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Embracing Destiny: Hands-On with Bungie's Shared World Shooter

A couple of weeks ago we travelled to Seattle to sit down with Bungie and get a glimpse of their post-Halo vision. This is what we came away with.

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In the months leading to today, we wondered if playing a Bungie title with a PlayStation controller would be weird. As much as something felt off experiencing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes on a Xbox controller, the best of the Seattle studio's output has been defined on a Microsoft machine. After a morning spent in a corner of Bungie's offices having the world's first hands-on with a PS4 build of their new title Destiny, comes confirmation: it doesn't feel different at all.

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Halo muscle memory confirms that the universe and format may have changed, but for those of us who've saved the universe with Master Chief, survived with the ODST and died with Noble Team, we're still right at home. Character control still carries the studio's legacy. A sense of familiarity to this new frontier. If you've lost evenings to their past, you'll be wholly confident in your first steps into Bungie's future.

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And that's not the only hallmark the company's carrying over with it. From our first thirty seconds to our last thirty minutes with the game, we experience the same sense of fun, of enjoyment, that these developers have brought to futuristic battlefields before. We're in a new world facing new threats, but that sense of excitement and evolving strategies while engaging aggressive aliens alongside friends mirrors what we felt in the near-decade of warfare alongside the UNSC. Rest easy, long-term fans of the studio: Bungie have retained the fundamentals of Halo.

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THE MODES: You can play Destiny multiple ways, entering each location giving you a series of options on how to explore. Patrol is the most free-roaming of all, letting you wander each area as you see fit, picking up jobs through audio beacons, salvaging loot and tackling enemies. There is a story-driven Campaign that can be played solo (though you still need to be online), which will be more directed. Focused combat missions come in thirty-minute Strikes, which direct you to multiple objectives in specific areas of the map and culminate in a boss encounter. Raids are later, larger versions of these, pulling in multiple fireteams. There's also the PvP Skirmish mode, though you need to play through a couple of hours of the game before you unlock it.

But there is a lot that's all-new, all-different. Bungie have mapped their trademark shooter flair over the MMO space. They may want to give the easy sell of calling Destiny a shared-world shooter, but there's as much MMO lexicon mixed with FPS terminology during our 48 hours at the studio. Raids, rolling [selecting] Warlock classes. Area damage, elemental buffs. Surprising admission during our time at the studio? For a while Bungie played with the idea of Destiny as a straight-up fantasy title, far from future battlefields.

But that was a mere blink of time in the game's now five-year development cycle. The worlds, the universe of Destiny is far-flung sci-fi, and you're still looking at it down the barrel of a gun, interacting with most of it with the pull of a trigger. The merging of two distinct genres isn't wholly new, nor is Bungie the first to try and adopt one into the other.

BREACHING THE BORDER

The quick, easy comparison is that Destiny is Halo's controls and firefights synced with the sprawling level structure and extensive weapon porn of Borderlands (with Mass Effect's sleek tech and world-building thrown in for good measure). Gearbox's two-game strong franchise managed to successfully incorporate MMO and deeper RPG elements to the first-person shooter genre.

That's not to say Destiny is simply doing the same, but there is similarity, and it's one we're highlighting because from experience, Borderlands married us to a genre we'd otherwise ignore. Destiny could be the MMO's green card into our living rooms.

Bungie COO Peter Parsons, joining us as part of our three-person strong fireteam during the demo - a runthrough of a thirty-minute Strike mission played twice more - is better explaining how their shooter works than he is playing it. We need to save his ass several times during the day. Post-match, he grabs a pen and paper to explain Bungie's take on the shared-world shooter concept.

There'll be multiple locations to travel to around Earth, and the stars beyond. Each offers a sprawling sandbox to explore - the E3 demo of Old Russia is but a tiny corner of that particular locale - and you choose exactly how you explore through The Director, a menu-driven guide to the worlds that gives you a list of modes to choose from, which define your time on the ground.

You can either free-roam in Patrol, go for story in Campaign, or focus on a thirty minute mission called Strike, one of which we play through (there's also multi-fireteam Raids and competitive multiplayer Skirmishes - see ‘The Modes' box out above for more).

Whether you solo (though due to the game's nature you have to be online to play) or buddy up to form a three-person strong fireteam, you won't be the only Guardians exploring the location for XP, loot and glory. Bungie's matchmaking systems, born in Halo 2's online deathmatches, have been expanded and redesigned to do the backend mathematics for an entire galaxy. Multiple fireteams will criss-cross with each other at certain points as they roam in their respective missions and modes. These crossover points will contain bigger threats that you can join together to tackle, watch others from afar, or just ignore both potential comrades and threat and continue on your way. Your journey, your choice.

Parsons draws a series of interconnected circles. Each one represents an area within the sandbox; some are private, some public. Private areas will be just you and your buddies tackling enemies, finding loot, completing mission objectives. But whatever mode you play (aside perhaps from Skirmish), at certain junctures you'll enter public zones. And so will other fireteams.

While our Strike was locked to just our three-strong squad, it was easy to spot which locations would suit those junctures. Ranging towards a refinery passed us through smaller multi-levelled rooms, corridors, and occasional larger, sandbox environments. Guess which of those would work for multiple fire teams.

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Each character class has its own melee strike - here your Warlock can fire a short-range Jedi-like kinetic push that'll shove enemies back. In this screen, it's being used on a Fallen Vandal, one that's speciality is to charge in while cloaked and swipe at you with its swords. On the demo we played, the attack wasn't the one-hit kill that turned cloaked energy sword-carrying Elites into the most dangerous foe in Halo; but expect that to be different on higher difficulty settings.
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The maximum number of players in one public area is still being tinkered with; currently it's around seven to nine. Not a mammoth number for multiplayer, but it's a figure suitable for a cooperative experience, and neatly disables the break of immersion that'd come if fifty fireteams were milling around the same spot waiting for enemies to spawn.

If you want to participate in what others are doing, sink a few bullets into their attackers (we experience only two of the races in Destiny - see ‘The Races' box out). The game will immediately sync you into a shared mission.

Complete it, mop up the goods - loot and ammo are privately divided so everyone gets their share - and head your respective ways. Pop into the next area (expect exit points to differ depending on the mode played) and you're back to a private area, and continuing ‘your' story. Within these public zones, bigger public events are sometimes initiated to toss in something new.

The idea is that all this is seamless; you never see a loading screen nor the sudden disappearance of other fireteams. Just a whole lot of people crossing paths occasionally, on their way to building their own legend.

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THE RACES: Humanity is pushed back from their galactic foothold by four other races, two of which we engage during the course of the Strike mission. We note that The Fallen and The Hive can easily be compared to the Covenant Elites and Flood from Halo, and we wonder if the studio's purposefully chosen them to help ease us into this new experience. Not so, says designer Lars Bakken, but he does acknowledge the parallel. Each race will have multiple subsets, though that number will vary between species. But it'll lead to adapting to different attack patterns on the field. The Fallen include low-level Dregs (who hug cover), mid-tier Vandals (that come in a charging, cloaked melee variety) and higher-class Captains (all strong fire power and reinforced over- shields). There are also sphered Servitors that float onto the battlefield, sniping us with plasma balls.
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