It’s the distant future and mankind is doomed.
Again. For many years we enjoyed a Golden Age of galactic expansion, propelled by the arrival of a mystical alien power known as the Traveller. It brought advanced knowledge and amazing powers, but a dark force has tracked our god-like extraterrestrial friend through the cosmos. When its shadowy nemesis finally arrives, the Traveller apparently sacrifices itself to save humanity. Now, warring alien races have overcome man’s colonies and are raiding Earth. Only one city remains safe – the final bastion of human existence. The guardians of that last refuge must strike back.
Mankind’s destiny relies on them.
First whispered about three years ago and now surely one of the most keenly anticipated games of the decade, Destiny is big news. Huge news. It is a perfect storm of technological ambition, hype and fan expectation, arriving at a time in which everyone is grasping for the future of games. Years ago, Bungie brought immense stylistic verve and beautifully wrought mechanics to the shooter genre with its Halo series. It changed things. Now, backed by Activision’s huge investment, it is promising to go further.
Sure, the background narrative is achingly familiar. The futuristic apocalypse is a sci-fi staple, explored in countless games from Halo itself to Gears of War, Mass Effect and Resistance: Fall of Man – but it’s the scope of this project that has dazzled. "We like to tell big stories and we want people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars,” said Bungie COO Pete Parsons last August. And now, at last, we’re able to pick some substance from the seductive, skilfully orchestrated hyperbole.
Performing in the space opera
Sitting down to play the game at Bungie’s cavernous studio in Bellevue, Washington, there’s really one thing on everyone’s minds – what actually is Destiny? It’s a question the studio has purposefully danced around for several months and one that journalists have so far struggled to answer via the fractured glimpses of the game shown at E3 and Gamescom. In many ways, Wikipedia’s tongue-in-cheek description of the project as a “massively multiplayer online action role-playing first-person shooter” is accurate – although in reality the emphasis is very much on the action part – hence the developer’s own preference for the term, “shared-world shooter”.
Maybe it’s easiest to think of Destiny as Halo writ large. It is Halo enhanced with the looting and character upgrade mechanics of the Borderlands series then placed into an organic online environment where MMO elements are seamlessly injected.
But whatever, we’re here to play. Bungie has invited writers from most of the major gaming sites; these people have been covering Destiny for a year, surviving on scraps of information and the memory of that impressive E3 gameplay demo. We’ve been given a presentation, we sat through it patiently, but now it’s hands-on time.
The section we’re seeing is a Strike mission named The Devils’ Lair, set in the toxic wastelands of Old Russia. Strikes are essentially self-contained, 30-minute shoot-em-up quests for three players – all culminating in gigantic boss battles. You can either form a fire team with friends or the game will match you with two strangers – you can't just leap in alone. The aim in this one is to fight through the ruins of an abandoned Cosmodrome, obliterating the armed forces of two alien factions – the Hive and the Fallen – until you reach Sepiks Ten, a soul-sucking overlord whose destruction will bring about the collapse of the alien stronghold. Oh and victory will also get you lots and lots of rare loot.
For Halo fans, perhaps, the scenery will be somewhat familiar – a jumble of futuristic industrial buildings set amid stark craggy terrain. But here, in our PS4 demo, everything is rendered in exquisite detail with real-time sunlight pouring in over the undulating mountains, reflecting over grasslands that sway in the breeze. And then, out of the distance rush the intricately detailed hordes, like lushly painted Games Worshop figures. It is fighting time.
The start point is “Rocket Yard”, a techno burial ground littered with the rusting innards of old spacecraft, which provide handy cover points for the opening exchanges. From here, players move through a gutted refinery complex where snaking metallic corridors open up into overgrown courtyards hosting intense choke-point skirmishes.
It feels like a super slick co-op shooter, which is what it is. “Outside of all our talk about innovation and character progression, at its core Destiny is an action game,” says community manager, David "Deej" Dague. “It’s that heart-pounding experience that our fans have come to expect from Bungie.” Players swoop across the landscape calling out enemy positions, picking off distant targets with sniper rifles, hitting the left and right channels, flanking the floundering hordes. The controls are so familiar, you drop right in. Aim and fire on the left and right triggers, grenade on the left bumper button, melee attack on the right, plus there’s a slide move accessed by sprinting and hitting crouch. This is fun, we’re all thinking, this is… a lot like… Halo.
Depth in space
At the core of the experience, though, are the player characters – or more precisely, the extensive customisation system that awaits them. There are three ‘races’ to choose from, all identical in gameplay terms, but all with slightly different story roles, according to Dague. “The selection of the player race is an emotional decision that adds context to the story arc,” he says. “Each Guardian will be equally deadly - whether they’re a human survivor from Earth, an other-worldly Awoken of mysterious origins, or an EXO war machine that has been built to protect humanity.”
In terms of character classes, there are currently three options: the meaty titans, the more-tactical hunters and the warlocks, effectively a futuristic take on fantasy RPG magic users. What differentiates the classes are their unique Focus abilities, the skills imbued upon them via the mystical presence of the Traveller. To make things a little more complex, there are two selectable Force specifications for each class, both based around a single special power – these charge up during a mission and can then unleashed by hitting R1 and L1 together.
For the titans, there's the Fist of Havoc, a massively powerful melee attack that sends nearby enemies flying; or you can go for the Void option, which creates a protective bubble shield for any member of the fire team to hide out in. Then hunters get the ridiculously accurate and deadly Golden Gun, which fires three powerful, thermally charged shots from a hand-canon ("It's like, I need to make that thing dead right now," explains investment lead designer Tyson Green); or you can opt for the Arc Blade, which lets you pinball between enemies, electrocuting each one on your way. Warlocks, meanwhile, produce the Nova Bomb, an area-of-effect mega-blast that scatters groups of aliens like bowling pins; or there's Radiance, a sort of buff power that enhances the stats of the entire fire team for a limited period.
Players also start with a handful of other abilities for each class, most of them augmenting the special attacks or key weapons. “If you look at each Force specification, you'll see there are a lot of abilities that synergise with the special powers,” says Green, who looks over the game’s progression systems. “There are things that make you take less damage in melee range, things that make your sprint better, things that make your melee attacks feed into your grenades and your grenades feed into your supers. It would be fair to say that the superpowers define each spec - but the abilities themselves are more of a holistic thing.”
Back in the game, and we're legging it across the scarred Soviet landscape, blasting swarms of alien beasts. Lower ranking enemies like the Fallen Dregs or Shanks are pretty dumb, either spawning in waves and running at you, or patrolling in the open waiting to be picked off. Moving up through the ranks you get to the Vandals with their cloaking devices and stealth tactics; the chunky, well-armed Fallen Captains protected behind personal force fields; the wizards who levitate above the surface firing energy balls. The combination of enemy types in each wave is different every time you start a mission. “You never quite know what it’s going to play like,” says multiplayer lead designer Lars Bakken. “Because of the way our AIs work and behaves, the way they play off each other, each time you play is a unique experience.”
As if to illustrate this, we suddenly and seamlessly run into a public area. In these spaces, the game opens out and draws in different groups of players to work together, match-making for experience and ability. The task is usually to beat a mini-boss, who would be too strong for a single fire team. Ours is a giant bipedal predator, shooting out energy blasts that deplete health in seconds. Our goal is to stop him reaching a checkpoint on the landscape, but he's too fast and deadly and we lose him. No loot for us. Once the game goes online, you'll be able to hang out in these public areas indefinitely, waiting for the next boss to spawn.
But we trek on. Each class has a different jump ability to add some verticality – all accessed by hitting the “X” button. Hunters have a double jump, Titans get a jet-pack while warlocks have a glide move, which Bakken describes as, “a more parabolic jet pack”. All of these can be upgraded to add more manoeuvrability and height. The melee options are all different too, with titans getting a running shoulder charge, hunters a throwing knife and warlocks a siphon which drains energy. It's fun to experiment with these, even though this is all super familiar from years of FPS experience.
But not everything fits into the Halo muscle memory.
As they rank up, players unlock new skills and better weapons, equipping the stuff they like the best as they go – a bit like a standard RPG skill tree. So can you just hot-swap constantly between different force paths and skills? "A lot of your choices are free swaps - you can experiment and try different things," says Green. "But there comes a point where you can say, 'okay, I'm really happy with these decisions so I'm going to lock them in' – and that gives you benefits: your stats may increase, you may become more powerful or level up a lot faster, or you can reconfigure in a different way.
"We're trying to strike a balance between having no commitments and locking in people in a way that makes them not want to play anymore. With the Focus, for example, you'll see there are a lot of choices and you can switch those around and find something else that you may like more. You may be in a PvsP match and see a warlock using a different grenade than you and pairing that with a different passive ability, perhaps applying damage-over-time effects or health regeneration, and you may say, 'that looks really great I want to try that'.
"But eventually you have the option of locking it in, so you get more stats and that benefits your character in a global sense. That was important to us, because we look at the way you customise your abilities as being a way for you to differentiate and distinguish yourself from other players. If everyone can just flip their abilities freely, everyone's kind of the same – so when you come up with a clever way of playing your character better, everybody is just a couple of minutes away from duplicated your successes. That's not as interesting as being able to say, 'no, this is me, this is my character and I'm clever and I get to benefit from that'".
And it’s not just the character progression system that borrows from RPG convention – the fundaments of the genre are there in structure of the game, too. Destiny will offer players a range of missions, raids and campaign quests, all accessible via a vast galactic map interface known as The Director. On it are displayed all the currently available planets and locations as well as the missions accessible on each, and as players complete more tasks, the universe slowly opens up, offering fresh worlds and challenges.
It’s a bit like the interactive maps in the latest Need For Speed titles or of Los Santos in GTA Online, but on a grander scale – and Bungie is developing a smartphone/tablet app that will reproduce your Director interface as a standalone service allowing players to research new quests as well as set-up co-operative missions with friends. As for locations, well, we know that Mars is explorable in the game, as are other planets in the solar system. Bungie is remaining quiet about what lies beyond.
At the centre of the map is Earth, or more specifically, The Tower, a base area that acts as a social hub for the game, where players can meet up and show off their customised avatars. “This is where every good adventure in Destiny begins,” says Dague. “It’s a great place to come back to once you’ve score some loot to upgrade your guardian. You can also browse a public marketplace of merchants who’ll get you new armour and weapons. Or you can just enjoy the beautiful view.”
In our demo, we've reached a locked security door. A nearby terminal needs to be hacked to gain access. To do this, players hit the touch pad on the PS4 controller to call up their Ghost, an AI entity (voiced by Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage) that advises on missions, provides visual waypoints and is also handy on a security terminal. While that's going on, we get a Horde Mode sequence where waves of various aliens pour into the enclosure. It's basically a mass bar brawl.
Usefully, downed enemy soldiers drop ammo. Better yet, when you kill anything with your special weapon it floods the area with orbs, a social currency that can be picked up by your team mates and used to quickly charge their own specials. This way you can work together to chain special attacks into devastating co-op onslaughts.
Giant spiders from Mars
This is particularly handy later, when we encounter the mid-level boss, a giant spider-like vehicle known as a Fallen Walker. Similar to the heavily armoured arachnid seen in the E3 demo, it takes multiple hits to bring down, and coordinating fire from the three team members is crucial. Fallen comrades can be revived, so as long as someone is alive the fight continues. If you all die, you're sent back to a check point to regroup.
Throughout each area there are randomly placed treasure chests stuffed with loot, either cash in the form of Glimmers which can be used to buy items and upgrades, or natural resources known as Engrams. These need to be taken to be taken back to The Tower where you can pay a shady character named the Cryptarch to convert them into useable goodies. We're very much in World of Warcraft territory here, and it'll be interesting to see just how many crafting and customisation options there are available.
Importantly, the contents of each chest is stored locally for each player so you don’t get one smart alec monopolising all the treats. And not all loot can be used immediately. Often you’ll pick up stuff you can’t use until you rank up – a little teaser that Bungie hopes will ensure players keep coming back. Also, it's possible for you to roll three active characters, one of each class, so you may well find a nice little warlock item when you're playing as a titan – and that's fine, it isn't wasted.
"There's a vault where you can trade items between your characters," says Green. "So you can say, 'great, when I roll a warlock I'm absolutely going to use this' and into the vault it goes. Weapons are all available to all classes, but, say, a warlock helmet is class-specific so you pick it up and put it in the vault. We have people in the studio who would play as two characters, get items for their other character and use that to get ahead of other people in a PvP competition."
We're into the final section of the mission now. As we move closer to the final boss, the environment changes; the industrial innards of the abandoned cosmodrome have been claimed by the Fallen who clearly see this boss being, Sepiks Ten, as a sort of God.
There is a red hue to everything, and in the corners of the rooms, there are skulls mounted on spears. As we move in, we switch between weapons, trying to work out what will be most effective. But effective against what?
There is a vast array of weapons split into three categories – primary, special and heavy. All can be upgraded as you go along, and as you level up, more models become available. Most riff on familiar staples, so in the Primary class you have single-shot scout rifles, pulse rifles that fire in three-round bursts and auto rifles that fire continuously. Specials tend to be sniper rifles and shotguns, while the Heavy weapons are machine guns and rocket launchers.
All gear is tiered in the game: basic items only offer minor upgrade potential while later items provide ever greater complexity, with a wide range of upgrade nodes – and the more you use a specific weapon, the more possibilities you unlock. Certain weapons are infused with different energies - thermal damage, arc damage, and void damage – so if you have the right weapon you can, say, drain an enemy item or shield sooner.
Bungie has taken in a range of influences from medieval warfare and heraldry to retro sci-fi and hasn’t held back on wacky ideas. As you progress, you get access to Primary oddities like the Suros Regime auto rifle with its exotic art deco styling, or the Monte Carlo assault rifle with a built in sword. In the specials category, there are weird shotguns that deal out explosive fire damage and fusion rifles that can be charged up to release a multi-shot blast at groups of enemies. Fans of ridiculous fire power, however, are likely to favour Heavy category super stars like the Gjallarhorn rocket launcher shown at the E3 demo last year and the monstrous belt-fed machine gun simply named, Super Good Advice.
Alongside weapons, there are five types of armour: head, arms, legs, chest and class, the latter simply customising the look of your avatar, adding a cool cape perhaps or some other decorative flourish. Once again, every piece can be upgraded and customised to make it more effective. Furthermore, all armour items have a range of stats that reveal their secondary qualities: some pieces will increase the precision damage or your weapons, while others improve your movement speed or allow primary abilities to recharge faster. “Stats represent the different levels of quality of gear, pertaining to how rare they are,” adds Green. “The green items are pretty common early on, but later you start finding blues and the gold-coloured exotics. There are more stats available on higher level items.”
End of time
Finally, we reach the boss lair, situated amid the vast ruins of the space ship construction area. Sepix is a vast floating orb who appears to be feeding off the health of his minions, and the lack of a health bar suggests our weapons are doing little damage. We clearly need something more powerful. But this is the end of the demo; Bakken powers off with an apologetic shrug. "Do you want to play again?" he asks. And I do. I play the same Strike mission three more times, I play as all the classes, and it retains that familiar mix of tactics, surprise and adrenaline. It is Halo and something else, something bigger.
Beyond strikes, we also find out about Patrol missions, which are effectively open-ended exploration opportunities. Players touch down in a specific area, then get to simply hunt the landscape for treasure and easter eggs, or take on mini-tasks for the various factions that exist within the guardian city. At E3, Bungie is likely to tell us about Raids, which are specific quests for groups of fire teams. The studio will also reveal much more about the competitive multiplayer (or PvP) areas. "What we can share right now is that 'PvP' will be completely separate from the activities that send Guardians into the wild to do battle against the hostile invaders who have occupied our Golden Age cavitation," says Deej. "On Story missions, Strikes, or Patrols, all Guardians will be united as a force for good. To satisfy the competitive spirit, there will be a chance for them to enter an arena-style activity that lets them spar against one another for honour and bragging rights..."
On that subject, Destiny players will, of course, get access to Bungie.net, the studio's community website. Here, they'll be able to browse mission stats, discover new quests and compare stats with friends to see who is performing best.
The social intent of the game cannot be overstated. Indeed, levelling up each character to max takes only a few hours – Bungie doesn't want you to start the game then realise you have weeks of grind to put in before you can play against friends on a higher level. "You level cap quickly, but once you're there the game is more about equipping the gear that lets you go deeper into the game," says Green. "There are more strikes, there are raids, there are higher levels of PvP if you equip better weapons and armour.
"Equipping better abilities in Focus is a longer-tail process that takes some time. I think the game actually develops very naturally towards the level cap: players earn experience as they complete activities and kill things, and once they reach the point at which that stops, they've already moved on to the gear collection game, which is about doing activities and looking at what's available to them in the tower. It's similar to Diablo in that its about moving on to horizontal growth – trying new abilities, new builds, new weapons."
Fate not sealed
Destiny is still in flux. The names of missions, weapons and stats are still being changed, the ideas keep coming in. This is a ten-year project remember – after the first title, there will doubtless be add-on contents, and then subsequent titles; all must work within the infrasturcture developed here.
For now, this is a richly conceived and well-executed sci-fi shooter – as you would expect from Bungie – and it promises more. We didn't get long enough to tap into those intricate skill trees and gear upgrades; we didn't get time to really differentiate between the play styles of the three classes. But we had a heck of a lot of fun not finding out.
If there's a disappointment at this stage, it's that the concept of "mythic science fiction" does not appear as radical as it could be. The interplay of magic and technology works smoothly because, basically, sorcery is often just an incendiary weapon that does expansive damage – sort of a supernatural airstrike. This may prove a teeny bit disappointing for those hoping to see more contrast between the tech- and fantasy-based characters. Admittedly, though, we’ve only seen a fraction of the available attacks and perhaps there are some truly bizarre and grotesque magical powers to come.
And anyway, we have played it at last. We know how it works – and it works rather beautifully. Next we'll maybe find out more about the campaign missions, the multiplayer arenas, or other secrets clearly being kept back for E3 and Gamescom. Yes, Bungie is still being very careful with information, even now. Because of course, it is all about the reveal in the modern industry, the journey of discovery. There is a whole solar system out there, and we have barely made it beyond Earth's jealous orbit.
• Destiny is due out on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One on 9 September. Keith Stuart attended a press trip to Bungie with other members of the European press. Accommodation and travel expenses were met by Activision.
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