Last updated on August 7th, 2015
Certain games, because of the length and complexity of content, resist any sort of review process that hinges on a timeline. They require a great deal of exploration before anything close to an accurate review can be formulated. Destiny is one of them. It took me over 200 hours of gameplay before I felt comfortable reflecting on my overall experience. Destiny arrived on multiple platforms bearing the burden of incredible hype, buttressed by the experience many players had during the beta. Gamers were introduced to sublime combat, beautifully rendered environments, and a story premise that teased of fantastic things to come.
The first hundred or so hours I put into Destiny were some of the best I’ve experienced in a game in a long time. Co-op was seamless and challenging, and it was hard not to get immersed in the game world. But along the way, something went off the rails a bit. I began to realize that this beautiful world felt soulless and empty after traversing it multiple times.
Bungie made no secret that they envisioned Destiny as a new hybrid, a game that blended elements of the FPS into a persistent-world MMO framework. Progressing in this sort of game involves grinding loot, which contributes to the “light levels” you need to reach raid level readiness. And while this is an acceptable part of an MMO experience, Destiny expects players to do this grinding within a shockingly limited amount of content.
Destiny’s gameplay takes place within four basic areas, Earth, The Moon, Venus, and Mars. All of these are linked by the hub world called The Tower (also on Earth). There is a fifth area called The Reef, but it is not playable except for a couple of cutscenes. Each of the four main areas where missions and strikes occur is shockingly small. To put this into context, there are side missions in games like Skyrim and Mass Effect that occupy a larger area than the surfaces of these four “worlds”. Even when you include subterranean areas (of which there are few), it is clear that the game world itself is extremely barebones.
It is easy to overlook the sense of repetition that sets in when a person is new to Destiny. After all, these are some of the best looking environments we’ve ever seen, and the weapon combat is incredible. However, the task of grinding out enough loot to do high level content such as the Daily and Weekly Heroic missions can, and does, grow tedious over time. Re-doing the same half-dozen strikes you’ve already done, or toddling about each planet on “patrols” to level your rank among vendors, is mind-numbing.
Like many other players, I did just this and managed to push my first character to level 28, high enough to do just about any of the late game content. While I had some friends who either kept up or caught up with me, some did not. Then we discovered the most disappointing aspect of Destiny: no matchmaking was included for strikes and high level heroic missions. You have two choices. Connect with friends who have grinded out gear with you, or seek out people on Bungie’s forums or other matchmaking sites that sprang up when people realized how limited their options were.
The problem was exacerbated as the community itself began to fracture into two camps: those who had completed the raid and wanted to continue doing so to farm for gear, and those who hadn’t, and wanted to experience this end-game content for themselves. Raid farmers began to post on the Bungie forums that they were looking for people to help, but that they had to be experienced. Here’s one example:
Need a few more for Atheon Normal. Experienced players only.. IF YOU NEED TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO YOU WILL BE KICKED. Not trying to be a dick but don’t feel like wasting time on helping others through it anymore.
This kind of sentiment in raid-group posts is common. And yet, calls for matchmaking from the Destiny community are derided as something which is doomed to fail, simply because people who raid need to be able to work together and communicate. As if finding random people on a forum is somehow more conducive to teamwork (hint: it’s not). Community members themselves have offered up countless solutions to filter matchmaking so that minimum level and gear requirements are in place. To take a page from the Dark Souls playbook, one suggestion I offered is a “hired gun” board in the Tower. It would serve as a place anyone on the server could put their name, like people do with soapstone signs in Souls’, and then anyone looking to pull a fireteam together could “summon” you. And yet, Bungie seems resistant to this kind of thing. Players who just want to enjoy playing casually in whatever spare time they might have at the end of a long day are simply out of luck unless they take the time to find a forum group and hope it actually works out. If this continues, the core community for this franchise will dwindle quickly and drastically.
Things might be different if Destiny had delivered the epic story it promised, but it did not. Since the game’s release, speculation has run rampant among the community that Destiny’s narrative fell to pieces following the departure of lead writer Joseph Staten in 2013. For anyone who appreciates a good story in their games, there’s little doubt that something went drastically wrong.
Destiny’s game story is more akin to a movie trailer. It sets a great premise, then meanders in a convoluted manner, hinting at bigger story elements, but never letting them play out. Relentless grinding unlocks Grimoire Cards, which you can only see on Bungie.net, and these are intended to flesh out the game’s lore. What they actually add is certainly up for debate. Unfortunately, the game promised players a tale as epic in scope as Mass Effect, but thus far has delivered the modern equivalent of Space Invaders. While arguments have been made that Destiny is a “ten year game” and will fill in pieces slowly, it’s not difficult to see that the game has been crafted to draw out the experience for profit, as many of these story pieces will be filled in through paid DLC and perhaps sequels.
Bungie’s writers fail to create a standalone story that is prerequisite for any game, book, or film. While we understand that complete stories are often told through a trilogy, it is incumbent on the writer to build each segment so that it can stand on its own. A narrative arc is still required, something that gives players or viewers or readers a sense that they have ascended to a climax, and seen the protagonists overcome an antagonist. Destiny’s narrative thread is so tangled that it’s nearly impossible to know who the antagonist is, other than some vague force called The Darkness. In the original Mass Effect, while the Reapers were the ultimate menace, game one offered an excellent opening salvo, with Shepard going up against Saren, who was an agent for the Reapers. Destiny has nothing even close to this sort of narrative momentum.
Overall, Destiny is a great gaming experience if you simply accept it for what it is, or until it bores you to tears. Playing it with friends in co-op is really the only way to get the most from it. I put in some 200 hours and loved the game, right up until the moment I didn’t. Then I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. It is a game that stumbles badly down the stretch, after promising so much. Bungie will have no choice but to make changes going forward. Destiny lacks any sense of immersion for player created characters, because they are nameless cogs in some (supposedly) great order of Guardians. It’s impossible to care about them, or any of the few NPCs, when they are the game equivalent of cardboard cut-outs.
Destiny’s PvP modes have received mixed reviews. I’m a fairly casual PvP players, and although I hated this at first, it grew on me eventually. But I also enjoy mainly team objective games, so Control is the only mode I play on a regular basis. Another objective mode called Salvage, which is a tighter, 3v3 mode that can be quite tense and tactical in nature, is only offered periodically. The first time it showed up on playlists for a weekend, I was quite excited to see it added. Then, for inexplicable reasons, it was simply pulled. Bungie adds it back in occasionally, but never on a permanent basis. Again, they give no reason why it’s only there on a part-time basis. In a game desperate for new content, why withhold something that obviously works?
The lack of matchmaking in Heroic Missions, Nightfall Strikes, and Raids is the kind of oversight that can decimate a game’s player base. It creates artificial obstacles to end-game content, and leaves many players blocked out of the full experience. While Bungie’s excuse has always been that matchmaking cannot ensure the kind of teamwork and communication necessary for completing the raids. This feels like they are trying to blame the players, rather than acknowledge that they have failed to create content which allows random people to come together and succeed. The Souls’ franchise has proven, game after game, that this can be done. Bungie simply needs to put more trust in the people who buy their games, and allow them to learn from mistakes as they play the game.
Right now, Destiny seems to have a lot of people engaged with the game on a regular basis. But for casual players, the experience is still fresh, and many of them will not have felt the obstacles that I have outlined. As the holiday season approaches, bringing with it a raft of new games, Destiny will be put to the test in terms of player loyalty. On December 9th, the first DLC pack arrives for $20 in North America. It will consist of 3 story missions, a Strike, a Raid, and a few MP maps. If, by then, matchmaking options have been added to the game, people may stick around. At least this way they will have a way of continuing to progress even if they don’t have a clan full of friends. Otherwise, the player base may shrink drastically as people drift away to play games that are not just “social” in name only.
Score: 6.5 / 10 (based on “out of the box” content)
*A note on my score: If I had been asked to score the game during my first 100 hours, I might have given it a 9/10 or even higher. This final score is my take on what was sold to me as a full game on day one, after putting in enough time to unearth some glaring issues I have with it. Your mileage may vary.
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