Destiny is an open-world shooter developed by industry darling Bungie and published by industry juggernaut Activision. With a name like Destiny and the developer of the Halo series teaming up to create it with the publisher of the Call of Duty series (perhaps the two most popular shooters of all time) expectations for the game were understandably high. While it’s impossible to deny the financial success of the biggest new IP launch in video game history, the critical reaction has been all over the spectrum, ranging from perfect 10/10s praising it for delivering on all fronts to 5/10s claiming the game feels unfinished. Having put 50 hours into Destiny, I can safely say it feels like a very well-polished game that was thrown together at the last minute.
There are times when Destiny is simply incredible and other times when it seems comically inept. First, I’d like to discuss the good things. At its core, Destiny is one of the most fun and enjoyable games I’ve ever played. The weapons list reads like a Halo’s greatest-hits album with the mighty Pistol from Halo 1 and the Rocket Launcher headlining the set list. For my money’s worth, no one makes a better-feeling weapon than Bungie. When you fire a shotgun in Destiny, you feel like you could stop a rampaging rhinoceros with it. Additionally, the gameplay is fantastically balanced. In contrast to Borderlands 2, the game is equally manageable on co-op as it is in single player mode. Naturally, co-op is going to be more enjoyable since slaying time-traveling robots is always more fun with friends, but Bungie doesn’t punish players for playing solo as was the case in Borderlands 2. Speaking of co-op, I feel Bungie deserves credit for trying three-player co-op as the standard instead of four-player. Having reached the point in life where my friends and I can’t spend all our time playing video games (also known as “adulthood”), it’s been substantially more challenging to find two friends available on any given evening. The RPG elements are minor but significant and easy to understand. The maps are well designed and easy to traverse but capable of hiding secret areas.
Finally, the setting of Destiny is fantastic and is easily my favorite thing about the game. The setting—a “high-tech dark age where a small group of elite soldiers serve as humanity’s best defense in an endless struggle with hostile and unforgiving aliens, robots, and space zombies while trying to recover powerful relics of a bygone Golden Age that mankind can no longer fathom”—is also my favorite thing about the Warhammer 40,000 series, but Destiny has the benefit of familiarity by setting the game in the inner ring of the Solar System. I will always think the Moon or Mars is a cooler place to fight than the Omicron Eridanus VIII. Plus, they have a cool loading screen between levels that displays your character’s spaceship, along with the spaceships of everyone you’re playing with, flying off to battle. It adds an Avengers-style team-up feel to the co-op levels.
Paradoxically, Destiny’s greatest strength highlights its greatest weakness: the story. While the setting is brilliant, the story is confusing and meandering with an inescapable air of cynicism. While Destiny does a good job of setting the stage for the conversation that would give exposition and world building, that conversation never comes. There’s a great story in there somewhere, but it’s largely buried in the Grimoire, which can’t even be accessed in the game. In the course of the game’s 12-hour story, you are informed there isn’t time to explain (no less than three times) and never get an explanation for what exactly is happening. In the pivotal scene in the story (akin to when Cortana reveals how the Halo works in Halo back in 2001), a character literally says, “I don’t even have time to explain why I don’t have time to explain.” I wish someone in this story was interested in telling me this story. It seems interesting but I don’t know what the Black Garden is or any of the stories of how the Darkness nearly wiped out mankind, because I live in the real world and I would really appreciate someone taking a moment to talk to me about it.
And the frustrating thing is that there are a lot of cool ideas in play, but they never get fleshed out. For example, one character is strongly implied to be from the darkest timeline and is trying to pull a reverse Terminator by traveling back in time to stop the bad guys at the turning point for their ultimate victory. But it’s only implied because no one has time to explain. And the game “ends” with the characters talking about how the fight is far from over but it’s impossible to escape an air of cynicism from this ending. The game has heavily promoted its ten-year plan for incremental DLC instead of full-fledged sequels and has already begun advertising the first expansion coming in December. So the ending is more like “there will be many great battles to come for just $20 this December.”
On a side note, the game never really bothers to explain why it’s called Destiny. Destiny as a concept doesn’t really enter into the story such as it is, unless the aforementioned reverse Terminator storyline gets fleshed out, and it’s not like there’s an important weapon or place called Destiny like there is in Halo. Given how difficult it is to parse the narrative purpose of any given level, I think it’s more accurate to take a page from George McFly’s playbook and call it Density.
A lesser disappointment comes in the form of the vehicles in Destiny. In 2007’s Halo 3, Bungie’s magnum opus, there were a dozen different kinds of vehicles split between the human and Covenant armies, vehicles that were used in some capacity in most campaign levels. In Destiny, there are exactly two vehicles (three if you count the Sparrow, which has no weapons and is used to make travel around the map quicker) and they’re used in exactly two campaign levels. And one vehicle, the Pike, is a dead ringer for the Ghost from the Halo series. It’s a minor thing, but a disappointment seeing how vehicles distinguish Halo from the rest of the pack even to this day. Finally, the PvP, called the Crucible, is standard fare. It’s got all your favorite game types like free-for-all, territories and team vs team. It’s fun to play with your buddies, but it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before. For what it’s worth, the announcer in the Crucible doesn’t have nearly as much fun with his job as the announcer in Halo does. There’s very little enthusiasm when he talks about your double kill and mimicking the announcer is one of the highlights of multiplayer for me.
However, despite those disappointments, I’ve still played Destiny almost every day since its release. I’ve got friends who still log in every day. It’s fundamentally a well designed, fun game which makes for an excellent evening of entertainment. While there are some major issues with the storytelling, it speaks volumes about the game that it got me interested enough to want to know more about it. The game Destiny reminds me most of is not a shooter at all, though. It reminds me most of Assassin’s Creed, released back in 2007 (coincidentally the same year as Halo 3). It’s a new IP with all sorts of cool ideas and interesting settings and fun gameplay mechanics, but is held back by some poor storytelling decisions as well as a few bad gameplay decisions which could easily be corrected in the future. Like Assassin’s Creed, I think it’s worth checking out Destiny for a very good game that has glimpses of being a great game.