A mystery of a game
It's been a long time since I experienced an arc like this. It's been an intricate rollercoaster. From the moment the game was announced, with its Marathon Infinity callback title, I was genuinely glad for Bungie regaining their freedom. Bungie are a studio I've followed closely ever since playing the Marathon demo on a Mac IIsi (at 25% resolution, interlaced, without floor or ceiling textures no less). The Marathon trilogy and its modding community defined much of my teens, my first encounters with the internet, and my first serious dabblings in game mods. We eagerly awaited Halo only to see it "stolen" by Microsoft, divorcing Bungie from their Mac gaming heritage. After seeing Bungie grind through several Halo games, straining their modest Iain Banks sci-fi fanboy lore far beyond any reasonable limit while simultaneously spending the time constructing a peerless ability to create seamless and immaculately tuned multiplayer games, the prospect of a Bungie "free" from Halo and Xbox seemed fantastic.
From the first moment I laid my eyes on Destiny in action, however, I wanted nothing to do with it. There was a smug confidence to Bungie's presentations, I felt, inappropriate for a game I wasn't the least bit sure I wanted a part of, even as a historical Bungie fan and a player of shooting games. This dislike only grew the more I saw, as Jason Jones enthused on stage about how amazing this generic-looking FPS was because he had found a cool gun once and his friend had found another gun, years after Gearbox' Borderlands knocked that particular formula out of the park.
I'm the kind of player that will go to considerable lengths to avoid other human players in video games.
I find interacting with strangers in games online dissonant and unpleasant, like the awkward quiet of a packed elevator. I don't mind no-nonsense adversarial games like Starcraft or Street Fighter 4, where verbal dialog can easily be forsaken for the language of the gameplay itself, but getting online has always been a scramble for the mute button, or for a way to minimize the chat window. It doesn't help that while I play games on every system, nearly every real life friend I play games online with play exclusively on the PC. And so, my prospects for rounding up My Bros for a rollicking round of Gun Comparisons as per Bungie's demonstrated vision are practically nonexistent.
Bungie have created a bizarre thing here, a game with problems significant enough to almost be impressive, and I'm struggling somewhat to explain why I am still playing it, well over 20 hours in, not including my time spent with their open beta.
It's impossible to approach Destiny without going into its narrative.
Not only because it is its most obvious failing, but also because the game's story missions make up the bulk of your play time for the 20 levels it takes for you to reach the base level cap and, in Bungie's words, for the "real game" to begin. It is an abysmal experience. It's become my understanding, over time, that Bungie are trying to do a Dark Souls, plopping you into its world and ushering you through it, trusting you to either infer or deduce or to discuss with friends and read wikis and so forth to build a better understanding of its world. Even the post-apocalyptic setting, and the player's role as a corpse eternally brought back to life echo Dark Souls, but regardless of From-like intent, Bungie is no From Software. This is absolute junk, with none of the austere melancholy of Lordran or Drangleic.
From Marathon and its clashing AIs and alien alliance villains, to Halo and its.. clashing AIs and alien alliance villains, to Destiny and its.. Clashing AIs and alien alliance villains, it's abundantly clear that Bungie are drawing from a very shallow pool of influence here. Faceless characters speak to the player in principles as though the player understands the stakes, but we never actually do. Everything is background noise, as objective markers and loot drops trot us through confrontations. The writing is beyond belief. "I don't even have the time to explain why I don't have the time to explain" an actress manages to read into a microphone at some point. Who writes stuff like this? What producer allows this to happen?
After the player is hurried through a tour of The Moon, Venus, Mars and Russia by a flying robot buddy talking absolute incoherent nonsense, the story kind of just ends. Much like completing a supposedly world-changing quest in any MMO, the requirements of the genre insist the world remain as it is. You have achieved nothing, and you feel that way too. As you play and meet certain requirements, you unlock "grimoire" cards of what I suppose is meant to be deeper lore, but the interface for reading these cards is locked away on Bungie.org or on the Destiny companion app, a clunky and unpleasant way to read what amounts to an awkwardly written collection of paragraphs about how a shotgun is good for shooting people up close, or how A Thing Happened Once that you aren't given the slightest reason to care about.
If I sound harsh, it's because the game deserves it. I am no stranger to space opera, including the references Bungie liberally crib from, and I don't mind pulp fiction one bit, but this is just terrible writing and presentation. Charmless and dour, self-important and pretentious, Destiny is an uninspired tale told by people that seem to have little interest in it, and acted out by a frankly insultingly expensive collection of *screen actors* including Bill Nighy, Nathan Fillion, Peter Dinklage, Peter Stormare and Claudia Black, none of which are given a real character to play, none of which show any enthusiasm whatsoever, and none of which *are voice actors*. It's as if Activision just threw money at Destiny and hoped it would stick.
This idiotic narrative, and the sloppy, disinterested way it is presented, practically perforates the game for those first 20 levels. I found it intolerable to be constantly badgered by this nonsense, and while there were solid action sequences, fantastic visual moments and the best soundtrack Bungie ever presented, they were consistently undermined by the sensation that the very world in which they took place was bad pastiche.
See, that's the thing that gets me. There's a sensation, playing Destiny, that Bungie works in mysterious ways, and it bothers me intensely. It feels, at times, like a manipulative game in a way where other loot grinders like Diablo manage to at least seem honest about tickling you. There is an underhandedness and at times a smug shrewdness that gives Destiny an edge that makes me want to punch it in the mouth.
Take, for instance, the basic concept of pseudorandom gun loot. With Borderlands, this mechanic works because of the ramshackle ad hoc frontier feel of the game world, and how the weapons are sorted into manufacturers with tendencies. Borderlands feels like a world where guns like these would differ by the batch, much like homebrew booze. In the austere, slick world of Destiny, collecting guns with weird side-effects like the second half of a magazine dealing extra damage or randomly reacquiring ammunition seems out of character: You become aware of it as a design element that stands alone. It is that way to support the loot grinding cycle, and it sets the looting up as a dissonance in the game world.
As I played through the "campaign" of Destiny, factors like these just piled on. The sensation that Bungie is wooing the player with serotonin bribery is less attractive when you can barely see the game through all the money. It's trying to cover its shallow stupidity with expensive trinkets.
In other areas, and perhaps where it truly counts, all that money does buy something truly special.
Destiny is an engineering and tuning masterpiece. I'm playing on the PS3 and it is a shockingly pleasant game to look at, listen to and interact with. Controller input is almost surprisingly responsive, and expertly tuned, and I mean expertly. Very few can even lie convincingly about being able to do first person shooter controls on a console like this. Call of Duty has a sharp stiffness that is completely missing here, while games like Syndicate and Killzone try for a heavier approach that all but necessitates their use of cover systems. Destiny floats and stomps. It's a game that understands the value of That Thump when you land from a high jump, the idiocy of limiting a sprint ability, and how such an ability requires a slide move when you run into a crouch. It's not a full on love letter to the first person "full body experience" like Syndicate or other Starbreeze titles, but where it counts, it sings. It's an airy, light, smooth game to play, until the moment it needs to present force.
What few vehicles there are control gorgeously well. The smooth arcing turns of the Sparrow, a hoverbike every player is given access to, is something to really relish. It's enough to make you wish there were more reasons to drive than simply to cover distance.
Guns chatter and bang and sizzle satisfyingly, impacts are presented in big gouts of numbers flying off your target with critical hits a particularly satisfying yellow, punctuated by a nice big pop should such a hit result in a kill. It's pleasantly bizarre that numbers flying into the air is more satisfying than blood could ever be. Most importantly, Destiny's players have an array of class-based abilities enabling greatly heightened mobility, hugely damaging melee attacks, various grenade attacks and buffs, and class-specific "supers" akin to DOTAs "ultras" that can and will mean the difference between victory and defeat. These abilities, depending on how the player chooses to configure their build (rapidly re-speccable at any time, thankfully), utterly transform the game.
My primary character, a Warlock Sunsinger, soars through the air, buffing nearby friendlies with improved recharge times for their abilities, as i set fire to enemies en masse with damage-over-time grenades. I fall towards an opponent, auto rifle blazing. On the ground my melee attack enables a momentary extra health bar that allows me the time after smacking the shield off an enemy to switch to my shotgun for a point blank kill. My fully upgraded rifle has an ability that lets me almost instantly switch back to it for mid-to-long range fighting. I am a glorious burning monster.
It's got a rythm of motion that I think, as I've played more and more, is some of the most interesting juxtaposition of mobility and heft since the original Tribes. In its best PvP moments, where Destiny's mobility, gunplay, melee and abilities come together, the dance my fingers do on the controller feels right up there with playing Guile in Street Fighter 4, cancelling out of a focus attack into a flash kick cancelled into an Ultra. It's exhilarating and vicious how fast and efficient victories can be dealt between players, to the point where players killing eachother at the same time is a common occurence, for better or worse.
I'm clearly of two distinct minds about this game.
What has become clear is that Bungie intends Destiny to be a long term prospect. A sort of neverending beta, judging by how things currently run. Short of the almighty much howled-about Raid, of which I am sure there will be many, all of which I'll be disqualified socially from partaking in, I am completely out of content to play. No more strikes, no more story missions. It's absolutely a repetitive grind. While the matchmaking strike playlists and co-op has worked better than I expected in spite of the baffling lack of actual social features (not even a wheel of emotes or canned phrases), letting me do more than a fair bit of co-op, the repetition is impossible to ignore. There are too few multiplayer maps, and those that are there can seem strangely at odds with one another. Like they are darts thrown at the board to see which ones stick. Loot is weird. Guns seem poorly balanced: Good luck taking your favorite weapons from PvE into PvP. I hadn't touched the auto rifle before PvP all but forced me to, given how comparatively hopeless the alternatives are for the kind of tempo and map size the crucible currently favors.
Destiny is in such a strange place right now it's hard to tell where it will be in a year. For all I know, the game can be completely revamped by next christmas. What I do know for sure is that Destiny as it is is aggressively messy, with a cold exterior, an aloof and arrogant approach to world building, and a white hot 600 bpm heart of expert engineering and shooter design beating behind the scenes.
Your mileage may vary tremendously depending on how you weigh your priorities.