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Reviewed in a vacuum, Destiny would be the most competent of shooter experiences. If the merit of a game was based solely on its fundamental mechanics and whether or not one has fun engaging with those mechanics, then this would be the shortest review you’d read this year; Destiny would get 100% and I’d tell you that you couldn’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately, publishers and marketers ensure that games can never be reviewed in a vacuum, and contemporary big budget titles are always more than a primary game mechanic. Still, it would be nice to review Destiny without the rubbish preamble that overhyped the game’s eventual release. It would be nice to play through the game without that cloying mantra from marketers and PR representatives saying, “Judge Destiny by what it will become, and not what it is now.” I don’t buy that. We’ve all bought Destiny now, and we’re reviewing what is in front of us – that’s how video game reviews work.

Yes, in the future there will be more content for Destiny, and features will be added as the game continues to evolve. If that model sounds familiar, then you’ve played MMO games before. This game should have been marketed as an MMO, and not some new industry buzz-genre known as a “shared world shooter”. But Activision didn’t want to do that (probably rightly so) because they wanted to get the console shooter fans firmly on board. MMOs are a hard sell these days, but for all intents and purposes, Destiny is an MMO. Here’s the thing though: I HATE MMOs, but I had (and I still am having) terrific amounts of fun with Bungie’s new baby.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any oddities or frustrations to be found. Destiny, underneath its shining surface, has issues. For instance: its storytelling is abysmal, which is made even more conspicuous by the fact that this is a Bungie title. Bungie is capable of incredible narrative techniques; Halo: Reach is a textbook example of storytelling done right. Bungie crafts rich science fiction stories, but with Destiny it seems that development energy was channelled elsewhere. This is probably my biggest gripe with the game, because the universe of Destiny is enticing. It has staggering potential in terms of lore and plot, but you’ll only get glimpses of that greatness peppered throughout the story campaign.

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About that story

I cannot actually tell you what happens throughout the 15 or so campaign missions. There’s the Traveller (yet another vastly underutilised narrative trope) and it’s kind of sick. That’s a problem because the Traveller is protecting humanity’s last city in the galaxy. So you and your Ghost (a little robotic, floating entity made up of Light from the Traveller and talky-bits by actor Peter Dinklage) traverse the solar system in an attempt to find what’s making the Traveller so glum. I don’t know what it was that was causing the problem with the Traveller because the narrative is so appallingly dull that I switched off. There’s something about a Black Garden and then stuff explodes and you get to go home to cheerful people proclaiming that the day is won but the fight is only just beginning.

In a lot of ways it’s like Diablo III: I still cannot tell you what happens in the story of Diablo III despite having played through it about 12 times. It all comes down to bad storytelling, and just like with Diablo’s world of Sanctuary, Destiny’s poor narrative is made worse by the fact that the game’s universe is one I want to know more about. It’s a fantastic vision of the future, full of enemies with rich backgrounds and varied designs; the medieval overtones that pervade the whole concept of player Guardians are wonderful, but all of this is hidden away out of the game. Throughout the game you’ll unlock Grimoire cards, which contain much of the lore of Destiny. But in order to read up on this lore you need to leave the game and log in to Bungie’s website. There you’ll find all the Grimoire cards you’ve unlocked and you’ll be able to read up on the game’s rich backstories and canon. It’s a crying shame that Bungie forces you out of their world in order to learn more about it.

There is no reason why this content couldn’t have unlocked in an encyclopaedia of some sort that’s accessible in the game. If they wanted to keep the entire mechanic of Grimoire cards in-game, then they could have easily added a library of sorts for you to explore in the Tower (the game’s main social hub). Instead, you need to leave the game to learn about the game, and I found that incredibly short-sighted.

It’s also a pity that your character doesn’t speak more often. There are one or two occasions when the banter between you and your Ghost is genuinely amusing, and it’s a pity this device wasn’t utilised any further to create a better sense of identity for your character.

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Bang bang, bang bang bang bang! Shoot shoot shoot, bullet bullet gun! Zap zap zap pow zap pow!

But enough bitching about wasted opportunities for expounding game worlds; there’s a lot of good stuff too. Destiny’s shooting mechanic is sublime. I haven’t played a console shooter with controls as good as these. Enemy AI is also incredible, with the various alien species adopting different tactics during your encounters with them. These are some of the smartest enemies I’ve faced, and at times the game bares razor-sharp teeth. Over-confidence will often be your downfall, and even the most seemingly straightforward encounters can suddenly spiral out of control and have you running for cover. I loved that about Destiny – you’re always kept on your toes, and when you get that notification that respawning is restricted in the area, you cannot help but feel a little pang of uncertainty.

I really cannot emphasise this enough: Destiny’s shooting feels fantastic. Ploughing your way through low-level enemies never gets boring, and the thrill of downing a particularly large boss is only made less enthralling by the fact that you’ll often get bugger-all loot.

In terms of weapons, Destiny has quite a variety on offer. Your vanilla weapons come in familiar, tiered RPG levels like Uncommon, Rare, Legendary and so on. The Uncommon weapons have upgrades to unlock as you gain XP. Essentially, as you level up, so do your guns. You’re then given the option to change scopes, boost damage output and more. As you move into Rare and Legendary items, the amount of add-ons and unlocks for weapons and armour increases. Once you hit the level cap (20), you can start finding Exotic weapons. These weapons are game-changers and offer unique abilities that can give you a serious edge in combat. They also look amazing, with stylised additions and unique names that set them apart from ordinary guns.

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Loot please?

So how about that loot system? Well, it’s a fickle beast. Anyone expecting Borderlands levels of loot drops is going to be thoroughly disappointed. Loot gain is a very slow trickle in Destiny. While you’ll get numerous pick-ups during missions, about three-quarters of the time those pickups will be worse than your current gear. You also get loot pick-ups called Engrams, which are essentially loot blueprints that need to be unlocked by a specific NPC called the Cryptarch; he’s found in the Tower. Unfortunately, this NPC is pretty rubbish at his job because very often you’ll take a Rare or Legendary Engram to be decoded, only to get an Uncommon unlock. Add in the fact that you’ll often get gear that’s for a different class or for two levels below yours, and you’ve got a loot system with serious room for improvement. On the flipside, a fickle loot system does make it that much more exciting when you actually find something you want.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

The three classes of Destiny all play essentially the same way until you reach a point where you can unlock a subclass. The Titan, Hunter and Warlock all have a second set of subclass skills that you can interchange whenever you want. These subclasses play very differently to the main set of class skills. I played as a Hunter, but opted to stick to the main Gunslinger set of skills. A friend of mine (who joined me on numerous occasions to play through the game) also played as a Hunter but chose the Bladedancer subclass. It was interesting how different our games became. I opted for sniper rifles and hand cannons so that I could maintain long to medium range methods; this complemented my Golden Gun Super Ability. My friend’s Bladedancer subclass emphasised close combat due to the Arc Blade Super Ability: a close combat flurry of blade attacks. This obviously meant he opted for assault rifles and shotguns for a medium to close range method. So while the three classes of Destiny might not be wildly different, their subclasses definitely flesh out the options.

Character customisation is entirely aesthetic; the three available races (Human, Awoken and Exo) do not offer any race specific perks. In fact, character customisation is a little limited, and there were occasions where I came across other players in the Tower that looked a lot like me. Still, you can further distinguish yourself from other players by unlocking or purchasing different player emblems and space ships. You can also buy tints that re-colour your armour sets in order to stand out from the crowd a little more. The tints are only available once you hit the level cap, so you’ll be waiting quite some time until you can completely customise your character.

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The daily grind

MMOs have grinding in them, don’t they? What about Destiny? Yes, you will grind for loot and XP in Destiny. Luckily the grind is still a lot of fun thanks to that impeccable shooting mechanic. Bounties also help in boosting your XP gain, and you can activate up to five Bounties at once. Bounties are rather varied and will see you doing things like melee killing 30 enemies without dying, or defeating specific boss characters in specific Strike missions. You can also get Bounties for the Crucible (the competitive multiplayer portion of Destiny) that can net you further XP.

This is also where things become a little complicated in Destiny. On top of XP you need to acquire Marks and Reputation for various factions within the game. Vanguard Reputation is the most common, and normally you’ll get this for completing Bounties and Patrol missions. Patrol missions are open-world exploration missions that vary in their requirements; they’re normally very repetitive and very grind-y, but the upside is that you get to explore the lavish areas of the game. Acquiring Reputation is the only way certain merchants will sell top-level gear to you, which is purchased using corresponding Marks (basically another currency). Once you hit the level cap you can join one of three factions: the Future War Cult, Dead Orbit, or New Monarchy.

Each faction offers different equipment that boosts different stats: Strength (reduces the cooldown of your melee ability), Intellect (reduces the cooldown of your Super Ability) and Discipline (reduces the cooldown of your grenades). They also offer specific weapon types, so you’ll obviously pick the faction that offers the guns you prefer or the attribute boosts that correspond to your play style. Once you pick a faction you can wear a faction cloak; doing so will turn any Vanguard Reputation and Marks you earn into faction-specific variants in order to unlock faction-specific high-end gear for sale by your faction leader. What’s bizarre is that this isn’t explained very well at all; you’ll likely be scratching your head at Vanguard Marks and Crucible Reputation for the majority of your climb towards the level cap. This is something Bungie stumbles over on numerous occasions: explaining the game’s various intricacies in terms of loot gain, weapon damage types, and factions.

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Multiplayer

Competitive multiplayer takes place in the aforementioned Crucible. Your typical game modes are there: Clash is a 6-v-6 team deathmatch; Control is a point-control team game where areas need to be held to score points; Rumble is a free-for-all, six-player deathmatch; Salvage sees two teams trying to salvage artefacts before the enemy team can; and Skirmish is like Clash, but on a smaller scale and with revives added in as an alternative to respawning. Shortly after the game released, Bungie added a new, vehicle-based competitive mode called Combined Arms.

Multiplayer is your standard affair, but you do take your character and weapons from the main game into the Crucible. You can also earn Crucible Marks and Reputation to spend on unique weapon and armour unlocks in the Tower. Maps are numerous and varied in size, with particular standouts being the Moon-based First Light map, and the close-quarters Shores of Time map on Venus.

The PvP component is competent albeit unimaginative. It runs the risk of becoming just another way to farm for top-end loot rather than an enticing game mode to distract you from the main campaign. I also, on occasion, experienced some lag that saw shots registering long after they’d hit targets. It wasn’t game-breaking but it was noticeable coming out of the campaign mode and Strike missions.

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In closing

This is a game made for multiplayer. In the moments that I played Destiny on my own, it felt like little more than a proficient science fiction shooter. The moment I was playing with friends, whether we were playing story missions or tackling the numerous Strike missions (the game’s highlight for me), Destiny would blossom into this incredible, space-aged adventure. You have to play this game with friends in order to truly have the most fun. And fun you will have, because despite the shortcomings and bizarre design choices, Destiny is incredibly enjoyable to play. Yes, level objectives could definitely be more varied (I lost count of how many times I had to fend off waves of enemies while my Ghost hacked a console or unlocked a door) and greater care could have (should have) been taken in introducing the universe, but I still had fun.

During the 18 or so hours I spent shooting my way across the solar system, I never once felt bored. And again, much like Diablo III, Destiny only really starts once the campaign is over and you hit the level cap, and I can see myself spending many more hours pursuing that Exotic loot and working towards that endgame Raid. So while Bungie’s new universe may have stumbled in its debut, there’s no denying that this is the start of something special.