The lights are on
Our Destiny cover story from this January explored the top-level features that make up Destiny, but our time with direct experience in the game was limited. We had another chance this month to investigate the game through a couple hours of hands-on time. The sequence we played took us to Earth and a dungeon-like strike against a house of alien Fallen soldiers. Repeated playthroughs of that strike gave us insight into the three main classes of Destiny, but also helped identify several elements of the game that are key to understanding what sets it apart.
Different Modes For Different Moods
Our time with Destiny primarily focused on the cooperative strike called Devils' Lair, in which up to three players infiltrate a heavily defended Fallen outpost in Old Russia in a quest to bring down the exalted servitor named Sepicks Prime. Strikes like these are designed for a quick cooperative experience that’s relatively straightforward, always culminating in an impressive boss fight.
However, these strikes are one small thread in the larger Destiny tapestry of activities. While visiting Bungie, we also saw a patrol – a one- to three-person mission structure that is far more free-form. In a patrol, players teleport down onto a world’s surface and explore the area for enemies and loot. While there, you might pick up additional tasks or quests, or simply wander freely as you see fit.
Bungie has also promised a range of other ways to engage with the game. Story missions tell the central tale of the guardians' quest to reclaim humanity’s golden age. Raids await at the end-game to provide an extremely dangerous cooperative challenge for organized teams. Competitive play echoes Bungie’s previous work on Halo, with a robust series of maps and game modes, except that you bring your own customized character to the fight.
It’s clear that Bungie is placing a high priority on letting players level up and develop their character while playing in any game mode they want.
Jump To Content, Or Explore
Bungie had intimated the presence of an organizing principle for the game’s content, but our recent visit gave a concrete (if brief) glimpse at the director. In short, this is a clean way to present the multitude of game modes, activities, and new features in an easy-to-read map/menu. By using the director, Destiny aims to get around one of the problems that many more traditional MMOs struggle with: letting players jump directly to the style of play they want.
At the same time, Bungie has also stated that it should be easy to have the more freeform experience that MMO players are accustomed to – a promise that is at least partially fulfilled by the aforementioned patrol missions.
No matter how you reach the content, in between missions the tower acts as a central hub for activity and social engagement. We had a few brief glimpses of the tower during our time at the studio, and it is a compelling location in its own right, looking out over the last city on Earth.
Choice Is Key To Progression
One feature that was clearly on display during our recent visit to Bungie was the flexibility of the progression and upgrade system. Your character build goes well beyond a choice of class, and extends into every item you equip on your guardian.
The most important feature that defines your guardian is his or her focus. This equippable component determines your abilities in a given mission, but it can be switched once you return to orbit. That said, your upgrade choices in a given focus appear to be relatively static and hard to change, forcing you to make hard choices about which vertical movement mode to select, which grenade type to have, and how your super ability will deploy.
In addition to your focus, your choice of equipment and how you upgrade that equipment also has a profound effect on gameplay. Different items each have their own distinct upgrade trees, and you spend glimmer (Destiny’s money) and discovered resources to purchase a new upgrade. Each upgrade path for a given helmet, armor, or other item offers multiple choices that make your version of the weapon slightly different from other players.
The fuel behind this equipment upgrade process is found during missions. Glimmer is constantly accruing as you bring down enemy attackers and pick up their loot, but you also find individual crafting resources that will be used to improve an item. As you explore, you also occasionally find fundamentally new weapons, as well as pick-ups called engrams, the equivalent of unidentified magic items that must be brought back to the tower to be decoded.
Taken together, these features assure that any one character in Destiny has the potential to stand out and be different from the other guardians moving through the solar system.
Big Sci-Fi World
In the midst of talking about gameplay systems and upgrade paths, it would be too easy to ignore the beautiful game world that Bungie is crafting – and that’s a mistake. Between seeing the game several months ago and this most recent visit, the most obvious growth is in the graphical splendor of the game world, and the visual storytelling that results.
Destiny’s environments walk a fine line, depicting a post-apocalyptic version of humanity’s future, while simultaneously remaining hopeful and beautiful. Many of the structures seen so far depict the ruins of humanity’s golden age juxtaposed against breathtaking natural vistas. On Earth, you might see an ancient colony ship rusting away on its launch pad, but overhead the Aurora Borealis spins in the northern sky. On the moon, alien creatures may have infested old human habitations, but the glowing beauty of Earth hangs overhead.
For science fiction and fantasy fans, a big part Destiny’s appeal may end up being the opportunity to explore these distant worlds of our solar system and uncover their many secrets.
Bungie is charting some new territory with Destiny, and borrowing from other genres like RPGs, open-world shooters, and MMOs to create something compelling. However, it’s important to note that the fundamental DNA of a Bungie shooter in the vein of Halo remains intact.
My hands-on time playing Destiny confirmed my suspicion. While the classes may be different, the enemies shoot different projectiles, and the next-gen visuals and art set it apart, Destiny remains a game built by the people who brought us Halo. If you’ve always loved those Halo games that Bungie worked on for 10 years, there’s good reason to believe that Destiny will provide a similar moment-to-moment gameplay experience. If, on the other hand, you’ve always actively disliked Halo combat, then it’s likely Destiny won’t change your mind.
That core shooting experience extends to the wider community experience. Bungie has detailed plans to deliver a companion mobile application as well as extensive online stat tracking for the players who prioritize such things. While the competitive game remains largely shrouded, my early glimpses of it have left a positive impression.
What features are you most excited to explore in Destiny? Let us know in the comments below.
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