Holiday Gift Guide 2015: Destiny: The Taken King vs. Halo 5: Guardians

It’s almost a myth. Two brothers, separated and raised in different nations. Similar, and yet different. And only one can be king. Okay okay, pretty melodramatic. But that’s the story of two monster games clamouring for Santa’s favour this holiday season. The Xbox One-exclusive Halo 5: Guardians from 343 Industries carries the torch for the legendary Halo franchise, while Bungie’s brought its heavy-weight space-faring shooter Destiny: The Taken King to both the Xbox and PlayStation sides of the fence. Which of these triple A franchises comes out on top? Pull the trigger and we’ll take a look.

It all started with Bungie’s Marathon, the 1994 precursor to Halo: Combat Evolved

First and foremost, I already mentioned it but it bears repeating. Halo 5 is exclusively available for Xbox One. Even if you’ve got an Xbox 360, this is one party you’re not invited to. So only gamers with Microsoft’s latest console need apply. And equally, if you’ve got a PlayStation 3 or 4, forget about Halo and pony up for some Destiny. Now why was I blathering on about brothers? That’s a fun bit of gaming genealogy. You see, Bungie is a gaming studio that’s been around a long time. Their game Marathon was the forerunner of Halo, and was a very cool shooter way back in 1994. In 2001, they partnered up with Microsoft, leaving PC and Mac games behind, and launched Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 for the original Xbox. And they launched every Halo game up to Halo: Reach in 2010. They finally extricated themselves from Microsoft in 2010, and entered into a deal with Activision. That ten-year publishing deal led to the creation of Destiny, a combination FPS and MMO that debuted last year to tremendous success. Meanwhile, a bunch of former Bungie employees kept the Halo franchise going as the new Microsoft affiliated studio 343 Industries. Halo 4 retained the spirit of the original franchise, pushing it in new interesting directions. Halo 5 follows in its path, modernizing Halo even more, while it skirts some of the radical innovations Destiny‘s brought to the genre. Two franchises, with a lot of shared DNA. But there’s plenty different too.

Of course Halo 5 has a standalone story campaign. You can play through as good ol’ Master Chief entirely on your own. You can also bring multiplayer to the table with an online coop mode, as well as the many PVP modes that helped make the Halo franchise what it is. You’ll need an Xbox Live Gold membership to take advantage of those multiplayer modes, so that’s yes to a monthly or annual subscription. Destiny goes even further. It’s an online-only game, so you can’t play it at all without an Xbox Live Gold or PlayStation Plus account. Annoying, but it’s part of what makes Destiny cool. You’re playing in a real-time shared universe, just like in an MMO like World of Warcraft. Other players wander in and out of your game, even during the story campaign. They won’t be there during crucial sections, but in open areas anyone can zip in.

Cortana and Master Chief’s relationship goes in a strained new direction in Halo 5: Guardians

This time around, Halo 5‘s story is a little flat. Halo 4 found compelling drama in the bond between Master Chief and his AI companion Cortana (now doing double-duty as Microsoft’s Siri). In that game, Cortana’s artificial psyche was unraveling, and Chief had to try and save her. It made for an affecting plot, exploring the deep connection between the faceless augmented super-soldier and an artificial intelligence. In Halo 5, Master Chief goes rogue because Cortana might be alive after all, and he has to find her. You alternate between playing the AWOL Chief and playing Agent Locke, the Spartan soldier sent to hunt him down. It’s a little jarring, probably a deliberate attempt to recapture the magic of Halo 2‘s split storyline between Master Chief and the alien Covenant rebel the Arbiter. More dispiriting is the fact that in coming back, Cortana seems to have gone off the reservation (and gotten hella sexier, which is a little weird). She isn’t crazy anymore, but she might be really evil. It kind of wrecks the emotion of the old plotline, without giving much of interest to replace it. Halo 5 is launching a new trilogy, so presumably there’s a lot of table-setting for a big-ass plot arc involving the Chief, Locke and Cortana, but it feels like half-baked sci-fi hokum. The Covenant are still around to take a bullet beating, along with Halo 4‘s glowing Prometheans, the mysterious guardians of the long lost Forerunner race.

With Destiny: The Taken King, Bungie ups Destiny’s story to almost good

Destiny doesn’t fare much better in the story department, though with the release of the expansion The Taken King that’s gotten better. There’s an elaborate future history centred around a space-faring globe-being called The Traveler. It came to Earth and enabled a golden age for humanity, only to be hunted down by its nemesis The Darkness, a pile of nasty alien races bent on its destruction. Which pretty much happened, and you’re among the last vestiges of humanity (and others) fighting to keep the dormant Traveler’s spirit and the human race alive. The Taken King picks up the plot of one of Destiny‘s raids called Crota’s End, appearing in the DLC The Darkness Below. Having killed the alien demigod Crota at the end of that raid, you’ve angered his father Oryx, who is now coming to wreak his vengeance. He rolls into the solar system with his gigantic dreadnought spaceship, and you’ve got to fight him. It’s done pretty well, and Oryx’s minions, the Taken, are the best bad guys in Destiny yet, coldly gleaming perversions of the alien races you’d been fighting before. Destiny: The Taken King includes all the story content of first-year vanilla Destiny, the two DLCThe Darkness Below and House of Wolves, and the new content with The Taken King story itself. That’s a whole hell of a lot of story, however murky some of it is. Destiny wins, through sheer volume.

Halo 5’s new spartan mechanics shine in the game’s PVP modes

As a shooter, Halo 5 has upped its game. There’s more verticality, with enhanced jumping and a new mantling ability that lets your spartan clamber onto ledges, platforms and cliffs, if they’re at the right height. It opens up terrain to new possibilities, though you almost wish 343 had gone further, giving more map opportunities for vertical strategies in combat. You’ve also got a dash speed-ramming capability, and you can line-up a nasty ground-pound attack in the middle of a jump, slamming down on your enemies from above. Those are limited value in the PVE campaign, but are wicked useful for PVP carnage. There’s a wide range of guns and alien weapons to play with, pretty much all the standards in the Halo repertoire. Gameplay is fast and furious, though maneuvering your spartan takes getting used to. Destiny‘s shooter physics are unparalleled. It’s simply the most fluid FPS out there, and it’s a big part of why the game continues to be popular. Different character classes have their own jump abilities and unique special powers, which can have a big effect on the game. The variety of weaponry is so huge as to be almost overwhelming. There’s over thirty of the highest tier exotic weapons and armour available to collect, each of which has unique abilities and perks, and over a hundred other weapons of legendary and lesser quality. Destiny gives you three weapon load-out slots, for your primary (hand-cannons, auto-rifles and the like), secondary (shotguns, sniper rifles, etc.) and heavy (rocket launchers, machines guns and incredibly kick-ass swords). Halo sticks with its two slots, where you can equip anything. Halo‘s system is effective, tried and true. Destiny‘s is richer, but requires more thought. You can maximize your characters’ abilities by syncing up weapons with class and armour perks, making a good weapon even more devastating in your hands. On the basis of that depth, Destiny takes this round, too. If you’re more of a plug-and-play gamer, Halo would probably work better for you.

Destiny’s Trials of Osiris is the pinnacle of PVP challenges; bring your sniper A game

Halo 5 really shines in PVP, which has been one of the great strengths of the franchise. Multiplayer combat is super-fast and intense. I was just slaughtered for the first few games, before I started to adjust to the pace (and all those pesky new maps). The matchmaking is rock-solid, and I haven’t been bounced from a game yet in the admittedly limited time I’ve been playing. Destiny‘s multiplayer is pretty great, too, but feels surprisingly different. There’s a much more complicated meta-game at play, as well, with characters choosing their own load-out, in theory making for a more varied range of weapons in the field at any given moment. In practice, Bungie is perpetually wrestling with weapons balance, and certain guns inevitably rise to the top. For awhile last summer, I almost always died at the hands of someone wielding an exotic hand-cannon called Thorn, a nasty piece of business with a venomous after-bite that’d suck away your life after you’d been hit. Everybody was using it, because it was the most effective thing out there. It was kind of horrible, and eventually Bungie nerfed it. Both games offer a wide range of PVP modes. Destiny has more variety, but Halo 5 has a solid range too. Its big multiplayer mode Warzone is awesome fun, with twenty-four players in two teams going head-to-head on giant maps, taking out periodic AI enemies as well for big bonuses. Destiny‘s PVP is good, and certain modes, like the harrowing three-on-three Trials of Osiris, are supremely challenging, but Halo 5 brings some awesome things to the table. A slight nod to the Halo team here, though I’m still trying to get a handle on the speed and control.

During Destiny’s Festival of the Lost event this past Halloween, the Zombie Dance was a fan thriller

In terms of expansion, Halo 5 has gotten one free DLC pack already, with more maps for PVP, some new weapons and armour customizations. 343 is planning more. Bungie’s experimented with a few models already for Destiny. In the first year they went with paid DLC expansions. With The Taken King, they’re going in a new direction with more frequent, free updates throughout the coming year. The latest, just released update brings a three-week run of sparrow racing, letting you take your one-man hover-scooter onto a few different race-tracks and compete with other players. It’s pretty fun. Instead of paying $20 for a big update, they’re hoping that a new economy of real cash micro transactions will support the planned content. You buy silver in the game, and that lets you buy unique emoticons and dances, nothing with a material impact on the game. Destiny is definitely more ambitious on this front, and it sounds like the new system is working.

Halo 5’s 1080p graphics are rock-solid at 60 fps, with a neon illustrated style

The graphics are stellar for both franchises, at least for the new gen consoles I’ve been playing them on. Neither game has quite gone for a pure photorealistic look, adopting more of a sci-fi graphic feel, but both games wear the look well. My one frustration with the two titles is how they rely on cut-scenes to explain what’s going on, rather than working the narrative into the action. It’s a result of the growing dominance of online multiplayer; as players team up with one another to take on the game, the story becomes more incidental, the game more of a playground for the memorable actions you and your friends take during play. “That crazy time Crota chased us into the back room” and that kind of thing. Sadly, what Bungie’s Halo games really excelled at was story. You really felt like you were participating in something momentous and awe-inspiring, and the twists were embedded right into the play. Since parting ways, I don’t think either studio has captured that feeling again.

Wrapping it up for you gift-givers out there, Halo 5: Guardians and Destiny: The Taken King are both awesome games. Any first-person-shooter player would be thrilled to slide one of these puppies into their machine. Overall, Destiny is the clear winner, both in terms of content and availability across consoles. (Know that you can only play your friends on the exact same platform as you—only PS3 people can play each other, or Xbox One, etc.) If you’re big into PVP, Halo 5 is probably the better choice, if you’ve got the Xbox option. But if you’re into PVP, you’re likely playing Star Wars Battlefront, hyperventilating, waiting for NUMBER SEVEN to hit the theatres. And then there’s that little game called Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Man, it is such a beautiful time to be a gamer. Enjoy it, guardians!

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