Of all the games set for release in 2014, few carry the weight of expectation of Destiny.
The first new title from Halo developer Bungie, Destiny is an ambitious multiplayer shooter that’s launching on both current-gen (Xbox One, PlayStation 4) and last-gen (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) hardware.
At E3, a limited alpha test for the game was announced as a PS4 exclusive, but we were given a download code to try the game ourselves before flying out to LA. Is it going to change the gaming world like Halo did? Read on to find out…
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I am your Destiny
If you’re a fan of co-op shooters such as Borderlands or massively multiplayer adventures like World Of Warcraft, you’ll be right at home in Destiny.
The game cherry-picks the best features from these modern multiplayers and works them into an otherwise fairly familiar Halo-like shooter. Destiny is set 700 years in the future, after man has colonised space and started a war with multiple alien races. You are recruited by 'the Traveller'; a mysterious white, spherical entity who commands you to investigate and destroy these threats before humanity is eradicated.
Your first task upon booting up is to choose your class, picking between Titan, Hunter and Warlock. Broadly speaking, these are Destiny’s versions of the standard soldier, stealth and mage classes, and each has a different mix of abilities. Our Titan, for example, could smash the ground and dissolve enemies in a bombastic special move. We teamed up with a Hunter, whose special ability was a flaming pistol that would disintegrate enemies with its solar light. Each of these abilities had to recharge, which took time, so they could be used only fleetingly in combat.
After choosing a class, another MMO-style feature presented itself - the character-creation screen. Bungie’s offering has the same options as most games we’ve seen: customisable genders, races, faces etc. The difference here is in the exquisite details and animations: Destiny’s characters look absolutely stunning.
Into the Breach
Once you’ve created a character, you’re immediately thrown into a tutorial mission. This takes place in Old Russia - a beautiful but decrepit snowy wasteland with gorgeous features such as abandoned space shuttles, rusting industrial complexes and Northern lights punctuating the background.
The game quickly tells you to press the DualShock 4’s touch pad to bring up the Traveller - the small orb that’s recruited you to save the universe. On the most basic level, the Traveller silently points to your objective, but it also vocalises the game’s back story in actor Peter 'Tyrion Lannister' Dinklage’s familiar tones.
The Traveller informs you that you’re in Russia to find out what The Fallen (a mysterious alien race) are protecting - thankfully, it’s only a matter of seconds before you come across one of them in the flesh. When you lock them in your sights, vital information immediately appears onscreen: a number denoting their class (in this case a “2”), the name of the unit, and a health bar.
Doing what comes naturally in a first-person shooter, we begin to fire at the enemy drone with our shotgun - the first shot takes off 75% of its health, the second finishes it off. The brief battle startles another couple of Fallen units, but rather than come straight at us, they demonstrate Bungie’s famously high level of artificial intelligence by ducking behind the nearest cover and seemingly communicating with each other before launching a coordinated attack. Fortunately, we've switched to the plasma rifle by this point, enabling us to dispatch them fairly easily and pick up one of the game’s collectable 'Grimoire' cards.
Suddenly, a massive Fallen ship descends from the sky and fires powerful plasma rounds at us, depleting our rechargeable shield and sending us scuttling off to find cover.
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You Say Halo, I Say Destiny
While Destiny is the result of Bungie attempting to break away from its Halo roots, the DNA of the famous Xbox shooter is undoubtedly present, particularly when it comes to its gunplay. In fact, if a layman played the game without knowing anything about it, they’d probably think it was a Halo sequel of some description.
On a basic level, the shotgun boasts many of the same qualities as the Halo equivalent - the same distinctive circular aiming reticule, the wide spread and the slow reload speed. The melee strikes, mapped to the R1 button on PS4, feel powerful and fun to land. There’s a shield that recharges whenever you’re not getting hit. These are all features reminiscent of the Halo games that Bungie produced, and which defined Xbox consoles more than any other series.
Not everything is Halo-inspired though: Bungie has definitely learned a lot from role-playing games too. When you shoot at and hit enemies, numbers denoting the health damage pour out of them like lost blood. Ammunition is relatively sparse, so you have to scavenge around for loot (although far less so than in something like Borderlands 2). You can spawn a vehicle when you’re out in the open to travel around quickly. And there’s a levelling system that sees you unlocking new weapons, abilities and power-ups.
These are all features that have appeared in other games before, but like Bruce Lee taking various types of martial arts and only keeping the stuff that worked, Bungie has pilfered the best gaming ideas from the last 10 years and applied them to their excellent shooting mechanics.
Continuing with the alpha, we decide to engage a few more enemies, this time of a higher Level 5 rating.
As we approach our objective, we come across another player attempting the same mission. It is perfect timing - the next enemy we meet is a large Fallen Captain equipped with a shield. He would have been quite a challenge to take on alone, but he's no match for two people working together.
Things seem to be going well - we work together for a while without having to communicate verbally, and within the first 10 minutes of hooking up, we’ve killed enough Fallen to reach Level 4. That all changes when we encounter a new enemy called The Hive, which is very reminiscent of Halo’s infamous Flood enemies in that there are loads of them and they come at you fast.
While we don't die during this encounter, we do spend a lot of time running away and taking cover so that our shield can recharge slowly.
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Tutorial Mission survived intact, it's time to check out the next part of Destiny’s alpha: the Tower.
The Tower is The Last City of Earth, and in the game it acts as a social hub where you can meet people, take on bounties, buy weapons, upgrade your ship, and much more. As it’s a non-conflict zone, the camera shifts into a third-person perspective. The main objective on the first visit is to talk to Commander Zavala and collect your payment for completing the tutorial mission, which then allows you to buy new weapons and vehicles. It’s here that the game feels most like a traditional MMO in terms of taking on quests and collecting rewards, although in terms of presentation, The Tower has more in common with Mass Effect’s Citadel.
It's here that we met up with our first proper human ally, a fellow journalist who has also gotten access to the alpha. Destiny’s term for partying up is to create what’s known as a 'Fireteam', which keeps you and your teammates together when you go out on missions. As the leader of our Fireteam, our ally is forced to join us whenever we leave one location and head to another. After performing some highly amusing gestures (to us at least) including waving, sitting on the ground and dancing crazily, we head out on to the next mission.
In the wilderness
It’s at this stage of the game that Destiny becomes much more open. We return to the world map and spy a Level 6 mission called 'The Devil’s Lair', but as we're currently stuck on Level 4 we instead head back into Old Russia for a Level 4 Exploration mission around the Cosmodrome.
In this mode, you have to look out for beacons dotted around the world, then scan them and follow the mission to receive a reward. This could be to kill a certain number of enemies, find something hidden, or recover treasures from around the map. These quests are also interrupted with random events that you can choose to engage with or ignore, such as a contingency of Fallen landing and you only having a limited amount of time to kill them.
This more free-form gameplay is generally fun, but it does show up one element of Destiny’s structure that could frustrate, and that’s the 'grind'. It’s something that MMO players will be familiar with; fighting off loads of enemies just to level up your character so that they’re powerful enough to engage in the next part of the story. The skirmishes are great, especially one fight against a giant Noble Devil Walker, but there's a lot of killing and fetching to do before we reach Level 6.
It's here that the game’s difficulty ramps up significantly, too. We come across some incredibly strong regenerating Hive Knight enemies that two people simply can't kill, so we're left with no other option but to desperately run past the gangs of enemies in a cowardly attempt to reach the objective. The tactic works, but it doesn’t feel particularly fair or satisfying. Fortunately, we manage to find a third person for the team within a matter of minutes, but when we do engage in combat, we frequently end up dying and needing to be revived by someone (if they don’t get to you within around 40 seconds, you respawn in a safe area).
Destiny’s competitive multiplayer mode is housed in an area of the map called The Crucible. From the alpha we can see that there will be six main modes in the multiplayer game, although only one is available at this time. It’s called Control, and seems to be a game mode where 6 vs 6 players fight for control of strategic battle zones.
There are a number of rewards available in the Crucible part of the game, including gear and reputation points. But while all this was active in the alpha, it needed 12 people to play, and the number of people online at the same time as us maxed out at about three. So we’ll have to wait until the alpha goes public on the 12th to try it out.
Destiny (alpha release) - the verdict
Based on what we’ve played of Destiny’s alpha build, we’re extremely confident about the game’s overall quality. Even at this early stage, the game plays well, looks gorgeous, and is incredibly polished overall. It also has a mix of established genre tropes that, while they may be borrowed from elsewhere, fit into it well and produce something that feels unique.
The alpha will go public exclusively on PS4 on June 12, but keep your eyes peeled for more information on this game and many more from E3 this week. Stuff will be there in force reporting from the show, so keep checking back to Stuff.tv for all the news from the Los Angeles Convention Centre as it happens.