We've covered Destiny from three different perspectives in recent weeks. First was the hands-on at Bungie's offices, where we got a tantalising glimpse of the game and the studio gave us an overview of the different features that are coming to their shared-world shooter. This was followed by a closer inspection of the single-player and co-op elements of the game, sampled via a pre-E3 build that allowed us more time to investigate the hub world and the one map that was included along with it, Old Russia. Then, more recently, we collected together some gameplay footage and screens, and took you on a visual tour of the game as it is so far.
What we weren't able to do during the first two previews was play the PvP multiplayer (and we only touched on it in the third feature), simply because the player-count was so low pre-E3 that no matter how long we waited, there wasn't enough numbers for a game.
That has since changed thanks to the early access build of the game that was made widely available to PlayStation 4 gamers. There was enough willing bodies to rustle up an endless procession of matches, and as such we spent a considerable amount of time playing the domination-based Control mode (the solitary playlist available) on the two maps - Rusted Lands and First Light - that were offered up for testing.
There were three classes available, and we used the opportunity provided here to hit the level cap for each of them, so we could get a better idea of how they played after an extended period of time. After this introductory period it's fair to say that there's a distinct difference between the classes, but it's not as pronounced as it will be. We spread our time across all three classes, and each was capped at level eight, so we were unable to sample some of the high level gear and didn't have time to unlock some of the better skills and abilities. That meant it was the supers that really set the classes apart at this early stage.
We'd played a lot as a Warlock already, enjoying the nova bomb super that sees a pulsing purple orb of death flung forwards at opponents via a simultaneous tap of L1 and R1 on the DualShock 4. There's also a vortex grenade that lingers once thrown (again pulsating and purple), depleting enemy health bars if they stray too close before it dissipates. Both super and grenade are on a timer, so you can't spam these powerful attacks.
Once it has been unlocked, you can also activate a special gliding jump, activated via a second press of the X button. It's more nuanced than just a simple glide; time it just right and activate while you're rising and it'll carry you up and away, but should you press it after you've started to descend from the initial jump, you'll follow your current trajectory back down to the ground.
However, having played plenty with the Warlock, and knowing that we liked it very much, we pushed ourselves in the direction of the other classes - Titan and Hunter - to see what they were like. What we found was a Titan class that we didn't take to so easily, and a Hunter class that may well become our preferred option looking forward. When it comes to supers, the Hunter has a charged Hulk-smash called fist of havoc that can decimate groups of clustered enemies, and is equally effective against vehicles that are caught in the blast. It works really well in Control, where it often happens that multiple opponents will assemble around a flag as they capture the zones needed to dominate the map and thus win the game.
The Hunter, on the other hand, has the golden gun, a move that sees him/her charge a flaming pistol that, for a short time, becomes a one-shot game changer. We found the Titan's ground-smash very hard to target effectively (although others didn't seem to have the same problem when directing it at us), but the flaming pistol is certainly an appealing trick that we found to be incredibly effective when used at the right time.
The other reason we loved the Hunter class was the double jump. The Titan had a similar jump move to the Warlock, which meant gliding between platforms and up to ledges. The Hunter's double jump doesn't have quite the same range (or maybe it does and it just feels shorter), but it offers a smidgen more responsiveness that we appreciated on more than one occasion.
In fact, the mobility of the Guardians is all vaguely reminiscent of the way Pilots move in Titanfall and the way the jetpacks changed player-movement when Bungie introduced them in Halo: Reach. There's also a nice little slide that can be used at appropriate moments, that made us remember Far Cry 3, though we definitely need to practice with that some more. We like this new direction being ushered in by the giants of the sci-fi shooter space. Increased movement ultimately means more tactical options, and shooters that offer the player a more traditional gait are starting to feel like the old-guard.
Grenades are another thing that set the different classes apart. Our favourite, the Warlock's vortex grenade, we found much more effective than the Titan's flash bang, which blinded us more than times than it did our enemies. The Hunter's incendiary grenade was a more effective tool, but neither offered us what felt like the same level of tactical variety as the Warlock's offering. However, we only sampled enough to unlock one of the subsequent upgrades for one of the different classes; the Warlock's scatter grenade (which ultimately we didn't like enough to keep and so reverted back). Over time the Hunter can upgrade to a swarm grenade that unleashes a wave of drones, or a trip mine. The Titan can leave the flash bang behind in favour of a pulse grenade and later there's a grenade of the sticky variety.
Beyond that there's the melee attacks for added differentiation. Warlocks can unleash a powerful energy drain attack that can be devastating (although, if memory serves, it can't be used with the same frequency as the other melee attacks), while the Titan has a more straightforward punch (the brilliantly named storm fist). The Hunter takes a blade to this gunfight, and after a while can unlock a throwing knife that gives the melee button a little range.
Playing more levels up each of these skills, unlocking different options than can be switched between. You also feed into passive skills, such as increased speed and picking up more ammo. There's a clear line dividing the different classes even at this early stage, and while they don't change massively at first, given the wealth of options ahead of each player, there's a huge number of ways that a different build could diverge, especially when you factor in armour and weapons.
Guns and equipment can be grabbed in the campaign, or purchased using glimmer earned across the whole game. There's plenty of options, and we really like the arsenal that's at every player's disposal. Across all three classes we gravitated towards the scout rifle, a precision weapon vaguely reminiscent of the DMR that Bungie threw into the mix in Halo: Reach. On top of that there's the fusion rifle, a sort of energy shotgun that takes a little charging, but is devastatingly powerful when it connects. There's also more traditional weapons; snipers, shotguns, pistols (hand cannons) and auto-rifles. Each handles differently, and can be upgraded regularly - your weapon's effectiveness therefore increasing with your own.
Unlike previous Bungie games there's a third way. Bound to one of the face buttons, through an extended button press you can bring up a heavy weapon (if you've found or bought one from a vendor, that is). Ammo for these powerful guns is scarce, dropped at select times during a multiplayer match, which is probably a good thing considering how devastating they are in the right hands. We had different heavies for different classes. With the Titan we played with a rocket launcher that is as powerful as it sounds, and as the Warlock and Hunter we rolled into combat with a machine gun that took just a handful of connecting hits to take down an enemy.
There's other things that you can buy in the Tower (the hub) that'll improve your chances and/or change your experience on the battlefield. Armour is the most obvious, but you can also tinker with your appearance and emblems, and even grab a different spaceship to accompany you during the loading screens between fights. Beyond the cosmetic, there's Bounty missions that you can accept, tasking you with achieving certain objectives and rewarding you for doing so. Destiny looks like it's going to be a tinkerer's dream and a massive time sink.
Finding out about the strengths and weaknesses of the different classes took place in Old Russia, and later via a solitary mode played across the two aforementioned maps. This mode - Control - places three capture points down that must be taken, all while opposing players are (hopefully) sent to the restart screen.
First Light, set on the moon, is a little bit bigger than Rusted Lands, and as such there's light vehicles - Interceptors and Pikes - available to both teams, offering additional mobility. As is the Bungie way, there's turrets on hand to take them down, and they're also susceptible to sniper fire. The Pikes have great speed and can whip around corners with ease, while the Interceptors are slower, with a shorter boost, and they're much broader in the body. They make up for this handicap with rockets that make short work of prospective targets. As it has been since the early days on Halo, a team that works the vehicles well will likely be in the ascendency for much of the game, so in the medium and large maps, it's going to be imperative that teams maintain control of their own vehicles and use them to good effect.
When on foot, First Light offers a variety of vantage points for snipers, and outlaying areas suitable from ambushes. Given the game mode, action tended to gravitate towards the middle of the map, with the hottest spots being the areas directly around the three capture points. There's tunnels that run underground and a broken dome that catches the eye in the map's centre, and all told it was a great showpiece for Bungie are trying to do with Destiny.
Rusted Lands is a different proposition altogether. Broken walls divide up the level into smaller compartments. There's still three objectives to capture, but they're much closer together. Traversal and mastery of your character's movements is key, almost as much as a steady aim. There's some lovely particle effects in the level, and although they get largely ignored during the more furious exchanges of gunfire, the aesthetic of the whole is wonderfully constructed. It's as familiar as it is alien, with remnants of humanity's fall juxtaposed with evidence of the alien threat. The artists look like they've done a cracking job with the different maps and we can't wait to see more.
So far, so gushing. But is there anything we didn't like or thought that could be better? Well, our main worry comes down to matchmaking and game balancing. We're not really worried though, because Bungie's matchmaking has always been best-in-class, and there's no reason to think that they won't continue that trend. But, they're still going to have to make sure that they do a top notch job here. With players bringing their own loadouts into battle, it's going to be important that skill levels match up very closely, because not only will an able and experienced player be clever with their trigger finger, but they'll also have levelled-up equipment that less-experienced players won't have. As long as there's finely balanced matchmaking, Destiny's PvP looks like it'll be great fun, but it's going to take a while out in the wild before we can say with certainty that it's just as balanced and perfectly poised as Bungie's Halo games were.
We're hopeful. Hopeful that the small gameplay slice that we've seen can translate into an equally impressive overall package. There's sure to be some people that don't enjoy the new direction; purists who still look back wistfully to Halo 2 and Halo 3 as the glory days that will never be bettered, or even those more conditioned to the pace of a CoD-eqsue shooter. We're not among them, and we can't wait for the beta in July, while the full release in September seems like ever such a long way away. From what we've seen so far, Destiny is the next step for a studio still at the top of their game. Halo 4 might have been sequel to Bungie's last game, but Destiny looks like it's going to be the real evolutionary leap forward in the sci-fi shooter space. If you can't tell, we can't wait.