Four months into its existence, Destiny is a better, more frustrating, more expansive -- and ultimately, expensive -- game than it was at launch. It's also very different, because after months of tweaks, it has become clearer than ever who we're really playing against: the people who made it. The player's greatest adversary in Destiny isn't an alien warlord or a reanimated moon monster, it is Bungie themselves.
The Destiny of early 2015 is a notably different game from the one Bungie released last fall, and so I thought it was time to essentially re-review the game. Much has changed. Destiny has been improved, in some ways significantly. It has been expanded somewhat, though it still feels stretched thin. It has all-new levels and bosses, with all-new bugs and loopholes. And it has been thoroughly mastered by players around the world, creatively exploited in ways its creators could never have anticipated. The collective effort to creatively break Destiny down and wring it for all it's worth has easily been the game's most fascinating aspect.
When I reviewed Destiny back in September, I had played about 60 hours of the game. The Vault of Glass raid was brand new, elite players were level 28 or 29, and "Crota" was just a name we sometimes heard on the moon.
Today, I've played around 300 hours across three characters, all of which are level 30 or higher. I've completed the Vault of Glass so many times I've lost count and am on track to defeat Crota, the under-lord boss of game's second raid, just as many times. I've made new friends and acquaintances, and buddied up with complete strangers. My cohorts and I have blasted, reaved, cheesed, and triple-jumped our way through countless battles, bounties, and patrols.
Before we get into what's new in Destiny, let's take a look at what hasn't changed. Here's my review card from September:
Four months later, the only thing on that card that's substantively changed is the "what I played" section. Everything else still applies. The game is still fun on a basic level, still extraordinary at its farthest reaches, and still marred with frustrating flaws. The control scheme is still fantastic. The script still stinks, and the loot system is still exploitative and cruel, though in new and more creatively awful ways. My recommendation about the game is still an emphatic "yes," despite those lingering problems. Yes, you should play this game.
With all that said, Destiny has changed a good amount, and those changes are worth discussing not only because they alter the fundamental experience of playing Destiny, but because they grant an insight into how things may develop over the months and years to come.
Here are some of the things that have changed since Destiny launched last September:
- Bungie made welcome improvements to the game's loot system, most notably making it so that engrams -- the item-containing crystals that enemies drop in the game -- decode to items of at least their assigned value. No more taking a purple legendary engram to the Cryptarch only to get two less-than-legendary blue items out of it. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems even more ridiculous that that was actually how loot worked when Destiny launched. Jesus, Bungie.
- Bungie launched a one-off weekly event called "The Queen's Wrath" that offered some separate co-op missions, as well as several "Iron Banner" multiplayer events, fine-tuning each subsequent Iron Banner to respond to player feedback. The Queen's Wrath event wasn't substantive, but it was a neat diversion and added some variety to the game.
-Bungie patched a number of popular exploits, including shutting down the famous Loot Cave that had served an important metaphorical function in my original review. Though for every exploit Bungie patches, creative players seem to find two more.
-Bungie made many other small tweaks and improvements, buffing a gun here, nerfing a gun there, adding a shader preview option over there.
- The first major expansion, The Dark Below, launched in December. It added a handful of new story missions, a new strike (with a second -- fun! -- one exclusive for PlayStation users), and a new high-level raid called "Crota's End" (lol). The Dark Below also raised the level cap, which necessitated an overhaul of the game's weapons and armour mere months into its lifespan. The expansion has been seamlessly folded into the fabric of the game to the point that it is essentially a mandatory upgrade, and those who don't own it are increasingly left out in the cold. Turns out Destiny wasn't a $US60 game, it was a $US95 game, since its $US35 expansion pass is all but essential for long-term play. (More on that in a bit.)
Back in October, my Destiny-playing Kotaku compatriots and I published a list of 30 changes that would make Destiny a better game. Since then, Bungie has resolved four of the things on that list, with a couple more half-resolved (there are now a few more interesting solo missions) or otherwise addressed (they didn't add shared bounties, but they did double the number of bounties you can hold at one time).
The upshot: Destiny is still missing a lot of the features and functionality that we'd like it to have. The other upshot: We're all still playing the game regularly enough to appreciate the changes that have been made, even as we gripe about the changes we still want to see.
What's The Same
Here are some of the things that remain unchanged since September:
- The mechanical fundamentals are still strong. I'm on record as saying that this game had the most physically satisfying shooter control scheme since 2006's Gears of War -- each button is where it feels like it should be. Now that I'm attuned to the subtle differences in controlling a titan or a hunter, I'm even more impressed. Each character moves with a grace all his or her own, and each class requires many hours to fully master. Whatever class you choose, Destiny remains a joy to play.
- The writing is still a bummer. I think some people were expecting The Dark Below to somehow patch up Destiny's storytelling problem. I had no such expectation, so I wasn't disappointed that the story behind the new missions was as slapdash and hackneyed as the rest of the game, albeit with markedly less -- ok, zero -- Dinklebot.
- It's still worryingly fun to shoot aliens in the head.
-The raids are still the best part. On the whole, the new Crota's End raid isn't as good as the Vault of Glass, but it's still fun. It also led to two of my most triumphant shared gaming experiences of all time, and I'll never forget the first time my team puzzled out and conquered its many challenges.
- Destiny still looks and sounds amazing. If anything, more time playing the game has given me even more of an appreciation for how gorgeous it often looks, and how exceptional the sound design is.
- It still feels as though the game is constantly screwing you over. The joy of winning some new exciting gear is often soured by the bitterness of getting a bunch of crap you don't need. The joy of beating a difficult boss is accompanied by sharp memories of the times you were defeated by bugs and glitches. In September, I said that Destiny was so brazenly exploitative that it was only natural that players would take every opportunity to exploit it right back. That remains the case.
More Subscription Than 'Expansion'
The single biggest change to Destiny has come in the form of The Dark Below, a collection of missions and new gear billed by Bungie and their publisher Activision as an "expansion." It feels pretty thin compared to expansions in other MMOs and RPGs, but that's what they're calling it, so.
Thing is... The Dark Below doesn't quite feel like an expansion pack. It doesn't feel optional, like the sort of thing some players could choose to ignore in order to continue playing vanilla Destiny. That's mainly because missions exclusive to The Dark Below have been added to the weekly mix for all players, even those who don't own it.
Last week, the weekly strike was the one from The Dark Below, which is the second time that's happened since the expansion came out. As a result, players who didn't own the expansion were locked out of both the weekly strike and, even more crucially, the weekly Nightfall strike, both of which reward high-level players with crucial buffs, currency, and gear. So, any player who didn't buy The Dark Below was locked out of a big chunk of the game for half of the last month.
Unlike some other online games, Destiny doesn't charge a subscription fee. However, given the all-but-required nature of the expansion, it's easy to see the one as a substitute for the other. This is somewhat new territory for console games, and while I don't begrudge Bungie for regularly charging for new content, the extra price is something new players should be aware of.
Destiny's Actual Biggest Flaw
My colleague and Destiny comrade-in-arms Jason Schreier has been (justly) critical of the unfortunate ways that The Dark Below changes Destiny's loot system. A couple of weeks ago, he argued that Destiny's biggest flaw was the fact that the game ties post-level-20 progression to your armour, rather than to experience points. By making your level-progress dependent on your armour, Bungie tied your character's access to the game's most rewarding high-level challenges to your gear, rather than directly to in-game experience.
The gear you really need -- the high-level stuff from the raid -- can only be obtained through random drops, meaning that the gear you get is only partly connected to the amount of time and work you put into the game. It was possible to complete the Vault of Glass a dozen or more times -- as I did -- and still find yourself missing one crucial piece of armour -- as I also did. It was also possible to complete the Vault one or two times -- as I heard of many others doing -- and walk away with a full set, comfortably on your way to level 30. Bungie claims to have improved their loot algorithm for the new raid, but the sourness of the random number generator lingers.
I agree with Jason that Destiny's is a flawed system, particularly given the fact that Bungie has asked us to redo all of our exotic items a mere three months after we first started. But I don't agree that the loot system is the game's biggest flaw. It's just a symptom of the game's actual biggest flaw, which is that there simply isn't enough to do.
There's a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo tells Sam that due to the corrupting power of the One Ring, he feels "sort of stretched, like apricot jelly scraped over too much toast." Or something like that. Anyway, that's Destiny: delicious apricot jelly scraped over too much toast.
Destiny's lack of "content," for lack of a better word, is the source from which the game's other problems flow. The maddening weekly currency caps, the ceaseless repetition, the bizarre upgrade requirements, the stingy loot system: All are designed to force people to sink dozens of hours into a game they'd otherwise blow through over the course of a weekend.
With The Dark Below, Bungie has performed a bleak magic trick: They have transformed a meagre handful of story missions, a single strike, and a single raid into dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay, simply by carefully scraping the whole thing over a time-consuming levelling process.
Did you spend a week levelling up an exotic gun or piece of armour? Cool, now you can trade it in for an identical version with a bigger number on it and spend a week upgrading it all over again!
Did you already spend a bunch of in-game money on the gear you have? Too bad, everything you need now is twice as expensive, so you better get grinding.
Want to get to level 32? Good luck, you're going to have to collect a full set of raid armour and 63 hard-to-come-by radiant shards to do so.
Oh, and you know those raid guns you spent the last few months winning and levelling up? Well, now they're a bit underpowered, and they will be obsolete in another week or two. Sorry!
If you're in it for the loot -- and all of us are, to some extent or another, in it for the loot -- it's tempting to just throw your hands up and quit.
Destiny's Biggest Strength
Of course, I wouldn't be able to catalogue the game's many faults so extensively if I weren't playing religiously. And that's because of Destiny's biggest strength: The flippy new tumbler sparrow!
Just kidding. No, Destiny's biggest strength is that it is still fundamentally fun to play. I'm still playing, many of my friends are still playing, and according to a recent reader poll, a majority of readers who own it are still playing, too.
Turns out, Destiny was the right kind of game at the right time. It was a calculated gamble that the gaming world was ready for an always-online, shared-world console first-person shooter with an RPG backend. Turns out, yep, we were indeed ready for that. Starving for it, even. Bungie got enough right that a whole bunch of people appear willing to put up with the problems and keep playing.
For all the bellyaching I do about awful loot drops, bugs, and time-wasting grind, I've still spent the majority of my time having fun, talking with friends, making jokes, and goofing around. Somehow I don't yet feel as though Destiny has wasted my time, despite the fact that thanks to the expansion's awful loot system, the game has deliberately and obviously wasted my time. What a feat, that a game can so thoroughly have it both ways!
If you're in it to play a well-made action game with your friends -- and most of us are, to some extent or another, in it for that reason -- it's easy to imagine yourself happily playing Destiny for the next several years.
That's Not MMOs For Ya
I see a popular refrain when I or others complain about the forced repetition of Destiny: "Hey, that's MMOs for ya." To which I usually reply, "What's your point?" Yes, these sorts of carefully engineered time-sinks have existed for years. 1) That contextualizes them but does not excuse them, and 2) most MMOs don't operate on a compressed time-frame like Destiny's.
It may seem like we've been playing Destiny forever, but we've only been playing for a few months. Yet the game has already inflated its level cap, rendered our gear worthless, and forced us to essentially start from scratch. Bungie may well do something similar in another couple of months when the House of Wolves expansion hits, and continue to do so at regular intervals after that. (Or maybe they will read this and other critiques, listen to their players, and change course.)
Games like World of Warcraft roll out similar expansions, and those expansions do offer new gear and challenges that make you have to re-level and replace your old gear. But those expansions come out every couple of years, not every couple of months. WoW received a substantial expansion in 2014, but its previous expansion, Mists of Pandaria, came out waaaay back in 2012.
If World of Warcraft forced its players to rework all their gear and experience every four months, I'm guessing many players would have bailed a long time ago. If Bungie continues to operate Destiny this way, they risk burning their players out. Sure, we all signed on to grind through The Dark Below and get all the cool new stuff. But how many times per year will we do that before we lose interest? Not many more, I sense.
The Cheese Stands Alone
Destiny players haven't just gotten good at playing the game; they have gotten good at breaking it. The Loot Cave was just the start of this process, and the new tricks and workarounds players have come up with often boggle the mind. The Loot Cave looks like amateur hour in comparison.
Almost every difficult challenge in Destiny has some sort of fatal weak point, which players call a "cheese." To defeat a boss by exploitative means is to "cheese the boss," and Destiny's toughest strike and raid bosses may as well be lactose intolerant, so susceptible are they to the power of cheese.
On one boss, you can hide under a platform, unreachable, and snipe him until he goes down. For another, you can linger outside the chamber he stands in and periodically take potshots through a tiny opening. For a third, you can stand high above the boss arena, never actually leaping into it, sniping from on high while it impotently attempts to destroy you. I have cheesed my way through so many battles and encounters, partly because it's easier than putting a group together and doing it properly, and partly because it's a fascinating way to play the game. This culminated in a sleepless night I spent cheesing the insanely difficult, die-once-and-it's-over nightfall strike not once but twice on my own. I grew so familiar with the sounds, cues, boundaries, and design of the mission that I could still recite it to you for memory. The whole thing took me almost six hours. I have no regrets.
The Crota's End raid contains some of the most entertaining cheeses in Destiny, far more than its predecessor, the Vault of Glass. It's possible for an average player to solo a good percentage of Crota's End by tricking the game in various ways. If you stand in the right place, an exploding lamp will launch you high onto a shelf where monsters can't reach you. You can stand on rocks and fool the game into thinking you've vanished, thereby ceasing monster spawns. You can climb up an improbable wall to the roof of a building you weren't supposed to reach, sniping enemies until some invisible switch flips and the game decides you've beaten an involved co-op challenge by yourself. And, best of all, you can defeat the raid's beast of a final boss by unplugging your LAN cable and freezing him in place, then whacking away to your heart's content.
The first time someone told my team about the LAN exploit, we thought he was kidding. Nope: Not kidding. The first time I did it, went up to my PS4 and yanked out the cable mid-battle, it worked like a charm. That is some old-school, Halo 2-era shit, right there.
All this cheese has revealed a whole new version of Destiny to me: The Destiny where players are aligned more actively against the game, picking and prodding and digging in search of new ways to crack it open and see what makes it tick.
You Can't Patch Players
In late September, Bungie closed the Loot Cave for business. They changed the spawn timer on the enemies in the cave, making it much more difficult to stand outside and gain experience and loot. It was the end of an era.
Or, well, no it wasn't. Shortly after that, players discovered a new loot cave. Bungie tweaked that one too, but a narrative had been established:
- Players come up with an exploit.
- Bungie patches it.
- Players find a new exploit.
Soon, most players had moved on from Loot Caves to cheesing the weekly nightfall strikes and the raids, two much more complicated activities that, while difficult to complete, offered much better and more consistent rewards.
Like all cheese, Destiny's exploits come with an expiration date. For a time, it was possible to stand together on a podium and easily wipe out the Templar mid-boss of the Vault of Glass. Then Bungie patched the game to make that area out of bounds. After that, people figured out how to knock the Templar off of his platform using grenades. Eventually, Bungie patched that, too.
It was possible to do something similar to the raid's final boss Atheon, comically knocking the big dumb lunk off of a cliff with grenades. Then Bungie patched that. Players figured out how to arrange themselves into "home" and "away" teams for the Atheon battle -- this approach wasn't even a cheese, we just thought it was how the battle was supposed to go -- but Bungie patched that, too. These days, players can easily cheese the majority of the game's strikes and entire sections of Crota's End. Surely Bungie will patch all those, too.
Here's the thing, though: when it comes down to it, you can't patch players. We are talking about people who not only can pull something like this off...
...they can also figure out that something like that is possible in the first place. Thanks largely to communities like the superb Destiny subreddit, any player can easily find videos and guides to help them exploit the game. Bungie never stood a chance.
The more I play, the more it seems like the studio's determination to shut down players' unsanctioned fun is misguided. It also feels oddly insecure, like Bungie isn't confident that their game is fun enough on its own, that they worry that if players are able to play it "wrong," to exploit loopholes to get better gear, that they will eventually max out their inventory and quit altogether.
That is doubtless true for some players, but actually I haven't found it to be true for me. Yes, part of what drives me to keep playing is that lizard-brain thing where you just really want the rocket launcher that Crota drops and you still haven't beaten him with your hunter this week. But most of what keeps me playing are the very strengths that Bungie would claim Destiny embodies: I keep playing because I'm having fun and because I like hanging out with my teammates.
The most frustrating thing about all of this is that while Bungie scrambles to undo the work of Destiny's most industrious cheesers, they're leaving a number of actual, widespread problems unaddressed. For example:
- For months now, there's been a bug where any armour that increases your heavy ammo capacity causes you to lose precious heavy ammo every time you respawn. It's been unpatched for ages and is maddening.
- When fighting Crota, there is a bug that causes the sword -- a vital weapon -- to simply disappear for no reason.
- There's another Crota bug that causes him to leap down from his platform and follow you onto the ground, killing your team about as quickly as an indestructible god would. More than once, that bug or the one before it, caused us to fail in an otherwise flawless battle. I tell you what, nothing gets me reaching for my LAN cable faster than a shitty bug undoing a flawless run against Crota.
- For at least a couple of months, the audio during the templar battle in the Vault of Glass would cut out. Bungie repeatedly patched and removed exploits from that battle, and yet the audio glitch remained.
- Plenty of other small bugs linger as well: chat cuts out in loading screens, Atheon's deadly imprisoning globes can sometimes follow you through the his time-portals, you can get two identical items in the same drop in the Vault of Glass, exotic items won in the Vault lack the upgrades given to exotics everywhere else, the stats page at the end of missions doesn't actually seem to track your stats correctly, and on, and on.
Bungie appears more concerned with squashing creative player exploits than they are with making sure their game works properly. Granted, there's an argument that making the game work properly involves the removal of exploits. But eventually Bungie is going to have to acquiesce to the fact that every time they patch a cheese, a new cheese will rise to take its place. Hopefully they will begin to reprioritize and focus on making sure the game works well for those who don't want to farm exploits.
Because here's the thing: As much as I've enjoyed the "how much can I cheese" sub-game that's emerged over the last couple of months, I still prefer what my teammates and I half-jokingly refer to as "actually playing Destiny." I'll fire up a random mission and play it normally, and as soon as I'm bounding about a battlefield firing my favourite weapon -- as opposed to hiding on a weird tiny ledge while patiently aiming a sniper rifle -- I'll remember how enjoyable this game is.
The Future Of Destiny
Everyone likes to make predictions and proclamations about the future of Destiny. I generally find myself hesitant to do so, largely because the game that exists right now is interesting enough to talk about on its own terms. But the subhed up there says "The Future of Destiny," so I guess I have to make some sort of predictions about the future of Destiny.
At the moment, the long-term future of Destiny feels all but assured. Given enough time, it stands to reason that Bungie, with support of their megabucks publisher Activision, will continue to expand and enhance Destiny until the game is vast,varied, and more concerned with welcoming players than with slowing them down. Odds that Destiny will be good in four years: 70%.
The short-term future of Destiny is murkier. The Dark Below gave us a sense of how Bungie will expand and grow their game over the next six to twelve months, and it is not a promising one. Odds that Destiny will blow it pretty hard at some point this year: 70%.
I'll gladly play the next expansion, House of Wolves, and not just because it's my job. But the game is beginning to wear on me and on those I play with. If Bungie asks us to exchange our gear and re-level our exotics for the second time in six months, it may finally be too much for even the most ardent players. The broad strokes of Bungie's leaked one-year plan, what with its new strikes, new raids, and new explorable areas, don't sound all that bad to me, as long as they can significantly improve the transition from one expansion to the next.
A number of quests in The Dark Below hint at a much more interesting approach to mission design and storytelling, too. One mission tasks players with completing a variety of challenges to fill an urn with items gathered by various enemies killed in specific ways. With the urn filled, you're sent to the Skywatch area to await the arrival of a particularly difficult boss, who drops from a ship during chaotic public events and must be stalked across a dense and deadly battlefield. (It's great!) After that, a standalone mission pops up, which requires fending off waves of attackers before finally filling returning the urn to Xur, a mysterious vendor who only turns up on weekends. Only after completing all of that can you return to your original quest-giver and turn in the mission. Your reward will be… a pair of gauntlets you probably didn't need. But we've already established that Bungie needs to work on the whole "reward players" thing.
The strange "Husk of the Pit" gun presents a similar situation: It's an ugly, low-level gun that drops infrequently when you kill a certain type of enemy on Earth or on the Moon. If you use it to kill enough monsters, you can unlock an upgrade that converts it into a much better gun. And if you upgrade that gun and defeat Crota in the raid on hard difficulty -- a mode that hasn't even been released yet -- you can turn it into an even better gun. If Destiny is going to throw up roadblocks to slow its players' progression, I'd much rather do this sort of involved, multi-step process, rather than simply be forced to re-level gear I've already maxed.
In addition to giving us more quests like the two above, there are a number of smaller things House of Wolves could do to improve on The Dark Below. Our exotics could carry over and immediately upgrade, requiring only one or two more upgrade slots before being re-maxed out. The light-level of our legendary raid armour could jump to match the new armour available at the vendor in town. The old raids could be updated to offer new loot, which would give us more of an incentive to continue to play them. And if those kinds of time-saving solutions leave players complaining that there's nothing left for them to do, Bungie can examine Destiny's fundamental problem -- that inflated upgrade paths aren't a substitute for cool, interesting missions -- and actually expand their game more meaningfully.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Yannick LeJacq started playing Destiny. It was the weekend and I didn't have much to do, so I joined his level-four character to do some story missions and help him progress.
A little while after we started playing, Yannick and I found ourselves on a patrol in Skywatch, which is where the now-defunct original Loot Cave is located. I excitedly explained to him where we were, pointing out the cave. He was off shooting some aliens and wasn't quite listening. (In his defence, there were more aliens around than usual.)
I kept trying to get him to stand still and listen to me, like a dad corralling his son at a historic Civil War battleground. "Over here, son. This is the cave! And see this rock? Everyone would stand on it in a line and shoot from here."
No one was there anymore, of course. To Yannick, this was just another field in Destiny, and the Loot Cave was just another cave. Clearly I wasn't conveying its historical significance emphatically enough. "This was the cave," I said, "That defined Destiny." He still didn't get it. I guess you had to be there.
As Destiny continues to change, this sort of shared folklore will become increasingly commonplace. Ah yes, this was the place where we cheesed Crota for the first time. Can you believe you had to unplug your LAN cable? Oh, and over here, this is where I grabbed the sword at the last minute, brought down a gatekeeper, and saved my entire team! Oh, that stuff? Why, that's Spinmetal. There was a time when we used to spend hours just farming it...
Like any online game, Destiny is defined by its community, and Destiny's community is defined by its shared history. If the past four months are any indication, the more Bungie fights our attempts to circumvent their many roadblocks, the more creative we'll be in cooperatively thwarting them and, paradoxically, the more fun we'll have.
Come to think of it, maybe it'd be for the best if they don't give us everything we want. A game needs an adversary, after all.