Living with... Destiny

UPDATED with our verdict on Destiny's far superior second expansion, House of Wolves

Will we still be playing Destiny in a decade?

When the developer was talking up its new game prior to launch, Bungie said it had a “10-year plan” for DestinyDestiny wasn’t going to be a conventional first-person shooter like Call of Duty or Bungie’s own Halo games; Destiny was going to be the World of Warcraft (now, yes, over 10 years old) of shoot ‘em ups.

Bungie has envisioned a shared world, hundreds of thousands of players, and the ability to retain your character for years, transferring him or her from game to game as the sequels and DLC appear. It’s a grand plan indeed, but with publisher Activision’s millions at its disposal, one that the developer seems confident it can realise.

But never mind a decade – how’s Destiny doing a few months on from its arrival? Having put more hours into the PS4 version than I’d be comfortable to admit since its 9th September launch, I’m ready to tell you.

Update 01/06/15: With new DLC House of Wolves hitting consoles a couple of weeks ago, we've decided it's high time to update our long-term review. If you just want to read the new stuff, scroll down to the "Expansion Two: House of Wolves" paragraph below.

READ MORE: Destiny review

It’s still beautiful

First things first: Destiny’s presentation remains as first-class as it was when our very own Tom Parsons reviewed it back in September 2014. Despite frequent patches, updates and a major slice of DLC (more on that below), 90 percent of the time the game looks fantastic (we’ve rarely seen such huge levels with this level of polish and lack of rough edges, no matter where you walk), sounds incredible (seriously, don’t use your TV’s tinny speakers when playing Destiny if you can help it – you’ll be missing out on so much) and runs slicker than a stallion in skates.

I’m talking about the PS4 version here, and it’s quite incredible how good this game looks considering it was made to run on previous generation consoles as well. I have a feeling the next big Destiny release, which looks likely to happen in the autumn on 2016, will be PS4 and Xbox One only – and that it’ll be much bigger and far better looking as a result. But that’s just a hunch.

There are occasional technical issues that I should mention. Because Destiny requires your console to be connected to the Internet at all times, an instance where the PSN or Xbox Live goes down for an extended period of time means no Destiny at all – and that’s frustrating.

There are also occasional instances in the player-versus-player Crucible where lag occurs, kills are traded and other small annoyances happen. It’s not a huge deal, and Crucible remains a lot of fun, but I get a sense from what other players have told me that games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Battlefield 4 have better net code; I can’t speak to that from my own experience because I don’t play either.

READ MORE: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare review

Does the story make sense yet?

Wait... Destiny has a story?

Just joshing ya, Bungie – I appreciate that you at least attempted to cram a plot into the sort of game where having a plot doesn’t really work.

The fact that Destiny’s endgame forces players to repeat missions over and over, often totally out of order, and kill the same bosses again and again means that “ludonarrative dissonance” – the effect where the mechanics of a game simply don’t jibe with the telling of an effective, convincing story – quickly sets in, and sets in hard.

Bungie hasn’t helped matters by confining almost all of the game’s background lore (and it’s actually very well-written background lore, as this Reddit post demonstrates) to the Grimoire, a set of cards that can only be read on the Bungie website or via the Destiny Companion, an iOS and Android app. And it’s even awkward to read them there, thanks to the app’s counter-intuitive interface. So I, and I venture the majority of other players, have barely delved into them.

So even now, after well over one hundred hours of play, I’m not entirely sure precisely what Peter Dinklage is on about when he talks about “the Light” or “the Darkness” (and nor was he, judging by the delivery of his lines), what year it’s supposed to be, what the Fallen/Vex/Cabal/Hive want, what a Warmind actually does, what the difference between the Awoken of the Reef and the Awoken of the Earth is, or why it’s such a big deal that I destroyed that weird floating mechanical heart in the game’s final mission. Everyone seemed reasonably happy that I did, but I don’t understand why.

Destiny... your storytelling sucks.

And you know what? While it would be nice to have some semblance of a discernible plot, some characters to care about and a sense of the state of the world we’re playing in, it doesn’t really matter. Because...

The daily grind

Bungie has engineered Destiny so well that it can essentially function without a story at all.

Unlike, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition, it doesn’t need a story to pull players into the game: the near flawless shooting and movement mechanics make playing it fun on one level, while the meta-game mechanics that really kick in once you hit level 20 – the Random Number Generator-powered loot drops, the grinding up of weapons and armour, the fulfilling of daily bounties and special missions to rank up reputation – is some serious psychological witchcraft that digs into your brain with feedback loops that keep you playing. And it can be hard to stop.

Chatting to other Destiny players online about what they’ve been doing Destiny-wise that day, it has struck me more than once that they have described it in terms that most people would use for their job or school homework: “Yeah man, it only took me a couple of hours of farming Spinmetal in the Cosmodrome to get enough to fully level up my Icebreaker.” When one Redditor posted images to show he'd reached rank 100 with the Dead Orbit faction, other posters worked out that in order to do so he'd have to have been putting in an average of nine hours a day into the game since launch day. For some, it can become seriously unhealthy.

It isn’t an entirely joyless process – the game’s shooting and movement mechanics are enjoyable in a traditional video game-y way – but on one level it feels like something you just have to do. You’re psychologically compelled, essentially, to put in hours of grinding to improve the effectiveness of weapons and armour, or to increase your rank with a particular faction. It doesn’t sound like “fun” in the traditional sense of the word, but I – and many thousands of others, apparently – have found it hopelessly addictive. You feel like there’s always something “constructive” you can be doing and that feels... well, it feels good. It feels fun.

Raiders of the loot ark

Then there are the Raids, the game’s toughest challenges. Yet to be unlocked when Stuff published its original Destiny review, The Vault of Glass is the first. Intended for characters that have reached at least level 26, it requires a fireteam of six players, strategy, tactics and coordination. It’s really bloody hard, takes hours and it’s probably the best bit of design in Destiny.

I haven’t hit the level cap of 32 yet – a point at which you might logically assume the fun starts to dry up somewhat – but by the time I do it’ll probably almost be time for House of Wolves, the game’s second set of DLC, to arrive and raise the cap, just as the first set The Dark Below did (it was originally 30).

I should say that, unlike certain other members of the Stuff team, I did manage to curb my Destiny addiction for a few weeks, due to having to play other games for work. But once those games were filed under “DONE”, The Dark Below DLC was available and the promise of new things to do and new loot to grab sucked me back into my shameful Destiny hole. So let’s talk about that DLC.

The Dark Below

Costing US$19.99 Stateside and a not-at-all-a-direct-currency-conversion £19.99 in the UK, The Dark Below arrived in early December 2014, bringing with it four new story missions, a new Strike (two for PlayStation gamers) and a new Raid called Crota’s End. In addition to that, there are three new Crucible PvP maps, a new Sparrow speeder bike to ride and a truckload of fresh weapons, armour, shaders (for changing the colour of said armour), ships, emblems and new daily bounties, which are obtained from speaking to a character called Eris Morn in the game’s Tower social hub.

If you’re a seasoned Destiny player you’ll blaze through the new story content (which re-uses a lot of maps from the original game) in a few hours, but I feel like the new Raid, new gear and the raising of the level cap are probably enough to convince any Destiny addict to part with £20 – and if you don’t cough up and download it, you’ll definitely feel left out. Bungie has made it so a lot of weekly activities require you to own the DLC, so your Destiny experience will feel diminished if you lack it. Is that cheeky of the developer? Probably.

The DLC also allows players to upgrade their exotic items, but has done so in a really, really annoying way: you have to purchase an upgrade material from tentacle-faced weekend vendor Xür at the Tower (which alone is fine, albeit pricy at 7,000 glimmer), then re-level the weapon from scratch. That takes a lot of grinding, making it seem almost pointless if you’ve already got a fully-levelled exotic.

House of Wolves, the second DLC expansion, seems destined for a March release at the same price as The Dark Below. Bungie’s Luke Smith told Neogaf that “mistakes we made with the [Dark Below] reward economy will not be repeated”, specifically referring to the way in which exotics are levelled. Other than that, I’m expecting a similar supply of new material and content, and the level cap to rise by another two or three levels.

Community service

One of the things I’ve appreciated most about Destiny is its social aspect. As an always-online shared-world shooter you often come across other human-controlled Guardians doing their own stuff, and you may even join them for while to help finish a Public Event or a do a spot of light material farming. You probably won’t speak, but you may exchange a wave afterwards before jetting off on your sparrow.

Needing to find players to complete a Raid with has forced me and thousands of other community members to flock to Reddit, which has set up subreddits specifically for locating other players. Some of these people have been annoying, some potentially sociopathic, but the majority I’ve found it a pleasure to play with. Destiny seems to have engendered, on the whole, a much friendlier, more mature and all-around “nicer” community than other FPS games.

That’s not to say the community is perfect, and visiting the Destiny subreddit I’m often dismayed by the sheer amount of complaining, whining and overall negativity about the game design, Bungie’s professionalism and the future of the series.

The game isn’t flawless by any stretch of the imagination – but people who’ve spent £50 and got hundreds of hours of play out of it will claim, with straight faces, that it’s been a waste of money (mate... just go and do something less boring instead), that everyone that works at Bungie should be ashamed of themselves and that they won’t be spending a single penny on future expansions until [insert perceived problem here] is fixed.

Not perfect, and yet...

But I reckon most will still be playing Destiny in two years, because currently there’s nothing else like it out there. Nothing offers the blend of AAA gunplay, visuals, audio with the compulsive, dopamine-releasing loot drops and grinding that sounds like a chore when you describe it to others but feels intensely, bizarrely enjoyable while you’re actually doing it.

Bungie does have some problems to fix. In my opinion, the weekly Nightfall Strikes (and many of the weekly Heroic Strikes) are far too difficult to beat without “cheesing” (i.e. exploiting the level design, A.I. or game mechanics rather than just playing the game “as it was meant to be played”); both Raids are too glitchy and buggy compared to the rest of the content; the infamous heavy ammo bug needs fixing yesterday; the recent time-limited Iron Banner PvP event – which should be an event to look forward to – became a slog far too quickly thanks to a truly shocking lack of variety in its map rotation and bounties.

I could pick out more complaints but honestly, they all fade away once the end of the day rolls around and I’m free to hop on my PS4 and shoot some aliens in the face (I haven't even mentioned until now how good it still feels to shoot these particular aliens in their faces and sometimes their stomachs – that's one thing Bungie has absolutely nailed). Even writing this now, I’m itching to go and play Destiny. See you in the Crucible.

READ MORE: The 10 best console games in the world right now 

Expansion Two: House of Wolves

Update 01/06/2015: Destiny’s second expansion is a major improvement on The Dark Below, with Bungie seemingly taking a lot of players’ criticisms on board, overhauling several of the games’ systems and making the grind to the new level cap of 34 a faster and potentially more varied process than it was previously.

The Dark Below forced players seeking progression to level 32 to run the Crota’s End raid again and again, or to test their mettle and patience by ploughing several hours of playtime in the monthly Iron Banner player-versus-player tournament, but with House of Wolves you can achieve the two-level bump in more ways: by collecting a few shards of the new “etheric light” material; by playing the enjoyable and challenging new Prison of Elders multi-wave arena mode; or by engaging in Destiny’s most testing, hardcore activity yet – the weekly Trials of Osiris PvP event.

Etheric light – which is still relatively hard to come by – allows you to upgrade any piece of armour or any weapon to its maximum level in Destiny’s “Year One” – the period until the next big instalment of content arrives, probably in September or October 2015. That means that old piece of armour or that favourite scout rifle you’ve been holding on to since launch week is no longer underpowered, and is in fact as good as anything that drops in the very latest, very toughest activities.

Of these, the Trials of Osiris is certainly the highlight. A three-on-three skirmish set on one map per week, it rewards only the best players and requires communication, cast iron teamwork, the best gear and intimate knowledge of the maps. Having tried it during its opening weekend and basically failing miserably, I can say it’s the most nerve-wracking and potentially the most exhilarating experience in Destiny thus far – a way for the game’s most accomplished players to show off their skills. Noobs need not apply, lest they get hopelessly pwned well before they reach the five wins required to get the top-level armour rewards, or the nine wins required to bag even more impressive gear and, potentially, access to a whole new social area reserved for elite players. It’s a fantastic addition to Destiny’s roster of activities, and the goal of winning nine consecutive matches without a single loss blotting my copybook is something I’m happy to work towards.

Speaking of social areas, House of Wolves provides a new one of those that’s accessible not only to buyers of the DLC but all existing Destiny players. While not as large or visibly impressive as the Tower, it’s makes a nice change to wander this derelict deep space docking bay, picking up bounties and gear from the well-voiced new vendors and seeking out a haul of hidden dead ghost Easter eggs (I’ve found three so far…).

There’s no raid in House of Wolves, which some will decry – after all, the first time you run the Vault of Glass will likely tattoo itself into your brain as one of Destiny’s most iconic moments, and even the flawed Crota’s End raid remains one of the most enjoyable activities in the game. There’s nothing quite like getting six people together and tacking a common goal. The raid here makes way for Prison of Elders, a three-player player-versus-enemy arena activity which sees increasingly difficult waves of enemies hurled at the Guardians, culminating in a boss battle. It’s fun, extremely challenging in its higher level guises, and offers a welcome level of week-by-week variety. I would have liked to have seen a new six-player activity included as well, but I guess we’ll have to wait until September for that.

Still not perfect, but getting closer

House of Wolves also features a handful of new story missions and a new strike mission, and these are pretty much standard issue by Destiny’s standards. Happily, none of them features the “fending off three waves of enemies while your ghost opens a door” mechanic – but that might be down to Peter Dinklage’s unavailability as a voice actor as much as the designers tiring of it.

So, we’re now a good eight months on from Destiny’s arrival and I, for one, am still playing it – and still enjoying it for the most part. It’s still got its detractors online, but their complaints seem less and less convincing and more and more shrill by the day. It’s not perfect, of course, but Bungie’s willingness to learn from previous missteps means it’s getting closer and closer to hitting that sweet spot of creating an FPS that will satisfy hardcore MMO grinders and casual dip-in-dip-out players alike.