Destiny Review: Gorgeous Potential

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Bungie miss their mark but still score a hit

B

Destiny is surely one of the most divisive and argued about big releases in recent video gaming memory. It’s really quite an usual spectacle. Sure, underwhelming games get called out on the regular but generally speaking AAA releases seem to get a slightly easier critical ride a lot of the time and granted, a 77 Metacritc rating (as Destiny sits as at the time of writing) isn’t bad if we’re to actually use the scale properly but given how skewed game scoring is, it’s way off what many were expecting. Bungie are very much victims of their own hype generation, promising the moon and the stars but delivering something significantly more down to Earth.

Having said all that, I personally don’t think Destiny is a poor game in the slightest and I’m a little bit baffled at much of the general reaction and sentiment towards it, as if a large portion of the gaming community feel directly violated by its existence. On another level though,  I can of course understand the disappointment given some of Bungie’s high promises. They had expressed wishes for the franchise to be regarded as a genre classic in the same way Lord of the Rings or Star Wars are and maybe it will be down the line but Destiny‘s storytelling is woefully uneven at the best of times, with some horrendously clunky writing. There’s only a handful of cut-scenes throughout, no real characters to speak of, and barely any forward narrative momentum by the game’s end. Other attempts at storytelling come in form of Peter Dinklage throwing uncontextualised sci-fi nonsense at the player and are similarly fruitless. I like its solemn tone so it’s unfortunate that most of the time the execution is so badly fluffed.

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It’s also a shame because conceptually it’s a premise that actually feels fresh. The lore, as badly explained and delved into as it is, has its own identity but is never capitalised on. There’s a Mass Effect style codex on Bungie’s website that elaborates on the world in a much appreciated way but its relegation to outside of the game itself is a remarkably bad decision. It surely wouldn’t have been hard to integrate it directly, even if it was in the somewhat mundane form of an in-game book or something similar. The splashes of flavour outside of the story are much better implemented, and it’s here that the game’s charming personality does finally surface. Bungie’s trademark cheeky humour is evident in spades in most of the loot descriptions and NPCs are regularly amusing in their banter.

In fact The Tower, Destiny’s social hub, is honestly one of my favourite parts of the entire game. There’s no combat here or even anything particularly exciting but it’s such a nice contrast to the normally frantic moment to moment gameplay. It’s just a very pleasant area to inhabit, in large part thanks to Destiny’s utterly stellar presentation. Marty O’ Donnell’s score helps greatly in establishing this tranquil ambiance and looking beyond The Tower down upon the last city is about as breathtaking as a virtual vista can be. It’s an outstanding looking, sounding, and even playing game. Design and content volume are the two areas where it falters.

I’ve never thought of Bungie as good narrators (outside of the exceptions that are ODST and Reach) so the the fact that the story is so poor is a non factor for me although I can’t help but wonder what Bungie thought they had on their hands, not only in relation to the narrative but other clearly malnourished areas of the game. Surely they knew the story aspects were sparse to an almost absent point? And surely they knew the mission objectives weren’t varied enough? The amount explorable space is disappointing too, with only four distinct yet quite linear environments to plunder.

Considering how long the game has reportedly been in development, it really does feel a little light on content. Coming from a developer with such a renowned pedigree, you would think they’d have a greater deal of self awareness and be able to catch these issues and fix them early in the process. The only thing that really makes sense to me is that Activision wanted the game out at the very latest by September 2014 and this was simply all Bungie had to offer by that deadline. If you recall the Bungie-Activision contract from several years back, Destiny was originally supposed to release last year so perhaps an extra year was as far back they could push it.

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There’s a few basic emotive actions, the most essential of which is dance…

This is a loot driven game, something Bungie have always been honest about. Repetition is therefore inherent, as the ultimate goal is to gain the best gear and become as strong as possible through collecting the best drops and levelling up. I’ve been through the same missions countless times in the hope of equipping my guardian with improved gear and the fact that there isn’t a huge amount of areas and activities to undertake and yet still, I’m happy to come back and run through the same content surely says a lot about how solid Destiny‘s foundation is. Character progression is extremely satisfying and streamlined in just the right way, with enough information and choice being given to player so that one can create differing builds without getting too bogged down in the details. Core combats mechanics are similarly excellent and feel nigh perfect.

The loot system itself though, an utterly crucial part of the game, needs some reworking. The best weapons and armour should be hard to get, otherwise it’d hardly an event to celebrate when you do actually get your hands on that illusive legendary or exotic. A player should be rewarded for their commitment and hard work, something Bungie themselves seem to agree with given how often in their marketing they’ve spoke of the great rewards waiting for those who “Become Legend”. Yet this philosophy isn’t quite made manifest in the game. Encrypted loot drops, like the loot itself, have a certain rarity associated with them. The way the system is designed, a legendary drop for example, can actually turn out to be a completely worthless green or blue and this anticlimax happens more often than not.

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…especially useful as an end of mission celebration.

It’s a cruel teasing of players, one that extends into the The Crucible, Destiny’s competitive multiplayer component. Here, the random number generator is in action again, with zero account of player performance taken into consideration when doling out rewards at a match’s end. It’s devastating putting in a career best performance only to come out with nothing, while the guy who dragged down the entire team scores something incredibly rare. Why not give the best player in a round a guaranteed drop, with an extra bonus chance for it to be something special?

It just doesn’t make sense for the game to this massively biased towards luck. The balance desperately need to be readdressed if Destiny is to survive in the long run, as the the gear grind is what will ultimately keep players coming back. Thankfully, and in the game’s defence, high level gear can also be obtained through guaranteed purchases and while this does alleviate the frustrations of the overly harsh slot machine odds, it doesn’t quell them entirely.

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Each class has its own cosmetic item. In the case of the Hunter, it’s a dashing cloak.

The Crucible is pretty damn good on the whole in terms of how it plays. It perhaps needs to be a little rebalanced but it doesn’t have any major problems. It’s the first online shooter in quite some time I can recall actually enjoying. It’s surprisingly vanilla though, considering how experimental we know its developers can get in regards to multiplayer. I know this isn’t Halo and I don’t want to be Halo but what the game has now is basically four variants on deathmatch. I suspect we’ll see new modes introduced often enough, as Bungie have already started holding special weekend events and have put out a calender with some potentially interesting things to come over the next month or so.

Communication between players need to be enhanced in order to allow for a properly social world to emerge, clan support is simply a tacked on name tag as it stands, matchmaking is missing in a couple of places it really shouldn’t be, clearer explanation of certain progression systems need to to implemented and as mentioned, the loot system needs reworking and the game needs more content. I consider all of these to be quite easily fixable in the future and by no means deal breakers. I’ve enjoyed my time with Destiny so far immensely, even in spite of these notable flaws.

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Maybe this is because I had been able to adjust my own personal expectations while others still wanted to believe in the vision Bungie foolishly never ceased to tout. It became evident after both the alpha and beta, that this game likely wasn’t the one Bungie so wanted us all to believe it was. I’ve had such great fun with it and have such reverence for their past work however, that I’m able to forgive their overselling and give them the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. The potential here is absolutely huge, and if they give it the right kind of post launch support it deserves and needs, it will absolutely evolve into something much much greater.

As it stands now though, Destiny is solid and I expect it to keep me occupied for many more hours to come. It’s gorgeous, rewarding, highly satisfying, and of reasonable substance. It just needs a considerable push in the right direction, something the ferocious backlash will hopefully ensure happens.

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