Destiny, Review - Games Weekly

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Destiny, Review

Destiny is amazing. We’ve been back and forth on this, but we’re finally convinced, and it’s all thanks to Peter Dinklage. He voices Ghost, your AI companion, whose interminable scanning of cosmic artefacts forms the spine of some desperately one-note mission design and who extols his amazement at each discovery with all the thrill and wonder of a man reading aloud the instructions for assembling a flat pack bookcase. You can only hear something so many times before it starts to sink in.

It’s not the script that has forever burned his bland delivery into our cortex, however. It’s the structure. The campaign, flat and unimaginative as it is a near unbroken procession of bases attacked then defended, Ghost wittering away as you fend off yet another wave of aggressors is over in a relative flash. After ten hours of piffle about darkness and light and goblins and witches, Destiny changes from a class-based, kill and level FPS into a long, complex loot grind.

Yet while this brings welcome relief from a deeply tedious narrative whole, you can never quite escape its component parts. You replay missions over and over again on higher difficulty levels, layering on modifiers that affect enemy behaviour and stats, or limit ammo drops. You flit freely between planets, but Dinklage is almost always there, his blandly professed amazement becoming harder and harder to swallow. Perhaps his motivation suffered because he knew that even an Oscar worthy performance would lose its lustre after so many replays. Modifiers may change the flow of battle, but reaching Destiny’s real endgame means fighting the same enemies, in the same places, incessantly.

It’s a problem that reaches its nadir in Patrol, a free roaming mode with bite sized ad hoc missions made for when you want a break from the old routine. Instead, you spawn in the exact same place every time, your urge to explore stymied by invisible walls. It is the only mission type in which you are forbidden to change the difficulty level, making every encounter a cakewalk. And worst of all, the enemies spawn in the same patterns and locations indefinitely. When Halo designer Jaime Griesemer spoke of giving players 30 seconds of fun, over and over again for a whole game, he surely didn't mean it so literally.

It’s unavoidable, too, since Patrol quickly becomes a fixture on your nightly to-do list as you hunt for the wearying amounts of planet-specific materials you’ll need to upgrade late-game gear. Once you hit the soft level cap of 20, the only way to raise your rank is by either finding or buying, and then upgrading, better armour to increase the suddenly introduced Light stat. The pace falls off a cliff, the reliable levelling of the early game replaced with an unpredictable progression curve where luck and endurance are more valuable than skill. Instead of feeding into a single levelling system, PVE and PVP modes power separate reputation bars, your glacial progress through each unlocking new gear for purchase that must be bought with mode specific currencies. You can join one of three factions, where both PVE and PVP earnings feed into another rep bar, though you’ll need the PVP currency to buy anything.  In your darker moments, you will question whether humanity is really worth saving when it surrounds the war effort with this much red tape.
When Jaime Griesemer spoke of 30 seconds of  fun, over and over, he surely didn't mean it so literally
 When you finally, thanks to a vendor or dumb luck, sport a full set of legendary gear, your focus shifts to the upgrade trees. As well as each planet’s bespoke materials, you’ll need Ascendant Energy and Shards, a few of which are found out in the world, some given out as rewards, and most from dismantling legendary gear. You’ll want a large stock of Weapon Parts, as well as class specific materials earned from destroying weapons and armour. And you’ll require a steady flow  of XP with which to unlock upgrades for purchase.

Thankfully, other upgrades are easier to come by. Perk-like buffs can be unlocked with Glimmer, the basic currency dropped by every enemy in the game and the one resource of which you’ll always have more than you need. A piece of armour might offer reduced grenade cooldown for melee kills; one late game helm blinds enemies that get too close. A weapon can be upgraded to increase headshot damage after body shots, or reload in a fraction of the usual time when you score a kill with a clip’s final bullet. They’re designed for the endgame, no doubt even when you hit the Light cap of 30, you still hunt for gear better tailored to your playstyle but they’re a vital component throughout, making Destiny more than just a numbers game.

They’re also vital in the Crucible PVP mode, in which Bungie seemingly abandons balance as a concept and takes the line that no one thing can be broken if every single thing is. Base weapon and armour stats are flattened, but their upgrades aren’t; having double damage in the second half of a clip would be ruinous in any other game, but here it is simply in keeping with the spirit of the thing. This is a mode where turrets overlook capture points, a fusion rifle round will pass straight through the teammate in front of you and kill you as well, and where an enemy’s full Super bar means you, and any nearby teammates, are dead the second they squeeze both shoulder buttons. The only thing stopping it from being awful is the fact that you can do all of those things as well. There’s a fine time to be had so long as you’re prepared to accept that each match is going to involve a handful of utterly unavoidable deaths.

As ever, your chance of victory in the Crucible will increase if you’re working together as a team. Partying up with those you meet out in the world involves a needlessly clunky series of button presses and dashboard overlays. Your only means of in game communication is four gestures wave, point, dance or sit down. The Tower, pitched as the place to meet up with like-minded lonely hearts who like long walks on Mars, is as good as pointless as a social hub, instead a rest stop between missions that sees you sprint around vendors placed hundreds of yards apart while ignoring
everyone. If Destiny is an MMOG, it’s a lonely one.

All this is a recipe for disaster. We should have walked away hours ago, should be damning one of the most talented studios for making such a boring early game, a ponderously slow late game and an imbalanced PVP mode, and then wrapping it all up in poor social features. Instead, you will have to take our legendary Pulse Rifle from our cold, dead hands. In theory,  Destiny is terrible. In practice, it is a delight.

Much of that comes from the mechanics, which remind you just why Bungie has the pedigree it has. Every enemy in the game is different to fight, and fun with it, whether you’re weaving in and out of cover after a cowardly Dreg, chasing down a Wizard that’s backing off after you’ve destroyed its shield, or cursing your backwards walk speed as you unload clip after clip into a rapidly advancing Minotaur. Even the bosses, one hit killing bullet sponges that they are, have their own charm, the battles more enjoyable with each replay.

And don’t get us started on the raid. Vault Of Glass, available when you reach level 26, is like nothing else in the game, doubling the player count to six and requiring a level of teamwork that is quite unlike anything we have ever seen in a console shooter. There are elements here defined roles, multistage bosses, environmental puzzles that would have helped greatly earlier on. But in the thick of battle, with your shield long gone and ordnance raining around you, your downed teammates
urging you to keep your cool, it’s hard to care.
The Tower sits near the Traveler, the planet-sized enigma that protects Earth from attack and gives Guardians their powers. Teams that have completed the raid often pose for photos here sporting their new gear
Not making you care is what Destiny does best. Even in the worst sessions, where four hours have been traded for a pile of Relic Iron, an upgrade on a gun we rarely use and some low-level gear we immediately destroyed, there is a tangible sense of progress. The benefit of wrapping the game in so convoluted a framework is  that everything you do has a consequence, even if it’s miniscule in the grand scheme of things. You are always working towards something, and it’s always something
worth having. It is incredibly hard to put down.

So Dinklage was right. Destiny is amazing. It’s amazing that one of the most respected studios in the world, with enormous amounts of money and time, could have made a game with so many needless issues. It’s amazing that a studio under contract to Activision Blizzard, the company that defined the MMOG with World Of Warcraft and the loot grind with Diablo, could have made a game that so often misunderstands both. Yet what is most amazing of all is that despite its litany of weird little problems, Destiny is fantastic, its combat up there with the very best, the thrilling rhythm of its battles still not fading the 30th time through, and it has no single systemic problem that is not fixable. This, as Activision is so fond of reminding us, is a decade long project. For all the problems with the game’s story, its structure and its pace, Bungie has nailed the mechanics at the first pass. The next nine years are going to be very intriguing indeed.

Activision largely stood by while its rivals scrambled after the App Store gold rush, but it,  and Bungie, have clearly been paying attention: Destiny offers up daily and weekly challenges that echo the structure of a mobile game. Each day a selection of missions offer up extra XP, dollops of currency and the odd Ascendant upgrade material, while the Nightfall Strike offers those of level 28 and above an XP boost to everything they do until the weekly Tuesday reset. PVE and PVP modes and events, some of which add new rep bars and vendors, come in and out of rotation. Executives fret constantly about the second hand market, but this is the best incentive to keep the disc in the tray Activision has yet produced.


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