Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
“I’m your density. I mean, your Destiny.”
The above quote is taken from the marvellous Back to the Future but it works as a metaphor for the launch of Bungie and Activision’s Destiny, too. This is Bungie’s first game after selling their Halo franchise to Microsoft; it’s the first game of an expected four over a ten-year period covering this generation of consoles. Over that time five hundred million dollars will be invested to create the massive shared world which until now had existed purely in the minds of some of the best space opera shooter creators out there. Yet what we have is a game full of bits and pieces that at one moment is everything you've ever wanted and the next feels like it’s missing something. From the exhilaration of the gunplay to the absence of other gamers; the cadence of the core gameplay loop to the irritation when booted out of the game because the servers are down - yet you’re playing alone. Destiny could be wonderful and to some might already be, but what we have here today is a slightly bungled entrance which has a vision to get on track but right now, well, it’s mixed up. Like George McFly was at one point in time.
Destiny is a rather complicated and confusing game for much of your time with it thanks to a lack of communication on Bungie’s part and a series of design choices seemingly designed to instil mystery and discovery into the world that’s been created. As such it’s worth spending a little time going over what Destiny is, as well as what it isn’t. The world of Destiny is a future-set Milky Way. You are a dead being brought back to life by a companion known as a Ghost, one example of multiple mechanical, cubic AI, and you are brought back to life to act as Guardian; a freedom-fighter basically in an attempt to save the world from various enemies - to save Earth. On Earth there is one safe city still, within which is a place known as The Tower. Acting as a social hub throughout the game you meet with The Speaker who to some extent sets your direction, although in reality there is very little. You also meet with the leader of your Vanguard of Guardians - dependent on the class you chose from the three available to you, more specifically Hunter (Agile), Titan (Tank) or Warlock (Mage). You collect bounties (challenges enabling bonus XP and more), the Cryptarch who decodes engrams , a master-at-arms and a ship dealer. Everybody visits here. Most dance, wave and run around. The dancing in particular is wonderful. It has the feel of the crucible but it has far less to do. Whilst you’ll learn to love The Tower, getting to and from here is rather frustrating thanks to the extreme load-screens going to and from orbit to The Tower and to other locations.
As a Guardian you need to fight. There are story levels to play through, as well as Strikes, Patrols and player versus player alternatives. The early-game is all about pushing the story on and levelling up your character until you hit the soft level cap of twenty. This will take you around fifteen to twenty hours and during this time you’ll probably finish the story but also manage to get lots of time into other game modes without it starting to irritate or in any way feel a grind. Destiny is a wonderful shooter. Its central tenet - the shooting mechanics - is perhaps the finest a shooter has ever delivered. Bungie proved with the Halo series they knew how to make gunplay feel weighty, true and fun. Here they do the same. The cadence of the run, shoot, jump, hide - repeat can deliver some wonderful moments. The shooting is heavy with feedback specific to your weapon of choice. If you aim for an enemy's head it hits the head; their arm - their arm. It all works brilliantly and becomes ever so moreish, whether alone, with others or against others.
This is great and all that, but the story doesn’t match the gunplay nor does the level-design. The environments are well put together and varied as you move from rock to rock in our solar system, and the maps themselves are of high quality but each level is very much an ever-increasing horde mode followed by an escort defence mid-point with bullet-sponges as bosses right at the end. This never gets old because the shooting parts really are that good. But after so many hours it would be nice to have some variety in what goes down. It’s a shooter, yes, but other shooters have set-pieces or interloping alternative levels whereby you are forced to pilot a machine or drop bombs or something. The game knows what it does well and doesn’t budge. In the story though it really doesn’t do well. It’s vague, directionless, unmemorable and brings no real climax. It’s told via load screen voiceover and level-intermission dialogue and is done so by a multitude of well-known names, not least Lord Tyrion himself, Peter Dinklage, as your companion. The voicing in this game will give different mileage to folk. Within The Digital Fix towers we had critique ranging from alright to pretty good to bloody awful. For sure the direction given to the actors was weak or from an unknown point of view; or maybe they just came in, walked through their lines and left having given no heart to proceedings. Either way, don’t buy this game for the narrative and the story-telling.
The game has been described as an FPS, MMO and shared-world shooter. It is definitely the former and in part both of the others - without really choosing which one it wants to grow up to be permanently. Each time you enter any mission you will see others playing around you. Some might be tackling the same objectives, whilst others may have returned as part of a different mission. The bad guys in your worlds are also in theirs. This works best when you have people doing the same thing as you. It makes everything that much more fun when you’re not the only one trying to blow-up the enormous shooty thing ahead of you. This can be fleeting though in missions and patrols. To stop that from being the case you can invite folk to your fireteam or vice-versa. If you know them then even better. You’ll work as a team and achieve more than when alone - with much more enjoyment, too. Fireteams are only three deep, however. This might be a limitation to some. Strikes force you to play as a team of three, and if you don’t know anyone it will matchmake. The Strikes are extreme versions of missions with everything ramped up to eleven, from the number of enemies to the absorption rate of sharply-propelled metal objects. They last a good while and at the end you will all get your avatar dancing in victory celebration.
When you don’t sort out with friends when you’re all going to be around to play Destiny though the shared-world limitations come to the fore. There aren’t that many like-minded folks around your gameworld. It’s not like it’s full up or anything. Which is fine as you can continue ploughing through your single-player quest. Until you’re kicked out by the servers. Being a game where everyone is in the same place it’s always-online. Unlike Sim City before it this particular aspect has not been commentated on much. It’s irritating as anything though. Why should you be kicked out of the game just before you defeat that massive beast because the servers are down when you were playing alone in a level that’s on the disc? Let the player decide how each session is going to go. If they want to play alone let them for crying out loud. Obtuse decisions driven by grand ambition but executed poorly. I do not want to be forced to play online because I might share part of a level with a random. Either let me share the whole level with many randoms to make the co-op side of things a meaty chunk of goodness or let me be miserable and boring and tackle the challenge with grandiose designs of being the best when I see that win screen. The always-online era is here and it’s arbitrary and as annoying as you’d ever imagine.
The game shows glimpses of MMO-like behaviour throughout. There are scheduled public events which if you’re in the right place at the right time can lead to rewards and moments of variety (to the mission - it still involves shooting a gazillion things). Of course, if you ever make it to level twenty-six or higher and have five friends at the same level you can join a Raid which lasts ten or so hours, yields fabulous loot and requires cooperation, puzzle-solving and more. But that requires you to have five friends at level twenty-six, like yourself, all available at the same time and available for good bits of time. You don’t have to complete the raid in one go. Let’s try and explain why these design choices are ridiculous.
Getting to level twenty - the soft level cap remember - is simple enough. Shoot, kill, complete - move on. Eventually you’ll hit that marker and you’ll be all gooey inside. So how do you then get to level twenty-six? Quite. Bungie don’t really tell you. They give some hints and then a little later are more explicit but they don’t really explain it. To some this might be awesome - Dark Souls had a community who worked together to unravel the mysteries of Lordran, something purposefully kept abstract from the gameplay. But here we’re dealing with trigger-happy consumption freaks in the main. Eventually you realise it involves equipping armour with light. So experience points are put to one side and if you gather enough light you ramp up in level. Getting armour with light isn’t straightforward but engram drops can help. Even more so now the engram colour dictates what colour item you will get, rather than might get. Purple is a legendary item, for example, which as you can imagine is much better in terms of statistics and so on than a common item. Just imagine how hard that purple helmet will be.
If you actually gather enough items through drops and purchases then well done, you can tackle a raid. As long as you have enough similarly stacked friends as mentioned. Only friends. Here you cannot join randoms. In perhaps the most infuriating choice yet by Bungie you are locked out of the top-tier mode in the world of Destiny. What if you don’t have enough friends who play this in the first place? You can probably join like-minded folk with the same problem but then you’re basically playing with randoms. This needs to be changed. Ideally some lower-level raids with fewer restrictions on what is and isn’t possible. With this Bungie would be commended; as it is? They have offended.
There’s a lot going on in Destiny at all times. You have four armour slots to equip, three weapon slots. Your main class to upgrade with new powers and as of level fifteen a sub-class to choose from as well. For example, the Titan Strike class will get the option of a Defender eventually and some might prefer the alternative way of playing given you go from the forward line to the back line. Skills which can be developed over time include your choice of grenade from a pulsing beacon of painful light to one which sticks to walls or a good old-fashioned one which blows up. A personal favourite can only be likened to the Hulk smash; when supercharged you can jump and smash your fists into the ground virtually destroying anything in the vicinity. It’s wonderfully cathartic. You’re regularly gaining new items and powers and there’s always someone to go and see and do deals with or talk to or get gifts from. In that regard the world is fully fleshed out and entertaining at all times.
The world is definitely superior in terms of the way it looks. This is a really high quality game when it comes to looks and sound. On the PS4 the visuals are brilliantly imagined, the draw-distance is far and the refresh rate is a rock solid thirty frames per second throughout. The sound effects are satisfyingly meaty and the voice-acting clear, if not great as mentioned before. The feedback through the DualShock 4 is rather wonderful and varied from gun to gun and the enemy AI, whilst perhaps a little standard (hide behind rock; move out from rock; run between rocks) isn’t so cumbersome that you’ll notice it being an issue. You’re normally more focussed on killing the hundreds of enemies anyway.
Player versus player is pretty much what you’d expect, made all the more fun by the superb gunplay Bungie has delivered. You have modes which cover the usual types of game such as a capture the flag type, or kill everyone in sight option for example. The games are kept alive by drops of heavy ammo periodically which lead to everyone being overpowered if you get some of it. You get points and medals for all kinds of things from a postmortem kill to dealing death to three folk at once. It’s excellent fun even if you’re at a low level to others. Yes they are overpowered versus you with their super guns and better armour but a lot of their skills are turned off by Bungie in an attempt to level the playing field somewhat. It’s a great way to gain experience points, gather bounties and take a breather from the otherwise samey missions. You gather crucible (read: PvP arena) points too which can level you up with the crucible leader and get you shiny things. You get points for pretty much any group you’re affiliated to, actually, your Vanguard, your faction, your Cryptarch level. If you want something in particular, or help with a certain part of the game, you can focus your actions on areas to gain the advantage. It’s entirely up to you. Given the time and effort it takes to build your levels with any organisation it shows Bungie is playing the long game here.
It doesn’t quite shed the feeling of being an unfinished game though. If Destiny is meant to be this multi-year, multi-game shared-world experience is this it and will we just get more of it? If so it’s good but it’s not genre-defining. What genre is it trying to define actually? What have Bungie got still to come and how will that change things for better or for worse? It doesn’t really matter in the here and now; this is the game we have to play. But the fact it shows promise and pain both at times throughout its life, as well as making us question if this is it or what more there will be, doesn’t really garner it with glory. If you go into it knowing what you have today and that in the future something might - or might not change - then you’ll be left with an enjoyable and long-lasting experience. If you expect the future that might be now - if you have bought into Bungie and Activision’s chatter as being the day one solution, well, with that your joy will be muted.