A week on from release and I'm still no closer to being able to answer what seems to be a simple question: is Destiny any good? Thankfully, I've exercised my power as editor and given the job of putting a score on the game to Carl, but I was at a gathering over the weekend and three people asked me variants of that very question, and I realised that I gave three completely different answers.
It's a game that still fills me with an enormous sense of ambivalence.
It's easy to see why Bungie warned everyone away from day one reviews. One of the most fun, and quite possibly reductive, activities of critically engaging with The Most Expensive Game Ever Made has been seeing which bits and bobs of gameplay have been borrowed from where. A healthy slab of Halo here, a dusting of Defiance there, left to marinade in a bunch of MMO conventions and practices. It's perhaps the aspects of that last one that have proven a little confusing for the console audience. Here in the land of PlayStations and Xboxes, we know little of power levelling. Endgame content is a term that is confusing and sounds suspicious.
Much has been made of Destiny's fairly bland story missions, most of which take you out of the even more bland expanses on Earth, the Moon, Venus and Mars, and funnel you into some sort of dungeon area. In my opinion, the bits of bespoke content (particularly the Strikes) have proven far more entertaining than the other solo/co-op content. It says much when the best bits of a seemingly expansive title such as this are actually the most narrow and focussed sections.
For console players who've shied away from MMOs, content gating will be a new experience -- the slow introduction to the game's systems and modes anathema to the regular slew of content shooters and action RPGs that deliver the whole package and tell you to run amok. Indeed, it's the primary excuse I've heard from people defending the practice: Destiny takes its cues from MMOs, you grind to level 20 and that's when the "real" game opens up!
My response to that thus far has been simple...
I am reminded of Final Fantasy XIII and how that game was painfully boring (if rather pretty) for 10-15 hours before you got to Gran Pulse and it turned into something quite brilliant. Many reviewers didn't get that far, many played for as long as they could before writing the game off is despair and disgust. There's something to be said for a reviewer playing a game to completion. There's also something to be said for a brutally honest review, and to be fair to those that never made it to Gran Pulse, the first half of the game is pretty dreadful.
Destiny is not dreadful at all, but there's an awful lot of padding and repetition and seemingly needless content. I'm struggling to understand why Bungie didn't just make a shooter with distinct levels. The "Explore" aspects of the game are pointless to me, the loot system seems like a poor joke when you first begin (although it does get better as you progress), and the large maps are empty and soulless, peppered with the laziest missions I've come across in some time. Compared to the design work we've seen from Bungie in the past, compared to the structure of the solo/co-op game's best bits -- the Strikes -- everything else seems borderline apathetic. Peter Dinklage's flat performance embodies everything about that side of Destiny.
Let's be clear, I'm not saying that gating content isn't a viable strategy -- just that there are good and bad ways to do it -- and I'm not really calling Destiny an MMO, just that this particular practice Bungie have engaged in tends to be associated with persistent online experiences, and Destiny is certainly that. But some of the practices here are executed poorly. WildStar, for example, kept me wonderfully engaged in standard levelling and progression while slowly dishing out material. It helps that most MMOs are actually fairly seamless experiences, never really requiring you to leave the game world, unlike Destinys unfathomable modular approach. Story missions and side missions should be intertwined, with playing revealing the narrative and world and the setting and the rest, but instead nearly all of that is reduced to bored monologues from Tyrion Lannister and having to head to Bungie.net to read Grimoire cards. The reason WildStar and SWTOR and The Secret World have appealled to me where others have failed is that they manage to make the journey just as fun as the destination. There will always be MMO players who power level aggressively in order to be among the first to reach the endgame content, but that strikes me as strange. There's simply no excuse for that content to be so disposable.
And so much of Destiny's content seems disposable. when I take a step back and look at it.
Mechanically, as I've said since alpha, Destiny is a glorious game. But in terms of structure and design, it's all over the place. Telling me that the first 20 hours are essentially a epic tutorial swerves the point about quality too:
"I think what players will find is that the game unfolds and transforms over time,” said Executive Producer Patrick O’Kelley. "In the first hour, it might feel like a familiar shooter. Then, players will start to see other players in the world. They will undertake cooperative and competitive activities without really worrying about it. Or they might keep on a solo journey but partake in public events. Eventually, they’ll go to the Tower and learn some of the mechanics to improve their character. They’ll make decisions about character customization and ability customization.
"Twenty hours in, I think that players will find that they’ve evolved to playing a whole different kind of game than the shooter that started them off. They’ll find that they’re immersed in a different world, and are deep into the history of their characters. They’ll have built a community of other players. And, without realizing it, they’ll have learned some sophisticated mechanics that enable them to gear up and dive into a six-player cooperative raid, in pursuit of high-level exotic weapons and armor."
None of that is new to me or, I wager, to the vast majority of players out there, and everything that O'Kelley has said is more or less fine apart from the sophisticated mechanics bit. Getting to grips with Destiny is not rocket science, and certainly doesn't take 20 hours. What repetitive missions and slow progression do succeed in engineering, though, is gratitude for anything new or remotely original that comes along. In that sense, Bungie have set themselves up well for content delivery over the next few months, but it's a shame that a good deal of the "boxed" content is uninspired, grindy fluff lacking much by way of originality or imagination.