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Destiny

Beautifully Broken: Destiny's Diablo Complex

After being heralded as the next great action series ahead of its launch, we consider why Bungie's new shooter has polarised opinion.

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While my main contribution to Gamereactor's review of Destiny was focused primarily on the PvP element of the game, there's some noteworthy observations that I've had regarding the PvE part of the game, observations that hinge on a single word:

Diablo.

There's so many similarities between the two games, so many that I find it interesting that a number of the criticisms levelled at Destiny are not levelled at Diablo III. I put my mind to working out why that is, why Diablo III has hit the highest notes, and why Destiny has underwhelmed for so many. Here are my conclusions.

First and foremost, Destiny has been criticised widely because of the storytelling therein. I think what they've done here is tried to mimic a similar setup to Diablo, whereby the story is largely skippable nonsense. It's no surprise to me that Destiny's story is a bit of a mess, I loved the Halo games, but Bungie's ability to deliver a succinct narrative has never been their main strength, and there's moments during Master Chief's original trilogy where the studio dropped the ball, much as they have here.

Where they do excel is in world-building and the construction of lore, and here, as is the case with Halo, they've built a compelling universe (perhaps it takes itself a mite too seriously, but there's a rich background for fans to explore). I think Bungie has looked at the way players invested in Halo, and assumed that they would similarly obsess about the background lore of Destiny, except they didn't allow this fascination to develop organically and over time; instead they tried to force it by sending players out of the game to find out more about the game from forums and via the Grimoire. Not everybody gives that much of a crap to do research on the net, especially when that background could easily have been made available in the game.

Destiny

So the story is a mess and the player is asked to do too much work, and it's not made better by the fact that much of the time the plot points are delivered by VO between missions. I've been playing largely with friends, and so much of the exposition that has been missed is because during missions we've been talking about the game, about life, about what we're going to have for dinner, because you know, it's a social shooter. There's also a lack of cutscenes to explain away the background and set the scene, and what's there doesn't do a fantastic job of explaining the situation. Who are you? Why are you there? Are you some kind of space zombie, after all you were dead and then resurrected (a plot device that also draws religious parallels)? What's the Darkness? Why so is it all so bloody vague?

Bungie has a great sci-fi story to tell, but it doesn't seem like they know how to tell it.

There's more similarities between Diablo and Destiny, the gameplay loop being the most prominent. Blizzard's ARPG has been built with replayability in mind, most evident in the infectious rinse and repeat mechanic, whereby the player is expected to blast through the same content, punching demons to death ad infinitum. Thirty minute blasts of action. Why are some people happy to play Diablo endlessly, to praise that replayability, only to condemn Destiny for doing the same thing?

I think the answer comes down to variety. In Diablo III there's six classes, and each is wildly different, and within each class there's a multitude of ways to specialise a character. Indeed, that game's been created around this simple core mechanic of tweaking and adjusting a character's build until you've crafted the perfect demon slayer. Blizzard facilitates this superbly.

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Bungie, on the other hand, hands us just three classes (admittedly with three sub-classes, unlocked at level 15). There's differences between the three/six for sure, but the super abilities and other special attacks that define each class, they're simply not as broad as they are in Diablo. There's plenty of opportunity to tweak a build, but these are small adjustments, not wholesale changes, and while the player might have a degree of agency when it comes to build construction, there's not enough to really separate the experience from player to player; one character from one subclass will be much like any other.

That doesn't stop the fact that Destiny, as a shooter, is top class. The feedback from the gunplay is fantastic. The weapons feel great. The enemy's heads pop under duress. The grenades make satisfying boom. When considered on its most basic terms, it's an incredible achievement, a fact I think has been lost on a lot of people still too busy being annoyed by Peter Dinklage's uneven delivery of the Ghost (or Dinky, as I've taken to calling him), or the hackneyed delivery of the story, or the repetitive mission types, or the unlikeable characters we meet along the way.

Without really going into depth on the content of the missions, the strikes, the PvP arena; I will say that I'm still having a lot of fun revisiting Destiny. I've played through all the content at least once (except the raid, that's next on the agenda), and in particular I'm loving the PvP part of the game. There's a lot going on in the game, and while I concede that there is something approaching a lack of variety, I'm not sure how people expected Bungie to create a social shooter that was imbued with the kind of grandstand single-player set pieces that they made their name with in Halo. For me there's certainly comparable moments, even if they never quite reach the same dizzying heights of their previous creation. For me, the fact that they've done so within the framework of what is essentially an MMO, it's impressive.

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So, bringing it back to Diablo. Bungie has made a fantastic shooter, one that mimics a compulsive gameplay loop perfected by Blizzard in Diablo III, but for some reason fans and critics loved one, but had mixed feelings regarding the other. But why?

Variety is the main reason. There's less ways to be creative in Destiny (even if there's still much more flexibility than your average shooter), and the joy of Diablo and the reason behind its longevity comes from the options put in front of the player, the tools offered. These options simply aren't in Destiny to the same extent.

Then there's the loot, something that Bungie are in the process of fixing. As it stands, it's just too variable to be satisfying, a fact that led some people to hit the loot caves in order to accelerate the grind. I didn't do it personally, but I can understand why so many people did, because there's nothing more annoying than getting a Legendary Engram and decrypting it to get a shitty rare gun that's worse than the one you've already got. I'm not alone in preferring the idea of having less Legendary Engrams drop, if those Engrams actually turn out to be Legendary items.

Loot is a tricky thing, and a ball that's been dropped by many a game. Borderlands 2, a solid RPG-shooter hybrid that eventually bored me before the credits rolled, had a great knack of delivering interesting guns and constantly giving you decisions to make, but even with all that variety, many of the guns weren't that exciting. Diablo went through a terrible teething process with the ill-fated Auction House that was eventually scrapped, replaced a new, more satisfying loot system. Destiny's growing pains in this area aren't unexpected, and it's a good sign that they've noticed the dissatisfaction early and are moving to address it so soon.

The compulsion to find new and improved loot is a strong one, especially for those who are heavily invested in a game. Hopefully Bungie can find a nice balance quickly, and we await next week's changes with interest.

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The other reason is the delivery of the story. In Diablo the narrative and cutscenes can be largely ignored after the first or second pass. It feels like Bungie has tried a similar trick. They've crafted a story that they hope will engage us the first time, but one that is ultimately, from beat to beat, a throwaway effort that can be ignored by those who stick around for the long haul. I think Bungie's biggest mistake is that they failed to really grab us with the first telling; they negated to give us the most important story elements, and what they did tell us via VO and cutscenes, was, simply put, just not good enough.

Forgetting about Diablo for a second, I think Destiny's other main problem was hype; in that there was far too much. Activision and Bungie went all in with the way they sold the game to prospective punters, and they threw around the term "shared-world shooter", a sound-byte that hinted at the MMO-side of their shooter. In terms of content, it simply didn't live up to the expectations of those expecting an MMO. It also didn't live up to the expectations of people who were expecting a story-driven feast in the vein of Halo. Destiny tried to be a lot of things, but it looks like it failed to exceed many people's expectations, especially those marginal players who were hoping to be swayed by what was touted as a bold new vision.

Having read all that, you might think that I was disappointed. I'm not. I've been playing Destiny a lot since it was launched, and I'm still having a great time on Bungie's servers. It's got a few issues, sure, and there's a couple areas where I'm less than satisfied. But on the whole I'm loving the mix of PvE and PvP, the co-operative play, the addictive replayability of The Crucible, the gameplay loop has me hooked. For me, it succeeds in its most important function: it's a great shooter. I feel like much of criticism levelled at the game has been overly harsh, but I do recognise that there is room for improvement. We stuck an 8 at the end of our review (you can read it here), and I still think it's the right score. Bungie has made a really good game, but it's far from perfect. I don't see it as a problem though, merely a gauntlet that's been thrown down by us, the community. Destiny is a decent start, and if its creators listen carefully to the feedback coming from their fans and critics alike, there's no reason why the future of this burgeoning franchise can't be an extremely bright one.

Destiny

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