Destiny review: Ambition versus execution

Destiny, Bungie's ambitious space opera, has vision in spades and is mechanically sound--but it falls short of its lofty goals. Our review.


Bungie's Jaime Griesemer once described Halo's combat loop as "30 seconds of fun that happened over and over." It isn't quite that simplistic, as Griesemer subsequently explained that the combat loop needs variety: different environments, weapons, vehicles, and enemies. As the studio takes its first step out of the Halo universe in more than a decade, Griesemer's words carry special meaning. Destiny is a mechanical marvel that beautifully captures that ever-important combat loop, but the variety so vital to the design philosophy is sorely lacking.

I've played my fair share of Halo games, but Destiny will feel familiar even to those who only casually stepped into Master Chief's boots once or twice. With the notable exceptions created by the three player classes and their associated powers, everything from the feel of the weapons to the armor and enemy design will look like it came straight out of Microsoft's venerable universe. You could tell me this was set a few hundred years before or after Halo and I'd believe you.

Lots of Lore

Part of that is due to another commonality: a baffling focus on lore. While Bungie started exploring an incomprehensible melange of space mysticism in its prior works, Destiny feels like the culmination of that approach. We're thrown into a universe with varying factions and interests, none of which are well-explained without going online to read about them. The story itself, revolving around a mysterious force that has driven humanity to the verge of extinction, feels very bland and boilerplate. Terms like "The Darkness" and "The Fallen," are bandied about, but nothing about the plot seems inventive or clever. The result is so inconsequential I wasn't sure I had finished the campaign until a cutscene started.

That story isn't the focus, though. Bungie seems content to give it only the thinnest of efforts, since the real meat of this experience is in the mechanical underpinnings themselves. It's a loot-driven dungeon-crawler dressed in the trappings of a first-person shooter. Its FPS bona fides are established, and Bungie didn't rest on its laurels. Destiny's weapons aren't particularly creative, but the actual feel of firing them feels finely-tuned to the credit of Bungie's years of experience.

It's only too bad that so much of that combat cycles you through the same areas, back-to-back. The four vast worlds might not have seemed so repetitive if we had been planet-hopping, but the structure is essentially about playing a world to completion, and then playing another to completion, and so on. Public bosses pop up infrequently, and they're generally just weaker versions of campaign bosses. Each planet may be breathtaking the first time, but by my fifth mission I was more than ready to move on.

Mechanical Marvel

If shooter mechanics is where Bungie shines, RPG tropes are a new challenge for the studio. The three classes--Hunter, Warlock, and Titan--fulfill the basic trinity of MMOs, but having a fireteam with all three represented feels less vital here. I hardly ever had a Titan in my team and we usually managed just fine. That may be because the three classes are only slight variations on each other. They each have their own grenade and melee power, along with some passive attributes. The primary method of engagement is always your weapons, though, and those are classless, so the differences remain on the periphery. 

These are given some degree of differentiation through subclasses. I primarily used a Voidcaller Warlock, not so much by choice but because it was the one selected by default. The other subclass, Sunsinger, probably wasn't my cup of tea anyway, but I would've liked a little more information to let me know I was bypassing it.

In general, Destiny suffers from a dearth of information. The interlocking systems seem aggressively skewed towards absence of explanation, challenging you to figure it out or learn from a more experienced player. The economy is a prime example. Destiny has two separate currencies, two different marks to qualify you to use one of the currencies, and various other goods tradable with NPCs that act like currencies. Very little of this is explained by the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and Fez have relied on the notion of community to act as supplements to their experiences. Here, it doesn't feel organic or even intentional. 

After the Campaign

After the campaign is completed, you can find a wealth of post-game content. I'd hoped this might stave off some of the sameness of the campaign, but so far it's been rather bland. The Strike Zones take a campaign mission, bump up the relative levels of enemies, and make the boss a bullet-sponge. Nothing is particularly different about the tactics or structure of stages. Enemies simply take more damage. A recently launched raid, the first such event in Destiny, promises some more variety with a puzzle and combat focus, including a timer. But seeing as it's locked behind a special level cap, only surmountable by getting lucky with loot drops, I've been unable to give it a go.

That leaves the PvP multiplayer mode, Crucible, as the major distraction, and fortunately it's as solid as one would expect. The modes aren't quite as extensive as some games, including recent Halo releases. In fact, all four are recognizable standbys of multiplayer shooters: control point, deathmatch, team deathmatch, and objective-based. Bungie has already shown some of its hand in adding new modes with special weekends, but the frenzied Control is a standout. As the home to some of the most beautiful environments in the game, players owe it to themselves to at least dip a toe in and explore the maps.

Updates to the Crucible and the recent Raid are said to be the tips of the iceberg-sized long-term plan Bungie has in store for Destiny. Over time, Bungie may well add more clarity of systems or gameplay variety. As it is, Destiny is an ambitious project that isn't quite meeting its potential yet. All of the pieces are in place for a great dungeon-crawling playground, and I've enjoyed my time with it, but I'd like to see it come into its own as a more cohesive experience.

Final Score7 out of 10.

This review is based on a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer. Destiny is now available for $59.99. The game is rated T.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 16, 2014 1:00 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Destiny review: Ambition versus execution.

    Destiny, Bungie's ambitious space opera, has vision in spades and is mechanically sound--but it falls short of its lofty goals. Our review.

    • reply
      September 17, 2014 2:14 PM

      This is the first game in a 10-year game franchise. I understand that some people would rather have exposition up front for a clearer understanding of the world, but just look at the way your character started: a sudden yank back into the world of the living, from the world of the dead. Ghost even says, 'You're going to see alot of things you won't understand', and in that, he's also speaking to the player. We're not meant to understand this world right away. We're not supposed to know the entirety of what's going on. When you played Halo CE, did you understand the Covenant fully? Did you grasp *why* you were supposed to hate them? Or why they hated us? Did we get an explanation for what the Flood were, or who the Forerunners were, or where the Halos came from? No, we got all of that later. But in the beginning, there was just us, our AI companion, and things to shoot and kill. Much like it is in Destiny. This game is teaching us, for the time being, to not worry about knowing everything in the story to come. All we need to worry about right now is our place in it, and it seems alot of people are missing that. Otherwise, great review. I wouldn't have given it a number score just yet as we're only a week into release. The game that Bungie envisioned might not materialize right away.

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