I have long said that Bungie is a studio that takes themselves way too seriously. Their games are full of simple, yet purposefully impenetrable narratives that they profess to be some form of high-art in game storytelling, when in reality, they’re just incredibly simplistic sci-fi narratives (mostly) that are more or less copies of each other. They like to use a lot of single, simple words to name things and hold back on any useful exposition about them because if you’re a real fan, you’ll seek out all the expanded universe novels, comics and ARGs to fill it in for you. I’ve co-opped every Halo game except 4 to completion and based on the game stories alone, I couldn’t begin to tell you what really happens in them. And we haven’t even gotten to the problems of how slow their games are or how bad the audio design is, just to name two things. Going into those would be a multi-part blog series on its own though.
If you don’t believe Bungie’s opinion of themselves, just listen to the sweeping, almost biblical music that accompanies each title’s opening or the super-serious making of videos they put out before release. These are artists man and they’re making art! You can tell this is a company that cut its teeth making Mac products. They make very pretty stuff that in the end, has the depth of a spoon and has been done better elsewhere but if you aren’t on board, there’s a fiendish army of cult-like followers to tell you how wrong you are and how you just don’t get it. Obviously, being someone who is not a fan either, this makes me super pitiable. Or maybe not. Probably not.
I say that up front because while Destiny (at least in its recently concluded beta form) is all of those things, there’s a ton of potential here and I’m actually excited to see more, though I have a lot of skepticism as well.
If you’re hoping this is when Bungie was going to differ in the narrative department, you’re sadly mistaken. If you want another story about humanity being on the losing side of a conflict and a large object in the sky being key to stopping it, all of which have single word names that explain nothing about them, you’ll find that here. To be fair, the beta was purposefully light on story so it’s possible this will be further explained in the final product. Given how Bungie and Activision have supposedly put $500 million into this project though, I think it’s a safe bet to assume that there will be some other accompanying media. The thing is though, I love both sci-fi stories and post-apocalyptic stories and Destiny looks to be a mixture of both. Even if Bungie does with this what they do with Halo, it’s still going to be a lot more entertaining to run around in this world. At least on the current consoles, it’s a pretty world indeed.
In many ways, Destiny feels like Bungie took the concept of Borderlands (running around shooting stuff, doing missions and collecting loot) and turned it into a full-on MMO. The game can be played offline but it’s clear the meat of it involves running around with friends or joining groups of public players to tackle quests as a group. There are several different types of missions, some simple story quests, others exploratory, others which are essentially raids, complete with the long duration and hard as nails difficulty that requires teamwork. I never managed to finish one, even though I spent north of an hour on some attempts. In the beta, there were not many environments available so a lot of these missions took place in the same part of Earth but the maps are large and different missions will take you to different parts of them. Given the incredible detail of the Old Russia map I spent most of my time on, if the shipping game has a larger variety of areas and juggles your missions back and forth between them, that will be something impressive indeed.
This wouldn’t be a Bungie game without competitive multiplayer and that’s present as well. The beta centered mostly around territory control missions and while it was fun, it was nothing new. If you’ve played this mode in another game, that’s what it is here. Bungie is famous for coming up with kooky game modes so I hope they continue that tradition. Where things get pretty slick is that multiplayer is integrated into the game world. You have to go to a specific place for it but you just travel there like another planet and you take your experience level and gear with you. If you make progress there, you get to take that forward into the main game. I love this seamless design and it does make everything feel a lot more cohesive, though I’m not sure how they’re going to handle balance with matchmaking in that situation.
The problem with MMOs is that they require a lot of customisability and content has to keep coming, otherwise people will just blow through them like any other game and move on. Bungie has said they have a ten year(!) plan for Destiny and they’re already pimping the season pass for it (which they of course call an expansion pass because Bungie has to sound more grandiose) but I really wonder how much content and in particular, unique content is coming. A lot of the beta missions were just of the “go here, kill this” variety and especially in the explore mode, the objectives felt as generic and flat as any MMO. To be fair, those types of grind quests are the bread and butter of genre powerhousees like World of Warcraft so maybe that’s what they need. It won’t be enough to keep me around though. I talked before about the repeating missions in environments and that’s also a concern because many of these repeats are gated off behind level requirements. If you take a mission that’s too high a level for you, all the enemies are just more powerful. They can even be invulnerable if you aim too far beyond your means. There’s no story justification given for this, it’s just the way it is. Again, this is a normal thing to have happen in an MMO but Bungie is positioning this to be something more, something revolutionary. If that’s how they plan to get progression and dish out content, it’s anything but, aside from having more backstory perhaps.
Customisation is another big concern of mine. At least in the beta, there are only a handful of weapon types. As you collect loot, you get better versions of those weapons and some of them will have certain elemental enhancements on them. Sound familiar? You get a primary weapon, a secondary and a special. You also have a few armour pieces you can change but again, the number of types is low compared to even a traditional MMO and it once again becomes a game about getting higher numbers. There may be bigger plans for this but as it was demonstrated in the beta, it feels like a shallow, stripped down version of systems that exist in better fleshed out forms in MMOs that came before. It doesn’t really feel like you have the means to make a character that’s uniquely your own and that’s onen of the big draws of MMOs. At it is now, I feel like there’s going to be a lot of samey characters walking around, just with mismatched colours of armour on with nothing to compare except stats. That’s boring.
Technically, Destiny is one of the first third-party games that I think can truly be called “next-gen.” It was supposed to be Watch Dogs but that game can’t hold a candle to this. Visually, the world is simply breathtaking to behold. Everything is finely detailed and you can see a long way into the distance without it being a blurry mess after a few feet. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic that blends sci-fi and the post-apocalypse perfectly. Bungie’s excellence at menu design is also present here, with a thumbstick controlled cursor setup that looks like it should be an nightmare to use but flows with a level of elegance rarely seen. It’s both more enjoyable and more efficient than using traditional menus. I knocked the pretentiousness of Bungie’s musical choices before but one can’t deny that in spite of that, it’s still wonderful music. A lot of games have fairly generic orchestral scores but Destiny’s feels unique and there’s no doubt that when you hear that menu music, you know exactly where it came from. The voice acting is once again flat and oddly mixed like most Bungie games and they’ve now become the latest studio to have a game in the Why Did You Waste Money On A Big Non-Voice Actor? category. Your robot companion is voiced by Peter Dinklage, whose delivery is so deadpan, disinterested and phoned in, I honestly didn’t know it was him until The Internet got upset about it. I don’t know why studios obsess with paying undoubtedly large amounts to bring in big Hollywood talent who have no idea how to do voice acting and who completely waste that money on lousy performances. People take the piss out of Nolan North and Troy Baker but those guys know how to bloody voice act!
Bungie certainly hasn’t come off their high horse with Destiny. Expectations for this game are high and Bungie’s cultivated them that way. But as someone who doesn’t really care for Halo or Bungie at all, Destiny grabbed my interest and I really want to see more so they may have nonetheless struck a chord with me. I love the concept they’re going for and the world looks gorgeous. I can forgive a lot of pretentiousness when there’s a good game underneath it and there’s potential for that here. There needs to be more variety in the missions and environments, a lot more variety in character customisation and they have to figure out a better way to gate off content but they could have all that sorted already. The beta was apparently a very tiny slice of what is a hugely ambitious product and my reservations about Bungie aside, there are only a handful of studios left who could have a shot of pulling something like this off and the creative influence to do it their way.
Bungie could have made a safer game than Destiny and I imagine they’re betting the farm on it. This game is either going to be a massive success or an historic failure, nothing in between. That’s something you hear a lot more in AAA development this is a level above even that. As someone who wants to see AAA games succeed and do more, I hope they pull it off because that’s more important than whether a studio thinks more of itself than maybe it should. You’ve got me interested Bungie, I hope your ten year plan’s a good one.