I’m surrounded by aliens, and I don’t really know why.
A little flying computer called a Ghost told me to enter this subterranean hellhole. A switch needed flipping, I think, or maybe a door required hacking. There’s something big down here, or small. Perhaps both.
The fact that we are also on the moon — as in, our moon, the same one I reference when I read my son a certain famous bedtime book — is lost on me, mostly due to the crowd of monsters trying to shoot, claw, and possibly eat me for daring to step foot in their sprawling lair.
What they don’t know, but what they will soon learn, is that I am a Guardian. I have guns and superpowers and a few pals who also have guns and superpowers. We are going to kill them all, take their treasures, flip the switch, hack the door, and fly back to orbit, just as we have done a dozen times before over the past several hours. And even though none of us can figure out what we were doing there in the first place, we’re all having too much fun to care.
This is Destiny, the heavily-anticipated online shooter from Bungie. You know Bungie from the Halo series, though publisher Activision has ponied up a good half-billion to help you forget about that and instead think of them as the creators of The Next Big Thing.
It comes close, I’ll give it that. Destiny is gorgeous, slick, and finely tuned, a technical knockout and a calling card for what big video game money can do. But it’s also strangely repetitive, occasionally empty, and saddled with a story only its author could love.
Destiny is set 700 years in the future. A massive interstellar object called the Traveler has parked itself just above Earth, and while humanity has benefited greatly from its appearance, we’re also now the target of an evil menace called — seriously — the Darkness, some sort of alien collective with names pulled out of the sci-fi grab bag: Fallen, Hive, Vex, Cabal. As Guardians, it’s our job to travel the solar system and put them and their boring names down.
Storytelling has never been Bungie’s strong suit — I blasted through every Halo game and still have only a vague idea of exactly what happened — but I was hoping that the company would benefit from a fresh start.
It hasn’t. Most of Destiny’s confusing, generic story is relayed by Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, who is uncharacteristically apathetic as your Ghost companion. But the real problem isn’t Dinklage’s droll delivery; it’s the game’s troubled script. I never had a firm grip on why I was visiting a particular site, what I was after, and how it tied into the broader narrative.
This is partly due to Bungie’s determination to keep you immersed in the experience; rarely do you get pulled out of the action for an informative cut-scene. The thing is, cut-scenes help tell stories. It’s hard to follow a plot when it’s being told to you via an uninterested voiceover in the immediate aftermath of a huge battle. It’s just too easy to lose track of the who, what, when, where, and why of Destiny. Pull the knob, boot up the mainframe, realign the array — your tasks seem better suited to an IT guy than an intergalactic badass.
They’re also better suited to be done with friends. Activision calls Destiny a “shared-world shooter,” a market-y way to hedge against people thinking it’s a massively-multiplayer game à la World of Warcraft. Though it shares a few traits with MMOs, it isn’t one. While hundreds of thousands of players might be logged on simultaneously, you see only a handful at any given time. The focus is on cooperative play; hook up with a few friends to form a “Fireteam” and go about tackling the game’s numerous missions together. It’s a big game, but it feels intimate.
It’s too bad, then, that the missions often boil down to the same thing: Follow the arrow, kill some dudes, press a button to deploy your Ghost, kill some more dudes. Over and over again you do this, and while Destiny tries to mix it up by littering the planetary map with mission icons, you’re invariably running and gunning through the same environments.
The good news? Shooting stuff is awesome in Destiny. Bungie’s built a tour de force in virtual gunplay; each weapon feels special and useful and packs a satisfying wallop. It’s easy to take this sort of thing for granted, but mechanics matter. Destiny’s gameplay core is undeniably strong.
Thanks to a robust loot and level-up system, Destiny has more in common with games like Borderlands and Diablo than its spiritual forbear. Where the story leaves you hanging, the lust for better gear keeps you hooked. Guardians mix and match various guns and several bits of armor, and as you earn new levels, you earn new abilities based on which of the three classes you’ve chosen. It’s got just enough role-playing goodness to keep you glued to the screen long after you’ve burned out on the banal plot.
Destiny also offers a respite in the form of the Crucible, the game’s competitive multiplayer mode. Though it boasts only a few match types, it’s good fun and doles out the same experience points you earn during missions. It’s a fine way to progress and level up when you need a break from dull Mr. Dinklage.
No matter the mode, Destiny is delivered with stylish aplomb. From the dilapidated jungle ruins of a Venusian war base to the alien-infested catacombs on the moon, this is a genuine looker. Halo composer Marty O’Donnell’s stunning score sets a perfectly epic mood. Bungie excels at world-building, and you’ll marvel at the wonderfully detailed environments it’s created here.
But, again, Bungie takes a step back from revolutionizing online shooters by forgetting to fill these worlds with anything other than alien bullet sponges. The urge to explore every nook and cranny of Venus is squashed once you realize there’s really not much to find. How about some wildlife? Black market waystations? Even loot crates are few and far between. For all its detail, Destiny feels weirdly empty.
You can’t argue with fun, however, and no matter how far Destiny has fallen from its lofty goal of blending Halo and Warcraft into some sort of groundbreaking hybrid, the thing is still a blast. Surrounded by aliens, no idea why I’m here, but smiling nonetheless. That’s a future I can live with.
What’s hot: Gorgeous environments; fantastic combat; loot, loot, loot
What’s not: Baffling story; often repetitive; terrible waste of Peter Dinklage