E3 2014: Destiny Preview

It’s not often that someone other than journalists get a significant amount of time playing a hotly anticipated game, but that’s exactly what happened over the June 13-15 weekend. Bungie opened the doors on Destiny giving select PS4 owners a chance to play the Alpha version of the game. The results—even at this early stage—are promising.

Halo Writ Large

While the look and feel of Destiny scream of Bungie’s legacy title Halo, it is the scope, scale and ambition of Destiny that differentiate it from its predecessor. It’s no longer about a single super soldier named “Master Chief” saving the Earth from alien invasion. In this world, Earth lost its war, and humanity was pushed to the brink of extinction, saved only by the intervention of a massive alien sphere known as “The Traveler.” The Traveler has protected the last human city for generations, and now, imbuing its “light” or super abilities into a chosen few known as Guardians, humanity is now ready to venture out into Earth—and beyond—to reclaim what was taken when their golden age was snuffed out.

This is where the player comes in. As one of these elite guardians, players actually get some time with a limited character creation system to put together a male or female Guardian from one of three species. This isn’t a pointless gesture either; the game has an online social hub, “the tower” where Guardians can gather, so all that character creation work isn’t being hidden behind a helmet all the time. However, compared to some character creation systems like Mass Effect or Saints Row, this is a bit on the limited side, with a few pre-set configurations to choose from in each category. It’s important to remember that this is a game being previewed in Alpha state, while there are sure to be more choices in the retail release, it’s unlikely that an elaborate slider system to tweak nostril sizes is going to suddenly sneak into the final version that hits stores. But really, character customization options are not what will bring people to this game. Even the Halo-esque vibe isn’t what will keep people playing, though it might initially draw them in. The big attraction here is that Destiny is unlike any AAA FPS console game made to date.

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Journey Meets Borderlands

The most unique thing about Destiny is that it borrows a feature from the most unlikely of influences, Sony’s PS3 exclusive Journey. Even though it’s a co-operative, online, multiplayer game, there’s no lobby, players simply appear in the same space, doing their own thing, or joining up in temporary “fire teams” for random public events. If you’d rather play with a specific friend, that’s easy enough to do, as there’s a roster menu that shows anyone on your friend list currently playing the game. A simple tap of the button loads you into the instance of the game your friend is at, and you immediately start playing together. It’s incredibly easy, which will be critical for a game so heavily based on co-operative play.

But then there’s that Borderlands influence, and that comes in the form of loot. Yes, guns and different pieces of armor are loot, and they follow the traditional system of ranking. Loot with a white background color is common and unexceptional. Then there’s loot with a green color, which has some boosted stats, and loot with a blue color, which is rarer and more powerful still. They key difference here is that aside from the “colored loot” having better stats, they can also level up with usage. Extensive use of a green assault rifle, for example, eventually unlocks a higher damage boost, as well as a host of different gun sights that can either enhance long distance sniping, or beef up stability and recoil for more precise shooting. These performance boosts vary from weapon to weapon, but the key point here is, the more you play with a colored weapon or piece of armor, the more powerful it becomes.

This concept of “usage leads to more power” also extends to the characters themselves. There are three character classes, a Hunter, Titan and Warlock. Hunters are the gun/stealth based fighters, Titans are the bruisers that can tank as well as go melee with enemies, while Warlocks are more delicate, with high damage ranged attacks such as the “vortex grenade” that traps and damages enemies simultaneously. Each combat class goes through the usual RPG march of gaining experience points to level up, but specific abilities level up through usage, regardless of current level. For example, in the Alpha even though the character level was restricted to a paltry level eight, it’s still possible to upgrade the Warlock’s vortex grenade through repeated use. So, even if it seems like players might hit a character class level cap quickly, all the skills and more importantly, gear, can still grow with use.

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But it’s the multiplayer that’s really the most exciting thing. Like recent MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV, public events randomly crop up that players can all join in on. Players can run into each other through sheer accident, and, when it comes time to experience a campaign mission, players are automatically paired up with others in order to fill out a team roster and ensure decent numbers for a fight in a dedicated instance with no outside interference. For players with a more competitive streak, there’s also “The Crucible,” which is a more traditional multiplayer experience. Here players sit in lobbies and are divided into teams for some familiar kill-or-be-killed combat. The only mode available in the Alpha was “Control,” which was essentially just conquering and holding onto controlled territory, but it had the all earmarks of a typical, quality Bungie multiplayer experience.

We’re still a few months away Destiny’s final retail release, and there’s actually a Beta test on the horizon for July. However, the brief glimpse of Destiny that Bungie has allowed over the weekend makes it clear that they are serious about this game. There’s enormous potential here for a “long game,” one that demands dozens of hours of play, similar to an MMO. For people that value character progression, a slower paced game with exploration in addition to shooting, Destiny is going to be a crowd pleaser. For the Call of Duty crowd that prefers an action-packed experience in a corridor being funneled from one action sequence to the next with no risk—or reward—at all, this is not an experience that market will enjoy. It’s ironic that the most “anti-COD game” of 2014 is coming from the publishers of COD, but that’s exactly what Activision is unleashing on a different kind of FPS fan this September.

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