Destiny alpha impressions
When Destiny was first announced and the grand ten year plan was unveiled the word that came easily to the tongue was ‘ambitious’. As a result of having such a long-term vision there were also people asking, and rightly so, if all of this could be for naught if Destiny failed to ignite the interests of the gaming populace. It is fitting then that Bungie’s first foray into letting the public play with their new toy, in the shape of the weekend alpha, was an ambitious and plentiful exercise.
The alpha was split into three accessible components that were all shown as destinations on a small map; you could travel to Earth for some missions and exploration, you could visit The Tower to spend the loot you have acquired or you could take part in the team-based multiplayer versus element The Crucible. But before you delve into any of these components you must build your character in Destiny’s character creation tool. At this early stage your choices in creating a character feel reasonably limited but robust enough to make you feel that you have created something fairly unique. It would be fair to assume that by final release there will be more options for players to pontificate for far too long over.
There are three races for players to choose to be the foundation of their character: Human, Awoken or Exo. The human race is as you would expect, the Awoken are a pale blue alien race and the Exo are robotic in nature. From there you have very basic customising options featuring hair, face, facial markings and so forth. There was nothing like a Saints Row level of customisation, but what was there was beautifully rendered, and given that the game plays out in first-person and you will in all likelihood be wearing a helmet for the stats buff, the customisation level wasn’t much of an issue. In the upcoming beta I would suggest that the options available to players will be increased but as it stands the creation tool does what it needs to.
Dropping onto Earth and into ‘Old Russia’ you will find yourself in the middle of a vast nothingness, with a dust-ridden wasteland all around peppered with some buildings that have been reclaimed by nature. Bungie has clearly set out its stall and the prospect of travelling vast wasteland frontiers on your speeder, with friends, is a truly mouthwatering prospect. Bizarrely, and perhaps I completely missed it, I could not find any semblance of a map while travelling around, it seems to be a bizarre omission from a game based on exploration. What you do have is Ghost, a little levitating cube that is voiced by none other than Peter Dinklage, and when it is activated via the PS4 touchpad it scans the area and marks missions on your HUD. This mechanic works pretty well and looks very neat but I would much have preferred a map to work my way around. This could be that Bungie hiding the overall map size by removing the function, or it could be that maps are something that you may purchase later at The Tower.
Exploring the world is truly exciting, but as is always the case, these things are better with friends and in Destiny there is something very interesting going on. If you have played the utterly brilliant Journey you will remember the first time you met a stranger in the desert, and how this ambient-multiplayer mechanic made your game world feel alive. There seems to be something similar happening in Destiny as friends, that you have not invited, will appear in your game. No awkward invite waiting times, no lobby/party loading screens, but rather a seamless and hassle free inclusion of your friends into your game, or you into there’s depending on how you want to look at it. I think this is really where Destiny could shine.
The co-operative multiplayer element and its strengths were there for all to see in the alpha’s Strike mission. These missions are level-gated and need to be played co-operatively, and they are best approximated as an MMO raid with teamwork needed to push past the multitude of enemies and numerous bosses. What seemed interesting was that there was the qualifier on the missions select screen, ‘PlayStation Plus required’, which seems to indicate the online could be free but access to these XP laden missions are restricted by subscription status. It’s an interesting idea and could prove another driver for the already growing in popularity PlayStation Plus. The missions themselves play out fantastically, if not a little hackneyed with the usual ‘fight off hordes while the door is hacked’ scenarios. However, when the action gets going it is sumptuous. It feels like Halo, which is a compliment rather than pointing out lazy design, with tight controls and a real sense of weight in a world. Within a hour or two of playing you’ll be launching into Strike missions aware of your strengths and what you can bring to the party as well as being a fully capable killing machine. The mission available in the alpha was around forty-five minutes in length so I was able to get a real sense of the combat and what was there was very accomplished.
One real disappointment from the alpha and one that seems to have been prevalent amongst anyone playing the alpha is the voicework of Peter Dinklage. There is something noticeably lack lustrous with his delivery and given that your character is mute the audio lacks the gravitas of visual epic that is unfurling before you. The real problem I had with Dinklage’s audio was how clean it was, there seem to have been no effects applied to it and the pristine sound seemed at odds with the ruined and inhospitable environments. Hopefully they may dress his audio up by the time Destiny hits the shelves, or perhaps his delivery will improve as the game progresses but we will have to wait and see. This is not to tar all the audio with the same brush as the audio design elsewhere is never far from exceptional, suitably epic while exploring, dramatic while fighting and creepy when in the dark.
For those who love a good bit of versus multiplayer there is The Crucible, a place where you can enter into combat in various maps in what seems to be 6v6. I say it seems to be 6v6 as there was only one mode within The Crucible that was made available, while others were there but not able to either be selected or any descriptions of the modes available. The one mode that was available was a conquest/domination mode with checkpoints A,B,C etc that you had to control. If you have played Halo multiplayer then you know what exactly you are getting with this, fast fun action with people who cannot drive hover vehicles. The great thing about The Crucible is that the XP you gather while taking part in it also transfers to the main game so it feels like a real integral part of the whole experience rather than a tacked on afterthought. You also bring in your character from the main-game to The Crucible with your weapons and skill-set, and Bungie have confirmed that this will not mean imbalance in higher ranked players against us mere mortals as attributes will be levelled to make it fair.
Something that was purposefully missing from the alpha was the story of Destiny, with very little to go on you still got a real sense of this place which is no mean feat. As release gets closer we will undoubtedly find out more but currently Bungie are playing their cards close to their chest with the narrative. If they can pull off a genuinely intriguing overarching storyline to give purpose to your quest then Destiny could be astounding. As it stands Destiny is a mouthwatering prospect, and all the vagueness of what the game is, thanks to strangely poor marketing, has started to lift. If you want to sell a game, let the gamers sell it for you and that is very much what Bungie have done over this weekend. There is cause to be optimistic for Destiny, the social element of the game is unintrusive and fun, the combat is tight and frenetic and the world they have created is sublime. There are things to be ironed out and improved but for now you will be forgiven if you got very excited about what is coming your way.