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
PvP: THE REAL ENDGAME OF DESTINY - THE CRUCIBLE
One of the most robust parts of the package is The Crucible, the PvP modes that anchor Destiny and that will likely prove the enduring pull for gamers venturing onto Destiny's servers in the longterm. For the most part it's an excellent array of modes, and as you'd expect from the people who gave us Halo's multiplayer, the gunplay is crisp and satisfying, and the matchmaking is good.
That said, there's a couple of issues that we look forward to being ironed out. The first, and most significant, is the lack of larger maps. As it stands there's just not enough options for the players who want to take the vehicles out for a spin. The Combined Arms mode, which has appeared only briefly on the rotation, just alternates between the two suitable maps, First Light and Bastion. It's a great mode and nice change of pace, but flicking between just two maps (we played 4 out of 5 on the same map one evening) quickly becomes a pain.
The lack of maps (just eleven on PS4, and only ten on X1) is our only genuine bone of contention, and we know that more are planned in subsequent DLC releases. Still, more on the disc would've been nice, especially considering how much time we've already sunk into the PvP arena.
(There's one other thing that we didn't like that we would have changed if we could, but even then we're not sure how it could or would have been achieved. Fighting other guardians feels at odds with the overall lore, and we'd have loved something from Bungie that gave appropriate justification to the violence. Everything else in the game - the campaign missions, the strikes, the patrols - all folds into the over-arching story, PvP, however, does not. Even Halo 4's solution, with Spartan's in training in a VR simulation, is preferable to killing your own for no apparent reason.)
As for the quality of the maps, they're all very good. The visual fidelity is high across the board, and as you'd expect, this is especially true on new-gen; on PS4 and Xbox One they look absolutely stunning. While the general standard is high, there are a couple of maps that standout. Burning Shrine, which is set on Mercury, is one of the best maps that Bungie has ever made (just think about that statement for a moment). There's huge turning stones that temporarily cut access between the central chambers of the map, with an external area on one side and smaller sub-chambers on the other.
Rusted Lands, which alpha and beta players were already well aware of, is another highlight. Dilapidated buildings and crumbling walls play host to exciting objective-based game modes, and the Earth-setting is firmly grounded in the lore of the game, with the remnants of humanity playing host to the trappings of an alien invasion force. Twilight Gap is a great mid-sized map, with action playing out on a rusted facility, with two levels and plenty of small inter-connected rooms and bottlenecks where actions tends to focus.
Anomaly is a great Moon-based map that works really well as a host of free-for-all matches and the 3v3 modes. There's a central room where a machine with moving parts is constantly rotating, changing mid-range shooting angles and allowing injured guardians the opportunity to escape via the connecting tunnels and walkways. Another decent map for smaller teams is Exodus Blue, which is PlayStation-only (for the time being at least), and it works really well in the 3v3 modes, giving ample opportunity for flanking manoeuvres and team tactics.
Overall there's no weak link, and although we've already seen Bastion and Last Light a few times too many, we still like them enough for it not to be a mark against. The reason why the relatively low map count (Call of Duty: Ghosts launched with 14, Titanfall with 15, and while Battlefield 4 had 10, some of them were huge) isn't a huge bugbear is the different modes offer nice variation and gives each map fresh impetus. There's three 6v6 modes, and they each give the maps a distinct flavour. Clash (straight-up deathmatch) and Combined Arms (deathmatch with vehicles) sees battles take place all over the place, while Control (three capture points) means that action tends to gravitate around both the three areas in the map that must be captured and held, and the routes between the trio of hotspots.
The same is true of the smaller maps, with Salvage (hints of Capture the Flag) focusing the combat around a shifting objective that must be captured and held for a short time, and the Skirmish mode (small-scale deathmatch) instead relying more on co-ordinated teamwork and communication as both teams of three try to use the environment around them as best they can to try and leverage an advantage. That Rumble (free-for-all) changes up the dynamic is a no-brainer, as suddenly there's no safe place and every player is constantly watching their back and bracing themselves for an inevitable attack.
The smaller maps and three-player modes, Salvage and Skirmish (there may be more coming, but that's what we've seen at the time of writing), fit into to triumvirate that Bungie seems to be pushing us towards with Destiny (really annoying if, like us, you've got a strong four-player team from the Halo days of yesteryear).
Fireteams of three are at a massive advantage when it comes to these modes, and working with a team of lone wolves against a team of co-ordinated players is almost akin to banging your head against a brick wall. A pair of players working together can act as bodyguards to a third, un-connected teammate, bringing an element of cohesion, but even then a team that are working as one will be able to prey on the lack of three-way communication and pull a team out of shape, and then flank them when they're at their most vulnerable.
The ability to resurrect downed teammates also acts as incentive for a team to stick together, but having the option to return a player to the fray where they fell doesn't necessarily mean it should be done. Many times have we been pulled back into the battle only to be promptly sent back whence we came thanks to a firefight still raging over our initial resting place.
Of course, there's one thing that separates Destiny's PvP from previous efforts from Bungie, and that's the super abilities. Whether you're Hunter, Warlock or Titan, every player comes packing a one-use ability that charges throughout the game and can be brought to bear at certain points during every match.
We going to liken them to calling down titans in Respawn's Titanfall; not in the sense that a huge robot joins you for a short time and deals out massive damage, but in that two or three times in every match, every player has the opportunity to be totally over-powered and can, in theory, turn the tide with a well-timed attack. Some people will no doubt think these abilities are too powerful, but we like the game-changing dynamic that they bring matches, and the fact that all players will, at some point, have an opportunity to Titan smash into their opponents, get a double kill with the Hunter's one-shot-kill golden gun, or launch a deadly purple orb into a capture point with the Warlock.
Finally, we should note that the matchmaking, after a slow start with some mismatched games, is starting to level out. Bungie's algorithms are kicking in and producing some keenly contested matches. Like previous efforts from the studio, this is creating a compelling and competitive multiplayer arena, and one that we will be visiting regularly for a long time to come.