As a long-time Halo fanboy, Destiny has been on my radar ever since the first details leaked out. Bungie’s previous universe has kept me enthralled for over a decade now, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve ploughed through those campaigns, fighting mysterious alien forces across ancient-yet-advanced landscapes in an effort to uncover the history of these awe-inspiring constructs and the stories hidden within. Now, with Destiny, I’m ready to do it all over again.
The recent beta wasn’t my first tilt at Destiny’s world however, as I managed to get a download code for the PS4-exclusive alpha back in June, so the bulk of my initial impressions will be from that. The beta itself was essentially an expanded version of that first playable slice, so those impressions still stand having played through all the extra content, which I will touch on a little further in the article.
Before jumping into the game proper, you’ll be prompted to create a character from three base classes: Warlock, Titan and Hunter. The latter of these is a nimble scout, able to double-jump in and out of danger quickly, and also the possessor of a super attack called ‘Golden Gun’ that grants you three incredibly powerful shots from a glowing hand cannon. The Titan is more tank-y, and gets a powerful ground-pound super attack that will likely have you shouting “HULK SMASH!” every time you use it. Finally, the Warlock is basically a space mage, blessed with an awesome area-of-effect, damage-over-time Nova Bomb that can clear an entire room if used effectively. In both the alpha and the beta, I went with the Warlock class, because if you offer me the use of magic, then I’m going to use magic goddammit.
Diving into the game itself, the first thing that struck me was how much the game felt, sounded and even looked like Halo: Reach (certainly in retrospect its more muted, earthy colour palette) – unsurprising, given that it was Bungie’s last release before work began on Destiny. It was gratifying to find that, while Destiny is a new start for the Washington-based developer, they haven’t discarded what makes them who they are – that tight handling, the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee, those glorious skyboxes, and of course, that leisurely, floaty jump.
There’s more Halo DNA present than just looks, movement and control, too. Enemy weapons can be traced back to guns in Halo’s arsenal; certain Fallen wield weapons that shoot glowing rounds that track you like Needler bolts, while others are armed with mid-range rifles that act almost exactly like a Covenant Carbine. Hive Knights, meanwhile, fire large, arcing bolts of energy at you that can knock you back just like Halo: Reach‘s concussion rifle. The difference here is that you can’t liberate these firearms from your vanquished enemies – at least, not in the beta anyway.
But this isn’t Halo, this is Bungie’s bet for the next ten years of their existence and they’re looking to mix things up a bit. So what’s different? Well, the most immediately obvious change is in the RPG mechanics that govern how your character evolves. Bungie want you to play Destiny for a long time, and besides breadth of content, the method to keep you tied in is character personalisation. Your avatar is the in-game representation of your self, more so here than in the average shooter, and as such you can customise your appearance (picking either gender across three ‘races’), and every class has its own skill tree to work through as you complete quests and earn XP towards that next upgrade. As you work your way along the tree, you’ll boost your base stats, add modifiers to your super to keep it evolving, unlock new grenade types and more.
Then there’s equipment – many pieces of which also come with their own upgrade trees. Guns can be levelled up to do more damage, apply different types of elemental effects or add new scopes, while armour can add passive boosts to your strength or discipline stats, which lower your cooldown on your class-specific melee ability and supers respectively. Speaking of the classes, as of the beta – which had a level 8 cap in place to stop us from progressing too far – the three don’t feel too dissimilar; the Titan needs to get in closer than the other two to use their super, but other than that, they’re all very capable of taking down enemies. There’s no hard separation between the likes of DPS, mage or tank to really pick out, and while I don’t think Bungie will be going too far down that route, I would expect to see the classes diverge a bit more noticeably towards the endgame.
The next thing you’ll probably notice is the game’s sense of scale. The area we’re given to roam around in, while not on the scale of your average open-world game, is vast for an FPS. Granted, Halo has always had large levels, but Destiny‘s play spaces push the boundaries out even further, giving you plenty of real estate to explore and populating it with hordes of enemies to shoot. It’s not just the sheer size that marks a change though; these aren’t wide-but-linear levels to work through from one end to the other, Old Russia – the chunk of world entrusted to us in both the alpha and beta – is a wide-open space that allows you the freedom to reach almost any point you can see whenever you feel like it, and fills it with mission objectives that take you all over the map.
Halo has always had co-op, and it’s always been a blast to burn through the massed ranks of the Covenant with a friend or three, but Destiny‘s doing something a bit different with co-operative multiplayer too, something that also plays into that sense of scale. Since the early reveals, Bungie have been very cagey about the term MMO, though it’s a little hard to understand their reticence. While Destiny isn’t a full-blown PC-style MMORPG, it sits somewhere between those experiences and the smaller-scale co-operative play of something like Borderlands. On your travels, you’ll often come across other players that you are free to completely ignore if you wish, but, besides paying a visit to the player hub Tower (to buy new gear or maybe just dance on top of huge industrial fans) there are a number of co-operative things you can do.
Firstly, you can join with other players manually to create a three-person fireteam to take on missions and strikes (the latter of which is basically your MMO dungeon run analogue, with mobs to defeat on your way to sub and end-bosses), while public events are random occurrences in the game’s ‘explore’ spaces that task whoever is around with defending an area or defeating increasingly-difficult waves of enemies. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, these are very much like that game’s FATEs, though their spawn rate feels much, much lower, making them a fairly rare occurrence in the beta.
Lastly, Bungie has promised end-game raids for teams of six, though it has recently been confirmed that these will be friends-only – perhaps a necessity, given how much preparation and focussed teamwork will be needed for these lengthy, high-level affairs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see matchmaking added for raid content post-launch.
While there was a decent amount of content to enjoy in the alpha, the scope that Bungie are aiming for really became apparent in the beta, which added a handful of extra story missions that pad out our understanding of what’s happening in the early hours of the game, as well as hint at where the narrative might lead in the full release. The story is one of my favourite elements of the Halo series (yes, I’ve read all the books and everything), so it was great to get some indication of the threads that will be pulling us through Bungie’s new ‘mythic science-fiction’ universe.
After being revived in the wastes of Old Russia by Ghost, our Peter Dinklage-voiced AI companion (who cryptically informs us that we’ve been dead for a very long time), we fight through the Fallen infested perimeter wall in an effort to find a jumpship to escape back to the safety of the Last City, the only place on Earth still protected by the enormous Traveller that hovers overhead. After spending some time kitting out our Guardian and acquiring a personal transport, Ghost informs us that the Fallen seem to be searching for something in the ruins of the area’s decrepit machines.
Battling through Fallen and Hive forces, we discover what they were searching for: the Warmind Rasputin, a vast machine intelligence that once marshalled humankind’s Golden Age military against the forces of Darkness. Our final story mission in Old Russia – an attempt to activate an ancient array station that could connect us to humanity’s long lost colonies – leaves us on something of a cliffhanger: we find that Rasputin not only survived the collapse, but is still active. Though we can’t reach him, he teases us with images of places that will be important in the battles to come, one of which is Earth’s moon.
And if you were lucky enough to log in during a two-hour period last Saturday, you’d have had the opportunity to explore our dusty satellite, as well as taking part in a short mission. Views on the moon are utterly gorgeous, with a twinkling starfield stretching into infinity and the blue marble of the Earth hanging high in your view. Abandoned human bases dot the landscape, while chunks of rock and enormous pits hide sinister Hive installations that hint at some of the more exotic architecture we’ll see in the full release, like the Temple of Crota at the mission’s end – who knew that there was a gothic biomechanical church built by HR Giger on our moon?
So far, so positive – though I do have some concerns. So far, enemy AI doesn’t seem as challenging as a Halo encounter; I’ve lost count of the amount of times that, for instance, an Elite has managed to flank me while I’m reloading or waiting for my shield to recharge in Halo: Reach, somehow managing to get into my blind spot and creep around behind me to spin-kick me to death. As adept as Destiny‘s opponents are at ducking in and out of cover and retreating when I advance, nothing like the above situation happened during the beta. Of course, enemy difficulty will likely be toned down when you’re out in the open, given their propensity to respawn endlessly (a necessity for a game like this to work); in more closely-packed encounters in bases and other interiors, the AI does pose more of a threat, though this is mostly because you have less room to manoeuvre. These more claustrophobic encounters do however force you to pick your targets and identify the major threats more effectively, something that was always a major part of the Halo experience on higher difficulties.
Additionally, one of the worries I had during the alpha persists into the beta, and that’s the depth of the side quests. Dotted around the play space are glowing green beacons that confer short missions upon you – missions that invariably take the form of that old MMO staple to ‘kill/collect x of y’. These missions aren’t particularly well-communicated in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing and why, and they often lead to spells of running around waiting for mobs to respawn and then killing them for their precious docking caps or whatever. Of course, the core combat and environmental traversal, not to mention the carrot of an ever-increasing XP bar, mean that the missions remain fairly engaging so long as you don’t spend too long focussing exclusively on them. I hope to see more depth to these mini-quests in the full game, however.
Lastly, there’s the Crucible, Destiny‘s competitive multiplayer suite. I must admit that I hardly touched this aspect of the game; during the alpha, I watched a few streams and didn’t really like what I was seeing, but towards the end of the beta period I decided to jump in and see what it was all about. I played a match of 6v6 Control – essentially a King of the Hill game-type – using my maxed out Warlock equipped with all my best gear, and I found it to be quite unbalanced. I was plugging half a magazine into opponents before they dropped, but frequently got taken down in two or three shots, which was frustrating to say the least.
I’m not much of a competitive multiplayer gamer but I do enjoy Halo MP, and the main reason for that is how well-balanced it tends to be – you can guarantee that everyone has the same base stats and access to the same weapons on the map. Granted, Destiny is charting a different path with its emphasis on RPG-style progression and gear, so it’d be a bit strange if its PvP didn’t leverage that in some way, but I think it’s just not for me.
That’s fine though. PvP isn’t what’s drawing me to the game (and I’ll soon have the Halo: Master Chief Collection to take care of my competitive FPS needs). No, what’s drawing me to Destiny is the promise of a hybrid of two of my favourite things – Bungie’s unique brand of science fiction shooting and RPGs – mixed in with the ability to co-operatively quest through the game’s vast worlds with friends. The developer recently announced that almost five million players logged into the beta, so hopefully many more people will be drawn into the full game. After all, if we are to gather forth our Guardians to face down the Darkness on September 9th, we’re going to need all the friends we can get.