No Great War
This legend has been quite some time in the making, hasn’t it? We’ve been hearing for a while about Destiny, the new online first-person shooter by Bungie that has been praised for its massive scope for over a year, despite not having even been released yet. It’s one of those games that people just never stopped being excited about, chomping at the bit for the thing as soon as it was first shown. Now, the ships have landed. The Guardians have set foot on terra firma. It’s time to go forth and fight for the Traveler, the human race, and the hope of a future. But what kind of future, if any, does Destiny herald?
Destiny takes place in a space-age future, in which our own solar system was once graced with a visit by The Traveler, a vast white planetoid that drifts through space. The Traveler has brought great things to the solar system, with great scientific advances occurring in its midst. This golden age came to an end with the coming of a great battle, during a period known as “The Collapse.” This vague, nonspecific war left the Traveler crippled, immobilizing it over Earth where it still hangs, over the last protected city of humanity. Although now frozen in motion, the Traveler is still a sacred resource to be protected.
Your character is a Guardian, found dead in Old Russia. What constitutes being called a Guardian? The answer lies in how you go from being dead to no-longer-dead. You are found by a Ghost, a small AI in a flying drone body built from The Traveler itself. A Ghost has one task; find someone worthy of being called a Guardian, as chosen by the Traveler, (to which all Ghosts are inherently connected) and enlist them into to protect the Traveler from its enemies. Those enemies are the Fallen, an army of aliens from parts unknown who wield the force and technology to completely wipe humankind out if given the chance. You are what stands in their way.
You are not the only Guardian; far from it, in fact. The Guardians are a vast bunch, thus setting the stage for Destiny‘s hot-topic status as an always-online game. One could basically call it a first-person MMO, due to the fact that you can encounter other players in each map and area you visit. The issue with this is that the areas are big enough, and the servers small enough, that you don’t actually run into all that many players in your travels. If you’re the type who prefers to do your own thing in online games with minimal intrusion, this might be a selling point, but if you like the idea of constantly working and cooperating with other players, Destiny doesn’t exactly do a ton to accommodate you.
This, though, isn’t to say that the game neglects its own online functionality completely. Each planet you visit in your travels has a patrol mission in addition to its various story missions. These patrol modes are essentially free-roaming mode, giving you free reign to travel anywhere in the area of you choosing, picking up missions as you wander and fight off the Fallen. These missions usually stay within the standard range of “kill X dudes” or “find X number of things by killing X dudes.” If this doesn’t sound completely riveting, there are also occasional optional events that occur in the area around you, usually bringing nearby Guardians together to guard a resource from Fallen hordes for a certain amount of time. These can add a little bit of fun by forcing strangers to work together, but even this gets monotonous when you realize just how shallowly the game makes you do the same things over and over. (for example, I have now surveyed the same cave for the same guy on three different occasions)
But lets look at brighter skies for a moment. The actual gameplay of Destiny is a solid beast. We live in an age where it’s honestly hard to make a bad first-person shooter, and Bungie, creators of the Halo franchise, are certainly something like experts. Each Guardian gets a main weapon and a special weapon, each with their own blanket ammo type. Added to this is a level system, gaining you the option to obtain a new ability at every level you gain. These can vary from stat upgrades to things like a double jump, or multiple kinds of special attack. The Hunter class, for example, starts out with an incendiary grenade that deals out burn damage that eats away at foes over time, but after a few levels you get the option to switch to a different grenade type, which will generate drones to fly around and strike nearby enemies.
Combat usually feels good, but doesn’t exactly have a wow factor. Some areas will have a creative visual design, using things like shadowplay to briefly add tension, but everything else is pretty vanilla. Enemy AI isn’t particularly great, with most foes only going as far as “run at the player” or “hide behind things and shoot occasionally.” Area design includes occasional cool locations, like a field full of old, rusted-out airplanes, but never does there come a moment where you feel like you’re making particularly good use of anything. The environment isn’t really meant to be used in your favor in any particular way. It’s kind of just…there.
Unfortunately, even the solid gameplay has flaws; or to put it more precisely, flaws are built around it. The aforementioned main/sub-weapon system dictates a bit too strictly what you can have in your arsenal. Main weapons are relegated pretty much to different types of machine gun and SMG, while stuff like sniper rifles goes in the secondary category. This may not sound like a big deal at first, until you realize that enemies drop far more ammo for your primary weapons than your secondary. When the only effective way to get ammo is said enemy drops, it can be really frustrating. I almost always favor a sniper rifle in just about any first-person shooter, and being restricted from using that option as freely as I would in something like Borderlands was a considerable turn-off.
In a way, this forced regulation of gun preferences leads to a much larger problem with the game. Destiny has three classes to choose from, which already doesn’t sound like a lot. You’ve got your standard soldier-like Titan, the assassin-esque Hunter, and your special-effect-specialist Warlock. When you begin the game, you obtain the same first couple of weapons regardless of which character you choose. Alright, you might say, that’s acceptable when you’re just starting out. The problem is, this becomes indicative of how a lot of the game’s equipment is dealt with. You’ll find yourself using pretty much the same guns regardless of what kind of Guardian you favor, as well as almost all of the same armor. The special abilities differ between characters, but that in itself isn’t enough to make the three seem like distinct classes at all. Instead, they feel like variations on the exact same theme.
Another extremely bothersome thing about Destiny is that classic battle of presentation versus that which is being presented. Destiny‘s presentation is, in some ways, pretty great. The soundtrack is absolutely masterful, taking hold from the beginning and never lessening its grip, and evoking some of the greatest science fiction epics of our time with every note. The art direction is good too, with some pretty cool designs for Guardians and their various enemies. The game’s occasional cinematic segments are also well-directed, but as far as the visuals actually on display…well. Let’s back up a bit.
Destiny is a cross-generation game, meaning it’s on both current- and last-gen systems. As such, one would obviously expect the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions to look better than their PS3/Xbox 360 counterparts. To be sure, on the new current generation of systems, the game looks phenomenal, with graphical detail beyond anything on previous systems. The issue, however, is that the previous-gen versions of the game look, frankly, kind of abysmal. For most of my time with Destiny, I played on the PlayStation 3, widely accepted as the most graphically capable console of its generation. Somehow, Destiny felt like I was playing an Xbox 360 launch title. There aren’t a lot of glaringly pixelated textures, or anything of the kind. It’s more like looking at a balloon and pretending it’s a rock. Everything is shiny, blurry and undetailed, and the whole thing just looks unfinished. It looks like an area in most games might right after loading up, perhaps before some textures have kicked in. Sadly, though, this is all that last-gen Destiny has to offer visually, and it feels like something of an insult to those of us unable to shell out $450 big ones for that sleek white PS4.
Another issue is, surprisingly, the story. Fans of Bungie, and more specifically fans of Halo, will vouch for the studio’s penchant for good storytelling. How, then, does Destiny falter? Well, let’s start here.
I want you to take a look at every story point within the game that I’ve mentioned by name. The Traveler, The Guardians, The Fallen…hmm. What do you notice? Do these names seem a bit lazy, perhaps? A trife half-assed? A tad like placeholders, even? The story progresses very minimally throughout its 12-hour span, and it never entirely stops feeling like not a lot of thought was put into it.
The narrative seems more concerned with weaving things in mythical vaguery than anything else, which has somehow allowed the writing of the whole thing to soften to the point of liquification. The storytelling all boils down to “The (noun) built The (noun) as a bastion against the (noun) during The (noun), but it’s been abandoned since The (noun).” Goodness, that sure is a lot of nouns. A lot of flat, generic, unimaginative nouns. Do you want me to hate nouns, Destiny? Because that’s where I’m headed right about now.
Finally, the other big elephant in the room is Destiny‘s actual game content. The game begins on Earth and eventually expands to offer Mars, Venus, and Earth’s moon to you for all your exploration and battle needs. In itself, that sounds awesome, yes? But the issue is that each planet only has one area to explore. Earth begins in Russia and ends in Russia. You’ll get a few locations through different story missions, but not a ton in terms of free-roaming areas. There’s also The Crucible, where you can watch the utterly disappointing matchmaking at work in online matches that are an utter disaster. It feels like a ton of wasted potential, especially when you look at how much time, effort and money was put into this game’s development. Through this method of design, the end product has a scope that feels both vast and tiny, all at once.
Destiny is planned to receive new events and content over the span of the next ten years. You heard me. Ten years. That’s a really long time, and no other game has really accomplished such a task before besides World of Warcraft. The difference between WoW and Destiny, though, is that the latter seems to be much more structured around the team’s future plans for the game. No doubt, we will see a lot more added to each planet in the time to come through downloadable content, and that’s fine. Destiny is a concept that naturally lends itself to such things. But it seems that so much attention is being put into long-term plans for the game that Bungie forgot to make the core package worthwhile in its own right. Everything about the game screams “but just wait until the next thing we add,” which is, quite frankly, no way to direct a game.
Not everybody’s destiny is a great one. What is the ultimate fate of Bungie’s latest project? Since launch day, the studio has been shouting at the top of their lungs not to put too much stock in reviews, but what kind of message does that send? Destiny could have been something really great, but instead of living up to any of its potential, it comes off as a mediocre first-person shooter with little imagination. It feels like the entire game is a placeholder for what could eventually be a better product. But if this is the bare skeleton at the core of all that is to come, with its barely-different classes and repetitive missions, is it really even worth holding out hope for the game’s future?
Destiny could be made better, and hopefully will be, but with a launch this rocky, who knows how many of their future plans for the project will even see the light of day? The game is fun on a mindless level, but fails to do anything remotely exciting. It’s ultimately a mediocre experience that should have been far more. Let us hope that a grander fate still lies in store for we, the Guardians who fight for what is left. Destiny gets three vaguely-named backstory events out of five. (I think we’ll call them The Lightning, The Awakening, and The Peanut Buttering.)
Final Verdict: 3 / 5
Available on: Playstation 3 (reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One; Publisher: Activision, SONY Computer Entertainment; Developer: Bungie; Players: 1 locally, 1-3 online; Released: September 9th, 2014 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One); Genre: Online First-Person Shooter; MSRP: $59.99
Note: This review is based on a retail copy of the game for Playstation 3.