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August 11, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! Destiny (The Beta)

This should go without saying, but you should never take anything I say too seriously.

Holding up someone’s words and opinions as gospel is pretty dangerous, because A) it prevents you from thinking for yourself, B) it hands over a lot of power to some nigh-unseen force, and C) it would imply that the deliverer of gospel is flawless.  They’re not.  And I’m not.  I try to be as fair as I can, and look past my biases.  If I can’t -- which is often, I’d bet -- then I’ll at least try my hardest to support my reasoning…even if that reasoning is just a way to justify shutting my eyes and covering my ears. 

I just thought I’d make all that clear up-front, because this is actually the second post on Destiny that I’ve done.  Granted the first was focused more on the business side of the equation, the dangerous precedent at play, and the potential threat to the gaming canon vis a vis another big push toward mediocrity, but…uh…I don’t have a positive way to end this sentence.  So I’ll just go ahead and say that Destiny was, at the time, innocent until proven guilty.  Until gamers in droves -- myself included -- got to try the game, making any snap judgments would’ve made anyone who slammed the game look like a fool.

But that’s fine.  Because now that the beta is over and done, I get to slam the game all I want.

…I told you I was biased.

In all actuality, I don’t think there’s any reason why I CAN’T like Destiny.  Just because it’s a shooter doesn’t mean that I’m required to hate it (I’m a guy who played all three Gears of War games to completion…though you should probably notice the number discrepancy there).  And it’s not even a problem of the inherent Halo DNA; given the choice between a new Halo and a new CoD, I’d gladly take Halo.  So I don’t think “just being a shooter” is the problem here.

If anything, Destiny strikes me as the kind of game designed to appeal to gamers like me.  As I said to my brother, I am 100% on-board with a game that can/will let me go on a rockin’ space adventure.  (That’s probably why I like Pikmin 3 as much as I do, and why No Man’s Sky got quite the reaction out of me.)  More importantly, it’s not just a shooter!  It’s an RPG!  A ShootRPG, if you will!  That means all the nerdy stuff like stat progression, and passive bonuses, and leveling!  It’s like a dream come true!

Except it isn’t.  But I’ll get to that.

I wonder if anyone’s caught that reference yet.

The story, as I understand it, goes something like this: before the events of the game, humanity managed to enter a new age of prosperity, giving them both immense technological and medical prowess.  With that newfound power -- and with it, the discovery of The Traveler, some sort of benevolent being shaped like a giant egg -- the human race has taken to space.  Unfortunately, The Fallen (nervous twitch) have begun to encroach on the Solar System, and somebody needs to handle them before they snuff out all life.  So, with the help of The Traveler, it’s…up to you, I guess?  Sort of?

I’ll admit it.  I’m kind of on shaky ground with the narrative.  The beta intro gives the player some context, but it doesn’t exactly feel substantial.  That’s probably to be expected from both the beta trappings and (presumably) only offering the opening hours of the game.  But even in those opening moments, I don’t feel like I’ve got a grasp on the “epic scale” Destiny is pining for.  Oh, sure, the music is there -- because of course it is -- and the camera angles during cutscenes try to lend some weight, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s kind of a futile effort.  Halo also tried to be grandiose in scale, but seeing as how it saw fit to cap off its latest game and its latest, hyped-to-high-heaven threat with a thirty-second QTE, I don’t think the devs have a grasp on how to deliver on all fronts.  Or any front.

My main takeaway, story-wise, is that your created character (which, to the game’s credit, gives you enough customization options to let you play as a robot cat with huge eyebrows) gets brought back to life by a floating AI robot orb thing…no, not that one… or that one… so he/she can fight against The Fallen.  I guess it’s his destiny or something -- as these things tend to go -- but it does raise a lot of questions.  Why that guy?  What does he have that makes him the right soldier for the job, given that any soldier with a gun could fight to the same effect?  Sure, he/she may end up becoming an incredible warrior by the end of the game/story, but why not call upon the countless soldiers still living who are powerful RIGHT NOW, given that the universe is in danger RIGHT NOW?

I could go on with the whole “it’s your destiny” point (how does a resurrected person acclimate to the new world?), but let’s move on.  After playing the demo beta, my understanding of the game’s central conceit is that your character hasn’t been resurrected alone.  Technically, you’re no one-man army; every other player of the game presumably gets the same intro, the same details, and the same general mission.  So technically, The Traveler has raised an army of the dead to fight The Fallen (I hope the irony wasn’t lost on Bungie).  But as a wise man once said…

So were all these people resurrected in the same general place?  If so, then wouldn’t that make the sample size incredibly limited?  If you can resurrect people from anywhere in the universe -- or if the range is limited, then just the earth -- then wouldn’t you want to try and pick and choose the best possible soldiers across the widest possible expanse?  Were these resurrected soldiers tripping over each other when they woke up?  Beyond that, if you can raise the dead at will, then wouldn’t that mean that you can raise an army whose numbers border on infinity, thereby negating the need to even bother with guns or magic or skill?  Or do The Traveler and its avatars have limits?  If so, what are they?

But getting back on topic, what are the socioeconomic effects of The Traveler’s actions?  It’s raised an army of the dead, and one of the first things you do is take a ship to the game’s first(?) town…so wouldn’t that mean that there’s been a massive influx of well-armed zombies into society?  If the implication with Destiny is that you’re part of a specially-chosen fighting force, then doesn’t that mean that, potentially, there are now MILLIONS of people flooding into whatever towns exist in this bold new world? 

Wouldn’t that put a strain on resources?  What about overpopulation?  Even if these people are consistently taking off, isn’t it possible that they’re creating lots of space traffic?  Or if not that, then using up available hangar space just for their ships?  How would society adjust to a sudden influx of zombies acting under the pretense that they’re super-special awesome?  Would there be some form of racism?  Would there be a divide in economic classes?

 Given that the players are presumably going to towns to by equipment for combat and warfare, wouldn’t that make a huge shift in terms of supply, demand, and production?  How would that affect the control of spending?  How would that affect the government?  Would there be laws set in place to limit the zombie’s movements?  Would there be backlash by multiple parties, creating an even bigger schism?  Would there be resentment toward The Traveler, who made this disaster possible?

Come to think of it, how do people feel about The Traveler?  Do they revere it as some sort of god?  Is there a religion around it?  If there is, then has the believers’ faith been put into question by the utterly-destructive, forced immigration of super-powered zombies?  What’s the world like when you have a highly-observable, effectively-godlike figure you can see with little more than a telescope at worst? 

Can the people converse with The Traveler?  Can it impart knowledge?  Can it justify its actions, even beyond just creating a zombie army?  Can it divulge the secrets to defeating The Fallen?  If it can’t converse with the people, then how do they know it’s not just a big dumb egg (which now that I think about it is just a white version of the big dumb egg from Halo 4)?  If it can, then why aren’t they mining it for the answer to ALL of life’s problems?  


How many questions was that?  Thrity-two?  Okay.  Great.  Gooooooooooooooooood.

I only ask all of these questions because there’s an EXTREMELY good story nestled in the exploration of those problems and trying to offer up answers.  It’s to a point where you only need things like destiny and the “fate of the universe” as background noise for all sorts of fun stuff with a smaller and more meaningful context.  And that same story can give the perfect context for a game, shooter or otherwise; imagine the factions that would rise up, and would have to sort it out using violence.  Imagine what it would be like if the actions taken by players had genuinely good or genuinely destructive effects on the world around them.  THAT’S how you’d fulfill the promise of “next-gen”.

Even if Bungie and company are dead-set on getting the most out of Destiny as-is, it’s not impossible.  All those questions are a way to offer up a sense of scale -- a means to flesh out the world created by millions of man-hours.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a step that could be skipped…but for an MMO -- for a game that’s built around and upon a full-fledged world -- adding that depth and context is pretty much a requirement.  There are stories unfolding beyond the edge of a sword in World of Warcraft, and even if it’s ostensibly a game about collecting loot and showing off to virtual strangers, there’s still depth and bigger ideas that make the game more than an exercise in repetition.

So.  Is it possible that Destiny will explore some bigger ideas in the full game?  Sure.  It’s possible that stuff like that was in the beta.  Maybe there’s some juice somewhere, somehow.

But I doubt it.

I didn’t bring up WoW just for fun.  If we’re going to consider the merits of Destiny, we have to consider it on specific terms -- one of those being how it stacks up as an MMO, even if it is more MMO-lite.  And I actually know at least a little about MMOs; I played a fair bit of WoW a while back (probably before or around the time of the first expansion).  I didn’t make any strides toward reaching Level 60, but I made my way through Azeroth with my Level 33 Paladin, Yoshvier.  So I think I know JUST enough to make some claims, even if they’re on faulty ground.

I know that MMOs aren’t exactly too keen on giving you all the tools you need to …you know, enjoy yourself right off the bat.  But even if the start isn’t exactly ideal, you know that it’s just the prelude to a great adventure.  The potential is the draw.  You may start out just taking a sword to the wildlife, but you know that within the hour you’ll be off on your way, going on a journey that can take you from one end of the world to the next.  There’s a level of excitement to be had there.  High hopes that you know will be met -- and maybe even exceeded.

But there’s more to it than that.  You can’t divorce WoW -- and plenty of MMOs, I bet -- from loot, because they’re an important part of the game.  Yeah, in a lot of ways they’re a status symbol, but they contribute to a sense of progression.  By learning new abilities and getting better equipment, you’re becoming stronger -- more than just a wildlife slayer.  By becoming stronger, you can go further out into the world.  You can go out there, survive, and ready yourself for the next big adventure -- armed with the tools and knowledge you need to make sure your journey doesn’t meet an abrupt end.

So in that sense, you can think of WoW as a game all about fulfilling desires.  The loot factor figures into it, but that’s not automatically a bad thing.  It’s just a means to make your hunger for a journey more overt.  (Or if loot really is all you care about, then it makes the hunger for a journey more covert…but either way, it’s a win.)   Speaking personally, the best part of my time with WoW wasn’t necessarily about getting a rare sword.  It came from two things: discovering new Paladin skills that gave me cool new toys to play with, and-- MUCH more importantly --being able to see the new world with my own two eyes.  Even if what I saw was from behind Yoshvier’s back, I still got to log off with more than my fair share of precious memories.

I don’t get that from Destiny.  I don’t feel any desire.  Only emptiness.

It’s too early for me to gauge the size of the game, but from what I can gather you won’t just be walking from place-to-place.  You go down to an area via your salvaged spaceship and explore, shooting and hiding behind cover as needed.  It’s entirely possible that there’s more to the game than that, but let’s just set that aside for now.  What’s important is a simple question: are Destiny’s areas places that I, as the player, would want to journey toward, or even find? 

And right now, I have to say that the answer to that is no, of course not.  The opening area is a dilapidated wasteland in Russia that’s quick to rush you into some dilapidated facility.  The area after that would have you go to another place with dilapidation, so you can do your mission and then get told by your AI buddy that “you have to go back”.  Presumably, that’s back to the first area, but I turned the game off before I could find out.

To its credit, Destiny is several steps above the “brown and gray” palette that’s infected so many other games.  And while several screenshots -- and at times the game itself -- imply a sense of expansiveness in each area, that’s hamstrung by the sinking feeling that there’s nothing to show for it.  Typing “destiny beta” in a Google search shows me a couple of scenes that look interesting, and a lot of scenes that don’t.  There is a bunch of wasteland-esque areas with either a little or a lot of industrial decay.  Points for visual consistency, but it begs the question: what would anyone want with these places, if not scrap to salvage?  And why would anyone need to fight for it if it’s virtually everywhere?

Whatever the case, it probably doesn’t say good things about your “adventure” when at the start, your AI buddy tries to shuttle you into a cramped, decaying complex, and hassles you every twenty seconds just because you’re trying to explore.  Is the robot zombie not allowed to get his bearings?


Again, it’s entirely possible that what I’m looking for is still there in the full game -- or even within the bounds of the beta I couldn’t bring myself to reach.  (Recent news hasn’t been reassuring, though.)  But the problem that I have with Destiny doesn’t have anything to do with the MMO trappings; the problem, the thing that you’d think Bungie would have down pat by now, comes from the shooting.  Getting the shooting wrong in a shooter is a lot like getting the driving wrong in an open-world game -- you’d think it’s impossible, but somehow devs manage to get it done.

The gunplay in Destiny is…unsatisfying, to say the least.  The mechanics are all there, as you’d expect, and there’s nothing wrong with the aiming.  But when it comes to an actual firefight, I was left wanting.  I picked the Warlock class, which I assumed was the mage analogue of the game -- lots of cool skills, but not much in the way of offensive or defensive power.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I could just waltz my way through areas, using my melee attack to kill everything in one hit.  And as soon as I realized that I was a walking tank, I pretty much stopped bothering with guns unless I didn’t feel like walking.  I just strolled around corners and hit guys with my palm like I was playing Virtua Fighter.

The A.I. is pretty much powerless to stop you.  They’ll unload bullets into you, but between your default ABSURD defense and your regenerating health/shields, in a lot of cases it was impossible for them to even get me into a critical state, let alone kill me.  But they’ll stand there and try to kill you, and make them even easier targets.  Needless to say, it was a major turn-off for me.  I know there’s kind of a stigma for shooters to be no more evolved gameplay-wise than the stuff you might see on a decades-old computer, but Destiny takes it to an extreme.

Now, is it fair to judge a game based on its first few areas and assume everything to follow is junk?  No, of course not.  But here’s the thing: even if I was arguably (if not obviously) in the tutorial level, AKA the place where the difficulty is turned way down, the purpose of the opening moments of a game -- and any given story, I’d say -- is to get you hooked.  It has to give you a reason to go on.  Plenty of games, old and new, have fulfilled that requirement.  Viewtiful JoeMetal Gear Rising.  Any given Sonic game.  Any given Mario game.  It’s not even a problem with shooters, because BioShock Infinite and even Gears of War got me into the game.  And it’s certainly not a problem with RPGs, MMO or otherwise; I got into Mass Effect, and I wouldn’t have bumbled my way to Level 33 in WoW if those opening hours turned me away.

Where’s Destiny’s hook, then?  It’s not in the story.  It’s not in the gameplay.  It’s certainly not in the potential.  And here’s why: in WoW I felt the need to grow stronger, lay claim to treasure, and venture out into the world.  I was good enough to take out some wolves in a forest, but I felt the threat encroaching on me from enemies just a few steps beyond the starting area.  I felt strong at the outset, but not so strong that I couldn’t perceive the threat of enemy bandits.  And indeed, they reinforced that threat by way of chasing me like their lives depended on it -- just so they could successfully end mine.  So I had to give into my desire -- because I needed power.

That doesn’t feel like the case with Destiny.  I don’t need power.  I want it (relatively speaking).  There’s a difference.  I don’t perceive a threat on my life if I step beyond any borders.  I feel confident enough in myself because I have virtually every tool I could ever need to make it out of firefights.  I’m at a perceptible pinnacle of strength, because I can march through opponents without consequence.  


You stumble upon a healthy suite of guns at the start of the game, and by the time you blink you’re cradling a one-hit-kill shotgun.  So why would I ever care about what abilities being a Warlock has to offer, especially since the first is just the ability to -- brace yourself -- throw a grenade?   Isn’t the implication behind Destiny that I’m not gaining abilities and weapons to defeat enemies efficiently, but to continue to enjoy the luxury of instantly-killing whatever pops out of cover?

It all comes off as an exercise in futility -- in wasting time.  Even if the game does get better, what’s the point?  Is it worth it to experience the potential nuances of the story when it’s tied to gameplay that puts me to sleep?  Is it worth it to become a true champion of The Traveler if it means getting nothing to sink my teeth into in terms of the world-building and narrative?  Why should I go on this journey if it feels less like a world with genuine stakes, peoples at risk, and a story worth experiencing -- or just as good, making one myself, as games can allow -- and more like just another game

Whatever epic scale and scope the game has, I feel as if it hasn’t been well-communicated.  As it stands, my guess is that Destiny is just there as a diversion.  Just a chance for gamers to “kill dudes, get loot”. 

No need for adventure -- or even a reason for one.   

Now, let’s be real here.  As you can guess, I don’t think highly of Destiny.  But just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that you should not like it, either.  My biases and issues are mine, and mine alone -- and remember, these are based on a glimpse of the ame that I couldn’t even bring myself to finish.  So it’s entirely possible -- probable, even -- that Destiny is an incredibly likable, and even admirable game.  I know there are people out there right now who are ready to buy in to the experience.  And that’s fine.  As I said to a friend, if you like Halo and/or Borderlands, you’re probably going to like Destiny.  I’d like to think that Mass Effect has long since shown that there can be overlap between two disparate genres, so it’s not like you can only play the game if you’re a dudebro, or only play it if you’re a nerd.

The only one I can really speak for is me.  And I have.  If you agree with me, then that’s fine.  If you disagree, that’s fine, too.  But this is a game that -- again, as I said to a friend -- I would not recommend to anyone.  It’s a game that, through genuine effort (or maybe a lack thereof), it pushed me away with the force of a rocket-powered bulldozer.  I’m hoping that you’ve taken my words with a grain of salt (as you should), but I know that I can’t bring myself to touch Destiny ever again.

If I want to go on an adventure, I’ll stick with Pikmin 3.  That’s how you do it.

And there you have it.  That’s one post down for the ShootStravaganza.  The game in question wasn’t what I’d call pleasant, but there’s certainly worse out there.  Besides, now I’m done with it.  No need to look back -- and certainly no need to feel bad.  Now I can move on to an even better game.  Such as…huh.  What’s next on the list?

…Seriously.  Is it really too late to call the ShootStravaganza off?

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