Editor's note: Bungie has released an official statement urging players and reviewers to keep in mind that Destiny is a revolutionary multiplayer experience, and that early reviews of the game won't properly reflect its true import. With this in mind, I will happily write an editorial or even a new review if time proves this one antiquated or inaccurate. But for the time being, I believe this review is trustworthy and complete.
I never played much Halo. I never played much Call of Duty. The shameful list goes on, but I’ve long felt it’s time to broaden my gaming horizons. And luckily, it turned out that Destiny is just the game for the job. With intrinsically enjoyable gameplay and a well-adjusted learning curve, no new experience has earned my love so quickly as Destiny. ...And the bandwagon hype of the most successful franchise launch didn’t hurt, either.
Immediately after booting the game up, it prompts you to download and install a day-one software update (even if you download it online). Once finished, it brings you to a dramatic and airy title screen, preparing you to embark on an incredible journey as soon as you press start. This mood is immediately broken when it presents you with a license agreement and then asks you to download yet another thing—a compatibility pack this time. I can’t tell if this whole mess of downloads and agreements is a fault with Destiny itself, or if this is just how alien I’ve become to mainstream gaming. Fortunately this rocky start is no indication of the rest of the game, and Destiny impresses every step onward.
First you choose a class for your player character: Titan, your tried-and-true space marine; Hunter, a stealthy, interstellar lone ranger, and Warlock, whose abilities use magic instead of weapons. I chose the latter, and I’ve been very pleased by the extra pinch of fantasy it’s mixed into the experience, but in truth I look forward to fully exploring all three classes when I get the chance.
Next, you customize the face of your character—and though it’s a shame you can rarely notice your personal touch underneath his or her combat armor, my primary complaint is that the men’s faces are all pretty manly. So my avatar fails to accurately represent me as a person, because I’m ridiculously manly.
And at this point, Destiny begins. It opens up with a pre-rendered cutscene of three explorers traversing a brutal alien world. The graphics were so astounding that, for a moment, I thought it was live-action, and the cinematography is equally sublime. Of course, no in-game scenario has matched the introduction’s spectacle, but the aesthetics and landscape design are nonetheless engaging enough that sometimes I wish I could stop to sit back and appreciate the artistry—you know, if I weren’t being chased by a swarm of alien scum.
From the very first level, Destiny takes cues from the greats of other genres. As I was creeping down a dark corridor, readying myself to fight the very first enemies at every turn, Destiny kept me waiting. And walking. Waiting, and walking. Much to my surprise halfway down a hall, they burst from the ceiling! Or, maybe, no, that was just a rafter falling. When I had finally stopped expecting enemies, that’s when they hit. In that moment, the music and lighting changed so fluidly that I didn’t even realize it until later. The atmosphere of the game was so dynamic that after I had made my first few kills, I felt so empowered. No longer was I lurking around every corner as slowly as I could—now I was barreling through the halls to find my next prey. The hunter became the hunted, and the developers did everything in their power to assure that I, the player, could feel the adrenaline.
I originally bought Destiny because I felt like I owed it to myself as gamer to try it out, but by now, I was genuinely excited to keep going. Luckily, Destiny was prepared.
Well-timed level-ups introduced new techniques just as I was ready to learn them. Bungie also ties level grinding, achievements, special rewards, and replayability into a single experience with the bounty system, which doesn’t feel contrived or banal since the game’s combat is so intrinsically fun. This bounty system is essentially an achievement hub, where players can assume five bounties at once, such as “kill 100 enemies without dying,” or “win five Crucible matches” and exchange them for experience points and armor upgrades upon completion.
The Crucible, then, is an arena for guardians to hone their skills together, as the game calls it—or as I simply say, “multiplayer.” Here, there are several different multiplayer modes available. Control, a six-on-six match to gain control of three zones, is my personal favorite, but there’s also a battle royale, team-based missions to recover ancient relics, and more.
Barring a few close matches, I often felt like my Crucible team was either crushing or getting crushed. This may very well be my inner n00b speaking, but I never felt like the teams were very even. I imagine that this problem will persist until Bungie has collected enough metrics to develop a formula that builds even teams based on the players’ performance, rather than their in-game levels. And if that isn’t in Bungie’s plans, then it sure ought to be.
Multiplayer, in fact, is the game’s central gimmick (which I don’t personally have the gall to call “revolutionary”). Players are always online, experiencing even the single-player campaign with other users. Each goes through his or her journey either alone or with a team of up to two other players, but you’re still connected with others on different parts of their campaign. The result is a confusing hodgepodge of single player and co-op modes whose effects are novel at best, yet crippling at worst.
It’s no doubt a relief to be in the heat of battle, on the brink of death, when another firesquad comes to tip the scales, and dancing together as celebration is quite charming. On the other hand, it can be quite frustrating when someone else comes in on their own and steals your valuable experience points, and it’s even worse every single time you realize you can’t pause the game. But by far the biggest pitfall of this mechanic is that you must be connected to play the game. More than once, I’ve found myself suddenly removed from the game near the tail end of a long, grueling mission, while some large crowds of gamers can’t even play the game at all.
I understand that the MMO-like quality of the game is one of its major marketing points, but that it has such a rich single-player campaign, yet offers no option for offline play—not even one tucked deep within the menu system—feels a bit cheap to me, and should serve as a warning to anyone with a less-than-stellar internet connection that Destiny is simply not an option for you.
The Verdict: Satisfying for Everyone, Though Not Everyone Can Play
Destiny is filling holes in my gaming experience—particularly for the First Person Shooter genre—so perhaps my satisfaction with the game is a by-product of having never really sunken my teeth into its truly revolutionary predecessors. But innovative or not, Destiny is a rich game that accommodates many different play styles and levels of experience. Its always-online infrastructure is a major roadblock to its accessibility, but Destiny is otherwise a smooth and extremely fun experience worth joining in on no matter how seasoned (or not) an FPS veteran you are.