Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Earlier this month, Bungie's epic gaming project Destiny dropped on current and last-gen consoles. The hype surrounding the game prior to release was high, but as seems to be the case with many hyped up releases, reviews have been mixed.

Reviewers struggled to answer the hard questions: Is it possible that Destiny is somehow less great than sliced bread? Can this bread deficiency be addressed in future content and patches? Does Bungie have their bread equalization plan in place, or are they unprepared to handle this yeasty debacle?

While I am not prepared to discuss how wonderful Destiny is relative to everyone's favorite means of sandwich construction, after a couple of weeks battling moon wizards I do feel comfortable discussing my thoughts on the game.

Destiny is a tricky game to describe. Lets start there.

Destiny is equal parts FPS, MMO, and Diablo-like. What is most interesting about the game is that it seems to be designed in such a way that each player can decide how those proportions line up (to an extent.)

The main means of experiencing the game is, undeniably, an FPS. You run around in first person, shooting various species of aliens with your sweet guns (that are all familiar in function if you've played FPS games recently.) It shares some common gameplay DNA with something like Halo, though Destiny is definitely it's own beast in terms of mechanics and systems. And of course it has plenty of PvP content in formats similar to current FPS multiplayer matches.

Destiny interweaves MMO elements into the normally straightforward FPS experience: you share a persistent online world with other players, there are instances (Strikes) and raids (...Raids) to go on, and the game is largely based around the progression of levels, loot, and faction reputation gains.

Destiny also incorporates something I'm going to attribute to games like Diablo, and it's something I call "gear improvement." Like many MMO-style games Destiny places a heavy emphasis on the gear you acquire; your actual level doesn't count for much other than allowing you to equip better stuff. Similar to Diablo-likes you're on the hunt for better and better quality gear, often in the form of drops from monsters/bosses (though you can also work towards acquiring gear from faction vendors.)

However, unlike most Diablo-likes upgrading your gear doesn't always mean just swapping out components. Getting better quality gear is definitely a big part of the game, but just getting that sweet gear is only the start of it. In Destiny your character isn't the only thing that levels up: your equipment also gains experience and unlocks upgrade options as you continue to use it. The more powerful equipment has more room for growth, and as a result just getting that super-sweet Legendary item isn't enough; you also need to unlock all of it's potential.

The upside to all of these different draws and components being in Destiny is that it's a game that has a lot to offer the player and all of it has a tangible reward. PvE fans have plenty of content to do in the form of Story Missions, Bounties, Patrols, Strikes, and Raids, while PvP fans have a set of solid multiplayer modes they can play. Both approaches give you rewards - items, XP, reputation, marks (currency used to purchase Legendary items from vendors,) and loot - so either is time well spent. And if you ever get bored of one style of play you can easily hop over to the other as a palette cleanser.

The downside to all of these different draws and components is that it's a lot of content to juggle. Many games designed to only provide a PvE experience or PvP experience have a hard enough time just getting that right; Bungie opted to make it that much harder for themselves and try to give players both at the same time.

And, for the most part, they succeeded. The PvE content in the game is fun, or at least what I've experienced so far. I've done all of the Story Missions, performed several Patrols to collect Bounties, and I'm looking to start doing Strikes now that I'm getting near the experience cap. It has some issues (more on that in a minute) but it's been fun, even playing through most of it solo (due to odd timing relative to when my friends are online.) Likewise, the PvP content is solid - the maps are interesting and fun, the modes are pretty standard but they get the job done, and the pace of the game settles in nicely between the worn out corridor shooter in the style of Call of Duty and the frantic pace of something like Titanfall. While I don't imagine I'll ever go exclusively PvP, whats there is fun and a very nice change of pace from the PvE side of the game.

The biggest issue that Destiny has right now - and this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the launch of MMOs and games similar to MMOs - is that it feels like it we're working with the foundation of the game.

To be fair: it's a very, very solid foundation, which I think is crucial for a game to succeed. The core mechanics of the game are solid in PvE and PvP, and the overall design of the game seems to be engineered in a way that will allow Bungie to easily continue and evolve the game.

That said, at present things feel a little....sparse? I'm not sure how to put it. There's definitely content out there, and there's probably enough to keep someone occupied for what any sane person would consider a reasonable amount of time. But I can't shake the feeling that the game could use some more filling out in places.

One of those places is in the communication of the story. Destiny is the only game I can think of in recent memory where I stared at my television and shouted, "No, stop! Please talk to me more. Give me a cutscene, or some dialog to navigate through. Anything to flesh out this story and world more!" Bungie has created a very interesting, compelling sci-fi setting (which is a lot coming from me, as I don't really like sci-fi) but then they do diddly squat to really immerse you in it. There are a few cutscenes and exchanges you experience through the story, but they shed precious little light on a story that seems to have a lot behind it (and a lot going on around the player.)

Unfortunately, almost all of that is obfuscated or glazed over. I'm normally a big fan of minimalist storytelling, but Destiny currently engages in sub-minimal storytelling. Aside from knowing that the Traveler is a good thing, the Darkness is a bad thing, and Peter Dinklage is my co-pilot, I walked away from the final Story Mission of Destiny feeling little more than accomplishment as to all the XP, levels, and gear I had built up. Which seems almost criminal considering what actually happens throughout the course of the story (when I think about it objectively, your character does some absolutely awesome stuff.)

The other issue right now is endgame content. There's enough in Destiny to get you to level 20 (the current experience level cap) without having to do a lot of grinding, which is fantastic. I can think of a number of MMOs that launched without enough content to actually allow their players to play the game all the way up to the level cap, so they had to grind the rest of the way; avoiding that pitfall is a big boon to the fun of playing Destiny. But I can't shake the feeling that once you get to 20, there isn't as much to do as there should be. Right now there are six Strike missions and one Raid, which isn't a lot of variety. Likewise with PvP - there are five modes (I think?) and a decent number of maps, but nothing groundbreaking or particularly amazing. Compared to other FPS games, the PvP side of the game can feel a little light.

That's kind of me Devil's Advocating the situation though; I think that's Destiny shipped with a fair amount of content in place, especially considering the scope of the game. Most players aren't going to become bored with that amount of content before Bungie can add more stuff in to supplement it. And I do believe Bungie when they say they have their long term plans in place for Destiny. They've already enacted the games first Raid - the Vault of Glass - and they're running special weekend modes for PvP to shake that up. What is currently in the game is fine for now, and so long as Bungie keeps at it, adding more and refining what is there, Destiny will do just fine in the long run.

The main reason I mention the moderate amount of content available right now is that I believe it's one of the reasons the game's responses have been so mixed. Part of that is Bungie/Activision's fault: Destiny was hyped up pre-release as a massive, unprecedented game that would forever alter the gaming landscape. The final game, while very good for an initial release of a new franchise (let alone a FPS/MMO hybrid game on consoles,) is nowhere near that epic or spanning. With all the build up that happened prior to the game, almost anything would have been a letdown; even if it's a perfectly good game.

That's right about where I stand with Destiny, for the record. It's a perfectly good game, with hints of greatness. Considering all that could have gone wrong with it - botched content, melted servers, insufficient content, garbage progression/pacing, poor PvP implementation - I think it's a miracle that the game is as good as it is, and if Bungie/Activision hadn't shot themselves in the foot by hyping the game up as the digital coming of space Jesus I think it would have been more likely that players and critics would have been able to judge the game based on it's current standing.

I'm also willing to cut Destiny a lot of slack in the long view. If this game was a standalone FPS, I'd still say it's a decent game, but I'd be disappointed. However, this isn't a standalone FPS: it's a game that is going to be receiving regular updates, expansions, patches, and special content. Much like how no one judges World of Warcraft anymore based on the game that originally released (nevermind that version of the game doesn't exist anymore; for this analogy pretend that Cataclysm never happened,) I don't think it's really fair to judge Destiny totally based on it's release state. It's going to be a completely different game in a year.

Based on what I'm seeing and experiencing now, I think that Bungie has everything in place to give them a great foundation to build off of. For anyone that is interested in it, Destiny is worth getting involved with now - the game is fun, there's plenty of content (maybe not enough for rabid fans, but more than enough for a causal player,) and it's a fun little game to play. For anyone on the fence, Destiny is a game that - barring some apocalypse in the Bungie offices - should only get better with time, so check back in on it periodically.

And hey, bonus: Destiny is one of the precious few MMO-style games out there that isn't charging a subscription fee, nor are they fishing for microtransactions (at least, not yet.) So it's not like a number of other games where you're paying for a retail copy plus $15/month just to see if you like the game.

I'm certainly looking forward to killing more moon wizards, hobgoblins, and minotaurs with my robot warlock.

Addendum: After playing more and hearing some updated news/rumors about the future of Destiny, I wrote up a follow up set of impressions here. I think these two articles combined sum up the Destiny experience fairly well.

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