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Best of the rest of 2014: Destiny, the most interesting game of the year

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Every year, the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.

Destiny is, without a doubt, one of the games of the year — by which I mean, it is a game that was released in 2014.

People who play Destiny have plenty of descriptions for it, none of them particularly flattering: "the best bad game I've ever played," "best 6 out of 10 of the year," "a fundamentally flawed game." I have two words for my own relationship with Destiny: "Stockholm syndrome."

I've played a lot of Destiny since its launch — just under 96 hours' worth, all on one character: a level 31 Hunter. That's four full days of Destiny, and I've spent much of that time (and more time outside the game) trying to figure out why I'm still logging in regularly, doing the daily grind and hoping for some awesome loot drops.

Friends forever

The number-one reason I continue to play Destiny is because many of my friends play it. Most days, I can turn on my PlayStation 4 and find at least one or two people on my PlayStation Network friends list who are playing. I have a bunch of real-life friends whom I don't get to see often, but they're on Destiny all the time, which makes the game a fun, relatively mindless way to keep in touch.

Multiplayer gaming is vital to Destiny. Bungie clearly meant for people to play the game together, and designed it accordingly. Destiny isn't just better with friends; it's simply not much fun without them. By the time I started playing, most of my buddies were already approaching the soft level cap of 20, so I began trudging through the bland story missions on my own. At some point, I got so bored with them that I jumped into the Crucible instead, and made it to level 20 largely through PvP combat. I later realized that I had never finished the last two quests until they came around as the daily heroic story mission — that's how little I cared about the story.

Friends are also the key to unlocking Destiny's best moments. The game's two raids, the Vault of Glass and Crota's End, require close coordination from six-person teams of high-level players. And as frustrating as the raids can be, all of my most thrilling Destiny memories came from overcoming the obstacles within them with friends at my side. It's a shame that very little outside of the raids fosters that kind of teamwork.

The Destiny dichotomy

Destiny excels as a multiplayer game almost in spite of itself. For more than two months after launch, it didn't support voice chat for matchmade games, including Crucible rounds. The Crucible still doesn't offer private, unranked matches. Raids don't support matchmaking, which is intentional — Bungie believes that players won't have fun in a raid, let alone be able to complete it, unless they already know each other. Of course, this means that if you love Destiny but don't have at least five people on your friends list with high-level characters, you can't access the best pieces of content in the game.

That is, unless you head to DestinyLFG, one of a few websites where you can find numerous Destiny players looking for a group (hence, "LFG") to run raids, strikes and more. Players had to create these resources because Bungie didn't build these features into the game. The charitable view of this is that a game's player base often goes above and beyond what the developers conceived, forming a community that makes the game more than it is. That's Bungie's spin on sites like DestinyLFG and Destiny Grimoire, but more notably, people built them because they recognized deficiencies in the game — and are doing a better job than Bungie did.

Bungie hyped up Destiny as a "shared-world shooter": a hybrid of the loot design and social hooks of MMOs, and the studio's experience building incredible first-person shooters with the Halo series. Destiny is mechanically sound, with weapons, powers and melee attacks that pack a punch; it's never not satisfying to pop off a Fallen enemy's head or stab someone with your knife. And the locations you explore are glimpses of what feels like a massive, well-realized universe.

But for all of Bungie's bluster about the expansive world of Destiny, it offers a limited variety of activities, especially once you reach level 20. At that point, the game ties leveling to the quality of your armor — in particular, how many points of "Light" each armor piece bears — which kicks Destiny's grinding into high gear. The design of the leveling system often leaves players spinning their wheels, forced to keep playing in the hopes of receiving better armor in a random loot drop so they can rank up. A game like Destiny stops being fun when it doesn't feel like you're making any progress, and I felt that frustration a lot during the post-level-20 grind.

It's amazing to me that Bungie could've gotten the gameplay half of Destiny so right, and the MMO half of it so wrong. Even when I'm retreading an environment for the umpteenth time, I still enjoy taking down Vex robots with critical hits to the gut. Yet the MMO fans among my Destiny friend group tell me the game's MMO elements seem like they were designed by people who have never played that kind of game before. There are problems in Destiny, they say, that Blizzard solved years ago with World of Warcraft and even Diablo.

Holding out hope

Three and a half months and one frustrating expansion later, Destiny still feels like a whole lot of uncapitalized potential. And that's why it's endlessly fascinating to me. It's made by a team of more than 500 at a renowned studio, funded by the biggest video game publisher to the tune of half a billion dollars over a 10-year period. Half the things those developers do make me want to visit Bungie's offices, grab somebody by the shoulders and shake them, and ask, "How did that seem like a good idea?"

And the other half? Well...

Maybe a future expansion will overhaul Destiny's progression structure, doing for the game what "loot 2.0" in Reaper of Souls did for Diablo 3. Maybe Bungie will figure everything out by the time Destiny 2 rolls around. Maybe they'll gradually improve the experience over time, and one day we'll look back and realize we're playing a completely different game than the one we started with.

Whatever the outcome, I'll keep playing — at least, I will for as long as my friends do.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.