Reviews

Destiny Review – It’s Your Destiny To Grind…And Grind…And Grind

Boxshot Wizard file used for creating global boxshots

Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Bungie
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Like a proverbial fireball from the heavens Destiny has arrived in a blaze of high sales and fire, but not before the deadly and dangerous hype train pulled into the station in order to deliver the preachers spouting their nonsense, coaxing the people to believe that the fire would be great and amazing and Earth changing. All hail the cleansing fire.

That was a terrible opening paragraph, but I’ve ranted against the utter insanity of the artificial hype machine many times before and Destiny is just the latest game to suffer under its mighty weight. Nothing could ever hope to come even close to living up to the standards the media and Activision created for Destiny, and things weren’t helped by the developers being none other than Bungie, the creators of Halo. Destiny was their first foray outside of Master Chief in a long time, their chance to prove that they were not just one-hit wonders. But then, I’ve talked about that, too. The point is, does it live up to the hype? No. Is it a great game? No. But it’s still worth playing. Disappointing is not the same thing as bad, after all.

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The first thing is figuring out what Destiny wants to be. Bungie have clearly stated that it’s not an MMO, and indeed Destiny never has a player count remotely high enough to be considered “massive” in any sense of the word, but it does have the multiplayer and online parts down. IN fact, Destiny can’t be taken offline or it will simply not work. Still, that doesn’t help us pinpoint what Destiny is in order to review it correctly. Bungie have used the term “shared-world shooter” when describing the game, and that seems accurate. It’s an FPS with RPG elements, a randomized loot system and emphasis on social interaction, and borrows heavily from the MMO design template, even if it isn’t one itself.

More than anything, Destiny resembles Halo, a fact that may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you feel about the series, but what can be said with a relative degree of certainty is that if you enjoyed the adventures of Master Chief there’s a good chance you’ll have fun with Destiny. The looming shadow of Halo can be seen in the combat most strongly, but also in the floating AI companion that’s with you every step of the wall, the design of the armour, the way enemies move, the handling of vehicles, the multiplayer and even in the way you move. For their first foray, Bungie have kept close to what they know while also daring to venture into things that they don’t, such as the concepts of levelling up and random loot.

Before anything else you must create a character and choose a class. Don’t get your hopes, though, because the customisation options are limited. No matter how hard you try, your character will always look a bit ugly, and not very different from everyone else. It’s not a big deal, but Destiny is asking us to invest a lot of time into playing, not only in this game but also along the massive plan that Bungie and Activison have laid out, and so having a broader customisation suite would have been welcome. As for classes there’s three of them, each of which also comes with a sub-class that must be levelled up separately, plus a slot for another which will presumably be added later on. The Titan is about big armor and the Fists of Havoc, a huge ground-pound, while the Warlock can hurl a big destructive ball of energy. The Hunter, meanwhile, can infuse a pistol with Solar Light that disintegrates enemies. Each sub-class also changes the primary super-power of your character, so a Titan can instead summon a powerful shield, and Warlock can infuse him/herself with Light in order to make every ability better. In terms of gear, though, the classes are fairly similar: armor is exclusive to each class, but any type of weapon can be used by any type of character.

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Levelling up your virtual warrior is as simple as gaining XP by blasting through hundreds of bad guys, completing Bounties, finishing missions and much more. At first your gaining of abilities is linear: you level up, you get a new ability or stat boost, but as you get further along you’ll be granted options to pick from. The game does not hold you to your choice, happily allowing you to change at any point, a welcome design decision. It’s not a deep levelling system, but it’s enough to be enjoyable and further bring a sense of progression along with the new gear you find. Your weapons and armor can also be upgraded over time, too, increasing their defensive capabilities, damage output and even allowing for more ammo to be carrier or other things.

The narrative that holds this levelling together is a hodge-podge of almost incomprehensible gibberish that was seemingly taken at random from a hat full of ideas and stitched together using flat, boring dialogue. While names such as The Traveller, The Fallen, The Vex, Guardians, Wizards, The Speaker, The Kabal and The Black Garden are thrown around with reckless abandon very little context is ever given over to the them. They all merely exist within Destiny’s universe, but almost feel as they have no history or actual reason for being there. At one point it’s blithely stated that you’re facing an evil so evil that it despises other evil, a piece of writing which wins my Idiocy award for the year. But more importantly it’s never explained why this evil is worse than the other three you are fighting, or for that matter why anyone is fighting anyone else or even why you’re doing anything at all.

The general gist is that Earth went to hell a long time ago, but then along came the mysterious Traveller, a gigantic floating orb that has taken up residence on Earth. Under its vast shadow the people of Earth experience a Golden Age, gaining massive technological leaps that allowed them to travel to Mars and Venus and terraform them. However, as we all know happiness in videogames doesn’t tend to last long, and thus arrives the Darkness, an ancient enemy of the Traveller, and much of humanity’s hard work is destroyed. The last city is constructed, above which the Traveller rests and from which Guardians are sent out into the galaxy to fulfill missions and battle the four different enemies that seem intent on causing carnage: the Fallen, the mechanical Vex, the creepy Hive and the hulking Kabal. At the start of the game your Guardian is somehow resurrected – with no explanation provided as to how or even why you got where you were – in the crumbling ruins of old Russia. After that, everything gets a bit fuzzy.

There’s a far more detailed and deep world sitting there, waiting for explanation and exploration. If you want to actually learn about it, though, you’ll need to check out the unlockable Grimoire cards which are bafflingly not included in the game itself but are only accessible via the Bungie website or a special app. Otherwise prepare to be amazed by your own lack of insight into just what the hell is going on.

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Due to the poor script the voice acting is largely flat throughout, the actors clearly struggling to find anything to do with the material given to them. Both of those factors also means that there are zero characters of interest. Ultimately that’s not much of a problem, though, because you’ll only meet a few people during the course of the story, and they barely get a minute or two of screen time each in which to actually develop any notable personality, a task in which they all fail miserably. There’s a mysterious female who pops up all about three times, says a few vague things and that’s it until the end of the game where she arrives in time for a wholly unsatisfying finale before vanishing again, presumably with plans to re-appear in some future expansion. Other than that there’s a brother and sister who had some potential, but their sole reason for existing seems to be to set up the inevitable expansions as well without expanding on the existing plotlines. The closest thing to a character that you can connect to is the Ghost, a floating AI who follows you around, but even that has problems: the writers don’t seem to be able to decide if the Ghost is supposed to be a fairly dry AI, or a more emotional being with a touch of humour. The result is inconsistent, and Peter Dinkelage, a man with clear talent, seems to struggle with the weak material he has been given, delivering his lines in an awkward fashion. Given that this is the company responsible for the beloved Cortana, the lack of anything that could be deemed as even a character is a true let-down.

To put it bluntly, Destiny’s narrative is pathetic, failing miserably to explain its world, lore or characters, or to provide any meaningful narrative progression throughout the short time it will take to see the ending. There’s just nothing there to grasp, and the entire script feels disjointed, messy and full of clear plot holes. Why oh why does your character fail to react to being woken from the dead? Why does he fail to be surprised by how the world has changed, having been told he was dead for so long and that things would be different? We know he can speak, so why does he take his resurrection so stoically? Why are these enemies attacking? Who are they? Where did they come from? If we sat down to analyse the plot it would be an entire article on its own, but the crux is that it feels like massive chunks of the narrative were ripped out during development to fill out future expansions rather than properly construct the basic foundations of Destiny’s universe. It’s a theme that runs throughout the entire game. As the stone of which Destiny will be resting upon going forward it fails to draw players in and get them interested in the universe Bungie are attempting to forge, a serious misstep in their long-term plan.

As for the missions you’ll be undertaking in order to progress through the story, they show exactly the same level of inspiration as the story. While other shooters might attempt to use its story and a mixture of set-pieces to vary the missions, Destiny relies on a single crutch; go to a location, deploy the Ghost and then hold off the waves of attacking enemies, then go to the next place and repeat the process. Little Dinklebot (Ghost) will hack doors, gather information and more, not that you’ll notice much since it merely involves holding X at the marked location before readying your weapons for the onslaught.  Aside from some rather pretty vistas, there is about two or three moments when Destiny attempts to deviate from this formula, and one of the provides the best moment in the entire game, granting you a badass sword that can slice through enemies with ease. If there’s not a Capture the Sword mode introduced into the multiplayer at some point, Bungie will have done a great injustice to the world.

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Outside of the primary story missions there’s the Strikes to take on, three player dungeons that pit you against a boss at the very end. In truth the bosses are little more that massive bullet sponges, and every one of them uses the same design template of throwing waves of smaller foes at you during the fight, but with those lovely combat mechanics in play they are a blast to complete with friends. Taking on a boss a few levels higher than your team is also incredible fun as battles can last 20-40 minutes, composed entirely of people yelling loudly and dramatic last stands. If there’s no friends around then unlike the story missions matchmaking will team you up with a few other Guardians.

For all of its problems there’s one thing that shines truly bright within Destiny: the combat. Almost on its own it manages to hold up the terrible mission design, never hiding the repetitive objectives but ensuring that you can just about forgive them. It is volatile. Brilliant. Exciting. Smooth. Explosive. Above all, it’s fun. It also resembles Halo even more strongly than the rest of the game, albeit with it a more agile, faster pace thanks to the use of a small jetpack that allows for  brief flight and increased verticality. It is quite perfect, to be honest, as I struggle to find anything that I could regard as a flaw within the systems. The guns feel beautiful to fire, the level of recoil nicely balanced and the audio giving them all a satisfying thud and boom. Movement feels responsive and fluid, which is important as the enemy like to move around and large mobs are a common sight, encouraging a constantly fluid style. Like Halo Destiny employs a shield system so you’ve got a bit of leeway to jump into the fray and deliver a few melee strikes, and likewise the shield gives you the opportunity to get behind cover if there’s a few too many rockets coming at you, creating a nice ebb and flow. Enemy AI is also solid, with a wide variety of foes to face that all bring unique attributes to the battlefield.

Firefights are fast, hectic affairs, and unlike the rest of the game seemingly never get old. After nearly 40-hours of playing the game for this review, I still found myself tensing up in fights, leaning into the TV with my tongue poking out. It’s even better with friends involved as enemy crowds grow larger and more powerful. You can have up to two friends accompany you on a story mission, although there’s no matchmaking, sadly. Party chat comes alive with the yells and screams of comrades reviving one another, madly dashing from cover to cover and leaping toward enemies to deliver one of the most satisfying feeling melee strikes in gaming today. Meanwhile  each class’ special power lights up the field like fireworks. Even if Destiny was the worst game to ever arrive on console, the combat would most certainly be deserving of praise. It’s the one thing the game gets unquestionably, undeniably spot-on.

The final mission type is that of Patrols, which means you pick one of the planets and are then free to roam around the environment, grabbing Patrol missions from beacons scattered throughout the land. Patrol missions are simply boring little diversions such as killing X amount of enemy or gathering X amount of strange material or scanning X part of the environment. Their reason for existence is to improve reputation with the Vanguards, a concept we’ll come back to later in yet another semi-rant. However, Patrol mode does serve to give you a better look at Destiny’s worlds. You see, rather than each story or Strike mission taking place in its own little level they all exist within a hub of sorts. There’s just one environment per planet, though, and sadly Bungie slip up by making most missions start in exactly the same place, missing an opportunity to showcase their worlds to players. As beautiful as they are, and by God are they beautiful, you’ll begin to get fed up with seeing the same hills and cliffs and buildings  over and over again.

But there’s always the chance of seeing other people, since Destiny is sort of a social game. Sort of. If you’re on a mission or just free-roaming via the Patrol mode you can come across other players doing their thing as well. If they or you are on a story mission then going past a certain point in the environment will cause one of you to simply vanish because Destiny doesn’t allow other players into your mission unless you invite them into your Fireteam. It’s a shame as I’ve met a few people now during play, and spent a while killing random enemies before heading off to complete a mission, and having forgotten to invite them to my Fireteam our partnership simply ends. A more organic method would be nice. The lack of proximity chat is also a strange decision. You can’t talk to anyone without inviting them to a Fireteam, although by using the D-pad you can always wave to them, or even dance. Yet thankfully that doesn’t entirely halt the spirit of comradery, and impromptu team-ups are always fun. A quick bit of sniper support, a shared wave or even dance and off you both go.

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Public events can also occur at almost any point, but most frequently when you’re in Patrol mission mode, it seems. These come in a few different forms, like having to protect something while data is uploaded or having to kill a powerful target before it reaches a certain number of checkpoints. Everyone within the game world is notified when these events occur, usually causing an influx of nearby players as everyone gathers together to face the danger, and snag the rewards for taking part.

Between missions you’ll spend much of your time in the Tower, another hub but one where the view swaps to third-person so that you can admire your character and chill out with other Guardians. You’ll head to the Tower to turn in missions, but also to pick up Bounties like kill X amount of Fallen which give you XP boosts and reputation increases. You’ll also head to the Tower a lot to decode Engrams, which are essentially schematics for the game’s rarer weapons and armor and are decoded by the Cryptographer.  The Tower is Destiny’s social area, the place where you can meet and greet, grab a new gun, hand in a mission or even purchase a new ship, a wholly vanity driven purchase as you’ll only see it when sitting in orbit, the game’s version of a lobby. However, as a social game Destiny screws up across the board, starting with the inability to chat to other players unless they are in your fireteam, hampering the social aspects of the Tower and making it far harder to make friends when simply doing missions or exploring the worlds. Without the ability to chat the Tower is nothing, a place where players can dance together and play football but do nothing else, and the worlds you explore feel empty without the voices of others. In the defense of Bungie the choice to limit chat makes sense given the vast amounts of abuse and irritation it can cause, but there needs to be a choice to opt into a Tower where chat is enabled for all.

The complete lack of item trading at launch is also a massive waste, killing off a potential player market at the Tower. Then there’s the lack of matchmaking on story missions, again curtailing the ability to make new friends easily. Fireteams can be set to public so that anyone can join, but that’s an awkward workaround. Perhaps there needs to be a method in the Tower itself for players to discover other Guardians looking for partners. Speaking of which, playing with friends if they are either a lower or higher level than yourself is quite the challenge. If they are a lower level than you then joining your game will pitch them against massively more powerful opponents. On the flipside if they are a higher level than yourself they’ll breeze through the enemies so fast that it’s hardly any fun. A system wherein friends can be equalised during mission would be very welcome.

As we’ve already briefly talked about Destiny includes a random loot system that spits out variations on the game’s standard arsenal of assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols, shotguns and rocket launchers, providing each with a unique set of stats and even some small abilities in the more powerful gear, such as the possibility of regenerating ammo or explosive rounds. It’s far from an expansive system such as Borderlands, featuring a much less interesting assortment of loot to be acquired, but then unlike Gearbox’s game there’s also helmets, chest pieces, shoulder pads, gauntlets, boots and more to be added to your character. While the more realistic approach does mean that loot in Destiny is arguably less interesting than what we see in Diablo or Borderlands, forgoing acid spitting rocket launchers and sniper rifles that fire like shotguns, the armor designs are lovely, and the constant chase for new gear to improve your character is firmly there. Unlike many games, the hunt for Legendary items is a long process, making the eventual acquirement of them all the more satisfying. This is doubly so for Exotic items.

It’s good that the pull for new stuff is so damn strong, because Destiny struggles to balance its rewards properly, leaving players to grind away for hours on end with nothing to show for it. Spend a gruelling 40-minutes battling through a Strike mission and it’s not uncommon for the reward screen at the end to show absolutely nothing, while a 5-minutes jaunt through a mission many levels below your own may yield something powerful. Perform well in a multiplayer Crucible match and your prize is thin air while the guy who screwed around and almost lost the game for your team is awarded beautiful armor and a new, powerful gun. Legendary Engrams very, very rarely actually contain a legendary item, a source of rage for Destiny players everywhere and a fact that has spawned a parody Twitter account. Even if you do finally get a Legendary item the game seemingly delights in giving you something for another class, leaving you unable to use it unless you start the game over fresh with a new character.

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And by God does Destiny like to make you grind for absolutely everything. Bungie claim that the game really starts at level 20, a statement that I take issue with as no game should take so long to become great, but in reality it doesn’t. When you get to level 20 you’re merely awarded with even more grinding to be done. No new missions or exciting game modes unlock, instead you must simply replay the same handful of story missions and mere eight Strikes over and over and over, albeit with the ability to select difficulty and a bunch of modifiers that make things trickier. A Strike playlist is added so that you can jump into the action and kill the same few enemies over and over in the vague hopes of getting something good. The simple fact of the matter is that after level 20 you mostly do exactly what you were doing before level 20.

Things do become a tad more complicated, mind you. Various vendors sell Legendary items and other bits of gear within the Tower, but to be allowed to buy them you have to earn specific reputation with that vendor and have the correct type of currency. What to buy some gear from the Vanguards? Well, you’ll need to increase your Vanguard reputation to Rank 2 by doing Patrol missions and completing Bounties, a process that takes hours and hours of gruelling gameplay. You’ll also need to acquire some Vanguard Marks, which means replaying Strike missions over and over. Think that armor from Dead Orbit looks nice? You’ll need to purchase and equip their unique  piece of apparel so that all reputation earned is transferred to Dead Orbit reputation so that you can level it up enough to buy stuff. And then there’s Motes of Light and Crucible Marks and a few more factions that demand you don their apparel and increase reputation. And of course  to do all of that you replay the same limited selection of missions over and over.

Some things help. Daily and weekly challenges provide ways of earning extra Vanguard marks and Strange coins, but Bungie have also limited the amount of Crucible Marks and Vanguard Marks that you can earn per week. As for the challenges themselves they are once again the same missions you’ve already done before. The only truly big change comes in the form of the games single 6-player Raid, the Vault of Glass, a challenging experience that can only be done with friends. No matchmaking? Really?

Going back to the loot system Bungie’s inexperience really shows. While games like Diablo and Borderlands do use random loot systems, anybody who has every played them will realise that there’s far more than just that going on in the background to ensure that gamers always feel rewarded and eager to continue playing. Destiny, however, seems to be entirely random from top to bottom. One might assume that battling enemies of your own level or even higher would present the best chance for a good loot drop, but in reality you have the same chances of getting a Legendary item from a piddly level 1 Fallen as you do a behemoth of a boss several levels above your own rank 20 warrior. Likewise you’ll earn the same XP for killing a Level 2 Fallen as you do a Level 25 Fallen. This means that if you venture into Destiny you’ll find most of the high level players actually repeating the lowest level missions over and over instead of grinding away on the time-consuming difficult missions. Why spend 40-minutes battling a boss to get a decent reward when you can plow through hordes of enemies and several missions in the same time while gathering much more weapons and ammo?

Levelling up does change after the fated level 20, but not for the better. Level 20 is the cap for XP, and after that no amount of experience gained from bounties or enemies will shift it, though your armor and weapons will still benefit. However, a new system called Light is introduced whereby armor has a Light rating, and by wearing armor with Light you can continue to level up. It’s a needless complication that encourages players to simply don whatever armor has the highest Light rating, rather than what they actually like.

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Before we wrap this review up we need to talk about the Crucible, Destiny’s slim, streamlined and bloody good fun multiplayer offering. Rather than keeping multiplayer away from the rest of the game, Bungie have opted to create something that feels like a whole. There’s no separate multiplayer loadouts, weapons and armor, you simply choose Crucible and enter the fray with whatever you’re wearing, at which point all the various stats are equalised, although special effects and abilities remain, so if you’re sniper rifle can potentially regenerate ammo in a Strike it can do it in multiplayer to. In terms of modes there’s just a couple and the map count isn’t very high, but Bungie’s skill at crafting excellent maps remains and the combat which is so damn satisfying in the rest of the game is still just as good against real people.

And finally we arrive at the presentation, which aside from the often bland voice-acting is absolutely brilliant. Graphically the game is eye-candy, excelling in both a technical sense and an artistic sense. Textures are detailed, animations smooth and everything nice and sharp. As for the people in charge with coming up with the armor and the world they deserve to be given a large raise and a shot or twenty of good quality Whiskey for their work. The various armor  designs look awesome, but the game could do with some more weapon models. As for the audio design, it’s top-notch as well. IN fact, Destiny includes one of the best scores in recent memory, plus an array of sounds that bring the sometimes somewhat empty feeling environments to life.

Destiny is an inherently awkward game to review and talk about due to the fact that Bungie have a whopping ten-year plan for the game. As I speak the Queen’s Wrath event has just begun and will run until October 6th, adding in new game modes, bounties and other shiny stuff, or at least that’s what it claims (Late edit: Queen’s Wrath has been a boring event so far, again demanding players grind through the same limited selection of story and Strike missions). Bungie also pointed out that they intend on opening up new areas of the Tower soon. It’s a game with a pre-planned, vast future and thus many are quick to come to its aid, defending its many existing flaws by exclaiming how it’s going to get so much better. And therein lies the counter-argument: as someone attempting to critique the game I have no way of knowing what it may be like in the future. Maybe it will astounding, or maybe it will be terrible. Perhaps it will simply be just okay. Therefore I can only critique the game as it is right now, right here.

So, what is Destiny right now, right here? Despite what some may have tried to claim, it’s not an MMO. It’s an FPS with stronger social elements than most that sadly messes up the social thing quite a bit, but remains a blast with friends. It’s a complete grindfest filled with worthwhile loot, provided you’re willing to go through a gruelling amount of repetition to get to it. It features outstanding gunplay that is paired with embarrassingly bad mission design and a narrative so poor that all the other games in the yard will make fun of it. It’s stitched together from a variety of other games, most of which do each element far better than Destiny. But of course the appeal of Destiny is that it whacks all those elements into one very polished package. If we take the massive amount of hype back into the equation there’s absolutely no way to deny that Destiny is a disappointment. Indeed, even if we taken away the vast majority of the hype it’s still somewhat underwhelming for a triple-A title with such vast funds behind it. However, that does not mean it’s a bad game, and despite its many flaws, and the large amount of ranting I’ve done here, it has a strange addictive quality that keeps you coming back for more, the search for Legendary items and  Exotics a powerful lure. Even after playing more then enough for the purposes of review, I’m still going back to Destiny. It must be doing something right, then.

The Good:
+ Awesome combat.
+ Some great loot.
+ Playing with friends.

The Bad:
– Terrible story.
– Terrible mission design.
– Absolute grindfest.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on being great.
Massively flawed but hugely addictive, Destiny is disappointing yet fun, especially if you can gather some good friends together.

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