There’s no way around it. Bungie is Halo, and the other way around. Despite the Marathon series and Oni, the two are inextricably tied to one another. Even after their last involvement in a Halo title way back in 2010, the storied franchise has left a lingering space marine taste in all our mouths when the word “Bungie” comes into and leaves our ears.
That means even as an exercise of critical analysis, it’s an irresponsible task to remove Destiny, the studio’s latest release, from the context of Master Chief and his multi-planetary shenanigans. Destiny, if it hasn’t been mashed into your skull with marketing over the past few months, is a game that actually takes place well within our world, if several centuries in the future. We, as humanity, live in a Golden Age.
This era of prosperity and peace was brought about by a giant floating planetoid known as The Traveler a few hundred years prior, empowering us with a longer lifespan and the ability to reach out into the cosmos and colonize faraway worlds. There is a thing, however, known as The Darkness, following The Traveler, ostensibly hell-bent on destroying our beneficence. Luckily, The Traveler has created and sent out little autonomous and intelligent robots known as Ghosts to find Guardians to fight back.
That’s where we step in as players. We are the collective Guardians, spread out all over the world in this pseudo-MMO setup. You see, the entire universe of Destiny is structured as literal worlds containing hundreds of instances, each one of which contains several players at a time. It’s all fairly seamless—even remarkably so—where you don’t even notice leaving one area and a batch of friendlies only to enter another with a new set, intellectually understandable as a new load but visually (and impressively) indistinguishable as the sizable landscape unfolds before you.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t make a sizable impact on the game either way. Much of your time in Destiny will go something like this: 1) start mission, 2) see another player icon, 3) ignore it and continue with your mission. Bungie attempts to combat this obvious and solitary loop by adding world events. For instance, drills may drop into the ground and you have to eliminate them before they finish drilling. Or you have to kill a miniboss-sized tank thing within 10 minutes. It’s rare, though, that it feels like anything more than adding another hose to the firefight.
The aforementioned landscape, however, is definitely worth mentioning again and more thoroughly. Destiny, through and through, looks exceptional. It sports wide, rolling vistas of both old Earth and distant planets, all of which appear meticulously sculpted and realized to look as close to living digital art as possible. Almost all that you see invites you to go there and touch it.
That doesn’t really get you anywhere, though. For as beautiful as the container is, the contents are exceedingly bland. While the player interactions are structured to be an MMO, the moment-to-moment gameplay is all shooter. And I do mean all shooter; your actions are largely limited to those centered around shooting, throwing grenades, punching things, and jumping. That’s not a terrible setup considering that the mechanics of those actions are well within Bungie’s wheelhouse, many of which were nearly perfected over the course of the Halo games.
What comes packaged with the shooting is the problem. The missions are distinctly MMO-ish: fetching any number of a certain thing over a huge territory, killing a certain number of bad guys over a huge territory, delivering an object across a huge territory, etc. I never felt all that accomplished from any particular task I completed. It all just seemed so hollow.
That has a lot to do with the story, which is especially disappointing when the opening moments and establishing lore are simply rife with potential. Humanity’s struggles, its fortuitous encounter with an alien entity, our immaculate growth, and now the inevitable and dramatic decline. It’s all so delectably sci-fi. And the way it’s presented is topnotch, from the distinctly Marty O’Donnell swelling score to the haunting visuals.
But that’s all it achieves. Those first 10 minutes are the best the game has to offer from its mythos. With each mission completed, you have the potential to see more of the story unfurl, but it’s usually The Speaker (the appointed proxy for communications between humans and The Traveler) narrating your goals. Just the goals, though. Your impetus rarely surfaces. (And then the ending confusingly arrives and leaves just as strangely.)
I wish I could say at least the other half of the equation was engaging to make up for the intellectually unstimulating narrative. But many of the encounters with enemies take place in MMO mob-style setups, where they hang about a certain area in predetermined numbers with generous respawns. They obey a patrol fence, too, where you can engage them and retreat and they won’t follow, allowing you to take potshots over and over again. It’s a loop you’ll find yourself in, like, a lot.
This is because there are sections of missions that are arbitrarily labeled as “respawns restricted.” Anywhere else, your death means you respawn somewhere nearby and continue on your merry killing way. In these parts, justified with the presence of The Darkness, your death means you have to start the mission over from the beginning.
This compounds multiple problems. The first, which was present in all the demos as well, is that boss battles already take a long time (think somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, owing to the fact that everything is a god damn bullet sponge). Now, however, with the added punishment of having to start the lengthy mission entirely over, it makes a lot more sense to take the cheap route than the heroic route, adding to the exhausting battle time. (The latter, however, doesn’t feel that much more accomplished anyways.)
The second problem is actually quite symptomatic of a systemic issue. Or rather, it’s a problem with the systems of the game: it’s bare. That’s not to say there are enough to weave an economy of systems together to make a game but that there’s nothing disguising and layering them. There’s no discovery. After your opening missions and you make your way back to The Tower (the social hub of the game), you will have experienced the maximal range of mechanics and systems Destiny has to offer.
The only thing you have to look forward to is latent confusion. Distilled in a single parody Twitter account, the underlying spinning cogs that power loot drops is nigh inscrutable. And in-world elements have collisions with the naming schemes of systemic parts of the game, e.g. The Crucible, which can either be the PvP portion of Destiny, a source of bounties, an area in The Tower, or maybe even something else I’ve yet to discover.
And as what seems like a grasp at redemption, there’s the Thrall. They are a particular class of enemy of the Hive species, which are undead aliens looking to, well, I’m not sure. But they’re there, and they are essentially the Flood from the Halo games. When they first show up, it comes across as a yell from deep within Bungie. “Look, we can do this right!” But you only whisper back, “no, you can’t.”
There are a lot of disappointing components to Destiny’s gestalt form. Peter Dinklage’s phoned-in performance as the Ghosts, the poor writing (yes, Speaker, tell me more how the children no longer need horror stories to be scared), uninteresting enemy encounters. It all combats the promise of the game, from the backstory to the continued excellence in Bungie’s shooting mechanics.
But really it comes down to the fact that Destiny is nothing more than a barebones shooter combined with a barebones MMO with not enough of either to make the whole anywhere near compelling. Few parts of it are terribly constructed, but few parts are exceptionally built either. Destiny, such as it is, has found its own fate: mediocrity.
+ Gorgeous landscapes of dilapidation and alien worlds
+ The mechanics of shooting and moving are still a strong suit for Bungie
+ More fantastic music from Marty O’Donnell
– Enemy encounters are bland and bosses are predictable bullet sponges
– Systems are shallow and uninteresting (and some are even confusing)
– Categorically poor writing and an uninteresting/unmoving story
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Game Review: Destiny
Release: September 9, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Online-only multiplayer