It’s one of the most talked-about games of the year. And this week Destiny adds its first expansion back, The Dark Below. If you’ve been logging in any time with one of the best shooters in eons, you know it’s a superb yet amazingly conflicted experience. It’s kind of love and hate, with brilliant first-person-shooter mechanics, revelatory vistas, not one nor two nor three but four alien races to blow the crap out of, and a story that’s well, there’s sort of a story. It’s in there. But you have to put in some time. And you have to dig. In really awkward ways. Is Destiny gonna light up a gamer’s eyes if it materializes in space under the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree? Join me on the other side, guardian, and we’ll see what fate has to say.
Activision and Bungie have taken a huge bet on Destiny, clocking in at an estimated $500 million in development costs over the next ten years. To date myself ridiculously, that’s a lot of quarters. By the looks of it, the gamble is paying off handsomely. As of early November, Activison stated they had 9.5 million unique users playing the game following its September launch. (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare holds the record for users, at 30 million.) The average Destiny player, average mind you, plays for a whopping two hours a day. And really, it’s what we should expect from Bungie, the studio that created the Halo series for the Xbox (which was sure as hell why I bought the console).
Like Halo, there are multiple races and factions for the player to face in a slowly unwinding story. And also like Halo (Halo 2 and up) there’s superb player-versus-player combat for those who crave the challenge of facing down real people in the arena. Called the Crucible in Destiny, the PvP is exquisite, smooth and fluid, yet bone-jarring and incendiary. It’ll take time to get your skills up, and that’s even with the level playing field, with damage bonuses removed for weaponry you might’ve improved over the course of the Destiny story play. I was total cannon fodder for the first month. I’ve gotten considerably better, but man, sometimes you encounter a coordinated team, and LOOK. OUT. There’s several modes of PVP play, too, including Control (my favourite), a capture-the-flag style with 6 against 6; Rumble, a 6-person free-for-all that’s just brutal; Skirmish, a 3 vs. 3 team mode with no control points where you just try to take out the other team, and revive your teammates; and Clash, a 6 vs. 6 team mode that’s like Skirmish but with no teammate reviving. Other variations get added into the mix periodically, in special one-week windows. You get randomly matched up via Bungie’s Destiny servers with the other players, though you can take a Fireteam of up to two other friends into any of the PvP modes.
Which brings up an important point. Destiny can only be played online. It won’t work unless you’re signed into either Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. Moreover, you need to be a paying member, such as PlayStation Live Plus. Even for single player story mode play, the game has to be connected to a network account. When the network is offline or hacked, you ain’t gonna be playing no Destiny, pal. In practice, I’ve found the network (on PS4 anyway) to be pretty good, but certainly fallible. I’ve been playing a lot, mind you.
The Player-versus-Enemy mode is also engaging, though you get shunted off on fairly standard quests to find information, knock out bad guys and the like. You choose a race, either Human, Awoken (funky blue-eyed beings that are not elves) or Exo (man-like robots), your gender, and class, either Titan (soldier), Warlock (wizardly-type) or Hunter (kinda like a ranger). You deck out your look with some basic gear, and bingo you’re good to go. Shortly Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones is talking in your ear, helping you along through each mission. People complained about his strange line readings when the game first came out, but honestly they’re not that bad. He’s your Ghost, a sort of transferrable artificial intelligence and advisor. You’ll find other cool people voicing in the game as well, including Nathan Filion (Firefly, Castle), Gina Torres (Firefly, Hannibal) and a host of others. The story itself is subdued and somewhat arcane. You’re mostly learning a lot of backstory as to how the solar system came to be the way it is, after the arrival of a giant space-faring ship/being called the Traveller, and the mysterious force The Darkness and countless alien races that allied against The Traveller and humanity. Humanity didn’t fare so well, and as a guardian you’re fighting to defend the last civilized city on Earth. Bungie made some strange choices, though, doling out much of the story on the web and in separate companion apps, where you can read grimoire cards you unlock as you play the game, giving you more backstory as you go. It’s an interesting approach, but distancing. It’s very hard to feel a personal connection to much of anything in the Destiny world.
What isn’t distancing, in fact it’s probably one of the best elements of what makes Destiny work, is when you wander into a Public Event. You’re bouncing along through the wrecked spaceship graveyard of the Cosmodrome in old Russia, on your way to analyze a sensor array under Fallen control, when suddenly the sky goes dark and ominous drones toll. Public Events allow you to join other players who happen to be wandering through the same game-space for a common moment, where you come together to fight and defeat a giant spider tank or take out a particularly bad nasty wandering through the area. These tend to be challenging, time constrained, and a lot of fun. There are also Strikes, where you’re matched up with two other players (or you can bring in your own Fireteam) which feature particularly tough story sequences where multiple players are pretty much mandatory for survival.
Which brings us to one of the last, most amazing and difficult elements of Destiny, Raids. There’s only one in the first instalment of the game, called The Vault of Glass, and sisters and brothers, it is unbelievably involved and intense. Headsets are pretty much mandatory, as 6-person teams have to be closely coordinated through a multi-stage quest that should last well over an hour, and often much more. In it you’ll have to gain entrance to the Vault, kill a Templar defended by countless Vex machines, wander through a dimly lit spooky maze in a cavern avoiding deadly Gorgons, and then take on the final boss Atheon, in its own complex ballet of attacks involving relics and time-shifting multiple phase arenas. That sounds geeky as hell, and it is, but trust me, it’s bloody hard. The first team to beat The Vault of Glass did so about 11 hours after it officially opened, and collectively died 1606 times over the course of trying to finish it. There’s no spoon-feeding or explanation as to what’s going, so you have to figure it all out as you go, while being ripped into from countless alien baddies. Thankfully now there are guides that explain what to do, and experienced teammates are a huge asset. Short on online friends to take on such ludicrously complicated tasks? No problem. Use a match-making site like http://www.destinylfg.net to find gamers that suit your availability, team composition and play-style. #lfg is Looking For Group, while #lfm is a group looking for a member. (Wanna do a Strike or a Raid? Hit me up at foxley79er on the PSN (PS4) – I’m a Level 29 Hunter madly trying to level my armour up to get that elusive 30.)
Bungie’s been cautious about allowing people to talk to each-other in-game, to avoid the worst flaming from trolls. Hence the self-selection of Fireteams and Raids. But they’re slowly opening it out and I’ve found it to be a pretty good community so far. Even though there’s the option in PvP to coordinate a team over mics, often people leave the channel silent. It’s pretty easy to develop strategies with a little awareness of what your teammates are up to.
What’s frustrating other than the diffuse, garbled story? The endless grind of levelling your character higher. Completing the story pretty much gets you to Level 20. Then it’s a long stretch of Strikes, patrolling, multiple story missions, and crucible battles, all of it earning you loot drops and currency to buy better armour and weapons. The ever-improving armour will boost your light level, which becomes key from Levels 20 to 30. In fact, you have to be at least Level 26 to even attempt playing the Vault of Glass. That can take a significant investment of playing time, but it’s never less than engaging as you roam the inner planets of our system, endlessly fighting.
Destiny is bound to excite any fan of first-person-shooters, and the MMO elements might bring in people from other gaming walks of life too. On the new consoles it’s visually stunning and more than worth price of admission. So go ahead, and give your gamer a date with Destiny. Especially if they like to grind.
As an added bonus, here’s the trailer for the first expansion, The Dark Below, which was just released Tuesday, December 9th.