Destiny review: no fate

Destiny suggests potential it never realizes

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer Bungie
Release Date TBA

Editor's Note: Destiny has been repeatedly called ... well, it depends on who you ask. Bungie has used terminology from the MMO space to describe their new franchise, but has said it's not an MMO. Meanwhile, fans seem most comfortable calling it an MMO, despite Destiny's clear roots in Bungie's history as a developer of shooters.

After spending dozens of hours across multiple editors, we're not sure what you'd call it either. But we do know that there are many people interested in Destiny for different reasons. Some fans want the next shooter from the creators of Halo. Some players want a new MMO adventure to lose themselves within. With that in mind, similar to our Elder Scrolls Online review, our Destiny review is a little bit different, employing a pair of writers coming to the game from two somewhat different perspectives.

I'm Polygon's Reviews Editor, Arthur Gies. I'm a fan of Bungie's work with Halo and am one of the most shooter-oriented players on staff, and I also enjoy action RPGs like the Diablo series. Meanwhile, Polygon's Deputy Reviews Editor Phil Kollar has poured thousands of hours into a diverse array of MMOs over the last decade-plus, in addition to enjoying the Halo series. Surprisingly, we came to some very similar conclusions on Destiny.

Arthur's take

As Destiny begins, it's practically aching from all the potential it carries. There's all the hallmarks of epic sci-fi, with the human race under fire and almost extinct from an alien threat, protected in turn by a mysterious alien savior called the Traveler. As Destiny's music builds and swells and the tiny robotic Ghost voiced by Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage raises you literally from the dead, there's a magic present that Bungie hasn't executed on so well since the original Halo's second mission.

It's not just the production values, though those are evident immediately — Destiny doesn't look real, but rather, it looks like painted concept art, meticulously assembled and presented to you at all times. Instead, it's the suggestion, through Destiny' concept, its soundtrack and its visual presentation, that Destiny is big. That there's a whole universe out there to explore, a reality worth discovering.

There isn't, though.

I spent my time in Destiny waiting for something to happen.

In the first mission of Destiny, its functional tutorial, you find a weapon, and you shoot the alien life around you in the ruins of Russia. It turns out, that's just about all you're ever going to do. Sometimes you walk up to points in the game world and hold "X/Square" and wait for something to happen, shooting more enemies all the while. And that "wait for something to happen" is, without fail, Ghost shining a light on something for a while, occasionally interjecting some truly dismal dialogue.

This could describe plenty of games, but there's an art to disguising the very basic systems at play in most games, to making them seem to have more at stake than waiting for another door to open or waves of enemies to stop coming. I'm not sure where that art went here, but it's absent regardless. Destiny feels like a series of waiting rooms, where enemies to shoot are the magazines you're expected to read, except you had goddamned better finish that issue of Us Weekly before you're allowed to move on.

This didn't have to be a problem. Destiny's basic mechanics and controls — movement, jumping, shooting, and melee combat — are sound. In fact, Destiny might have the most fun melee attack I've played in a shooter in farther-back-than-recent memory. The act of firing and aiming while navigating environments is fine, and it could be the basis for a great shooter. It could be, that is, if not for the underwhelming encounters that define Destiny from start to finish.

Halo fans with expectations set in that series' genre-leading enemy AI and combat scenarios should disabuse themselves of that baggage. Enemies in Destiny are laid out more like the mobs you might find in an MMO, with fairly simple AI. There are four different enemy factions, and they each have different quirks, which is good. But they all fall into similar patterns. Some enemies rush you suicidally, some will sit in cover and take potshots at you, and some will float in the air. And once you've fought a faction once, there's not really any surprises to speak of. Fights don't unfold differently over the course of each planet once every unit type is involved. Some of them just take longer.

"Longer" would be polite here, by the way. Destiny's combat most resembles the MMO genre with its bosses, who are, if you'll pardon the cliche, bullet sponges that take entirely too long to kill. If you were wondering, I set this "too long" threshold at 15 minutes — and Destiny routinely demands 15 to 25 minutes of constant shooting at a boss to kill it.

The punitive respawn system means it's a comparatively simple thing for your entire fireteam to get eradicated, often after shooting at a boss for upwards of 10 minutes. This forces you to start the whole thing over again.

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These fights are not fun. They are not rewarding. They do not make any sense, and if there's a trick to beating them more expediently, Destiny is criminally uninterested in communicating that information. Beating these bosses rarely felt like the fist-pumping triumph I imagine someone thought they might be. Instead, my teammates and I were relieved that it was over.

And ultimately, this is all that Destiny is. Boiled down to its essence, Destiny isn't like other MMOs, because shooting is all it does. There are no character relationships to explore, no crafting to speak of. There's no monuments to build or spaces to make your mark on. In fact, there's not even much variety to speak of — each environment in the game feels small, and playing just through the campaign missions, you'll see the same parts of them multiple times. You'll spend literal hours retreading the same ground, shooting the same mobs.

With so little new to see or do, there's even more pressure on Destiny's building blocks to get it right. And they just aren't capable of holding everything up. Destiny's gameplay is enough to make for an engaging if not particularly memorable beginning, but it runs out of substantive things to do or say well before you hit the level 20 "soft cap."

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Destiny's competitive component takes place in the Crucible — a special selectable playlist that includes control point, team deathmatch and free-for-all modes taking place in four competitive maps. (Eds note: Activision has contacted us to correct this statement. There are 10 multiplayer maps — 11 in the PS3 and PS4 versions — across five environments. There are four always-active playlists: Control, Clash, Rumble and Skirmish. We regret the error, but this does not affect our appraisal of Destiny or its multiplayer after approximately eight hours of play between two reviewers.)

If there's any place to talk of Bungie's legacy, it would be here. Three modes and just four multiplayer environments feels like an afterthought, especially in comparison to the Halo series' ever-swelling roster of locations. But the number of maps isn't the problem.

Instead, the Crucible's biggest failing is its reliance on your character's progression to power you through against other players. While damage numbers for weapons are evened out, you remain at the mercy of other players' weapon types and skills, especially against players who find the motivation to grind on beyond level 20.

You're also at the mercy of class abilities that were tuned to look cool in cooperative play rather than balanced for multiplayer. This became most obvious the second or third time a Titan player's air-stomp splash damage killed everything in a six-foot radius. The care and refinement that defined Bungie's previous multiplayer efforts just doesn't seem present.

That said, the Crucible can be a fast track for experience, and forced to choose between running another patrol or jumping into an unbalanced 6v6 multiplayer match for 10 minutes, you might pick the latter.

Phil's Take

It's impossible to pinpoint an exact moment where Destiny broke my heart. The 30-plus hours I've spent in the game so far have been a slow rollout of small disappointments, each adding up to a growing sense of the emptiness at Destiny's core.

Though Bungie has insisted from the start that Destiny is not a massively multiplayer game, it looks from the outside like so many MMORPGs that I've sunk years of my life into. The game is structured around a "campaign" of story-based missions, but the light narrative is little more than an excuse — a series of strung-together fetch quests providing the tiniest motivation to fight more enemies, grind more experience points and hopefully find more loot.

That plot — or lack thereof — is where I first noticed Destiny's potential and its failure to live up to it. The universe Bungie has created here operates on a simple premise: Humanity (alongside a few other friendly races) explored and populated huge swaths of the known universe during a Golden Age, until some mysterious force known as "the Darkness" halted that progress and pushed back. Humanity is now down to one thriving city, and all that remains elsewhere is ruins and wreckage.

Bungie has crafted an astoundingly beautiful and detailed series of ruined worlds to support that fiction, but Destiny seems scared of taking players to the most interesting parts. That devastated city you can see in the skyline? It's going to remain a background fixture while you're stuck running through bland, look-alike factories and "warbases" over and over.

The most exciting part of running through these generic spaces is often stumbling across other players, who will sometimes populate the same area as you while you're on a mission. You'll never see more than a handful at a time, and the game rarely gives you any reason to actually interact with these players, but it can be fun to temporarily team up to take down a group of enemies.

The awful, jargon-heavy dialogue doesn't provide enough context to flesh out these been-there, done-that video game locales. In full, there's probably around eight to 10 hours of story content in Destiny, but enough factions, nonsense sci-fi terminology and universe-spanning, epic quests to fill out 40 hours. The result is a plot that feels rushed even though it never seems to go anywhere.

Granted, games of Destiny's type — whether you view it as a full-fledged MMO or just an online-centric shooter — rarely feature great narrative. It's usually a depth and breadth of content that keeps players engaged and coming back for months and years.

Destiny doesn't have that either.

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For example, there are only three player classes to choose from — Hunter, Titan and Warlock. That number seemed small from the outset, and it felt even tinier when I realized that the classes use the same weapons and much of the same armor. Their primary differences lie in skill trees, which grow alongside your level, eventually splitting into two distinct sub-classes for each initial starting class. The distinctions between the Voidwalker Warlock's Nova Bomb ability and the Striker Titan's Fist of Havoc end up being important, as do some stat differences, but I wish there was more to individualize the classes sooner.

Beyond the brief, unsatisfying story missions, Destiny offers "strikes," which are sort of comparable to dungeons in an MMO. You're forced into a group of three — the game will match you up with other players if you don't have a full group already — and fight across a level, taking on one or two giant bosses as you go.

It's a tried-and-true formula with one problem: Most of those boss encounters are terrible. With very few exceptions, boss enemies take an absurd amount of damage and require no real strategy beyond avoiding their massive one-hit-kill shots. I didn't mind these challenges being bullet sponges, but I wanted to do something more interesting than dodging blasts and watching out for near-endlessly respawning waves of lesser enemies during the fight.

I endured the tedious slog of these strikes over and over but rarely felt rewarded for my time. Whether you're playing in story missions or strikes, Destiny is miserly with loot drops. A strike guarantees at least one drop if you successfully complete it; keep your fingers crossed that it's an actual upgrade in exchange for the 30 minutes to an hour that one of these missions can take.

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Even in the rare cases where I found myself enjoying strike missions, I was disappointed in how few are available at launch. But Destiny's lack of content is most apparent in its current, banal endgame. When you hit the level cap of 20, you're informed that you can continue climbing in level by finding and upgrading rare, "legendary" armor and weapons. You do this by earning drops (or special currency to buy gear directly) in "strike playlist," a mode that places you into one of the existing strikes at random.

Bungie expects players to repeat these few pieces of content over and over for the mere chance at a worthwhile upgrade. I recognize that plenty of games build successful, long-lasting communities out of endgame repetition — including lots of games I love. But they tend toward less stinginess with loot and generally have a lot more content at launch to pull from.

In addition to what's currently offered, Bungie will be opening Destiny's first "raid" — a large-group, friends-only challenge — next week. I'm planning to jump in and check it out, and we'll update the review if it has a major impact on my feelings. But a single new raid isn't going to solve the severe problem the game has regarding its limited amount of dull, overused content.

Wrap Up:

Destiny suggests potential it never realizes

Let's wipe away Bungie's legacy with Halo, which put them on top of the world and in a position to make a game they've said they always wanted to make for ages. We'll step back from the whispers of giant budgets, of corporate politics. For now, Destiny is just another game.

As just another game, Destiny is a confusing combination of often at-odds elements — it presents itself as ambitious, almost boastful, while seeming strangely safe and reserved. It wants to eat its cake as a shooter, and have the longevity of an MMO — but it lacks the combat sophistication of the former, and the deep well of content native to the latter.

For all the wonder of its presentation, the swelling potential suggested by its (excellent) score and the basic foundational strength of its controls, Destiny often feels like a collection of its influences' biggest problems.

Destiny was reviewed using retail PS4 discs provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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