Imagine yourself, back in 2001, playing the spectacular Xbox space shooter Halo. Now, imagine swooshing forward in time, to here, to 2014, playing Destiny.
As well as being impressed by the graphical fidelity of the new game you would understand, without being told, that these two very different games share a fundamental and intimate connection. Separated by 13 years of significant hardware and game design evolution, they are nonetheless family, very obviously so, in their looks, style and atmosphere.
Bungie has changed a great deal since it gave us Halo, one of the most important games ever made, the moment when epic hi-fi shooting transitioned to consoles. Gaming and the nature of games players has also undergone massive shifts. But here at the cutting edge of next generation game design, you are still running down corridors, leaping over barriers, firing laser blasts into the faces of squawking aliens.
The question is: What is Bungie doing with Destiny that moves shooting games forward?
At a recent press event held at its offices in Bellevue, near Seattle, Bungie offered up a playable section of Destiny, due to be published by Activision for extant PlayStation and Xbox consoles on September 9. There were also interviews with execs. Much of this PR exercise was designed as a quick reminder of the game's 2013 unveil, a primer as we fall towards the big pre-launch push that takes place at E3, where more will be revealed.
I played one single section of the game, repeatedly, alongside Bungie people. It was a 20 minute three-player co-op section on an abandoned space-exploration launch site called the Cosmodrome. It was fun. I was allowed to roam and explore, but we were not permitted to kill the end-boss because of "spoilers."
The interviews seemed highly scripted, with interviewees leaning heavily on obvious marketing hot-points about player freedom and technological innovation. As well as retail-friendly soundbites, we were fed sandwiches, brownies and coffee.
Just so you know, Bungie gave away very little. There was nothing about the game's story, its characters, its world, very little about its PvP modes. Much of the interview quotes are blandishments covering stuff we either already know, or diversions on issues that have been deemed off-limits. This was Activision looking for a free lunch; a pre-E3 publicity booster-shot.
But here we all are, picking through the scraps, looking for answers.
Why? Because there are new things to be learned, for sure. And Destiny is a crucial game. It is one of the few new IPs that gaming has decreed must seek to define the next generation. Activision has committed to a ten-year launch plan. Bungie, with 500 employees on its books, is one of the most important developers making games, in the world. We who play games, who look forward to new games, are excited by its potential, its vastness, the money and craft that have been poured into this project. We expect much. We expect much more than an updated version of Halo for 2014.
That familiarity between Halo and Bungie comes down to fundamentals, like how you control the player. In Titanfall, another 2014 new IP, developer Respawn subverted the basic Call of Duty mechanism. The developers made enough changes to the norm to justify a training module at the game's beginning that taught us how to move, jump, shoot. It was a risky move that paid dividends, winning a warm critical reception.
There is no such subversion in Destiny's core mechanics. The changes, according to Bungie, are more subtle. They are about special powers that individual players earn as they seek to personalize their particular warriors.
This isn't about reinventing shooting games, so much as refining the individual experience. Bungie's go-to on this game, is that it is made to allow everyone to enjoy it their own way. Talk to a Bungie person and I guarantee, he or she will alight upon this notion within the conversation's first 30 seconds.
"People want to play with one another," said COO Pete Parsons. "They want the freedom to be able to do whatever they want."
I heard this refrain dozens of times during my 24 hours among the Bungie folk. They very badly want us all to understand that this is a customizable shooting game. You can have it with, or without mayonnaise.
"The way we like to think about it, is not everybody is going to want to play Destiny, but everybody is going to be able to play Destiny if they want to," Parsons added. "We've made significant improvements to the way players are going to play. People are surprised at how quickly they master the controls and get up to speed and having a great time."
"It might not feel new compared to some of the other things that have come out recently, like Titanfall," said design lead Lars Bakken, who added that there are changes, like free-floating double-jumps that can last for a long time. "But we've been prototyping for a long time and we've created experiences that you've never been able to experience before in the previous games that we've made, especially because it's inherent to your character."
Supers are special powers that are earned and replenished by picking up loot. Each class (Warlock, Titan, Hunter) has a selection available in their progress tree. They are powerful weapons that, MMO-style, take a while to charge. Linked to multiplayer experience, and the notion of leveling up characters, Supers speak to the non-core shooter ideas that Bungie is trying to embrace.
"I'm partial to Arcblade for the Hunter class," explained Bakken by way of illustration. "It allows you to summon this electrically charged energy blade, and then zip around the environment and cut the enemy to shreds really quickly. It allows you to go into a dangerous situation with multiple enemies and burn through them really quickly and clear out a space for your team to be more safe."
"Supers allow you to channel magic and just literally lay waste to everything in your path at the press of a button," added Parsons. Cooperative players can help to feed one another's Super meter, adding to the heavy focus Destiny places on social gaming.
"I like the Warlock's Nova Bomb," said community manager Eric Osborne. "It's a nice risk reward. You have to get aerial to use it typically, so you're in the air, you're exposed, but you throw down this awesome, epic blast of purple light. And if you play it right, you can really do some damage.
"The variety of our sandbox is hugely expanded from what we've been able to do in the past," he added. "And that comes with a lot of opportunities for players to really figure out how they want to play and tweak the build for their own personal play style."
There is a nice navigational screen in Destiny that shows the solar system laid out as a schematic, with mission trees for each planet. It offers a glimpse of the game's vastness, how it seeks to offer up a series of environments.
In Destiny's mythology, the worlds are decayed remnants of human expansionism, now infested with alien invaders. Humans and their allies are seeking to take back that which was once theirs. So each planet has its own take on crumbling infrastructure and a lost golden age.
Bungie has always shown a penchant for scale. The Halos themselves, of course, were immense artifacts. And now, a pan-solar system combat field dominated by a giant presence called The Traveller, a magical sphere that hovers above the last city on Earth, a mystery that will doubtless play out in the years ahead.
Scale also plays out in level-design. Arenas have been made to accommodate single-player missions as well as those that involve small teams, playing cooperatively, and larger amalgamations of team attending instances or "Public Events" as they are called. Although the A-to-B corridor design of early shooters is still in evidence, the level I played had a 360 degree feel to it, a place where multiple angles of approach had been thought through, by necessity. A good fighting arena is something we know Bungie really understands.
"Destiny is so vast, compared to what we've done before, that it has forced us to rethink all of our existing mechanisms," said lead concept artist Jesse Van Dijk. "It's safe to say that we've built them all from the ground up. It's definitely a challenge, but that was always the intent, to start with something fresh and start with something entirely new. Rethinking things that worked for us previously was absolutely a part of that."
Van Dijk showed how one of the staged areas, an old Russian space-age launchpad, is dominated by superstructures that speak of Soviet-inspired heroic design and a dead era of confidence and hubris, before the aliens came. He showed the multiple rejected designs for a single space-launcher that sits in the background, how each failed version did not quite connect with Bungie's unified vision of how this world should look.
"We don't have any reference for what it's like to live on Venus after there's a breathable atmosphere for human beings and we've lived there for hundreds of years and then got destroyed by an alien race," said Bakken. "What is that going to look like? What are the remnants of that civilization? How does it feel to walk through those halls that have been empty for hundreds of years? Those are all things that are fun thought experiences that we then get to turn into real spaces. What's it look like to have that huge line of rusted cars that goes on for miles and skeletons in the seats and everything? That's the kind of detail that the new consoles allow you to show. It gives our artists a lot of leeway to do some cool things that we never would have been able to do before."
All this takes a lot of labor. "We've invested exponentially more resources into this universe than we ever have before on a game," said Osborne. "We shipped Halo: Reach with 150 people. We've got about 500 now working on Destiny. It takes a lot of people, and a lot of smart people to make a game that measures up today."
The Russian Cosmodrome launch-pad is an example of how the environment is doing all the talking. And it's not just the big stuff. At one point in the demo, I drifted away from my two co-warriors just to have a look around. I found myself gazing at the floor, at some hardy little lavender weeds poking through the ground where old tin cans had been crushed into the dirt.
In years past, we might have expected some exposition to be dumped via a tiresome dialog section, with Master Chief and some military functionaries bemoaning alien calamities. New consoles allow more organic ways of communicating ideas. Everything you see in Destiny tries to speak about the world's troubles. Story has always been a big deal to Bungie. It is unthinkable that this company would skimp on the details of why you are fighting these aliens.
"We want to provide a place that is familiar to players, a place that feels like home," said Parsons. "Once they feel like they're at home, we're gonna throw a bunch of crazy stuff at them. You know, big structures that have been eroded by time. Large alien structures. People see that, and they're like, 'wow, that just looks epic, that looks like something I want to be a part of.' And our hope is, whether you see a piece of concept art or a screenshot or movie or, most importantly, playing the game, you say, 'that's just a place I want to be. I want to spend time there.'"
Since Destiny was first shown last year, it's laid claim to being one of the best looking games made to date. Nothing that I saw during my time at Bungie, including gameplay sessions, has changed my own view. Destiny is gorgeous.
"We can really tell stories through the environment," said Osborne. "Whether it's the wind moving through the trees or derelict planes with broken hulls and rust with enemies scavenging it. We've always prided ourselves on our ability to give people enough to let their imaginations run wild through the world. We add a lot of visual language that tells stories."
LOOT AND LEVELING
The spinning of narratives is also a personal undertaking, a responsibility that falls on Destiny's players. As the marketing tag goes, your aim is to become a legend.
You are a shining knight, an individual whose agency, powers and personality are modifiable. In very literal terms, we call this "role-playing" but it would be too much to call Destiny an RPG, just as it would be confusing to describe it as an MMO.
Players choose classes from among three friendly species (Human, Awoken and Exo). The world is gleaming with loot and resources that are used to upgrade new skills, craft new weapons and forge new identities. Players can keep three characters going at any time, and can lock characters down, if they find that perfect combination, to gain an extra performance boost.
"First and foremost, we're making a straight action game," explained investment lead Tyson Green. "We have a reputation to live up to. That's what we're concentrating on delivering. But we have tailored the investment systems to support that rather than replace it. We're making sure the action game plays well. We concentrated on that and layered the investment game on top of that."
Loot is personalized. There is no squabbling over goodies, and the stuff you pick up is useful to your build.
"You might be my friend, and maybe it's fun for us to steal loot from each other but if I go into a match scenario with another player who isn't on my friends list, I don't want to have to war over loot with that person," explained Osborne. "I want to know that the time I spend with a game is rewarded and is meaningful. And I want to know, too, that I'm going to get things that are relevant for me.
"We don't want you to have that bad experience where you finally take the last shot on the boss and you're celebrating with your cool dance emote while somebody else scrounges up all the cool loot. That's not fun."
Once the necessary tools have been gathered to level up, the player can customize "every breastplate, helmet and gauntlet," according to Osborne.
"At every step, players are making themselves the legend that they want to become," said Parsons. "Then, they're balancing it based on how they want to play with their friends as well."
Skill-trees look to be deep and rich with potential. I enjoyed my brief time fooling around with various weapons options, most especially the previously mentioned Supers, which included a delayed-action frag grenade that hung in the air, waiting to destroy groups of wandering enemies.
"You can freely swap as you're experimenting with what works," said Green. "As you're unlocking more of the build, we want you to be able to try the new things you've unlocked. It allows you to be different from other people. It allows you to be distinguished."
MATCH-MAKING AND PUBLIC EVENTS
The small portion of the game I played was a three-player co-op mission called a "Strike." We also watched a very short demo of a cooperative patrol mission in the Cosmodrome area, which is located on Earth. Patrols allow players to roam around, fighting enemies for upgrades and loot.
Much has been said about how this game straddles the line between single-player and multiplayer modes, but in reality Destiny is just another example of game designers blurring the line between the two, allowing the multiplayer game to be part of the individual character's growing experience, while the single-player game is easily expanded into a social experience.
My Strike mission could not easily have been completed by a player on their own, but on those occasions when I (selfishly) decided to wander off and explore, while my teammates faced down a new wave of enemies, they seemed to cope well enough. It's this level of elasticity in the multiplayer design that represents a large proportion of the labor that has gone into this project, since it began life more than five years ago.
"It's been an enormous challenge for our engineering and design teams to solve," said Parsons. "How do you tell a great story, and yet build it in this larger, living universe? The moment we decide to head out on story, whether I'm by myself or with some of my friends, the first thing that happens is, we're gonna get in our spaceships, and we're gonna land in a public combat space where there are multiple people. There's combatants, there's aliens that you're shooting.
"You don't need to do anything with those other players. You can continue on to your own story, but it is a living vibrant place."
Matchmaking goes on inside the game. During my Strike mission, I spotted a glowing portal leading to a Public Event with a clock counting down to when the fight would begin. It was just an example, but it showed how me and my team could have popped through that portal into an intergalactic cluster-fight featuring multiple teams against a powerful baddie, presumably with lots of loot up for grabs.
This fight (we saw an example of a Public Event at E3 last year) would have been woven into the timeline of my experience as a person living inside the world. It is something other than a multiplayer mode in which the campaign is suspended while I go play with some real people. The real people are always there. This is something that we are becoming accustomed to here in 2014. Our Halo-playing selves from 2001 would surely see this as a radical innovation.
"When a public event kicks off, you can choose not to participate," said Parsons. "But you know what, if I realize it's an exciting moment and I can be a part of it and I can get some loot, that's gonna be great." Moving between campaign and events is an almost imperceptible process. "There's nothing the player needs to do. They'll just realize they are back with people again. Players continue to move from private to public spaces as they move through their adventures."
SO, THAT HALO QUESTION
Wandering around Bungie's offices it's clear that Halo still holds a special place in the company's collective psyche. Despite the fact that the franchise is now handled by rival 343 Industries, located just a few miles from Bellevue, Bungie's offices are plastered with Halo memorabilia.
At any mention of the old game, the standard Bungie response is that everyone is very proud of their work in the past and, of course, it informs the work of the present.
"The games we've made before and the games we make next will always have that Bungie feel to them," said Parsons. "Just like you can often identify a Pixar film, hopefully people look at the entertainment we make and say, 'well, that's clearly a Bungie game'."
The parallels between Destiny and Halo are striking. They are both set in wars between space-combat factions, overseen by gigantic forces rooted in deep history. More importantly, there is something about the colors, the shapes, the aliens and the combat movements in Destiny that make it seem almost like a spin-off from the Halo universe.
Because it has evolved from something so familiar, it is difficult to see how Destiny can ever have quite the same impact as its predecessor. But also, because it has been built on solid foundations, we can be fairly confident that the basics will all work, and that the advances in RPG-like gameplay, visuals and social connectivity will be significant. This is a company that absolutely definitely knows how to make sci-fi shooting games.
Bungie has signed an agreement with Activision that gives its leaders certain freedoms in terms of game design and creative approach. But this no-meddling status depends on Destiny delivering AAA-status sales numbers across all vibrant console platforms, for the next decade. It is a risky proposition. Destiny feels like a game that has weighed every risk along the way, with the utmost care and balance. This is not a game that is going to reinvent shooting, so much as define its evolutionary status as a mainstream blockbuster entertainment.
Unlike Halo, it is being crafted from the ground up. While Halo's lore and narrative was reactive to the series' success, Destiny projects itself into the future. The nature of its sequels are already understood, in broad terms, according to everyone I spoke to, even if the particulars still need to be defined.
"The thing that is ultimately going to blow people's minds when they first experience Destiny, is having this really tight action first-person game," said Bakken. "When they travel down to these destinations, they will have things happen to them that they haven't seen before. They'll actually witness other players doing things in the world that has nothing to do with what they're doing at that particular time. So it adds this life and chaos and interest to the world that wouldn't normally be there, just by having other human players there for them to interact with or to decide that they don't want to have anything to do with them, and go on their own way."
"This is our next big thing," said Parsons. "This is the thing that we've been thinking about for more than a decade. This is the game, honestly, those of us in the building who've been around for awhile have always wanted to make. I mean, genuinely. If we've done our jobs right, people are going to feel like they are playing some of the best entertainment they've ever had."