Destiny is a beautiful but hollow experience with most of the pieces you'd expect from a great multiplayer shooter. It just can't find a way to fit them all together.
Published 12 September 2014 By Jeff
Destiny is a terrific-looking first-person shooter with a solid foundation in its shooting mechanics. You might expect sound mechanics from a developer like Bungie, which has been making popular first-person shooters for years. But you might also expect things like an engaging story and a real variety in encounters from the developers responsible for Halo. That's where Destiny comes up profoundly short. When you throw it all together, you're left with a game where the missions are designed to be repeatable, but all the missions are so repetitive that it's hard to get excited to see the same handful of environments again and again and again as you attempt to grind out faction reputation or hunt around for high-end weapons. It's a beautiful game, but a hollow experience.
The setting in Destiny is that humanity is already in dire straits. Darkness has spread throughout the galaxy and numerous factions, like the bug-like Hive and the murderous robots known as the Vex, are planning to put humanity out the picture for good. You enter the picture as a guardian of humanity, one of many, and you're sent out from the last city to attack back against the encroaching forces. This starts on Earth, then moves to the Moon before heading on to Venus and, finally, Mars. The story missions themselves are the bulk of Destiny. But "story" is maybe giving the missions a little too much credit. You'll get a little dialogue before you start a mission that says what you're doing, and maybe a few lines along the way. But Destiny is incredibly thin on world-building, story, and in-game lore, even going so far as hiding little bits of lore on unlockable "cards" that you can only see on the game's official website. There are somewhere around four cutscenes in the entire game, and most of the mid-mission updates are so full of space opera mumbo-jumbo and factions or other groups that you haven't heard of before, giving you no context for any of it. It's almost like they expect to flesh out the world in a series of books someday or something. Regardless of future plans, I found it hard to care about any of the lore in Destiny because there was very little of it and it all felt loosely connected, at best. Did I really accomplish anything when I finished the last story mission? It sure doesn't feel that way to me. If you were a fan of Bungie's narrative work in the past, you'll probably be disappointed with this aspect of Destiny.
The story missions also suffer due to incredibly repetitive design. With one or two exceptions, every mission has you running to an area (often backtracking through areas you played through in a previous mission), finding an old or alien computer of some kind, and dispatching your friendly robotic ghost buddy to scan or analyze the thing so you can move on. Plenty of missions end with you finding a thing, having your hover ghost stare at it while you fight off waves of enemies, and then listening to a few sentences of largely meaningless dialogue. The menu is built in a way that seems to imply that you'd want to play through these areas multiple times and on multiple difficulty settings, but since most of the missions fail to distinguish themselves from one-another, I found myself feeling completely done with Destiny immediately after completing the final story piece.
Those story missions can be played by up to three players, and it's my strong recommendation that you don't play Destiny alone. Going in, guns blazing, as a team is far more enjoyable than going it alone, especially once you get to the back half of a mission, which typically places you in a restricted zone where, if all players die, the game resets back to a checkpoint. You can revive downed players or, in these zones, players can respawn themselves after 30 seconds. Having someone lend you a hand and keeping things moving is way more exciting than dying alone and having to reset back to try again. Unfortunately, you are forced to bring friends and acquaintances into story missions--there's no form of matchmaking to line you up with other players automatically. This seems like a needlessly restrictive move.
By comparison, the game's competitive multiplayer allows for matchmaking, as do the cooperative "strike" missions. The competitive side of Destiny pits players against each other in a series of standard shooter multiplayer modes and typically flattens the level differences between players in an attempt to keep things fair. It's nice that you can level up your character in the game's multiplayer arenas, and you'll also earn a bunch of other, alternate currency and reputation that can be used to buy high-end gear. But I found the competitive side of the game to feel like even more of a grind than its cooperative side. It's lacking the inventiveness and playful nature of Halo's crazier multiplayer modes.
Strikes are longer player-versus-AI missions that allow up to three players to fight through a set area and face off against large bosses. The bosses in the game's strikes are larger than anything you'll see in the story, but most of the time the strategy boils down to spreading out around the large boss and shooting. As the different characters pull the attention of the boss, it'll slowly turn to fire, letting the other two players open up unabated. Since ammo ends up becoming a consideration, all the boss fights are also filled with regular enemies, who will drop ammo and, very occasionally, gear.
The loot situation in Destiny is weird. On one hand, you can equip armor to a handful of slots and acquire different weapons for your three weapon slots. On the other, the statistical differences between different pieces of loot don't make a meaningful difference to the way the game plays. You might find a fully automatic rifle that has a higher damage number than your old one, but aside from some occasional differences in muzzle climb, magazine size, and other small variances, it's the same as the auto rifle you're replacing. Compared with other loot games, which might have lightning firing out of you at all times or cows that sometimes descend from the heavens to do battle alongside you, Destiny's loot system feels half-baked.
With its treasure-hunting reduced to a mere quest for higher numbers, the desire to go in and replay areas and strikes to find better loot is severely diminished. Even though some weapons get secondary abilities that might make reloading times faster with certain classes of weapons or some armor might let you throw grenades farther, nothing made such a major difference that I ever felt attached to a piece of gear. With that, the whole leveling system starts to fall apart. You equip better gear to remain competitive, but enemies that are at your level will always feel like they can really soak up some bullets. The boss fights, most of which are against lumbering, slow enemies that deal a ton of damage, exacerbate this issue even further. It gets boring.
It's a real shame, too, because for as lackluster as the actual action and progression can be, Destiny's world looks fantastic. The art team on this thing must have had a field day designing cool-looking helmets, capes, and other bits of armor. The areas you're shooting through might be repetitive in nature, but each one has a real look of its own that makes it stand out, from the craggy surface of the Moon to the burnt-out colony on Venus to the wide-open sands of Mars. The game has terrific lighting, with great shadows that cast off of your team and the enemies. I found myself able to use the shadows tactically in a couple of spots, as enemy locations would sometimes be given away by their own shadow. And, of course, no one can do a sky box quite like Bungie. It's an impressive-looking game that, at least, is a joy to explore the first time through, if only to see each of the game's different areas and look at all the detail.
But, yeah, its fantastic graphics often serve to make the game's mechanical underpinnings that much more disappointing. There are cool little flashes of brilliance in Destiny, but a lot of it feels like a game designed by people who weren't sure what sort of game they were designing. Is it a loot shooter? Sort of, but the loot isn't very good. Is it an MMO? No, but you'll occasionally encounter other players out in the field. A story-driven shooter like the Halo franchise? Sure, if you don't mind digging through the developer's website to find those little bits of lore. Clans? Again, they exist on the website but don't surface in-game in a meaningful way. The pieces are there, but too many of them feel malformed or half-realized to make Destiny recommendable. If you're interested in this sort of game, you may wish to wait and see what Bungie does in the months ahead before spending any money.