If there's anything better than a blockbuster sci-fi shooter, it's a blockbuster sci-fi shooter that doubles as an MMO, reckons Bungie.
Even if you've been living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard of Destiny, which may prove to be the biggest entertainment release of 2014. You probably already know that the studio that created it also created Halo, a franchise that changed the way shooters were played on consoles. And you've probably already talked to enough people or read enough online to know that Destiny is a pretty good game.
Far from perfect, but pretty good.
In Destiny, humanity is on the brink of annihilation. The Traveler, a mysterious spherical entity that now looms silently over the last safe city on Earth, once helped the human race to enter a golden age of space exploration and expansion. Then the Traveler’s ancient enemy, the Darkness, arrived and brought with it a horde of fell creatures such as the Fallen, the Hive and the Cabal. The Traveler sacrificed itself to prevent this threat from claiming total victory.
You are a Guardian, and your job is pretty straightforward. You must restore the strength of the Traveler or humanity is doomed. The story is not terribly well-developed, and the threat posed by The Darkness is fairly vague at best. However the same criticism could be made of the original Halo, which after its initial release had a huge universe full of interesting lore built around it.
When booting up Destiny it's immediately apparent that it’s a new-gen game. It looks pretty remarkable, mostly due to some great environment and character design, but also because of its draw distance. On older systems it's possible to be able to spot the techniques developers used to create the illusion of scale and make everything run on an aging system. Creatures and assets might ‘pop in’ as you approach. Not so with Destiny.
It’s also a new-gen game in the sense that new generations of consoles tend to usher in new ideas and experiences. In some ways, Destiny will be familiar to Halo fans. The shooting mechanics are smooth and familiar, and, with a score by Halo composer Marty O'Donnell, the music is often strongly reminiscent of that game as well. Some of the enemies even look similar - some of the Fallen look like Halo's jackals, for example - or they move in similar patterns and must be attacked in similar ways. Recalling Halo's clever creature AI is no bad thing, but it probably wouldn't have hurt Bungie to come up with some more creative methods.
Where Destiny begins to differentiate itself is in its blending of MMO elements. The game consists of a series of vast, open worlds where you’ll come across other players and occasionally help each other out. Random events will sometimes occur that you and a handful of strangers must team up to take down together. These are some of the best moments in the game – Destiny is best when you’re playing co-op with friends, but the exhilaration you feel when you work with a group of strangers to take down a heavily armored beast is pretty great too.
The gear system is also heavily inspired by MMOs - you'll need to upgrade your gear and even put together ‘builds’. If you’re the kind of person who likes to toy around with the menus in Diablo, you’ll really like this. If you can’t be bothered, you can simplify it by just comparing new gear with your old gear with the touch of a button.
But Destiny also borrows some elements of MMOs that don’t quite feel right in this context. In most shooters, you only pass through each environment once, or maybe twice. In Destiny, as in Halo, you revisit the same places over and over, and while they’re beautiful, it does get feel a little too economical for a game with a budget as lavish as Destiny's.
However, the game’s biggest issue is not the repetition of the environments, but the repetition in gameplay. As you play through the campaign, you face horde after horde after horde, and it becomes incredibly predictable: deploy the Ghost to examine an object, which will take up to a few minutes, while you and your companions fight off wave after wave of enemies culminating in a boss fight. Move to the next objective. Repeat.
Destiny abuses this tiresome set-up so much that it becomes laughably absurd by the campaign's end.
Between the story modes, there are other elements to the campaign like Patrol mode and Strike missions. Patrol missions are a range of same-y tasks on each planet that barely disguise MMO-style quest grinding: kill some creatures, collect some drops, scan an environment.
In keeping with the MMO comparison Strike missions are much like instanced dungeons, and they need to be undertaken with a team. They’re also surprisingly hard, especially when you’re paired with uncooperative strangers whose strategies rely on individual Master Chief-style heroism rather than teamwork.
One of the things that made Halo so enduring was its competitive multiplayer, and Destiny’s multiplayer is just as solid, although not exactly revolutionary. The game has classic deathmatch modes, as well as territories-based modes. With a couple of exceptions, maps tend to be relatively small, so you won’t have much need of that amazing sniper rifle you picked up, which is a bit of a shame. That said, the multiplayer seems to have been better balanced since the game’s beta.
Despite these few gripes, Destiny delivers as a new-gen spectacle, and one that should keep gamers engaged for a long time yet. I’ve thrashed it in the last few days, and now I have hand cramps, a sure sign I was having fun - even though it can be a little repetitive and predictable.
Destiny has been a long time in the making, and there was a lot of hype around the game from the moment its existence was leaked to the public. Is it worth your time? Absolutely. Is it the best game to release on the new generation of consoles? Most likely. But does it live up to the hype of its many, many ‘Best of E3’ awards? Close, but not quite.