Bungie is under enormous pressure to make Destiny a hit. The Halo developer defined the console shooter for the last two generations with that franchise, and by escaping the shadow of Microsoft in 2007 and becoming an independent company, they cleared the way to once again make a game they want to make without an overbearing outside influence. When Destiny was announced as a multi-platform, next-generation title with some MMO-like elements, gamers wondered if Bungie would once again revolutionize the way that shooter games are played. Later, rumors surfaced that the game cost an unprecedented $500 million (rumors that were subsequently debunked by the company), causing speculation and anticipation to hit an all time high. Even now there are articles being penned about Destiny being one of the biggest games of all time, both in scope and vision. A few E3 press conferences and an alpha test later, the Destiny beta is finally here, and hype has only gotten more out of hand.
Hype is an unfortunate, uncontrollable side-effect of success. As I played through the beta, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “is this really gaming’s next big step?” There’s no evidence that says it should be, and yet millions of gamers are anticipating Bungie’s next game specifically because as developers, they are innovators. Maybe it was unfair to let the hype get to me, but with the most hotly anticipated title of the year from a company whose games I grew up loving, I couldn’t avoid it. The question is an unfair one, but it’s on many of our minds: will Destiny usher in a new era for the genre like Halo did 13 years ago? It’s certainly poised to, but if the gameplay in the beta is any indication, we should actually be preparing ourselves for “just” another great sci-fi FPS experience instead.
The beta begins by throwing the player into a few basic missions. Each mission is more or less the same as the last--salvage ship parts, data, or information from the ruins of the old world while battling hordes of Hive or Fallen (or both). The beta offers six or seven fully-fledged missions, each of them with an identical objective and each of them taking place on the same map environment. A beta can’t necessarily offer a lot of gameplay variance, but the indication here is that Bungie plans to squeeze a large number of missions out of every environment in the game, much like an MMORPG. With repetitive mission structure and minimal enemy variance, first-person shooter games are already a tedious grind; by adding MMO quest structure to the pot, Destiny may be in danger of becoming a monotonous slog.
The missions are broken up by a few cinematic cutscenes that lay the foundation of the game’s story. Bungie is clearly intent on crafting and developing the fictional world of Destiny, and these first few snippets are enticing. For a blockbuster science-fiction game, the groundwork of the story is refreshingly clear and concise: you play as a Guardian, a protector of Earth and its colonies, during a period after the golden age of space exploration, and you battle the Fallen, who have suddenly found the solar system with malicious intent. It may not be inspired or inventive, but it’s succinct enough to ignore or engage with on your own terms. The mission objectives are, unfortunately, another story, and remind one all too much of the convoluted web of narratives in later Halo games, but for now one can remain cautiously optimistic that Destiny’s story won’t be an embarrassing obstacle to the enjoyment of the game.
Unfortunately, when combining that foundational story with the basic gameplay mechanics at work in the beta, Destiny seems all too familiar. The narrative, the cinematics and the score all allude to the grand scope of the game, and yet the player is given the typical, mundane task of fighting wave after wave of five enemies at a time. Every mission in the beta follows this formula, even the Strike mission, which pits a fireteam of players against larger waves of enemies, culminating in large scale boss battles against bigger versions of normal enemies with larger pools of health to chip away from. The Strike is the most exciting and promising section of the beta, but the raid-like mission doesn’t have the personality of a typical MMO dungeon, and the lack of diversity in the environments and enemies is a little disconcerting. There are no doubt some big set-piece moments set for the proper release, but everything shown in the beta shows no signs of altering the tired first-person shooter formula.
This unfortunately includes competitive multiplayer. Destiny’s online arena--the Crucible--appears to be standard for FPS multiplayer. To be fair, the beta only offers one gametype in which to compete: Control is your typical capture-and-hold-control-points type of gameplay that has been around for over a decade in competitive shooters, and it’s completely without twists or alterations. Reading descriptions for the other game modes in the Crucible, it’s clear that Bungie have no interest in toying with the tried and true: we’ve got deathmatch, team deathmatch, and all the other usual suspects. The few multiplayer maps offered in the beta at least point to some environments more interesting than the Old Russia of the story missions, including the moon and Venus, which do look rather attractive--it’s just a shame the gameplay is so boilerplate. For one of the biggest games of at least the last five years, Destiny is showing very little in the way of forward-thinking and innovation. That may be unfair, but developers of big-budget, blockbuster games have to have some responsibility to push the medium forward, right?
I can fully admit to setting my expectations too high. I have no doubt that Destiny will be an impressive and entertaining experience come September, one that’s basically guaranteed universal acclaim from players and critics alike, but as I stormed through brown, decrepit structures and shot at endless waves of enemies that aimlessly jumped in and out of cover without fighting back, I couldn’t help but think that Destiny has the distinct feel of being old. The graphics are crisp, clean, and bright, the gameplay is smooth and accessible, and the multiplayer elements are promising, but bland visuals, disorienting user interface, and poor AI aren’t things that can necessarily be fixed in two months. I know I fell for the hype, but even without any discernable expectations, the Destiny beta feels rather lackluster.
Maybe now, at the beginning of a console generation, all we need is “just” a good game that prioritizes smooth and immersive gameplay over feeling new and being different. Developers have plenty of time to innovate over the lifespan of the current consoles; perhaps all we need now is something to divert our intention until then.