Since its initial introduction to the world, the makers of Destiny have cloaked their game in enough mystery and marketing obfuscation to make P.T. Barnum beam with pride. “It’s a new genre, a ‘shared-world’ shooter,” Activision’s CEO Eric Hirshberg announced during last year’s “reveal event” at Bungie Studios’ headquarters in Bellevue, Washington. He was the first of a rotating group of suits whose job was to tell—not show—us what they had on their hands in the most vague terms possible.
It was as if Bungie’s developers were embarrassed to let us in on the dirty secret behind the world’s first $500 million video game blockbuster-in-waiting. Peel back all the layers of Destiny—the visual bombast, the Paul McCartney-aided soundtrack, the ambitious engineering—and what you get isn’t really a singular concept but a flabby Frankenstein of a first-person shooter stitched together from the corpses of other modern games and genres.
That’s not all bad. The game is enjoyable in the same way you might enjoy listening to a well-rehearsed cover band—accepting its limits is a necessity. This means willingly turning off the part of your brain that asks for nuanced characterization or a well told science fiction tale. It’s not a difficult request. This is Bungie, after all, a studio that has always succeeded as an expert architect of game worlds rather than as a storyteller within those worlds. Nostalgia may obscure the fact, but the plots of the early Halo games are as hollow as the ring-shaped mega-structures the games are named for. It’s telling that Master Chief’s nebulously platonic relationship with his holographic gal pal, Cortana, didn’t blossom into something deeper until after the series’ original creator turned the space opera over to 343 Industries. The unconsummated romance between taciturn super soldier and blue artificial intelligence was an admirable but unaffecting attempt to bring depth to flat characters who weren’t meant to have depth. Both Master Chief and Cortana were designed with functionality in mind—one a faceless conduit for the player and the other a high-tech Swiss Army Knife (reinforced by Microsoft naming the creepy disembodied voice from the new Windows phone after Cortana).
Destiny goes one step further and bypasses the artifice of forcing players to inhabit the body of a specific fictional person. Instead, you’re asked to carve out your own identity as one of the so-called “Guardians,” avatars with less charisma than the sniper rifles they sling across their backs. You can pick one of three “races”—human, exo (robot), or Awoken (blue-skinned humanoid)—but beyond a few additional cosmetic traits like hairstyle and skin color, the important decision is one that asks what might make you the most effective killer: super ground punch, energy blast, or golden gun?
Likewise, the lore of Destiny’s universe doesn’t just take a back seat to the action; it locks itself in the trunk of your spaceship. It’s set several centuries into the future in a post-apocalyptic galaxy once colonized during a Golden Age and now ravaged by a deadly event known as “The Collapse.” Only some unexplained moon-like celestial body called the Traveler has rescued mankind from extinction. As one of many Guardians, your job is to save the last safe city on Earth from some mysterious threat called—sigh—The Darkness.
At least, I think that’s what Destiny’s campaign missions are all about. Much of the story is delivered by a somnambulant Peter Dinklage, who plays your tiny chattering robotic companion called a Ghost. Dinklage’s inert voiceovers have been rightly criticized, but in his defense, the incomprehensible dialogue about “Gatelords” and “The Fallen” and other fantasy-sci fi mumbo jumbo makes Game Of Thrones sound like Shakespeare. The creators at Bungie seem equally unsure about their own story, as they dumped much of it onto a companion app and website instead of burdening you with it in the game. The message “You unlocked a Grimoire card!” pops up often to remind you that you should go do your homework and learn all about whatever the hell a Black Garden is.
But just as a game of football is defined by action on the field—not the personal relationship between Peyton Manning and his coach, as told to us by on-air commentators—stories are just the background noise to Destiny. The real red meat is the tactile experience, the crude but effective synchronicity between player and game. This tactility comes to the fore in tense firefights against computer-controlled aliens and other Guardians. The beautiful vistas that grace Destiny’s versions of Earth, Mars, the moon, and Venus are cold and vacant places, but head-to-head gun battles are the blood that pumps through Destiny’s veins. Hand cannons shudder with satisfying power when fired at an opponent. Fusion rifles hum with energy that, when released, crackles with a concussive blast and practically forces you to exhale. The adrenaline flows when jamming the turbo button on your Star Wars-style speeder bike and barely blazing past a host of rifle-toting baddies. It lacks the sheer speed of a multiplayer shooter like Titanfall and the mindboggling depth of Call Of Duty, but Destiny manages an extra gear of ineffable oomph.
That force couples with a sense of spontaneity that stems from interactions with friends or strangers in your game world. Competitive multiplayer is already a freeform activity, but even the tightly scripted story missions can have small variations. Once, during a quest on Earth, I rushed a gang of insectoid-like Fallen, but just before I could reach them, a gaggle of strangers hit first. Suddenly, my enemies were distracted, allowing me to tiptoe into their ranks and obliterate them with a well-timed grenade. There are also a surprising number of random events that can strike at any time, compelling you to hurry to a location and team up with players before time runs out. Even the Tower, Destiny’s version of a social center and marketplace, holds a few surprises. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit kicking around a soccer ball with other distracted Guardians.
Eventually, however, the spontaneity and moment-to-moment thrills grew thin, and a realization began to sink in. There’s little to Destiny that calls for this massively multiplayer experience. It offers lots of distractions—various modes and missions, a large armory of guns and armor to earn, and several factions to ally with—but everything flows from a single repetitive activity: flexing your trigger finger. It’s possible to carve out a worthwhile existence in Bungie’s new solar system, but that requires a deep, abiding, passionate, unquenchable love for shooting aliens and robots with massive guns.
After a few dozen hours under its spell, the title of Destiny sounds like cruel irony. The game’s marketing materials would have you believe that the title means your ultimate heroism is somehow inevitable, like a mythical hero of legend. But the term might as well refer to the state of grinding through the same tasks and seeing the same pretty but sterile scenery over and over again, like a space-age version of Groundhog Day, in the fallow hopes of pimping out your Guardian to the max.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One