Platform: Playstation 4
Developer: Bungie Studios
Destiny has been a long time coming. Over four years in the making, it is the successor to Bungie Studio’s enourmously successful Halo franchise which single-handedly gave Microsoft a foothold in the video game console space when it launched in 2001. Thirteen years later and now a multi-platform release, the wait is over and the game is finally upon us.
Destiny has been one of the most eagerly anticipated games that I can recall and with good reason. It is Bungie’s first crack at a new franchise in over a decade and their first release on the current generation of game systems. They were pioneers in the console space with the Halo games, leading the way forward on how to do multiplayer gaming (Halo: Combat Evolved), online multiplayer gaming (Halo 2) and game customization and online media integration (Halo 3). They managed to capture lightning in a bottle not once but three times with each Halo game bringing something radically new and innovative to the Xbox and Xbox 360.
When you look at the timing for the launch of Destiny, the stage is perfectly set for Bungie. The Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have both been out for slightly under a year but none of the launch titles have really succeeded in capturing the imagination of the mass market. Watch_Dogs and TitanFall were both billed as the ones to watch but they ultimately underwhelmed.
Personally, I had stayed relatively removed from the build up to Destiny‘s launch. I didn’t play the public beta. I didn’t really read up too much on it. I broadly understood the game to be a first person shooter/MMO hybrid that Bungie planned to support for ten years. I felt comfortable with Bungie’s track record and preferred to come in knowing as little as possible.
I can safely say that what I got wasn’t what I expected. Inexplicably, unexpectedly and unbelievably…Bungie seemed to drop the ball.
The game starts with a whimper. After creating a customized avatar – where you choose your species and character class – you are dropped into a world where a floating rubiks cube shaped robot voiced by Peter Dinklage tells you that you’ve woken from a decade long slumber. You pick up a gun, starting shooting some aliens and that is quite literally as nuanced as the story ever gets. Dinklage’s character Ghost (or ‘DinkBot’ as he is affectionately referred to online), is the only companion you encounter in the entire game’s universe. Everyone else is an alien to be shot or a merchant to shop from. Dinklage has been panned for his disinterested and flat voice acting but I don’t know what else he could do. His dialogue is 90% exposition and he is literally describing the same action over and over again – “please shoot some bad guys while I connect to some computer and extract some stuff off a hard drive”. He’s not exactly being given the quick-witted and colourful prose that George RR Martin wrote for Tyrion Lannister here. His character is basically C3PO with less personality.
The character you play is known as a Guardian, one of many (ahem) Guardians of the Galaxy. Bungie have opted to give your character a voice but not a personality. You have lines of dialogue but none of them are used to wonder what happened in the years that you were asleep. Where are your friends and family? When Ghost tells you that Earth has been conquered by a race of intergalactic aliens and there is a desperate last stand at The City which is protected by a giant hovering planet sized entity known as The Traveller, your character has literally no questions on the matter.
The story and lore behind Bungie’s Destiny is at once needlessly complicated and disappointingly reductive. It’s complicated because every mission is preceeded by a wall of text that Ghost rattles off where he talks about different alien races, long lost civilizations, ancient mystical cities and arcane weapon technology. None of this stuff is actually contextualized or explained in a way that makes a lick of sense. To understand what Ghost is talking about, you have to stop playing the game and go onto Bungie’s website, create an account for Destiny and read a series of online cards called Grimoires that are sorted by category, kind of like bubble gum baseball cards. Nestled in these cards are some cliffnotes that explain what is going on. Unbelievable.
On the other hand, do you really need to know any of this stuff? Literally every level involves traveling a couple of hundred yards, shooting aliens, letting Ghost link up to a computer to download I don’t know what and then defending him by shooting more aliens. You do this twenty odd times and thats your lot. I literally did not realize when I had reached the last mission of the story mode. I just unexpectedly got a celebratory cut scene and that was it. I doubled checked online with a walk through guide to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t.
When you consider the campaign mode of the original Halo game, this is a massive, disheartening step backwards. Halo had a cast of iconic characters like Master Chief, Cortana, Captain Keyes and memorable villains in The Covenant. This game by comparison has a whopping two characters – Ghost and The Queen – and neither have a shred of personality. The Halo games had some memorable set pieces involving the Scorpion vehicles, the Flood and the defence of Reach. For some reason, all that spectacle is completely gone from Destiny. I honestly have no clue why.
The game requires a dedicated online connection to play and even in the campaign mode, you will occasionally have two other online players pop up. That’s right, two. The game has incredibly rudimentary mechanics for interacting with them and often they seem to wander off and do their own thing. I just assume we’re on the same planet but perhaps chasing different objectives. It seems completely pointless. When I heard that Bungie was doing an online MMO that seamlessly integrates other players into your experience, having PooSlinger75 and Hairy_Beef_Strips pop up in my campaign for five minutes where they run around in circles before jetting off was not what I had in mind.
I also seem to have had my expectations grossly overstated when it came to size the worlds and what you can do in them. I was picturing something along the lines of the Mass Effect games where you traverse planets – big and small – and could pass time doing side quests in the furthest reaches of space. It was not to be. The game has a whole four planets to explore – Earth, Mars, Venus and the Moon. “Earth” is actually just “derelict city in Russia”. And those last three all have pretty barren landscapes where the sand is a different colour in each. Beyond shooting stuff there is nothing remotely interactive or interesting in these locales.
Fair to say that when it came to the window dressing – the story, the characters, the mission objectives and the level design – Bungie spectacularly dropped the ball.
Where the game manages to restore a shred of good will and credibility is with its PVP and Strike modes. For an old Halo fan like myself, Destiny‘s online multiplayer modes are a blast to play. There are four different variants of match making modes but primarily, I enjoyed playing Control – a 6 vs 6 team based contest where you earn points for commandeering waypoints and of course, defeating the other team. The Strike mode is also a lot of fun. It’s sort of along the lines of what I thought would be integrated into the campaign mode. In essence, you pair up with a couple of players and take down a giant enemy. Usually they will have an inordinate amount of health, maybe some goons that help them or an especially powerful attack so to get through these challenges you need to use a lot of team work and strategy.
One of the things that Destiny has going for it is an MMO-influenced loot gathering and leveling mechanic where you garner experience points and gear for whatever mode you play. It’s whats there to keep you playing after the risible campaign mode is finished. Not unlike Square fanatics defending Final Fantasy XIII which ‘gets good after 20 hours’, Bungie have said that the game ‘doesn’t really start until Level 20’ at which point players can only level up further by getting rare armour and weapons forged from ‘engrams’ which can be bought at The Tower or earned in combat. Originally, the game was way too stingy with its doling out of these rewards. It was possible for Legendary engrams to turn out to be common items or for another character class altogether which made it a crapshoot with terrible odds. Fortunately, a recent patch has made the reward mechanic much more generous and reasonable. Character classes, levels and loot are not new concepts by any means but they are a welcome addition to the Bungie shooter and good incentive for me to keep playing.
And thats where I’m at. I finished the story mode and was disappointed by it. On the other hand I love the multiplayer. I’m at Level 23 and still playing the odd strike or multiplayer map here and there. I wanted to like this game a lot more than I did. It’s quite possible that Bungie will eventually get there. If they continue to patch and update and iterate based on user feedback, they might get there eventually. Sadly, it wasn’t the home run straight out of the ball park that I and many others had hoped for. I do believe the framework is there for someone to make an absolutely cracking online sci-fi MMO shooter. With persistent worlds. With engaging interaction with other players – both friends and strangers online. With colourful characters and memorable spectacles that play like an interactive Star Wars. It might come from Destiny 2. Or Mass Effect 4. Or something entirely new and different. Sadly though, it’s not going to come from Destiny. It just wasn’t to be and it falls disappointingly short.