E3 2014: Our First Hands-on With the Destiny Alpha

An encounter with Destiny.

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"It's very Borderlands," my colleague Martin Gaston said after watching me play some of the Destiny alpha. It was a sentiment that was echoed by others, too. The way that, as you shoot enemies, numbers indicating the damage you're doing appear. The way you level up and unlock new skills depending on your chosen class. The way you find chests of loot in the world. Of course, Borderlands didn't invent these ideas--it just applied existing concepts, from action role-playing games like Diablo to first-person shooters. And Destiny is bringing at least a few innovations of its own to this subgenre. You see other players in the world, for instance, aside from those you might be grouped with. And there are public events that you have the option to join, such as cooperating with other players to take down a formidable spider tank. There are loot and experience rewards for participating in these events, but you can also safely ignore them and do whatever you want to do.

The serious, sad, yet hopeful tone of Destiny is also a far cry from the backwoods comedy of Borderlands, and potentially from most shooters, though it's hard to get a strong sense of this from the very limited slice of the game the alpha gave me access to. As I entered a zone in Old Russia, my little floating technological companion, voiced by Peter Dinklage, commented poignantly on the area's history. His words were supported by elements in the landscape, like the towering rockets with multiple space shuttles strapped to them, relics from a time when humankind was able to venture into the stars in great numbers. If Destiny is able to pull me in when the full game is released, it will be because it successfully creates a universe I want to explore.

That's not to say that the gameplay component of Destiny is bad. It just feels standard and expected, and I'm concerned that enemy AI may not have the complexity that made encounters in Bungie's Halo games feel so tactical and rewarding. Playing as a titan striker (a melee-focused subclass), I was often able to walk right up to enemies who made little attempt to evade me or fight back and just clobber them, which felt good because the striker's blows feel so powerful, but I wanted encounters I had to think about more. My companions and I did encounter more challenging enemies, but the challenge largely stemmed from the fact that they were higher-level than we were, so they dealt more damage and absorbed more damage.

In between excursions to Old Russia, I spent time looking around the tower, the social hub where the camera switches to a third-person perspective, and where, as in many massively multiplayer online role-playing games, I saw other players putting their dance emotes to the test. Here, I was able to pick up bounties that awarded me for completing specific challenges, both in PvE play (kill 100 enemies with precision damage) and in PvP play (defeat 20 guardians with your melee attack). I visited the crucible to engage in some PvP combat. In the alpha, all PvP play has teams fighting for control of points around the map. Level 8 is the highest level you can reach in the alpha, and PvP play had players of any level from 4 to 8 fighting with each other. Since you bring your weapons and your abilities with you into PvP, it's not clear how the action might be balanced to prevent higher-level players with more powerful gear from having an unfair advantage.

Bungie is showing off Destiny here at E3 2014, so we'll be bringing you more about the game very soon.

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