Sometimes when I'm playing a Crucible PvP match in Destiny, and the scores for the Alpha and Bravo teams are roughly equal, the announcer Lord Shaxx tells me that I've misjudged my opponents.
What does that mean? (And who named this guy?) I'm pretty sure the numbers on the board prove that everyone has judged things sufficiently. Sometimes when I win a match, he reminds me that one victory doesn't decide a war. But I'm not fighting a war against other Guardians. Maybe if we were grouped together along "PvP faction" lines, I would celebrate the virtuoso performances of my fellow Future War Cult members. But we're not, and I can't.
The announcer is just one facet of the Crucible's "bro vibe" that clashes with every other good-timey feeling I get from Destiny. Another major turn-off is the creepy squad pose at the beginning of every match, a tired facsimile of real-word military propaganda. These maps feel more like Call of Duty than Halo, an endless progression of bombed-out horizontal complexes whose names I immediately forget after spawning. Destiny turns the knob on Bungie's now-signature "floaty jump" up to eleven with a bevy of unique air control styles, but it has largely abandoned the vertical level design that gave this floatiness meaning -- everything is one double jump away, if you can vault that convenient ramp at just the right speed.
We are talking here about a simulated skirmish against narratively-defined allies, so the Crucible maps should be highly-constructed spaces meant to fully test the game's mechanics and my abilities as a futuristic super soldier. Instead we get a slavish realism, a patina of filth and decay coating every inch of virtual space. If the rest of Destiny's PvP design choices were similarly bogged down by the weight of The Darkness, my advice would be to wait until map packs come along to earn your devotion. But the guns and the classes and the jumping and the armour are lovely, and -- cooler than any Jedi -- I can pull a speeder bike out of my arse whenever I need to flank some suckers.
Full Enough Disclosure
I teach a class called "Thinking About Games" at NYU, mostly about the sociology and philosophy of play. Every semester I do icebreakers for the first class session, because the syllabus is terrifying and I need everyone to keep thinking that these four months are going to be Totally Fun and Not Really That Hard long enough for the drop/add period to end. During this session we discuss our favourite games of all time, providing some justification for our taste or expertise. I always go first to disabuse everyone of their fears that I will in any way judge them on their choices.
My favourite game, I tell them, is Halo 3. The reasons for this are largely personal rather than objectively justifiable. Halo came out when I was a college freshman, and it's what we all played together on my dormitory hall. I don't like Halo 2, because that's what my gross roommates who stole utility money and put holes in the wall of my first apartment liked to play in between their thieving and their hole-punching. Halo 3 carried me through the two hardest years of my life, a bright light at the end of every disappointing day I spent working for Some Arsehole in retail.
I don't really write reviews of video games anymore. But every time a new Bungie or Halo game comes out, somebody asks me to write about the multiplayer. I'm not sure how the word got out that I was "the Halo guy," but it might have something to do with: If I accidentally have one drink too many at a party in your apartment, I will wander off in search of one of two games: Bubble Bobble and Halo 3. These are the games I can competently and happily play even when I can't sit upright anymore. Hand me an M6 Spartan Laser, and I'll add at least seven kills to our team's score. (Yes, I know it only fires five shots. That's what I'm trying to say, ok? OK.)
Bungie's games are my home and my comfort food, the 3AM bodega turkey sandwich and the calming bowl of East Village ramen. It's hard for me to maintain or pretend to any degree of critical distance when considering them. Yet (and with much regret) I can be incredibly cruel when a family member asks me the same tedious question for the umpteenth time, or when some poor soul shorts my sandwich on tomato.
Through A Sniper Scope, Darkly
There's isn't much new to the small arms formula of Destiny. Most of the primary and secondary weapon types are thinly-veiled versions of our Halo favourites done in three or four statistical variations inspired by Call of Duty. The slow-charging fusion rifle replaces Halo's shield-busting plasma pistol, trading the latter's relentless homing ability for the possibility of a neat one-hit kill. Fans of the old rocket launcher will probably keep it as their default heavy weapon until they have been sacrificed enough times on the altar of the Machine Lord (I firmly believe that controlling the heavy weapons drops is what determines most Crucible matches).
Despite this largely familiar formula, a game designer with whom I regularly play competitive games noted the frequent lack of transparency in the Crucible. Which stats from your character class, armour, and weapons actually carry over to the competitive mode? A brief check in any forum dedicated to the game shows that this is a common concern for players. I've explained the way this system works to at least ten people who were playing without actually knowing what was going on under the hood. And there are a few levels to this answer, depending how deep you want to go.
The most fundamental difference between PvE and PvP is that your armour and damage numbers don't matter in competitive play. This decision is what allows low-level players to have a fighting chance in the arena, and the system works! It's humbling as a 20+ character to have your arse handed to you by a level 8, because they don't have access to nearly as many class abilities and choices. Unlike in every other MMOG I've personally played, I am neither sequestered into a level-restricted PvP bracket nor forced to spend my low levels ineffectually poking at overpowered players in a laissez-faire bloodbath.
Yet, digging a little deeper, we arrive at the fact that gear passive stats do matter in PvP. For instance: If your hand cannon gets a damage bonus from one random bullet in any given clip, that can and will turn the tide of a skirmish with another player. Although Destiny doesn't use a strict "Diablo-style" weapon randomization method, getting gear from an engram rather than a vendor does entail some variation in passive perks. While the passives available in the gulf between uncommon (green) and legendary (purple) gear don't greatly vary, things start to get messy when exotics (yellow) come into play.
The first level 20 item I got, randomly awarded after a match in the Crucible, is an exotic shotgun called the Universal Remote. There are two strange things about this gun. The first is that it goes in my main weapon slot despite the fact that it uses special (green) ammo; this means that I can carry two special weapons into battle, as in the Shotty Snipers days of yore (this is a mode in the Halo franchise wherein every player spawns with both a shotgun and a sniper rifle). The second weird thing about my Universal Remote is that it can be upgraded to work at medium range. All things being equal, I don't have to wait as long as you do for a one-shot kill if we're squaring off in a shotgun duel.
So the advantages of having access to exotic weapons should be obvious, but the most important and confusing thing about weapons is that pile of stat bars detailing their effective range, impact (enemy stagger), rate of fire, and stability (aim drift). What these bars entail means something slightly different for every weapon type, and it's too easy to ignore them when choosing which weapons to keep around. Throughout my early experience, I wielded an auto rifle that gained extra damage at the cost of rate-of-fire, and I curse myself for ever salvaging that gun (consensus seems to be that impact>stability>RoF for auto rifles, an opinion supported by the dominance of the Suros Regime exotic gun in Crucible play over the past weekend).
Other aspects of the multiplayer design remain almost completely opaque, and I've spent countless bathroom breaks Googling questions whose answers would be obvious in a hard-line genre shooter:
Q: "Does crouching take you off the enemy radar? Sometimes I feel invisible, sometimes not." A: "If you look at your own radar, you'll notice that the arrow representing you in the middle disappears when you crouch. This means you're off the enemy radar. BUT their detection systems will still ping your location every three seconds."
Q: "Why does it seem like I never get a loot drop if I finish first on my team?" A1: "That always happens to me, too! These scrubs who go 0-20 always get Legendaries." A2: "You're delusional, it's completely random." (This one is probably correct.) A1: "No you're delusional! You've probably never finished first, gtfo." (But this one feels good.)
Q: "Can any non-Super other than a headshot for a sniper rifle kill me in one bullet? It seems like sometimes a hand cannon or machine gun round will also do the job." A: "Pay more attention, you're definitely taking more shots or a melee as well. Also this game's sync is constantly going whack and delivering damage out of order so nbd."
Q: "Male and female Guardians appear different in size. Does this affect their hit boxes?" A1: "Of course not, you f***ing moron, that would break the game." A2: "I wish I'd rolled a lady Guardian. They look better in literally everything." (Yes. Yes they do.)
Games Inside Games Inside Games
My boss excuses most of Destiny's PvE shortcomings by referring to its "MMO weirdness." The fact that this game is an MMOG allows us to write off many of its narrative weaknesses, because what we have now is just a staging ground for a decade-long epic (or whatever). Its MMOG status also explains away what we perceive as its annoying lack of transparency. This genre doesn't tell you everything you need to know to play it well, because participating in an MMOG necessarily entails navigating an economy of insider information and forum-based metagaming that Mia Consalvo calls "gaming capital."
I came into Destiny intending to avoid everything except the PvP. I've had enough of the MMOG grind, even the "healthy" kind, to say nothing of the kind of deviance demanded by cave- and respawn-farming. This was an easy enough resolution to maintain throughout the trip from level 2 to 20, but now that I've found myself in the limbo of the current endgame I see less and less of the Crucible. If I don't spend a huge amount of time completing weekly PvE events, I won't get as many Legendary and Exotic items; the ones I do get, I won't be able to upgrade without a bunch of material harvesting (I can now spot a softly shimmering pile of helium coils from a thousand yards away).
You may say, "It only takes a few of each harvestable material to upgrade your gear far enough for all the passive upgrades that affect battle in the Crucible." You may say, "It is only your pride that makes you yearn for the blue flames that dance about the heads of Nightfall victors, your greed that makes you covet the number 30 next to another Guardian's name." You'd be correct on all counts, and yet the force of your reason would be unable to shake my opinion that dedicated Crucible players should have their own social hub and their own unique ways to garland themselves in vanity.
Perhaps the most meaningful assault on the sanctity of the Crucible's separation from the rest of the world of Destiny comes from the bounty board. If you look at my PvP history, you'll quickly assess that my preferred style of play skews toward the high risk/reward of fusion rifles and shotguns. One day I made the mistake of picking up two bounties, one for 15 sniper headshots and one for 50 headshots (of any kind). I figured that I'd lock these down with the same synergistic efficiency that drives my typical simultaneous turn-in of "kill this many" and "win that many" bounties.
In fact it took days to clear them. I had recently salvaged the aforementioned slow-firing auto rifle, and my current bullet-vomiter wasn't nearly accurate enough to reliably end on a head-splitting note. None of the maps seemed designed for sniper play. It forced me out of my comfort zone, and I experimented with essentially every combination of weapons until finally finding an affinity for the hand cannon.
On the one hand, I used to celebrate the achievement system of XBOX Live for its tendency to pull me out of typical play styles. On the other, everybody shoots in a different way, and shooters feel best when the refined personal styles of each player have the freedom (paradoxically?) to click together like jigsaw. And sometimes Destiny doesn't go far enough as a contemporary MMOG -- why would I submit myself to a bounty for ten fusion rifle sprees unless doing so helped complete some metagame checklist?
Oh, also: It's weird that Bungie clutters up the bounty board with impossible tasks. Two bounties dedicated to the Salvage mode weeks after its timed event have passed? A mission to enter the Crucible in full Queen's Wrath regalia one day after her emissary opens shop? I don't know, pay an intern to curate these instead of trusting the roulette wheel.
Perhaps my most cynical reflection on the "MMO weirdness" at play comes from the social functionality of Destiny. I can't chat with other players in the Crucible unless they're in my fireteam, though Bungie has promised a fix for that is coming. I have a bunch of friends who play, and yet a lot of my time is spent lone-wolfing it because we have different short-term goals. A few ancillary websites, which enterprising folks rapidly developed to (primarily) accommodate casual Weekly Heroic matchmaking, provide a board for Crucible groups; however, I've never seen anyone listed there. The game's core is designed to funnel me and a group of new friends from one type of activity to another, but most of my experience is that of a shadow flitting through a hostile world of strangers.
Cool It Down On The R Key
I'd like to share a conspiracy theory with you. Now, now, don't leave the room... I can back this one up with the coldest and hardest facts. Titans control the media; I mean this quite literally. If an enemy Titan throws down a Ward of Dawn ("bubble") Super on Zone B when you're playing Control, she controls the middle of the map. Folks act like fools when they see a Titan bubble. Some run in, and they will almost surely die; a Titan and all her teammates, when inside the bubble, usually have a regenerating overshield. Many stand around outside, under the impression that the bubble's owner will be an easy kill when the Super fades.
At the most basic level, the Titan is equally as powerful as any other character when the bubble pops. In fact that Titan has probably developed a personal clock for the duration of her bubble, meaning she will start shooting first when it ends. Further, her teammates can capitalise on your clever decision to camp the bubble -- they can run right up behind you, knowing you're distracted by the shiny shield. My advice is this: If you see a bubble, go do something else. The Titan still gets a guaranteed lock on a Control point for a little while, but you won't be giving her any "extra prizes."
"Go do something else" is my general advice for whenever you see an active enemy Super. That Warlock with the golden angel's wings? His melee will one-hit you, and he can throw sticky grenades at the clip of an automated pitching machine. The Hunter ghostly glowing and dashing through the air? You might double-tap her with your shotgun, sure, but if you've got hapless teammates nearby she'll turn your squad into a bunch of multi-jumped checkers. Seriously, just turn and run (don't walk) away. If you've got blink, do that, blink away. Go.
I like Cameron Kunzelman as a games critic, because he and I can violently disagree about something without either of us coming away with hurt feelings. In his analysis of Destiny's multiplayer, he describes the opacity of an enemy's weapon and Super status as demanding "reactive" play. From his breakdown, the beginning of every match is for him a time to put faces to names, as it were; every first encounter with a new enemy is mostly a chance for the two of you to feel out each others' fighting styles. Do they start firing right away with a rifle, or charge you down for a shotgun/melee combo, or are they ducking in and out of cover while their fusion attacks spool up?
Once you've figured out a given enemy's M.O., you'll know the best way to react to their self-selected strengths and weaknesses. This is the start of a series of deadly dances, and it sounds a lot like the multiplayer modes in Halo Reach and Halo 4 wherein players bring in their own favourite load-outs. But for Kunzelman, Supers throw a wrench in these well-wrought works. While I'm much more fearful of the second tier sub-classes and their nuanced Supers, Cameron places emphasis on the bewildering Warlock and Titan "kill buttons" (the Nova Bomb and Fist of Havoc, respectively).
I have no truck with Kunzelman's anxiety over Super timing; I never wait for mine to charge before diving into a skirmish, and I don't keep timers on the Supers of my enemies. Perhaps this is because I have played too many MOBA-style games in which the cooldown on a single R key (typically the "ultimate" ability for each character) really can decide the course of an entire 45-minute long match. This is my vacation from eSports. In Destiny, I'm happy if a Titan Striker burns her kill button just to take me out -- this is a small victory to me, because she could have easily killed three of my teammates in a single stroke if she'd had the patience.
If you're waiting on your Super to score kills (I'm not saying Kunzelman does this… I've seen his entirely respectable K/D ratio), or if you're complaining that you always die to Supers: You're not finding enough battles, and you need to learn defensive play. Often a match ends, and I see that a teammate who joined at the beginning of the match has seen one kill and five deaths in the interim. Who are these people? Were they sitting in a sniper's perch during a Control match? Did they not see us, their brothers and sisters in arms, turning again and again from blue names to skulls somewhere in the virtual space stretched before them?
No Time For Howling Dogs
What I miss most in Bungie's move from the Halo franchise to their new venture with Destiny are the emergent "set pieces" of the former's multiplayer. By this I mean that many of the maps relished in an artificiality affording wordless coordination of common team arrangements. Let's turtle up with vehicles defending this flag. What if we all just crouched by the exit from this elevator with our shotguns ready? We need to get that rocket launcher (or that energy sword) as soon as it spawns; who's with me? I'll guard this side. You go that way. You're kinda terrible dude; just watch my back.
To my mind, only two maps allow this kind of set play on Clash/team deathmatch: First Light (the trashed moon base) and Firebase Delphi (it's red, so I think that means Mars). On the latter, holding the central chamber often decides a match. The doors to its sides can easily be sealed by shotgunners, but there's always that large portal above. If you leave that hole empty, you're just asking for a Voidwalker or Striker to clear the room with its kill button. But if you post a guard or two up there, they have got to constantly dodge grenades and heavy weapons fire. It makes for a series of incredibly tense assaults and defenses.
First Light is the only map in which I've ever felt the unrelenting urge to establish a blood feud. One side of the map holds a turret nestled safely behind a rock. It's not well-placed to really control a significant portion of the field. But if you get a Pike (the manoeuvrable vehicle with arc blasters) to patrol the rock, while a sniper covers each direction of approach, then you've got a tidy little impregnable fortress on your hands. In one game, a dude or dudette named JDog put me five early deaths in the hole from that very turret. I was fuming, spewing curses upon my mostly innocent roommate and our cats, all of whom suck at video games.
That game designer friend -- the one who noted the game's frequent lack of transparency -- we spent five minutes one night debating exactly how much damage mitigation the turret provides from each angle. It's too damn much, whatever the precise mathematical answer might be. After someone finally cleared JDog's squad out with a Nova Bomb, I spent the rest of the match speeding from one turret to the next. I stuck JDog three or four times with my Fusion grenades; JDog stopped using the turrets. Maybe I don't much cherish set plays after all. I like to think JDog will never touch a turret again.
If Destiny's writing showed any glimmer of irony, we might read Lord Shaxx's conflation of "war" and "a PvP mode hastily leashed to the game's narrative" in a different light. Each time I win a Crucible match, I am silently voting with my skill and my time. I am saying that I can handle a game with weapons that will need constant updating, a fight that will never really be fair, and a goal structure that can't consistently reward me for my own personal style of play. Every Crucible match renews the struggle between Bungie's old way of doing things and their grand new experiment; every victory is an affirmation of faith.
Simon Ferrari teaches game studies and criticism at New York University. He also curates the eSports Showcase at IndieCade, which highlights indie games that are as fun to watch as they are to play. Simon personally purchased a PS4 and a retail copy of Destiny prior to this writing, despite promising himself that he would never touch a current-gen console.