Although such tests are not uncommon for games built for the PC, they represent an emerging trend in console-game development. Anyone who remembers the disastrous rollout of last year’s Grand Theft Auto Online — which was initially plagued with server issues that made it difficult to initiate an extended-play session, let alone sustain one — will know why companies whose fortunes rest on providing an inviting online experience can benefit from allowing the public to sample their game ahead of its official release.
Of course, the oft-cited risk of such a ploy is that customers who might have been intrigued by a game’s potential while in development might be turned off by the actual experience. I was a part of this contingent — so much so that I canceled my pre-order of Destiny, which had been my key to the beta. (The alpha was open to PlayStation 4 owners who registered at bungie.net.) My reasons were not based on any technical hiccups—in my experience, everything worked just fine–but on how the game ruffled my sensibilities as a writer, a sense that didn’t come as unexpected.
My doubts about Destiny first emerged after I watched interviews with Bungie’s developers, who—though they were as enthusiastic and bright-eyed about the project—seemed unable to articulate what would set it apart from other shooters. That Destiny would knit the divide between cooperative and competitive play by allowing players to move easily between the game’s story mode—which can be tackled with other players—and its suite of player-vs.-player options seemed a rather minor selling point to me, since such other types of games as Demon’s Souls and GTA V had already done similar things.
Even with my low expectations, I was caught unawares by the desultory writing on display in the alpha. The Golden Globe-winning “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage, who voices the player’s A.I. companion known as a Ghost, briefly became a target of online jesting after players seized upon a particularly bad line spoken by his character—“That wizard came from the moon!”—and elevated it to meme status before it was cut from the beta. (Give Bungie props: It took the mockery in stride and immortalized the line on a T-shirt, the proceeds of which went to charity.)
If all this talk about narrative quality seems somewhat recherché for a discussion about an entertainment product that has game-play mechanics consisting of shooting critters with different weapons across various environmental backdrops, I would say: Consider how numerous first-person shooters over the past decade (BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line, Wolfenstein: The New Order, etc.) have attended to their players’ intellects, as well their trigger fingers. You will learn more in the first five minutes about the psychological makeup of your protagonist and what everyday life is like for the survivors of a cataclysmic event playing Metro 2033 or Metro: Last Light, which are set in post-apocalyptic Moscow, than you ever would stomping around Old Russia in Destiny, or any of its other interplanetary precincts. And if you’re in a less serious mood, odds are better that you’ll laugh more playing a game like Borderlands 2, which knowingly jokes around with video conventions, than you ever would playing Destiny — a game whose RPG-like mechanics bear a close resemblance to it.
So Destiny (which grossed more than $325 million worldwide in its first five days) is a humorless, emotionally un-inflective, cliché-ridden space opera that I probably wouldn’t have played unless someone paid me to, but guess what? My appreciation for the game grew over the dozens of hours I played it. Perhaps the fault lay not in its stars, but in me.
The opening cut-scene of Destiny sums up what the game is about: A space pod lands on Mars and a group of astronauts emerges. The astronauts scale a rocky incline that overlooks an expansive vista, above which hovers a huge, celestial entity. A mellifluous, male voice-over informs us that the being in question is known as the Traveler, and that its discovery ushered in a golden age for humanity in which human life-spans increased, and a technological renaissance facilitated voyage to deeper parts of the galaxy.
This epoch ended after a force known as the Darkness found the Traveler, which it had been hunting for time immemorial. The period that followed was known as the Collapse. The survivors of this calamity and their descendants later took refuge at the City—the only place on Earth where a much-weakened Traveler could shroud humanity from the Darkness. From there, the game cuts to Old Russia, where we see a floating robot—a Ghost voiced by Dinklage—searching for someone who turns out to be you. Without going into too much detail, he tells you that your character has been dead for a long time and though you might have questions, for now they are best set aside. The important thing to know is that you are a Guardian, and that you have been resurrected to help heal the Traveler and repel the Darkness.
The game allows players to choose from among three races — human; Awoken, a pale, vampire-like people; and Exo, a species of sentient robots—and three classes that loosely align with the classic RPG trinity of knight, thief and mage. In Destiny, that breaks down to strongly armored Titans, nimble Hunters and spell-casting Warlocks. (I chose Warlocks.) From there, the player is tasked with conducting basic reconnaissance missions around Old Russia that soon lead to the discovery of a spaceship. Blasting the aliens that impede you earns experience points, which are used to level up your character and unlock different abilities. Once you have achieved Level 5 (which should take no more than two hours), you gain access to the Crucible, Destiny’s player-vs.-player hub, where you can engage in 3-vs.-3, or 6-vs.-6 team battles, as well as 6-vs.-6 battles in which players try to seize and hold on to specific areas of playfield, and every-person-for-themselves skirmishes.
Once you hit Level 20, you gain access to the Heroic modifier, which allows you to revisit previous areas and significantly ramp up the challenge, as well as to the Strike Playlists, which allow players to challenge difficult foes. Upon achieving Level 26, you gain access to the game’s Raids, which allow teams of up to 6 players to challenge the game’s most difficult foes in matches that can take up to 10 hours.
For anyone who’s spent time with Halo, Destiny’s shooting mechanics will feel second nature. Perforating enemies to weaken their shields, then finishing them off with a melee attack, is as fluid as it ever was in Bungie’s old franchise. Ditto, zipping around the map on a Sparrow—a shameless ripoff of the Star Wars speeder biker, which also calls to mind the vehicles in Halo known as Ghosts. One feature that Halo veterans who are particularly keen on multi-player may miss is the ability to customize matches—i.e., choose what weapons and vehicles are available for use—as well as the Forge feature, introduced in Halo 4, that allows players to customize the map. That said, Bungie has promised a steady rollout of updates, and I would be shocked if more options for customization were not offered.
Like other reviewers, I sped through the game’s story mode with an eye trained on my deadline. Because I haven’t been particularly drawn to competitive multi-player since the days of Halo 2, I spent a fair amount of time replaying the story missions to build up my character. In gaming lingo, this is known as “grinding.” It’s usually considered a chore, though before I hit Level 20 in Destiny, I never experienced it as such. Why?
Well, it all goes back to those astronauts in the game’s intro. After I completed the story missions, I revisited the Moon, Venus and Mars, where I skirted past alien patrols to gaze, unbothered, upon strange symbols scratched into walls, wiry-looking structures of unknown purpose, pools of iridescent liquids pockmarking the ground, and the like. I experienced a small epiphany inside of a structure on Mars when I noticed a wall that shimmered like a piece of corrugated metal. When I approached it from an angle, I saw that it was actually a window that looked out onto several buildings. I paused and considered how many hours must have gone into producing this little effect, which could easily be brushed over in the rush to complete an objective. Then I considered how in a different context—say, with Mario Kart 8 or the widely praised throwback Shovel Knight—writers of my ilk might lavish praise upon a game’s atmosphere because we know it’s not trying to tell us a grand story, but rather to evoke something else, like glee.
Destiny is a game about traversing beautiful places that offers up humble compensation for the fact that we will likely not travel to distant planets in our lifetimes. There is something of import in that most simple of ideas.