Destiny Beta Impressions

As a game, Destiny is a crazy blend of influences that reads something like a scattered mad scientist’s ingredient list, ranging from Halo and Borderlands, to Star Wars and MMOs like World of Warcraft. I pre-ordered based on my experience with Bungie’s past offerings, but I wasn’t all that enthused about playing ‘Borderlands: Call of Halo’. How could such grotesquerie appeal to anyone, no matter Bungie’s pedigree?

It turns out my fears were largely unfounded. Follows are my impressions more or less in sequential order.

Character Creation

warlockFiring up the Beta, I decided to go with the Warlock class as it felt like the freshest of the three options. At a glance, the Titan seemed to fill the Master Chief role, and the Hunter was out of consideration because I am terrible with sniper rifles. Just awful. Almost comically, except not funny.

The cosmetic end of character creation is very simple yet robust. I went with a light-blue tinged Awoken man with dark hair and blue markings on his face. There aren’t a ton of choices, but there’s enough customization to suit my tastes, and the system is snappy. Best of all – no accidental Skyrim-esque abominations.

I’ve Been Tyrion To Find You

The drone that finds and revives my desiccated corpse amidst the twisted, rusted-out hulks of steel is reminiscent of Guilty Spark. Only less annoying, and voiced by Peter Dinklage. I subsequently start to think of him as my own personal Guilty Tyrion. He’s a wonderful companion, a more physically-able version of Cortona, but he sounds incredibly bored. Or maybe that’s just Dinklage’s robot voice.

In any case, Guilty Tyrion mentions he’s been looking for me for some time and now he’s finally found me. Turns out I’ve been dead quite a while. I didn’t quite understand what made my dried husk so special. Was I an intergalactic space marine in a prior life? Seems doubtful, and no clues are given. I’m fine with there being some mystery around this Choosing, but the handling falls a bit flat. On the whole, it’s a kinda flimsy raison d’être. But there are General Grevious-styled villains afoot, so no time to ponder such vagaries. Onward.

First Things

Once the parking brake is removed and I have control of my avatar, I took a moment to slowly spin around, taking in the scenery. There was a cliff, just steps away, so I took a running leap. Is Destiny a game of invisible rails? As it happily turns out, not so much. Guilty Tyrion revitalized me back atop the cliff, as though my plummeting death was a bit of madness I’d only imagined.

First impression of the graphics: meh. It’s fine, really, there’s nothing overly wrong with the graphics, but they don’t blow up the edges of my skirt either. In all fairness, my initial reaction could have something to do with the landscape itself, a veritable wasteland of rust and dead scrub land. There’s only so much one can do to make brown look appealing. Later areas are more colorful and vibrant, and the use of light and shadow particularly is a thing of beauty.

My first weapon is an assault rifle. Wielding it feels like something between Halo and Call of Duty. In other words, it’s perfectly satisfactory.

Combat

Running, jumping, shooting, tossing nades at the boots of my foes – it’s all second nature after so many years of Halo. There’s always a brief period of disorientation and acclimation upon picking up a new shooter. The trigger’s function is obvious, but what about the face buttons? How do I sprint, and is duck on the menu? But here my fingers know exactly what steps to perform. It’s a nice, comforting feeling.

The radar acts like a threat detector, turning red at the points of the compass where enemies are afoot. Gone are the individual blips we knew and loved from Halo. I actually prefer the new system, as you don’t know how many enemies are out there, just that they are there. Unclear if it only lights up when it detects movement, or if it can just sense enemies at all times. I believe it’s the latter, but again, unclear.

Destiny Battleground

Picking up ammo, too, is different. Finding bullets in Halo usually amounted to gun-swapping with corpses, tossing aside empty weapons like candy wrappers. It was an economy built around waste, but Master Chief didn’t have time to look for recycle bins for his empties. In Destiny, your main gun conveniently utilizes the same ammunition as your enemies. Is it realistic? No, but it is environmentally sound!

As a complete aside, this begs the logical question – does humanity and its various foes actually wield the same weaponry? I picture a third-party manufacturer, sitting safely above the fray, supplying the combatants with the means of destruction and growing fat off the spoils. After all, humanity as we see it is on its last legs, clinging to existence on the detris of yesteryear, with no apparent capability to produce much of anything ourselves anymore. Presumably all of our manufacturing facilities have gone the way of Old Russia – broken and left to rust.

Or, being unable to make our own stuff, are we really just using weaponry salvaged from the cold corpses of aliens long ago? And, therefore, taking ammo from their bodies is a neat bit of circle-of-life symmetry?

Or does your Ghost – Guilty Tyrion, in my case – somehow harmonize the alien ammunition with the needs of the Guardian’s guns?

I recognize these are silly questions of no real merit, but world-building of such depth as is on display here naturally leads my mind to wondering about apparent gaps in the stitching. Not to point them out and laugh, but to assume there must be a reason, even if I must invent my own because none is given.

At any rate, my hungry rifle feeds on the leavings of my enemies and this is good.

Combat doesn’t quite reach the heights of Halo, and the fault lies with the enemy AI. Foes are content to stand in open areas returning fire, or to duck into and out of cover in completely predictable patterns. Once, I came within a dozen steps of an enemy and he just stood there, staring off, thinking deep thoughts. Probably wondering if he remembered to turn the oven off or lock the door, or maybe pondering the ammo cunundrum. I’m not overly concerned as there’s plenty of time for Bungie to tighten the AI prior to launch. But the weak AI does make the early firefights fairly ho-hum. In fairness, later battles do get tougher because the enemies are a higher level, but I don’t recall seeing much in the way of tactics at any point, unless you consider a larger health bar a strategy.

Something must be said for the Warlock’s melee attack, a burst of blue-white energy from my fingertips. It’s a Force Push on steroids. Starkiller’s got nothing on this. Sometimes multiple enemies get caught in the blast. I never tire of watching foes topple lifelessly end-over-end.

You Got Some RPG in my FPS

Destiny (with_characters)At first, it’s a little odd seeing the enemy’s level and their health meter floating over their head because, as established, gameplay feels much like Halo. Much like Borderlands, the mechanic is a nice way to indicate foes from which you’d be better served fleeing, or at least handling with care. After a while, I mostly stopped noticing the yellow digits. I wonder if there is an in-game explanation for the numbers, like Guilty Tyrion is overlaying it on my HUD or something.

Another obvious place Borderland’s DNA is visible is the presence of loot crates. I pulled a shotgun from the first crate I encountered, which I promptly slapped onto my back and forgot about. There’s nothing wrong about it, per se, but when the melee attack is so amazeballs, and the assault rifle is an equal-opportunity killer, I lacked a problem for which the shottie was the ideal tool.

Also, as a warning – there is no pausing the action. Which makes sense once you come to think of it as a persistent multiplayer shooter. But I was a bit surprised when I tried to pause in a fight and they kept shooting me. These enemies have no concept of fair play, or what a time-out means. You have been warned.

The Tower is the one place that feels the most MMO-like. The camera pulls back into 3rd-Person, and now I can see my carefully crafted dude as he runs and jumps about. It’s hard to get a gauge for how many players a single instance of the Tower can maintain, but it feels like a few dozen at least. No area is ever empty. People randomly dart about, jump around like their pants are on fire, or stand statuesque for long periods of time. Yes, this feels like an MMO.

Talking to the NPCs is a bit unwieldy. It puts you into a menu-like screen with the NPC’s picture, things you can buy from them, and (sometimes) quests you can undertake. It’s a bit awkward on the whole, and there are things like Reputation listed on this screen. “What is that” and “how do I get some” are questions not answered. Whatever. Another time, then.

While visiting the Tower between missions to claim some rewards, I discover that I’ve unlocked some new equipment along the way, somehow without my knowing. I had four different chest pieces, several gauntlets, a pair of helmets, and three sets of boots. Also a new gun. Most likely I missed the on-screen prompts that I found cool loot, but I’m beginning to suspect my avatar is some type of kleptomaniac, picking up stuff and stuffing them into his trousers.

Character progression is tracked by player level, which spurs the purchase of unlockables unique to one’s class. There’s no choice in what you unlock early on. My first unlockables are a neat Vortex Grenade that pulls enemies into a pulsing purple singularity, and a Glide ability that allows me to soar high above and rain death on the enemies scurrying below like insects.

Boss Battles. Or, Here – Look Behind the Curtain

Boss fights are signaled rather abruptly with a warning ‘There are no respawns in this area’. Which is a bit like playing poker and telling everyone you have a full house. Why rob players of the opportunity to come to this knowledge first-hand? Telegraphing of this nature drains away the drama of running face-first into a hulking bruiser ready to gnash bones. Given such forewarning, I can’t help but slow down and play carefully for no reason other than I’d been warned to play that way.

Such a feature might be a mainstay of MMO gameplay, but it feels completely out of place in a shooter. And despite the RPG and MMO trappings, Destiny is first and foremost an FPS. It’s inclusion here is odd, is what I’m saying.

The first boss is battle of attrition. He sends waves of lesser foes against me but mostly is content to hang back. The boss’s shields are not insubstantial, and the assault rifle is slow to removing it. Master Chief handled situations like this by charging forward and laying fiends low with his shotgun, and so I do likewise, thinking perhaps I’ve discovered how to use the weapon. Only this boss has played Halo, too. He slams the ground, dropping my health to a tiny sliver. I hide, recover my strength, and try again, thinking he must’ve gotten lucky the first time. Nope. Close combat is off the table. Bummer.

The shotgun is returned to my back to collect and catalog dust.

The World

Discovering my own personal starship was an early highlight, even if it’s nerfed. No hyperdrive, not yet anyway, but Guilty Tyrion assures me we’ll find one. Exciting! But, even more crushingly, there’s no option to take the ship off autopilot. I really, really want to fly this thing. Going into the Beta, I knew this wasn’t a thing one could do even in the final retail version, but I can’t restrain myself from wishing I could take the controls and dart around the skies. Hopefully Destiny 2 will deliver player-controlled aircraft, and maybe even space combat.

Levels feel HUGE. I know there is a point somewhere where, if not invisible walls, then gaping chasms await to curtail further movement, but the distant hills call to me. I spend manyDestiny Screen hours blatantly going in the opposite direction from the objective marker, kicking over figurative rocks and seeing what crawls out from underneath. At some point, perhaps while checking behind a waterfall for hidden caves, I realize that I’m playing an FPS like an RPG. I take that as a win for Destiny.

Danger lurks off the beaten path. On more than one occasion, delving into dark abandoned railway stations or into dark caverns hidden by brush, I encounter enemies I am not prepared to face. Perhaps the level indicator, now red and listed as ??, should have been a clue, but I rush in. The uber enemies laugh in the face of my rifle’s inconsequential hail-fire, and shrug aside the brunt of my melee as a giant flicks aside the fly. They squash me in one shot.

Morale of the story – avoid enemies whose level shows as ??. Also, dark places.

You get bits of story lore as you play, mostly delivered by Guilty Tyrion, but sometimes from NPCs at Guardian Central (aka, The Tower). The Universe feels rich and fully fleshed out. I’m getting strong Mass Effect vibes, but Star Wars is coming through too. Mixed with the post-apocalyptic setting, the concoction makes for a heady, addictive brew. I’m already more interested in this Universe than I ever was in the Halo one. High praise, and I’m even a Halo nut.

Subsequent levels revisit the same area each time. At first blush, this seems like lazy level design, but then you realize (again) just how huge the levels are, and you no longer care. Doors that were locked previously now lay open, and the horizons seem pushed back.

Random events work as advertised, but that feels like selling it short. These are like ad hoc waves from Halo’s FireFight mode dropped in the middle of a campaign level. As I climbed a huge hill toward a dilapidated radar tower, a massive starship punched into the atmosphere, discharging drop-pods like seedlings. I rushed to clear the three landing spots, joining forces with another Guardian. We made short work of the enemies and then went our separate ways. It was a fun diversion, a chance to work together against a common foe, but we both had pressing matters to attend to.

The use of light and shadow is incredible, and at times, creepy. The underground segments really highlight its effectiveness, and it is in those claustrophobic depths that the game’s horror element finally reveals it’s dark face. In one stand-out moment, you enter an abandoned facility overgrown with strange-looking fungi. Guilty Tyrion is jabbering about the Fallen. And I think, ‘Please – I’ve stood against the horrors of the Flood. They’re gonna be fallin’ alright’.

Despite the bravado, I creep forward, rifle haphazardly sweeping the area. The motion detector is dead quiet, but I know something lurks in the black ahead, behind my meager circle of light.

There is a screech, and then they come, boiling down the walls and crawling out of openings. Guilty Tyrion is shouting something, but I can’t make sense of the words. My assault rifle answers the Fallen’s charge, but they are many. The shadows boil with movement. It feels like there must be hundreds of them, all clambering for my hot blood. Reloading, I back into a corner. I’m trapped. I melee a trio of Fallen aside, but more fill the gap, and then I am dead.

Upon retry, I utilize the vortex grenade to soften them up and then switch to the shottie to finish them once close. And now I come to understand the shotgun’s true purpose. I rename it Foe-Hammer, the Fallen-Smasher.

Final Thoughts

I only reached level 5 before exhausting my supply of free time, leaving much of the content unexplored. I never participated in a Fireteam. I didn’t partake in the PvP madness. I didn’t even get on at the same time as a friend to tackle challenges together. It doesn’t matter, I’ve seen enough, and I like what I’m seeing.

There are some uneven bits. Some, like the enemy AI, will likely be addressed prior to launch. But something like warning players of a no-respawn zone (and therefore signaling a boss fight) seems like a feature and I anticipate that will remain in the final copy, sadly.

Destiny is a thrilling adventure, at once familiar and refreshingly new. And, like the best sci-fi, it is an invitation to explore, to marvel, to dream.

September 9th can’t come soon enough.

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