any of your special weapons.
Just like player characters, weapons also have their own upgrade and leveling systems. If you use your favorite weapon enough you’ll eventually unlock stat boosts or new scopes, among other things. I imagine there are even more options when you start finding the even rarer weapon drops. Destiny certainly hits on that Borderlands and Diablo itch of wanting to find even better equipment.
The gameplay itself is going to feel very familiar to fans of the Halo franchise. It’s pretty easy to pick up on how at its most basic level Destiny works off the same gameplay DNA. Combat feels weighty, while your movement feels floaty. It comes together to create some very satisfying moments, like leaping up on a building and blowing away an enemy with a quick burst of weapons fire and a jab to the face with your melee. The enemy AI is clever, but in a predictable pattern that feels like you’re mastering how best to take each type down – not unlike a certain other game that Bungie made with a variety of enemies.
Gameplay is split up into a number of verticals. Exploration lets you load into big expansive maps in a shared space with other players. Each map is filled with missions to find and dynamically spawning public events. Story missions load you into a map with a specific objective in mind. Similarly, Strike missions hit the same vein, but they are instead balanced for a full fireteam of players working together. Strike missions and Story missions can also be attempted on varying difficulty levels. The strike mission available in the alpha for instance featured a number of tough encounters with waves of enemies or boss characters. Crucible is where you go for competitive multiplayer. During the alpha, only a capture and hold gameplay mode was available, but there appeared to be several more types grayed out. Competitive multiplayer is scaled to some degree with regards to character levels, and we’ll try to get details on that from the show floor later in the week.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the soundtrack is fantastic. I really missed the epic score from O’Donnell and Salvatori in Halo 4, and it’s great to hear them at work again in Destiny. Although sadly O’Donnell was recently let go.
While I still have a lot of unanswered questions about Destiny, like what’s the expected endgame going to be like, if there is one. Destiny has at least been the first game that’s given me pause about finally picking up a next-gen console. The game looks great, the gameplay is fun especially with friends and looting is as addictive as always. I even had fun saving up enough money just to show off my new fancy spaceship to the other folks in the office playing.