A hollow Halo.
If I sound angry at any point during this article I can assure you I’m not. Like my parents have told me in the past, I’m just disappointed.
Like many others I have been a fan of Bungie’s work for a long time and Destiny (AVForums review here), for me, has been an age in coming. I lapped up the unveil, pored over the interviews, and even skipped the alpha / beta to avoid having the full game spoiled for me. That last one may sound odd, but I wanted that midnight launch on 9th September to be a magical one full of surprise and excitement. I wanted it to feel new.
And for the first few days that was definitely the case. As is tradition in the Thomas clan, my brother and I both took the day off work and as soon as the clock ticked a second into Tuesday we were there shaping our Guardians and beginning our romp through Destiny’s campaign together, brethren in battle. As we pushed through Earth, onto the Moon, and out to Venus, each world took our breath away. Whether it be gazing upon the block temples inhabited by hex, or diving into the hives lying deep underneath the Moon’s surface, we explored every nook and cranny granted to us by the painstaking effort of Bungie’s art department. We took on waves of alien invaders at every turn and each we sent packing.
It was a glorious start but even by the end of the first day cracks were beginning to show. I didn’t want to say it out loud as I was enjoying my co-op experience but my subconscious whispered devilishly “this falls a long way short of Halo.”
Destiny Vs. Halo
The curious thing was that Halo hadn’t clicked with me at first either. A flatmate brought home an original Xbox and we sat in a darkened room watching him make his way through what I know now as a Covenant ship, splattering the blood of hundreds of these cowardly creatures calling him “the devil” onto its purple walls. I dabbled. It was ok. It wasn’t until months later when I had my own Xbox did I really discover the magic.
Combat Evolved’s opening act is still one of the greatest introductions in gaming. It has the audacity to throw you into the middle of a space battle telling you next to nothing: hold tight, you’re escaping from an alien war; holy crap, what’s that “planet”; bugger, we’ve crashed. There’s an immediacy to your plight with the proceeding level, as you explore Halo’s mysterious surface searching for survivors, putting you not just in the shoes of a man tasked with ultimately saving Earth but one of there and then saving his fellow man.
In certain areas Master Chief’s debut was a master class in FPS design. It introduced the now commonplace recharging shields; provided a sandbox where AI, both friend and foe, fought for supremacy; forced you into tactical choices with only two weapon slots, and made vehicle handling a joy. I could go on, and probably will, but for all the flaws of the infamous Library level that game did so much that it instantly put Bungie on a rather tall pedestal. Through a mixed Halo 2, a fine Halo 3, the superb ODST, and the power-up enriched Reach, that level of quality brought the midnight launch ritual into being.
Were expectations too high?
I guess after such a run, however, there had to eventually be a fall. Expectations are so hard to manage, but even trying to take everything that was promised with a pinch of pragmatism, seeing what a backward step Destiny has been has proved bitterly disappointing. Despite the handling still being strong, gunplay being immensely satisfying (mainly thanks to headshots being met with an effect that can only be compared to dropping a brick into a bowl of custard), and wonderful maps that snake on forever, the rest of Destiny is a litany of slipping standards.
Guns lack personality, with none reminiscent of the vehicle-stopping plasma pistol or the Needler which launched a salvo of pink, heat seeking shards. All that exists are po-faced human weaponry, worsened only by the option to carry dozens of them into the field, meaning there are no tactical choices, only the hope that the action pauses long enough for you to pull the right flavoured Fusion Rifle from your kit list. It lacks the battlefield skill that a limited arsenal brought.
This is further exacerbated by the poor mission design where the solution to most situations is to shoot longer and harder. Most points of elation during the campaign came not from completing an awe-inspiring objective but the realisation that the onslaught of enemy waves had ceased. It was highly repetitive - excruciatingly so when Destiny’s structure calls on you to grind – and when your only reward is some tosh uttered from Guilty Spark’s long lost cousin it hardly seems worth it.
I could go on, and probably will, but it’s fair to say I expected more. A lot more.
But why has it changed?
Merging of genres
I don’t prescribe to that most common of Internet statements that “the talent’s moved on” because a studio’s philosophy does not alter overnight through a single man or woman’s exit. What has changed is the underlying structure of the game for when they pitched Halo-meets-World-of-Warcraft they shifted the focus away from a dramatic, narrative adventure to one that must cope with dozens of players all believing that they are the one destined to save the world. Elder Scrolls Online featured a similar problem as it differed so greatly from Skyrim, but when you commit to going online then certain aspects are going to have to adjust.
Bungie have had to account for a world that players have to traverse and affect, but not affect so greatly that the player following them has any different of an adventure. In creating such a seamless world they have effectively sealed themselves off from have earthshattering events. Destiny is currently an environment where there will be no exploding Pillar of Autumn through which you scream on the back of a Warthog, no dramatic escape leading Captain Keyes to safety from a Covenant vessel. It’s clear that so much of what has gone before couldn’t happen in this universe because of the infrastructural limitations, and having such a shift in design philosophy is taking its time to sink in. Sadly what we’re left with in the meantime is the typical MMO-style quests of “kill X boars” or “collect Y boar’s teeth.”
One of the biggest ways round this tedium could be instances, specially spun up server versions of a level that exist solely for you and your party. World of Warcraft uses these for its dungeons, transporting players away from the shared overworld, whilst Lord of the Rings Online puts the same technology to use for key moments of its narrative to make it feel like Gandalf is speaking only to you and not the 236 other Bilbos queued up outside the door. Within an instance the rest of the world need not know what happens and the rules are free to be abused with special boss characters or levels that shift as your party progresses, allowing the designers to express themselves a little more. The only downside is that you are sectioned off from the wider world and everything you achieve will be reset the moment you leave, but isn’t that the same as replaying a basic story mission?
A ten year plan
The likelihood is that, like so much of Destiny, its absence can either be explained by a still maturing engine or the lack of time to implement it. Despite having had an engine in development for six years, it’s no small feat to not only make it on parity with Halo’s codebase but to do so for a new generation of consoles, whilst also incorporating MMO elements. As an engineer my eyes are wide with excitement with the prospect of building such a thing, whilst my heart is on the verge of a coronary at the sheer scale they are attacking it on.
Along the way some things surely must have had to give. This initial version of Destiny feels horribly thin, constrained either by time or technology. Given Bungie’s history, the lack of vehicle variety seems too conspicuous by its absence not to have suffered from this, so too the ability to spin up unique instances of bespoke levels to break the monotony. With an unreleased, untested engine providing your foundation, why not just release the stable basics that take place in a solid and unchanging world before pushing on with more advanced features? It’s a sad but ruthless truth in our industry that “ground-breaking” is synonymous with “expensive” or “delay”.
To use a crude business term, Destiny currently feels like a soft-launch (albeit a $500m one) for a service-driven model, in that they have released a minimum viable product and are now taking feedback on what they can improve and where they should focus. This version of Destiny feels like the foundation. The barest. The one that can be built upon. The one they will add vehicles to. The one that will see grander set pieces. The one that will evolve into the game we all hope it will be.
Flawed at present, but a promising future
As it is it stands, it seems lost between Halo, Diablo, and World of Warcraft, trying to find its way and carve out a new niche whilst suffering from the start-up pains of all three online genres. In this era where I’ve recently played a rhythm-action-RPG though, such tags soon become meaningless and all that should matter is the quality of the product. Even those who find themselves with Destiny’s hooks sunk deep into them admit to the flaws and fully appreciated that what they are playing is a shadow of what it could be, but with this franchise set to span a decade there’s still time for that vision to be realised.
Whilst I may have hung up my Hunter’s cape for now, I look forward to the day, many patches from now, that I’ll be as invested in her as I was with John 117.
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