Destiny was a promise. Made by Bungie, a studio known for creating the Halo franchise (a.k.a. the reason to buy the first Xbox) and funded from the deep pockets of Activision, it was supposed to change the way I played video games. And for a while, it did.
They called it a shared-world shooter. They said there would be guns (lots of guns) and space magic and discovery. There were other hooks laid out, too, baited well with tasty tropes. Warring factions. Alien gods. Undead warriors chosen by a mystical force. Whispered lore about the golden age of humanity, and the dark age that followed.
It was the promise of Bungie itself that sold me most of all, though. Halo was a game I experienced in fleeting measures through middle school and high school. Dragged along to a LAN party with my older brother, feeling out of place. Playing all-night on a summer visit to my cousins’ house. Watching Let’s Plays of the main campaign on a dull weekend.
They said that Destiny was the game they had always wanted to make, and I don’t doubt them. To me, it was my chance to own Halo’s rightful successor, to play to my heart’s content.
But contentment is a hard-fought achievement in Destiny, and it is hardly preordained.
Destiny was released in September of 2014 after a year’s delay. Much later, news would break about the game’s troubled development that led to its lackluster launch state, but at the time, there was only the marketing to go off of. The reported $500 million budget from Activision included widespread advertising, including a live-action TV spot featuring “Immigrant Song” that aired during football games, among other things.
I picked up the game on day one, my expectations intact. What I ended up playing was an immensely well-tuned first-person shooter with both Player vs. Enemy and Player vs. Player interactions. All it was really missing was a soul.
The breathtaking set pieces like the Hellmouth or Olympus Mons couldn’t hide the empty and stagnant environments. Big name voice talents like Nathan Fillion and Peter Dinklage couldn’t bring to life the uninspired characters. Exquisitely crafted lore buried in out-of-game grimoire cards didn’t give way to a compelling story.
The game’s twenty story missions dead-ended in an endgame that left it unclear how to progress, with nothing more than a planetary map that was smaller than I was led to expect. Contrary to opening up the whole galaxy for me to explore the remnants of human expansion, I was looking at just three planets and the Moon.
From a single player’s perspective, there was nowhere to go but up. It just took me a while to catch on.
Destiny: The Taken King was a dramatic improvement. It came out a year and a week after the launch of the base game. Many players joked that we had been beta-testing the real Destiny for the past year, and it really was like jumping into a completely different game as far as organization goes.
Now there were actual quests with ordered steps to progress through. The story made sense, and even featured characters who had been given new purpose and personality. When the bad guy fell down at the end of the last mission, the question was no longer “Now what?” but “What first?”
Also there were swords now in addition to guns. It’s a law of video games that the only thing better than guns and magic are swords (magic swords, even).
This expansion was a revitalization the game desperately needed, drawing in new and old players alike. However it was especially sweet for people like me who never left.
Destiny is not a single player game. It may surprise you, as it surprises me, that I played it for four months entirely on my own.
I’ll backstep enough to say that’s not entirely true. I had one friend who was playing at the start, but he only lasted about three weeks before moving on to other games. And the truth is, you can’t be completely alone in the world of the game.
It’s designed to put other players into your path. Different instances of the environment can support up to twenty guardians – your character’s role – at a time, so while out on patrol you might run across a stranger or two. Certain activities would also put you into a team via matchmaking, and of course this is how PvP works (traditional deathmatch modes, and so on).
What I mean is that no one was ever in my fireteam. All of my work to liberate the solar system from the agents of The Darkness (yes, that’s what they came up with as a name for the disparate alien forces laying siege to Earth) was carried out by my lonesome.
Destiny feels incredible to play. It’s difficult to express how important that is to the experience. You play as one of three classes, either a Hunter, a Titan, or a Warlock (and the game gives you three character slots so you can make one of each). You use the same weapons in the same ways regardless, but each class has their own special abilities: a grenade, a melee, and a super attack.
You haven’t lived until you’ve unloaded a full salvo from your lightning-flavored revolver into the weak-point of a pack of teleporting robots. That’s just another day in this game. Maybe you prefer a pulse rifle, taking down towering space turtles via burst fire. You might like getting up close and personal with an automatic shotgun shaped like an elephant rifle, or perhaps you’d rather stay back a mile away, perched on a rocky outcrop and popping heads with a sniper rifle that turns you invisible.
It’s not just that the weapons are effective at taking down enemies. It has everything to do with the feedback of the guns themselves. The way the controller rumbles. The detail of the reload animation. The sound a gun makes as you fire, hear the report, and then see the enemy alien’s helmet explode.
Great gunplay has to be supported by excellent movement systems, and that’s also present. Most often I’m gliding through the air, hovering from platform to platform as my Warlock, but you can also skate along the ground with low-altitude jetpack as a Titan. There are some Hunters and Warlocks that can even do a short-range teleport, blinking from point to point.
But of course every guardian lives for the ten seconds in which they are supercharged. Hordes of enemies fall as I dance around them, shooting lightning from my fingertips. They’re helpless when a Titan rounds a corner wielding molten hammers that explode on impact.
All of this I tell you so that you might understand how I could sign into this game every day after work and accomplish seemingly mundane tasks like daily bounties, a daily story mission, a weekly strike. It was repetitive, all part of a set routine, but, critically, repetition in Destiny is satisfying.
For a time.
Destiny is a social game. That was always the intention. In the earliest demos, Bungie emphasized the importance of having a team to play with, and it was quickly obvious why.
As fun as it can be in its basic game modes, the most challenging, the most rewarding, and frankly the best all-around pieces of Destiny do not support matchmaking. I’m referring primarily to the raids, but there’s a 3 vs. 3 multiplayer mode that also declines to build a team for you.
A raid in Destiny is a six-man cooperative effort fighting through waves of enemies, solving puzzles, traversing platforming challenges, and taking down giant boss monsters. As one example, consider Crota’s End:
You and your fireteam drop down into an abyss and pass through a keyhole in space into the throne world of a Hive demi-god: Crota, Son of Oryx. He is a 12-foot tall knight shrouded in sickly green flames, and he can only be wounded by one of his own swords. To defeat him five members of the team work together to distract him and his minions, while one of your number steals the sword and attacks during a slim window of vulnerability. Crota also casts a debuff on your entire party that prevents your health from regenerating, and if a single player dies, he summons a miniature sun that will explode within seconds, wiping out the rest of the team.
That’s considered the weakest of Destiny’s three raids.
As with the other two raids, that experience – along with the weapons, armor, and other rewards reaped from it – are out of reach of the average player. Without friends to play with, you’re missing out on the most fun you can have in this game.
Bungie’s decision to force you to put a team together to complete these activities is a good one. The activities require too much coordination to complete with a random selection of people who probably aren’t using voice chat to communicate. They also take time to complete, about an hour on average if everyone knows what they’re doing, so you want to go in with people who are fully committed.
Still, most people don’t have five friends who all have the same console and all have their own copy of a game, so it was necessary for resourceful Destiny players to create Looking For Group (LFG) sites.
That’s how I eventually joined up with the guys in my clan. Calling it a clan probably gives off the impression that we’re more organized than we really are, as true clans have dozens of members and adhere to an actual schedule. Our group just uses the clan feature on Bungie’s website to communicate, but clan is still a nice designation for a small collective of reasonable guys trying to get the most out of a video game.
Destiny is a circle. By finding other people to play the game with, I broke out of one in-game routine and fell into another. Every Tuesday, the game “resets.” All the activities you completed the week before can now be run again with a new chance to get loot.
This is a system cribbed from Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games that require subscription fees and are thus benefitted by slow progression. If a player could complete an activity over and over in a single night with an equal chance to get the weapon he wanted each time, he would no doubt get what he was after before the end of the weekend. In a similar fashion, he might get all the items he wanted, reach the highest level, and otherwise exhaust all that a game could offer him in just a few weeks. He might then go play another video game.
Destiny is “not an MMO,” but like MMOs that have come before it, it plays like a treadmill, constantly dangling its most sought-after rewards on a stick for the player to chase after. After completing a raid, or a strike, or a multiplayer match, the game then decides whether it should give the player the item they want by rolling dice. This is another tactic used to slow progression, using an exceptionally fickle random number generator to determine which rewards drop.
All of this is because this franchise is set to extend over the next ten years. The game will keep growing, either via sequels or expansions, and when those release, Activision would like for players to keep buying them. They want those players to convince their friends to play and buy them, too.
Bungie wants people to stick with the franchise because it’s their baby. They’ve worked hard for years to make this game, and they know it isn’t perfect, but every update they make is an attempted improvement. It’s also each developer’s livelihood, and it takes more than the satisfaction of a positive review to put food on the table.
When you play Destiny, your goal might be to get the special sniper rifle that drops from a certain raid boss, or it might be to collect every exotic-tier item in the game.
Destiny’s goal is to make you play more Destiny.
“William, this doesn’t sound like your kind of game,” you might say. “I thought you played games with a great story. I thought you loved well-wrought universes. I thought you enjoyed games with a conclusion, an endpoint that lets you know when you can move on to another game.”
You’re not wrong. But I also love a game called Super Smash Bros.
Smash has no end point. It has not clearly defined system of progression other than how close you get to winning the next match. There’s no depth to its story, but you get to weave your own with every blow you land and every rivalry you form. I even enjoy watching it played at a higher level, a professional level that I won’t ever achieve.
It all goes back to gameplay. It’s the defining aspect of the medium, and it’s what the final verdict on any game must be based on. Story, characters, music, even a sense of accomplishment after achieving some goal are not unique to games, but the actual feeling you get from playing it is.
It’s a broad area of discussion, too. Gameplay is shooting aliens in Destiny. It’s knocking an opponent off the stage in Smash. It’s choosing dialogue options. It’s going on sidequests. It’s planning your next move, and the move after that, and the move after that.
It is what translates most directly to how much fun you have.
According to wastedondestiny.com, I have spent 1050 hours playing Destiny. I can tell you I didn’t put that much time in over the course of the past 18 months because I was trying to collect all the guns in the game or get all my characters to the highest level. The only reason I would put that much time into any game is if I was enjoying myself.
My goal in Destiny is to have fun. Whatever in-game progress I made is ancillary to the reward of playing, and they aren’t representative of my return on investment. That’s true of any game. If playing a game isn’t a reward in and of itself, that says one of two things: either the game isn’t meant for you, or you aren’t meant for the game.
I haven’t played Destiny in two months. I’ve had more fun in that time experiencing other games than I would have continuing to play through the same circular routine. By now I’ve destroyed Atheon in the Vault of Glass dozens of times. I’ve defeated Oryx, Crota’s father, and sent his remains out to drift among Saturn’s rings.
But until recently, I had never infiltrated the Soviet Union to destroy a tank capable of ending the Cold War. I’ve never walked the streets of Yharnam, or uncovered the mysteries of an abandoned island dotted with mazes.
The promise of another update to Destiny is always on the horizon, but for now, I’m having fun playing other games. I think games, like movies or music, are something best experienced broadly. The more you play, the richer you are.
Still, there’s something to be said about that album you can always put on when you want to smile, or that book you can crack open and get swept away instantly. It’s like that spot on the couch at home, the one that still conforms to your shape no matter how long you spend away. It’s a comfort to know that games like that exist for me, and I’ve come to think of Destiny as one of them.
Just remember, there’s always a choice.