Destiny is a game about evolution, and a game about journeys. By their very nature, you won’t appreciate just how deep those twin philosophies go at first. This isn’t a game that reveals itself immediately. Destiny teases its (current) complete form by presenting its constituent elements in turn, letting each settle in over an extended period before subverting, expanding and revitalising it with the next. It’s not a short-term process, and there are a couple of ups and downs along the way. But stick with Destiny, trust that it knows what it’s doing, and you’ll find that your ultimate destination is–for consoles–an utterly unique and immensely gratifying place to play. Not only that, but it’s just the first stage of an even longer journey.
Let’s start, as the game itself does, with Destiny’s core shooting. Whatever you find yourself doing, wherever you go, however long you invest, this will be the core experience underpinning it all. And the good news is that it’s excellent. Heavily based on the weighty-yet-fluid feel and adaptable, aerial versatility of Bungie’s other FPS, Destiny’s handling–typified by the whirling, emergent use of cover, the importance of shifting spatial control, and punctuated by the none-more gratifying feedback of its weapons– is always, always fun. This wonderfully balanced shooting ensures that whatever the high-fallutin’ RPG framework built around any particular mission, whatever the higher purpose of your actions within the later, deeper meta-game, the real meat of the experience–the things you actually do to achieve your goals–is constantly enjoyable.
It’s not a 100% recreation of Halo, of course. The interplay between gun and grenade, for instance, is the first sign of Destiny’s RPG identity. Operating as inherent character-abilities rather than collectable weapons, each class’ grenade is furnished by a cooldown timer. Initially, this feels odd and slightly limiting, but as you level up and new skill properties become available, it evolves into something akin to a tactical magic attack, to be saved and unleashed strategically to modify the battlefield in different ways.
It can be an extended, area-of-effect health drain, used to lock down entry points and soften up mobs before engaging. It can be a splitting, enemy-seeking cluster-bomb for rapidly shattering problematic, tight groups. It can be a flashbang for buying time during a PvP confrontation. It can be a tripmine, or a sticky, lightning-emitting booby trap, used to limit enemy movement.
Similarly, special melee and ‘supercharge’ moves intermittently become available in the same way, evolving Destiny’s strategic game into a new layer floating above the immediacy of its shooting. Even more-so when unlocked ability variants and gear perks start supplying the facility to buff, adapt and empower those moves as part of an interlocking, resonating, personalised combat system. Though there’s little rigidity here. Currently owned weapons, armour and abilities can be swapped in and out on the fly as needed, taking the stress out of character-building, and making Destiny’s tactical ‘theory’ choices as fluid as its gunplay. It’s an incredibly smart system, providing a raft of malleable depth right now, and setting up a great framework for growth as Destiny expands over the years.
The never-starting story?
Destiny’s story is vaguely-sketched at best. What is here is Bungie-by-numbers, all ancient evil races, ancienter, eviler alien races, and barely explained space-gods of general darkness and bad. There is however, a Tolkienesque amount of ultra-detailed lore to Destiny’s world. It’s just that it’s all attached to the unlockable Grimoire cards stored on Bungie.net, rather than in the game itself.
But for all of its internal layers, Destiny’s combat exists within a wider ecosystem. When you first arrive at The Tower, the game’s central hub-cum-market town, you’ll likely feel a little bamboozled if you have scant experience of MMOs. Wrapped up in rich, evocative presentation typical of the game’s slick polish, Destiny’s altogether more civilised Mos Eisley is packed with alien concepts, both literally and figuratively.
Multiple vendors ply you with high-level weapons and armour, demanding large amounts of multiple, unheard-of currencies. A man known as the Cryptarch offers to decrypt something called an Engram for you. He’ll sell them to you as well, if your reputation is high enough. Whatever that means. A polite robot will give you bounties–Achievement-style mini-challenges for PvE and PvP play–but Lord knows what the point is, other than a modest XP bonus. If Destiny has one major failing, it’s that during its early periods, it does a terrible job of explaining any of this. In fact it does no job at all. This definitely has the potential to scare off less dedicated players, but it’s worth fighting the intimidation. All eventually does become clear, as the inter-relating economic and levelling systems that make up its complete experience become relevant at late XP levels. But with no initial path carved out toward that point, confusion and misconception are an occupational hazard to the unwarned player.
Either way, it won’t be long before you head back into the PvE missions that construct and garnish Destiny’s current story. And from thereon in, the experience of them becomes richer, deeper, and more involved with each passing hour. As your character develops, so too does Destiny’s core gameplay. Levelling up is about more than increased attack and defence. It also fundamentally changes interaction. New methods of moving, jumping, controlling and defending evolve not only your character, but the game you’re playing with your character. However often you replay a scenario, or new, more challenging variants of it, you’ll always find that something has always changed, even if it’s just your own perspective, or those of the people you’re playing with.
That said, Destiny certainly does not thumb its nose at the solitary player. While the expanding content of its ‘endgame’ (I’m loathe to use the term, as hitting the initial level cap really does feel like just the beginning) is certainly pitched for co-op, it would be feasible, if not entirely easy, for a solo player to break through a good proportion of the main story unaided. Indeed, for all the fun of knuckling through missions as part of a three or six-man squad, some of Destiny’s most epic, standout combat moments have come about through taking on a tough challenge alone. The increased threat and higher stakes reward the kind of creative and improvisational FPS play that few other shooters have the capacity to offer.
The quality of Destiny’s combat becomes even clearer in the Crucible, the in-world setting for the game’s competitive multiplayer component. Currently comprising four main modes–base control, team deathmatch, free-for-all, and a tight, tactical TDM mode for small teams, in which co-operation is vital–and 11 maps, Crucible is no standalone addition. It becomes an increasingly important part of Destiny’s overall make-up as you progress, but beyond that, it’s simply one of the most robust, well-developed FPS PvP servings in recent memory.
Again, obviously descended from Halo’s legendary multiplayer, it’s a slightly faster, more aggressive variant with more scope for fast kills, but no less varied or accessibly deep in its cat-and-mouse firefights. Played using the same persistent character and gear-set as everything else, it removes level advantages in the name of fairness, but keeps properties such as firing rate and stopping power. It’s sometimes possible for Destiny’s currently rather relaxed matchmaking approach to cause notable level disparities between players, but in practice, map knowledge and shooting skill largely trumps all else.
When Destiny’s wider world starts to reveal and explain itself–around about XP level 16–and when more complex and interesting perks begin to arrive with higher-level gear drops, it initially feels too late. What use is better stuff when the story is nearly over and the level-cap of 20 looms? But in truth, this is just a transitional period. It is Destiny’s, admittedly overdue, method of prepping you for the real meat of its content, in terms of challenge, creativity, and player-led potential. All of that stuff starts post-20. Now, the game and its world change all over again, and what appeared to be the end turns out to be really only the end of the prologue.
A new levelling system, based on a new statistic called Light–attached to advanced armour–replaces the traditional XP system. The Crucible PvP modes and the newly available, increasingly challenging, remixed and reworked PvE Vanguard missions become the source of Light armour, through loot drops and by providing the previously unexplained currencies for purchasing high-level gear. The seemingly unimportant bounties reveal themselves to be a major part of Destiny’s economic fuel.
Daily and weekly challenges start to appear on the map screen, offering greater rewards for those brave and strong enough to tackle them. The first part of Destiny’s future Raid roster unlocks, bringing with it a design philosophy previously unseen, made of oblique, enigmatic, combat-driven environmental puzzling, and demanding immense levels of team communication and coordination. The versatility and scalability of the core combat become even more apparent, as it services everything from traditional FPS scenarios to frantic, chaotic mob battles. Finally, all of Destiny’s seemingly disparate, parallel elements coalesce into one, cohesive form, building a robust, enticing framework for adventures yet to happen.
Is Destiny flawed in the way it explains itself ? Of course, but when it gets there, the pay-off is more than worth the wait. Is its story slight, skating only on the surface of its lore? Yes indeed, but once you get past it, you’ll realise that its real stories are the many you create with your assembled cast of co-op players, those of epic, emergent set-pieces and heroic, last-ditch Crucible victories. And does Destiny need more content? Eventually it will, but we know that it’s coming. In the meantime, I’m 45 hours in, and only becoming more engaged by the day. Hell, I still have a sub-set of support skills to unlock, and a second class to build.
The only problem with reviewing Destiny, with summing up my feelings and experiences so far, is that it will always be a case of ‘so far’. That’s why I’m leaving the extra point of breathing space on the score. It’s there for potential. To be filled. But with Destiny’s 10-year plan starting so strongly, and set to begin evolving over just the next few weeks, I feel very content that it eventually will be.