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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHAT TO WEAR AND SHOOT WITH?
Building your legend in Destiny isn't subtle. It's about what you wear, what you carry. Even if there's no loading screens outside the initial drop into the location at mission's start, you will be spending some time on your character customisation screen. The controller Options button will default to this screen, with the fireteam party system and general settings on other tabs with a quick shoulder button press.
Your character avatar is bracketed by two boxed columns. Left is Class Focus and weapons, right your gear, with that side giving you a box each for helmets, body armour, leg armour etc. Everything offers perks, a lot include unlockable upgrades.
XP increases, gaining gear and earning upgrades are divided across a few systems. By killing enemies you earn XP. But the game's main drive isn't hitting the level cap; you'll reach that in a few days of solid playing. Instead, Bungie want you focused on weapon upgrades and pimping your character - the "horizontal growth" according to Investment Lead Tyson Green.
"The point were [the levelling] stops, [players have] already moved on to gear function and collection...," he explains during a roundtable Q&A on the subject during a post-play break. "It works similar to Diablo, in the sense that it really is about going on to the horizontal growth, trying new abilities and new builds, new weapons. With that same element that ‘I'm growing more powerful as a character, so I can do the harder activities'."
So, it's weapons and gear buffs, alongside gameplay skill, that'll decide your survival percentage against the more fearsome creatures populating the galaxy. Exploring the world you'll come across chests which contain Glimmer - the in-game currency - which can be spent on new weapons, purchased from the public marketplace in The Tower.
This is the launching point for every mission, sitting in the shadow of the Traveller's corpse, the moon-like entity that for two hundred years exponentially advanced humanity's growth and gave the race's Guardians their powers. The Tower is the Guardians' central base and the social hub for the game. Glimmer buys weapons, and it sounds like the developer is ranging as far as it can from the notion of micro-transactions.
"We're focusing on the core sixty dollar experience," Green replies when asked directly. "Trying to keep the game away from needing a subscription or anything like that. It's not something we're really focusing on at all."
Unlike Halo, you can't steal weapons off dead bodies on the battlefield. Downed enemies will drop ammo, colour-coded to represent bullets for your primary, secondary, or heavy weapon. That third tier is a new inclusion, and one the team spent a long time scratching its head to work out its correct placement in the weapon wheel, according to Bungie's Community Head Eric Osborne.
"We wanted to break out and add this Heavy category, where you bring out this thing with huge high-weapon damage and it feels awesome. For a while they played with the standard weapon swop, and it was alarming how confusing it got between three because we'd been trained with two for so long. Once they changed it to the hold [of the weapon switch button], it worked perfectly."
So, you trade between primary (Scout and Focus rifles, magnum-like Hand Cannon) and secondary (Sniper Rifle, Shotgun) with a tap, or hold to pull your heavy (Rocket Launcher, Chain Gun).
The Secondaries and Heavies have that similar punchy audio texture of Halo, but to our ears the Primaries sound underwhelming. There are multiple variants of each weapon type with their own stats, and while only some will be upgradable, every weapon has its own unique name. It's a huge breach of the small but perfectly-balanced Halo roster, but keeps with the MMO structure of the game. "They've all a defined role, they have a reason to exist," says Osborne of the expanded weapon list.
‘Sound Good Advice', ‘Thunder Lord', ‘Truth' are just a few, the comedic naming clashing with the setting of this otherwise poe-faced sci-fi world. (It's the same with the physical emoticons tied to the D-Pad, letting you wave, sit or dance during your missions). Currently Bungie won't say what the weapon limit is, and are only talking these UNSC-analogue types, but we doubt the final game's arsenal will be limited to human-made weapons.
But enemies do occasionally drop loot, and loot can also be found hidden around locations or in chests. Loot's colour-coded as well; green's common, blue rare and gold for exotics. Not all will be specific to your Class, nor be available to use until you've XPed to a certain level. Some will come as encrypted data that needs unlocking back at The Tower.
While you're locked to a three-weapon loadout on the field, you carry multiple guns and gear with you at all times - each customisation category box opens up to a larger grid to offer more choices.
The exact limit of this is yet to be decided, but each player will have a personalised Vault back at The Tower to store excess equipment. The idea is to allow you to change up your load-out to match the situation. However, there's no shortcut to have customised load-outs available at a button press, and switching weapons means your new choice materialises with no ammo. "The idea is that you don't switch between them endlessly," explains Lead Designer Lars Bakken of the decision. "It doesn't mean you won't have ammo for them. Within the next kill [downed enemies] drop ammo for that weapon."
The push to spend time in this screen, according to Bungie, is to generate pride in your look, your growing legend. Motivation beyond seeing the endgame or level cap will be spotting fellow Guardians equipped with cooler gear and weapons than you currently have, pushing you to explore and loot to better yourself on the battlefield. That's partly why Bungie won't tie XP level to public space meet-ups; they want you to be amazed at how quickly higher-powered Guardians can take down even the biggest threats.
But what that also means is that you'll need to find a quiet spot on the battlefield to roll out new weapons. It's less fiddly than you think, though during our Strike mission demo we've only a few same-level weapons to worry about. The Hand Cannon becomes our default Primary, a two-shot headshot magnum that's a beast against most enemies, and the shotgun for when we're exploring corridors and refinery interiors.
We also mainly stick with the Chain Gun as our Heavy, an ammo-chewing monster that drops both single higher-class Fallen and charging groups quickly. Good to note is that Bungie are continuing to embrace the same three-way combat from before, as we stumble on a Hive Vs Fallen battle in the bowels of the refinery and mop up the remainders with our trusty boomstick.
The mission is pegged around the thirty minute mark to complete - if we take the straight path mapped out by our Ghost AI (see The Ghost & Sparrow box out for Destiny's replacement for Cortana).
At one point in our third play of the Strike, Peter directs us to the end of one corridor after our Horde-like encounter with waves of multiple nasties. There's a massive hole burrowed through the earth, which he leads us down into. He points out the network stretches on for kilometres, and if followed, would take us through high-level enemies and loot, and eventually spill us out into the massive valley which was demoed at that morning's presentation. We only have to stick to our path if we want a quick Strike; there's good reason to range further.
Come the mission's big open area, reminiscent of the small sandbox environments Bungie like to flood their games with, we step into a bowl littered with destroyed buildings, plenty of Fallen and a bloody big tank at the other end. We switch to sniper rifle, but have to wade in for a spell to down enough enemies to restock the weapon's ammo. Then it's back to the bowl's edges, headshotting from afar and dodging when the tank's cannon occasionally trains on us. A slide manoeuvre, instigated by pressing crouch while sprinting, gives you an extra degree of mobility. "Because it's fun," lead designer Lars Bakken states simply when we ask about its inclusion.
The tank's legs have to be taken out to disable it for a short time, at which point we switch to our rocket launcher... but we've no ammo. Cue another round of dodges and close-range combat, resurrecting downed comrades when we can, leaving them to their thirty-second respawn at other times. If all the team die, we get a ‘Wipe', putting us someway back in the Strike.
Combat is fast, fun. At times, difficult. We'd put the intensity a couple of notches above Halo Normal, a little below Heroic - we die mainly because we're cocky, not crap. The tank's not even the Strike's end-boss; that comes later when we're given a sneak glimpse of a massive sphere collecting souls (the full battle will be at E3 apparently). We run through this Strike three times, and only in the last do we start using our Supers - the big differentiation between Bungie's old firefights and its new ones.
...AND SPACE MAGIC
There's a lot of crossover between Classes in terms of weapons and gear. But it's their unique perks that really emphasise Class differences and give a strong nod to the MMO genre. All these are bundled into what's called Focus - a class-based skill tree that unlocks new abilities over time but limits how many you can have active at once, forcing you to test each setup then decide on the best combination for you.
Each class has a different jump skill. Titans get jet-pack boost, Warlocks a descending glide, Hunter a double-jump and one other, yet unseen, option. Then there's the real unique stuff. The Hunter's melee attack is a long-range knife throw, the Warlock's is a Jedi-like kinetic push. You feel like a badass doing either. Then you start getting into the higher-grade options, like a powered NFL-like charge that'll let you steamroll through enemy groups.
Then, there are the Supers. These are short-term effects that are either offensive and defensive abilities, activated at any time - once charged - with a press of the shoulder buttons together. The Titan's Defensive Codex ("the names keep changing" admits Green when he has to double-check with a colleague about what ability is called what) drops a sphere, not unlike Halo's Bubble Shield, which the fireteam can hide in while their energy shields recharge (like Halo, each character has an overshield and an energy bar, though these only appear on-screen when that character is attacked). The Hunter can imbue their bullets with high-damage thermal energy, while the Warlock can fire a semi-locked Nova Bomb, which hits with a wide area of damage when it explodes.
It's cool stuff. And sadly something we don't get enough time to tinker with or test, even as we rotate Classes - Hunter, Titan and Warlock - during our trio of plays through the Strike mission. Expect a lot of column inches dedicated to this in future. Bungie's showed that the traditional Halo feel is still present, but they've only teased the really interesting new combat abilities.
COUNTDOWN TO DESTINY
The game's ambitious. No doubt about that. And from the sliver of what we've seen, Bungie are able to maintain the idea of both shared world and story-driven campaign by keeping numbers down and areas fragmented. It's an idea that, on paper, works well.
Of course the question is going to be how and if they can maintain this ambitious enterprise when they invite the world to participate come September's release. As with any online game worth its salt, a beta is due in the near future, giving us a taster of the core concepts while Bungie stress-test the backend.
"What we're showing now - Strike, Patrol, The Tower - is a sampling of what we'll bring to bear in the beta," says Osborne. "We want to make sure people are getting their hands on pretty much all the core activity lines... we want to make sure there's a healthy amount of content that they can have those experiences; get into a fireteam, check out a public event. All the things that are important and native to the experience, without spoiling the entirety of the game."
Even with a game as ambitious as this, its not something we haven't heard before. But what raises an eyebrow is the number of times Bungie staff elude to the fact they're still working things out. Nearly every facet of the game seems under review; something that isn't obvious until we collate the interviews together post-trip. Five months from launch, and the game's still shifting its shape.
Like when we ask Bakken about how Bungie are approaching the different difficulty settings. Bungie veterans will know tinkering with Halo's different difficulty settings produced a completely different experience. The franchise's Legendary setting AI may be complete bastards, but you have to respectfully concede they're smart bastards. That's all Bungie's doing. So how do you approach it in a shared world, when multiple Guardians of different XP levels cross over and tackle the same set of enemies?
"That's a really hard problem to solve," Lars admits. "We have some ideas, we have some stuff we're currently working on right now that's pretty awesome. But it's not quite ready to share. And we will talk about that. Maybe at E3, or definitely shortly after. But trust me, it's cool. It makes sense in Destiny, and fits in with the world. It allows you to have the experience that you want."
But then, Bungie are used to the crunch. If there's a sudden worry they won't get this huge project done in time, you remember that they've been in similar circumstances before, and they've learnt from the experience.
Halo 2's development infamously saw them abandon most of the work they'd produced for an E3 proof-of-concept video, and the subsequent race to get the game finished saw certain elements abandoned and the intense crunch period forgoing the usual polish to the title that the studio is known for.
"There's definitely some light at the end of the tunnel," Osborne acknowledges, "but to use an American analogy, it feels like we're on the two minute clock and we're driving. We have to score a touchdown to win the game.
"There's a lot of work to be done and the game's really ambitious, and a really big challenge, a big launch for us. It's bigger than anything we've taken on before. There's a lot of drive upstairs and a lot of people who have a lot to prove."
And Bungie have more to prove than some. Even the intense focus on Respawn's Titanfall was dispelled in part as not only was it that team's first game, but for all its uniqueness, it was a straight forward online shooter.
Bungie not only have the pressure of bettering their past work, but needing to offer something as defining and revolutionary as the original Halo. Multi-faceted as it is, Destiny isn't lacking for ambition. Yet they don't expect to gain universal praise whatever they deliver; they're aware they're going to alienate some of their audience. This isn't their Halo 4.
"My hope is that we capture a wide gamut of things," outlines Osborne, who's role lets him get a wider viewpoint of the project as a whole. "Like Raids - we have guys playing Dark Souls, or Dark Arisen, and we think about how we can give the player in for the long term something to overcome. We brought a Clan out to bang away at this [particular mission], and they couldn't beat it.
"Then you have the story," he continues. "This emotional resonance in the world to make you feel like you're an adventurer. You can forget about your 9-5. There's competitive multiplayer, there's Strikes... crack a beer, shoot some aliens, relax. Have fun. Laugh with your friends. That spectrum of stuff is what ends up being the hobby. That's where we find our relevance, our meaning. We want people to play longterm, to fall in love with a facet of it.
"There's definitely some distinct decisions we make. We know people won't like this, or we can't satisfy this particular audience, so we have to adhere to our pillars and say ‘this is what we're making, we can't be everything to everyone'."