The lone wolf’s last hunt – a Destiny review
So there’s this little game called Destiny. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. No other game in recent memory has had such an enormous, prolonged marketing blitz before launch. And no game has had such a divisive reaction from fans and critics after launch. Is Destiny a soulless failure? Is it the future of gaming? Is it both? Destiny is, perhaps by design, a game that is difficult to love, yet impossible to put down. So forming a coherent opinion on it has been difficult. How do I judge something that, by its creators own admission, is far from complete?
See you starside…
When Bungie signed off of Halo Reach, their last contribution to the Halo universe in September 2010, development on their next game was already well underway. While many have labeled Destiny as a four year project, it has actually existed at Bungie for far longer. Hinted at on podcasts, teased in forum posts, even included as an easter egg in 2009’s Halo 3: ODST, Destiny lurked in the background of Bungie culture for many years before its official unveiling in early 2013. And I obsessed over every scrap of information that managed to leak out. So by the time Destiny actually launched, I felt like I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and I couldn’t wait for my adventure to start.
The world in which Destiny took place was, if anything, even more compelling than the Halo universe Bungie had left behind. Humanity teeters on the brink of extinction, surrounded by the crumbling remains of their civilization that once spanned the solar system. They now huddle together in one last city, built beneath the dead hulk of The Traveler, an immense orb which was the source of mankind’s ascendence, and the cause of its downfall. With The Traveler’s help, humans colonized Venus, built huge cities on mars, and stared out into space, confident that one day, they would journey to other stars. But something out in space stared back. Known only as The Darkness, it followed the Traveler to Earth, and destroyed all that humanity had built. In the end, The Traveler sacrificed itself to drive The Darkness away, leaving the remnants of mankind to pick up the pieces, only to find their once great civilization now occupied by all sorts of vicious alien creatures, determined to extinguish the last, flickering light of the human race. As a Guardian of the City, I would be playing one of Earth’s last warriors, someone with the ability to wield The Traveler’s power, and use it to reclaim what humanity had lost.
Bungie described their new game as a “shared world shooter,” something new that attempted to fill the gulf between single player games and MMOs. While Destiny still included a robust single player campaign, the game was built around the “fireteam,” a three player grouping that would serve as the model for all in-game activities. So important was the fireteam, that it became the face of the game almost immediately. From Destiny’s earliest trailers, the marketing campaign focused entirely on this three person unit, relentlessly driving home the point that Destiny was meant to be experienced with friends. At first, this concerned me quite a bit. While many of my friends would be getting Destiny, we were spread out over 4 different consoles, and an even higher number of timezones. Forming a fireteam with them would be difficult, but my worries were eased by Bungie’s insistence that Destiny would still support their so-called “lone wolf” style of play, which they had been promoting and refining for well over a decade. If I wanted to experience Destiny as a stand alone, single player story, I could do it. Bungie said so.
Still, when I loaded up Destiny for the first time, I was determined to at least give the fireteam a chance. Before I could do that however, I was met with two things rarely seen in a first person shooter: class selection and character creation screens. In the classic role playing tradition of warriors, rogues and mages, Destiny allowed me to choose between three classes: the battle hardened Titan, the sneaky Hunter, and the magical Warlock. The character creator too felt like it belonged in a role playing game, with three races to choose from, and an impressive number of facial customization options.
Following a brief introductory mission, I was whisked off to The Tower, a hub of activity for Guardians that serves as the social and economic center of the game. After exploring the Tower for awhile, I discovered my first major problem Destiny. There was no easy way to form a fireteam. The Tower feels alive, always populated with other players. But they’re all off doing their own thing, buying weapons, upgrading armor, taking on bounties, climbing trees, dancing on flagpoles, you know… Guardian stuff. There’s no way to know if any of them are interested in joining a fireteam unless you ask them, and that can be tricky. There’s no proximity chat, and no way to advertise that I was looking for a group, so asking a fellow Guardian to join my team required me to approach one who was standing still, or pick one from a list of Guardians who were nearby. I then had to navigate a series of menu boxes, and send them an invite. Only after they accepted my invite would a chat option become available, at which point they would all invariably not be interested in replaying a mission they had already completed, and they would leave. They had other things to do, you see. Other missions to complete, other goals to reach. This problem could have been resolved with a matchmaking system that paired up individuals who were looking to conquer the same missions, but there was no such system to be found. I found it troubling that, after putting so much emphasis on the fireteam, Bungie wouldn’t include an efficient way to form one. The exclusion of campaign matchmaking was made even more baffling by the fact that Bungie’s last game, Halo Reach, included it. But no matter, I thought. I’d just go it alone, lone wolf style. So I did. And for awhile, Destiny was everything I had hoped for.
Eyes up, Guardian…
Destiny’s story begins on Earth, but doesn’t stay there very long. Soon, I was setting foot on the Moon, splashing through the bubbling cauldrons of Venus, and looking out onto the windswept dunes of Mars. If not quite scientifically accurate, the landscapes still evoked a strong sense of place, perfectly capturing what these worlds looked like in my childhood imagination, and I spent a considerable amount of time just walking around, marveling at the artistry on display. I was constantly surrounded by the desolate remains of humanity’s once great civilization, and the feelings of loss evoked by the solemn beauty were quite palpable at times. From watching the Earth slowly rotate through a hole in the roof of a decimated moon colony, to finding a single screen flickering on and off in an abandoned subway on Mars, from the massive to the minutiae, Destiny’s environments told quite a story, when I bothered to stop and have a look around. But who has time for quiet contemplation when there are aliens to stab in the face?
The combat in Destiny is, without a doubt, the game’s strongest asset. It is that classic Bungie style of first person carnage, tweaked and refined to a borderline ridiculous level of polish. While most modern shooters emphasize a linear, cover-hopping style of combat, Bungie has always favored more adventurous forms of gunplay. Battles in Destiny unfolded more like a ballet, with enemies darting and weaving across the battlefield, constantly enticing me to change up my strategy. While there were plenty of times I had to run for cover while my health recharged, more often than not, I was running full speed into battle, strafing and jumping, dodging and sliding, unleashing headshots and special charged attacks with glee. There’s a fluid, almost acrobatic feel to the controls in Destiny, like dancing a tight rope, yet somehow knowing I wasn’t going to fall. The weapons all had a hefty, substantial feel to them, and their variety made fine tuning the perfect loadout to fit my play style a breeze. Destiny’s combat empowered me, urged me to take the fight to the enemy, and made me feel like there was no foe too powerful to take down. Deaths were rare, and never cheap. They just made me want to get better.
Another reason why Destiny’s combat excelled was the near complete absence of anything that might’ve gotten in the way of the fun. The HUD taught a master’s course in simplicity, simultaneously conveying all the information I needed to know, while never taking up enough screen to become a nuisance. A third “heavy” weapon slot had been added to Bungie’s classic two weapon system, meaning I would never have to agonize over leaving that rocket launcher behind again. I was also able to carry my entire arsenal around with me. If I felt like switching from handcannon to pulse rifle, or rocket launcher to machine gun, all it took was a couple menu clicks, and they materialized in my hands. And if I didn’t feel like walking to a destination, I could even conjure a hoverbike out of thin air. It was as if Bungie had eliminated any distractions that could have gotten in between me, and the combat I was so thoroughly enjoying.
Destiny’s combat wasn’t only fun, it gave me stuff too. Every kill in Destiny earns XP, and the game quickly put me on a fairly comfortable path of leveling up, unlocking new abilities, and acquiring new weapons and gear. There were so many missions to do, and so much sweet loot to collect, that I didn’t really pay attention to another of the game’s major shortcomings until about halfway through the campaign. I was flying up to the moon again in my sleek little spaceship, and my robot buddy/boss was going on and on about some place called the Shrine of Oryx. It was at that moment when the troubling thought that had been simmering in the back of my mind for hours finally boiled over. I had practically no sense of who I was, what I was doing, or why I was doing it.
You’re going to see a lot of things you won’t understand…
Destiny begins with an evocative, brilliantly executed opening cinematic. It tells the story of mankind’s discovery of the Traveler, of their ascendence, and of their downfall with a poetic grace. Striking a perfectly somber yet hopeful tone, it sets up the events of Destiny so well, even the most jaded among us would be moved, at least a little bit.
And then my Ghost showed up.
The Ghost is Destiny’s version of Cortana, an AI companion that directed and guided me through the game, offering encouragement and witty observations along the way. But where the relationship between Halo’s Cortana and John 117 gave the story an emotional core, no such nucleus existed in Destiny. My Guardian was a reanimated automaton whose sole purpose was to follow the Ghost’s orders: take me here, go there, kill those aliens, wait while I scan something, kill that really big alien. Wet, lather, rinse, repeat. But why I was doing all those things was never made remotely clear. I simply had to because… reasons. Darkness, or something. The farther I progressed in the game, the more I felt detached. I was surrounded by some of the most beautifully realized environments I had ever seen, playing some of the most rewarding combat I had ever played, yet there was no heart tying it all together. Pardon the cliche, but it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
After the last boss had been defeated, and the final cutscene played, instead of pride or joy or satisfaction, the only emotion I felt was confusion. I had obviously done something great. The Sun was shining, people were cheering, someone was making a speech. But in all honesty, I had no clue what I had done, or why it was so important. But the Darkness had been stopped, apparently. For now. Go me.
Some of the confusion was helped by reading the Grimoire cards, unlockable extras that I collected throughout the campaign. Much like Halo’s terminals, Grimoire fill in some of the backstory, provide a bit of motivation for the game’s many enemy races, and give otherwise two dimensional characters some much needed depth. But unlike the terminals, Grimoire cannot be read while in the game. They can only be accessed by logging into Bungie’s website, or through Destiny’s companion mobile app. This made no sense to me, and felt like a step backwards. Why add such a barrier to understanding Destiny’s story? Why make an already frustrated audience jump through such hoops? At best, it seemed lazy.
Even with the extra knowledge provided by the Grimoire, playing Destiny’s campaign still felt like watching the first five minutes of Star Wars, then skipping right to the battle of Yavin…
Oh wow a fascinating new science fiction universe, and it looks like evil is really kicking the crap out of good, and there’s an annoying robot, and whoaaaa another space battle, what is that giant scary looking ball they’re fighting, oh it exploded, yaaaaay everyone’s super happy. Credits.
Except when Destiny’s story ends, the credits don’t even play. After the game’s finale, my Guardian was simply dumped back into the game world, as if nothing had happened. I had no feeling of accomplishment, no sense of purpose, no eagerness to see what else the game had to offer. Destiny, as a single player story, simply doesn’t work.
Guardians are fighting on Earth, and beyond. Join them…
An argument can be made that the story of Destiny was never about my Guardian. It’s about the world my Guardian lives in, which might be why Bungie put so much effort into creating a compelling, beautifully crafted world, while seemingly not caring all that much about writing a coherent narrative. Add to that, the fact that Destiny doesn’t really end. The game world persists, still full of aliens waiting to get slaughtered. All I needed was a reason to go slaughter them.
Destiny has a soft level cap of 20, which I reached before the campaign was even finished, through the help of XP boosting “bounties” and side quests. When I hit the cap, my progress bar along the bottom of the screen suddenly vanished. While I could still earn XP to unlock class, weapon and armor upgrades, if I wanted to level up my Guardian, I would have to seek out rare armor infused with light.
Yeah, “light.” You know… the power of the Traveler, or something. It’s a Destiny thing.
I wanted to keep leveling up because most of Destiny’s post-campaign gameplay required it. There was the already infamous Vault of Glass raid, which required a minimum rank of 26. And then there were the high level cooperative “strike” missions (basically mini raids) which were designed for levels 22 and above. So I was faced with a choice: either keep leveling, or put the game down and walk away. Even though the story had been a disappointment, I wasn’t ready to give up on a game I had waiting years to play. So onward I went.
In Destiny, armor (as well as weapons) fall into five categories of increasing rarity and strength: basic, uncommon, rare, legendary and exotic. Any piece of armor rare or better has a chance of containing light. The higher the light value, the quicker I could rise above level 20. I could either purchase the armor from Tower vendors, earn it in special game modes, or find it by chance in a random loot drop. All three of those options, however, proved problematic at best.
By the time I had completed Destiny’s campaign, I had accumulated quite a bit of “glimmer,” Destiny’s primary in-game currency. I figured, surely, I would be able to afford a few pieces of legendary armor. How foolish I was. Like an MMO, Destiny’s economy is far more complex than it first appears. High level vendors only accept their own special currency, and won’t even let you shop in their stores until you’ve earned enough reputation with them. Take the Vanguard, for example. To buy a piece of armor infused with light from the Vanguard, I needed 120 Vanguard Marks, with Vanguard missions paying out between 2 and 6 marks each. That’s a whole lot of missions, just for one piece of armor. But wait, it gets better. To buy the armor, not only did I need the marks, but I also had to attain a Vanguard rank of 2 or higher, which required earning thousands of reputation points. This meant I would have to slog through an entirely separate set of missions to earn reputation.
That was just the Vanguard. The Crucible, Destiny’s competitive multiplayer arena, featured its own system of currency and reputation, which could only be earned by competing (and excelling) in PvP matches. Then there were the Factions, groups of shady characters who fought for the allegiance of Guardians. They also had light-infused armor for sale, but once again, you could only buy them after earning reputation. Vanguard, Crucible, and Faction reputation had to all be earned separately. Having only a few hours of free time a day, I was facing weeks of grinding just to buy one piece of armor. I would need many pieces of very rare, very expensive armor to reach the higher levels required to participate in Destiny’s end-game raids and strikes.
Bungie did provide a bit of a shortcut: the daily and weekly “heroic” missions. These activities took the form of strikes and campaign missions, with special modifiers activated to increase the difficulty. What made them enticing was that they paid out both currency and reputation. This was the answer, I thought. The way around grinding out dozens of missions over and over. There was just one problem. As a lowly level 20, heroic missions were nearly impossible to complete on my own. I needed a fireteam. But once again, I was met with a roadblock. While normal strikes featured matchmaking, heroic strikes did not. Neither did the heroic story missions. So just as before, I was on my own, forced to wander around, approaching other players at random, hoping to find someone who was looking to play the same mission I was.
The limited nature of matchmaking in Destiny has become such an issue that numerous fan made websites have sprung up attempting to solve the problem. Sites like That Wizard Came From the Moon and Destiny LFG offer players the chance to link up with each other, and set times to play high level missions together. As helpful as these fan made solutions are, they can’t address the core problem. Destiny needs more matchmaking, or at least an easier way to seek out players who share the same goals.
So buying my armor wouldn’t be possible for awhile. Taking on the heroic missions wasn’t an option. The only chance I had at acquiring the light infused armor I needed was through a random loot drop. Every time an enemy is killed in Destiny, there is a chance it will drop something called an engram. An engram is a large glowing ball, shaped a bit like a quaffle, which contains encrypted information. Engrams come in three varieties: uncommon, rare, and legendary. Uncommon engrams drop quite often, rares perhaps once a mission, while legendaries are exceedingly rare. Bringing engrams to a special vendor known as the Cryptarch allowed them to be decoded into items like weapons and armor. Seemed simple enough, right? What could possibly go wrong?
The problem was that the Cryptarch didn’t seem to notice what kind of engram I brought him. He turned my rare armor engrams into crafting material. He decoded my legendary weapon engrams into rare weapons that I already had. And even if the Cryptarch managed to reward me with legendary armor, I only had a one in three chance of it actually being usable. Legendary armor is class specific, you see, and the Cryptarch didn’t seem to care what class I was. It was infuriating, and it made me question why I was even bothering. Why waste hours grinding through missions I had already played numerous times, hoping for a legendary engram, just to have it turned into something useless? It was as if Destiny was punishing me for continuing to play. Thankfully, for this one issue, it looks like a fix is on the way. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Destiny shipped with a fundamentally broken loot system.
All of this added up to create a post-campaign experience that was more frustrating than satisfying.
It was the end of everything, but also a beginning…
A disjointed, uninspiring story. A bizarre lack of matchmaking in some game modes. An overly complicated economy that requires a huge time investment. A broken, punishing reward system. After nearly three weeks of play, Destiny felt like a lackluster effort in many ways. Despite Bungie’s assurances, it is not a single player game. Yes, it can be played alone, but that’s like saying you can drive a car in first gear. It’ll run. but you won’t get very far. Without a large group of friends who play Destiny regularly, the game is a long, lonely journey that I have trouble recommending. And yet, I’m still playing. Whether it’s carving through a wave of Fallen for the hundredth time, or looking out over The Last City, watching the skybox transition from day to night, I keep finding ways to make Destiny fun, in spite of the game’s many flaws. But why should I bother?
Perhaps it is the fact that Destiny is just the beginning of a ten year journey. Multiple expansions and sequels are on the way, and Bungie has promised a continuous flow of new content to keep players interested. Perhaps it is the undeniably romantic premise of the game. We’ve all experienced loss in our lives. We’ve all dreamed of the chance to get back something special that was taken away. In Destiny, the human race has been given that chance. And while the narrative never takes advantage of the setting’s emotional capital, it at least provides the foundation for more (hopefully better) stories to be told in the future. Or maybe it’s just my stubborn belief that all of Destiny’s missteps were, for some unknowable reason, made on purpose. While Bungie has seen the departure of some key personnel recently, the studio didn’t simply forget how to tell a story. A smart part of me is still hopeful that there is a master plan at work in Destiny, and that the confusion and frustration I’m feeling now is only a temporary side effect of Bungie’s grand design.
For its stunning artwork and flawless combat, Destiny deserves a 10. For its insipid storytelling and punishing economy, it deserves a 4. So I’ll take the average, and give it a 7 out of 10.