I’ve been playing Destiny for over a week now, and my feelings are pretty mixed. On the one hand I’ve fallen in love with the game’s intense three player strike missions, it’s well designed player vs player arenas and adored blasting through it’s various hordes of intelligent AI alien species. On the other hand I’ve been let down by Destiny’s relatively small sandbox, straight forward regular missions and it’s infuriating inability to tell a story in what is potentially a fascinating setting. Destiny does as much poorly as it does well, most of it’s problems simply originate from it’s desperate attempt to please every type of player. Destiny tries to be an MMO, action FPS, social experience, single player capable, story driven adventure, grindy yet not grindy all at the same time. Destiny understandably can’t juggle all those demands simultaneously; as a result it drops the ball in a couple of areas, meaning the enjoyment you’ll get out of Destiny will vary radically depending on what you’re after.
Let’s start with what Destiny does get right, core gameplay. Developer Bungie is best known for their work on the intensely popular Halo series, a franchise home to some of the best and most influential first person shooters ever. Bungie knows how to make a great FPS and that’s evident throughout Destiny. Speaking purely in terms of combat mechanic it’s almost impossible to fault Destiny. Shooting is slick and precise, melee attacks feel brutal, battling swaths of AI opponents is genuinely exciting and critical strike kills are intensely rewarded with a visual flourish as excited spurts of colour explode from foes. The AI feels intelligent, foes react quickly to the world around them and different species and enemy types respond to situations radically differently.
Each of Destiny’s four alien races feel visually and characteristically divergent from one another. The Fallen are a multi-limbed race that travel in tight knit groups, they are very like the covenant from the Halo series. Smaller groups of grunt like enemies, the dregs, charge the player with their insignificant powers while larger elite like foes, captains, hang back and fire from afar. Then there’s the undead-like Hive who assault the player far more violently than the other races, they’re reminiscent of Halo’s flood, their tactic is to overrun the player. The Vex are a robotic like race who teleport to flank the player, and finally the Cabal are a species of mammoth proportion who are significantly hardier than the others. Inside each species base there’s variation too as each has their own unique classes. The constant variation in who you’re fighting helps to stop Destiny from getting stale too quickly.
Destiny’s mechanically foundations are unquestionably brilliant. But problems start to arise once those foundations are squashed into the shape of an MMO. The most glaring effect the MMO formula has on Destiny is evident in it’s story. Destiny opens with a marvellous cinematic that explains how Humanity reached a golden age during which time they built a multi-planetary civilization that spanned the solar system after the discovery of an ominous sentient white orb dubbed the Traveller. The Traveller benevolently guided humanity within the light, but an ancient enemy tracked it down: “the darkness”. In a final act of sacrifice the Traveller gave it’s own life to safeguard the last city on Earth, now it’s up to you as a guardian to maintain that peace.
Those basic story elements are pretty cliché, A being of light and it’s followers battling against a mysterious foe known only as the darkness, it doesn’t set up the best ground work but there’s room for an interesting story in the sci-fi theatre. Sadly Destiny’s greatest misgiving is that it’s story scarcely exists, and the little that is there just isn’t very good. After one cut-scene about five hours in I noted mentally “that’s the first time anyone has shown any character at all”. Peter Dinklage turns in a passable performance as the players assistant “ghost” but the reality is he just doesn’t have much to work with; your own character isn’t much better acting as little more than a blank canvas that occasionally spouts generic lines. Outside of the handful of cutscenes most story is relayed via mission briefings that deliver information that comes across as meaningless; out of context.
Non-existent story issues are compounded by the dullness of Destiny’s campaign missions. Once again taking cues from the MMO standard missions boil down to little more than travelling from one location to another and maybe facing a boss. Thankfully the stellar shooting mechanics save the day somewhat and fighting enemies is fun regardless, but if you need a story to get invested you’re going to have a hard time. Destiny doesn’t even really tell players why it is they’re moving from planet to planet, or even why there exterminating vast swaths of aliens without ever questioning their motivations. Very like Diablo 3 the focus is on constant movement and killing. Destiny does both of those really well, but it’s lack of story is noticeable and wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t such a heavy focus on it.
Exploration doesn’t fare much better either. Destiny allows players to visit four different planets: Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars. Each location is visually stunning, and each touts it’s own unique atmosphere. The moon feels desolate and hopeless, Earth feels very post-apocalyptic, Venus reclaimed by nature and Mars militarised. Problem is each is a startlingly small sandbox with little to explore off the beaten path. Each feels very linear, an upsetting reality for a space-faring adventure. Outside of a couple of hidden chests countable on two hands there’s little reason to ever diverge from the linear progression. Sure players can go re-visit planets in free roam to engage in new missions but they’re really uninspired “kill x number of foes” or “gather x of this” quests. It’s a massive wasted opportunity.
Destiny’s MMO feel also damages the experience for players with the intention of playing alone. Bungie would have you believe Destiny is played just as comfortably alone as it is with others; that’s simply not the case. The reality is Destiny is designed with groups on mind rather than lone wolves. You’ll manage alone yes, you’ll never have to cooperate if you don’t want to, or talk to anyone in the strangely mute sterile social hub The Tower. Missions will inevitably be tougher though and you’ll be denied access to Destiny’s real challenges. On another social note I found it irritating that there’s no in game clan system, instead it all has to be managed on Bungie’s poor dedicated clan site.
Not all of Destiny’s MMO DNA is bad though. One of the most obvious MMO influences if the choice of class. Players can elect to play as the stalwart Titan, agile Hunter or gravity magic slinging Warlock. Each has their own distinct super moves, grenades, melee attacks and specializations. Thankfully none of them are restricted in which weaponry then can use, you can use any type as any class. Grenades, melees and super moves are more than enough to differentiate the classes and each is visually remarkable too. Regardless of what you choose to play you’ll feel empowered. Warlocks disintegrate foes in whirls of purple gravitational energy, they float ominously through the air and their super move throws insta-kill blasts of pure energy. Hunters can spawn a gun with one shot kill rounds, if there good enough they can decimate groups with ease. Finally Titans are capable of rocking the very earth with a ground shattering area of effect. Each feels very powerful.
As you progress through your journey you’ll get even more powerful. Destiny has a level cap of twenty, and players earn new abilities, weapons and armour as they level up to the cap and beyond. There’s a wide range of skills on offer for each class and their two specializations so you’ll always be improving, Gathering new gear is super addictive too. Loot isn’t thrown at you with the regularity of a game like Diablo but it’s rewarded simply by taking part in almost any of Destiny’s activities, so you’ll never be at a loss of how to get better kit. Once you hit level cap gear will let you continue to raise your effective level. By earning light points players exceed the level cap and into a new tier of power. It’s a compelling reason to keep playing.
Like most MMO the game really hits it’s stride at the level cap as the pursuit of ever better gear serves as the carrot on a stick to keep playing. The ways to earn gear at that level are twofold, PvE and PvP. Destiny’s PvE content is delivered as hard mode versions of the games snooze inducing core missions and through three man dungeons, or as Destiny dubs them “strikes”. If you can get a group of pals to play together these strikes are Destiny’s absolute highlight. Together you’ll infiltrate large areas and battle against enemies far more powerful than in the regular missions. Strikes are really difficult, Bungie hasn’t been afraid to tune these to be testing. Bosses that dwell in strikes are super hard and will force players to work together effectively to bring them down. This is Destiny at its best and with multiple difficulty settings you’ll not run out of strikes quickly, the game would of benefited from more of these.
The other way to gain more gear is PvP, effectively 6v6 or 3v3 arena matches where teams of players face each other in the Crucible. Bungie’s skill at creating competitive shooters is evident here. Each of the games maps are finely tuned and remarkably fun, there isn’t a dud amongst them. Each class handles remarkably well and their unique super moves come into their element. I felt really powerful when my Titan would land on control points throw up a bubble shield and goad foes into entering where I had a shotgun pointed square in their mush. The crucible is very competitive though, and we’re already in a situation where some players really dominate. Another problem is weapon balance, shotguns really excel in PvP and it’s really noticeable, nearly everyone uses them.
Destiny is game that tries to do too much. It really wants everyone to love it, but the truth is you can’t please everyone, and Destiny won’t. The choice to make Destiny feel like MMO is by in-large the birthing point of it’s largest problems. It’s rammed full of boring story missions that feel soulless, and the game is almost completely devoid of story and character. Bungie’s promise of a huge solar system waiting to be explored falls completely flat, there’s barely more than a handful of things to find outside the linear progression. Destiny certainly has it’ strong points: it’s remarkably fun to play, it’s strike missions are engaging difficult affairs and it’s arenas are really fun. If Destiny had just been that sort of stuff it’d be brilliant. Destiny suffers from trying to do too much, and a result there’s just as much good as there is bad. Destiny’s mileage varies, depending on what you want.