Destiny – Beta Impressions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, bridge, or some variation of the sort, you’ll be well aware that Bungie released a beta for their upcoming game Destiny. Having invested a significant amount of time playing it, and having had a few days to collect my thoughts, I thought I’d write up my impressions of what Bungie put on offer.

They are a great deal more positive than I thought they’d be.

Read on, Guardian…des1I’m going to start on a bit of a negative note here because there’s something I really do feel I need to get off my chest. Console exclusivity is something I am vehemently against. I’m not going to waffle too much about it, that’d be worthy of a post in itself, but here’s a pretty good Forbes article on the matter which I largely find myself agreeing with.

Suffice to say, the Playstation is the console to play Destiny on, since Bungie has largely shafted their Xbox community. At launch, Playstation owners will get exclusive access to the Dust Palace Strike mission for Mars, Exodus Blue (an exclusive multiplayer map), and a bunch of exclusive guns, gear, and ships. On top of that, there’s even more timed exclusive content available for those who pre-order the game. And on top of that, the Playstation exclusive partnership with Bungie is a long-term deal, so that could encompass all ten years of the franchise’s projected lifespan.

I do hate this kind of marketing and how people buy into it so easily. With such a vast array of exclusive content encompassing every aspect of the game (missions, maps, weapons, armour, ships etc), it’s a wonder that they even bothered putting Destiny on the Xbox. Furthermore, the beta launched on July 17th for Playstation owners while Xbox owners had to wait until the 23rd… Withholding the beta for the latter console is something that’s just really unnecessary, certainly nothing that the ‘old’ Bungie would have done, but I’ve found myself falling out with them a bit since 2010 due to how corporate they appear to have gone. That’s just me though, you might not agree (even though my opinion is always right), but I have a great deal of disdain for anybody who supports this model of egregious exclusivity since it’s something a lot of people have [rightfully] found alienating. Especially when the backbone of Bungie’s community was built by Xbox players over the 9-10 years they were Halo’s stewards, it’s a pretty poor way to repay that kind of long-term loyalty.des2Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to talking about the beta experience itself, shall we? I’ll be splitting this into three segments – the story, the gameplay, and the multiplayer.

The Story

The first thing you get to do in the game is create your Guardian – you get a choice of class ranging from either Titan (the ‘warrior’ class), Hunter (the ‘scout’ class), and Warlock (the ‘mage’ class). Each one comes with their own unique sets of armour and abilities for you to customise and upgrade as you progress through the game, it’s a familiar enough system and it works very well. Character customisation is a sure-fire way to get me interested in a game, I am one of those people who can quite literally spend hours going through every single option of customisation in order to create just the right character. While I’d say that Destiny’s character creator is a bit more limited than those you might come across in games like Skyrim, Dragon Age or Mass Effect, it has enough options to make each character you make feel unique which is good enough for me.

I finished crafting my female human Warlock and got right into the game.

There’s not a great deal of story content on offer in the beta, insofar as you create your Guardian, get brought back to life by a Ghost, get a ship, go to the Tower, get some minor exposition, get a warp drive, and that’s about it. What’s there is certainly interesting, it was enough to pull me in and start wondering things about what Bungie are going to do with this whole new universe over the next decade, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that the way it was executed was a bit hit-and-miss.

You get a beautiful-but-brief opening cutscene of a human pioneer group landing on Mars and discovering the Traveler, it jumps to a similarly brief tale of exposition from Bill Nighy, and then jumps right down to Old Russia where Tyrion Lannister brings you back to life. And for somebody who was just brought back to life after, as we’re told, a very long time, my Guardian was remarkably unresponsive and just seemed to roll with what was happening. It’s a flashy, but not particularly substantial opening in terms of explaining things to you which isn’t really a good idea for a brand new story in a brand new universe. No doubt, the details will become clearer later, but the questions of immediate relevance are pretty much glossed over or given a very barebones explanation.des6Regrettably, I did miss the Moon mission because I was out at a party at the time. I was rather bitter about it when I learned that Bungie took the mission down after the 2 hour period and just didn’t put it back up for the last day of the beta, but I made sure to watch a good few playthroughs of it on Youtube and it looks like it was one of the best parts of the beta. Seeing people stray off the beaten path and find their way down to the Hellmouth was awesome, and there was a very unique atmosphere throughout the whole thing. I look forward to playing it in the final game.

Overall, the story is interesting enough to pull you in, but doesn’t deliver much in the way of answers for the most fundamental questions raised by the narrative – this is a bit of a trend with Bungie, with Halo it took about 6 years for them to explain why the Covenant was even attacking humanity in the first place and even then that piece of information was never spoken about in the games. Bungie has many strengths when it comes to storytelling, but those lie in world building rather than depth of characterisation and dialogue – case in point: “That wizard came from the Moon!” will sound ridiculous however you say it, it’s no wonder they took that out for the beta…

What the story in the beta lacked was a coherent sense of structure. You can’t even access the Grimoire in the game which provides a bit more of an explanation about the various factions and races, so I think that Bungie did a bit of a poor job in balancing the mystery with just a frustrating lack of answers to simple questions.

The Gameplay

So you open up the beta and get treated to a seamless series of gorgeously crafted menus. Destiny’s UI is really well designed in terms of how it’s organised, the one word I’d use to describe it would be ‘minimalistic’. This is sort of an obvious thing when it comes to menu design, but each one has its own unique purpose in the way you browse through the gae – be it to customise your character, access your inventory, chart a destination on the map, or sort through your fireteam. Bungie has always excelled at making very smooth menus, and this is no different.

This does allow me to neatly segway into some of my criticisms of the Tower. For a game that’s selling itself as a social experience, I have to say that the Tower (the central hub of the game) felt like a bit of a ghost town. None of the NPCs seem to really talk to each other there, or interact in any meaningful way. When I first heard about the Tower, I imagined it’d be something like the Citadel from Mass Effect – that was a hub world, where you’d go around and talk to people to pick up quests, and explore this range of different areas from the marketplaces, the C-Sec offices, the council chambers, the embassies, and so on. If you want to make your world to feel alive, I think there needs to be a level of functionality to it and I can’t help but compare the Tower in Destiny to the Sanctuary in Fable III. It feels like a glorified menu system. I want to go back to the Tower for more than just handing over engrams and bounties.des5Having said that, it was quite fun to see how people interacted with each other in this space. Destiny’s emotes (pointing, sitting, waving and dancing) are a really great, subtle way of creating a more social atmosphere. You’ll often see players forming up in groups and dancing together, or jumping up trees to access hard-to-reach areas while other players look up at them in awe wondering how they got there.

The gameplay itself is best described as a sort of mix between Halo, Call of Duty, and Mass Effect. Take the Halo formula, put in ADS, a jetpack-like glide/double jump, and superpowers, and you’ve got Destiny. And it works, I really found that the gameplay grew on me over time as I got used to it. The Sparrow in particular was absolutely amazing! I honestly think it’s one of the best vehicles that Bungie has designed, it’s a means of getting around the maps faster and it controls beautifully. It’s sort of like a speeder bike from Star Wars, fast and sleek, and can be customised like pretty much everything else in the game. Sadly, those customisation options in the beta appeared to be limited mainly to colour.

Bungie insists that Destiny is their biggest game ever – even just Old Russia is larger than the whole of Halo: Reach’s campaign, and it certainly feels that way. It’s not exactly clear how many planets there will be in the game, but the number seems to be something around six (Earth, Moon, Venus, Mars, Europa, and Mercury at the very least). Going by Old Russia, if each hub world has around six story levels, that’s a good amount of content – but not necessarily that much. I find myself really quite put off by the explore levels because of the ludicrous amount of backtracking that was involved, along with the fact that you can’t run multiple missions at once. The latter point was a matter of frustration for me because, as a bit of a completionist, you never really feel like you’re doing much when 90% of your time doing these missions is spent running back and forth through the same areas. It’s an issue of structure again, something that the story missions and the Devil’s Lair strike did much better because you’re constantly on the move to make progress.

Likewise, the main problem with the levels themselves is that they’re so empty. I was searching around for loot chests and other items to pick up, but after several hours in each area I can’t say there was much that made me feel very rewarded. You’d maybe get an engram along with 150 or so Glimmer (the game’s currency) which is nothing compared to the price of some of the game’s items. Compare this to Borderlands, for instance, where you’ve got loot chests everywhere with a frequent supply of money to pick up along with ammo, grenades, new guns and so on. Destiny feels like it’s really lacking that rewarding feeling, most of the upper-class gear is probably going to be purchased from vendors anyway so it’s a bit underwhelming when you’ve got this game which suffers from the ‘size of an ocean, depth of a puddle’ problem.

So while the gameplay itself is great, the problem lies in the game world and its lack of substance. There’s only so many times I can feel excited about getting a few bits of spinmetal…

The Multiplayer

The multiplayer, or ‘the Crucible’, was one of my favourite aspects of the beta – but it was also one of my least favourite parts as well… The way in which you join up is done really well, it feels really great to have my newly bought, expensive ship leading the charge to the surface of a planet with the peasants who are still using the junk they got from the first story mission.

There was only one mode available in the beta – Control, a territories-style game common in pretty much any FPS multiplayer you’ve experienced. Two teams fight to control three zones on a map to rack up points in order to win. The first thing I have to take note of is the multiplayer announcer. My goodness, after almost 13 years of Jeff Steitzer’s godlike voice, I just can’t take to this new guy. It’s not even that, I just don’t like the voice which fluctuates between annoyingly bored and annoyingly emotive depending on how your team is doing.des4What struck me most though is how uncertain Destiny’s multiplayer feels… Bungie has assured us that multiplayer equalises the health and damage of players so lower level players won’t ever be at a disadvantage against those who are more experienced – this is fine, I don’t like playing games where I might be a level 2 and get put into matches with people who have played the game for days on end and have all the best stuff. But if they’re saying that a level four player wearing all white-level gear is equal to a level eight wearing all green-gear (and, taking it a step further for the full game, even purple gear), I don’t understand why gear and character stats are carried over to the Crucible at all. Surely it would make more sense to make Destiny’s multiplayer an arena-style affair like Halo CE-3 where everybody starts off on an equal footing? Sure, there’s Iron Banner (I only managed to play a game or two of that), but on the whole it seems like the multiplayer isn’t going to take these differences into account (I could be wrong).

Supers are another frustrating thing about the multiplayer. While the Hunter’s Golden Gun may be overpowered, as it potentially allows you to get three kills with one shot each, it is funnily enough the most balanced Super in the game… The Titan and Warlock Supers are made worse because of invulnerability while they’re being activated – you cannot kill a Titan or Warlock as they let off their Super, there’s no way to cancel it. If they die before, they just respawn with full access to use the Super again at their will. The area of effect is another problem, the Titan’s Super is just utterly ridiculous due to the fact that you’re temporarily invincible, gain a closer gap to the players (compared to the Warlock which has to be done from a distance) and a huge AoE which is nearly impossible to dodge or miss. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve double jumped away from a Titan and still got killed by the Super’s AoE. I think that this will be a hugely divisive issue in the final game, like Armour Abilities (like Armour Lock) were back in 2010 with Reach.

A note on the maps as well. I absolutely loved Shores of Time, it’s a really fun map to play and I had no end of enjoyment playing it. But the Moon map, First Light? NOPE! I honestly think it’s one of the worst maps that Bungie have made, it is not suited to 6v6 games at all. You’re either running around the map like a headless chicken trying to find people, or you’ve missed out on all the action because it all tends to take place in one location. The map is so large, yet vehicles feel like a very ‘othered’ dynamic of the gameplay – I don’t think I need to get started on how the Interceptor is horribly overpowered either.

The Verdict

For a long time, what I thought Destiny really lacked was its own unique identity. It seems like it wasn’t sure what it was trying to market itself as, since all we’ve really heard in the past is comparisons made between Halo, Borderlands, Mass Effect and so on. That’s not particularly unfounded, but as a developer you obviously never really want to be spearheading a game that is just going to be passed off as some ‘rip-off’ title.

What the Destiny beta truly did for the game was give it a solid, unimpeachable identity of its own in the eyes of the 4.6 million people who played it. In this, I think we can conclude that this ‘test’ was a resounding success.

Despite my critique of some of the game’s more frustrating aspects, I already miss it and I cannot wait to get back to playing it. I will be picking up the game and sinking countless hours into the experience it offers, and I hope that Bungie will provide strong post-launch support for it because Destiny is a title with a lot of potential. It’s visually beautiful (even on my knackered Xbox 360, I was impressed by how good it looked), it’s fun to play, and there’s a lot to do.

So I’ll leave you with this table of statistics from the beta recently posted in the latest Bungie Weekly Update, a measure of just how successful the beta was.

See you starside, Guardians.des3

2 thoughts on “Destiny – Beta Impressions

  1. From what I’ve read around the net, it seems like Bungie’s got those multiplayer issues in mind. The regular Crucible is sort of the everyone’s-the-same moshpit we found in the beta. The Iron Banner and other timed MP events include the level and gear bonuses, putting lower level or less geared players at a disadvantage. And having spent more time than I should have in the Crucible, none of the classes are invulnerable during their Super. I’ve been killed as I started to use mine as a Warlock or a Titan and wound up respawning with an empty Super gauge. It took a lot of getting used to.

    As for the emptiness of the worlds, I completely agree. That said, we were playing a beta build on an Xbox. One of the things Gearbox did so well was crafting relatively small areas the gave the illusion of being large and sprawling terrains. I would love to see some more dynamic AI implemented, IE groups of enemies moving around the map rather than just sitting in the same spot, but that’s hard to do.

    The Tower has the potential to be a great spot for interaction, and some of the trailers show players in either different parts of the tower or elsewhere on the edges of the city, but with the 16 player cap on the 360 it feels just as barren and deserted as Old Russia. Part of the problem is that there really isn’t a whole lot to DO with the social aspect of the game outside of those four emotes. Yeah there’s a random purple ball that spawns in the Tower but that’s about it. There’s really nothing to do WITH people aside from look ridiculous while dancing.

    It’s going to be very interesting to see how Destiny evolves over the next ten years.

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