Bungie’s Destiny has inspired some of the most ambivalent thoughts I’ve ever had while clutching a gamepad.
Some people have said it’s the sort of game you either love or you hate. For me it’s much more of a love-hate relationship. It’s exactly what I want out of a video game, and yet its pieces are ultimately more satisfying than the whole.
It’s not often I have such mixed feelings about a video game
My early reactions to games are usually pretty straightforward: I love it right away—Dark Souls, Mario Kart 8, Bayonetta, DOOM—I’m entertained but may need some time to warm up to it—Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Spec Ops: The Line, Dragon Age: Origins—I’m mostly bored and uninspired—most MMOs, Minecraft (yeah, just not for me I guess) Dragon Age II, Gone Home—or I turn it off pretty quickly because it’s just bad—Game of Thrones RPG, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Infestation: Survivor Stories, The Fighter Within.
Only a handful of games really spark my love-at-first-sight reaction. Quite a few take some time to get good, and more often than not these ones never reach levels of greatness. Sometimes they surprise me, though. The Last of Us had such a powerful story, whatever aspects of gameplay I wasn’t thrilled about became fairly insignificant for me. Sometimes the games that seem terribly boring at first turn out to be surprising masterpieces, like Persona 4 Golden (my first trip in Shin Megami Tensei territory.)
And this is why I write multi-part reviews and reactions to video games. Sometimes my early reactions to a game don’t reflect where I end up. Sometimes a game that starts out great falters later, and vice versa. Writing multi-part reactions to a video game helps me discuss it in closer to real-time, better exemplifying the actual experience of playing a video game.
Destiny is a game I wrote multiple posts about. I’ve also included it in the Best Games of 2014 list and the Most Disappointing Games of 2014 list. This is because Destiny is in many ways not simply one game. Destiny power leveling makes gaming more simple. It’s several smaller games all tied together into one experience.
There’s the pre-level-20 campaign with its flimsy story. There’s the confusing end-game experience with its loot-bound post-level-20 progression. There are solo/co-op story missions, co-op Strikes, friends-only Raids, and the PvP Crucible.
Unlike games like Call of Duty, which very clearly delineates between single and multi-player, Destiny packages it all together, while still breaking it all out into pieces. The over-map allows you to select any opened up location, or access Strike or Crucible playlists—it’s all very neat and tidy and well packaged and set up for the good grind, but at the same time it feels almost too gamey, too unimaginative, too clean and devoid of a sense of exploration or actual place.
This is partly why I love-hate Destiny. I’ve often criticized games for being overly cinematic. For sacrificing gameplay on the altar of showiness. I’m constantly impressed by the production values in Call of Duty, for instance, but I always feel like if Activision just let go of the reins a little bit we could have much better games. I would love to see what a more open-ended Advanced Warfare would have looked like, with all those cool toys at your disposal.
Destiny doesn’t care at all for showy cinematics or overwrought stories. You could basically get through the game with the TV on mute and not be worse for wear. But while I’m a huge fan of minimalism in games—Dark Souls fanatic that I am—Destiny’s story was tacked on pretty badly, and Peter Dinklage’s voice-acting and the uninspired script certainly didn’t help.
Nevertheless, this rather empty story helps shine a light on what Destiny does do very well: Action!
The shooting is tight. The co-op is tons of fun. And the PvP, while not perfect, is still pretty great. This is a well-designed shooter that does a great job combining its single and multiplayer gameplay into one experience. And it does a great job at keeping people in the game for weeks on end.
I was expecting something much more alive, much more driven by exploration, story, and a sense of social discovery
Instead, Destiny is a game made up of smaller games that all work together to create really addictive feedback loops. The gameplay is terrific, and the progression system, however bizarre and confusing it may be, works to keep you playing and grinding away to your heart’s content.
However repetitive the levels can get, there’s no denying that scrapping your way through a challenging mission with a pair of Guardians at your side, and then maybe getting some sweet loot at the end, can be a lot of fun. All the little pieces here, taken individually, are fantastic.
In many ways Destiny is the perfect game. It doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It doesn’t get bogged down with cut-scenes or Quick-Time Events, and it doesn’t pull punches in terms of difficulty. It certainly doesn’t hold your hand like so many games these days. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like the universe Bungie has created is frighteningly unimaginative.
It’s hard to connect with the game on any other terms than advancement and shooting. I have very little sense of who my character is, or why they’re doing the things they do. As an RPG it fails in every way save progression.
Even months after release, I’m confused by this game. I enjoy it a great deal, and wish I could devote more time to playing it. When I sit down with it I’m hooked.
But it’s a hollow experience. I suppose I just wanted it to be something grander, more visionary. Instead, we got a very tightly crafted shooter developed by people who know how to peddle addiction. That’s not quite the same thing as inspiration—but in practical terms, it may as well be.
A note about the artwork
I included in this post, quite a lot of concept art Bungie released prior to the game’s launch. I use it to illustrate my point that the game Bungie advertised early on was far more imaginative and inspiring than the final product. The concept art above I feel better reflects the final game. Below, however, the artwork shows off a very different, more expansive and alluring universe than the one we eventually got.
In the next few pieces of art, we see a huge range of different setting and terrain. Granted, there are pretty big differences between the Moon, Venus and Mars, but look at these….
First we have an incredible looking snowy planet. It’s gorgeous. There’s nothing like this in the game.
Here we have what looks to be a very old-growth forest, perhaps swampland. It’s hard to say, but there’s nothing even remotely like it, or its mysterious white-robed inhabitants, in the actual game. Most environments in Destiny are either indoors/underground or rather sparse planet surfaces. Vegetation isn’t really a thing.
And finally we have what appears to be the petrified remains of a gargantuan forest. What more needs to be said?
A sense of exploration
The next couple pictures, as well as the previous three, make me want to explore this beautiful universe that never actually happened. This portrait of three Guardians staring off toward some magnificent space structure…this type of silent approach. There’s never a sense of wonder and awe like this in the game.
Another silent, almost stealthy-looking scene
Abandoned city streets with giant mechs and a procession of figures winding through the snow.
A bustling city
Another missing component in Destiny is the city. We have the Tower, but it’s an empty, sterile place. In the concept art we were shown a bustling, living city. Like these following pics. In the first we see non-Guardians, actual citizens without gear or weapons.
This next one looks more like the Tower but also much more alive. Same with the following picture.
A Medieval flare
In the second image of this post, way back up at the top, one of the Guardians has a white tiger companion. That tiger shows up again in the first of a series of pictures that have a decidedly Medieval flare to them. Implied animal companions and anything resembling swords, Medieval tents, etc. are gone from the final product.
Perhaps the most frustrating of all, a giant frog with goblins on its back. And a Guardian wielding a broadsword. Why are these things not in the game?
In any case, Destiny is a terrific shooter in many ways. But the game I had my hopes up for, the game I saw in these pictures and heard about when Bungie discussed it. This is a game supposedly seven plus years in the making. It feels gutted. Either that, or my own expectations were simply too high.
Still, even as I write this, even as I lament the game that could have been, my PS4 is beckoning me. I want to stop typing and go play a Strike mission, get some new loot, some obscure currency, shoot some aliens. It isn’t the game we thought it would be, but it’s still one hell of a game.