Thoughts: Destiny

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Destiny is one of the most stupefyingly average games I’ve ever played. But I cannot stop playing it.

(Bear in mind, also, that I am playing the Legendary Edition of Destiny with all of the DLC and the Taken King expansion included in the sticker price. This Destiny 2.0 is widely considered to be a significant improvement on the base version of Destiny, and the only thing I have to say about that is that the base version of Destiny must have been truly dire for the Taken King to be considered a step up.)

Anyway, Destiny is What Bungie Did Next after breaking free of Microsoft’s clutches, and unfortunately bidding the Halo series farewell in the process. Somewhat unsurprisingly it’s a console oriented shooter that’s not a million miles away from Halo in terms of the shooty-shooty bang-bang bits, and if that seems more unoriginal now it’s only because Halo has been an incredible influence on the FPS genre and most of the innovations it introduced have now been adopted as genre standard, for better or worse. Destiny does make a questionable quantum leap over Bungie’s previous efforts, though, and that leap is to splice Halo’s gunplay together with Diablo’s crack cocaine loot mechanic. It’s been done before, of course, most notably by Gearbox’s Borderlands series, but Borderlands didn’t come anywhere near as close to being the gaming phenomenon Destiny is; two years after they launched it’s generally regarded as the single best reason to own a PS4/Xbox One.

Whether that says more about Destiny or about the anaemic lineup of games that’s been pushed out so far during this console generation I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

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Destiny jettisons Halo’s structured missions for a series of baddie-filled free-roaming environments more reminiscent of an MMO. The solar system has been overrun by a number of alien factions (all of which are curiously humanoid, even the robot hive mind, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to headshot them quite so effectively) and your job as one of the generically-titled Guardians of humanity is to clean them out one planet – and one bad guy – at a time. Each planet constitutes a single huge, sprawling level that can be visited by you at any time. If you travel there as part of a quest (and the game does call them quests in spite of its sci-fi nature) then your trip will be somewhat scripted, as you first trudge through this semi-open world to the quest location to pick up a macguffin or smite a beastie or whatever, and when you reach your destination the scripting takes over and you get a bite-size mission experience lasting no longer than 5-10 minutes. If you just go there for funsies then your activities will consist of a series of MMO-esque procedurally-generated filler activities like collecting 10 robot asses or assassinating the terrifying Big Robot, which are precisely as interesting as they sound.

The open worlds of Destiny are a somewhat impressive technical achievement – relatively large and complex, at least to the point where you need a summonable jetbike to easily get around — and especially so since they’re populated with other players doing much the same things you are. Because this is Bungie the game looks very nice, and the goes double for the skyboxes; I have some issues with some of the choices made in level location as three out of the five major worlds are set in a desert (Mars), a barren moonscape (the Moon, obviously), and what looks like the inside of the sewage pipe Andy Dufresne crawled through in the Shawshank Redemption (the Dreadnaught), and these are environments that historically have been difficult for developers to render in an interesting way because they’re so one-note. To their credit Bungie do a reasonably good job on the first two (those skyboxes really do help) and it’s only inside the Dreadnaught where things start to get so visually tedious that I seriously start to question why I’m spending my time on this game. The worlds are at least livened up with another of Bungie’s hallmarks: independent AI factions which will fight each other if they run into each other, which happens often as there are ships constantly warping in to drop off reinforcements to the area. As one of the poster children for the current generation of consoles there’s a considerable amount of effort that’s gone into making running/driving around the worlds of Destiny as entertaining as possible, and while Bungie’s attempts don’t wholly hit the mark I can at least say that a surprisingly small amount of that effort was wasted.

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Nevertheless, no matter how pretty you make your environments the above mission structure isn’t a particularly robust skeleton to hang your game on, as many an MMO has found out to its cost; these repetitive activities may provide relatively evergreen content but they’re not particularly fulfilling for the player. This is where the loot drops come in: shooting baddies gives you experience which levels up your character, and sometimes they’ll drop guns and armour that you immediately – immediately – compare to your current gear to see if they’re better. Towards the middle of the game the drops of actual equipment start to dry up and you instead start to pry “engrams” from the remains of your enemies; an engram is effectively an unidentified item that you have to take back to the game’s hub area – the Tower – to be identified. Each engram gives you a roll against the loot table for that item that’s dependent mostly on your Light level – veterans of WoW will recognise this instantly as Item Level, as it’s a composite number that reflects how good your current equipment level is. A blue engram decoded at light level 200 will give a worse item than at light level 250, and so the loot system is made effectively self-perpetuating: as each new item you get will potentially increase your light level (and hence the quality of future items) you mainly get better loot so that you can get *even better* loot in the future.

Oh, and I guess you also use the guns to shoot baddies, but that’s almost an ancillary side effect at this point. You mostly play Destiny to watch that Light level number go up – as it’s used throughout the game as a concrete, quotable measure of what content you’ll be able to do this is, unusually, more than just a primitive tapping-in to the part of our stupid monkey brains that enjoys gambling (although that’s still obviously a large element of Destiny’s appeal, just as it is with Diablo). The endgame economy around weapons becomes increasingly stratified as you start to deal with Exotic-quality weapons and infusing unwanted weapons into other ones that you want to improve the raw stats on because you like their inherent perks/handling qualities, but that’s for people with hundreds of hours to sink into Destiny and I’ve been dabbling in it for a mere thirty.  Right now I’m just content with getting my Light level high enough so that I can do all of the Strikes in the game.

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Ah yes, the Strikes. These are Destiny’s analogue of a dungeon run in WoW: you select which Strike you want to do from the navigation menu, wait a minute or two in matchmaking, and are then thrown together with two other players to run yet another bite-size dungeon experience lasting no more than 15-20 minutes. As you’re part of a group, though, and because the Strikes are substantially more goal-oriented than the rest of the game, this is where Destiny becomes slightly more than a mindless loot-fuelled shooting gallery. The Strikes start off like that to ease you in, sure – the first one is just a run through a dungeon with a couple of bullet-sponge boss encounters — but they gradually get more complex with set-piece fights and sub-tasks or even puzzles that need to be completed to gain entry to the next part of the mission. They’ve been the most rewarding parts of Destiny for me so far, and are coincidentally one of the best ways to get engrams as each boss is guaranteed to drop at least a couple.

If you want to go beyond Strikes then Destiny has three raids that require a group of six and multiple hours to complete. These are *proper* raids by the MMO definition, too, with lots of dying and respawning to learn attack patterns and figure out the trick to a particular encounter; however after watching my flatmate slowly lose the will to live while grinding through a six(!) hour raiding session I was kind of turned off of the idea of trying it. There’s also a variety of multiplayer modes called the Crucible if you really, really miss Halo deathmatch – this works surprisingly well despite everyone being allowed to take in whatever overpowered weapons they’ve managed to acquire as the game will adjust the stats so that everyone is roughly the same level. If you want to get invested in the game long-term then there’s quests that take multiple days or even weeks to complete, regular/timed events, reputation you can grind with various factions…

…yeah, what I’m describing here is basically an MMO. You talk to somebody who plays it long-term and they’ll get all defensive and say it totally isn’t an MMO, it’s just an ARPG with guns, to which I would retort that:

  1. The long-term time investment is on par with an MMO. People can – and do – sink hundreds or even thousands of hours into Destiny’s quests and raids. ARPGs are no mean time sinks themselves, of course, but I feel like Destiny doesn’t just start to bleed into the “second job” territory that is the hallmark of a good – or a bad – MMO, it’s full on hemorrhaging at this point.
  2. I can draw direct comparisons between nearly every single one of Destiny’s core and long-term play mechanics and their analogues in World of Warcraft. That’s not to say that Bungie just ripped it off; they’ve shown a significant amount of creativity in adapting the concept to work for a console FPS and a year after its release the underlying systems are pretty slick in how accessible they make something that’s traditionally had an abnormally high barrier to entry. It would be foolish to pretend it didn’t draw a heavy load of inspiration from the current genre leaders, though.

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Anyway, the fact that it’s a quasi-MMO adapted for console is the secret to Destiny’s success, but it’s also its greatest failing: it looks great and the shooting plays pretty well, but it *feels* rather light and characterless to play, not to mention repetitive. This is compounded by three really bizarre design choices that I just cannot figure out for the life of me:

  • The plot. There isn’t one, not really; the DLC packs have these small self-contained storylines but as a whole Destiny is woefully bereft of anything approaching the structure a backbone of plot would have given it. The original single player campaign is laughable as you ping-pong from planet to planet for no real reason, shoot a blob in the end bossfight (the reasons for this are never really explained) and then are told that You Won, but also that The Story Will Continue. I was actually a little shocked that this is what the game launched with; if I didn’t also have access to the DLC – which is just as terribly plotted, but whose writing leverages this mystical thing called “humour” as well as making far better use of ubiquitous nerd icon Nathan Fillion in the voiceovers and cutscenes — then I would actually be pretty pissed that the game ended there. As it is I’m just baffled at how nonsensical and inconsequential it all is.
  • The above weaknesses with the front story are exacerbated by the backstory. Unlike the frontstory it’s not like this doesn’t exist (it does, and there’s quite a lot of it), and it’s not like it’s terribly written (some of it is actually quite interesting!). No, the problem here is that almost none of this backstory is to be found in Destiny itself; instead, every so often when you’re playing you’ll pick up something called a Grimoire card – a small snippet of backstory – that you have to go to Bungie.net to read. Let me reiterate: if you want to find out more about Destiny’s world you have to stop playing the game and go through the trouble of connecting your Xbox credentials to Bungie’s website, after which it’ll let you look at your cards in a buggy interface that doesn’t really display in Chrome all that well. This is ridiculous, not to mention completely self-defeating considering the amount of effort that’s gone into writing some of this stuff, as you’ve just ensured that only the most committed/bored players will ever read it. Anyway, you can find all of this stuff on the Destiny wiki if you really care that much, so what was the point in bothering with the cards in the first place?
  • The main hub area that you return to every so often in order to turn in missions and decode engrams. This is ostensibly part of the last human city on Earth, but the hub area itself is on top of a really tall tower (the city itself is just another skybox) and so essentially constitutes a big, flat, characterless platform around which are scattered a dozen or so NPCs who stand in one place and spout the same three generic lines every time you talk to them. Say what you like about World of Warcraft, but it managed to fucking nail hub areas with Stormwind et al; even Rage’s brown, drab, confusingly laid-out hub town had more character than the City, which feels like nothing so much as a box in which to put the unfortunately-necessary NPC quest-givers and vendors any good MMO needs. It’s boring as hell, and I resent the fact that I have to go back there every hour or two to unload my inventory.

Hurgh. Whether you compare Destiny to an MMO or an ARPG, it’s painfully apparent that while the basic gameplay is polished and the various encounters and game modes are well-designed, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a game that’s been somewhat crippled by the inherent weaknesses of the genres it’s tried to iterate on – and it doesn’t even deal with those flaws anywhere near as well as the best MMOs or ARPGs do. To a degree that weakness is a deceptive one, of course; during the latter half of my time with it I’ve kept thinking “This isn’t that good, but…”, which is a solid indicator that there’s actually a hell of a lot of work that’s gone on in the background to make it as well-tuned as possible to keep people coming back. It’s equally true, also, that up until you hit endgame Destiny is as fun a shooter experience as you’re likely to have on a console, and if that sounds like it’s your jam then it might be worth it for that alone. Even then it’s a rather empty experience, however, and when you do get to the endgame the true soullessness of what you’re doing comes to the fore; repeatedly running daily missions to get the items required to slowly grind my light level up to 300 is not really my idea of fun. Perhaps it’s yours. I doubt it, though.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts: Destiny

  1. I got this (the pre-DLC edition) on PS3 last year after the marketing hype had died down but people were still saying how great it was. On paper it seemed like it might be fun, but then I got put off by the classes being limited to 3, none of them particularly interesting. I played for around 3 hours or so, and in that time I had one of the most exhilarating gaming moments in recent memory, and one of the most tedious (a boss battle that was a standoff and took 30 minutes). I might have persisted if it weren’t for my inability to aim with a controller, but what really put me off was I had a voice in the back of my head asking myself what the hell I was doing this for, surely there were better things to do with my time, rather than just clock up hours until it became worthwhile.

    Also I could not believe just how bored Peter Dinklage sounded. I thought it was supposed to be some sort of joke, like he was a suicidally depressed robot or something, but apparently not. That’s just the way he read his lines.

    • Hentzau says:

      I’ve fallen out of it now after thirty hours. It was fun enough – Bungie are still arguably the best in the business at console shooters — but I must admit bafflement at my flatmate, who has over six hundred hours invested in the thing. What are you doing it for? Move on, please; there are bigger and better games out there.

      I’m kind of sad I missed Dinklage. That being said I understand his dialogue has been immortalised on Youtube, so I know where to go if ever I find myself in need of a laugh.

  2. Darren says:

    Very surprised to see you cover this. I like the game because of the shooting and trying to dress my Guardian up in nice outfits. I agree about the Raid issues, but if you play with a decent group and have even one person who has done it before, you can dramatically drop the time required, and checkpoints mean you can do a single three-hour raid in three one-hour sessions. I recently joined a few PSN communities that do a reasonable job of filtering out both assholes and idiots (and the dreadful hybrid, the idiotic asshole) to make the more elaborate activities actually fun and manageable.

    My big complaint is that the game has been out for about a year and already huge swathes of content are obsolete (as in the rewards you get are pure garbage now) and, according to Bungie, won’t be updated. So going through the effort for the first two raids or the Prison of Elders gets you nothing you can actually use (save shaders and ships), though these activities can definitely be fun to do.

    So, two things. One: as a scientist, is the depiction of Saturn’s rings at all accurate? It doesn’t seem like that hole would just stay there.

    Two: are you going to look into Beyond Earth: Rising Tide? I assume you’ll give it a thrashing, but I’m quite liking it and haven’t seen a lot of press for it.

    • Hentzau says:

      I think I’m experiencing the best of the game coming into it with the Legendary Edition – had I been playing it for a year, I suspect I’d be far more negative about it than I am here.

      In answer to your questions:

      One: If someone were to hypothetically scoop out a bunch of material from Saturn’s rings then it would eventually fill itself in; however, this would take some time. I don’t want to put a concrete number on it since my solar system physics is a little rusty at this point, but we’re talking at least years for it to start and decades (or even centuries) to completely undo the damage. A bigger problem for me was that just after the hole gets made, there is a cutscene where Oryx shows up on his space-balcony, surveys the damage, and then *flaps away on his space wings*.

      Two: Yes. Tomorrow, in fact.

  3. Gap Gen says:

    One major problem with the jumping from planet to planet is that you spend a non-trivial amount of time in loading screens. Aside from the point you mention where the mechanic prevents the story missions having any kind of coherence.

    I think I’m OK with this being a game I fire up for an hour occasionally and then put away. Pointing at people who don’t look like you and clicking on them is fun enough, but yeah, by making it an MMO they’ve lost the impact that a shorter, tighter experience would have had.

  4. […] I have a somewhat lower opinion of Destiny than the author of that article, which I suspect is why from my point of view Destiny and The Division sit side by side so comfortably. Given how long these games take to make (both of them were in development for half a decade or so) it’d be unfair to accuse The Division of ripping off Destiny entirely, but I’m sure Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment were very much paying attention to the success of Destiny’s MMO-lite metagame trappings that kept players coming back month after month. It may be bolted to a different genre – the third-person shooter, which very much plays to Ubisoft’s strengths since it seems like every damn game they release is a third-person game — but The Division’s metagame is driven almost solely by that drive to do missions and kill bosses to acquire better, shinier loot that’s been the hallmark of the MMO since time immemorial. In terms of implementation it’s a perfectly adequate system, if a little more unpolished and limited than Destiny’s thanks to The Division being a year and a half behind on the development curve. Where The Division falls down, however, is that this system of shooting hordes of generic mooks to get bigger guns makes absolutely no goddamn sense when you transplant the setting from Magic Future-Earth to modern-day NYC — and worse, actually gets more than a little uncomfortable if you stop to think about it for more than a couple of seconds. […]

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