While I have a much better sense of how the combat and controls feels now, Bungie still held back on revealing much about the game. And it's because of that on-going secrecy that I've lost some of my excitement towards Destiny.
Bungie (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [previewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Release: September 9, 2014
Here's a quick recap of the story of Destiny. It's the near-future, and humanity has been visited by the mysterious Moon-sized being known as the Traveler. This being breathes new life into our solar system, paving way for massive human expansion. It's a Golden Age, as humanity rushes into the stars, creates colonies on Mars, Venus, and so on. It's an amazing era of unbounded human progress, but it doesn't last.
The Traveler had an enemy and this evil is finally able to track it down in our galaxy. The human race is nearly destroyed from the ensuing war. When hope is all but gone, the Traveler sacrifices itself to save what's left. It now hangs above Earth where humans begin to rebuild underneath it as they try to reclaim their former Golden Age. Players come into the story centuries later. The alien enemies have been slowly regaining power. You as a Guardian live in The Tower, the last safe city on Earth, and are tasked with protecting this home, and helping humanity push back into space and carve your destiny in the stars once again.
So, first let's focus on the stuff I know for a fact based on what I got to experience. What Bungie had us play through was a Strike mission, instances where up to three players work together to take on replayable scenarios that last an average of 30 minutes or so. Strikes are designed to be linear in nature, and while I experienced a great mixture of wide open spaces and tight corridor interiors in this particular Strike, the level was always kind of funneling you along.
The Strike we played took place on Earth in Old Russia, and Bungie had us replay it three times in order to experience all three playable Guardian classes: Titan, Warlock, and Hunter. All the weapons in the game are available to each class, so what differentiates them is primarily their Focus abilities. Focus is a special offensive or defensive power derived from The Traveler's energy, and it's only the Guardians who can wield these powers.
As you're fighting in Destiny you'll be drawing energy from the Traveler to fill up your Focus. The better you fight, the faster you'll draw this power. Once your energy meter is filled up, you'll trigger it by pressing both bumper buttons at the same time. With the Titan, you have this super melee strike that has to be directed right at a target. The Warlock is able to summon this energy blast that he shoots at the ground, giving off area-of-effect damage. The Hunter gets a golden gun that kills most targets with just one shot instantly.
Those were just some of the Focus abilities I got to mess with as there's plenty you can choose from. That's a key point for Destiny, in fact. You as a player are provided with a ton of choices all throughout the game and it all affects your character. The MMO/Borderlands comparisons come up a lot when talking about Destiny, and for good reason -- there's a ton of loot to acquire. On top of the weapons, you can get helmets, cloaks, gauntlets, chest plates, and so on. Beyond the cosmetic reasons, your armor will alter your characters traits.
You can configure armor to favor movement, strength, speed, and more in order to change how your character handles to fit your exact play style. Plus, the loot and ammo you see is just for yourself -- you never have to worry about sharing or calling dibs on items that fall on the map. In fact other players can't see the loot that you're seeing, making the items all the more meaningful for just you.
You have nine inventory slots when it comes to your guns and each of your gear slots, and as you encounter stronger items you can dismantle older items to gain resources/materials. Or you can take them to The Tower, the social space for players where you can sell your collection and buy new things.
On top of all this, Bungie is looking into item trading. At launch you'll only be able to trade items between the three characters you're able to develop.
"We're really excited about doing a player economy," investment lead Tyson Green stated. "This is going to be a game that the community really drives. But for launch we're going to be restricting it to trading items between your own characters. We have a lot to learn about the way the economy works, and also the security situation both for our own systems and platforms. We're excited about opening up player to player trade as soon as we can, but we're actually going to keep it to character-to-character trade at launch."
Here's the most important thing you'll probably take away from my hands-on experience: Playing Destiny felt like I was sliding right back into Bungie-made Halo games. It felt extremely natural for me as a hardcore Halo player taking the fight to the various aliens in this Strike setting. Combat was very satisfying. I could feel the weight of each of my different gun types. Most of all the impacts of each bullet/laser blast felt like they mattered.
Fights are not that typical MMO bullshit where you see the numbers falling/dwindling down from the enemy while you're taking turns hitting each other like everyone is a sponge. You see your enemy's lifebar as they take damage, and you see health fall based on where you're hitting them. Headshots are often instant kills, whereas you may need to shoot enemies a few times if you're hitting them in the chest or limbs.
I was worried about Destiny being too MMO-ish, but as Green told us, Bungie always focused on the action foremost.
"We started off saying we want to build a game that's got more RPG to it. In fact I would say early in Destiny's life we were really mostly thinking about what kind of formulation of that do we want. But as it evolved, as it developed, as it firmed up -- we're talking years ago -- we really said okay first and foremost we're making a first rate action game. We have I guess a reputation to live up to and so that's what we really concentrated on delivering. We have tailored the investment systems to support that rather than I would say replace it. So very iterative process but really always our eye has been on the action game. Really making sure the action plays well ... we really concentrated on that and layered the investment game on top of that."
Arsenal-wise, you have your Focus, grenades, and three weapon types. Tapping the weapon-swap button will bounce you between smaller weaponry like a pistol, to special weapons like shotgun, assault rifles, and the like. Holding the weapon swap button down for a couple of seconds will switch you to the heavy category, such as a belt-fed heavy machine gun or rocket launcher. You can pick what weapon to use before jumping into a mission, but you're free to swap guns out at any point on a mission from your inventory screen.
Bungie is really hyping up all the different guns you can get, giving them cute special names like "Super Good Advice" and such, but from what I saw they just seemed like the standard offering of guns you see in most games. I didn't really get to mess with any of the gear or character customization during my time, so I can't say what makes them extra special other than some of them just look cool and future-y.
Players have a slide move, but the biggest thing with your movement abilities is that there's double jump. Each character class has a different double jump too. The Titan has a jetpack, the Warlock ends up with more of a floaty effect, and they both can hover in the air for a small duration of time. The Hunter meanwhile has jet boots, and that's more of the traditional double jump effect. All the double jump stuff will nearly instantaneously recharge the second your feet touch the ground too. The double jump ability is helpful in combat, for instance hovering over someone's cover and then shooting them from below. Just don't go expecting Titanfall-style parkour or traversal here.
While you have to take on a Strike with three players (with friends or via matchmaking if you have no friends), you're not bound to each other at all once in the mission. You can totally summon your hoverbike (that everyone can pull up at anytime), and just take off. There are good reasons to stick with your team, however. For one, whenever you use your Focus attack you drop little energy balls that can be picked up by allies that go to filling up their Focus meter faster.
The biggest reason of course is that it'll make all the fights more manageable. While the enemy AI seemed pretty dumb overall (standing out in the open, not really being overly aggressive when near a player), they can get overwhelming when there's over a couple of dozen enemies at key choke points.
Granted, dying has no serious effect, at least in Strikes. If you are killed you'll have to wait for about 30 seconds before you can respawn again on your own. Or a teammate can come revive you to get back in faster. I was told that you will lose some progress in certain situations if you die, though.
My favorite moment during my hands-on time was when we encountered a giant spidertank mech as a mini-boss halfway into the Strike. I posted up on a perch with plenty of cover around me, and used my sniper rifle to pick off the spidertank, hitting its obvious weak points. Meanwhile my teammates flanked each side of me to distract the enemies, allowing me to focus all my energy on the mini-boss before I joined them on ground to mop up what was left.
There was a lot of variety of enemies all throughout the Strike as there were two alien races present: The Fallen and the Hive. From low-level grunts, captains with shielding, creatures that used magical forces, and giant boss-sized enemies. In a lot of ways, it was reminiscent of the Covenant from Halo in terms of variety. It was always a good mix throughout the experience, and there was even a moment where we encountered both alien races as they were waring on each other, vying for control over a certain location in Old Russia.
As for the whole universe exploration, you can't immediately go anywhere you want to at the beginning. You have to level up, develop your character as you explore more of the story. The Director is a HUD system that you will pull up to view all the active missions and others activities you can go mess around with, and it adds more content as you develop and explore areas. Some areas you can re-explore too, such as the Old Russia level I played where I wasn't able to go through some doors until I was able to level up more.
The places you will visit will be specific interesting locations filled with content Bungie has created on each of the planets, as opposed to just being able to go anywhere and explore say the entirety of Earth itself. Traveling from planets take place through your space ship, and from what I saw (with the Strike missions at least) the space ship stuff was more of a loading screen element over you being able to pilot the ship.
So that's all the stuff I got to experience myself. Everything from here on out is just stuff we were briefly shown, or told while the developers had to dance around certain subjects they couldn't talk about yet. Which was a lot, with most of the reasons being they're holding off to reveal more at E3.
Where Strikes are small, linear experiences, Patrols are Destiny's more open-ended story-type offerings. Bungie's Eric Osborn showed off a section that took place on the Moon, where he was traveling by himself in a giant open environment with incredible draw distances of actual areas you could explore, taking on objectives as they came up.
Aside from the whole acquiring loot and cool-looking armor, I'm still not sure why I as a player will be invested to make any sort of progress in Destiny, and that's primarily why my excitement has dwindled from this hands-on look. I'm first and foremost a story kind of guy when it comes to shooters, and Bungie still won't really share what's going to motivate players. We've been told there will be a beginning, middle, and end with the story, and while in most games that would mean something, it's pretty hard to grasp when it's said about a massively multiplayer online game.
It was also disappointing that we weren't able to experience any of the public event instances. As you're playing Destiny, you'll come across public events that will seamlessly bring in other players to take on a big adversary. How many players wasn't specified, but I was reassured by community manager David "DeeJ" Dague that these events will be scaled in a way to make them exciting.
"There isn't any one technical limitation that says '45 [people]' you know? We try to make sure that a public event is something where there are enough people where it's exciting. But not so many people that any one Guardian is not important in the encounter. Everyone who is there, everyone who is fighting should feel like they contributed to that action."
While public events scale the difficulty, it's not something just one player alone can defeat. You have to cooperate, but again if you don't want to play with others or just don't like the odds, you can straight up bail and go back on your own thing.
Some last miscellaneous points before I wrap up my thoughts: I was never given a clear answer why they're still not supporting the PC platform as an option. It's even more baffling once you experience the character customization section. Instead of going through menus and such with the d-pad or whatever as you would 99% of console games, you have a cursor that you have to move around with your directional stick much in the way you would move a mouse cursor, just not as fluid.
And for all of you who asked me over Twitter, there's no info to share on split-screen, with one Bungie rep stating they weren't allowed allowed to talk about it yet.
At the end of the day I'm happy that I finally got some hands-on time with Destiny, if for nothing else but to be reassured with how well the combat mechanics felt. That, and the game is incredibly gorgeous. There's so much detail and color to everything that it really looks like a living, breathing world.
As for everything else, well, my excitement has fizzled out. After talking about Destiny for so long, and being kept in the dark throughout it even now, it's just getting old.
I'm totally going to play Destiny when it comes out later this year. But I'm ultimately wary that I'll have no real good reason to spend any significant time on the story.
For more on Destiny check out some early details on the competitive multiplayer, plus how you'll be able to import characters from last- to current-gen.