Destiny is quite possibly the most ambitious console game we have seen, other than Grand Theft Auto V. Quite the statement I know, especially given what you have already read elsewhere. The traditional review calls for positives followed by negatives and then a summary. But I think what is needed more is some objective input on those negatives that we’ve heard.
The first thing I will mention though is the story. It is not very good and, despite everything I’m about to point out, it is fragmented too much in its linear progression to hold the attention of you, the player, during the minimal times where we get expositional dialogue. The exposition is garbled and that is because it is trying to convey a lot of information and lore far too quickly. It makes Peter Dinklage’s Ghost sound as apathetic as Robert Webb doing TV advert voiceovers. It sadly makes Bill Nighy as wooden as Michael Gambon’s Gandal-Doore Prophet in Elder Scrolls Online. But once again, out of all the well-known voices in this game, it is Bungie regular Nathan Fillion of Firefly/Castle/Halo fame providing some amusing and enjoyable sound bytes.
In its defence however, and I suppose to play devils advocate a bit, Destiny’s story is a very complex and intriguing experiment in creating a universe, not a linear narrative story. The company that brought us many Halo’s will always have a torch held against it to produce compelling single player narrative. This game doesn’t actually set out to do that except for establishing you in its universe. The stories are your own to make and whilst the back drop of galactic war and Dune-esque family creepiness in the Awoken give you a sense of a history, the game leaves you completely in charge of how you experience it. Which is quite the gamble when you think about it, but it works once you’ve leveled up enough to get some good gaming time with your friends. It’s also worth pointing out that I cannot think of an original MMO IP which has a decent story or hint of a narrative. Remember, the Warcraft universe had been going for 10 years before WoW. Lord of The Rings, Elder Scrolls, D&D, Star Trek, even DC Universe, all had long established canon and lore before an MMO license came along.
What I’m saying is, yes the story is a bit droll and lacks any kind of empathy to its characters. But it isn’t designed to do that from what I can tell. It’s not an excuse for lackluster dialogue though, which I’m sure is hurting Dinklage as much as it is the creative team at Bungie.
The universe that they have created is visually spectacular. Bungie’s application of lighting and atmospherics has never been in question, regardless of if you liked or disliked Halo. The next generation of consoles finally has a champion of graphical power and beauty. Little inclusions that you’d never think about make this game incredibly immersive. If you’re on the moon and you look at the International Space Station debris long enough, you’ll see a few satellites flying over. You’ll also see the Earth experience its dynamic night/day cycle. The Mercury Crucible map is a great example of a map with real environmental challenges and a glorious Sun enveloping the landscape. Venus’s terraformed world with its abandoned buildings are a thing that Bungie have done for a long time, and they excel at it here. The difference between the Xbox One and PS4 versions is negligible even to the tech wizards at Digital Foundry, thanks to the freedom of memory from Kinect. It is, in a word, beautiful.
Of course you end up playing little games to yourself as well, exploring the world and trying to find little things that amuse you. I like to listen to the soundtrack, which has Marty O’Donnell all over it, and try and find where new composers have tried to make their mark. They haven’t. O’Donnell’s trademark use of soft brass instruments with choral arrangements and string based tension heighteners, completely eclipse the other music in the game, despite their efforts sounding like a decent homage to Murray Gold’s Doctor Who work. But the sound design itself is incredible. The guns sound amazing and sometimes it’s chaotic and frenetic trying to have a party chat whilst the destruction around you is filling the audio channels. My favourite part so far is not only discovering that your Swallow has a reverse warning noise like a car, but that when one goes past you like that, you get a Doppler effect from it. It’s some amazing attention to detail.
The game itself is an experimental hybrid between MMO, RPG and FPS that few have achieved. Borderlands does, without the scale of the online element, Call of Duty does, without the RPG element. Destiny, in my opinion from the game play point of view, completely achieves the fusion they were looking for. Vast areas to explore with different enemies, excellent replay value, well designed multiplayer modes and levels, fun to use guns and an excellent leveling system that allows you to really play your own way and use what you want to achieve that. The quest for Legendary and Exotic items will keep people playing more than they’ll admit and from that point of view, Bungie have got the basics of this game nailed.
The criticisms of the game though are well known and, I hope, easily addressed. The 3-person size fire team limit is too small. But the Crucible can handle a 6-person fireteam and the maps handle multiple teams, so I’m sure that the number of people can be increased. Even if it is by one, that’d still be great. I’d like to add another niggle though and that’s the lack of loadouts. The difference in the style of play between levels, and the PvE to PvP modes, are great and allow you to use multiple weapons effectively for different things. But the inability to save a set of weapons and quickly change to them is a pain. Especially when you forget and have to spend about a minute standing still and change them over in game, losing your secondary weapon’s special ammo. In fact this is quite the oversight to the mode.
A further criticism, and this ties back in with the story and the lore, is the enemies, namely the amount of them. There are essentially five different races in the game: The Guardians, The Fallen, The Hive, The Vex and The Cabal. This really doesn’t help in progressing the already confusing narrative and lore. Which one came first? Who is the worst? Who is wiping out who? Why do they give a toss about The Traveler or Earth? It’s hinted that there were pre-human structures on Venus that were being investigated before the collapse. So a timeline of the universe as the story goes on gets sketchier and sketchier, and a race could possibly have been cut out if I’m honest.
You’ll also find a lot of parables in the enemies and the way to play against them that are incredibly reminiscent of Halo. The Hive are the new Flood, Cursed Thralls are suicide Grunts, The Vex take traits of the Flood’s Hive Mind, The Cabal’s Phalanx’s are defeated in the same way as Halo’s Jackal’s, a Cabal Centurion is a Hunter, and it seems that every race at every point are using Forerunner-esque ancient structures. The visual designs are great though. The enemies look very cool. I love the way the Vex Goblins feel like Terminators with their red eyes and keep coming whilst beheaded. And the shift of weak points does keep you on your toes, even if the AI doesn’t after a while. The Vex themselves also feel like Bungie looked at Halo 4’s Promethean units and sneakily thought that they could do a lot better, which they have.
The thing is with Destiny and the plan for the game is that it is fluid. It is going to be constantly in flux and added and expanded upon. The end game, despite some repetitive grinding, is intriguing and rewarding. The whole game is especially rewarding with friends in the same way that Halo’s co-op campaigns were. What Destiny lacks in compelling narrative and confusing lore is certainly compensated in the short term by its beauty, its size and its scope. In the long term, the expansions and extras may make more sense of the very in depth and expositional lore we have already and keep the gameplay just as entertaining and enthralling as the “just one more round” addictiveness they currently have. It is by no means perfect and as consumers, critics, hype revelers, gamers, lovers of Bungie; we expect a lot, possibly too much. But for what Destiny is, a successful cross over of massively online multiplayer, role playing and first person shooter genres set in a hybrid science fiction and fantasy universe with mind blowing graphics and atmosphere, it is the most ambitious console game we’ve seen, other than Grand Theft Auto V. Certainly that is something to experience and that is something for Bungie to be proud of.
What Bungie have set out to achieve has largely been successful. The game combines the Role Playing levelling element of fantasy MMO’s with its own take on online open worlds and blending in their expertise with art, audio, level design and first person shooters. Sadly that is at the cost of their normally excellent narrative style.
– Visually spectacular
– Successfully fuses genres
– Amazing online experience
– Confusing narrative and set up
– Too many enemy races
– Team size limit too small
Why a 7.5?
The story isn’t great, but we’ve played a lot worse. The success is the fusion of genres, the ambition behind it and the beauty of its worlds. A triumph and an excellent showcase of what the new consoles can do, even if it is narratively lacking.