Ah, the hype train. How many times have we seen it stop at our station? How many times have we all hopped on? How many times have we been disappointed? And yet, how many times will we return to ride it again? Well, no matter your personal answers to those last few questions, there’s no denying that Bungie’s latest game, Destiny, drove the hype train as hard and as fast as it could in the months before its release. Now that it’s out, is it a huge disappointment, a bit of a letdown, or is it one of those rare games that lives up to the hype? Well… it depends. It’s definitely not the latter — it’s just disappointing to a different degree depending on whether you’re playing alone or with friends.
It’s the game you’d get if Borderlands and Halo had a baby, then Halo kidnapped the baby and never let Borderlands see it again.
In Destiny, you play a humanoid male or female of one of three races who is trying to save humankind from bad aliens… even though you can choose to be a race other than human. Your gender doesn’t matter, your race doesn’t matter, and you can’t be seen through your equipment most of the time anyway, so you might as well just be Master Chief or Gordon Freeman. It’s got even less story than a hack & slash like Torchlight, and that’s saying something.
If you played, or even heard about, the Halo series, Destiny’s bare-bones excuse for a story will ring a lot of bells. Bad things have happened on Earth and humans are in trouble. There are evil aliens called Fallen that are like the Covenant from Halo, bad aliens called Hive that are like the Flood from Halo, bad robots called Vex that are… OK, they aren’t like something I can think of from Halo, but I’ll admit I didn’t play that whole series. Oh, and bad maybe-humans called Cabal who show up a grand total of once or twice. There’s really nothing that distinguishes any of these enemy brands from the others except their weak points and the fact that the Hive charge at you for melee attacks while most of the others hang back and shoot at you. Having completed the storyline and even played some of those missions multiple times, I really can’t tell you more than that. There are a few cutscenes with dialogue, but they are absolutely meaningless.
Of course, cutscenes on a home console mean voice actors. Being the big-name developer they are, Bungie attracted some cool folks to this game, then proceeded to barely use them. Bill Nighy, for example, is The Speaker… and he has maybe three lines in the game. Peter Dinklage plays an AI that is your constant companion, and he talks more than anyone else, but that’s still not saying a lot. He does a fine job with what material he is given, because he’s a pro, but there’s only so much anyone could have done with this script.
Likewise, the music is minimal. It plays some of the time, and is pretty standard action game fare. This is very disappointing coming from the studio that brought us Halo’s music. It’s been 13 years, and I can still hear the menu from Halo 1 in my head any time I think of the that series. I assume that the lack of music is intentional, since you can voice chat with your party members and too much music would make that confusing, but I still don’t love it.
But hey, if the story and sound aren’t good, how about the gameplay? It’s lackluster even in its best moments, although your mileage will absolutely vary depending on whether you’re playing with friends and how close they are to your level. I played most of the story missions alone, but I’ve teamed up more than once with some of our RPGFan forum members (hi, kofvscapcom, Agent D., and Yoda!), which has provided a varied experience both in terms of how my sessions went as well as hearing them talk about their own sessions. If you and your teammates’ characters are close to the same level, you’ll all get to be valuable members of the team. If you’re ten levels behind them, you’ll be still running through the map when you get the message that they’ve killed the mission boss in three shots.
Over the course of the game, you’ll visit Earth, its Moon, Venus, and Mars. You’ll go to each of them several times, and each planet only has one map, which makes for an experience that feels extremely repetitive. You pick a mission to take on, then wait through an entirely-too-long loading screen before being dumped on the planet and hopping on your Star-Wars style speeder bike to fly as close to your destination as you can. It’s the same map you’ve been on for every mission on that planet, you’re just headed to a slightly different location on that map.
In my first mission, I wandered around killing every enemy I could, but I quickly realized that they respawn a few seconds after you kill them, and that venturing too far in the wrong direction will put you up against enemies of greatly varying levels. In fact, the respawn rate is so high in some areas that players camp out in front of a “murder cave” where you can kill a group of enemies, wait a second or so, kill another group, wait a second, kill another group, lather, rinse, and repeat until you run out of ammo. Then you run up to the cave they’ve all been pouring out of, collect the ammo and loot they dropped, and back off to start the whole thing over again. It’s fun for about five minutes at best, but everybody does it, and for about as long as they can stand.
And why do they do that? Because once you’ve finished the story missions, you’ll be at about level 20, which is as high as experience points will allow you to get. After that, the only way to improve your stats is through gear. And unless your gear is good enough, you can’t even participate in some of the game’s content… which is just there to get you even better gear. In games like Fallout, you might explore around an environment to find cool chests in out of the way places, but such exploring is a waste of time in Destiny — there’s barely anything out there, and what’s there is random garbage.
As you’d hope for in an always-online game like Destiny, you can also play a few types of PvP match, although they don’t stray from things that we’ve all seen before. Straight killfests, capturing points for your team and trying to keep the other team from doing the same, that sort of thing. This can be fun, and the system does take steps to even out players’ stats so that all levels can play together, but there’s only so much it can do. If you’re level 6, you’re still going to get murdered by the players with end-game gear, because it gives bonuses in addition to simply hitting harder. Faster reloads or cooldowns, random damage boosts… I’ve even got a gun that lets you freeze in midair for a moment when you aim it while jumping.
Speaking of aiming, it’s worth saying that Destiny’s controls are solid. Everything feels familiar quickly, and running and aiming work as you’d expect. The super attack you can unleash from time to time is mapped awkwardly for my playstyle, but I don’t really have any better suggestions for where it should be, so I’ll simply live with the placement and assume that the devs did the best they could after extensive playtesting.
And while I’m (finally) on something relatively positive, I’ll also say that the game looks great. Unfortunately, the limited number of levels really diminishes the effect. Remember how everyone complained that in Halo, you went through corridor after seemingly identical corridor? Well, this time, the limited number of maps means that it’s actually the same corridor every time, rather than just feeling like the same one. So the fifteenth time you see that jungle that you thought looked pretty cool, you’ll ignore it and just keep on running toward the next group of enemies. Since they’ll respawn in a few seconds anyway and you’re approaching the level cap, if they’re not the ones you actually need to kill for your mission, you’ll probably just run past them, too.
At the end of the day, Destiny isn’t a bad game. It’s just got a very limited lifespan. It’s been out for about two weeks as of this writing, and I am essentially done with it, even though there’s more multiplayer stuff I could do and plenty of better gear I could try to acquire. And by way of voice chat, I hear other players around me saying that they feel the same way, even though they’ve played the game a lot more in those two weeks than I have.
If you have friends who want to play, your best bet may be to rent it from Redbox, play for a few days, then decide if you all want to buy it. If you don’t have friends who want to play, that’s absolutely your best choice. I’ve had some fun with it, but a couple of weeks of this level of fun isn’t enough to justify the purchase. I’ve played other games that were even shorter but had a big impact on me, and I felt they were worth the $60 I spent. I regret spending that same amount on Destiny.
Destiny has stats, classes with a few skills each, a sad excuse for a story, and no real sense of humor. It’s the game you’d get if Borderlands and Halo had a baby, then Halo kidnapped the baby and never let Borderlands see it again. If only it had been the other way around…