Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Developed by Bungie
Published by Activision
Genre MMOFPS (massively multiplayer online first person shooter)
Platform Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3
Let's get straight to it. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably have at least heard of Destiny. This is the newest game from developer Bungie, best known for the all-conquering Halo series, which they created and curated up until Halo 4.
Destiny is the developer's first new project since quitting Halo, so naturally this one has garnered a lot of attention from those wondering if Bungie have got another runaway hit on their hands. This also marks the start of a new collaborative relationship between Bungie and publisher Activision, who, to put it mildly, are not the most popular company with fans. A publisher with a reputation of short-changing consumers at the expense of the quality of their games may not seem like the ideal bedfellow, but they have the money, and to realize their vision for Destiny Bungie are going to need a lot of it.
Destiny is being billed as one of the biggest launches of all time, with funding to the tune of $500 million, an unprecedentedly large advertising campaign for a completely new IP, and bells-and-whistles that include a score and theme song written by Sir Paul McCartney, a separate iPhone companion app, and the vocal talents of Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage. It is bizarre then, considering the vast resources that have gone into this game, that almost no one seems to have had any idea what the game actually was before it came out. This has not been helped by Bungie imposing a review blackout on all media until after launch day (an act that should always set off alarm bells - they want people to buy the game without knowing if it's any good?).
So what is Destiny? Well much has been made of how the game mixes a variety of different genres, or doesn't fit into any particular genre, or creates a whole new genre, but that's all nonsense. Destiny is an MMOFPS (gesundheit, massively multiplayer online first person shooter). It looks and plays like a first person shooter, it's set in an always online multiplayer environment that requires an internet connection, and the story and mission structure is almost identical to that of any other MMO.
It's true that much of the focus is on solo play through the main story content, with multiplayer aspects coming in elsewhere (non-story missions and hub worlds are shared between players, and there is dedicated pvp content), but this is also true of a lot of MMOs. The reason for all this genre muddling talk is that Bungie have understandably tried to play down the game's MMO qualities, a genre largely associated with World of Warcraft and similar titles, that carries a lot of stigma and puts off a lot of players. It's a marketing move and nothing more, just be clear on what you're getting into before you buy.
The pre-release buzz talked about epic sci-fi story and character driven content along the lines of Star Wars or Mass Effect. This has manifested in the game's tagline "Become Legend", the focus being very much on allowing the player to create their own unique character to take on this adventure (and subsequent games, utilizing a Mass Effect style of save progression), while there was much talk about the effort being put into creating a rich and heavily detailed world full of the mythology and the internal logic that holds together the very franchises from which Destiny takes inspiration.
At the same time Bungie has been keen to hype up it's social and online features while steering clear of calling the game an MMO (see above), while a great deal of emphasis in the game has also been placed on "loot" acquisition in the style of a Borderlands or Diablo type game.
Destiny is trying to paint itself as all things to all people, and the lack of any clear description of how these disparate parts fit together should have been the second alarm bell.
Gameplay and Presentation
So first the good. The shooting mechanics are excellent. Smooth, satisfying shooter gameplay that takes many of the elements that Bungie helped invent with the Halo series that has now become standard in the genre, and refines it to near perfection. Shooting someone has never been so much fun.
All that Activision money has been put to good use in polishing the game's presentation. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on the new-gen consoles, full of vivid, imaginative settings and beautiful effects. It sounds a treat too with McCartney's wonderful score and dynamic music.
Then there's the loot system, which is both rewarding and addictive, giving players motivation to go back through old levels in order to develop and upgrade their gear and weapons. The ultimate focus of Destiny is very much on taking your unique character and creating your own story, and to this end the loot and gear system allows for a very satisfying level of customization, both with appearance and also function.
The problem with Destiny is that the player is rarely given any explanation or motivation as to why or what they should do beyond this constant search for shinier toys.
The mission objectives are almost completely arbitrary: looking for person A? Well then we need to go to location B and find item C. Why? No idea, none of it really fits together or follows any logic, it's just something to keep you busy. In much the same spirit the missions almost all play the same: go to the next room, face a series of waves of bad guys you have to kill before you can continue, go to the next room and repeat.
These problems are exacerbated by how short the story content is in the game. To beat the later story missions you need to be at a high level, but there simply aren't that many story missions. Instead the only way to progress is to grind the same missions over and over again to level up. Then when the story missions are done, the game literally becomes entirely about grinding the same levels repeatedly in order to get better guns, better armor. That might be motivation for some, but for The Ephemeric it seems shallow and disappointingly repetitive. It's a lot of fun to begin with, but gets old really quickly.
Fortunately the multiplayer keeps things fresh, but ultimately the only way the game is ever going to motivate us to keep playing is if they add on more new content. And while we're on the subject of content...
Story and Characters
The much talked about story and character is non-existent. There are maybe one or two characters in the game aside from the one you create and none of them show any form of development. The only meaningful relationship in the entire game is the one between Peter Dinklage's robot character "Ghost" (henceforth referred to as "Dinklebot") and the player.
There are very few cutscenes in the entire game with which to drive the story along, basically the only context or background you are given for a particular mission comes in the form of a (generally badly written) three second speech from Dinklebot read out over the loading screen as you begin the mission. Even these fleeting moments of exposition seem to be truncated, bringing in concepts and plot points from out of nowhere, almost as if there's a scene missing somewhere.
What few cutscenes there are appear to come out of nowhere in a completely disjointed fashion. You finish one of the early missions in Old Russia and then as if by magic you've entered a big hall you've never seen before and started talking to someone called "The Speaker", a character you've never even heard about before this point, as if it was completely normal. You will find yourself experiencing a lot of these "was there a scene missing or something?" moments. It's just a very basic lack of narrative flow or cinematic polish, which is hard to explain considering the great amount of polish elsewhere. It's honestly like someone took an axe to a completed game and chopped half of it out before launch.
Destiny was supposed to be deep and immersive, but as much as we wanted to it's just impossible to really get into this world. Outside of the missions there is one hub area, but it's completely devoid of life. There are a variety of NPC (non-player characters) standing around, but you can't talk to them, you can't find out any information about who they are or develop any rapport. There is literally no dialogue with these characters, they serve only as a fancy menu interface through which to buy items. Again, it's just a very basic failure of world-building. There's also all these factions and groups around the world of which you can become members and buy stuff from, but there's no info about who these people are or why you would want to join them. Heck you'd never even know they existed unless you wandered aimlessly around the hub area and stumbled upon them by accident.
It doesn't help that the in-game story and dialogue is generally badly written, Mass Effect this ain't. Bungie parted company with their head writer about halfway through the game's development and it really shows. Halo was hardly Shakespeare, but it's a masterpiece of writing compared to Destiny.
The truly strange thing is that all these characters and factions and locations have background story, you can read all about it in the iPhone companion app in the form of "grimoire" cards, and it's detailed and often interesting, so why is absolutely none of it presented in the game?
It's also worth pointing out that the plot is extremely incomplete. A few different plot threads are started, few get a chance to go anywhere significant before the game's content runs out. Bungie says that the plan is to keep updating the game with further story content after release, but it's as yet unclear whether this is going to be frequent, or whether it will be free or paid. We can imagine a lot of people will be pissed if they buy a largely incomplete game, and are then expected to pay extra to buy the bulk of the core content later on.
What's really hard to understand is how different the end product we see is to what was shown off even a year ago in previews. Whole features and locations that were mentioned appear to have been removed. Practically none of the story that has been created for this game has actually been implemented.
It's clear that at some point during development the scope and ambition of this game drastically changed. Destiny changed from a spectacularly ambitious Mass Effect-esque story-based game into a repetitive Diablo-esque loot-farming dungeon crawler. Is this perhaps the influence of the publisher, taking the game in a less artistic direction to make something aimed more at the app-gaming crowd? Recent word from insiders suggests this to be the reason the lead writer quit, it has also been rumored that the aforementioned "grimoire" story cards were written all in the last few months after it became apparent that none of the background was going to be in game. Whatever the true story, whatever the reasons, the end result is the same.
Destiny is a fun shooter at its core, with well honed mechanics, but builds absolutely nothing on those foundations. The much hyped immersive world is a bizarrely incomplete shell of it's potential. It feels like a very early beta version of a game, with far too much of its content missing. Something has clearly gone wrong behind the scenes during development, and now Bungie have a lot of work on their hands if they are to turn it around.