It’s unfair to judge a game’s ability to live up to the hype, so I’ll go to great lengths in this Destiny review to not fall into that trap. Destiny is Bungie’s first non-Halo game since the launch of the first Xbox. It’s a new franchise Activision committed to supporting well into the next decade. And it’s Bungie’s first multiplatform title since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Expectations were predictably sky high. But let’s put those aside for a moment and judge the game based on its merits alone.
Destiny is fun but not fantastic. Even if it hadn’t been developed by Bungie, the similarities to Halo are unmistakable. Even if it hadn’t been published by Activision, the elements borrowed from Call of Duty are undeniable. Those are both stellar franchises, but we’ve played them for years now and know the formula. Destiny does introduce some cool new aspects, but the game overall feels like a mix of disparate parts.
In a documentary about the first Halo, one Bungie staffer said they strived to re-create the same short but excellent gameplay scenario in slight variations for an entire game. When it worked, it worked well. When it didn’t, we got the Library: long, endless backtracking through halls either populated with the same enemy or completely devoid of artificial life.
I stopped counting the number of times Destiny seemed to string together Library after Library under the guise of a new planet with new topographies and color schemes. It’s not just that the missions are structured so similarly, nor is it just that they feel so linear. It’s that their linearity takes place in canyons and caves separated by what seems like miles, compelling you to activate your personal vehicle just to speed the process along. I’d like to think this was a tactic to “hide” level caching, but Destiny has no problem owning up to its excruciating load times between missions, so that can’t be it.
Though the religious undertones, enemy types and weapons all bear a striking resemblance to Halo, Destiny takes a page straight from the Call of Duty playbook for enemy respawns. I’ve never been a fan of enemies spawning simply because you took your time to clear out a level. In the COD games you’ll never get a break until you pass certain markers. I personally think that’s pretty cheap.
In Destiny it’s more of a time-based thing, but it’s incredibly frustrating to defeat a slew of high-level enemies and then take your time scavenging for munitions, only to then have that same phalanx of baddies respawn out of thin air or rocks, leaving you right back where you started.
Bungie likely went this route because ultimately, Destiny isn’t really about the single-player campaign. There certainly is a story, but Destiny is at its heart an open-world game built for multiplayer experiences. Having repeating waves of enemies is a great way to give your three-person team more chances to earn XP and glimmer (the game’s currency). It doesn’t work as well or feel as natural in the Solo affair, but Destiny is designed to be played with friends. And friends generally like to defeat an onslaught of respawning foes.
Even if you don’t play with your own friends, Destiny offers thousands of new friends to play with. Almost an “MMO lite,” Destiny presents missions on massive worlds where other players of different experience levels are re-visiting either by choice or because the game recycles locations. You see these players’ avatars in “your” game, and you can either ignore them completely or choose to assist with one another’s enemy encounters.
Bungie also populates the planets with various random social events (e.g. defense missions) that you can choose to play with strangers or ignore. I personally find it fun to tackle huge enemies with strangers, though it does seem odd that few players — even in the traditional Crucible multiplayer levels — seem to be using headsets to communicate.
In some ways Destiny tries to be all things to all people. There’s a story there, but I can only hope it’s more fleshed-out and more closely tied together in subsequent games. There’s a single-player component, but the game’s clearly optimized for multiplayer. There are RPG elements such as leveling-up, looting, upgrading, and improving skills based on how you use them — but it’s nowhere near the depth of a Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls. Bungie tackles a lot of gameplay mechanics with Destiny, but the game never really “owns” or “masters” any single one of them.
I could nitpick the game for not having good enemy AI until you hit Level 12. I could complain that it doesn’t really open up until you reach Level 20. I could ding Destiny for yanking players back into space and its long-ass load times after each mission rather than letting us continue to play on the surface of the planet. But I won’t. Those are things that can be ironed out via patches and/or in the sequel, and I fully expect that they will be. Instead, my Destiny review is based on one thing alone: its fun factor.
And Destiny is fun. If it had been developed by any other studio, I would consider it largely a “me too” borrowing elements from other popular franchises and mashing them into one. In that sense, other than its MMO lite elements, Destiny doesn’t seem particularly fresh. That’s not to say it’s stale, just that it’s not a groundbreaking game-of-the-year experience. But it’s still fun. I’ve enjoyed my time in the Destiny universe, and I look forward to my next trip back. But it’s not like its sci-fi adventure is something I can’t stop thinking about, nor are its levels anything that compel me to replay them over and over again.
Score: 8 — The gameplay elements are done well, but they borrow heavily from other games and seldom feel like a cohesive experience. Bungie does deserve kudos for the game’s social aspects, though its overall storytelling with Destiny seems surprisingly thin compared to the studio’s other work.
Platform reviewed: Xbox One. Also available on PS4, Xbox 360 and PS3. Review copy of the game provided by Activision.