All is darkness. We hear a growing skitter work towards us, and pick up increasingly loud snarls on our headset. A heavy guitar riff kicks in, and the next second we're plunged into an intense firefight with alien attackers, glowing eyes the only indicator of their location. The last time we felt so invigorated in a moment like this was a similar sequence in Bungie's previous work. We remember it as if it was yesterday. Yet it's been four years since the studio's epitaph to its last sci-fi franchise with Halo: Reach.
When Destiny hits its combat stride, which it does many, many times over the duration of the game, it's a sublime, fantastic experience. But those highs come with a familarity that suggests while the universe may be new, some things have carried over from the old one. Bungie use their experiences on Halo to build the core of Destiny, but there's been little evolution to those mechanics in the shift between universes. The core remains relatively untouched, and instead Bungie have built around it.
PvE: CONQUERING A CORNER OF A STAR SYSTEM
We're still submerged in evocative sci-fi lore that we can't help but feel slightly lost in. Alien races have multiplied and diversified, but you'll quickly still quickly organise the sub-groups of each into different threat levels and work through the ranks in turn. You'll still engage in the occasional three-way scrap, that does little to differentiate from what's come before. We can still explore solo, or bring friends and strangers into cooperative or competitive modes. All things that are clearly intrinsic to Bungie's DNA. If you're a fan of their past work, you'll know that's not a bad thing at all.
But that core gameplay philosophy is now wired into an always-connected online world. The galaxy's elite is now plural: you're but one beacon of hope fighting to turn back the darkness through an escalating body count. When exploring new frontiers you'll be rubbing shoulders with friends and strangers as Destiny ushers in a light MMO angle.
Whatever mission you do, you'll occasionally cross paths with other players. You can choose to stay solo, set up a dedicated three-person fireteam, or roll the dice and try a random team-up as you go. Despite the always-on nature of the game, Destiny works equally well if you go it alone or with comrades.
So you can soak up the atmosphere, fight to score more headshots than your pal, or enjoy the odd glimmer of unexpected cooperative alien extermination with strangers. It's a three-way split with each offering a different flavour to the same actions.
The game balances the difficulty and enemy number based on player count, which can make for great(ly) different clashes. But it also bases it on your character's XP level, and adjusts the enemy's own accordingly. There's a slight unbalance with some modes, yet not others you factor in fireteams of differing Levels, as we found out during some of the harder Strikes, as the the game catered for the highest-ranking of the crew, making it a harder, frustrating slog for others at times.
Bungie's rolled in the option of different difficulty settings through missions where enemy XP levels are several rungs above your own (and deny you the ability to even try those they've labelled 'Impossible' on the mission select screen). From what we've experienced thus far, rarely does this offer the increased AI smarts that made Halo Heroic and Legendary settings feel like two different games. You get a couple of sharpshooting alien bastards, but for the most the key difference is quicker deaths for you and bullet sponge enemies: Bungie are just extending the length of each kill rather than making it feel different.
That MMO crossover means there's a level of grind needed to upgrade yourself enough to dig into harder Strikes or the endgame Raid. It's not the chore it could have been, though it's more obvious in Patrols that ranging back and forth across enemy respawn points is a means to an end only.
So soon you find picking up Bounties, tasking you with collecting X number of Y, gives you either an additional drive and bonus addition to rotate through modes and planets, adding an extra layer to your kills and rapidly increasing your XP count. Bungie have started introducing Daily Bounties to give you some light direction and reason to replay certain areas, kill even more enemies.
Because every violent act you take rewards you with XP, as Bungie bring in a fully-realised upgrade and perk system for your character. Points gradually unlock abilities for your chosen class (three are available, plus an additional sub-class for each), buffs for your armour and better versions of your weaponry.
There's definitely a difference between the classes - we rolled Warlock, and spent a long time playing support for our team before we earned better defence and unlocked stronger super-attacks. We half-jokingly suggested we were playing the supporting character in our own sci-fi legend, and looked enviously at the enemy-bullying Titan and whip-quick Hunter that took the lion's share of kills. It took an important weapon upgrade some hours into the game to feel we were finally tooled correctly to join the frontline and join in the fun.
But all classes can draw from the same weapon pool and combat templates. Each have offensive and defensive buffs, grenade types, Super attacks and jump upgrades. Arguably in any you can tailor your play style to fit the class, but it'd have been great if Bungie had made the differences obvious from the off in-game, rather than having to read up elsewhere as to what the benefits for each would be.
But not matter which class you go for, the best goods are out in the frontier, through finding loot crates and finishing objectives to earn randomised equipment drops, rather than purchasing low-level gear in the social hub of the Tower.
Destiny's frontier consists of large sandbox environments, one for each of the handful of planets that come on the game disc. On these you'll have a number of different game types (competitive multiplayer has its own separate section on the galaxy map, which we'll touch on in the next page). But whatever one you go for, all play out in that same sandbox. There's no denying there's repetition, but each mode funnels you into a different corner of the map, or opens areas locked in other missions. So whether you focus on a linear path in Story, free-roam in Patrol or go dungeon-crawling in Strikes, locations still feel substantial, different.
And some of the level design is just stunning - we spent a few minutes just soaking in the likes of the late game Black Garden stage. Bungie definitely manage to make even our familiar galactic backyard feel alien.
Arguably the missions vary little, and once you've held your position against enemy waves as your Ghost companion tinkers with some ancient alien artefact in the first hour, you'll get the gist as to what you'll be doing in the next thirty and more. But this is a shooter, and the obvious limitations in FPS objectives never bothered us in Halo, and there are the occasional twist on mission convention that prove game highlights - but these are few and far between.
Less forgivable are the majority of the end bosses, oversized versions of normal-sized foes who are little more than bullet sponges. We'd prefer dynamic boss patterns instead of trying to survive waves of enemies long enough to chip away the Big Bad's health bar. This is definitely one feedback headline that Bungie need to take on board. But it's not the only one.
Bungie can't quite mask the worst aspects of online shared worlds. The sandboxes, no matter how pretty they are, are filled with little more than pockets of constantly respawning enemies. It's even more annoying when they do the same thing and pop up behind you in the middle of a firefight. The illusion needs to be better.
We've experienced Bungie's fractured universe-building before, snippets of the bigger picture glimpsed through ancient technology and hints of a greater evil, that didn't feel wholly frustrating because the studio layered in enough clear exposition to explain the reveals. The appearance of the Flood in the original Halo, and the reason for the titular ring understood. The inner workings of the Covenant in Halo 2, the Forerunners' grander plans for the galaxy in Halo 3. Even if ODST and Reach didn't have such universe-spanning arcs, they told great human stories: common soldiers fighting against the threat of extinction.
We don't quite have one or the other in Destiny. It does offers an equally-dense sci-fi landscape, but there's a lack of focus in the narration, and almost vacuous explanation to the mythology. You're resurrected at the game's start, but you're not told how you ended up there, or what that may mean. The insidious darkness that encroaches on the galaxy is given no context, no physical form.Terms and historical facts are fired out during loading screens without any attempt to tie them to the wider tapestry.
There's not even a text-based sub-menu index in the game if you wanted to avail yourself of more information. Instead you're left grabbing mobile or tablet to read up online to understand something that should rightly be explained better in-game. We start getting hints of something bigger as we barrel towards the endgame, and the last barrage of Strikes offer prove the best of the lot. But then suddenly it ends. And we're back to the grind rotation instead, and deciphering the mystery of the game's many systems.
For a long time we're uncertain as to what certain item pickups are for, and what their long term use is. Dismantling older weapons and gear seems good only to clear out your limited carry allowance - is there another reason to do so? We're not told. We unlock the Super of our Warlock sub-class, but we need to read an online guide to find out it allows us to regen grenades at a much faster rate.
There needs to be some proper explanation to some of the game's fundamentals. Perhaps these won't prove important until later on, as Bungie gradually open up more areas of the Tower, or implement some yet-unseen trading posts, but the studio needed to be clear from the start in explaining everything that comes alongside the basic 'aim/shoot' mechanics.
Some weapons come with particular buffs that aren't wholly clarified as to their worth. We get fire works better on organics, but we're hit with moments when every shot fired flashes up an 'Immune' text from their intended target. There was one particular boss fight we soloed in which not a single weapon we owned did much damage, forcing us to spam grenades to chip away at shields and energy. A simple option for a secondary, pre-built load out, or even three, would have been great. Halo dropped weapons that were best suited for the battle at hand right at the start of the conflict. Destiny needs a similar easy switch.
As such, this is a hesitant first step rather than confident stride into a new arena by the studio. We're used to always-online titles to be the focus of a multitude of tweaks and changes through post-launch patches, and it's a given that Bungie will be focused on improving the game for the weeks and months to come.
But what we have on disc feels like the opening chapter of a larger game in which the best is yet to come. We're left not just wanting more, but expecting better. The on-disc story content doesn't satisfy as much as their previous work and we're left wondering if they needed to cut away at the tentpole moments of the game so they could be stretched across the next year as DLC.
Obviously the type of game this is, having the foundation for long term post-launch releases is important, but if that's the case it feels like they've weakened their opening. This should have been explosive, filling stuff. As it is, it's a great taster. But we know things will get better.
And it likely will, with time. Destiny's an online-only game with a barrage of post-launch DLC being cooked up right now, and we expect Bungie to release gameplay improvements via future updates. It's not quite perfect yet. When we see Bungie at their best - as is with the last few main missions, which for mood, aesthetics and design match Halo's greats - it's fantastic. But as this is a universe they need to keep growing, there's a sense that the best is yet to come. This is only the first chapter. It might not be the perfect opener to this new franchise, but you can be damned sure we can't wait until Chapter 2.
Next Page: Checking the PvP of the Crucible