Great expectations have followed Destiny since its announcement. As the latest brainchild from the Halo creators at Bungie, the game has garnered a level of anticipation only exceeded by the massive hype machine that declares its not-to-be-missed potential. Bungie’s new game is not as gigantic or revolutionary as that hype may have led some to believe. In fact, it has several features that feel like missteps or problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that the more I play it, the more I love it.
A benevolent alien intelligence arrives on Earth to gift humanity with its wisdom, and leads us into an unprecedented period of expansion and advancement. When our benefactor’s ancient enemy arrives, humanity is beaten back to near extinction. Hundreds of years later, you stand as a guardian of humanity, finally ready to push back against the tide of darkness. Destiny has the seeds of a thoughtfully imagined universe, characterized by a humanistic and idealized vision of mankind’s heroism and potential. The universe is supported by gorgeous art and one of the best soundtracks in years. Unfortunately, the story set within that backdrop is anemic. With little to no character development, a disconnected plot thread about alien attackers, and uneven narrative pacing, it seems that many of the fundamental staples of storytelling have been abandoned in the name of continuous action and discrete, standalone missions. Encyclopedic grimoire entries unlock with a modicum of additional story explanation, but the odd decision to include those only on the game’s website means few will ever see these tidbits.
Thankfully, the story-sparse missions are a blast, offering a mix of activities for solo, cooperative, and competitive play. Destiny excels at providing activities for different moods and moments, from short planetary patrols to lengthy three-person instanced dungeons. These tasks often take you to interesting corners of the game world, but it’s too bad that so many missions start in the same places, leading to a needless sense of repetition. That sense of repetition extends to mission objectives, which too often fall back on the same setup of your AI companion needing time to hack something while you fight off attackers; thankfully, the stage layouts and enemies help the battles feel distinct.
Destiny’s design is particularly well suited to team play. Solo play is an ideal choice for players looking for a challenge, but any given mode is more fun (and easier) with a friend or two at your side. The potential for seamless flow between missions is halted by the regular need to return home to a central social hub to receive mission awards and gear up. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that Destiny suffers from lengthy load times that stunt the momentum of a session. Bungie also needs to find more solutions to let players of differing levels play together; as it is, a mismatched team-up is doomed to either be too easy for one or too hard for another.
Intense, high-octane battles are Bungie’s forte, and Destiny maintains the reputation. Each of several gun types feels balanced and rewarding, and the special powers, grenades, and melee attacks that are unique to each class are exciting to acquire and a joy to perfect. Enemy combatants often rely on numbers and damage potential over complex A.I. routines; it’s fun to mow through dozens of foes, but enemies rarely provide a strategically engaging matching of wits. Characters are highly mobile thanks to the inclusion of class-specific movement modes, and the importance of understanding the aerial game is key to mastering the harder fights. In between battles, Bungie’s solution to the MMO “mount” is a floating speeder bike that’s more fun than it has any right to be, even if it is a blatant copy (sound effects and all) of the classic Star Wars vehicle.
The competitive offering includes fewer customization options than some contemporary shooters, but the fierce PvP battles that unfold in the few available modes are uniformly excellent. Double jumps and similar movement modes provide a verticality to the maps that adds tension and tactical depth. Weapon skill and sharp reflexes undoubtedly win the day, but the inclusion of supers assures that even beginning players get brief moments of victory on the battlefield. None of the initial batch of maps stand out, but all include opportunities for compelling exchanges, from interesting sniping spots to hidden alcoves from which to ambush unsuspecting foes. Matchmaking is slow, but my matches have offered mostly well-balanced teams even in the early days after launch. Unlike in the cooperative game, characters of different levels are able to play well together, but guardians who have not yet unlocked at least their core powers are at a notable disadvantage.
Character progression is shared across competitive and solo/cooperative play, lending a genuine sense of ownership over your guardian. The sense of investment is increased through the opportunity to level multiple subclasses and improve weapons with their use. Loot isn’t plentiful, but it’s often meaningful, so you’re making interesting choices about which gun to equip rather than constantly clearing out dozens of useless objects. The three classes are more similar than they are different, but each has a few exciting ways to stand out, from the hunter’s unbearably cool bladedancer attacks to the warlock’s devastating nova bomb. Your guardian’s options only become more flexible as levels rise, leading to ample opportunities to tweak a build to your specifications.
The philosophy of depth over time extends to the rest of the game; Destiny reveals its complexity only after many hours. Unlike in many games, hitting level cap and completing the story is more of a mid-game marker. Farming reputation, using gear to level beyond the cap, and completing progression for each of your subclasses can be a lot of fun, but it won’t appeal to gamers who hate grinding. For those that enjoy the process, it’s exciting to uncover higher level versions of old missions and track down little boosts and tricks, such as the ability to repower teammates’ super abilities through careful timing of your deployments.
Like the MMOs from which Destiny draws inspiration, it’s challenging to draw a line in the sand about what the game is or will be. Already, Bungie has plans in the works to expand the game with additional story content, raids, and regular new variations on competitive play. However, a game can’t be judged for what it might be in the future. Even with its stumbles, the initial release of Destiny is a colossal achievement in interactive design, integrating a number of differing genre elements into a smart and unified whole. Bungie’s latest futuristic opus is one of the first true event games of this new generation, and while it still has room to grow, it’s worth your attention right out of the gate.