13 September, 2014

Review - Destiny, Not A Future I Want To Be Part Of

So Destiny, the big unknown, the world said to be filled with mystery, wonder, and well worth exploring for years. Well there is wonder, the game’s art is fantastic. There is mystery, they literally tell you nothing. And there is certainly nothing worth exploring for more than a few hours, in fact be prepared to replay those few hours, time and time again, because apparently that’s game content.


Destiny is the first game from the developer, Bungie, since they departed Microsoft and the Halo series, their last title being Halo Reach (no I am not counting Crimson Steam Pirates).  They have fulfilled their aspirations to create a world more mysterious, beautiful and larger than any they have before, unfortunately in their haste they failed to create compelling reasons to be there.

The story of Destiny is largely non-existent, the arc of the story mode will take you to every environment  – several times over – to kill a named enemy, or to have your Ghost scan an object. You kill something, end some incomprehensible threat you were told about twenty minutes earlier when you began the mission, and now your chasing something else which is at least as ‘important’ as the thing you just killed.

I can’t believe they took out the line about Wizards on the moon.

This ‘narrative’ is delivered by your Ghost, a small mono-eyed construct that follows you around, occasionally chirping some remarks and using a trusty blue lazer to open doors – sound familiar? Don’t worry this floating companion has none of the personality found in Bungie’s past characters. Voiced by renown actor Peter Dinklage, the characters dialog is bland and riddled with shameless clich├ęs, every other line that comes out of its mouth (or speaker?) is on the level of, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”. Obviously, the awful dialog isn’t Dinklage’s fault, but the bland, toneless delivery is. His words seem stilted and flat, it doesn’t matter how many times he says he is scared of whichever enemy we are currently on a mission against, I just don’t believe him. I even considered the notion that the Ghost was supposed to appear devoid of emotion, but the actual dialog isn’t written that way at all. The effect is a characterless, disembodied voice which unfortunately is always waiting to say something eye-rollingly bad at the start and end of every mission.


The additional support characters are equally devoid of personality. In fact most rarely surface more than a couple of times in the story at all, one machine lady (I don’t recall her name or even if she has one, she’s that throwaway) turns up to point you in the direction of the next set of enemies and returns later to give you a gun. In her case particularly her audio is so blown out it I cringe every time she speaks, again if this is the intend effect it is not apparent. At one point I met a creepy brother and sister who seemed to have some air of personality about them, they appear literally twice. Hopefully, if Bungie provide the level of support and growth for the game as they claim, then seeing these characters develop could be interesting. Unfortunately this means that the other characters, lacking any semblance of actual character, will probably also resurface.

Fortunately, the mysterious world that these mindless ciphers exist within is quite fantastic. This is in no small part due to the stellar musical score and gorgeous vistas, which we will discuss in greater depth later. There are countless quite obvious influences for the art direction and fiction of Destiny, some from other video games, most notably Mass Effect, in addition other transmedia properties. The effect is a world that conveys endless potential, a world wrapped in ancient culture, shadowed by the darkness that threatens to overcome the last bastion of light, of humanity. 

A corridor that Giger would be proud of.

My best experiences in this fiction were the ones I created on my own, without direction; exploring ruins and caves, at times just inspecting unique boulders and rock formations. The environment is so richly textured with detail, I made my own stories as to the events that took place, I did this in the first two of four environments I traversed. After that I had come to the realisation that the story missions, and to a lesser extent Strikes, will take you to every location worth visiting. By the time I reached Venus (the third planet) I resigned myself to the fact that exploration is largely pointless, a notion which reduces Patrol mode to what it really is; a mode filled with missions that were considered derivative in MMOs years ago.

The best writing in the game is ironically not really in the game! As you play you unlock Grimoire cards, basically a codex; text entries that explain the world and the creatures that inhabit it. These must be accessed on the Bungie site or using the Destiny Companion app. Much of what I have read there was written to a much higher standard than the dialog in game, it feels almost as if the developer didn’t trust the player to be able to understand the story. And so it was removed from the game entirely, made secondary – an unlockable bonus.

This is not Halo…

Prior to this games release, Bungie claimed they were moving away from Halo, presenting the notion that it was somehow shackling them, yet Destiny in its most base form feels not that far from a Halo game. In some ways the gameplay feels like an evolution of their previous work, a natural step that I feel would have occurred regardless if this were called Destiny or Halo. You can aim down the sights – which does not feel out of place – you can sprint freely – Like Halo 4 (which was not developed by Bungie) – and that is about the extent of it. The feel of the combat, the way the gun shoots, the reloading, the animation as you land from jetpack flight, all feels like a Halo game. This is of course not a bad thing, it is perhaps the most compelling reason to play Destiny.

However, the feel is not the sole feature of the gameplay that defined Halo; the larger meta game of weapon management, enemy types (their strengths and weaknesses), vehicle combat and above all, hard checkpoints and the deterrent of death that they provide.

… It is so much less.

The combat of Destiny is mindless compared to their previous work, the strata of enemies is determined by how many hit points they have rather than how they move or fight. There are four factions of enemies; the Fallen, who tend to engage at a medium range they are almost never a threat, they don’t possess the firepower to confine you in cover, nor the ability to rush you. The sword-wielding, stealth cloaked Fallen are fun to track and kill though because they provide some modicum of challenge. The Hive are more interesting to fight, although like the Fallen, most of the enemies are simply fodder. They possess Wizards and Knights who wield powerful projectiles, forcing you into cover where you can be quickly surrounded by swarms of Thralls who will bring you down with tooth and claw. The Vex are a race of killer machines and are my favourite to fight, they present an implacable wall of burnished metal and ruby red lazers and advance endlessly towards you. The Vex require marginally more thought to fight than their fleshy counterparts, headshots will simply cause them to charge at you, instead your target is a small bright light in their torso. Additionally, they have variations that can render themselves briefly immune to damage, among other effects. Rather disappointingly, the Emperor-pledged space marines of the Cabal are far less interesting to spar with, their ranks are filled with two primary types of enemies; one which moves and fights almost identically to Halo’s Brutes, and the other which are virtually Halo’s Jackals (even the animations seem identical). The Cabal boast impressive firepower but that is about it, combat is quite straightforward there is no nuance to their tactics, or how you should approach them.

In Destiny you wield three weapons; a primary, which is one of three rifles or a hand cannon (a powerful pistol – shocking). In addition to special weapon, a shotgun, sniper or fusion rifle, and a heavy weapon, either a rocket launcher or machine gun. The primary weapons in particular are barely distinguishable, it comes down to do you prefer burst fire to full auto and so on. To make it worse, you soon discover that different weapons within each class are barely distinguishable themselves, most auto rifles look and sound identical, save for a different coloured skins. You can level weapons up and unlock different effects and modifiers, this becomes more meaningful with higher level weapons in the endgame, but even then it is hard to notice any tangible changes you are having.

Between the small pool of weapons and enemies that are best distinguished by how many hit points they have, Destiny’s combat is simple and turns quickly monotonous. Unlike Bungie’ previous work, Halo, there is no larger consideration of weapon management, ammo conservation or real need to employ strategy. I can accept that they wanted to move away from Halo, but it feels and moves like Halo, they have just removed keys aspects of its combat loop, making it simpler and more shallow experience.

Combat is mindless and meaningless, enemies always drop ammo so  it rarely matters which weapon you are using against any enemy, aside from the range of the engagement of course (even then…). The enemies are not scary at any point, you don’t feel vulnerable because death is largely meaningless, you die and respawn where you left off. Although, they do use more traditional check pointing in Darkness Zones, usually a mission’s boss fight. These fights become much more interesting as a result, but most of the time though death doesn’t really matter, in many MMOs there are death penalties, such as armour degradation or loss of money, none of those deterrents here however.

Even the flora has overran humanity.

Looks like your driving solo in this ‘shared world’.

Once again Bungie are reluctant to stray from their well-trodden path, the game does feature vehicles and vehicle combat, and guess what, it is still great! Unfortunately there are only two vehicles (and a turret) with weapons that you can use, and no vehicles capable of carrying your whole fireteam – like the Halo’s renown Warthog. The times and places that you can fight with vehicles in are few and far between, despite that fact that you are in a ‘large’ open world most of the time.

Allowing me to replay your game for hours is not the same as providing hours of content.

Thanks to the superb statistic tracking that Bungie continue to provide, I am able to break down my gameplay and most importantly the time spent doing each activity. Upon completely the entire arc of story missions I had clocked in at five hours and forty-six minutes of play time. It is also worth noting that I played this entirely solo. As for the Strikes, the more challenging mandatory group content, that clocked in at one hour forty-four minutes total. This includes the PlayStation exclusive Strike, Dust Palace, Xbox players can take some small solace knowing that this is the least interesting Strike in the game.

I played all the content in the order it unlocked; story missions in the level appropriate order, followed by the Strike(s), a dash of Patrol mode and then onto the next planet. By the time I reached Mars I was level nineteen, the Mars story content begins at level sixteen. Not that the level really matters, you’ll hit max rank in a single day of playing, what it really comes down to is loot. High level gear will grant Light points, that will further increase your rank past the soft level cap of twenty. Like the aforementioned weapons, armour can also be upgraded and the high rarity gear allows for more upgrades to be unlocked. Similarly, subclasses continue to evolve even after your levelling stops, but so much of the progression (weapons and armour included) feels superfluous and is definitely not a strong enough factor to keep me revisiting the same missions time and time again.

I just can’t make myself care about grenade cooldown – it’s fast enough as it is.

That’s basically what Destiny’s endgame content consists of; replaying the content you’ve just finished only on a harder difficulty, meaning the enemies have more hit points. I replayed several story missions at the harder Heroic settings and had no problem ploughing through the identical encounters in what seemed like at least the same short time, maybe a little less. The Strikes can be played at number of levels; eighteen, twenty, twenty-two and twenty-four, each with their own marginally better rewards. The level twenty-two Strikes had a noticeable ramp up in difficultly, that said my gear was all level eighteen (and mostly green, uncommon gear) and I remained level twenty.

The other side of Destiny’s endgame content is the player versus player Crucible matches. This features the expected deathmatch and control game types, alongside a few additional variations but nothing too creative. The competitive multiplayer is some of the best gameplay in the game, not surprising given Bungie’s pedigree. However, there is a certain lack of flare, originating from the gear driven nature of the game. There can be no true level playing field due to the ability progression, although the weapons appear to be balanced well. This also serves to further illustrate how little variation there is between the weapon types and the weapons within each class. 

Heroics, Strikes and the Crucible (and the bounties and challenges that accompany them) are all methods to obtain faction reputation and currency, used to buy new gear. A common practice in MMOs, but those games usually have a lot more content to play than this. The amount of currency gained per task is so miniscule when compared to the amount needed to buy anything it is ridiculous. There are single items available for purchase which exceed the weekly cap of currency and there does not appear to be tiers of gear to progress through. The level twenty gear, which will take literally weeks to acquire appears to be the next tier after my currently equipped blue (rare) level eighteen gear.

Destiny will also feature Raids, more difficult and supposedly less guided content which will require a six person strong fireteam, this content will require the high level gear to be able to access it. These are not yet implemented into the game and the first is planned to launch next week. However, they will not feature matchmaking, meaning that you’ll need to find five friends if you want to check them out.

Someone, anyone, please respond!

For a ‘shared world’ experience, Destiny feels awfully disjointed and fractured, you complete a mission and are returned to your ship, you can’t just play the entire story arc of a planet without being returned to orbit, which is irritating in itself. To make matters worse the loading scenes are long, pretty I grant you, but there are far too many and the novelty of you seeing your ship quickly dies off. 

Not quite the engaging conversation I was looking for, but I'll take it.
It is rare that you will encounter, let alone fight with other players in any kind of freeform or natural way, I played the entire game with my fireteam set to open and a headset on and failed to hear, or be joined by any fellow Guardians. Of course, I could have been more proactive, approaching other players and navigating some menus to add them as a friend or invite them to a party. There is nothing natural or elegant about meeting other players, occasionally someone will wave thanks when you stumble into the middle of their fire fight but that is about it. MMOs overcome this problem with text chat, I am not saying that this would have fixed the problem, but some deft fireteam gathering tools would have gone a long way to making Destiny feel more social.

But hey, it sure is pretty.

Visually Destiny is breath-taking, but it’s beauty originates from its sublime art direction rather than is technical prowess. Although, the lighting and extreme lens flare look great, spend a few hours in any outdoor environment and you’ll witness the profound change that lighting has, as the sun rises and sets the entire feel of the environment changes. Alas, the art design is where Destiny comes into its own, for me this struck a chord between Mass Effect and Halo, but there are also sci-fi inspirations that shine through, as eluded to earlier, Destiny is all the richer for it. Regardless of inspiration, the graphical art of Destiny defines the world far more than the dialog or missions you perform.

Hold on Chief, the Didact is back again...

Similarly, without the character of the soundtrack my time in Destiny would have been considerable less emotional. Now don’t get me wrong, at no point did the soundtrack or anything else reduce me to tears (except maybe the machine lady with the blown out voice), but the surges in music at key moments, the way it almost erupts as large encounters begin, produced palpable chills. Destiny is the most effective soundtrack that Bungie have produced, in terms of both marrying it to the gameplay and its own value as a piece of music. Martin O’Donnell, Destiny’s and previously Halo’s composer, parted ways with Bungie on less than amiable terms. While I am confident this isn’t the last we’ll hear of his work, Destiny’s music is in my opinion, the finest he has produced and my time in Destiny would have felt hollow if it hadn’t been present.

Destiny is a functionally competent first-person shooter set in a world that deserves so much better. It deserves better from the atrocious dialog and voice acting. It deserves an actual narrative. Even the gameplay itself is little more than competent; enemies are perpetual bullet sponges that rarely threaten you, even when they do it probably doesn’t matter because death is meaningless here. Though the world is beautiful, so full of potential and mystery, you can see it all – complete every piece of content in just a dozen hours. I don’t have it in me to grind gear endlessly and Bungie’s refusal to trust their players to enjoy the game unguided ensures that Raids, allegedly the purpose for playing, will be inaccessible in their current form for most players. The competitive multiplayer is quite excellent, though just like the cooperative gameplay, its not the best in class, not even the best Bungie have produced. 

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