I was afforded a rare treat the week before E3, as Bungie granted me access to the new public alpha test of Destiny, and the freedom to wander through the game world for as much time as I desired leading up to this week’s show. Unlike previous hands-on sessions I’ve experienced with the game, this most recent run occurred without direction or a pre-stated goal. Instead, I was able to explore all the content at my own pace, including leveling, free exploration, and character customization. While the alpha itself includes only one major gameplay zone, and a few major missons, it was more than enough content to prove out Bungie’s claim of a game that offers varied activities and lots of shiny rewards to aspire towards.
Before diving in to the game itself, the alpha offered my first look at the character creation and customization tools as they currently exist. The human, awoken, and exo race selection choice is purely cosmetic, but each brings with it a unique set of customization options. For instance, while you might be adjusting skin tone and hair styles for a human, the robotic exo race has you selecting shades of metallic paint, head spikes and other modifications. The character creator in the alpha doesn’t seem as dramatically robust as many recent MMOs – there was little in the way of slider options for adjusting facial features, for instance – but there are enough color and mix-and-match choices that I believe most guardians will look distinct from one another.
Once in-game, I’m placed immediately in the Old Russia zone on Earth. This is the same area that has been on display for most of Destiny’s public campaign so far, and I’m a little disappointed that we’re still not getting to see more of the other planets that are a part of the game. Even so, though the visual style of Old Russia is familiar, there is plenty of content I haven’t seen before.
First and foremost, I spend several hours freely exploring the zone, taking up small quests as I wander. This is a feature that hasn’t been extensively detailed up until now, but for solo and cooperative players, I suspect it will be a popular way to find some simple and straightforward encounters. When moving freely through a zone, you can call up your ghost (the floating AI companion voiced by Peter Dinklage) to reveal any nearby quest beacons in the environment. Inevitably, there are at least two or three within a few dozen meters, and you can run over to one of them.
Whether playing alone or with a small fireteam of two or three players, these beacons offer simple quests that are meant to move you around the zone into interesting encounters, but without strict guidelines for completion. One quest from a beacon might demand that you scan a section of the environment several hundred meters away, and the only way to get there is by fighting through several squads of Fallen soldiers. Another quest might be to kill a Hive Knight. A third might be a scouting patrol that takes you to various points on the map. Upon completing a quest and gaining some small rewards, a new set of beacons is almost always nearby.
In practice, this system assures that there’s a nearly endless supply of simple missions to tackle for times that you might not be interested in longer or more involved activities, like a full cooperative strike, or a story mission.
In my experience, these quests work perfectly well both as solo excursions or as cooperative ventures. For about half the time I was playing, I was exploring with another GI editor at my side, and the in-game fireteam system makes it easy to transition together between content areas. Quests are completed and rewarded as a group, but players each get their own loot when it becomes available. The cooperative experience is relatively seamless, and it’s particularly fun to work together to confront a challenging foe, as each team member circles the enemy into flanking positions.
Another novel aspect of my time with the alpha was the availability of the Tower – the social hub at the center of Destiny’s gameplay. By departing Old Russia and returning to orbit, I can select this new location and send my ship hurtling down towards the last populated city on Earth, and the guardian’s tower that awaits there. Like the capital city of an MMO, the Tower offers a wealth of shops, crafting opportunities, and social spaces.
The Tower is explored in third person, and by default your headwear is removed so that other players’ can see your avatar’s face. A postmaster allows for the sending and receiving of in-game mail, and a vault can be accessed into which you can place weapons and armor pieces. The vault contents, as well as your combined total of glimmer (the game’s primary in-game currency) is shared between all the characters on your account, so it’s easy to pass a great weapon from your awoken warlock to your human titan.
Numerous shopkeepers offer all sorts of gear and equipment options to help deck out your guardian. A gunsmith provides the expected mix of new weaponry, but there’s also a merchant who decodes engrams you find in the field into craftable weapons. Another merchant offers a selection of ships and sparrows (speeder bikes) to help set your character apart. Other dealers provide emblems that represent your character inside game menus and other sections of the game’s UI. By the end of my time in the alpha, I had purchased a great rocket launcher (my first heavy weapon), and splurged on a new ship to carry me into orbit.
More tantalizing than the standard vendors are the many merchants who provide content that is not yet available at the level 8 cap provided during the alpha. Several merchants provide exclusive gear for players who have scaled the ranks of the competitive Crucible game modes. Other merchants carry vanguard items – exclusively available to players who have confronted high level cooperative game content and missions. The legendary items available through these vendors look like great aspirational rewards, and I’m eager to explore the depths of the full game that will let me unlock access to them.
In addition to exploration of Old Russia and the Tower, the alpha also gave access to a very brief early story mission (which details the return of the Hive to Earth), as well the same strike that I played a few months ago. Plus, after digging into solo and cooperative play, I was able to play several matches of the newly named Crucible competitive content, which is detailed in this separate preview.
Destiny’s alpha paints a picture that we’ve been eager to see come together for some time. Instead of brief snippets of gameplay, the playable alpha proves that Bungie’s investment and leveling system works admirably, and creates an environment where players are eager to explore more for the sake of fun rewards waiting around the next bend. The alpha also reveals an incredibly solid game from a technical perspective. Though the loads have yet to be optimized, the gameplay itself is smooth, players were able to join together quite easily, and the mix of private and public content works as promised. As for the content itself, the battles are exciting, the weapons and powers are fun to discover, and the sprawling level designs always lend themselves to interesting encounters, reminiscent of the team’s many years of work on Halo. While significant balancing is still necessary before release (some of the boss enemies took way too long to bring down), this is a feature that is easily correctable in the months leading up to launch in September. It’s also possible that the bosses I confronted took a long time because some of them were in public areas, and there were very few players in the game last week. With more players at hand, it’s likely those sections will feel more manageable.
Taken as a whole, this small snippet of Destiny’s larger world does an admirable job on selling the potential of the full experience. Destiny is a game best experienced not in small bites with an anonymous character, the way that many may first encounter the game at this year’s E3. Instead, this longer play session proves that Destiny is at its best when you’re invested with your own character, growing and changing their skills and equipment piece by piece over time. It’s an experience I’m hopeful to share with many more players when the alpha launches to a wider audiance in a few days.