Destiny is a hell of a marketing campaign. A lot of its work was already done just by provenance, of course—it’s the first game in years by Bungie, the people who made Halo, and the first non-Halo game by the people who made Halo since we still had phones strapped to our kitchen walls. People would be interested in it no matter what. But it takes a lot more than that for a game to become as omnipresent as Destiny has been, to be awaited anxiously by people who play games regularly, but also well-known and established before release even among mainstream audiences, the hoi polloi who know what a Halo is but have never cared or thought about the people who make it. It takes sponsoring a widely popular, days-long Simpsons marathon a couple of weeks before release and constant ads during football games. It takes money, just obscene piles of money, like more money than a space shuttle launch costs, or enough to make your senator literally your senator. Games like Destiny, games where you run around spraying machine gun fire and blazing lasers on digital battlegrounds, are often made fun of by game wits for their muted, brown and grey color schemes. When you play Destiny you’ll just be thinking about all that green.
As a game, well… Destiny is a hell of a marketing campaign. It shows what money can accomplish but is also a reminder of its limits. Give a large, talented team of game designers the proper time and resources and they can make a game like Destiny, one that’s huge and ambitious and occasionally beautiful. Money doesn’t guarantee a personality, though, or any kind of emotional or intellectual weight. With Destiny you can see where the money went and feel where it didn’t.
Destiny promises you the universe and the thrill of discovery. Loading it up feels like waiting in line for Space Mountain—you’re excited about where you’re about to go, fully accepting the illusion being sold to you. That ad campaign, the star-filled title screen, the inspirational score, the sleek user interface and character creation tools—all of the ways in which Destiny initially presents itself create a powerful and alluring sense of fantasy. Destiny promises an experience that you want to have, even if you’re not typically into shooting games or outer space.
No matter what it promises, if you’re not into shooting games you will probably not like Destiny. Shooting is the draw here. And not just shooting alone, but ganging up with friends and roving through these alien landscapes in search of action. It’s like a pub crawl with controllers and headsets. You’ll need those friends to fill Destiny with life, as its world and its story often feel as empty as space itself.
When you stick to the campaign, Destiny turns the wonder of exploring the solar system into a boring, repetitive, often pointless drag. Despite hopping from planet to planet and fighting at least three distinct strands of alien, Destiny’s universe is small and dull. The Tower, the peaceful central location where you can buy weapons and talk to the leader of your character’s class, is a sleek, streamlined riff on Mass Effect’s Citadel, but you’ll quickly realize there are few characters to socialize with. It has a great view but it’s only worth visiting when you’ve earned or unlocked a new upgrade. During missions you will run from one point of the map to another, shooting lazily named enemies like the Fallen and the Cabal, and siccing your technomagical partner Ghost (a mystical Rubik’s Cube robot voiced indifferently by Peter Dinklage) on some kind of mechanical or electrical work. While he scans for data or hacks for data or repairs dead technology to gather data you have to post up and take out a few recurring waves of bad guys. There’s a story mission for every level (which is capped at 20), and most of them follow this same pattern. Ghost rushes through exposition before and after most of them, and there are a few cut-scenes with unmemorable characters that alternately hate or admire you, but it all feels perfunctory, like Bungie knew that a narrative is a thing a game is supposed to have but didn’t feel particularly interested in developing this one.
The game can be beautiful—you’ll spend a lot of time staring at the sky, which sometimes look like Roger Dean album covers—but as you move from planet to planet the art becomes as repetitive as the story. Differences in worlds mostly mean differences in color schemes. Venus is yellow. Mars is red. Both are dotted with crumbling buildings and military industrial installations. In one of the game’s slyer moments, the Earth that’s home to most of our real-world military shooters is mostly brown and grey. The moon is the game’s visual highlight, with gorgeous vistas and a massive underground network of caves and temples that resemble something out of Tolkien.
The best parts of the single-player campaign are the moments when you team up with other players who just happen to be in the same part of the game as you. Like Journey, you can encounter and hang out with strangers as you play. Unlike Journey, you can talk to each other and have at least a half-dozen ways to kill things. You can team up on the fly to finish a story mission or take part in one of the game’s “timed events”, which are randomly occurring mini-missions that almost always consist of trying to stop an incredibly powerful enemy from enjoying a nice, leisurely stroll. These makeshift combinations are common during the patrol missions, which have you perform an endless series of minor objectives (kill this many enemies! collect this many pieces of resources! stand in this one spot for a few seconds!) in order to earn experience and loot. And if you don’t have friends, these random fireteam pair-ups are mandatory on strike missions, where a three-person force has to take out a strong boss that’s usually supported by endless waves of regular enemies.
That’s the crux of Destiny’s problem for people who like to play games alone: The best thing about playing it alone is when you wind up playing with other people. The campaign is a barely considered concession to those who prefer solitary play, and is so disappointing that it feels like an unfinished remnant from an earlier build of the game. It exists begrudgingly, and only because players and marketers expect it to exist.
If you look past the story, enjoy multiplayer and love to collect things and power up your character, Destiny might not feel so empty. Leveling up starts off with the expected experience points taking you from level to level, but turns oddly complex after you reach the level 20 endpoint. Also, if you want to avoid the story, it’s not difficult to level your character up to level 20 by focusing on multiplayer. You can stick to the player vs. player matches in the Crucible, or accept bounties from the friendly robot at the Tower, which give you large amounts of experience points for accomplishing specific goals. (Editor’s note: A separate piece at Paste will go deeper into the game’s multiplayer modes tomorrow.)
Level 20 isn’t really the endpoint, though, as there’s a second layer to Destiny that requires an interest in multiplayer to fully explore. Although experience points will only take you to level 20, once you are there a new stat called “light” appears. Equipping certain armor will increase your allotment of light, which in turn advances your level past 20. That armor is hard to acquire, though. You can buy some pieces from the Tower if you have enough reputation, or you can go on raids and strikes and hope that the random loot drops include armor with light.
That cliché about Dark Souls works well with Destiny: Level 20 is where the real Destiny begins. After level 20 Destiny becomes a massively multiplayer online game, complete with an MMO-style grind. You’ll cycle through multiplayer strikes and raids in order to earn new loot to increase your light. The story and the first 20 levels are merely hours-long appetizers to the meat of the game, and no matter how much you love cheese and charcuterie, you don’t want to wait that long for steak.
Destiny promised a sci-fi epic, and delivers lifeless worlds with faceless enemies and a mythology that even it can barely maintain interest in. The smartest thing about the game is how it was sold. Publishers are leery of games that don’t already have a relationship with the audience. That’s why sequels are the backbone of the industry. It’s not just true of games, either—movie studios and book publishers regularly prioritize the known and familiar over the new, from sequels to remakes to tie-ins with what’s popular in other media. Activision and Bungie created an instant hit based on Bungie’s reputation and the incessant popularity of first-person shooting. It may not be the game you expected, and its true strengths might have been minimized in the TV ads, but Destiny is a triumph of marketing.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.