Destiny" is a game with a lot to prove. The latest major project from Bungie -- better known as the firm that made its name with the "Halo" franchise -- is set for a fall release on the PlayStation 4, with the Xbox One to follow.
But for those who can't wait until its Sept. 9 debut, Bungie is offering the general public a small, limited "alpha" play period this month. Potential players can start submitting their names at 3 p.m., Eastern on Thursday for a session that will last through the weekend.
Bungie has had some great ideas about how to make gaming a social experience ever since it made online multiplayer a main feature of its games back when it was an in-house Microsoft studio. That sense of camaraderie propelled "Halo" to enormous success; in fact, the franchise is more or less credited with making the Xbox a major console. From that point on, the appeal of social gaming and online multiplayer have only grown. And Bungie, having declared its independence from Microsoft, has taken its expertise in making gaming a social experience and bumped it up a notch with "Destiny."
"Destiny" is a console-based, massively multiplayer, online game -- or MMO, to use the industry phrase -- that also carries the familiar elements of a classic shooter. It's smart of the company to open up the alpha to the public, even in its early stages, because it's the sort of game that's very hard to sell with previews. So much of the fun of the game comes from meeting people or working with friends, the sort of interaction that you can't really capture in a trailer.
Players can choose from three classes -- hunter, titan, or warlock -- which give them the option to sneak, fight or use magic to succeed in the game. Each option comes with its own abilities and weaknesses, in classic gaming style, as well as class-based gear. Users can customize the look of their character based on a number of color and other options.
Bungie offers a couple of playing options, including missions for one to three players; open world exploration, where you can pick up your own missions; and a multiplayer mode called "The Crucible." To do character maintenance and for general socializing, there's a central, safe zone called "The Tower," which basically functions like any other MMO hub out there -- it's an enemy-free zone where you can shop, talk with other friends who are playing the game, change our your armor and do basic maintenance.
Apart from the tutorial, the solo mode is the best way to really get a good feel of how the game works. On the small group missions, you can get matched with other "Destiny" players to meet a variety of objectives. The early version of the game also offers up a "Strike" mission, in which you and two other players have to fight off successive waves of enemies from specific positions.
The solo mode consists of you walking around the map and looking for small missions -- quests to collect or fetch things, for example -- that you can complete on your own, though others walking around can interact with each other. It also gives users a chance to drink in the truly stunning graphics that "Destiny" offers of a post-apocalyptic Earth. On that front, Bungie has delivered a truly next-gen experience. Bungie has a lot of map to explore, so if you get tired of that you can also summon vehicles -- a sort of speeder bike -- to get across the maps more quickly. The game also offers impromptu missions in the open world, where individual users may choose to band together on a whim to compete a task. I didn't get to do any of that in my short play time.
Multiplayer is, of course, at the heart of this game. Sadly, getting matches was a little difficult in the limited release I played. That said, it was still a lot of fun. The multiplayer also fell along some pretty classic lines. I played around in the "Control" mode, in which a team of six players compete with another team to capture three strategic points on a map. It managed to be familiar without being boring, which is a bit of a feat in and of itself.
Now for a confession: Shooters aren't my strongest suit, so I spent the bulk of my time dying and regenerating. But the pace of the play was such that even folks like me -- read: those who literally can't play shooters to save their (in-game) lives -- are still able to make some contributions. There are plenty corners for launching strategic attacks on your foes. Just make sure to watch your back for snipers.
There are some issues with the game. It feels a little off-balance at times, and even when you unlock certain missions by advancing through the game, you can feel a little overwhelmed. I didn't come across any major bugs -- I never got stuck in a wall or had a crash. But there were times when I felt the timing of a jump or the reaction of a shot was a little off -- sometimes a bit of a lag made me feel too much like I was floating and out of control of my character. Those are problems that will likely get refined away in successive tests of the game, particularly after Bungie goes through the gauntlet of a public alpha.
Overall, however, the real joy of the game comes from playing it and seeing all the little tricks Bungie has used to make "Destiny" feel like a world unto itself -- a world that just happens to be populated with your friends.