Destiny Review – Xbox One

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After years of hype and speculation, a fairly impressive BETA, and a rather epic live-action TV spot to celebrate its launch, Bungie Software’s next-gen opus has descended upon the planet, polarizing the gaming world with the same effect of light and darkness found in the game itself. From the creators of HALO comes Destiny, an odd blend of futuristic FPS combined with MMO-style loot and level grinding and a budget that most design studios would love to have.  Of course with a great budget comes great responsibility and while Destiny is choked full of ambition and good intentions, you won’t have to play for very long before you realize there isn’t as much of a game going on here as there is an endless, mindless, repetitive grind mechanic designed with the sole purpose of consuming your time and your DLC dollars.

I tend to avoid playing a BETA. I learned my lesson after playing countless hours in the World of Warcraft BETA only to have lost any interest in the game when it actually released, and even when the limited BETA of Destiny was over I knew in the back of my mind I would be replaying that same 4-6 hours of content all over again.   The final release of Destiny goes well beyond the BETA content that included several Earth-based missions and one moon mission, allowing us to explore the moon even further before taking us to Venus and Mars.

But even with three planets and a moon’s worth of missions the Destiny story can easily be finished in 10-12 hours, or at least as much of the story as we are going to get before the paid DLC expansions start dropping in December and in 2015. Yes, Destiny is one of those games that virtually demands you buy DLC if you want the “full experience”. If you’re shopping on the digital store a discounted bundle is available; if you are shopping at a retail store you will likely be asked if you want to purchase the expansion (the register at Best Buy actually prompts the cashier to do so), and once you open the game there will be a big insert informing you that the game you just bought is only half the story.

Speaking of story, enjoy that opening movie because that is pretty much the only story you are going to get aside from the incessant ramblings of your Ghost voiced by Peter Dinklage. I love Dinklage (Game of Thrones, Knights of Badassdom) but when I think of him I don’t think of his voice.  There are so many awesome voice actors out there and quite frankly, Peter’s performance just sucks.  His readings come off stilted and awkward and a bit robotic – but not in a good robot way.   It’s almost as if they recorded his performance from a day-one table read of the script, and you can almost hear him thinking, “What is all this stuff I am saying?”  He is completely detached from the content.

Aside from the opening movie, some narration during the load screens, and two more cinematics near the end that mostly introduce the Queen and the upcoming DLC, all of your story, content, and specific information are found in Grimoire cards. Think of these as the Animus of Destiny; a massive database of optional information that will surely flesh out your overall experience should you care to pore through the endless pages of content.  Unlike Assassin’s Creed where you have in-game access to the Animus database, Destiny requires you to go to Bungie.net to view the contents of all the collectible cards you will unlock throughout the game.

Destiny iPhone App Screenshot Gallery

Thankfully, there is a very nice mobile app that syncs to your game profile and allows you to view these Grimoire cards as well as view your characters, keep tabs on your friends, chat in the forums, and stay up-to-date with all the latest Destiny news.  There is even a Tower Map, although sadly there are no planetary maps.   The app is pretty cool and really the only reason I even ventured a look at the Grimoire database.  It really is poor game design to have all of your expository content completely detached from the game.

Destiny comes up a bit shallow during the character creation process; especially since Bungie wants you to get personally invested in their franchise for the next decade. You can pick from one of three classes, Titan, Hunter, and Warlock before picking a race; Human, Awoken, or Exo then choosing from a short list of head styles and other features like scars, face paint, etc.  It’s all rather pointless since you are wearing a Master Chief-style helmet for 95% of the game.  The only time your head is visible is when you visit the Tower and even then you have to spin the camera around to see it.  The only choice that seems to matter is class, which will determine your special ability and the first secondary weapon you will find during the tutorial mission.  Your character will slowly develop their own unique look as you upgrade armor throughout the game, but I never felt a personal connection with my Guardian.

As an FPS, Destiny excels with great controls, nimble character movement and a cool double-jump/glide maneuver you unlock early on.   This is not a cover-based game, so it’s all about the run and gun and the occasional melee punch/dagger stab.   The weapons selection is robust, divided into primary, secondary and heavy categories.  Each category is home to a unique variety of guns like Scout Rifles, Auto Rifles, Hand Cannons, Pulse Rifles, Shotguns, Sniper Rifles, Chain Guns, and Rocket Launchers.  Each class of weapon comes with its own color-coded ammo drop, so ammo is universal to any weapon in that class.  You also have infinite grenades that can be modified through upgrades, although a cool-down timer regulates their use to about one ever 60-90 seconds.  As you do damage with your conventional weapons you will fuel your special attack meter that can be unleashed for devastating damage.

You have nearly the same selection of armor as you do weapons with leg, chest, arm and helmet pieces that can be individually equipped to increase your damage resistance and also add perks to your weapons like more ammo capacity or faster reloads. Destiny is all about leveling up; not just your character but every item in your inventory.  The more you use a weapon or wear a piece of armor the more benefits you will gain; more so for the weapons.

MMO players will certainly be at home with the color-coded loot that reflects common, uncommon, rare, legendary, and exotic items. There are dozens of ways to obtain loot but nearly all of them require lots of grinding and replaying through missions and levels over and over again.  Even worse, the loot is randomly generated so there is always the option that you get something totally worthless, even when you outperform the others on your Fireteam.  It’s a very unrewarding reward system that’s made even worse by your inability to share items between your teammates.  You can store unwanted items in a Vault that can be accessed by other characters on your profile, but it’s just as easy for them to unlock similar or better gear on their own playthrough.

If you don’t find what you are looking for on the battlefield you can always go shopping at the Tower; the social hub between missions where you can visit with your Vanguard leader, check your mail, update your bounties, and decrypt mystery loot. There is also a weapons vendor and a ship hanger where you can purchase a new spaceship, which sounds cool in theory until you drop 2,000+ glimmer only to realize the only purpose a ship serves is a visual upgrade for the game’s numerous and lengthy load screens.  The same goes for all the armor shaders and banner logos – it’s all visual fluff with no purpose other than to empty your Guardian’s wallet.

Destiny is designed with up to three players in mind. The core story will take you from Earth to the moon and then to Venus and Mars.  Each planet has numerous missions that can be played in any order although they do have a recommended level, so there is some sort of linear progression.  If you are replaying these missions at a higher level you can opt for the hard difficulty which will increase enemy numbers and offer some XP bonuses.  The game will auto-balance the difficulty based on the number of players in the Fireteam, and it is completely possible to play all but the Strike missions solo.  Strike missions are very challenging, requiring a full Fireteam, so if you go in with fewer than three players the game will fill in any missing members with other players looking to complete the same mission.

Destiny definitely has that big open-world feel about it; especially when you are exploring the expansive levels and seeing dozens of other players occupying the same space.   Enemy kills are shared, so it is quite possible (and annoying) for other players ahead of you to be killing all the enemies.  Thankfully, Bungie has reduced the spawn timer on enemies so they repopulate much faster, allowing you to farm your own XP and loot.

Playing with others definitely has some advantages, especially when you enter a Darkness Zone. In these isolated areas it is just you and your Fireteam and you are not allowed to respawn, so if no one else is there to revive you then you must restart the encounter from scratch – the same goes if everyone in your Fireteam falls as the same time.  Some of the tensest moments in the game have been during a big boss fight where both my teammates are down and I am trying to revive them without dying myself.

Strike missions and boss fights often boil down to an endless gauntlet of enemies that culminate in some massive bullet-sponge boss that requires no strategy other than survival, as you run around killing minions to farm ammo to slowly deplete the bosses health meter. A few bosses have weak spots or minor strategies like shooting the legs of a giant spider to force him to collapse and open his neck so you can snipe his weak spot, but for the most part these sequences are long and boring shoot-fests.

When the story is over Destiny begs you to come back with additional content like Bounties; basically a menu of challenges, of which you can have five active at any time.   These amount to nothing more than replaying the same levels you have already played but trying to check off random requirements like earning 9000XP without dying or killing 20 enemies without taking damage or doing 30 melee kills without dying.  And then you have Crucible and Queen bounties, which all feed into your quest for bigger and better loot as well as improving your Vanguard rank and Queen loyalty.

There are so many interworking systems in play that Destiny never really feels like a story or a quest, but merely a process to systematically work your way through a half-dozen progression ladders all at once. Bungie didn’t even make an attempt to hide or disguise the systems, which ultimately shattered the illusion and ruined any sense of narrative joy I was having before I even got to Mars.  By that point I had hit the level 20 cap and was merely finishing off those final missions just to say I had finished the game.

Speaking of level cap, while 20 is the soft cap you can actually go higher by finding special armor with Light levels that can rank you up as high as level 30. Sadly, this takes away any sense of freedom you have in customizing your character since any piece of armor with a higher light level trumps other pieces; even if they have better armor or bonus attributes.  And yes, you will want to attain these higher levels since several of the special Strike Missions and weekend events require you to be at levels much higher than 20.  Unfortunately, finding these bits of armor will take countless hours of grinding through the same content over and over.  Destiny might get away with this now while there isn’t much competition, but in a few weeks there are going to be multiple new AAA titles releasing each week, and Destiny will likely become a distant faded memory.

Perhaps Bungie feels their online PvP modes will keep gamers coming back, but even that isn’t enough. The matchmaking system in Destiny’s Crucible mode is completely broken.  I was being matched up with people twice my level, and even though the game tries to balance the weapons, there was a whole lot of one-shot kills going on.  On several instances I would be following a guy and empty two full clips into his back and he would simple turn around and shoot and I was dead.   In what world do two clips from a full auto rifle not kill and a single shot from a hand cannon does?  Apparently this world.   I played the Crucible content just enough to earn a few of the bounties and gather enough info for this review, but I seriously doubt I will ever go back unless they fix the matchmaking.  For those who do enjoy unbalanced combat there are ten maps spread across five environments and four modes; Control, Clash, Rumble, Skirmish.  Control was the only one that was remotely fun for me, as I could earn XP for simply taking over any of three domination points on the map.

While we are on the subject of multiplayer, let’s talk about the completely broken chat system.   You can’t just jump into a Crucible match or even assemble a Fireteam and start talking.  You must also exit the game and go to the Party menu on either the Xbox One or the PS4 and create a secondary party specifically to allow chatting.  So even though the in-game player invite screen allows you to add a teammate, you will have to exit the game and add them to the chat.  This means that unless you are going into a Crucible match with a pre-configured team all of your 6-vs-6 or 12-player versus matches are going to be chat-free.  Even worse, you can be invited to the party as a fourth member but if the first three are already in a mission you can only listen to them having fun – there isn’t even a spectate mode.

Destiny kills it on presentation with one of the most stirring soundtracks since HALO. The music often outshines the gameplay.  Sound effects are excellent and the voice acting is decent.  Sadly, most of the dialogue is Dinklage and we’ve already established him as a very poor voice actor, but all the other characters are excellent including both the male and female voices for the Guardians.   The Queen and her brother are my two favorites.

The graphics are outstanding and surprisingly equal across both the Xbox One and the PS4.   The opening movie is a masterpiece worthy of the big screen.  Each planet is home to expansive levels that seamlessly link together to form a seamlessly connect landscape – something you don’t first realize until you play the Patrol missions where you have free roam over most of the map.  The draw distance is excellent with very little pop-up, even when you are speeding across the map on your Sparrow.

The PS4 does manage to offer a more consistent 30fps while the Xbox One can stutter at times. I found the game a bit easier to control with the DualShock 4, and I did enjoy the remote play option for the PS Vita.   PlayStation also seems to have a few system exclusives when it comes to content that make it the obvious choice for gamers lucky enough to own both systems.  Of course the only question that really matters is “what system are all your friends playing on?” because Destiny is the very definition of a shared game experience.

I came into Destiny fresh off of Diablo III so I was all too familiar with the emphasis on loot, but even in a game that is all about the loot Diablo never felt as repetitive and grinding as Destiny, but then again, Diablo had the content to sustain the grind whereas Destiny is fairly short and transparent.   When you find yourself repeating a 20-30 minute missions just for 50 Queen or 20 Vanguard points you have to ask yourself if there isn’t something better you can be doing.   You can play all week long and only collect 2-3 Strange Coins only to find that special weekend vendor who deals in exotic items and find you need at least 20 to buy anything.   That’s another month of grinding.

Destiny is ambitious; perhaps a bit too ambitious. I don’t think anyone playing an MMO has ever said, “I wish this had an FPS element”, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever played a Call of Duty or HALO game has said, “I wish I was grinding for loot instead of just killing things”, yet Bungie decided to pair the two genres and the end result suffers.   Despite its powerful presentation, there is just no content to present.  I never felt a personal connection to my character, to my ghost, or anyone else in the game.  Even my own teammates were reduced to nothing more than mere medics used to revive me in battle – a function that could have easily been assigned to my ghost.

It’s ironic that reviewers were asked to withhold their reviews until they had spent ample time with the game. If I had reviewed Destiny a day or two after release I probably would have given it a much higher score, but the simple truth is the more I play the less I like the game, which does not bode well for the next two DLC drops.  There had better be a lot more content and a whole lot more story if this game wants to capture my interest three months from now, let alone next year.

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