Let’s get something out of the way real quick. I’m, maybe, not the biggest fan of first person shooters, nor am I all that good at them. My ‘skills’ in this regard, are probably mediocre at best and competitive online play isn’t exactly my cup of tea. While I’ve enjoyed the Halo titles, most other shooters leave me bored to tears, especially the yearly rehashes of Call of Duty. All that being said, this is a review of one of the biggest shooters of the year on the Playstation 4: Destiny. It’s a “shared world shooter” with RPG elements, which basically means that it’s a shooter that focuses primarily on online cooperative play and character progression. Despite my general outlook on shooters, I’m loving it.
The game has been out now for a month, which has provided me some perspective on the game that a few days of playing would inevitably miss. It’s very much designed to be a long-term experience, not unlike an MMO, and I’ve yet to tackle all of the end game content even given the time I’ve put in. My feet have landed in the Vault of Glass, a 6 Player Raid of tremendous difficulty, but let’s just say those feet didn’t get all that far. So, here’s the viewpoint of a mediocre, but dedicated player, after a month of guns and space magic.
The core shooting mechanics of Destiny are fast, fun, and immensely satisfying. Few things hit the spot like leaping into the air, guns blazing, and unleashing a glowing sphere of explosive energy into a crowd of opponent, then watching each destroyed enemy detonate themselves in a chain reaction of awesome. Events of this particular brand of epic action are commonplace and are coupled with all the good shooting fundamentals you can expect from Bungie, the former developers of Halo. In this regard Destiny is actually a step ahead of its predecessor. It’s a more mobile game than Bungie’s previous offerings due to the sprint, slide, and movement mode mechanics. When every player has a jet pack, double jump or teleport of some kind, and just traversing the environment can be entertaining. There’s also a subtle cover system if you need to play peek-a-boo with a hard hitting enemy. It’s easy to miss and can only be used while ducking, but I’ve found it useful on a handful of occasions.
Destiny has an addictive rhythm, providing a feeling of building tension and release every few minutes or so. Each of the three classes in the game gains access to a specialized grenade and melee ability that both recharge over time. All of these abilities are enhanced and swapped out for new versions as you increase in level, leaving you always looking forward to what cool new thing you’ll be able to do next. Many of these are mutually exclusive and every class has two subclasses to choose from. The number of build options available is conducive to pretty much any play style, giving every player room to make their Guardian feel unique. No particular build is required to perform well either. There are builds that play a support role in combat, but this is never really required. The overused ‘holy trinity’ of tank/damage-per-second (DPS)/healer is thankfully nowhere to be found.
A key feature of Destiny’s rhythm is Super Meter management. This meter builds as you crush your alien foes and allows the player to unleash unique and often devastating abilities. These vary in style from blasts of energy and giant earth quaking slams, to self-resurrection and protective energy shields. Building up to a super attack is accelerated when playing cooperatively, as Orbs of Light (small glowing balls that fill the Super Meter) are released whenever someone uses their super. This mechanic accentuates the increased enjoyment brought by playing with a fire team. I’ve spent much of my time in Destiny playing solo, but the game really shines when you have a buddy letting loose next to you with their rocket launcher.
The enemies are divided into 4 alien races: the Fallen, Hive, Vex, and Cabal. Each race in the game has their own unique personality and requires different tactics to defeat. Fighting the agile Fallen and the seemingly endless tides of Vex are very different experiences. The Fallen make good use of cover and engage in surprisingly intelligent tactics, flanking often and even retreating to lure players into an ambush.
The Vex, in comparison, teleport in large groups directly onto the battlefield and then march towards their target with little concern for their own safety, spraying painful energy weapons as they advance. Many of the missions, especially the three player Strikes, include challenging bosses. These are generally bigger badder versions of enemy types you’ve fought before and are outfitted with gobs of health. The almost excessive amounts of health make some of these battles somewhat more tedious than they had to be, but it’s never such a problem that the game ceases to maintain its fun factor. By the time your team drops a boss, it feels like a real achievement and time for your avatars to dance away.
There are three weapon slots: primary, secondary, and heavy. The number of weapon types felt small to me at first, but they’re balanced well and each gun feels useful when applied to their intended combat role. Guns I discarded as useless early on (e.g. the Hand Cannon and Pulse Rifle) later became my go to tools of destruction. It’s impressive to see how the guns have been effectively tuned for both the cooperative PvE (player vs. environment) Vanguard content and the PvP (player vs. player) Crucible mode with only a few minor hiccups. Interestingly, players gain experience from either Vanguard or Crucible activities. You can focus solely on one aspect of the game or play both as each has their own equivalent ranking system and equipment for sale.
At level 20 all further progression is achieved via gear acquisition. This gear is associated with NPC (non playable character) Factions, Vanguard, or the Crucible. This is common in MMOs, and while it’s achieved much more quickly in Destiny than other games, there is still a noticeable grind after reaching the level cap. For the most part, post level cap gear is purchased with special marks, which is noticeably capped every week at 100. Given that equipment costs at least 65 of these marks, getting a full set of gear usually takes more than a week by default. I say usually because of the saving grace provided by random loot drops. I’ve gotten lucky a couple of times already in this manner after a recent patch was introduced to improve the rewards obtained in the game.
The patch is indicative of something peculiar to this game in comparison to other shooters. Destiny is designed to last for approximately a decade and will be updated with fixes, events, and content updates on a regular basis. The game has only been out a few weeks and has already seen several special limited time events and a few patches to tweak the game’s balance in response to player feedback. Destiny is designed to be developed further over the next few years directly in relation to its community. For this reason primarily, any small gripe I might have seems somewhat hollow. The developers appear receptive and interested in creating a game that grows with its players needs over time. Playing Destiny a year from now will likely be a very different, and likely enhanced, experience.
The first thing that comes to mind when considering the world building in Destiny is Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
A god-like entity, known as the Traveler, provides humankind with a technological jump start, granting them its Light and precipitating a Golden Age of human space colonization. Light operates in ways that are hard to understand and describe, precisely because it’s an alien technology so advanced that it is essentially space magic to the uninitiated. This gives the writers a lot of leeway and is why guns materialize out of thin air and the Warlock can unleash colorful energy blasts.
The aforementioned Golden Age is brought crashing down by another god-like entity or force, the Darkness. The game is post-apocalyptic, taking place on top of the ruins of humanity’s lost interstellar empire. As becomes clear early on, Destiny isn’t standard or ‘hard’ science fiction like its predecessor Halo. It operates much closer to something like Star Wars, a space opera with fantastical elements. Indeed, the overarching themes found in Destiny, especially the archetypal battle between Light and Darkness, are more commonly found in fantasy novels than science fiction.
Destiny’s lore is intentionally shrouded in a veil of mystery. This isn’t surprising given that the game is designed to last several years and will be updated with new plot-lines and story over time. This creates the unintended consequence of making the story appear somewhat barebones. It feels often that the developers were thinking too much about what they were going to do rather than what was being released at launch. Destiny’s narrative ends up being somewhat sparse throughout the primary campaign. What’s there is good, but there’s not really enough of it.
Most of the plot is provided in information dumps prior to a mission and the commentary of your robotic Ghost ally. There are a few cut scenes here and there, and when they are used the voice acting is pretty good. Oddly none of these cinemas can be skipped though, despite the fact that these missions are clearly designed to be replayed on harder difficulties later on. I don’t mind the level repetition, as the basic gameplay is such a blast and I’m hardly paying attention to the setting when I’m blowing up aliens with abandon, but being required to sit through the same cut scene for the 3rd or 4th time seems unnecessary.
Unlocking the lore available in Destiny plays out in part through your progression in the Grimoire, a collection of excerpts (similar to trading cards) with world and backstory information. These are obtained from various tasks completed during the game and describe weapon types, enemies, NPCs, game areas, etc. Oddly, the Grimoire can only be accessed via an App or on Bungie’s website. I don’t mind researching lore away from the game, but given that the Grimoire has a score that constantly updates as you play, it would’ve made sense to have it available in-game as well.
The Grimoire isn’t entirely static, keeping track of in-game statistics (kills, deaths, etc.) and sometimes even affecting the game directly. As you rank up your Grimoire score, small bonuses begin to accumulate. The more enemies of a particular type you kill the higher your Grimoire rank associated with them becomes. When using currency boosting consumables, having a higher rank will then further increase the amount of money acquired for each kill. Weapons rank up as you obtain a higher Grimoire score with them, increasing the speed with which they obtain experience for upgrades. The more time spent on one of the game maps will also increase a Grimoire rank, which ends up providing additional upgrade materials when they are picked up.
This relationship creates an implicit tie between the game’s RPG mechanics and its story. The more knowledge at your disposal, the better you are able to obtain the resources you need to progress. As your character is somewhat of a blank slate or semi-silent protagonist, this works well. You learn as your character learns, further solidifying identification with your avatar in the game world. The story is your story, something you are actively engaged in, rather than something you are passively observing.
In the Grimoire there are a host of excerpts that I recommend reading (once you’ve unlocked them). The ones that are probably the most fascinating are the “Dreams of Alpha Lupis” sections and the Darkness ghost fragments. They can be somewhat cryptic, but probably have the most information relevant to Destiny’s overall story. These sections give me hope for future additions, as its clear the world building is very deep and thought out. I just wish more had been used directly in the game’s narrative from the onset.
Destiny doesn’t quite live up to the excessive hype generated prior to its release, as if that was possible, but it may very well be the most engaging and polished games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. I’ve leapt into the fray to battle the Darkness every day I could manage since the game’s release. So have both my brothers and my wife. Sometimes it’s a battle for the controller, and you can never quite win enough to satisfy the itch this game creates. It’s a testament to how fun this game is that we’ve considered buying a second console and copy of the game just to play at the same time. Fortunately, for my wallet’s sake, I’ve resisted this urge thus far.