Destiny, Bungie's new sci-fi epic, was reportedly made for more than $500 million in partnership with game publishing giant Activision. After playing for more than 15 hours, reaching the game's level cap and participating in the end-game content designed to keep me playing for hours on end, my first question is a simple one: where exactly did that $500 million go?
The answer isn't obvious, and I'm not sure I have one. For a game Bungie has declared players will be enjoying for years to come, Destiny is surprisingly light on content, story and really anything that isn't outright technical production values.
But before we get to that, what is Destiny? Available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 and PS3, Destiny is a shooter first and foremost. It blends together other features more commonly seen in MMOs and RPGs to create what Bungie calls a "shared world" shooter that emphasizes cooperative play. Players create a character (a Guardian) from a selection of three classes (Warlock, Titan, Hunter) and three races (Human, Awoken, Exo) and join three-man fire-teams to explore planets like Mars and Venus and battle humanity's enemies in various missions. All the while players are obtaining new gear and unlocking new abilities for their character class.
If that sounds fun, it is. At a core level the gameplay hooks of Destiny are easy to grow attached to, as the actual gameplay itself is fantastic. Sadly, it isn't the technical side of Destiny that stumbles but its narrative and world-building.
Almost since the game's announcement, we've known Destiny would revolve around the role of Guardians in the universe, players who fight against an oncoming darkness to restore a golden age of humanity that once spanned the cosmos.
Little did we know that Destiny's plot doesn't extend beyond that brief synopsis. Instead, Destiny offers a story completely devoid of character, drama or anything else. The game constantly bombards the player with made-up terms but gives little to no explanation as to what they are, and tries even less to make you care. It is halfway through the game's story missions until what could be loosely described as a plot even appears, with the 4-5 previous hours of gameplay basically boiling down to "Go here, shoot this, these guys are bad."
It doesn't help that 90 percent of the game's "plot" is simply exposition from your A.I. companion Ghost, voiced by "Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage. I'm not quite sure what exactly is at fault, whether it is the game's writing, his voice director, or simply the performance itself, but Dinklage is completely wasted here, and every line he delivers is almost comical in its lifelessness and lack of any actual meaning. It is almost like Bungie specifically told Dinklage to play his robotic character as devoid of personality as possible. If that is the case, he sure did deliver.
In fact, Bungie seems so uninterested in story that it relegates nearly all of the game's backstory to the Bungie.net website and companion app via unlockable "Grimoire" cards, where players can browse more information about the game's enemies, planets and lore. You literally have to leave the game to learn anything of substance about the Destiny universe, and this was a conscious effort by Bungie, as if it was determined at the outset of production that players of MMO-style games weren't interested in character or story and simply want to get new gear. While that may be true for some, it isn't for me and many others.
Destiny's lack of personality and character is really one of the game's greatest hangups. There is simply nothing there for players to latch onto. Quest givers and merchants may look cool, but they rarely speak. Ghost, as stated above, is about as lifeless as they come. Only two characters in the entire game seem to care about what is going on, and they are on screen for a total of five minutes.
It's in stark contrast to a game like Borderlands, which Destiny has been compared to because of the cooperative and shooter/RPG hybrid nature of both games. Borderlands, despite the game's main storyline being nothing special, at least is filled to the brim with memorable quest givers and great mission variety. A simple kill quest is made infinitely more interesting when given out by a quirky character, or for a compelling story-driven reason. Destiny doesn't care about any of that and assumes you don't either.
It's perplexing coming from the creators of Halo. Bungie has a history of delivering characters like the outspoken Cortana (also an A.I.) and gung-ho Sergeant Johnson, names that are still a major part of the console gaming lexicon today. None of that personality is to be found here, in a game Bungie has spent more than five years putting together. The universe of Destiny would be completely devoid of life if not for the players inhabiting its servers. That's a shame.
In terms of activities, Destiny has a few different ways to occupy your time. Story missions move the game's "plot" forward. Strike missions resemble dungeons or instances in a traditional MMO, and feature a boss encounter at the end which drops loot. Patrol missions are randomly generated fetch quests that players can grind for money and reputation with the game's various factions. Public events, where multiple fire-teams of players can team up to fight bosses or waves of enemies that randomly spawn in the world, are also an option, but happen so infrequently that actually getting to participate in one is a rare treat. Players can also fight in "The Crucible", Destiny's player vs. player mode that features a variety of classic shooter game types ranging from capture point to team deathmatch.
While that sounds like a good variety, every type of mission aside from PvP and Public Events is in essence the same. Kill this many enemies. Gather this thing. Defend this area. That's about it. Getting to the actual missions themselves is equally boring, as there are only a handful of environments for players to explore and most missions, even story ones, require players to backtrack through areas multiple times in order to reach a small new area where the actual mission takes place.
It's obvious Bungie looked to successful MMOs for inspiration when crafting Destiny, hoping to mimic the success of games like Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Anybody who has played WoW will know that kill and fetch quests are the bread and butter of MMO quest lines, but that doesn't make it good, and Blizzard has continued to provide more variety in the type of quests they offer to players in the 10 years since the game's launch. Destiny seemed to miss that memo, and instead only mimics the tedious and repetitive aspects of popular MMOs but without providing any real motivation as to why the player should care. I can only provide one example of a story mission that breaks from the "kill this enemy" or "defend Ghost" structure, and it does so by letting players for one mission use a giant sword to wipe out waves of enemies. That single mission proves to me that Bungie has it in them to mix-up the formula, but for whatever reason the developer chose not to.
Bungie has continually stated that Destiny really only begins once players hit the level cap of 20. While there is an "end-game" to Destiny, it is mind-numbing to say the least. Once again taking cues from WoW, much of Destiny's endgame content consists of running harder versions of missions you've already done over and over again to get better gear, or endlessly repeating boring patrol missions to farm reputation with factions for new gear. Doing so will grant you level 20 gear with the "Light" attribute, which effectively lets you level past the level cap to 21, 22 and beyond. This wouldn't be so terrible if there were more than a handful of dungeons to run, but there are only five, and each features a boss that is most accurately described as a bullet sponge. There is no real strategy to the fights, other than don't get shot and shoot the boss back for 10 minutes while also dealing with waves of additional enemies. Every fight is the same.
So what isn't wrong with Destiny? A number of things. For starters, Destiny's gameplay is top-notch. Each of the game's gun types are distinctive and unique, and by allowing players to equip three weapons at a time (primary, secondary, and heavy) Bungie allows players to cater to their specific playstyle. While vehicles aren't an integral part of the game as in Halo, Destiny does employ a few of them to good effect. Class abilities work like a charm and provide players some much needed options in encounters besides firing a gun at everything that moves.
Visually the environments (what few there are) are gorgeous, ranging from the deserts of Mars to the lush jungles of Venus. Awe-inspiring skyboxes fill the view overhead and invoke a sense of wonder, and on the audio side Destiny couldn't get any better, with each gun packing a distinctive and powerful sound.
Then there is the music. The score composed by Martin O' Donnell for the game cannot be praised enough. He almost single-handedly breathes life and drama into Destiny's universe, and it is still shocking to think he is no longer a part of Bungie after being laid off by the studio earlier this year.
Any player of Halo knows Bungie shines at crafting enemies, and it definitely shows in Destiny. Each alien race is distinct and deadly, and they each employ different battlefield tactics and feature a number of enemy types that are in many ways reminiscent of the Covenant in Halo. My personal favorite are the Cabal. Large, hulking creatures that look almost like Space Marines from Warhammer 40K, they invoke the Roman empire with jet-packing Legionaries and the shield sporting Phalanx enemies.
Fans of competitive shooters will definitely want to give Destiny a try. The game's PvP is lightning-fast and invokes a mixture of Halo and Call of Duty, with its quick "aim down the sight" gunplay combined with unique class-based abilities. Each multiplayer map is expertly crafted, and it is proof that Bungie hasn't lost its touch when it comes to competitive shooters.
That's a handful of positives to go along with the negatives, but at the end of the day it doesn't push Destiny into "must have" status. Destiny isn't a bad game. It just isn't a great one either. Take away the hype, the production budget and Bungie's Halo pedigree and you have just another game that excels in some ways and falters in others. Much of Destiny's future depends on how Bungie continues to support the game in the coming weeks, months and even years. A new end-game raid will be added next week, as will new missions and new PvP playlists in the near future. A quick browse through the Grimoire card collection on the companion apps reveals a number of planets listed that have yet to appear in game, like Jupiter and Saturn, though whether or not all this new content will be free isn't known.
Destiny may very well be a much improved game in the next six months as additional content is added, and maybe while they are at it Bungie will breathe some much needed personality into this new universe. As it stands now, Destiny is a game that has yet to fulfill, well, its destiny.