Hands-On: Destiny Is Too Polished To Be In Its Alpha Phase
Destiny being playable so soon was a nice surprise by Sony surprised at E3 when they announced the alpha for PS4 this past weekend. Many of us were giddy like school girls to get our keys and jump right into the action. After an initial download of around six to seven gigabytes, it was time to jump into the online world of Bungie’s new shooter, and see what it’s made of. Just keep in mind that this is the very game that Activision is reportedly spending $500 million on all inclusive, and it needs to sell around 15-16 million units to just break even, which prompted a big discussion among us back in early May. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that there is a hell of a lot riding on Destiny, and all of it will depend on its ability to attract players for a long term investment.
With the introductions out of the way, the quickest and easiest way to describe Destiny to you would be to say that it’s a healthy cross between Borderlands and Halo. However, the latter comes in mostly with the competitive multiplayer mode, while the main experience is like an MMO Borderlands, with other players running freely around for you to interact with, invite to your fireteam or ignore. That right there is the heart of Destiny, as you can pretty much go on your own, form a team to fight against difficult bosses or watch your back, or just interact with other players as some of them may aid you against a mutual threat even if they’re not directly in your team. This social MMO aspect is the primary selling point of Destiny, and it’s easy to tell from the alpha already that Bungie knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to crafting a connected and fun game that may remind you a ton of Halo and Borderlands, but can very well exist with its own identity in tact. That’s a big plus right there.
When you start out the game you’ll get to create your own character, and the good news is that you can make more than one and, like a typical MMO, log out and swap whenever you feel like to keep things fresh. There are three classes in the game, namely Titan, Hunter and Warlock. Each class has its own abilities and super move, as well as its own unique set of equipment and playing styles. Of course the Titan is the tank who is best in close quarters combat, the Hunter is lethal but not the most durable and is best causing plenty of damage to one unit, and the Warlock is your spell caster who works best in a team and can inflict a ton of damage, but is squishy. There are also three races in the game, namely Human, Awoken (they look a bit like characters from Avatar, except sexier) and Exo, which are my favourite, as they’re like robot terminators. So far I can’t tell what the differences in race are with regards to gameplay, if any exist, because no matter your class or race you start out the same place with the same weapons in the alpha, and I’m not sure how it will be in the full game. I would certainly hope that there’s more variety between them though, otherwise longevity may suffer.
The gameplay is quite simple and doesn’t require much by means of explanation. Again, think Halo and Borderlands. Aside from your firearms and armour, each class has a ‘grenade’ skill and a secondary ability, as well as a super move which cools down over a long period of time and charges up more quickly the more you kill things. The Titanclass’ super move hits the ground with a huge blast that wipes out everything in the area, the Hunter summons a flaming revolver that gets limited ammo but decimates whatever it hits, and the Warlock unleashes a giant nova blast that destroys everything in a wide area. The skill trees indicate that you’ll unlock another super and more moves as you level up in the full game, while some skills will have alternate functions. For example, the grenade ability can unlock a cluster skill, where if you choose it your grenade will split into multiple parts with lesser damage. The gameplay is solid and entertaining, but works best with a group.
If you’re in a fireteam, you’ll pretty much go everywhere as a group. You can get left behind though and there’s no way to instantly teleport to your teammates, so you’ll need to be on the ball and follow your leader otherwise you’ll have to traverse quite a distance to catch up if you’re off chasing butterflies or something. The great part is that if you exit or conclude a mission, you leave together and you’ll all return to orbit, which is the place that lets you decide where to fly to next. From this screen you can jump into a competitive match, fly to missions or return to the tower, which serves as a central hub in the game that allows you to buy weapons and gear, take on bounties for extra rewards and decrypt any encrypted items you find, which are powerful items that can’t be used until decrypted at the tower. It’s a bit annoying that you can’t sell your excess items, and have to instead dismantle them, which doesn’t give you a lot of cash and parts. It would have been nice if you were only forced to dismantle when you’re out in the world exploring, and if you had the option to sell in the hub.
In the alpha only three mission types were available to play, namely a story mission, an explore mission and a strike mission. The story one requires no explanation. The explore level allowed me to walk around and hang with other players while completing a string of objectives. I really enjoy exploring the world, because not only is the art direction stunning but you can also summon a speed bike if the land allows it, which is fun. I just hope in the full game that there’s more to see, do and find in the world, because the alpha felt a bit empty except for enemies. The strike mission was by far the highlight, as it put me into a team and tasked me with destroying a boss. In these missions you’ll be up against powerful enemies that take very long to kill and deal insane damage, which makes these matches intense, frantic and great fun. If you or any of your allies fall you can revive them by getting to their body, otherwise it takes thirty seconds before you can manually respawn. As long as one player is still fighting you can rejoin, but if all go out then you have to restart from the last checkpoint.
The alpha only had one competitive online mode available, namely Control, which is a 6v6 mode that is effectively like conquest in your usual games. There are three areas you need to capture and control for points, while preventing the other team from doing so and killing them to further enhance your points. The alpha had two or three maps available for play, and one of them allowed for vehicles. Four were present in the alpha, and they were good fun to use. The normal speed bike was there, as well as a pike which is the same thing except it has a lethal energy gun. There’s also the interceptor, which is a tank, and turrets, which don’t really count as vehicles but hey. What’s cool about the competitive online is that you join it in the same state as your character in the single player, so whatever level you are and whatever gear you have is what you’ll bring with you. By winning competitive matches you’ll earn Crucible points per week, and these will allow you to unlock the most powerful weapons and gear.
From my limited time with Destiny I can conclude that the game is most entertaining when you’re tackling tough bosses with your teammates. It’s all about the co-op and social experience, and it’s definitely cool to see other players running around your world even if they’re not with you. And if the story missions are interesting I’m sure that will be an attractive part of the game as well. Destiny is very fun to play when you’re in a group, especially if it’s with friends and you have voice chat. You do need a bit of coordination, but the game is also simplistic enough that anyone can play and be useful and it’s easy to figure out your character. I can’t say whether the final game will have a lot more depth, but again it’s very similar to Borderlands in that the skill will come from beating tough enemies rather than learning how to play the game well, because the learning curve is not very steep at all. There was something a bit weird though, as I once tried to invite another player to my fireteam and he or she private messaged me to say they didn’t have PS+, so perhaps that means you can play Destiny without an account and still see other players, but will just be unable to join squads.
What was most surprising about the Destiny alpha, however, was how stable it was. I could hardly believe I was playing a game supposedly in its alpha stage, because in the hours and hours I played I didn’t encounter a single bug. The competitive online even worked like a breeze. Whether that speaks of Bungie just doing an absolutely stellar job or, well, deceiving us about this being an alpha, I have to take my hat off and say that Destiny gave me no indication whatsoever that I was playing a massively incomplete game. Perhaps the biggest factor is simply that the game is very close to release, and the playable alpha had to be as close to perfect as possibe to avoid any alarm bells, but it’s still a pleasant surprise. It will be interesting though to see how the game’s servers hold up when everyone joins from multiple platforms, and it will further be intriguing to assess how the game deals with constant updates and content additions, as that will be essential to keeping this game alive.
Destiny is looking like a great game based on my playing experience, and I had plenty of fun with it. The biggest challenge will be whether the retail release has enough content to keep players busy, and whether Bungie can consistently add more content to the game especially for those who will eat it all up as quickly as it comes. Another concern is whether the main story will be enticing enough to keep players involved. While I definitely think Bungie is onto something with Destiny, and the core selling point will absolutely be the social experience of it all and defeating big bosses in epic fights as a team, I’m not entirely convinced of the longevity or variety in classes yet, and the only way to true assess the success of Destiny will be to see how it fares months after its official release. A short experience with the alpha, however positive, won’t tell you that and neither will an actual full review. Destiny is the kind of game that will only survive if it can stay relevant and engaging months after it comes out, and I guess we’ll have to see if it has what it takes. So far, I can say that the signs are positive.