I'll be gone till September...
If you played the Alpha, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bungie’s claim that it was already an old build of the game had a hint of kidology about it. But stepping into the Beta proved just how true their words were. The extra layer of refinement was evident, from the voice acting to the loading times, much was improved.
Broadly speaking they were minor details, but collectively they helped shape the previously atmospheric - but sometimes quite sterile - experience into something more complete. If the Alpha was all about introducing you to the key gameplay elements, then the Beta was about displaying the level of polish Bungie could apply to those, and how they could draw them all together into a cohesive whole.
Content wise, initially there wasn’t much more to see. The main addition was some new introductory story missions which helped set the mood and lay the groundwork for your journey. The focus was on the cinematic, and the cut-scenes served to introduce us to the plight of The Traveller and why Guardians exist. One thing was noticeable straight away, the audio was markedly improved in places.
More ambient noises, subtler music cues and most importantly - considering the reaction to it in the Alpha - Peter Dinklage’s voice acting has been fine tuned with some added robotic filters. Roaming Old Russia you notice small niceties, like extra detail on plants and loot chests, sparks from a fallen ship, a few more flocks of crows and footprints in the snow; all the type of minutiae that could be seen as superfluous, yet necessary to create that organic feel.
The trump card of the new content came in the form of the story mission on the Moon, that opened up late in the Beta. The Dark Beyond introduced us to some plot elements that hinted at the depth of the underlying lore. Like previous missions, it had that faint horror vibe, and played on the mystery of a Guardian who “went dark searching for a way into the Hive Fortress.”
If this mission served as a microcosm of Destiny’s narrative-driven gameplay then the final game should be far more barnstorming FPS than grinding MMO.
The inclusion of enemies on Pikes spiced things up; riding one yourself, the combat reeked of the fun that was had with Halo’s many vehicles. The pace changed quickly, from the opening isolation of the Moon setting, to the frantic firefights. Once you neared the end of the mission, things ramped up, and everything was thrown at you, a mysterious figure, a charging onslaught of enemies accompanied by a pounding electro soundtrack and finally a boss fight.
As someone who's never really been into game lore, I’m intrigued to see what’s reeling in the narrative bait that’s being dangled in front of us. The only worry this grandstand finish raised was - when viewed alongside the other earlier missions - will the story rely on waves of enemies too often? It’s a good trick to use, but only in moderation.
The mission also gave us a peek at some of the weaponry perks that might be on offer, as your reward for completion was a new Special Weapon. You had a choice of three, I chose a Sniper Rifle which came with an upgrade, “Shoot To Loot” - sure to be catnip for all those who like to spend time picking enemies off from high vantage points as it allows you to collect any ammo you hit from distance. A grinding camper's dream.
Browsing the various merchants on the Tower revealed some similarly obtuse bonuses in higher level weaponry. It’s a pity we couldn’t get a hands-on with these, as the level 8 cap was still in place, but if this is an indication of the more inventive perks the final game may lean towards, then the standard character and weapon archetypes may not define firefights as much as originally assumed.
For all this extra variation, the arsenal of guns is still quite limited to staple examples though, and there remain queries about the core combat mechanics. Auto-aim appears to have been toned down a bit, but it is still there. Once you unlock the most powerful sniper scope, panning across a series of enemies brings with it the noticeable sticking moment as the reticle deliberately slows when going over any one. Tracking moving targets also has a subtle drag implemented that doesn’t directly correlate to how hard you’re pressing in that direction. It’s more apparent with scopes, but an option to turn it off would please those who find its presence unwelcome.
Of the multiplayer maps, First Light and Shores of Time were the most prevalent and the former also still the most likely to split opinion. The wide areas without cover between spawn spots and Control points means the inclusion of vehicles roaming had a slightly spammy feel. Purely anecdotal, but I did notice a greater use of heavy weaponry and special abilities. The former is a vital part of the multiplayer that some are slowly discovering is the key to success, but the latter could equally be attributed to the cooldown time being lowered. The increased time people could spend with the Beta definitely seems to have had an effect on playing styles thanks to perks. You could tell, for instance, that some were favouring grenades and had armour equipped to minimise cooldown even further.
There are still questions left unanswered about how it will all fit together. Small things, like assembling a Fireteam of randoms for a Strike is a simple process, but when the Strike itself is housed in a larger area that contains other players, it’s too easy to find at least one of those randoms being syphoned off into a miscellaneous firefight, either unaware or uncaring that it has nothing to do with the actual Strike. The objective marker may be improved, with a longer time on screen, but a way to keep Fireteams together, and if necessary players replaced quickly and seamlessly, could prove invaluable.
One complaint that I think won’t be ironed out is that of areas with higher level enemies not being off limits. There were sections - as in the Alpha - where you could wander underground only to be killed by a higher level enemy that couldn’t be engaged with properly. On the one hand this could be infuriating, but it also adds the sense that the world is precarious. Nobody wants to play a game that keeps you safely in your own level bubble, and there’s nothing like feeling omnipotent with your new Scout Rifle, only to find yourself hightailing it away in fear to make you realise that you’re nowhere near as powerful as you thought you were. Keeping players assuming there’s more to be seen at higher levels will be essential to the long term appeal of the game.
Key to this is the lack of a map, another complaint some had with the Alpha. We’re accustomed to the mini-map / larger pause screen map combo, so it’s a shock not to have something more detailed. However, it’s vital to keeping an element of mystery and making it seem like you’re exploring by landmarks. You get comfortable in an area, then move on, each time going further. Reveal that the vast area you’re inhabiting is little more than a series of intertwining pathways that covers a few square kilometres in in-game terms and the mystique would be shattered.
Overall, it was a strong Beta, serving as both a taster for players, a stress test and a way of gathering data for future tweaking. Importantly, the extra additions from the Alpha should go some way to allay fears concerning following in Titanfall’s footsteps - showing everything it had too soon and leaving nothing to really surprise people with.
The biggest issue for Bungie will be that of balance though. How the character persistence works between single player and multiplayer, how the weaponry between modes maintains equilibrium but not get boring. These are things that can only be assessed properly once more powerful equipment is opened up and there’s an increased disparity in player levels; that could be when the fine tuning really begins.
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