Earlier this month, I got a chance to fly up to Washington and try Bungie's upcoming sci-fi shooter, Destiny. Walking through the Bellevue office for the first time, I'm struck by all the accolades lining the walls near the reception area. Here, a giant, life-sized statue of Master Chief stands tall, casting a shadow.
Bungie finds itself in a situation that's similar to that of Respawn with Call of Duty, prior to the launch of Titanfall: they have both made a fantastic franchise that gamers know and love, but now, they're moving on from them. They're hoping to give us something new, and they have raised the question of whether or not the development team has the capacity to make more hit franchises that stick with players. In some ways, even though Bungie's development of Destiny isn't known to be as turbulent as the development of Titanfall, Bungie's situation still feels precarious, delicate.
The game wants to be ambitious. Last year, frustratingly, when we first took a look at the game, Bungie talked mostly in concepts and buzzwords. The game is in first-person, for the most part -- but it's not a first-person shooter. According to Bungie, it has "elements of a first-person shooter." People will join you in your attempt to fight evil and learn more about the world -- but it's not an MMO. It's a "shared-world shooter," the supposed first of its kind, which offers a persistent world for everyone. They even shared their "seven pillars" of design, which are the ideas informing Destiny's ethos -- they promise a robust, mysterious, and unpredictable world that they hope players will want to spend time in. During a presentation I attended earlier this month, Bungie described some "genre bending" concepts behind Destiny...like "exploration" and "character evolution." All of this combines to give the feeling that they're so desperate to give us something new with this shooter they're willing to coin new terms for old ideas -- if not repurpose old buzzwords to make them sound more exciting than they actually are.
Maybe that sounds harsh, especially for a game I haven't seen in full just yet -- but I think they're aware of how earnest they're being with this title. "We talked a big game last year," a recent post Bungie blog admitted. "We were so excited to talk about our future. Now, it's time to deliver. It's time to close this out in a way that we will all be proud of. We owe that to ourselves, and to our legacy." Meanwhile, Destiny's publisher, Activision, hopes that Destiny will be the "best-selling new video game IP in history."
I don't think it's an understatement to say that it feels like there is a lot riding on yet another game where you shoot things in the face -- for Bungie, for Activision, and for eager fans. And after what I played earlier this month, I'm not sure Destiny can shoulder that burden.
Bungie's office is in a converted multiplex movie theatre. If you didn't know any better, you might even confuse the entire outside area for a mall or something. The studio itself has its own theatre, too -- that's where the press is ushered in and given a demo. This one is hands off. Here, we're told about Destiny's story: you're a Guardian, a protector of Earth. Following a "golden age" where humanity rushed to the stars, most of civilisation was destroyed -- save for a city which was under the protection of a giant sphere called the "Traveller." The Traveller is stuck on Earth, after sacrificing itself to protect humanity from an ominous great evil that threatens everything (it's a video game: of course there's a Great Evil). Your job as a Guardian, hundreds of years after the collapse, is to keep aliens at bay, explore, and reclaim secrets from the golden age -- or, as Bungie put it, "carve out your destiny in the stars."
Bungie begins the demo at the Tower, a location inside the Traveller which acts as a space where players can socialize with one another as well as purchase things from a public marketplace. We're shown a warlock, a class which uses arcane energies to complement their shooting -- it's kind of like magic, except more sci-fi-ish (one of their abilities is called "Solar Flare," for example). Think a mix between the bionic and assault classes in Mass Effect 3. From the Tower, players can jet off and explore other worlds -- and the world of Destiny is bigger than anything Bungie has ever built, Bungie says. You can explore the stars, after all. We're also briefly told about Destiny's companion app, which players can use to plan attacks, look at missions and also other players, among other things.
Then Bungie's community manager Eric Osbourne takes us on a scouting mission located on the moon, a demonstration that runs on a PS4 dev kit. He tells us that the entire thing is a pre-alpha, but even so, the game looks gorgeous. You've probably heard this before -- the visuals are pretty much the first thing we noted the last time we encountered the game, too. In any case, we're taken out into icy alien steppes in an attempt to find beacons or a patrol job. As the Guardian explores their surroundings, I'm taken aback by how empty the game feels -- the landscape looks vast, exudes a silent sadness. It's hard to tell if the game's emptiness will feel alienating or not when actually playing -- especially if areas might be populated by way more people than what we saw in the demo -- but I do find it amusing to be so contemplative when looking at the world through the barrel of a gun. You'd think I'd have gotten used to this by now.
As he moves about, he's tasked with an objective: kill 15 enemies. The foes that pop up are all level 2, and it kind of shows. The aliens mostly just stand there, waiting for Osbourne to kill them with his revolver-like weapon. It's a powerful weapon that can kill an enemy in just a few shots. Though the music plays up the scenario, it doesn't look particularly exciting -- but, again, the enemies were just level 2, and maybe the entire thing just looks easy because it's being played by a person that knows it inside-out. Regardless, he dives further into the landscape, and the characters start talking about what might be buried in the world, just waiting to be found. Artifacts, resources, secrets. It sounds exciting; Bungie seems intent on building up its mystery. Osbourne tells us to take note of the aurora borealis off in the distance, and sure enough, it's beautiful. This, honestly, is probably what stood out the most to me when I saw Destiny: it's a looker. We're going to get lots of fantastic in-game photography out of this game. I'd say that's not actually enough, especially not for a shooter, but we still have franchises like Crysis hanging on, so maybe I'm wrong.
After killing a few aliens, Osbourne then starts ignoring the active mission, stating that players don't have to stick to them, if they don't want to -- they can just as easily go out into the world and explore what's out there. Maybe they will find other missions. Maybe they will find something else entirely. As he plays, Osbourne finds rusted ship parts, which he says are remnants of the past that hopefully build a sort of "mythic science fiction" -- but if there's a story to be taken from the landscape, it's either lost on me or we're missing the context in this slice of the game. But, again, it's certainly pretty. Ruin porn, if you will.
A small taste of said landscape porn, if you're interested:
Then Osbourne hops into a Shrike, a speedy, floating vehicle that will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Ghosts in Halo thanks to how it moves about. As he speeds forward, we catch a glimpse of more of the landscape -- rivers cutting between mountains, icy greenery. He revs up a mountain with the Shrike, arriving at a more enclosed, industrial space. In here, he finds a level 4 Fallen Captain type alien, who puts up more of a fight than earlier enemies. Finally, things seem a bit interesting! But before long, just the same, the enemy is destroyed. Osbourne exits the area and notes that the sun is setting -- time has passed in-game while he was in there.
The focus shifts away from missions and Bungie starts talking about Guardians and their builds. The character we're shown is level 20 -- we're told that he's approaching an end game state and can start thinking about attempting raids with a team of players. We're shown all the different equipment the Guardian can put on, including gear that takes inspiration from vikings, Romans, medieval times, futuristic holograms and all sorts of other things. These aren't the Guardian's we're shown, but they should give you a sense of the sort of diversity the game hosts:
Some gear obviously forms a specific set that meshes well together, but players are free to mix and match however they'd like without penalties -- the worst that can happen is that some gear will visually clash, but hey. If that's how you roll, that's how you roll.
We're also told that all the gear will be upgradeable, complete with skill trees and everything. This includes weapons: players will be able to tweak them until they work however they'd like, Bungie claims. You can expect the typical array of weapon assortments: shotguns, assault rifles, heavy weapons, along with some more unique options, like fusion weapons. These have the standard sort of upgradeable attributes you'd expect: damage, rate of fire, range, accuracy, stability. And then there are attributes like control, will, and force -- all of which Bungie was not willing to talk about, but that seem worth noting.
While it's not the exact thing Bungie demoed for us, you can watch highlights of something very similar to it in this b-roll:
It's time for the hands-on demos. Everyone goes into a three-person station, each of which is composed of two journalists and someone from Bungie. I'm paired with none other than Eric Osbourne himself. When I sit down to play, the first thing that immediately strikes me is that I'm playing something that reminds me tons of Halo...only with a Playstation 4 controller. It's kind of strange. Not in a bad way, mind you -- the game feels comfortable on a DualShock controller, perhaps even preferable to some of you to the experience of playing the game with an Xbox controller. It's just that after spending years and years playing Halo on Xbox controllers, playing something Bungie made on a PlayStation controller feels conceptually odd.
"When we shipped [Halo] Reach, we had about 150 guys," Eric Osbourne tells me. "We have 500 now. We brought in a lot of people who had a lot of experience working on Sony," he reassures.
As for the differences in versions, especially when comparing the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game to the 360 and PS3 versions? "Mainly graphical," Osbourne says. "We'll definitely have some touchpad stuff [on the PS4], we'll make good use of the [different] platform features, but the core pillars of the game are there."
With that in mind, I played through a single strike mission a couple of times -- these are cooperative, replayable scenarios where players fight against waves of enemies. The idea is to provide something players can go through in short bursts -- the entire thing takes a little over twenty minutes, and ends with a boss battle that rewards you with stuff you can use to upgrade your characters.
The boss, by the way? Ostensibly, I think it was either a tough spider tank thing I fought near the end of the strike, or the giant disco-ball-like sphere that we weren't allowed to actually kill during the demo. Sure, it's cool that the tank thing can focus its attention on specific players that really damage its vulnerable areas, like the legs. But it's still a freakin' giant enemy crab. The joke writes itself. Let's not even talk about disco ball the boss.
While this isn't the entirety of what we played through, you can watch some highlights of the strike, which is called The Devil's Lair, here:
To play the strike, I joined Osbourne's fireteam as a warlock -- a class that is fragile, but has explosive super powers. Together, we have a team of one of each of the classes: there's also the hunter, who is primarily a ranged fighter who can double jump, and the titan, who is more of a front-line damage dealer. We're all level 8. Once inside Osbourne's game, I couldn't help but start jumping around a lot and mess around with my character's abilities -- the game feels a tad floaty; you can hold down the jump button to hover a bit. My instinct is to try to use this ability to climb all the different structures laying about -- but, unlike Titanfall, there's no parkour and movement is kind of limited, comparitively. Destiny does reward you with loot if you explore with what it provides, though. There's even an audio cue that you can hear when you're near a treasure that you can't see.
As we move forward and mow down a swath of different low-level aliens, we occasionally find small chests in places that are off the main path. I can't say finding these was particularly exciting, though some of loot we found did happen to be unidentified objects which could later turn out to be anything, a la Diablo. And yes, in case you're wondering, nobody else can steal the loot you come across -- what you see is yours.
For the most part, until we get to the part of the game where we have fend off aliens long enough to hack some equipment, going through the strike felt boring. For a brief moment during said hacking section, when the wave of enemy aliens heavily poured through, things got a bit interesting. On the third time through, the fight came down to the wire, with only one Guardian left standing against the onslaught -- but I'm not sure if that was because we were collectively losing interest by then. The game does provide some challenge though, and thankfully you can revive players after they go out. As we walked about, we even saw some intriguing higher level areas that we couldn't attempt at a measly level eight. The shooting itself is functional, though not particularly noteworthy. As Stephen said last time, it's traditional.
When we replayed the same strike, some of the enemies were different and of a higher level, meaning that even if the strike is overtly the same, you can still experience some variance in challenge. There are even charming emotes, which allow your character to do things like wave or dance simply by pressing a direction on the d-pad. All good things!
But even so, most of what I played through felt like we were doing the rounds in another FPS where we aim for the head to land criticals and try our best to keep our shields intact, only in this case we're shooting fodder to earn enough blue orbs to fill up a meter that powers up our special, high-powered abilities. Like this one, for example:
Successfully landing these bombastic special attacks makes enemies drop more orbs for other players, meaning that everyone benefits from teammates playing skillfully. Sometimes, the power itself might benefit other players -- when I retried the strike as a titan, I had a bubble-like defence ability that was reminiscent of Halo's bubble shield. Glancing briefly at the available skill trees, I found that this shield can have many variances, like having it follow the player, having it buff team mates, or simply remaining a stationary defence. What it does depends on how players want to spec, and I'm told that once the game launches, some of the abilities the game actually ships with may differ from the ones we saw that day.
Notice how I compared one of the abilities to Halo there? While playing, I couldn't help but focus on tiny little things that reminded me of Bungie's other franchise. One of the snipers I used, for example, looked a lot like the sniper rifles in Halo. And overall, even though the game is much prettier and the UI is hipster-slick, the game looks like the natural evolution of Halo's aesthetic, too. Maybe I was looking for similarities. And maybe I can't fault Bungie for having similar elements across titles. When I note that BioWare games have similar elements, my reaction isn't negative: I'm overjoyed at how the similar DNA I recognise lets me construct a ridiculous theory about how the worlds of different franchises are connected.
But in this case, the similarities feel a bit more damning. It's because they add to some other issues I was facing while playing. Mind, these aren't technical issues or anything. The game runs great, looks great. Still, the entire time I was playing, I primarily thought two things: 1) I wish I was playing the ever-exciting Titanfall instead and 2) I don't know where a game like Destiny will fit in a landscape that's full of shooters.
So I asked Osbourne what he thought -- where would Destiny fit? What, in other words, would set it apart? This is what he had to say:
"We're just trying to make a game that we love...the thing that we're doing, is building a shooter, what you see today, which is a really good action shooter. I think the persistent character and the character build stuff will make it stand out. I think the worlds that feel alive, worlds that feel like places you can visit...things like raids, inside of a shooter, we can make them really challenging for advanced players.
"If you want to make an accessible shooter, that's super fine for a lot of people to play, and a lot of people to have a good time with, but we also want to think about how there's a lot of people who stick around for 6, 8, 9, months, a year. They're there long term, they're very loyal, and they want us to give them a nice curated experience, to sort of freshen them up for them.
So we think about design challenges, what can we do with modes [in Destiny] like we did with multiplayer with Halo...how can we do that with story content, how can we do that with cooperative content?"
To give him credit, including stuff like raids is novel, and I wish they'd have showcased that instead of what we got to play -- maybe I'd feel differently about Destiny then. But it still wasn't the most satisfying answer: like I noted earlier in this article, Destiny doesn't really seem to be doing much that's new, not that a game has to reinvent the wheel to be enjoyable.
And I admit, I've seen very little of the game -- just trailers, previews, a demonstration at Bungie's studio itself, and I've played single strike, which I've gone through a few different times. That's about 45 minutes of game time. There's still the multiplayer to consider, which they haven't unveiled just yet. I completely concede the competitive multiplayer or the raids could be more amazing than either the forgettable story stuff or the strike stuff.
To some degree, I can't even harp too much on what Destiny does wrong, based on what I've played -- it reminds me, funnily enough, of Fuse. Remember Fuse? The co-op shooter that took a lot of cues from Borderlands, only without offering much of an identity of its own? That's sort of what Destiny feels like thus far: like a game that has a lot of things that look appealing on the back of a box as a features list, but that when actually experienced, don't seem like enough to carry a game.
Destiny, like Borderlands, is also doing the whole co-op shooter that focuses on loot thing -- though, when I asked about number specifics, I was vaguely told that the game had "a lot" of gear.
Bungie doesn't want Destiny to be the sort of game that needs to take over your life.
Borderlands may not be the same sort of juggernaut that Destiny is, but boy, it has a lot of heart, a lot of personality. Borderlands is in your face. Borderlands is memorable. That counts for a lot. I can still tell you about the thrill I felt after getting an early special weapon in the first game, The Lady Finger -- and this is that I've collected hundreds of way better weapons in that franchise. The Lady Finger is, all things told, a shitty weapon. Still, I collected a few guns in my strike missions in Destiny, but I don't recall what they are. I guess there was an interesting shotgun that I had to charge before shooting, but I remember it mainly because the shots emanating from my gun looked like beautiful balls of energy. Once again: primarily a visual feat, which is not to say that Destiny is devoid of commendable stuff altogether. The fact that friends can join your game seamlessly, without the need for loading screens or progress bars is cool, for example.
Another interesting, and in my mind positive, aspect about Destiny: Bungie doesn't want it to be the sort of game that needs to take over your life, which definitely sets it apart from most MMOs.
"You don't have to play every single day, we all have jobs, kids...[Destiny] has to be compatible with real life," Osbourne declares.
The idea that a developer is making a game that doesn't actively want you hooked on it all the time feels rare, boggling -- at least, as far as triple-A games are concerned.
But even so, while playing, the comparisons kept coming. I kept trying to figure out where Destiny fit. What is Destiny's spirit, its identity? The only thing I can seem to come up with is "sci-fi," which isn't really an identity at all. Destiny doesn't match the exhilaration that comes with playing with titans in Titanfall. It doesn't match the adrenaline rush high of Call of Duty. It doesn't have the same sort of memorable spirit as Borderlands. It doesn't have the sort of addicting loot that characterises Diablo. It doesn't carry the same sort of intrigue that comes with investigating a collapsed society, like in Fallout -- there was some story attached to the strike missions I played, but it was forgettable. Destiny doesn't have the interesting sci-fi politics of Mass Effect. Based on what I've played -- which, again, is but a small sliver of the overall game -- Destiny almost seems like the off-brand version of Halo, if Halo had more MMO-ish elements. That will still sound exciting to some of you, I'm sure.
I will say that, based on what I saw, I am incredibly curious about the competitive multiplayer stuff -- admittedly, that's always what intrigues me most about shooters. In this case, I can't help but think about how your characters are supposed to be persistent and will likely carry the same loot you find during strikes or story/campaign stuff. How do you balance that? "Very, very carefully," Osbourne joked. "We're not ready to reveal the competitive multiplayer stuff, but it will be a fun time." I look forward to seeing what he means.
Let's be real here: Destiny has some serious competition. It's in the unenviable position of having to convince people to care about shooting stuff in a market that's over-saturated with shooting games. When that's the case, even great games can get overshadowed by the FPS giants that dominate the market. That's tough. Worse, games like Destiny -- MAG, DUST 514 -- prove that pulling off an MMO-like shooter is a rather difficult thing to do. Destiny has to bring out the big guns if it wants to succeed.
But, hey, maybe I'm overthinking all of this. Maybe I should just enjoy the gorgeousness the game has to offer:
And here's a new trailer, for good measure: