by Edward Smith
I love Destiny. It’s somehow managed to bypass the cynical, suspicious-of-AAA, fed up with standard game design part of my brain and plug into a tiny, flickering synapse somewhere that still gets off on finding loot and collecting points. I don’t know how it’s happened – maybe it’s because, on PS4, Destiny looks incredible – but this game has got to me. I can see all of it’s little ploys in action, all that grubby meat and potatoes design, just trying to drag me in for one more hour, but I don’t care. It’s beaten me. I just want to play it.
To clarify, basically everything about Destiny goes against my personal taste. It’s a hulking great Videogame with a capital V, a corporate monolith, seemingly built with the singular purpose of getting as many people to play it for as long as possible, i.e. make a lot of money. The plot is total guff, some sci-fi fizz about prophecies and lasers, and the mechanics are straight as a die: you kill creatures, collect points, use them to upgrade your guns then kill more creatures. If I was writing a quote for some kind of anti-Destiny ad campaign I’d say it was “like Borderlands but without the jokes.” On paper, this just isn’t for me.
This is the product of people with genuine fire in their bellies
But here I am, nevertheless infatuated. When I tried the beta, I described it like a work of architecture. I said it wasn’t particularly artful, but it was clearly the product of talented, experienced game designers. I called it trade craft. I said that as by the numbers AAA launches go, Destiny was the most refined.
Now, having played the full game (or at least, 30 hours of the full game) that original assessment seems pretty reductive. Destiny is completely down the line, but that doesn’t mean it has no heart. I get the impression that the developers truly believe what they’re making is important, that they aren’t just dried up cynics, conniving new ways to squeeze a few bucks into their coffers. It’s a horrible catch-all term, but passion has definitely gone into this game. This is the product not just of game designers who are at the top of their field skills wise, but of people with genuine fire in their bellies.
It’s in everything. With a game so smoothly and flawlessly designed as Destiny, it’s easy to feel cold towards it- every function is perfectly honed, every area has been tested and re-tested until it flows perfectly. It’s easy to look at Destiny like it’s a machine, but you have to remember that getting all of these things to function so immaculately takes time, and so, so much effort. The work that has gone into Destiny can’t just have been inspired by capitalism. People have clocked in, day in, day out, for around five years in order to get this game to sing the way it does, and if that’s not passion, I don’t know what is.
Destiny is more than just mass-market appeal.
And then you have these genuinely beautiful little moments. Occasionally you’ll glance something on the horizon, like a faraway star system or the floating debris of a spaceship, and it looks amazing. Other times, the social element of the game will play out just perfectly. More than once I’ve been stranded in a gunfight, down to my last few bullets and almost dead, and suddenly another player has jumped into the arena and cleaned the bad guys out, before turning to me and giving a quick wave, as if to say “no problem.” Destiny is more than just mass-market appeal. At the best of times, it can be as evocative or personal as a game from the independent scene.
But there’s always this thick, AAA carapace sitting over the top and despite the obvious fervour on Bungie’s part, I can’t enjoy Destiny without feeling acutely self-aware. I do get swept up by the lustre on occasion, but for the most part, visually, Destiny is bland. It’s that kind of Dead Space, hack-and-slash school of enemy design where everything is a rough collection of shapes and colours, where enemies flow into one another and are really only distinguishable by how many hit points it takes to kill them. Likewise, the in-game technology, especially your wee robotic pal, Ghost, is sleek and magical. Characters just press a button and everything happens for them automatically. There’s no sense of grime or attrition. The world of Destiny, though it’s supposed to be post-apocalyptic, always runs like a well-oiled engine.
And that leaves it feeling lifeless. When I think of a really good sci-fi aesthetic, I think of Alien or Blade Runner, where everything is wet, rusted and run by computers that have actual keyboards. I understand that loosely-defined, spectral technology is freeing for gameplay designers, since it gives them a context for their wilder ideas, but it really stifles your engagement. In Destiny, I never feel like I’m fighting for my life. The support characters keep reiterating how dire the situation is, but I have so many tools and guns that I can’t imagine ever losing. When one of the early level quests is to kill 100 enemies in a row without dying, it’s hard to lose yourself in the game’s apocalyptic drama.
Destiny has one simple, unwavering solution: shoot it
The structure doesn’t help, either. Invariably, your mission is to enter some zone occupied by enemies, kill them all and collect a trinket. It’s not necessarily boring – Destiny is compulsive, in the same way you can’t stop yourself from eating an entire bag of nuts – but again, it nullifies your senses. Every problem in Destiny comes with a simple, unwavering solution: shoot it. If the game has a fatal flaw, it’s that for all the monologues and orchestral music, there’s no implicit drama. You’re never thrown a curve ball. Your guns are always the answer. Any tension is artificial, since mechanically, Destiny runs like a simple input-to-output computer.
That doesn’t diminish how much of an achievement this game is. As I’ve written already, this is real craftmanship and despite my personal leanings and better judgement, I’ve been sucked into Destiny wholeheartedly. Verily, I want to play it some more. I want to level-up my character, beat all the quests and find all the MacGuffins. I’m just not sure it’s for the right reasons. I don’t feel invested in the world or the emotional experience of Destiny so much as I feel enslaved to that part of my mind that enjoys rewards and bonuses.
By that measure, I might say Destiny has a dim-view of its players. I might say it’s cynical and deliberate, in the same way as micro-transactional, cash-spinning mobile games. But still, there’s that lustre, that perfection, that craftwork. I can’t write Destiny off as a mere money-maker because, by God, some work has gone into this game.
Graphics: 8/10 – Superb. Even if the art design is lacking, the fact a world this big can look this good is incredible.
Gameplay: 7/10 – Slick, functional and perfectly refined, but the mission structure repeats itself and always runs contradictory to the game’s drama.
Writing: 5/10 – Again, it’s perfectly functional, but drab and convoluted. On top of that, it doesn’t fit, at all, with the game’s mechanics.
Sound: 8/10 – There are a few distinct tracks among the score and Peter Dinklage does some great voice work as Ghost. Guns are suitably loud, also.
Replay value: 10/10 – Destiny is massive. You’ll be playing this for years.
Overall: 8/10 – Ambitious, polished and clearly pored over by hundreds of people, Destiny is an incredible creative undertaking. It doesn’t all click, but it’s a huge achievement.