That’s the short of it, but of course a game this well-hyped deserves a more-thorough review. Destiny offers plenty of fun and takes a step away from Halo without abandoning what made Bungie such a hit in the first place. Here’s a run-down of the good and the bad I’ve found in several days of FPS goodness.
Though you have no influence over dialogue, the plot is engaging enough to keep you playing through the planets. I wanted to find out what would happen. What’s going on between the Hive and the Fallen? Can this rag-tag end of humanity save their galaxy? Who is that masked woman? (I’ll get into the story a bit more, later.)
On a smaller scale, the MMO additions really work for me, solo player that I am. Big, sparkly loot pops out of your enemies from time to time, in addition to the all-important ammo. To increase the anticipation, some of it is in code that you can’t decipher on your own so you have to wait until you get back to the hub to find out what you got.
Public events were a welcome extra, as well. You get nice bonuses and a real challenge. Everyone in the area comes running (more on how that works in practice later) and you work together to take down some high-level enemies. Even if you fail—and those high-value targets have defeated us almost every time—you get a little bonus for trying.
From time to time as you wander you’ll find a dead ghost that you can resurrect. While these give you codex entries (more on those at the end of this post) and XP I like to pretend that each one you revive means another Guardian to help your cause. From all appearances you’ll need all the help you can get. Yes, I’m trying to shoe-horn some RPG into a game that gives me little excuse to.
Chests hide in caves and under stairs, gifting you with glimmer (that’s cash in the future, where everything is digital, including you) and materials. From time to time a piece of armor or a weapon pops out, as well, and every so often you hit the jackpot and get three or four goodies. Randomly re-spawning chests and gathering nodes give you something to do when you’re wandering around waiting for the baddies to be dropped again or trying to finish a patrol mission.
Apparently, Bungie has discovered a talent for atmospheric caves and tunnels, complete with deep darkness, squelchy alien noises, and little glints that may or may not be someone about to leap out and stab you. Thus far these are some of my favorite parts of the game so far, when your Ghost turns flashlight and all you can see is what that limited cone shows you. Watching the Hive crawl out of black pools to kill you adds a bonus creep factor.
You can customize your character and actually see him or her (or it) in cut scenes. The swathes of each planet or moon that are accessible can be more or less freely roamed once you’ve completed the first story mission there. The nude, purple Cortana has been replaced by your Ghost, a construct that Halo fans will find comfortably familiar as long as you don’t expect it to behave like an Oracle, too. This floating ball is firmly on your side.
I’ve bumped into a few little surprises that made me smile. From time to time the postmaster signals that I have a message only to gift me with a lost package that holds a nice engram or two to decode. The ambient chatter at the Tower can be pretty entertaining, especially the occasional pages and public announcements.
There’s a spot where you can click to turn on a fan. Though there’s no apparent effect I like to think that, somewhere on the map, a fan does turn on and flutter a flag or someone’s cape. The dances for the various races and genders are all hysterical and the few emotes you can do on a controller are all entertaining.
The limited customization, fun though it is, makes absolutely no difference in the rest of the game. You cannot select your avatar’s responses to any situation. The story marches on and you can’t role play any enthusiasm or reluctance. With Master Chief that was fine, because clearly none of us are the big MC. He was who he was and we were merely enjoying his story. I’d hoped with Destiny to be able to participate a bit more but that is not to be.
Pretty though some of the vistas may be, there’s a certain sameness to the layout of every location. I get that there’s been a galactic apocalypse and everything but that last city has lain in ruins for centuries. You’re told that you’re going to the jungles of Venus but, once you arrive, there’s not much more flora than there was on Earth—and what’s with the neon blue lava?
The moon, to be fair, has no flora or, being airless and barren and all, but it’s a uniform grey (yes, as it should be) and the rusty remains do little to give it much visual appeal. To throw some good in with the bad, you can stand on the moon and just watch the beautifully-done Earth slowly rotate above you.
That, in fact, is one of the few instances in which a truly noticeable difference in graphics between the X-Box 360 and the X-Box One appear. For the most part the improvements are barely visible. Only a few times, like when you’re standing in the very first pitch-black room at the very beginning, something subtle in the background really pops with the higher resolution and makes the mood.
Watching the world turn from afar also gave me about the only real role-playing moment of the game. My recently resurrected hero found herself lost and alone, thrust into a wild cascade of events and then flung off the planet. In (what should have been) the silence and desolation of the moon she stared up at what used to be her home and wondered whether her Ghost had made a mistake after all.
As you might guess from that parenthetical aside, I have a bit of a quibble with the moon setting: I can hear the aliens and the gunfire. With no atmosphere, how the heck does my admittedly awesome Guardian hear the chittering, chattering enemies? Wouldn’t silent, sudden attacks give the whole lunar adventure an eerie, unsettling effect you don’t normally find in video games?
The Hive and the Fallen clearly don’t breathe, as they don’t wear helmets and no atmosphere gushes from their nests and temples on the moon when the doors open, where there are any. They could glide right up behind you and take you out with nary a warning. It’s about the only thing those creepy tunnels needed to make them complete! The sparse music would be more than enough noise and science geeks the world over would rejoice at someone getting it right for a change. Alas, no.
I know that PvP is mandatory in these sorts of games, particularly one from a studio whose PvP variants have been a legendary success, but the what little story there is makes these matches nonsensical. The Guardians represented by each player shouldn’t be killing one another and they certainly have better things to do than spend weeks playing Capture the Flag. My complete and utter inability to kick ass may have created a bias here but I found the entire Crucible concept to go against the rest of the game.
That wouldn’t be so important except that the only way to progress past level twenty, the cap at the moment, is via gear. To get better weapons and armor you either repeat the same patrol and heroic missions to complete the same bounties over and over to earn Vanguard points or you go to the Crucible. Perhaps the extra chapters promised will provide a less-constrained feeling but after you’ve finished the too-short story (which, while I’m whining, resolves absolutely nothing and doesn’t answer any of the questions I asked at the beginning of this post) the game is all grind. There isn’t enough variety to keep that interesting for more than a week.
To increase the feeling that the grind is the true focus of the game, you can only start a story mission by reloading your ship in orbit and loading the appropriate mission. The free-roaming patrol mission choice on each map locks out story progression. That wouldn’t be so bad but for the interminable loading screens.
To be fair, those delays are a mixed blessing. When the game finally loads it loads everything connected so there are no delays when progressing through large, interconnected map sections. They disconnect you from the game, however. In PvP it’s much worse. Matchmaking takes minutes and then you go through the loading screen for the map. Active though they may be, loads still suck up a lot of play time and make you feel like you have to go out of your way to progress through the story.
The game worlds feel dead. I’ve never been in an area with more than three other players when off the Tower. Half of the public events I’ve attempted I’ve ended up doing alone or with my husband if we’re playing together and never with more than two other players helping. The intent might be there but in practice the bonus missions point up the lack of players rather than giving people a reason to play together.
After the massive crowds in SWTOR I expected a crush of folks. That never happened. Heck, I played the night after release and the Tower itself was deserted, much less the beginning areas. Mass Effect 3 is two years old and the matchmaking finds me a full crew faster than brand-new Destiny does. I know the sales numbers were huge so where the heck is everybody?
The Tower, the supposed social hub of the game, presents its own problems. Even now, when I usually find dozens of people wandering about, there’s no reason to interact with any of them. We did have a little fun kicking a ball around with people the other night but you can’t arrange a fire team to take on missions or do more than point at and dance with random strangers. People only visit the tower to do business.
It’s the only place in the galaxy you can buy weapons, armor, speeders, or ships. A word of warning: most of the good stuff is gated behind the max level and an extra hoop or two. This goes back to the grind being the focus of the game: the limited number of side missions and PvP are the only ways to gain enough points in various categories to actually purchase the good gear that lets you progress. Heroic modifiers, much like skulls in Halo, add difficulty to story missions and strikes but it’s still the same enemies in the same places over and over again. After the dozenth time you speed across a map to scan the same area you get pretty tired of patrol missions, too. And when you’re done it’s back to the Tower to decode and see if you’ve accrued enough points to buy better armor.
To get there, you have to load your ship into orbit and then load the tower, a pair of loading screens where one would do. I’d love a choice to return to the tower without having to stop in orbit to think about it.
While I’m listing my wishes, would it have killed Bungie to give me a map? The connections between various map areas can be circuitous or difficult to tell apart until you’re familiar with the lay of the land. Some way to find the particular section in which your next objective lies would be most welcome and might help the scope of the various planets feel that much bigger as you visit areas and make them visible on a sprawling “world”map.
Last, I can’t understand why Bungie shoved the lore out of the game entirely and onto their web site. I would love to read the grimoire entries, as they’re called in Destiny, but if I’m playing I don’t want to leave the game just to read a blurb about a new variant of Fallen or Vex. The codex should be available from within the menu screens, just like the rest of my inventory. It would strengthen the story and give players a greater connection to the game world and their own avatars.
In the end, I find myself disappointed with Destiny. It feel like half a game, one that tries to add elements of RPGs and MMOs to the successful Halo short-story format without including enough of either to make them more than tacked-on distractions. If more chapters come out and make those elements more useful and the story more engaging it will be gated behind the season pass or pay-as-you-go, neither of which counts as improvements to a game for which my family already paid twice.