Destiny Alpha: First Impressions
You don't know what you've got till it's gone.
I’m missing the Destiny alpha already.
In one of the few genuine surprises at this year’s E3, Activision and Bungie dropped the Destiny alpha upon us at short notice. Only available for a few days, it seems to have come and gone in an instant. All that’s left in the month’s wait until the beta arrives is to pore over the details we’ve learnt and look at where the full release might take us.
A post apocalyptic world might be fairly unrevolutionry, but Bungie have clearly worked it well into the game. The backdrop in one environment of an old space shuttle standing primed, decayed and unused for what must have been decades was impressive; when the sun rose against that skyline it was worth the few minutes to stop and absorb the atmosphere.
The dilapidated scarred ground of Old Russia looked to not only offer enough undulations and buildings to keep firefights interesting, but also held many subterranean secrets. There’s a hint of the horror FPS in the dark depths of the industrial looking buildings. As someone not overly keen on the brighter sci-fi leanings of Halo, this adds an air of tension and also ties in nicely with the RPG dungeon theme.
What’s less welcome in an FPS are the distinct pockets of enemies. Hopefully the full game will display more variation in attack patterns and foes capable of properly tracking movements, but the early instances - and some clearly weren’t just of a lowly level - indicated invisibly demarcated areas, making it very easy to consider the battleground before you as merely made up of miniature sorties, distinct and particularly easy to retreat from.
The lack of a proper map - merely an objective marker raised by your Ghost - fits the genre mash-up as progression feels more like exploration rather than simple navigation. The sprawling landscape might not have seemed as vast if it were detailed, but the labyrinthine nature of the layouts, with multiple paths, means there’s a need to acclimatise to your surroundings. Smart advancement trumps run and gun, but if you have become familiar with an environment then the summoning of a vehicle to traverse the chicanery of enemies is a smart inclusion.
It’s an RPG... kinda
If there’s one obstacle in the way of the game’s success, it’s likely to be categorisation. Say to someone that it has an MMO vibe and they might balk, mention that the gunplay is underpinned by RPG staples and they could similarly get the wrong idea.
In truth it’s an interesting blend of different elements, sourced from various genres. Enemies have health bars, and you’re told how much damage you do by the floating numbers that appear upon successful hits. Weapons and armour are unlocked based on levels and those are raised through experience points. There are even classes and races to choose.
Yet, the upgrade path in the early stages shown in the alpha (it was capped at level 8) was nicely in tune with the activities you would likely be undertaking. Was it so very different from completing a mission, only to be handed a better gun for your next sortie as in most FPSs?
No, if anything, the classes and races aren’t distinguishable enough, with the Super abilities and unlockable upgrades at the early stage leading to minimal differences in playing style. Gunpowder still trumps most things. There’s little in the way of a true gulf between the archetypal Barbarian, Mage and Huntress ensemble. Many will be using the same weapons, and other than subtleties in double jump and Supers, the variation in base ratings, mobility and the like aren’t evident enough to change your overall playing style.
All the stats, buffs and ratings that you’d expect to see in a modern RPG are hidden, keeping the experience in the field locked on traditional FPS combat.
It’s an MMO... kinda
If you break the acronym down, the alpha showed little of the “massively” as teams were small. Obviously as things progress you’d expect them to grow, but this is still never likely to be in the same field as, say, an EVE mega battle. It’s story and mission (or Strike, as it’s put) based, with PvP taking the form of a distinct game mode in competitive multiplayer arenas as any other FPS.
Yet, the world houses many players, and you’ll cross paths with people, team up on the fly, and leave just as quickly as you would with any other MMO. It’s a fluid game that makes co-op with strangers extremely easy, and there aren’t many console titles that can facilitate such a rarity. It has the open world, loot, character progression, potential for grinding and core components of the MMO, but the key difference is how you go about things. It’s streamlined, free from copious blurb designed to hide simplistic gameplay and even if you do consider it an MMO, the onus is clearly on shooting things. Lots of things.
In short, it’s tight and satisfying. As you’d expect from the team that brought us Halo, the actual nitty gritty of shooting aliens in the face is damn good fun. It comes with a similar (though not identical) regenerating health system but it’s not, however, just Master Chief in a fancy new skin; it holds the promise of some nice variation in its approach.
First off there’s the current buzzword - verticality. The double jump/booster ability allows for very quick scaling of the object and buildings littering the landscape. Picking enemies off from up high is easy, in the alpha it was only really a passing volley from a dropship that could harm you on your vantage point as there were obvious cover points. Hopefully the full game will bring enemy variants who can throw grenades properly or varied placement of those who can pick you off from range.
There’s a distinct heft to weapons, and your turning circle isn’t the tightest, so combat feels far more weighty than you’d expect from a game that pushes you to vault across the landscape. The mix of three weapons in your loadout - primary, secondary and special - is enough to handle most situations, but it’s the ammo and the weapon upgrades that make the biggest difference. Primary ammo is abundant, secondary less so, and special is a rarity, so you can’t blitz everything with a rocket launcher unless you’re willing to pay for the privilege.
The Super abilities though may split opinions. Like grenades, they’re infinite, and merely require a cooldown. Each class has their own distinct Super, but those of the Titan and Warlock are too similar. They’re a get out of jail free card, designed to unleash a devastating attack when you’re in peril. It’s only the Hunter’s Ghost Gun that seems to go directly for FPS skill based execution.
There’s also the small matter of aim assist being present that might perturb some. In general, I struggle to hit the proverbial cow’s arse with a banjo, so if I notice it, then it’s there. Up close it isn’t pronounced, but from distance, with a sniper rifle, there’s a definite drag factor to the cross hairs that tracks faster movement.
The most impressive aspect of the alpha, and the one that arguably places it in terms of categorisation in the MMO camp, was the persistence of character from one form of the game to another. Unlike traditional FPSs, what you have in single player and co-op is what you’ll be equipped with in competitive multiplayer, or The Crucible as the mode's called. If you fail in a Strike, the extra XP found in The Crucible might help you level up, and vice versa if you’re struggling during a death match, a foray for better equipment on your own or with friends might make all the difference.
It’ll take some careful balancing, but if Bungie’s multiplayer maps are of the usual calibre then this has the potential to make it an almost unparalleled unified experience for console gamers. The main map shown in the alpha mixed things up nicely with vehicles and turrets, and even at such an early stage the sniping positions were becoming evident (perhaps a little too much).
The only threat to this character persistence intended to draw players into all game modes is the fast paced nature of the competitive multiplayer. Vehicles are easy to kill with, snipers can rule an area of the map quickly, and generally there’s not as much leeway for taking a few hits as in Halo. If someone’s got the drop on you, you’re likely already dead.
This is the feeling I was left with when the alpha ended. You’re not pushed into any game mode, and the scope is there for you to tackle things as you wish, in whatever order. You can attempt missions found in the environment when in free roam, go on specific Strikes or jump into the multiplayer. I put in a dozen or so hours, and probably spent an equal amount of time in co-op as I did idling with a Scout Rifle on my own, looking at the vistas and comparing weapon ratings in the hub.
If it stays on course, a few tweaks are made, and elements correctly balanced, it has the potential to be that rarest of games - one in which you spend an hour seemingly doing little, but never feel you’ve wasted the time. If the alpha was designed to disavow simplistic notions of genre categorisation and dispel fears, then I dare say it’s worked.
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