Developed by Bungie. Published by Activision. Released September 9, 2014. Available on PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One. Copy provided by publisher.
It’s somewhat ironic that Bungie makes a big deal about how “alive” Destiny is, because of all the games I’ve played recently, few feel quite so static and cold. Indeed, the overly hyped deal between Halo‘s creators and Activision has been home to all manner of pretentious attempts to call an orange a banana – it’s not an MMO, it’s a “shared-world shooter” in a “mythic science fiction” universe. Except it’s not really those things. At its core, Destiny is an MMO, in a derivative science fiction universe.
That said, it did keep its hooks into me for hours upon hours at a time, so it’s certainly doing something right.
What that something is, I’m not quite sure, because the vast majority of my experience with Destiny has felt more like a slog than a laugh. The story, as much as there is one, failed completely to draw me in, possibly because the tiny handful of distinguishable characters were really into the narrative but forgot to explain much of it to me. Like Charlie the Unicorn, I’m dragged around the story missions by inscrutable support players who are so engrossed in their grand adventure they don’t care that I haven’t been given a reason to care.
As far as I can tell, something dark and scary is happening and also there are aliens who are bad guys and fight each other. The evil threatening the universe is called the darkness, because of course it is, while similarly outstandingly named enemies include the Fallen, the Hive, the Cabal, and the Vex. Yeah, not exactly the most original writing here. As a player in the “shared world” of Destiny, you’re to step into the boots of a Guardian, living in the Tower, helped by the Ghost, and protected by the Traveler. Again … not the most original of writing.
The biggest crime committed by the story is the highly promoted role of Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. As the aforementioned Ghost, Dinklage’s job is to vaguely relate the narrative to you, because actually showing any plot on screen is too much like real storytelling. He talks a lot, because Activision likes to get its money’s worth, but what he says is rarely of consequence without the game doing any world building to back him up. What’s truly criminal about all this is the distinct lack of personality Ghost has. Like a Star Wars prequel character, Ghost serves only to fill a role, rather than have any characterization or development. I want to criticize Dinklage’s voice acting, as he sounds awkward and overly scripted throughout, but given what he has to work with, I’m not sure if it’s fair. Bungie took one of the most charismatic actors on American television and turned him into a drab plot delivery monkey.
So, the writing in Destiny is piss-poor, basically. It doesn’t really go anywhere, most of it’s explained in text collected in the background, and there are maybe four characters of note, none of whom I can remember the names of, or indeed care about. When the only villain of note is some nebulous concept called the Darkness, you’re really struggling to give me impetus to press on.
Fortunately, a decent job has been done to prop up the limp exposition with a drive for personal improvements. While I couldn’t give a damn about Destiny‘s universe and its problems, I do care deeply about getting more guns and super powers, a desire Bungie fills quite adequately. If you’re one of those gamers who care about such things as “content” and “replay value” to the exclusion of all other qualities, then you’ll be suitably covered here.
While it’s drawn many comparisons to Borderlands, I personally don’t see it, outside of the bullet-sponge enemies and loot-based gear system. It’s got a far more traditional MMO core than anybody seems to be giving it credit for, with a structure almost identical to the massively multiplayer games that have spawned in droves since the popularity of World of Warcraft. From its hub world filled with faction heads, stores, and quest givers, to the way in which enemies stand rigidly at their posts and await the arrival of players, there is absolutely no denying (with a straight face) that Destiny is built exactly like an MMO. None of this “shared-world shooter” waffle. It is what it is – an attempt to weld Halo to WoW.
In that effort, Bungie is largely successful. The game is structured like a big open-world RPG, but its combat will feel instantly familiar to anybody who played the studio’s landmark Xbox-exclusive series. The guns and enemy behaviors look and feel like they’d be right at home in Master Chief’s backyard, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good insofar as the general quality of the combat is rock-solid. Guns feel weighty, and it can be satisfying to chew through an enemy’s resistant health bar and finally drop the sucker. Bad insofar as most of the enemies are an absolute chore to deal with.
The various opposing factions have slight thematic differences, but behave in largely the same way. The bulk of their forces are made up of cowards who will run haphazardly around the field of battle, sometimes leading the player on a chase around large pillars or walls. These craven infantry are backed up by any number of foes that could count as “that one annoying enemy” in any other videogame, from the Stealth Vandals who invisibly charge and deal huge damage, to the insufferable number of snipers who can pop out of hiding and take you out of the fight before you even know what’s happening. Then there are the big bastards who can one-shot even the hardiest veteran, and the less said about the Captains the better.
Amusingly, however, the enemies get a lot more fun to deal with as the game progresses. The first faction, the Fallen, by far contain the most annoyingly jittery soldiers, hopping about randomly and backed up by snipers, armored robots, and other aggravations. The Hive, Vex, and Cabal are increasingly easy, featuring fewer annoying units and providing progressively easier targets. Coupled with the fact that, by the time you meet the Cabal, you’ll likely have acquired some powerful weapons and skills, the dissonance between how much we’re supposed to fear each new faction, and how pleasant they are to fight, is quite jarring.
There are three character classes to choose from, and once again no brains were strained in their creation. There’s the defense focused Titan, the stealthy Hunter, and the magic-wielding Warlock. So, a Warrior, Rogue, and Mage, basically. Each class comes with a range of active and passive skills that level up independently of the overall character, and boasts a new sub-class that unlocks at level 15. While they each have their specialties, they each get access to the same kind of weaponry, and the real major difference is the fact that Warlocks don’t get the super boost jump … and the environment hates them for it.
Using a weird PC-like menu system that really doesn’t feel right on a controller, players can navigate a variety of planets (and incur long loading times between them) to undertake story missions, cooperative strike missions, and freeform patrols. The “story” stages are linear jaunts through the planetary environments, usually taking players through dark corridors where they won’t be able to respawn and must submit to a more traditional checkpoint system. The general structure involves going from point A to point B, shooting wave after wave of aliens, making Ghost look at something while he rambles to himself, and then defending a position from more aliens. Bosses may turn up, large monsters that can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes to kill, and then the job’s a good’un.
Strike missions are designed for up to three players, and follow a similar pattern to story missions, albeit with more enemies in utterly deadly combinations, and boss encounters that can take upwards of thirty minutes to destroy. Backup in the form of competent human allies is mandatory, as these missions are not balanced with a view to keeping players alive, and if you’re not leveled above the recommended rating, you’re going to have a miserable time. These can certainly be a chuckle though, especially if you’ve got a high level team and you enjoy being put through the wringer.
Patrols open the world up a little, but not by much. Ostensibly, little green beacons flash around each planet’s map, and players can activate them to undertake standard RPG-styled tasks, such as “kill X amount of Y” or “collect things from stuff.” It’s a good way to get some grinding in, and you may stumble upon time-sensitive events that draw all nearby players into a tough boss fight or similar challenge.
By far Destiny‘s strongest component is its competitive multiplayer, the Crucible, bringing together a series of traditional first-person shooter gametypes and letting players duke it out with whatever weapons and skills they’ve acquired. While initially worried that this would be an unbalanced affair, I’m quite surprised at how even the playing field seems to be, and didn’t suffer too much in fighting players whose levels were far above mine. While there may be more of a gulf visible as time goes on, right now I haven’t noticed anything particularly problematic, and what balancing has been put in place has worked quite well.
The Crucible is where Destiny feels most like a regular FPS, and while it may upset those on the development team who yearn for this title to be something more, a regular FPS is really where it excels. Human enemies are refreshingly fun to tackle after hours of battling Fallen, and the various Guardian powers and weapons make for some damn hectic matches.
Multiplayer maps are large, but not so large that you spawn too far from the fight, and they’re smartly designed to allow the perfect environment for any type of player, be they the stabby sort, the snipey twerp, or the spray-and-prayer. On the whole, it’s been a while since I had an online FPS I felt I could truly get into, and despite never having been all that into Halo‘s multiplayer, I was surprised by how much I dug it here. If nothing else keeps me returning to Destiny, the Crucible always has a shot.
Destiny is a very pretty game, there’s no disputing that. From its lighting, to use of color, to animation, no expense (and what a vast expense!) has been spared in making this look as polished and glossy as possible. The problem is that, as gorgeous as its looks on the surface, the lack of appreciable artistry behind it all renders the graphical effort moot. Environments are huge and colorful, but also quite sterile and full of vast tracts of nothing. Despite having four alien forces and a number of distinct planets, the visual style is so derivative and bland that it struggles to evoke any emotion from me whatsoever. The aesthetics smack of shallow Hollywood sci-fi fluff, all shiny and expensive, but way too clean, way too factory-standard, and entirely lacking in imagination.
That last point is the real downfall of an otherwise solidly put together game – Destiny is overwhelmingly unimaginative. The fact that enemies are called things like Fallen or Cabal is simply an easy indicator of a problem that permeates the entire experience, a problem of having all this money pumped into visuals, marketing, and the ever-desirable sense of “scale,” but very little in the way of heart and soul.
Gameplay is a cocktail of ideas taken from other titles that specialized to create superior experiences. Borderlands is much better at providing loot and a sense of character progression, Halo is better at providing a sci-fi shooter adventure, and there are plenty of MMOs that do the “shared world” thing with more gusto. Destiny exists in the shadow of multiple games, taking a little from each, and doing nothing truly remarkable with any of it. It’s a prime example of how the nebulous concept of “content” can be used to puff up a game without adding anything to it. There’s a ton of “stuff” in Destiny. You’ll never want for things to do … but it’s terrible at providing motivation to do any of it.
Propped up by a very strong multiplayer mode, and with some co-op challenges that can be quite fun, Destiny did do enough to keep me playing until I beat the story and leveled up, but beyond that, the thought of the lengthy, grinding post-game stuff makes me feel more exhausted than excited. At the very least, the online component has been holding up impressively despite the huge amounts of people playing it, and with so many folks believing the hype and chomping at the bit to play, I guess it doesn’t matter how bland the game may be – we’re all sucking it down regardless.
Bottom Line: With its banal universe and flavorless style, Destiny is packed with content, but just … well … content. There’s a great PvP mode, and the leveling system can be rewarding, but nonetheless this is a pretty, rock-solid, ultimately pedestrian product.
Recommendation: If you want a stable and populated FPS MMO, this will do the job with minimal fuss. For all my complaints, I did waste a lot of time with it, and will likely continue to do so, so it’s indeed doing something to hook folks. I wouldn’t buy into the hysterical hype though.[rating=3]