Destiny has been keeping me up at night.
The game is deeply flawed, and the Polygon review lists all the places it stumbles much better than I ever could, but I still find myself locked into the world's almost impersonal embrace way after the game's charms should have worn off.
For every ball that's dropped, and there are many, the game does something else at least well enough to keep my attention, and even now I find myself itching to get back to it. There are many interesting aspects to Destiny's design that get lost when under the criticism of the barely-there story and repetitive mission structure.
It's a game that knows how to measure intent, and it's very simple to get the experience you'd like out of it, while responding to the in-game systems that reward bouncing around from mode to mode.
Why I keep going back
The first, and most obvious, aspect of the game that makes it enjoyable to play are the visuals. Destiny reuses environments between the story, patrol and strike missions, and that allowed Bungie to get the maximum value out of every asset made for the game. This fact, along with the game's monstrous budget, allowed the artists at Bungie to create something that's dripping with detail and polish.
It's not a measure of horsepower, as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions hold up admirably well, but attention to detail and an obvious time investment from the the artists of Bungie that you find with Destiny. I often find myself taking the time to enjoy a particularly well-designed room or stopping just to look at an intricate gun model. The visuals were obviously put together with care, and it's one of the more striking aspects of the game.
Destiny fails to live up to Halo when it comes to variety and flexibility of the multiplayer portion of the game, as you simply take your existing character into a series of locked-in play modes and maps, but that also creates a sort of character cohesion across the entirety of the experience. It doesn't feel like two different games stapled together; it feels like a variety of things for your in-game avatar to do.
The combat in the Crucible itself is interesting. You don't pick up weapons from the map; you bring in whatever you're carrying. It helps to get in the habit of keeping your favorite weapons around just for multiplayer, even if you're not using them in the missions themselves.
This makes the multiplayer a somewhat shallow experience, especially since you can't go in and design exactly the kind of match you want to enjoy, but it also makes it feel like I'm taking my single-player character on a sort of fun vacation. She's taking a break from saving the world, of fighting the darkness or saving the world's grave from the gate lord with the dark sword of the forgotten or whatever the hell is going on, and instead it's time to just kill everyone else you see. It almost feels as if I'm giving my Guardian a well-earned day at the beach.
Each Crucible round feels like a side mission, and the ability to gain some loot and XP during the matches to level up your character for the single-player campaign is also welcome. The sharp lines between single- and multiplayer that exist in most games of this type aren't there in Destiny, and it makes the Crucible rounds feel a bit more welcoming. You don't have to think about it; you just jump in and have a good time. It's a side dish, which is fine for what I want out of a game of this kind, but it's going to leave you cold if you're buying the game mostly for player vs. player combat.
Destiny is set up in a way that it's easy to move around the menus and in-game world with purpose, and the game is great at offering up exactly the experience you want. There is no hub world, as your travel is handled in orbit. You select what kind of mission you'd like to do, or if you'd like to go shopping or play against others, and go do it.
You don't have to mess with the quest givers of games like Borderlands or the often overwhelming nature of some MMOs. You select the mission you'd like or the type of game you'd like to play, and go do it. It feels efficient, and you don't have to waste time figuring out where to go next to move the story ahead of move towards any of your meta-goals, whether that be a bounty or grinding for XP.
Keep in mind I haven't hit level 20 yet, but I've included our video explaining how those higher levels work.
Bungie knows how to deliver the bang bang
The gun play, the action of fighting off waves of enemies by yourself or with friends, is amazing. It's an interaction that's as basic as it gets — we've been shooting things with guns since the first video game — but it's been honed to a razor's edge. It has bells where you'd expect whistles and the whistles have been replaced by blueberries for some reason, but the act of playing the game itself, of earning new powers and loot, remains effective at keeping me locked in.
The game does nothing to explain itself to you
The melee attacks and the heft of the weapons is something that has yet to get old after the 15 or so hours I've put into the game. When you place that high-quality, if shallow, interaction into the almost cloyingly detailed game world, you have a game that allows you to feel like there's more going on than there actually is.
It's an illusion, and it doesn't hold up for marathon sessions, but for 90 minutes it delivers exactly what I want out of my play session. It's ruthlessly efficient at delivering a hit of satisfaction in that time period, even if the lack of a real pause button often throws a wrench into the works.
I used the word "wander" above, and that sums up the entirety of each night's session. I play a few patrol missions, move the story along a bit, play some missions in the Crucible and turn in a few bounties, and that's a few hours. By jumping around, by allowing the sort of tidal pull of the game's different modes, I'm able to keep the experience feeling novel and interesting, even though each system lacks the depth or even basic cohesion that is found in other, competing games.
Or it's possible I'm even missing that depth completely; the game does nothing to explain itself to you. The story is completely nonsensical, with important-sounding words and phrases tossed around like someone is reading heavy metal lyrics copied from the side of the world's sickest van traveling to an Iron Maiden show. Nothing makes sense, nothing has weight, and Venus has forests. Who cares? Shoot shit.
Peter Dinklage may try to add gravitas to whatever ridiculous new story beat is happening in front of me, but I know a wave of bad guys is about to come and I'm going to kill them all. The game pretends to throw all sorts of grand sci-fi ideas into the mix, but it works the best when I just let my lizard brain take over and enjoy the explosion of sight and sound that comes with every firefight.
Every night I gain a few levels, I improve my gear a bit, and the itches that Diablo 3 is able to scratch so ably in my few hours of gaming a night are taken care of. The bounty system, where you are challenged with doing a set number of patrol missions or killing a certain class in the Crucible, gives you a series of meta-goals every night, allowing you to level up quickly as you jump around from mode to mode. Once you find the rhythm to the game, and if you're comfortable going along with the oddity of its structure, you can find a pretty good time in there.
Keep on keeping on
Destiny, at launch, is kind of a wreck. It's a series of underwhelming systems and processes tied together by a completely un-engaging story. I often feel like I'm playing the skeleton of a game that will be fleshed out in the next few months, but of course, you're going to pay for that content.
The visuals, combined with the near-perfection of the core combat systems and interactions, mixed with how well the bounty system keeps you bouncing from activity to activity, has got me good and hooked, and the fun of grinding for XP and loot allows you to play for easily digested chunks of an hour here and there. It's a game that is set up to allow you to get right down to business.
A low score doesn't mean the game has no value, and I've found myself excited about going in for another round or two every night, despite of the large number of ways the game fails to live up to its own basic potential. I can't defend Destiny against its many critics, because they're accurately describing the many, many ways the game falls on its face. That being said, I'm having a pretty decent time with this particular 6 out of 10.