Saturday, July 19, 2014

Destiny Beta Review, Or Why $500 Million Doesn't Necessarily Make a Good Game


Like many people, given all the hype surrounding Bungie's new game, Destiny, I had high expectations going into the game's beta test that began on Thursday. With the famed creators of the Halo series behind the wheel, $500,000,000 of funding, and Peter Dinklage's voice, how could the game be anything short of stellar? Unfortunately, it seems that Destiny is something less. Destiny is a well-constructed first person shooter with some mmorpg elements and novel mechanics thrown into the mix. But great it is not. In fact, to be perfectly honest, my overall experience of the beta was pretty bland. In what follows, I explain why.

But first, let's talk about what Destiny gets right, because the game certainly deserves some credit for its achievements.  

Destiny has one of the slickest interfaces I have every had the pleasure of navigating. Everything about it, from the way you move a cursor across the screen to the satisfying manner in which buttons highlight when you hover over them, makes the user feel like he or she is playing on a computer rather than a console. More significantly, the way the interface gently guides you through its various menus for upgrading, messaging, and equipment management is remarkably graceful. The interface lets you know what can be upgraded, what new equipment is available, and how much progress until your next level at a glance, without ever being burdensome. It's obvious that significant thought went into this part of the game and it should be a lesson other developers.

The shooting mechanics also deserve praise. Destiny's guns have real heft to them when being fired. Shots crackle and whiz through the air more impressively than in perhaps any other game today. Control is tight and refined, with the enemy A.I. helping to bring this into relief. Badies duck, cover, and jump around the arena, taking potshots and lobbing grenades at you from multiple angles. Whenever you take out one these foes with a well timed shot to the head, you really appreciate Bungie's expertise in this area.

As the sheen of these achievements fades away, however, Destiny's lack of ingenuity begins to show. As good at being an fps as Destiny is, it doesn't offer anything cohesive that transcends the limitations of the genre that have set in over the past twenty or so years.

Most disappointing are the role-playing mechanics. In Destiny, you level up by accruing XP gained in combat which in turn unlocks new abilities and power ups that make your character ever deadlier. This was something that really appealed to me going into the beta. What I found out, however, was that there wasn't much "role-playing" to this rpg mechanic. In most rpg's, the player makes decisions about allocating points into different stats, creating a unique character-build over time suited to his or her playstyle. Destiny doesn't go this route. Rather, character development in the game is largely automatic, with abilities and power-ups simply unlocking for your use. There's no real thought or design that goes into developing your character. And it's hard to become invested in this process as a result.

A similar point about a lack of immersion can be made regarding Destiny's mission design. What I had hoped for was a big, open world in which I could adventure, explore, meet other players, and quest, i.e., many gameplay loops intersecting each other at multiple points. Instead, Destiny's gameplay loop is much more singular. You choose a chapter to play and you are then transported to the map where it takes place. You then follow the waypoints set by your computer, called a "ghost," and fight enemies along the way until you reach your goal.

There's really nothing to distract you along the way during Destiny's missions, no intriguing ruins or towers in the distance to investigate, no strange creatures prowling about, or npc's asking for assistance. The process is instead highly linear, with you generally following the obvious path carved out for you by the designers. The one exception is the random events that take place on occasion, which are essentially timed challenges where you fight a shipment of enemies being dropped somewhere on the map. But it's so contrived (a big message flashes on the screen telling when it's happening) that I hesitate to call it anything more than a minor diversion.

The beta does have a "mission" option, titled "Explore," that invites the player to roam about the map. But here enters another problem: the world design is so bland and uninteresting that it doesn't provide any intrinsic motivation to venture out into it. Destiny doesn't really feel like a world as such, but a large multiplayer map with some loot scattered about. Some people will be fine with this and will be happy just to run around with other players shooting up various mobs as they spawn and respawn, but I myself like my game worlds to have a little more depth and range.

I think a better version of Destiny would have instead focused on crafting one, huge open-world that encouraged players to venture out and find things to do, people to meet, and mysteries to uncover. There would be towns scattered about where players would trade, re-equip, form parties, and plan adventures. It would be a less designer-centered experience, and more of a player-driven one, all lovingly-wrapped in the flawless fps mechanics and gameplay that Bungie has come to stand for.

I suppose I can't say I'm terribly surprised that Destiny has turned out the way it has. Given the immense financial investment that went into it, you might say it was almost inevitable that it would be a more straight-forward, linear action affair. "Accessibility" is the word here. Bungie and their publisher Activision need to sell a lot of copies of this game to recoup what they've spent on it. Sadly, for most game companies, this means appealing to the lowest common denominator. If a game is too intricate or too difficult to get into at the beginning, it risks alienating players and potential customers. For this reason, Bungie has made the game's level cap extremely unambitious (rumored to be at level 20). As their investiment lead, Tyson Greens said (as reported by Eurogamer): "We wanted levelling up and reaching a cap something you don't look at and say, 'well, that will take me weeks so therefore I can't play with my friends who are already at the level cap.'" No doubt Bungie came to a similar conclusion about making a more layered and intricate game.

It's a shame that game design today is ruled by such narrow thinking and that developers have so little faith in their audience's desire to be challenged in ways that go beyond traditional areas of effective combat. Destiny could have been something truly special. As it stands, at least from what the beta shows us, it is a solid first person shooter with pretensions that it doesn't live up to.



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