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Destiny (PlayStation 4) artwork

Destiny (PlayStation 4) review

"Bungie asks us to invest dozens of hours in exploring a flat world steeped in clichés, interacting with a community that barely exists and toying with RPG elements that seem to have phoned in sick."

Destiny (PlayStation 4) image

If there's one reassurance to be found in Destiny, it's that after spending a decade on the Halo franchise, Bungie is very, very good at making Halo. The enemies that you battle in their newest game move with the recognizably frantic energy of Covenant Elites, and you might even mistake their slow-moving projectiles for Needler rounds. There's a sequence on Venus – most of the game's best content is found on Venus – in which a race of classical-looking robots called the Vex is introduced, and the scene rivals the original reveal of the Flood for buildup, shock, and effective use of unnerving music. Bungie can craft some great moment-to-moment stuff.

Sure enough, these guys still know how to make a first-person shooter. Too bad Destiny isn't one.

They're calling it a "shared-world shooter," because that's more enticing than "MMO without dedicated servers," I suppose. Before the game was even released, Bungie made the bold claim that Destiny doesn't hit its potential until players reach the soft level cap and engage in postgame activities, a good 20 hours in, basically. I completed the campaign in a few days, spent the remainder of the weekend senselessly grinding with no direction and no reward, and as soon as I'm done writing this, I'm going to play something that has a point. Bungie asks us to invest dozens of hours in exploring a flat world steeped in clichés, interacting with a community that barely exists and toying with RPG elements that seem to have phoned in sick. I like Destiny's gunplay, but that doesn't mean that I want to spend this much time with it for no real payoff.

I'm down with the basic concept, in which players, assorted Chosen Ones raised from the dead, team up to wage a system-wide war against multiple alien races long after a technological boom and subsequent collapse. I'm less down with the idea of wielding the power of Light to defeat the forces of Darkness, and no, I'm not simplifying – that is literally what this game is about. Light versus Darkness.

Destiny (PlayStation 4) image

Hey, remember when the Destiny alpha made its rounds and Peter Dinklage's character famously dropped the line "That wizard came from the moon"? Remember how that sentence sounded so embarrassingly elementary school recess that Bungie opted to just remove it from the finished game? Well, it wouldn't have been out of place, because that's exactly what Destiny's script sounds like, taking Halo's aversion to creating new nouns to its logical extreme – everything is a Guardian or a Ghost or a Sparrow or whatever – and somehow whittling it into a good-versus-evil narrative that's simultaneously safer and vaguer. This is science fiction for people who don't care.

Much of the lore isn't even in-game, instead relegated to reading material on Bungie's website. What is here is both simple-minded and unexcitingly presented. Cutscenes are sparse, so most exposition is done through in-game dialog courtesy of Peter Dinklage, voicing your character's Cortana-like AI companion in what is easily the dullest, least engaged performance I've ever heard by the guy. There's no wit or spark to anything he's reading, but Dinklage clearly has no interest in elevating the material. He was the wrong choice, and the first of many indicators that Bungie was concerned with what was marketable first and what actually worked second. That goes for the rest of the voice (a shockingly Hollywood-caliber assembly, all of whom are underused as nondescript shopkeepers and such), and it also goes for Paul McCartney, whose original song must certainly be the worst thing he's done in over a half a century spent in the music industry.

Yeah, Halo didn't have a great overarching narrative either (until Bungie left the franchise, at least), but it didn't matter then. All Halo needed was the framework for a breezy, tightly-controlled single-player campaign. Destiny, on the other hand, is meant to be sprawling. I have no intention of getting lost in a world that feels this trite, this dumbed down for mass audience digestibility.

Destiny (PlayStation 4) image

Of all of the terms Bungie has been using to describe Destiny, "RPG" hasn't been getting much mileage. The game certainly tries to be an RPG – there are three classes, each with middling skill trees and an unlockable subclass. The first issue with Destiny the RPG is that the classes themselves are barely distinguishable. Everyone uses the same weapons and has a melee attack, a glide, and a grenade of some description. Special attacks are the biggest differentiator, but they can only be used every once in a while, and the rest of your skill tree is largely reserved for stat changes and mild effects added to your basic moveset.

So character builds are underwhelming, and the loot is a disappointment, too, since it's both sparse and predictable, to the point that I once played a matchmade strike mission in which all three of us were wearing the exact same jacket. Weirdly, Bungie seems to expect us to find loot collection compelling anyway, since it's your primary method of leveling up in postgame. Until you hit the soft cap at level 20, upgrading works the way you'd expect: kill enemies and complete missions to earn experience. When you reach 20, though (in roughly the amount of time it takes to complete the campaign), Destiny switches to a different system wherein players can only increase levels by arming themselves with equipment imbued with "light." Such equipment is rare, and thus traditional grinding turns into a nonstop hunt for loot, in a game in which the loot is scant and kinda sucks anyway.

According to Bungie, this is where Destiny takes off. According to me, this is where Bungie is incorrect. Attempting to obtain the necessary post-20 equipment the usual way – through random drops and mission rewards – can and will leave you empty-handed most of the time, but the only other method is to buy said equipment directly through the vendors in Destiny's hub world (which is the "Tower" in the "Last City," because Destiny is not well-written). But they'll only sell it to you once you've increased either your Vanguard or Crucible rank, which involves ages of senseless grinding, either by hunting down damage sponge bosses or by taking on other players in PvP.

Destiny (PlayStation 4) image

Oh, right. Remember how I compared Destiny's gunplay to Halo? That may have led you to the conclusion that Destiny's PvP mode is good. It isn't, for exactly the reason you're thinking. With every player sporting different builds and different equipment sets at different levels, a competitive FPS environment would probably feel cripplingly unbalanced, and sure enough, matches in the PvP arena (which is called the "Crucible," because of course it is) pretty much always lean in favor of the players who have the highest numbers attached to their user cards. It's bizarre, because a level playing field was a characteristic of Halo that Bungie was always proud of, and now here they are, doing the thing that they condemned.

The map design is solid, but even when Crucible games feel evenly matched, it's all just such generic drivel, running us through the same basic deathmatch and objective modes that we're always playing in these things, and even throwing in a gruff commander character (the same guy on both teams) to voice his displeasure when we're losing, even though we're all Guardians and we're all supposed to be fighting together and hey, that's right, why are we doing this, anyway? The Crucible is the fastest way to grind, but it's also the least interesting in a game that is altogether milquetoast.

The biggest problem with Destiny, though, is that for an MMO – and that's what Destiny is, whether Bungie likes it or not – it's neither massive nor even particularly multiplayer-centric. With no dedicated servers, Destiny feels empty. You can play any mission with other people if you've got some willing friends, but for reasons I cannot fathom, matchmaking is restricted to the dull PvP content and the occasional strike missions. I finished the entire campaign myself on the simple basis that I had no other options. I'd occasionally see other roaming players, but they were always off doing their own thing – the organic matchmaking system that Bungie has been touting is pretty much a non-entity. And even when you get companions, voice chat isn't enabled unless you're in a party.

Destiny (PlayStation 4) image

And here's the odd thing. Pretty soon, Bungie will begin rolling out raids, six-player PvE missions intended specifically for those who have divulged extensively in Destiny's postgame grind. The first, Vault of Glass, is recommended for players who have hit at least level 26 (which, in case you're unaware, is outrageously high), and none of the raids will support matchmaking. Bungie's stated hope is that by the time you've hit endgame, you've naturally made the friends and built the teams necessary to take these raid missions on. How? How, when multiplayer is this limited, when voice chat isn't enabled, when the game isn't even being released on PC (where gaming and MMO communities most naturally thrive), am I expected to just fend for myself here? How, when your game is so dull to begin with, am I supposed to maintain interest for the dozens of hours necessary to prepare myself for these raids, and then locate five other people who similarly have nothing better to do?

This is exactly why MMOs are difficult to make, and why I tend to avoid the genre altogether. Bungie believes that spending dozens of hours engaged in their tiresome grind is its own reward. The amount of time that they want us to spend in this? I'd have trouble justifying spending that much time with many considerably better, more original titles. The shooting is great, but Bungie already produced a decade's worth of considerably more purpose-built shooters. I hear that a compilation of them is being released later this year, in fact. I'll have fun playing that while Bungie is still trying to convince the world that Destiny is more than just the overhyped market baby of the moment.

P.S. The game certainly looks pretty... in screenshots, at least. Shame about that 30fps.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (September 15, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Suskie posted September 16, 2014:

Damn. If any staff types want to fix that typo, I'd be grateful.

Yeah, AAA gaming has been kind of dropping the ball this year... I'm thinking over my favorite games of 2014 so far and the vast majority of them are indies and niche titles. We do have the big fall rush still about to commence, so... fingers crossed that someone will pull through?

Thanks a lot for reading, man.
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EmP posted September 16, 2014:

Yeah; on it.

While I'm in here, this really was a fantastic review. I've always been open in my enjoyment of Halo, so was secretly gutted that I'd be missing out on this. Th muddled aggregate the game's producing makes me feel better. I now feel wonderfully indifferent about the entire thing.
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Germ posted September 16, 2014:

I wanted to chime in too just to say I've seen a lot of similar sentiments about this game, but none put this eloquently. If I knew someone on the fence about getting it, this review is the first place I would point them.
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Suskie posted September 16, 2014:

D'awwww, you guys are the greatest.

I'm right there with you on the Halo love, EmP. I think I actually had a little too much faith in Bungie with this whole project, going so far as to attend the midnight launch. Just after I'd been hospitalized earlier that day!

The gunplay's solid enough. If they'd just stuck with that... well, then Destiny would be Halo in everything but name, I guess.
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Genj posted September 27, 2014:

Although I'd give the game a slightly better score mainly because the gunplay and mechanics are solid, I largely agree with everything you said here. Pretty much the story campaign level design is lousy and the psuedo MMO stuff hurts what would otherwise be solid PVP. I was at level 24 before I finally shelved it in disgust. I ended up easily racking up 4800+ points in a Clash with level 10-17s. Then in a match with level 27s I could barely do anything. The lack of match making for anything other than the 5 or so Strike missions is also hilariously stupid and needs to be patched now. Easily the first game in awhile that I was legit angry about spending $60 on.
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Suskie posted September 29, 2014:

Hey, Genj is back!

Thanks for reading, man. I'm honestly stunned that people are still fervently playing this. I really don't see what the hook is supposed to be.

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