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"Destiny is more than a game." That quote from USA Today kept popping up throughout the game's marketing campaign. I can see why that quote was chosen. It's simple but promises the world to gamers.
When you read that quote, you probably assume it was plucked from a glowing preview or review. The writer, so overcome with excitement about Destiny, decides that it can't even be graded on the same scale as other games. "Destiny is more than a game...it's an experience!" or "Destiny is more than a game...it's a masterpiece!"
The quote's not actually based on a writer's opinion on the game, though. It's from an article about how the game will make Activision's stock more enticing. Here's an excerpt that didn't make it into Destiny's launch trailer:
"New and original video game releases — called new IP (intellectual property) in industry speak — often begin driving a company's stock price north in the three months prior to the new game's debut, says Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Michael Olson."
It seems very fitting that one of the most positive quotes about Destiny isn't about the game but about the effect it will have on Activision's stock price. Destiny itself feels a lot like something designed with finances in mind. Its goal is to make hundreds of millions of dollars and it shows. Destiny tries to hit several lucrative genres at once - MMO, co-op action RPG, multiplayer shooter - but only does a half-decent job with each.
Activision was willing to spend big on their new blockbuster. That much is apparent from the very first scene. You awaken in the wasteland formerly known as Russia and can see miles' worth of apocalypse: grounded ships, ruined cars, rusted builds and dead grass. The game sounds as good as it looks, with a fantastic score by Halo composer Martin O'Donnell. The enemy animations, the gunfire, the hum of your Sparrow as you make a sharp turn - everything has an absurd level of polish.
I wish more of the huge budget had gone toward the writing, though. Bungie creates a very ambitious premise - Earth's Guardians trying to reclaim the solar system from hostile aliens - but does very little with it. I wasn't expecting a deep plot, given the focus on online play, but there's no reason for the game to lack any kind of urgency. Humanity and Earth are supposed to be in danger but it never feels like that's the case. The four alien races supposedly gunning for mankind are content to hang out in their bases and wait for me to come kill them.
The lack of a discernible villain hurts, too. The big bad of Destiny's lore is simply called "The Darkness." It's some kind of malevolent force (or race?) that is helping the alien races fighting humanity. Bungie doesn't actually explain who or what they are in Destiny's campaign, though. Bungie's probably just laying the groundwork for some dramatic fight against the Darkness in an expansion or sequel - which is fine but we need a reason to care about the story now. We didn't fight the Reapers until Mass Effect 3 but we had plenty of detestable villains (Cerberus, Saren, the Collectors) to face until then.
Bungie makes every effort to push the story off to the edges of the game, too. The story for each mission is hastily explained in voiceover during the loading screen. Much of the background information is provided through virtual Grimoire Cards rewarded for in-game achievements. These cards can't even be read within the game; you have to look them up on Bungie's website or the Destiny mobile app.
I wouldn't have cared about the campaign's weak plot if the missions themselves were engaging. The missions were just as emotionless as the wider story connecting them together, though. You walk down a corridor, shoot some enemies, use a terminal, and then defend the terminal from enemies who make no effort to actually attack the terminal. Eventually a boss character - or at least a common enemy with more health than normal - shows up. This structure repeats itself over and over along with some of the environments.
That's not to say the game's joyless. The gunplay's sharp and occasionally the level design lets it shine. The best story mission took me into a ship hidden beneath the surface of Venus. I stormed the ship, battled my way through decks of stunned Fallen and faced down the captain on the bridge. It was a rare glimpse at the game Destiny was supposed to be: outgunned Guardians pulling off impossible missions.
Destiny can be played alone but it's clearly designed around the 3-player co-op. If you die while playing solo, the game rewinds to a checkpoint ten or fifteen minutes earlier. If you die with friends, you'll respawn on a timer or when one of your teammates revive you. If everyone dies, you all head back to the last checkpoint together. Arguably the best moments in the game occur when you find out you're the last member of your team left standing. You can brave enemy fire and try to resuscitate an ally, or run from them until your team respawns.
It's a shame, then, that the game makes it so hard to find teammates. The only missions that have matchmaking are the three-player-only Strikes. If you want some backup for the Story missions that make up the bulk of the campaign, or want to tackle the six-player raids at higher levels, you'll have to find a team on your own.
At times, the game feels downright lonely. The Tower, a safe haven where players can buy equipment or pick up Bounties, isn't much of a social hub because players can't chat freely with each other. You'll see other Guardians on the surface of hostile worlds as well but, again, there's no open chat. You could invite nearby players to your party but this is hindered by parties being set to "friends only" by default. Clan features, meanwhile, are relegated to the website and mobile app. Bungie bills Destiny as a shared-world shooter but it rarely feels like I'm part of a wider community. It's much closer to a single-player game than an MMO.
Most of your time with other players will be spent in the Crucible, the set of competitive multiplayer modes. The game launched with four of these modes: Clash (6v6 team deathmatch), Control (6v6 capture and hold territories), Rumble (6-player free-for-all), and Skirmish (3v3 team deathmatch with revivals). Bungie plans to keep swapping in new modes over time, which is good because the initial Crucible offering feels a bit weak. They're very vanilla modes that we can play in pretty much any shooter.
Bungie tried to inject some of that close-quarters, arena shooter feel into Crucible with ammo pickups. Every player has a special weapon (sniper rifle, shotgun, etc.) and a heavy weapon (machine gun, rocket launcher) in their inventory but no ammo for it. Ammo drops for each are announced and then highlighted on the map. I like the situation this sets up - you could race for the ammo but you might find your opponents there too - but I wish this wasn't the only curveball in multiplayer. I wish there were at least power-ups or weapon pickups throughout the map, too. I just expected more from Bungie after their years of experience making Halo games. The Crucible is too straightforward and basic, which might help it become an eSport but doesn't make it all that much fun for casual play.
The game, like MMOs, is driven by the acquisition of loot. You complete missions so you can level up, get better equipment and tackle more difficult content. These harder missions then give you access to even better equipment. The satisfaction of clearing a mission and getting the perfect new rifle or a beautiful new helm is as satisfying here as it is in any other game.
Destiny just doesn't have the depth of other massively multiplayer games, though. There isn't much choice when it comes to loot. If you find armor with a higher defense rating or weapons with higher damage than your current equipment, you'll use them. There are different weapon types (sniper rifle, shotgun, etc.) to consider but when you're choosing between, say, two assault rifles, damage is the only stat that matters. Other attributes simply aren't important enough to worry about, especially at lower levels.
There aren't many decisions to make regarding your character's progression, either. You're limited to only one subclass until level 15 when you unlock a second. Within the subclass every character is more or less the same, simply picking between different ability weights and variations on the same abilities. A level 14 Warlock is going to almost identical to another level 14 Warlock.
Destiny has four worlds but even combined they're less interesting than a single zone from an MMO like World of Warcraft or WildStar. You might be able to see for miles in Destiny but you're forced to travel along set paths. These worlds function mostly as highways connecting different story mission areas. There's little incentive for freely exploring the worlds; you're not going to stumble on a side quest on your way to a campaign missions. You can't actually find side quests unless you're in the designated Explore mode - a mode which seems misnamed because all the available quests are pinpointed on the map for you.
The only time Destiny really felt like an MMO was during dynamic events. Aliens launch some kind of mini-invasion of the planet's surface and you need to fight them off along with any other players that happen to be in the vicinity. These events were too rare, though; I encountered only one throughout the course of the entire game. That's too bad because without them the worlds of Destiny feel a bit barren. They're just beautiful scenery loaded with respawning enemies.
Bungie hopes Destiny will have a long lifespan but right now encounters the same problem that drags down a lot of MMOs: a lack of content. The endgame right now is to keep plugging away at the same Strikes and Crucible modes over and over to earn better equipment. There are few reasons to pursue this loot, though. There's now a single Raid for level 26+ players but the lack of matchmaking ensures that only a minority of players will experience this content. Your armor and weapon strength don't matter in Crucible matches, save for the occasional Iron Banner event. I don't think equipment-weighting is going to liven up the otherwise unremarkable PvP, though.
It's possible that Destiny could become a dramatically better game in the months or years ahead thanks to new content and features. That's not the game in front of us right now, though. Destiny is currently a decent co-op adventure, a lacking MMO and an ordinary PvP shooter rolled into one. Bungie has their work cut out for them if they want to convince players this is a ride worth staying on.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360