A Date With Destiny

My feeling has always been that if a game is going to involve a system or mechanic, it needs to do it well. The purest example of this is the jump button- I’ve played hundreds of games where you cannot jump, and it hasn’t bothered me. What has bothered me are games where the jump feels like garbage. As overwhelming as its charm offensive was, the greater offense in LittleBigPlanet was the terrible platforming physics. And though there was so much to love about Halo, as the series went on my frustration with its languid leap built to a fever pitch. I get that you started in space, Chief, but you’re in AFRICA now. I know how gravity works here on Earth. A seven foot, one thousand pound armored supersoldier does not float like a leaf on the wind. It sounds like a little thing, but any Halo multiplayer vet will tell you that jumping is everpresent. The little nag that keeps coming up, over and over.

When Halo creator Bungie showed off Destiny for the first time at E3 2013, I watched the presentation like a hawk. The graphics, the guns, the enemies- I wasn’t worried about any of them. I was waiting for one moment… a jump. And when I saw it, the flood of relief that washed over me was wonderful. A normal jump, with normal physics. The pet peeve that wouldn’t quit finally had. From that moment on I was deeply interested in Destiny.

My problems with Halo were bigger than just the jump, though. As I went in to the Destiny Alpha there were a lot of issues I wanted to look out for. As you would expect, some of my problems were addressed, and some weren’t. The (extremely limited) vehicle handling in Destiny felt much less squirrel-y, and a core sprint functionality that wasn’t considered a special “ability” made traversal less tedious. However, the handsome weapons still felt a little underwhelming in terms of tactile feedback and sound design- they just didn’t feel good to fire, and a shooter lives and dies by its guns.

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Simply comparing the two is doing a disservice, however. Destiny is not Halo, and doesn’t aspire to be Halo. Rather, Destiny feels like the natural next step of Bungie’s journey as a studio. Their love of sci-fi, an overwhelming array of alien foes, and thoughtful first person shooting is still in full effect. But as much as the Halo name was a blessing, it was equally a burden. Destiny sees Bungie finally free to spread their wings and try ideas they would never have been able to attempt in Halo.

This also means that it’s their first try at these ideas, though, and like most of us they don’t quite nail the rough draft. Including three playable classes suggests some fascinating party mechanics… but the reality is quite underwhelming. The armor for each class is slightly individualized- if you imagine a sliding scale with Master Chief’s Spartan armor on one end, and a longcoated gunslinger on the other, all three classes occupy different spots in the middle of that scale.The weapons are even less diverse. Every class uses the exact same guns, with no differences in proficiency whatsoever. Grenades initially appear distinct, until you realize they’re all just different visual effects for the same attack. No, you can upgrade your class-unique grenade to actually be unique at a higher level, and thank Bungie for the privilege.

The only true differences are the pitifully weak class-based special melee attack, and the supers. Your super move charges as you deal damage to enemies, and they’re all straight damage dealing abilities, but at least the method of delivery varies. Guardians wield a close burst ground pound, sending a damaging shockwave out from their fist. Warlocks hurl an AoE fireball out a set distance (which proves frustratingly hard to aim in practice). Finally, Hunters cut right to the chase, earning a few shots with their glowing Golden Gun each super activation for a powerful critical strike on a single foe- usually sufficient to evaporate a non-boss in one or two shots.

It’s no coincidence that all of these abilities are purely damage dealing- that is essentially the only interaction you can have with the world. For all its MMO-style design, Destiny doesn’t copy one of the genre’s biggest staples, the three role system. It’s a format adored by RPG fans the world over, where a party consists of three basic archetypes that work together to solve a combat scenario. First are the Tanks, who hold an enemy’s attention and absorb punishment to protect their allies. Next are the Damage Dealers (or DPS, for “Damage Per Second”), who are fragile but deal large amounts of damage quickly. And at the back are the Healers, who keep everyone alive with medicine or magic as the group fights through waves of foes. Every role is key, has a distinct job in a fight, and is vital to success in a fight. Go in without a Healer, you’ll do great at first but run out of resources and die. Go in without Damage Dealers, and you’ll stay alive for a long time… but won’t hurt the boss enough, and he’ll eventually outlast you. And if you go in without a Tank, god help you, you’ll all be dead in seconds.

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In Destiny, everyone is a Damage Dealer, exclusively. There are no healing abilities other than hiding until your health regenerates, no one has a better ability to take hits than anyone else (assuming you’re all the same level), and the enemy focuses solely on whomever most recently hit them. Fights have a weird ebb and flow as party members get injured, duck behind a box for a few seconds, and then rush out guns blazing, only to repeat the cycle shortly after. Bosses twitch spasmodically as they turn their attention to one attacker, then a more recent assailant, then another, all in the course of a half-second. No one has a job, there is no cooperation, it’s just three guys in the same room all wailing on the biggest thing they can see. There’s a certain chaotic joy to it, because the shooting is fun, and being with friends is fun, so of course shooting with friends is fun… but it never rises above that. There’s nothing inherently more interesting about fighting alongside other players in Destiny.

Which is obviously something of a problem. In a game so multiplayer-centric, the game should incentivize… well, multiplayer. It’s gratifying to see what you can tackle in a team that you couldn’t otherwise, through sheer volume of gunfire, but once that spectacle wears off you’d have just as good of a time playing single player while talking to your friend on Skype. The PvP isn’t much better- the only mode present did a terrible job of incentivizing teamwork, and I was almost universally more successful as a lone wolf than when I was trying to cooperate with my allies.

What’s more, the balance of the PvP was off- the game automatically scales all your equipment, erasing any stat advantage you might have and making all guns of a type function the same. The end result is that some weapons are worthless in PvP. I ditched my rare dark energy fusion rifle in favor of the shotgun you start the game with, and my kill/death ratio leapt skyward. Other than that balance issue, it feels very Bungie- large maps, small teams, encounters long enough that getting jumped does not guarantee death but certainly makes it quite likely. Certainly not Destiny’s strongest point.

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There’s a lot to love about Destiny, from all I’ve seen in my time with it. Combining Bungie’s lore writing ability and talent for solid, enjoyable shooting with the great premise of the otherwise disappointing Borderlands series is a fantastic ptich. Top it off with a dash of World of Warcraft-style dungeons and progression for good measure, and you should have a killer, beat-all recipe for a juggernaut of a game. In truth, for all the negative things I’ve said about it, I did greatly enjoy my time in the alpha. I walked away hungry for more, partially because of how little was on display, but mostly because I enjoyed it that much.

So where does that leave us? What should we expect from the final version of Destiny? I’ve brought up a lot of issues that I had with the game here, but the concepts behind the game are great, and Bungie is certainly a talented studio. How much time will they have to fix this game- just how complete is Destiny? Well… it’s hard to tell. Let me explain.

It’s a pet peeve of mine when developers misuse the terms for builds. The words “pre-alpha,” “alpha,” “beta,” and “release candidate” have actual concrete meanings, which studios routinely and blatantly ignore for the purposes of PR. Just a month ago we were being told that Destiny was “pre-alpha” as it was being shown to industry press. Pre-alpha means that it’s so early that it’s not yet ready for testing… and yet you’re playing it and showing it to press, whose feedback you are recording? There’s another name for that process- it’s called “testing.” Calling that demonstration “pre-alpha” is a flagrant and obvious lie.

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Similarly, calling this public trial an “alpha” is obvious bullshit. Once a developer has decided what the primary features of their game are, and has implemented all of them, the game is in beta. That’s what “beta” means- feature complete. Assuming there isn’t some major system that was secretly and subtly omitted from the build I played, it was absolutely feature complete. It was a beta, just not as complete a beta as the one they will be releasing in another month. Much of the time, the “multiplayer betas” that shooters release a week or two before launch are actually RCs- Release Candidates. Feature and content complete, only needing a final bug check.

So why does any of that matter? It matters because to know how much hope we should have for Destiny, we need to have a realistic assessment of how close to done it is. Setting aside a dearth of content, which is to be expected in a free trial, the core systems of Destiny need some serious work. The game is incredibly ambitious, and while parts of it are completely nailed- going on solo story missions and fighting your way through carefully designed encounters- are an absolute blast, a lot of the new ideas that Bungie is trying with Destiny are quite half-baked. Do they have the time to fix them before launch? I really don’t know. And as long as Bungie insists on lying about how complete their game is to try and save face, there’s really no way of knowing.

When that beta closed down, I was left wanting more. I know without a doubt that when Destiny comes out, I will buy it, and I will play it. It’s sold me on that already. At this point, the question is, will I play this game for a week and then lose interest, or will this be a title that I come back to over and over for its solid mechanics, its fun cooperative dungeons, and its great PvP? Will I level all three classes because I want to experience what makes them unique, or will I shrug and stop at one because the other two don’t feel any different? Bungie already has a very good game on their hands, but I hope they aren’t content with “very good.” I hope they have the ambition and the fire to go for “great,” to go for “incredible.” You’re so damn close, Bungie. Don’t quit on us now. I can’t wait for September.