Friday, June 13, 2014

Game Diary - The Destiny Alpha.

It is a special treat, here, at the end of E3 - after a week of drooling over what video games have in store for us - to have the chance to go hands-on with one of the year's most-anticipated releases myself.  Bungie, Sony - thank you.

Oh I will.

A game in the hand is worth two in the bush, but those two un-played games that have yet to manifest on our consoles and computers retain a gleaming potential that a finished, released game will never own.  The game you're hyped for could be perfect - it could be the game you've dreamed of all your life.  It could be.

Once a game is in your hands, all those possibilities vanish, and the game can only be what it is.  The game you're hyped for will always be better than the one you end up playing.

It's promising, then, that with Destiny's Alpha test - which permits players to explore a large swath of windswept real estate, encountering random world events, directed quests and other players, in addition to a straight-up instanced dungeon and competitive multiplayer - retains the luminescent glow of a game that could be everything you dream.

It's really, really fun, man.

Tap the touchpad to bring up your AI Ghost - he's your navigator, your quest marker - and hold square to manifest your speeder bike.  Then jam L2 to hit the boosters and zip off like Luke Skywalker.

It feels like classic Bungie, but without the occasional disappointing weapon.  I tried out every weapon in the game, from the slow-firing, hard-hitting sniper rifles and hand cannons (magnums) to poppy little submachine guns, roaring machine guns, rocket launchers and my final go-to weapon, a "scout rifle" with a small clip, no scope and semi-auto fire.  Every single weapon feels impactful, useful and vicious.

The Alpha begins with a solo assault on a small underground lair, punctuated by a huge fight against some Hive enemies and a Hive Wizard ("that Wizard came from the Moon," your AI companion tells you without a hint of irony - voiced by Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage).  The Hive Wizard was an absolutely terrifying foe, laying down slow-moving but massively-damaging, ethereal projectiles that would instantly cut my health to critical, and swathed in a protective shield.  Having eliminated his lesser guards, I stuck to cover, bleeding his shields dry until they snapped and I dashed in, holding L1 and R1 to launch my Warlock's "Super" - a slow-moving projectile that atomizes anything it hits.

The Wizard's health dropped to half and I swapped out my assault rifle for my shotgun, running right into that bugger's face and unloading the magazine.

Alarms were beeping, my vision throbbed red, and the Wizard fell.

It felt... natural.  Immersive.  Chaotic and expressive and... Bungie.

Bungie's shooters have a unique feel.  There's a liquidity to your movement, a sharpness to the aiming and - perhaps most importantly - an assortment of clever AI enemies to throw down with.  Different enemy types can have vastly different behaviours - some are terrifying, some are cowards, but all feel weirdly reasonable and... alive.  They dive out of the way of rockets and grenades, make good use of cover and love to flank you.  Snipers will stay in the back, decisively taking down and taking out any member of your fire team who strays from cover too long, allowing grunts and heavy-hitting Knights to move forward, flank you and lay down the hurt.

Bungie's patented AI - the way an enemy will duck into a doorway and seem to have disappeared until it pops up behind you and slaps you with buckshot - is a huge part of why the game's PvE is so damned satisfying - even with two other player-controlled Guardians at your side as you repel wave after wave of enemy attacks on a crucial location.

Some interesting choices are made, here, in how weapons are slotted and chosen.  Certain kinds of weapons (heavy pistols, assault rifles, submachine guns, scout rifles) can only be slotted to your Primary Weapon slot - and Primary Weapons draw from the most-abundant ammo drop type - white.  (Arbitrary, but easily-understood by the player.)

A scout rifle.  Fifteen-round clip, high-damage, single-shot.

Secondary Weapons are clutch weapons - sniper rifles, charging pulse rifles, shotguns - and only take the more-rare green ammo drop.

Heavy weapons - machine guns, rocket launchers, et cetera - use the ultra-rare purple ammo drop, and every weapon type has a pre-prescribed max ammo capacity.  You can only carry about twenty shells for your shotgun, for example, or sixteen rounds for your sniper rifle.  You can carry four rockets, or two full-clips worth of heavy machine gun ammo.

It's arbitrary, and while rarer weapons have bonuses - after enough use, they can increase their damage or upgrade their scope - Bungie has zeroed in on some very intentional balance choices, and none of them feel particularly limiting (save, I suppose, for the rocket and sniper ammo).

Oh, I should mention - I can't remember the last game in which headshots felt so good.
Maybe Killzone Mercenary.

For all its comfortably-Bungie sensibilities, the changes to their formula in the name of Destiny's central ambition feel a bit arbitrary, and unusual.  Your grenades, for example.

You don't pick up grenades.  You can never spam grenades.  Every class has its own types of grenades, earned through use and leveling up - and they function solely on a cooldown timer that's a bit longer than you'd like - just long enough that you save your grenade for the moment you think it'll really have an impact, and never as a matter of course.

Similarly, each class and sub-class has a "super."  A Hunter can turn themselves invisible for better sniping.  A Titan will leap into the air and crash down fist-first in an AOE attack, and my Warlock will fling a bolt of energy that does massive damage.  Like your grenades, these supers are tied only to a cooldown - but a much longer one.  Like your grenades, they are never something to rely on, but something to plan for - for while it feels awesome to leap into the air and vaporize three tough enemies, it's absolutely deflating when you miss your shot, hit empty ground and have to wait for your super meter to slowwwly charge up again.

It takes about five minutes, I'd say - so it's something you hold tight for that special moment.

A Devil.
The Alpha's "dungeon" is an instanced co-op assault on a lair of Fallen foes with three major challenges - holding off waves of ever-increasingly dangerous enemies (seriously, the last and second-last waves are incredibly lethal), its ultimate boss encounter, and an encounter with a regiment of Fallen troops and a Devil spider tank.

The Devil is easily the hardest part of The Devil's Lair. Shots to its weapons or the big red face will do nothing - your regular damage cut by about 60%.  Shots to its legs will do bonus damage, and once you've shattered the armor off one of its appendages, it'll collapse for a moment, its head leaning forward, exposing the glowing weak point within.

The first time I fought the Devil, I died more times than I'd care to admit.  The second time, I flanked it, we went for the legs until it dropped and I dashed forward to fly into the air (tap X again to soar super-high as a Warlock), targeting my super at its weak point, letting it off the chain... and missing.

We took it down the hard way.

On my third try, I was a veteran.  An old hand at this fucker.  I stayed back with my high-damage scout rifle, picking a single leg and tap-tap-tapping away at it, ducking behind cover when it swung that colossal gun my way to let an explosive shell loose.  My two co-op buddies - I have no idea what they were doing - but when it dropped I dashed forward again.

Did I mention weapon-swapping?  It's super-intuitive!

Press triangle to switch between your primary and secondary weapon.  Hold triangle for a half-second, and it switches to your heavy weapon - an excellent control scheme!

So I dashed forward, holding down triangle, ran right up to the thing's neck as my brand-new rare-quality heavy machinegun swung up and held the trigger down - brakakakakakakakakakakakakakakakakak into its weak point as the big yellow numbers gushed across my screen in a torrent.

It was like... It was like when the Schwarzenegger jumps on the hood of the semi in Terminator 2 and unloads his gun into the T-1000.

It was awesome.

That fucker went down easy.

In a lot of ways, Destiny feels like your run-of-the-mill WoW-clone MMO.  There are wide-open areas rife for exploring (quests, here, and handled exclusively by little green beacons you approach, and consist solely of following your nav to a certain point and killing things there until a meter fills up) and harder, more-traditional dungeons that are instanced for you and a few other players in your group.

Destiny feels at its coolest and most-emergent when you're not in the instance.  When you're roaming a wide-open area and you stumble across another player, and the two of you just goof around killing Fallen for a bit until a huge announcement appears onscreen - an Event is occurring!  A ship is touching down, and you've got to fuck up its shit!  A Devil has appeared and you've got five minutes to take it down!  A super-elite enemy is carrying a message, and you need to assassinate him!

I was messing around by the beached ship graveyard with a Hunter when that one happened.  I'd just picked up a new assault rifle and was eager to try it out, so I dashed right up to the elite enemy and unloaded a clip at him... riiight up until he shot me once, cut my health in half and I floated away like an emo butterfly.

The Hunter kept back, landing headshots with his sniper rifle as I kept the fiend's attention, bathing it in machinegun fire and leaping out of the way with my ultra-jump as he strafed me with his glowing shots.  Eventually the Hunter pulled more aggro than I could maintain and the elite Fallen went for him - I dashed after him, slapping him in the back with shotgun rounds to no avail - he ran on and on.  Finally, I took a running leap from a stone outcrop, soared above it, and held down triangle.

The rocket launcher came up, I jammed R2, and together, the Hunter and I danced on the corpse of our defeated foe (press right on the d-pad to dance).

The Destiny Alpha's greatest pleasures are those of any open MMO - chance encounters with other human players, building to a cool story.  As an MMO, it's incredibly streamlined.  Quests are as two-dimensional as they can possibly be - go here, kill that (you don't even need to turn them in to get your reward) - and there is little indicating of any real customization, here.  I get the sense we may get to customize our Guardians - all Warlocks in the Alpha are of a certain subclass, for example, indicating there are other choices to make - but I wonder if a player will truly be able to create the awesome space marine they want, and to what degree it will be pre-prescribed.

Having reached the Alpha's level cap, I can already sense what the endgame play of the full title may taste of. I fear it's one of grinding instances like The Devil's Lair in search of rare item drops to pimp out your avatar - the classic trap of any MMO, and so, Destiny's destiny - Scholomance all over again.

Destiny may hope to find its true long-term life in the wildly successful multiplayer that defined Halo (and gave rise to Call of Duty's domination), but what feels new and thrilling about the game isn't the tried-and-true - it's its potential.  

It's the fact that this is a game in which you can hop on your very own speeder bike straight out of Star Wars and go zipping off across a cool sci-fi landscape, amongst the superstructers of the new world and the wrecks of the old, to discover a fellow Guardian beset by Fallen Knights, and launch your Super right into the middle of the fray to save their ass

Destiny has many of Halo's strengths, but it's the game's uniqueness that makes it such a romantic and inviting place.  It is, one should note, deliriously good-looking, with shockingly lovely lighting effects and rock-solid presentation across the board - a surprise and a pleasure for a game that's only in Alpha.  Now, at the Alpha's level cap and with little else left to see, I'm pleased that Destiny retains its mystery, and that there's so much more yet to discover.

Though I've had Destiny in my hands and some of its secrets have been laid bare, it remains a game I'm hyped for - a game that could be a defining title of this generation.

Day one.


  1. If you've got any questions, fire away.

  2. Were there any quests that don't involve running some place and killing some thing? I'm wondering about the variety.

    1. Quests are very, very standardized. You activate the green beacon, then you go to a room and have your Ghost scan a computer. You activate the green beacon, then kill a bunch of Hive/Fallen and pick up the things they drop (which they only drop while the quest is active), while a meter fills up. You activate the green beacon, then kill a certain number of a certain type of enemy, while a meter fills up.

      It'd be nice if it were a bit more ambitious for the full release.