I didn’t write this review at launch because it’s difficult to assess the value of an online game on launch date alone. Over time, things expand, more content is introduced, and the game becomes something completely different. Plus, there’s little I could say about Destiny’s launch that many people haven’t discussed at this point. Many feel it’s a flawed, but highly addictive and enjoyable game with an interesting lore that begs further explanation. Others feel the flaws in the narrative and overall structure are too significant and underscores the hype surrounding it over the past year or so. Having played the game almost daily for the past two months since its release, I’d like to share my own experiences with the game, and outline what does and doesn’t work for me, along with my current and future thought on this ambitious title.
First off, let’s get the elephant out of the room right away. Yes, the story in its current form is disappointing. Characters pop in and out without being given much development. The dialogue ranges from average to mind-numbingly dull, especially coming from a surprisingly unenthused Peter Dinklage as your Ghost: your flying droid-like companion throughout the entire game. Every bit of plot progression is veiled in a thick fog of ambiguity that begs to be discovered, but presently delivers as little as possible. It feels, at least at this point in time, as an excuse to unlock the areas in which you play, and does little more than introduce this universe rather than build and flesh it out to get players invested. The narrative bits you do find are in the form of an online grimoire that could’ve been implemented in the actual game, but feel as though it’s trying to create some sort of meta-experience. If this is the case, then all we can do is be patient, which is the sort of thing that can really anger a lot of gamers looking for an immediate fix on a new game.
And yet, I feel no animosity towards it. Why, you might ask? Well, the simple reason is that I’ve seen many sci-fi stories that have this kind of intro: introduce your characters, the threat(s), and get used to having to fight the threat(s) for the remainder of what’s to come. It’s an introduction, and nothing more. When Bungie began talking about the narrative of this game, they claimed to have wanted to create a story they could tell over ten years. If they’re using only one game to achieve this (and this is speculation at this point), then we, as the players, have no choice but to be patient as they slowly reveal more and more of what this plot has in store, which so far is interesting enough to warrant further expansion.
Now, I don’t need to remind everyone of just how beautiful this game looks. Even on the last-gen consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360, the level of detail and the quality of the artwork is downright astounding. Everything in its art style oozes a traditional sci-fi vibe, enhanced with dynamic lighting, phenomenal animations, and the most incredible skylines I’ve seen in any game. Structures, both organic and artificial, are designed with care and consideration, with a little of a fantasy twist. The formation of stone structures within the dense and lush jungles on Venus are only one example of some of the spectacular sights you’ll find. On current gen consoles (the PS4 in my case), the textures are smoother to allow for more detail in the environments, the animations are top notch and smooth, and the lighting is even more beautiful than ever before, even though it might not be pushing the hardware as far as it can go due to its multiplatform nature. However, if you want pure eye candy to behold, Destiny is that game for you.
As far as gameplay goes, this is by far one of the best controlled shooters you’ll probably ever play. The buttons are mapped in familiar places if you’re used to games like Halo and Call of Duty, and never deviate from that set mapping on default. You can change the settings in the menu, however, to suit your needs. It feels tight and responsive without any sort of input lag. You feel as though you’re the one in charge of the fights, not the gun. But aside from the response, the game features something more akin to an RPG for its shooting. You’re given three classes: Titan, Warlock, and Hunter. Each class has unique abilities for any given situation. Titans are essentially super soldiers, able to hit hard and tank damage. Warlocks are space wizards, utilizing the Light of the Traveler to summon energy attacks based on either dark or solar damage. Hunters are your rogue class, who hit fast and silently, able to disappear as quickly as they appear before stabbing you in the face. The game has a leveling system based on experience up to level 20, after which your level is dependent on the armor you wear, which can bring you up to 30. Experience doesn’t become a moot point, however, as a certain currency called Motes of Light can be obtained by gaining experience.
With each class, you’re given different options in terms of mobility and attack style, and this is where the gameplay really shines. The added jump abilities that vary with each class add a heightened sense of verticality to the game, and the design of the planets you explore shows this. This can help you reach the various golden loot chests or dead ghosts (which give you backstory in the form of cards on the Bungie website). Finding these chests scattered throughout (aside from the rare golden ones) take a bit of traveling, and are a part of the looting mechanic in this game. Collecting loot grants you access to weapons, armor, and cosmetic class items. They range in rarity based on their color. Green is common after level 10, blue is rare, purple is legendary, which are extremely hard to find outside of special missions (more on that later), and exotics are even more difficult to find, often needing specialized, complex bounty quests to obtain one. Each weapon has unique perks that allow you to pick your own style of shooting, and level up the more you use them. Armor pieces are based around stats that allow you to use your special abilities more often by reducing their cooldown period, as well as increasing your defense to accept more punishment from the tougher brood of aliens.
The first few levels of items are obtained through a system called the Random Number Generator (RNG). The RNG is a chance system that dictates what piece of equipment you collect from the various foes you encounter, as well as the activities you complete. At launch, this was a little too randomized, as players would either get exactly what they needed from each engram (the method by which you collect the loot) or get ripped off by the engram vendor known as the Cryptarch, as higher level engrams had a chance of giving you a lesser item instead of one of that same color. Patches have since improved the chances of obtaining these items, so the system feels less cheap, as now the item you get from each engram corresponds to its color/rarity or higher. You’ll need these items to become stronger, as well as increase you end-game level for the harder missions. This is alongside giving you an advantage over the enemy aliens that guard the paths.
And what an interesting bunch of aliens that litter the forgotten planets of this universe. First are the Fallen, a hierarchal race hell-bent on reclaiming their lost glory as they scavenge planets in search of interesting items and artifacts all across the Solar System. Then there’s the Hive, a grotesque breed of creatures who are on a crusade against the Light so that Darkness can prevail over all, and they’re planning an invasion of Earth soon from their base on the Moon (which will come full force with the upcoming The Dark Below DLC expansion). Next are the Vex, a highly intelligent biomechanical race that has overtaken Venus and plans to turn it into one of their machines like they did with Mercury, though their reasons for doing this are currently unknown. Finally, there’s the Cabal, a dangerous group of gigantic aliens who are known to destroy entire planets just for getting in their way. They take areas by sheer force alone in order to assert their military dominance.
Each of these alien races all have unique patterns for attacking your guardians, and none of them are all that clear. You’ll spend more time dodging and picking at groups of enemies than you will charging through Rambo-style. They’ll shoot at you as soon as you’re within sight, and some will even chase after you if you’re not careful. It’s almost like a dance going up against many of these creatures, only with more bloodshed. The fallen behave like a pack, using small units among larger packs to outflank and outgun you in larger areas. The Hive behave like a swarm, charging with overwhelming numbers and force, doing their best to keep you pinned down with everything they’ve got. The Vex are the most organized, moving in tight groups and firing precise and deadly shots from all their setup directions. The Cabal have smaller numbers, but their surprising mobility, brutal firepower, and incredible defensive tactics make them a difficult foe to take down. Often times, these enemies will fight each other on the planets you explore, indicating that their goals are not all equal, and perhaps the possibility of forming uneasy alliances will take place in future story setups. Only time will tell. For now, they’re formidable foes that must be vanquished.
Many of these foes can sometimes prove too much, depending on the task you’re completing (more on that later). For these tough encounters, it becomes important to form a fireteam: a group of three players of varying classes that can work together to finish any task given in the game by coming up with strategies and assisting players in tougher areas. Fireteams serve as the most social aspect of the game, as in-game chatting can only occur in fireteams and not with only random players, done as a way to avoid griefing over voice chat. This can feel limiting to a lot of players expecting a certain level of interaction seen in other online games. For me, this is a pro and a con. On the one hand, I love having players always muted until you join teams, as it prevents listening to some of the worst the online community has to offer. On the other hand, since this game is intended to be a social experience, it seems odd that chatting is limited to fireteams and player-made groups. Maybe adding it to match-made groups as well would help things become better. For a game that touts that the main interactions you’ll find in the game is with other players, it’s jarring to see such a lack of it. For the meantime, it’s a great social experiment hampered by limited communication.
(EDIT: Bungie has since introduced a team chat system, in which you can choose to talk with a matchmade group in strikes and multiplayer matches instead of pre-forming a fireteam in order to do so. The voice quality is about the same, and it has increased social interaction amongst the game’s peers, so long as they decide to do so. So that last sentence should be somewhat disregarded.)
The game’s structure is set up as such: story missions, patrols, Strikes, Raids, the Tower, and the Crucible. The story missions are where the narrative is built from (obviously). They follow mainly linear paths through the larger overworlds towards an objective, which is how most FPS story missions are, with the main mission areas being “darkness zones” where respawning after death is removed and you must try the encounter again from the checkpoint. It takes an old-school encounter system, and for modern shooters, this feels a little arbitrary, and it can feel as such on the later levels when you recognize the pattern a little better. But whenever the missions let you just travel from location to location, there are a few instances of atmosphere and level building that can be appreciated in spite of the encounters. That said, each story mission is still intense and challenging for the levels you’re supposed to take them on in, even when each encounter feels like a timing exercise rather than an emergent experience.
Patrols are the most open mission types of the game. Here’s where you get to explore each of the main worlds, which are Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars. They’re not as open as their design might imply, but they do condense each area full of environmental detail and signs of the Golden Age’s lost potential. It does a good job of show, don’t tell, even if there are little to no plot details given within the game. This is where you’ll obtain a lot of your experience points and a few pieces of loot, from weapons to armor pieces to class items. You’ll find collectible items that allow you to upgrade your high level gear, as well as finding chests to get more currency and the like. To keep players busy, there small patrol missions scattered throughout each map, ranging in type from collection, killing, scanning, scouting, and small enemy bounties. They’re as tedious as they sound, and if it weren’t for the beautiful vistas, as well as the challenge of each enemy you fight, these would never even be touched by players because of their similarities to the similarly tedious minor MMO quests.
What keeps many patrols exciting, however, are the public events: timed missions that appear in certain sections of each planet’s world map, and range from defending downed satellites, taking down a tougher than normal enemy, or defeating enemy waves that vary in type depending on which aliens are being handled. These happen all the time at certain times of the day, and when they happen, they’re a good chance to snag some higher level upgrading equipment, provided to finish each event within their timeframe and challenge requirements. They’re the most emergent part of the gameplay experience, and are some of the most exciting when they appear seemingly out of nowhere, outside of the sky darkening as the warning signal mere seconds before it begins. I’ve seen more people drop what they were doing to play these events, something I don’t find very often in most online games, so it’s refreshing to see such a novel concept introduced so effectively here.
Strike missions are high-level bounty hunts. You get dropped off in a certain area on the map, and must make your way to your target, encountering waves of tough enemies along the way. They’re done at higher levels, and require higher quality equipment in order to tackle them, as well as being in a good fireteam. You complete strikes by completing sections of the strike path, which includes fighting off enemy waves while unlocking the next area, and defeating mini-bosses before facing the final target. The enemies here are more ruthless than in story missions and patrols, able to outgun and outflank you if you’re not paying attention. Strikes are easily the tensest portions of the game, and are typically better designed than the story missions due to the more balanced encounter rate and level of enemy intelligence shown off. Teamwork is also best seen in these.
The Raids are without a doubt the most well designed and most challenging feature of Destiny by far, and this is just from the one current raid alone: the Vault of Glass. Raids are like strikes, but in completely unique areas within the main world. You can have a six man party come in with you, consisting of only people on your friends list. While matchmaking would be interesting here, knowing who you’re working with is vital to success, as is communication. The raid is home to the most difficult and intelligent enemies the game has to offer, as well as navigation paths that take full advantage of your guardian’s mobility and the verticality. There is no guide marker to tell you what to do. Each section is a puzzle you have to solve through teamwork. The only clues you get are side notes that appear onscreen whenever you’re completing objectives. As seen in the Vault of Glass, there are team-based puzzles, horde rooms where the challenge is taking down the proper foes, platforming segments built around the jumping abilities of this game, a stealth segment, and unique time-travel puzzles that will leave your team dead if you’re just trying to push through without any thought. This is where you can see the full extent of the love and care Bungie put into Destiny, even with its other flawed modes. It’s brutal, requires constant communication, and is home to possibly one of the biggest challenges an FPS game has yet to see. Here’s hoping the next Raid is just as well-constructed.
The Tower is the main hub city of the game. Here’s where you can buy equipment with the currency and items you obtained through the various missions, as well as collecting bounties to increase your experience points. It’s a small area populated only by vendors, guardian mentors, the Speaker for the Traveler, and the different factions in the game, which are so vague and so similar to the other ranking systems that they’re hardly worth mentioning. You earn points for the different factions depending on whether or not you’re wearing faction-specific equipment or class items. With these points, you can purchase specialized legendary gear from them, as well as obtain specific exotic equipment bounties. They all have a backstory to them, but since no NPC is given a proper personality, it all falls flat in creating a unified world for you to explore.
The Crucible is the competitive multiplayer aspect of Destiny. It works as such. You have four game modes: Control (similar to Domination, but more cooperative), Clash (team deathmatch), Rumble (free-for-all), and Skirmish (3v3). The objectives are given to you right from the start, and the team or player with the highest number of points wins, whether by hitting the victory cap or being the top team/player after the timer counts down. Given the nature of the equipment in the main game, every single weapon and piece of armor all share the same stats within the bounds of the Crucible, so as to keep everything on an even plane between low and high level players, as everyone can compete after reaching level 5. Each match is played on maps that offer asymmetric design and vertical positioning, giving reason to use all of your guardian’s abilities to claim a victory. While there’s no ranking system within the game, thus removing the competitive aspect (another thing some players might find annoying), the mode is a great way to test your skills and gain different sets of equipment, and reinforce the concept of teamwork the game bludgeons you with early on. It’s a fun, balanced distraction, and it’s all the better for it.
I’ve been struggling to justify whether or not this game has enough of an identity to warrant an investment. I don’t believe I’ve found the answer yet, but if I had to guess, I would say that this is the most cooperative game I’ve ever seen outside of an MMO. Players don’t try to grief each other as often as other games, fireteam chats are always civil (in my experience), and the fun of going out with friends just to wreck some aliens is just too awesome to ignore. Is it all it was hyped up to be? Well, no, to be brutally honest. But, taken for what it is, Destiny is a fun time and a great social experiment that seems to be working on ways to improve itself little by little. If you’re patient enough, I say get the game and see if it’s your thing. It’s grindy at times, and the design of some of its features is structurally flawed in many aspects, but I can find nothing that breaks the game and makes it an awful experience. It’s a fun time in a fascinating and growing universe that only time will qualify. With that, I will (hopefully) see you star-side, Guardians.