Tuesday, September 23, 2014

REVIEW - Destiny.

Destiny - an online multiplayer co-op sci-fi FPS RPG from Bungie, the folks responsible for the legendary Halo franchise - suffers from an excess of hype. More than a bit of responsibility for that can be laid squarely at the feet of publisher Activision, who famously announced that they had invested half a billion dollars in the game and its promotion.

The game's concept - a massively-multiplayer FPS RPG from masters of the shooter - is a deeply attractive one, but that concept alone creates an expectation that Destiny doesn't deliver.  Take, for example, this absolutely fantastic live-action commercial for the game.

The game Activision is selling you only keeps half of that beautiful ad's promise.

The part that's three friends squaring off against grotesque legions of warrior creatures from beyond the stars at the end of their gun barrels, the part that's overcoming crazy-awesome challenges with style and flair and explosive super powers - that's all here.  But we've seen that a thousand times before.

The more inspiring part - the part we haven't played to death in countless other games - of blasting our hoverbikes across the wide-open, verdant fields of Venus, of trudging along the lonely, infinitely-sprawling surface of the moon, the four corners of the compass begging for discovery and exploration...

...that's not here.  At all.  Ever.  The most beautiful, attractive part of Destiny - the part it really sold itself on - doesn't exist.

And Destiny really does, more often than not, feel like a game of two unequal halves.  The action side is excellent.  The RPG side is far less than compelling, because it almost completely lacks any significant customization on the part of the player, and fails to stand up to the standard set by the massively-multiplayer games that have come before it.

Have you ever tried World of Warcraft?  You're a gamer, you probably have.  Imagine if you started up your first character in World of Warcraft and, twelve hours later, had explored every environment it had to offer, and spoken to every single NPC in the game.

That's Destiny.  It doesn't reward exploration in any way, shape or form (unless you count about five hidden treasure chests on each planet, that don't contain much).  While its worlds are gorgeous, it doesn't ask the player to become absorbed in them.  How could they, after all, when they'll be leaving for the next planet (of four) in an hour or two?

As a game that's suggested it belongs in the MMO space, Destiny can't compete in terms of pure content and scope.  The real estate offered by the moon, Venus, Mars - each is ohhh about the size of a single chapter in the original Halo.  A mostly-straight walk with some areas that are about the size of a football field to stretch out in.

But man its skyboxes are gorgeous.

They speak of shattered planets, of once-great civilizations laid low under the brutal, tri-toed feet of alien regimes bent beneath the unstoppable will of a faceless darkness, and you explore them through classically-Bungie environments that sprawl a bit here and tighten up into old-school corridor shooting there.

It looks grand, but it doesn't feel grand.  The act of exploring its sci-fi universe feels similar to any other, less-ambitious linear shooter you've played - and less, as it flatly refuses to shore up its environments with discoverable tidbits.  There are no audio journals to find, nothing in the environment to interact with, no NPCs to speak to - no real sense of place.

There's a narrative - a translucent, meatless affair about a giant orb that came to earth and kicked off a second renaissance, but its sense of grandeur and mystery almost instantly dissolves, and loses any real hold on the player's imagination when they're told, five minutes after picking up the controller, that their actions have just crippled the enemy faction and now everything's changed forever.

For the remainder of the game, you're numbly aware that your actions have no genuine impact on the game or its world, and when your companion AI tells you you've just done what no one else ever, in the history of everything, thought could be done, you swallow it down and do your best to ignore that hundreds or thousands of players have done it before you, and will do it after, and nothing has changed.

You didn't even get any decent gear out of it.

Most of Destiny is gorgeous.  Some of it ain't (PS4 screen).

In the arena of gear, Destiny comes across as woefully self-important, and willfully cruel, at the expense of the player.  Like any FPS-RPG (Borderlands), your effectiveness in battle is directly tied to the quality of the weapon in your hands - and as you level up and face tougher foes, the low-level gun you're holding throws the game's difficulty curve out the window, and makes it an absolute slog.  Destiny doesn't address this in any way, shape or form.

Upon hitting the game's "soft level cap" of 20, a player will find themselves desperate for gloves and boots and a pistol that are simply representative of their level - a weapon's damage is directly tied to its level, and directly impacts a player's ability to take on its end-game challenges - but the game flatly refuses to provide one.  In fact, getting any useful items in Destiny is an exercise in frustration, and the literal definition of "grind."

Even worse, for all but the most grind-happy players, Destiny doesn't offer any routs to continue enjoying the game once they hit twenty.  You're either going to the Crucible (player-versus-player) or playing the same Strikes (dungeons) you've already played for hours upon hours upon hours to earn enough reputation and "marks" (currency) to purchase a new weapon or pair of mittens.

After hitting level 20, I kept playing.  I kept playing for hours, in the hopes that I might find any level twenty weapon that I could leverage to continue the game and find... meaning in it, but Destiny demands everything, or nothing.

Did you know the first players in the world to defeat Destiny's end-game raid, the Vault of Glass - this crew that spent ten-plus hours coming to terms with its omnipotent challenge, defeating the hardest gauntlet the game had to offer, didn't actually receive any useable gear from it?

Why should I play you, Destiny?

You're not rewarding.

Well, hang on, that's not entirely true.  You're  rewarding in one aspect.

You're a ton of fun to actually play.

This is a game in which you shoot the legs out from under a gigantic, ambulatory spider-tank under the command of the evil Fallen, watch it collapse to the dirt, exposing its tender core and do a double-jump to soar over it, tapping R1 and L1 to wind up and launch a magical Nova Bomb from your outstretched palm, which cripples its health bar and obliterates any weaker enemy nearby.

This is a game in which you and your fireteam will put your backs to the wall, rattling off headshots like it was riding a bike, popping skull after skull as the hordes of the Hive descend upon you from their gooey nests.

The part of Destiny that lives up to its hype and its heritage is entirely how it feels to play when you look down the barrel of a weapon and squeeze off a round.  It feels perfect.

Bungie's control scheme is perfect.  The feel to your movement is perfect.  The snap of a melee strike is perfect.  The way you can put your aiming reticle on an enemy's noggin, squeeze L2 to bring up the irons and snap R2 to rattle off a single round is perfect.  The game's headshots are practically announcements to everyone around, as necks erupt with steam or sparks or all manner of special effects, proclaiming to the world "check out this badass landing headshots!"

Add that to the fact that Destiny is - a few weird, ugly standouts aside - absolutely gorgeous and a feast for the eyes, and what you have is a phenomenally-polished first-person-shooting experience.

The game is beautiful in the playing of it.  It's the rest of the design - the small-scope MMO that doesn't permit matchmaking, the RPG that obscures how you actually develop your character and the MMORPG that seals any sort of satisfaction or forward momentum beyond level 20 behind days of grinding meaningless, repetitive tasks - that has pushed me away, and assures I will only return to Destiny when I want to enjoy some of that sublime Bungie shooting.

I know for a fact that there are gamers who'll wholeheartedly dive into Destiny's tacitly rewarding grind.  There are thousands of players for whom the act of snapping up their iron sights and rattling off headshots at the blade-wielding Fallen Vandals who're ambushing their squadmate will be reason enough to play the game, and it won't feel like a grind at all - but I'm not one of them.

It's regularly beautiful, it plays like a dream. It offers a spartan slice of meaningful content and cripplingly ill-informed design as a massively multiplayer RPG.

I wonder if it's the game Bungie had intended to make.


  1. I agree with basically everything you said. I still can't stop playing it, though, I'm just having way too much fun. I'm not really sure what it is about it, but it's a blast.

    I think the reason there's such a huge gap between the quality of the action (perfectly Bungie in every way) and the lack of quality in just about everything else relating to gameplay is that Bungie tried turning their near-perfected action-shooter-y style into something more methodical, something that was supposed to last for a very extended amount of time. They're trying to bridge a gap that was much wider than they had anticipated.

    I think Destiny in its current form is incomplete. It seems Bungie expected that and has things planned out a bit more long-term, so, it seems to me at least, that Destiny will be a very different game in a year's time.

    I've been a fan of Bungie's for a very long time, and I've never felt wronged by them before, so I have a great deal of trust in them with this. But maybe I'm just being hopeful.

    1. Let me preface by saying I think I have a lot more I want to say about Destiny (still, most of it about why its MMO/setting doesn't really work well), but I do feel you're right about the game (potentially) having ridiculously long legs. A lot of people point out that it's meant to be a platform for future content - and some of that is well on its way, if you follow Bungie on Twitter. Sort of like the Vita, when it launched, or the PS4, when it launched - Destiny is a game that holds a lot of promises it cannot immediately keep.

      Oh, and the grenades. I should've mentioned, the grenades are frickin' awesome. I went sunslinger on my Warlock, and at first I had no idea what that special was supposed to be doing for me. Turns out it takes my grenade cooldown from three minutes to about five seconds. Pack on some +discipline gear and I am a sun slinger, tossing out fiery grenades at bosses or rooms of enemies like they're Mardi Gras beads.

      Plus it gives me like, flame wings. That's cool.