Review: Destiny – A Shipload of Space Fun Came from the Moon

on September 15, 2014 1:00 PM

Destiny has been a long time coming, and now that it’s finally in our hands, its arrival is heralded with the excess luggage of its extreme hype. It’s finally time to verify if Bungie retained its magical touch as it moved away from the safety of the Halo series and braved the unknown landscapes of a fully new IP.

The first element that hits you right in the face when you play Destiny is its graphics. Technology-wise the game isn’t a miracle, with textures, animations and models that are above average but definitely do not compare favorably with quite a few champions of polygonal glitz we’ve seen with the coming of the new generation.

Yet, it actually looks better than most of them.

That’s the effect of a masterful combination of near-perfect art direction, fantastic effects, an incredible lighting engine, and the most beautiful skies to ever grace a video game. There’s no denying it. Destiny’s graphics are fantastic, demonstrating once more that a game’s visuals can be better than the sum of their parts…. A lot better.

Equipment design is another one of the strong points of the game, and this won’t surprise fans of the Halo series. The folks at Bungie are masters of science-fiction, and their talent ended up being highlighted even further as they combined futuristic design with fantasy. While armor and weapons definitely look appropriate to a semi-near future, it’s difficult to look at them without getting a powerful feeling of “space knight” and “space wizard.” When you observe a high level auto-rifle, you’ll immediately feel like you’re looking at a galactic Excalibur. This conveys a sense of epic that really adds value to Destiny‘s presentation.

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Environmental design is equally impressive and Destiny‘s planets beg to be explored. They’re beautiful and savage, and every little corner is interesting. That’s not just because of the many secrets and collectibles scattered basically everywhere, but also because the game’s levels are so beautiful that it would be a shame not to lay your eyes on every small detail.

Ultimately, we’re not looking at a technological marvel, but Bungie definitely produced a game with visuals that bring forth an enormous artistic value, forcing technology to take a back seat to let players see how pleasant the whole visual picture looks.

The fact that Destiny‘s levels really entice the players to explore, leads us straight to what’s arguably the most visible flaw of the game. Every planet is represented by a single, fairly large sandbox level, and all missions happen pretty much in the same environments,  causing players to revisit every nook and cranny a whole lot of times. You will explore most of the world simply because you have to, and unfortunately there’s a lot of déjà vu involved.

After you go down the same hallway for the third mission in a row, you will start to ache to move on to the next planet.

Destiny’s gameplay features an extremely interesting and painstakingly polished mix between FPS and MMORPG, with leveling and unlockable abilities that turn character building in the most relevant and rewarding element of the game. Loot is abundant and varied, increasing the addictive nature of the experience tenfold.

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The shooting mechanics are absolutely fantastic. Controls are responsive and every single weapon is immensely satisfying. I  also find the choice to stick to projectile weapons absolutely delightful. The stopping power of Destiny’s scout rifles or the kick of its machine guns are gratifying, and will make you realize just how boring lasers and plasma can be. That’s all good, though, because there are no lasers in Destiny (at least not on the good guys’ side), and this further enhances the lovely low-tech atmosphere.

Instead of lasers we get magic. Our guardians can seamlessly bounce between shooting aliens in the face and throwing fireballs at them. Well… They aren’t exactly made of fire (at least not all of them), but you get the idea. The combination is very enjoyable, and creates a fairly unique feel that decidedly adds value to Destiny‘s package.

The RPG elements are also very solid, enhanced by the abundance of enticing loot which will keep you playing “just another mission” deep into the night. The abilities acquired via progression are meaningful and interesting, making you feel like you’re becoming more powerful while not upsetting the balance of the game excessively.

The pacing of the progression might surprise many, especially those that aren’t familiar with MMORPGs. Reaching the level cap of 20 is extremely easy, and will take you just a couple days if you put enough time in the game. Then progression is shifted on equipment that determines level past 20, and can easily feel grindy and a bit daunting to those that aren’t used to games like Final Fantasy XIV or World of Warcraft. 

Yet, this kind of lopsided progression has its advantages. In normal MMORPGs there’s a big divide between players that are at the level cap and those that aren’t. If you join and your friends are already experiencing the endgame, it’ll be a long time before you’ll be able to play with them.

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On the other hand, in Destiny you’ll be at level 20 very quickly, and then you’ll be able to join at least those that are hovering between level 21 and 22 (and it takes a long time to gain a level after 20). This flattens progression in a way that makes the endgame feel less unreachable. It may not fit everyone’s taste, but its raison d’être is definitely justifiable.

The only problem is that the massive grind to the next endgame level will force you to tread the game’s paths until your armored feet will dig holes through them.

Unfortunately, while the RPG elements are good, the MMO ones are a tad weak. Communication is probably the single worst flaw in the game. There’s no general chat, so the only way to talk to others is by joining their fire team (which is the three-strong party unit of the game), and even then, you have to use voice chat, as Bungie didn’t think to implement any kind of text communication.

While having voice communication across a general channel would have been unwieldy and awkward, the lack of a general text chat is a ridiculous oversight, and unreasonably limits your ability to simply socialize in game and make new friends, which is one of the main points of online games. I’m not sure what the folks at Bungie smoked before taking this decision, but I wish they’d share, because it must have been some really good stuff.

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After you decide whether to go solo or to assemble your fire team (despite the criminal lack of communication tools), you can pick what kind of mission to play.

Patrols are the most elementary sorties, just letting you roam a map freely while executing quick missions grabbed from beacons on the ground.

Story missions have a more scripted structure, with a sequence of trash enemies that won’t pose much of a challenge and exist just to entertain you as you shred through them with your favorite weapon, more powerful enemies that will start to give you a hard time and actually require a degree of tactics to be defeated effectively, and bosses, that are quite challenging and will force you to keep a close eye on your life bar and on your ammo count.

Strikes are the most challenging single player content available at the moment and require three players, providing boss encounters that will really put your ability and the coordination of your fire team to the test.

I’ve seen quite a few early reviews complain quite violently about the bosses, pathetically whining on how they take a long time to defeat and some of their attacks can easily one-shot a well equipped player, while the incessant spawning of additional enemies makes things even harder and more hectic. I normally refrain from addressing other reviews directly, but since my kindness knows no boundaries I’ll drop a suggestion for their benefit: if a boss battle really takes too long, maybe they should pay attention to the difference between the white little damage numbers and the yellow little number (which are quite visibly much higher). Chances are that they’re just shooting the wrong thing.

That said, bosses are very challenging, and that’s an absolutely refreshing change of pace from the usual fare of nowadays’ games. The final encounter of each strike (and at times even the intermediate ones) won’t just roll over and hand you victory on a silver platter. Destiny very pointedly goes against recent trends and refuses to pander to the casual gamer’s need for instant gratification.

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Most bosses have an exceptional ability to absorb damage, often coming with rechargeable shields that will make killing them even more challenging (but after all, why should players be the only one with that kind of equipment?). As mentioned above, their attacks can easily slaughter a player in the blink of an eye. If that wasn’t enough, wave after wave of smaller enemies will come to their aid, threatening to overrun the players and preventing them from relaxing and just focusing on the boss.

This kind of battle will keep you engaged for a relatively long time, and will force you to be extremely mobile and on your toes for the whole encounter. Stop for more than a few seconds and you’re dead.

Yet, while difficult, they’re not unfair. Pretty much like in Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, I can’t remember a single death in Destiny that came without reason, and for which I didn’t exactly know what I did wrong. The game rewards perseverance, skill, mobility, situational awareness and the cool head necessary to stay and fire exactly as long as it’s safe, before relocating to avoid being obliterated by a massive explosion or overrun by an army of additional aliens.  

In Destiny personal skill (not just in aiming) is important, and no amount of overpowered equipment can make up for it, unless you’re enormously overleveled compared to what you’re fighting. I honestly couldn’t praise this design decision more. Every moment in which you narrowly escape death in a long fight that tests your focus, or manage to revive a friend under heavy fire, is extremely satisfying, and turn victories into very gratifying and rewarding moments. That’s because they’re made of many memorable life or death situations that often got me and my friends talking excitedly about the ways in which we managed to save the day.

Competitive multiplayer is also extremely polished, with a good variety of modes that can easily fit most tastes. The feature is based heavily in Bungie’s Halo expertise made not of gimmicks, but of size-limited but extremely well designed maps and equally small teams.

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Players get Control, pitching teams of six against each other to capture flags, the more simplified Clash, which is the classic six-versus-six team deathmatch, the six player battle royale Rumble and Skirmish, a compact three versus three team deathmatch where players can revive their mates. Players also got a taste of Salvage, which prompts teams of three to conquer relic sites and then defend them until said relics are salvaged.

We’re in an era in which developers tend to create extremely complex multiplayer modes in extensive maps made to host large teams in extremely chaotic situations, but my preference definitely falls on Destiny’s skirmish mode. Chaos is minimal, and it’s easy to keep a grasp on the situation, letting player skill and teamwork really shine as opposed to lucky shots and reckless run and gun. Paired with Bungie’s fantastic maps it’s the most compelling and fun experience I had in a competitive shooter since the time of Halo 2.

The only arguable flaw is the excessive power of “Overcharge” moves (which are the most effective elements among the magical abilities I described above), which pretty much let you wipe the floor with a whole enemy team if they’re bunched up. Luckily they don’t happen too often, and they can be quite satisfying when you’re not on the receiving end.

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The main area in which Destiny doesn’t fully deliver is its narration.

The game tells the tale of a future Earth which entered a golden age sparked by the advent of a mysterious interstellar being called Traveler. Unfortunately those who uncovered it and decided to channel its powers to improve Humanity’s conditions didn’t consider the first rule of science-fiction: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Like every benign interstellar being, the traveler is pursued by its evil counterpart, and when the Darkness reaches Earth, it nearly destroys it and kicks humanity back into the dark ages, with a single city surviving under the Traveler’s faltering protection.

Only the Guardians (who most obviously are the players, because we can’t really play waiters or cab drivers, can we?) are able to wield the Traveler’s light to fight back against the impending threat and its creatures.

The backstory is interesting enough, but the problem is in how it’s delivered. Most of it reaches us through our ghost, which is the little floating implement that has pretty become one of the game’s icons. The voice performance is definitely good and a few cutscenes help but all the NPCs you’ll meet in the Tower, including the Speaker who plays a key role as the voice of the Traveler, mostly communicate through random one-liners that can prove extremely frustrating for those who would simply like to have a remotely-informative conversation in what is supposed to be the equivalent of a MMO quest hub.

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Luckily the absolutely fantastic score helps in conveying the game’s atmosphere where the story fails, and paired with great sound effects (especially for our arsenal), it creates an atmosphere that feels “just right,” supporting our imagination that unfortunately is very much required to fill the holes left by the shaky storytelling.

As you probably noticed if you made it this far, I described quite a few relevant flaws in the many paragraphs above. Then why do I keep smiling like a kid that just received a new toy train every time I play Bungie‘s new labor of love?

When I approached Destiny for the first time, I felt the weight of the challenge of reviewing a game with so much hype hovering over it, and during my first few hours playing, that sensation of unease was compounded by the presence of the flaws I just mentioned. I felt that balancing those with the game’s evident good sides would have been difficult.

Then I took a step back. I looked at my notes, picked them up and threw them in the bin. I took off the stuffy shoes of the reviewer and I went back to being a gamer, and everything became clear: Destiny is not perfect. It’s actually quite far from that compared to quite a few other AAA productions, but it’s a whole lot of pure, unadulterated fun.

It may come from the moon, and feel less familiar and safe than what many expected, but the fact that it’s an extremely enjoyable, atmospheric and simply joyfully fun experience able to keep the player on his toes for hours on end is beyond my power to deny. Destiny may not be a masterpiece, but it beats quite a few masterpieces where it really matters.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.
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