Destiny – “Wizards in space”

Destiny had a huge amount of hype surrounding it’s release. It was the next game by Bungie, the famed creators of the legendary Halo series of first person shooters. It was a semi-social online first person shooter that promised to have a large game world with the depth of lore people had come to expect from Bungie, and with a lasting appeal that would keep people coming back until Bungie released the next slew of content or the first expansion pack. A budget for both Destiny, the publicity, and at least the first two expansion packs had been set at $500,000,000 by Activision, the publisher. An insane amount of pressure was on Bungie to deliver, both for the fans and for the publisher who had invested more money than several hollywood blockbusters combined, or almost ten times the budget of India’s mission to Mars, in a game that had to succeed or it would be dead on arrival. Do they succeed? A little from column A, a little from column B. Destiny is a cross-generation and cross-platform release, coming out on PlayStation 3 + 4 and the Xbox 360 + One, with no PC version currently in development. Due to it’s cross-generational heritage, Destiny may not have the sheer graphical fidelity of other “next-generation” titles such as Infamous Second Son, Killzone Shadowfall, Ryse Son of Rome etc, but it still has a great art design that hearkens back to 60s/70s sci-fi. If you’ve read a book like Dune or seen 2001 A Space Odyssey then some of the vistas and interiors seem pleasingly familiar, and each area in Destiny feels distinct and stands apart, while the “home” hub for players on Earth feels calm, which is appropriate since on your next mission you may shoot your way through a hundred enemies of various alien races that all want to crush you beneath their heel. The game does commit the cardinal sin of having a character essentially saying “I could give you all the answers but this is Destiny 1 so I won’t”, but since you probably won’t spend the majority of your time on the story, it’s a complaint but one that falls by the wayside.

Bungie are famed for their sky-boxes, having set the bar with the Halo series, and on this front Destiny definitely does not disappoint. Whether you are at The Tower on Earth, cruising across the dune wastes of Mars or the tropical concrete jungles on Venus, you could easily spend time ignoring your mission objective and staring up at the sky. Each sky-box goes beyond feeling like the “roof” of the level and helps the level feel more alive and like an actual place, rather than a static blue sky and clouds. For the most part, it’s clear that Bungie put a LOT of effort into the art side of things and to be honest the only place they fall short is with the gear you acquire, which is unfortunate considering that’s what the end-game revolves around. The planets feel distinct, the enemies all move in their own unique ways and you can immediately tell them apart from one another and from a technical perspective the game maintains a solid 30FPS frame-rate (and has uncompressed 1080p cut-scenes which feel like a godsend compared to the over-compression in some other games), but the gear tends to fall flat. For an RPG, or a game based around gear, you expect to look like a rag-tag adventurer at the start with weapons and Armour cobbled together from what you can find. Put the time and effort in and you’d expect your character, after dozens of hours, to look a world away from your lowly Level 1 character. You’d expect them to have Armour and weapons that reflect the progress and effort you’ve put in, and until you get the Exotic gear (Destiny’s highest tier of gear available at the moment) this isn’t really apparent.

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There isn’t a huge sense of progression in your gear outside of the statistics, and while the Exotic gear does start to look more unique and outlandish, it’s locked behind a relative token-grind so typical of MMOs that there’s a good chance most people who play Destiny will never get a piece. That said once you hit Level 20 (the soft cap for the game so far) you do start to gain Motes of Light, which can be traded to a vendor for some Legendary-tier items, and you start to look for the “Light” statistic on gear you find. Light can level you up to 30, and while Light-gear may have slightly lower stat boosts than other gear, the upgrades possible tend to be both more numerous and unconventional. So rather than just finding an item that provides 100 defense, you might find one that provides 80 defense, 15 Light and has an upgrade that causes damage with grenades to recharge your special ability. It’s those unique abilities that helps alleviate a sense of grinding for an optimal set of gear that everyone uses, which is some prevalent in other MMOs such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, as rather than just wondering about the stats you would gain, the upgrades also become something to consider as they can suit your play-style and whether you want to experiment with certain aspects of the combat or your character that have otherwise gone untouched. The color schemes for your gear are a nice touch, you can purchase different schemes from vendors at The Tower hub area, or maybe get some as loot drops from various boss-level enemies but not being able to pick and choose the color of each individual piece makes it feel more like you’re picking your favorite version of someone else’s look, rather than customizing it the way you want to. That said since Bungie envision Destiny as a title and franchise that should last for the best part of a decade, with support via patches, expansion packs and sequels, there is certainly time for them to fix some of these issues.

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The game play should be familiar to anyone who has played Bungie’s Halo games, as by and large it feels like an extension of those games, although the grenade cool downs, abilities and superpowers give it a unique feel compared to the adventures with Master Chief. The combat feels solid and tightly controlled from the first mission, although by nature of it’s semi-open world design, Destiny simply cannot have the same moment-to-moment combat that Halo excelled in and coupled with a lack of set pieces throughout the 5+ hour story mode, spectacle in terms of firefights is sorely lacking in Destiny. That said while Halo could brag about levels like The Silent Cartographer, Assault on the Control Room and the Warthog runs that end both Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 3, Destiny is more of a “It is what you make of it” kind of game. That’s not a bad thing, because playing in co-op with your friends is very fun as you slide along the ground, shots whizzing past your head, before eviscerating an enemy with a shotgun-blast to the chest or have a friend go on a suicidal run into the heart of the enemy only to get downed and need revival immediately. However, as fun as the co-op is, the lack of set pieces and shortness of the campaign do hurt Destiny. You can replay missions on harder difficulties for a (slim) chance at greater rewards, but ultimately having to trudge through ten or fifteen minutes of a mission against weaker enemies just to get to a mission-ending fight that provides a good challenge (say a fight against a dimensional-traversing robotic Gate Lord or against the semi-literal Heart of a planet) is detrimental to the overall experience.

There are lots of other activities though; for instance you could play the Strikes (Dungeons in most MMOs) and fight against bosses that take far too long to kill (unless you’re overlevelled to the point where the Strike offers you no rewards anyway), or try your hand at the Player Versus Player (PvP) across a range of probably 8 maps and 4 or 5 different modes, however they are all familiar fair if you’ve played FPS games in the last decade or so. Doing Strikes or PvP at the Crucible (the name for the PvP arenas) rewards you with tokens, and after saving up a large amount of tokens (in typical MMO fashion, the amount of tokens require a near zealot-level of devotion) you can buy some of the top-tier level gear from vendors. You stand a chance of getting high-level gear from the Engrams that rarely drop from enemies in all other game play modes , but ultimately the chances are so small (a legendary tier engram only has a 30% chance of actually being a legendary, a 1.5% chance of being an exotic weapon etc) that your best bet is to grind and grind for tokens. It’s this that kills the momentum of Destiny’s player progression as up till then you’ve usually unlocked a new ability or gained an upgrade for your weapon every other mission or so. I know that the token-grind is used in a lot of MMOs, but considering that in PvP (the only competitive mode in Destiny) everyone is balanced no matter the difference in level, I can’t see why Bungie don’t increase the amount of tokens you gain as there is no real need to force someone to grind for 5 hours or so just for one piece of gear. That said, they could certainly alleviate the problem by either increasing the amount of tokens you get (at the moment you get 3 tokens from a win in PvP, 2 from a loss and the cheapest piece of gear is 65 tokens, the most expensive is 125 tokens) or following the example of World of Warcraft (where you can get raid-quality gear by doing heroic dungeons) or Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (where you have a relatively vast amount of options of how to get your tokens) and already, Bungie have said they will address the balancing of Engrams in patches.

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The soundtrack is a collaboration between Marty O’Donnell (composer for Bungie’s Halo games) and Paul McCartney  (Wings) and is generally very good. You will hear the same themes repeated throughout the campaign and other game modes but the musical cues and motifs become familiar and welcome, and the use of some of McCartney’s melodies and O’Donnell’s somewhat unconventional approach to video game music composition (at least in the Halo series the use of monk chants and electric guitar felt a world away from synthesized instruments or overly-operatic scores) help give Destiny a range of tracks that further cement it’s own identity. There’s a motif that plays at the end of every mission which becomes something you’re thankful to hear (in a good way!) by the end of the game, and the theme that starts to play as the previously mentioned Gate Lord descends to Venus gives off the vibe of a “Oh s***!” moment as you realize just how BIG the Gate Lord is. The guns sound fine, admittedly lacking the punch that games like Battlefield are famous for, but while there are different classes of guns, each gun within that class tends to feel the same. Apart from dealing much more damage, a Level 1 and Level 20 shotgun feel exactly the same. The use of heavy weapons help add some major firepower to your arsenal but as you level up and start tackling the end-game content they become more useful for taking out the trash mobs that accompany bosses than tearing a boss to pieces.

Apart from the fact that if you ignore PvP and Strikes, Destiny feels light on content, it certainly feels like either missions were cut or held back for the expansion packs. For instance you have to visit a certain faction during the game, who have their own location on the star system map, but the interactions play out entirely through cut scenes. While they are not antagonists in the story, it feels like a missed opportunity as while the “mission” was loading (loading times in Destiny are generally too long) I imagined having to fight my way to the target I was to talk to, but instead the cut scenes shows you talking to a massively important figure, and gives you no sense of the new faction as a whole. The other grievance is that all cut-scenes in Destiny are un-skippable. They’re not particularly long, with the longest being about 3-4 minutes, and I don’t mind lengthy cut scenes (I love Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, even with it’s hour+ group of cut scenes) but if you replay a mission then it becomes an incredibly annoying grievance. I know some games use them (or doors that take a short time to open like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution) to mask loading the next area of the level, but considering that bar one, all of Destiny’s cut scenes take place at the end of a mission, I cannot see the reason for Bungie not including a “Skip” option, at least for people replaying the missions.

In the end, Destiny is a good game, albeit weighed down by the lofty expectations placed upon it in the year or so between unveiling and release. They’ve created a new sci-fi universe that, while interesting, is told quite poorly and is far less easy to get into than their aforementioned Halo series. They’ve also got some great gun play and relatively well-designed areas that give you a range of options in each firefight you get into. Ultimately, Destiny does not meet the pre-release promise placed upon it. For a game was supposedly in various stages of development since 2008, it’s ironic that the game released feels a bit…rushed. The end of the game feels the start of the next chapter, and while other MMO-types obviously carry on the story long after the initial release, Destiny, in story and content, feels like the prologue to the main event, rather than the first chapter of a larger narrative. It’s all set-up for a far large conflict that is taking place elsewhere in the Milky Way, and ultimately it does feel as if “That’s it?” when the credits roll. That said, if you’re a fan of Bungie’s FPS games, and want something that provides a good co-op experience, AND you can handle the grind for loot, then it is certainly worth a purchase. Destiny wants to be a great game, but it’s not quite there, for now at least.

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