We can’t imagine how the elevator pitch for Destiny went; there’s simply too much to explain in a few short sentences. At the most basic level, developer Bungie’s first major project since leaving Microsoft in charge of the Halo franchise is a “shared-world shooter”, influenced by loot-grinding RPGs like Diablo and massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. It still has the potential be the biggest shake-up for first person shooters we’ve seen in years, but right after launch, Destiny merely showed a sliver of its true potential. It would take three months, for the Vault of Glass to open and the first DLC content pack “The Dark Below” to arrive before we got an idea what to expect from Destiny’s end-game, but the constantly fluctuating high level progression and rewards prove there’s still plenty of work to be done.
WIZARDS ON THE MOON
The opening hour shows great promise, revealing our solar system seven hundred years in the future, where space travel is commonplace but a catastrophic event known as the Collapse has decimated the human population. This opened the doors for hostile alien races to occupy mankind’s former colonies. Only the Guardians, wielders of an unexplained power known as “the light”, can stand in the way. It’s more fantastical sci-fi than we’re used to from Bungie, but it is brought to life convincingly through superb character design, cinematic cut-scenes and the developer’s unrivalled ability to build worlds. It may have distanced itself from the franchise that made it a household name amongst Xbox gamers, but it’s still clear to see the Master Chief’s influence in the warring factions and otherworldly creatures.
Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage voices Ghost, a robot AI that guides you through Old Russia on Earth, then on to the Moon, Venus and Mars. Although his delivery is uncharacteristically flat, he helps fill in some of the plot, but much of the story is frustratingly vague. You’ll have to turn to the Grimoire, an online repository of collectible cards that can be flipped through on Bungie’s website or through the dedicated companion app, to work out backstory and detail that should really be explained in-game.
As one of the aforementioned Guardians, players first customise their avatar and pick a class that will determine their Light abilities – overpowered attacks that can decimate groups of enemies, but can only be used once fully charged. They are different enough to justify creating multiple characters, with each one benefiting a particular play style. Titans are the toughest of the three and excel at close-range combat, Hunters are better suited to long-distance fighting with their three-shot Golden Gun ability, and Warlocks can cast powerful vortex explosions that constantly damage enemies in the vicinity.
Your character is the focus throughout Destiny, which makes a refreshing change from other FPS games where your gun has a more starring role, and you’ll spend more time customising your appearance than fetishising your arsenal. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of futuristic guns to choose from, with a choice of four primary weapons, four secondaries and two heavy weapons, but there’s not as much variation in their abilities as we’ve seen in other loot shooters like Borderlands.
GRIND ME DOWN
Acquiring new weapons and gear all falls down to chance, as the random loot drops can reward you with high powered gear or merely unwanted junk. Originally, loot didn’t drop nearly as frequently as we would have liked, making it incredibly tough to get the highest quality equipment needed to tackle the end-game raids. Drop rates were adjusted in a patch, meaning players are now a sufficient level by the time they finish the campaign to drop straight into Strikes and Raids with their friends. Bungie says that Destiny only begins when you reach the level cap, but even if you enjoy replaying previously completed missions, Strikes and Raids on higher difficulties, it feels like a grind just to earn the gear that will let you play the most challenging content.
The awkward Exotic weapon bounty system has seen the most changes since launch, and it’s clear Bungie still isn’t finished tweaking. The original change was designed to reduce the amount of farming required to upgrade the best gear, but the current system is arguably even more limited; essentially you can now only upgrade certain gear on certain days, rather than choosing when and what to upgrade as you see fit. It’s annoying, and one of the worst parts of the high-level game.
This isn’t Destiny’s only problem, either; for a game that promised the universe, there isn’t exactly much scope for exploration. Players can currently access four main combat areas, with the Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars all providing suitably expansive areas to explore. Hidden chests, high-level monsters and unique public events are all waiting to be uncovered, but there’s simply not enough variety on each planet to keep them entertaining after you’ve run through each one a few times.
The drop-in, drop-out ‘mingleplayer’ element is Destiny’s saving grace, as well as a huge technical achievement. When exploring any of the combat areas, you can encounter other players doing their own thing; you can lend a hand, team up to tackle particularly tough battles or leave them to their own devices. When you get far enough away, they will drop out of your session and you’ll encounter new players. The seamless transition helps make the world feel alive, as even if there are only ever a handful of characters in your game at any one time, the players in charge of them are constantly changing behind the scenes.
Public events occur frequently, encouraging players to team up with strangers in order to take down a particularly challenging enemy, defend an object against waves of aggressors, or prevent enemies from occupying several control points. Each one feels like an achievement, and provides a welcome break from bounty challenges or patrol missions. There were originally only three or four to choose from, but Bungie has already added a new event to coincide with the launch of The Dark Below DLC, and others are sure to follow.
The missions themselves essentially all boil down to reaching an objective, activating your Ghost and then defending it from waves of attackers, before either moving on to do the same thing in another location or fight a boss monster. The toughest battles are only punishing because of the sheer length of time required to beat your enemies, rather than the skill level involved. Bosses at the end of Strikes, larger structured missions that reward you with better gear on completion, have absurdly long health bars which take forever to deplete. It’s tough even when tackled with friends, especially when they can take you down with a single hit.
NO LOST ARKS HERE
There’s no question that Destiny’s highlight are the high-level Raids, which have the most gameplay variety, reward you with the best gear and take the longest amount of time to tackle. We had to wait until several weeks after launch for the Vault of Glass to open, and the first team of six players to finish it took a whopping 10 hours to uncover all its secrets. That completion time has tumbled over the past few months and a determined team can now finish it in under an hour, but if you and five friends are going in blind it’s immensely satisfying to complete it unaided.
Unfortunately you can’t take on Raids until you’re a very high level, meaning casual players can take weeks to gather the required gear before they are able to experience them for the best time. This is particularly true of the new Raid arriving as part of The Dark Below, as you’ll need to have practically maximised your level before being able to tackle it. Unless you were seriously invested in the previous Raid, or played competitive multiplayer matches enough to earn the credits needed to buy powerful gear, there’s simply no way you’ll be ready for it without some serious time investment.
Each Raid can drop several top-level items, but you only earn one drop a week; finishing the Vault of Glass on a Tuesday, only to earn a single Mote of Light (one of Destiny’s many virtual currencies) while your teammates all earn exotic rifles and legendary armour can be particularly frustrating when you have to wait seven more days to try again.
ARTHUR MILLER SAYS WHAT?
The Crucible, Destiny’s more traditional multiplayer component, was open from the get-go, and with all your gear and weapons normalised to put all players on a level playing field, it’s refreshingly free from the constant quest for bigger numbers, but it’s just as fast-paced and challenging as Bungie’s previous efforts.
There are currently eleven multiplayer maps, but because they are all tied to specific playlists, we have yet to see them all. It’s intriguing that even now, almost three months after launch, Bungie has yet to permanently flip the switch on all the multiplayer game modes, meaning if you aren’t playing on a particular day you won’t be able to try out everything Destiny has in one session.
None of the gametypes feel particularly unique, either, with riffs on the same domination, team deathmatch and king of the hill modes we’ve played countless times before. There’s a sense Bungie has plenty more waiting in the wings; we just wish it was all available for us to dip into now, rather than drip-fed at a pace the developer feels comfortable with. It can feel rather unfair at times too, especially when other players have mastered their Guardian’s super abilities. Our Warlock might have ben able to throw down area of effect grenades to prevent enemies from capturing our flags, but he never felt like he was powerful enough for dirct confrontation; meanwhile, a single shot from a hunter’s Golden Gun or the explosive meteor smash from a Titan will still be enough to kill you in one hit.
NOT THE REVOLUTION WE WERE HOPING FOR
Destiny was always going to be an ambitious project, and in many ways Bungie has delivered. It looks fantastic on the PS4 and Xbox One, the drop-in multiplayer system is near flawless and the game universe is genuinely fun to explore – it’s just there’s simply not enough of it to justify the slow grind of gear progression and level-limited end-game raids. The developer kept a close eye on the number of Guardians that actually made it to the top-level raids in the opening weeks, tweaking things accordingly, but anyone late to the party (for instance, picking up a next-gen console and copy of the game for Christmas) will still have a lot of grinding ahead of them before they can join their friends.
The game will almost certainly continue to evolve over time as new content gets added, loot drop rates are adjusted and mission objectives are tweaked. It means the game you buy today could be radically different after a year or two of extended support. Even at this early stage, however, we feel gamers will easily get their money’s worth from the available content. It’s a welcome first step towards truly seamless single- and multiplayer gameplay, even if it doesn’t quite give you a whole universe to experience it in.