Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sidequest Corner: Destiny Then and Now

Call this a bit of a cop-out for content but I find it prudent to show how even a critical mind can change and soften over time when observing an intellectual property. How criticism comes from a place of passion.

As such I am going to bring back two of my old reviews from old sites. The first was back during my more optimistic days at All Age Gaming with my review of Destiny in 2014 and the next is my review from OmniGamer of its Rise of Iron expansion from last year.

It goes to show how things can change for better and for worse and how critics and reviews are at their core, players just like the rest of us.

And this is coming from someone who can be called a fan of the franchise now.

Destiny Review (Originally Published on

Destiny seems like it should be amazing. It has the talented people at Bungie at the helm. It has the marketing push of Activision and has been billed as “from the creators of Halo and the studio that brought you Call of Duty.” The story is planned to be supported for the next ten years through expansion packs and updates. It also has had what some consider the most astronomical budget for a video game sitting at 500 million dollars. All of this to bring their ambitious vision of a vast, living sci-fi MMOFPS to life.

As of this writing I have spent three days playing the game to its level cap and have experienced everything Destiny has to offer, and for all of the money and talent on hand, the final product can only be called alright.

While exploring on Mars, humanity discovers an alien artifact called The Traveler. Through understanding and using its power, things enter a golden age of prosperity. Over the span of centuries, space travel is perfected, life expectancy shoots up dramatically, and the ability to terraform planets becomes routine. But some vaguely defined all-encompassing evil called The Darkness attacks and leads to some poorly explained downfall referred to as The Collapse. The Darkness is beaten back but The Traveler remains weakened. In order to prepare against the Darkness’ second wave, Guardians (read: players) are summoned by agents of the Traveler, who can arm themselves and fight and help defend what remains of humanity.

That paragraph is as close to a story as you are going to get in Destiny. Everything else is a horrendous pile of overused cliches and tropes all mixed together into a slurry of bland inoffensive mindlessness. There is a mission in the game where I was commanded by The Speaker to eliminate a member of the Fallen, a Noble of the House of Winter, in order to retrieve some of the Traveler’s Light. That sounds epic and complex and should set your imagination ablaze. What it boiled down to was me spending twenty minutes shooting a tougher version of a reskinned enemy who just happened to sit on a throne. No other information is given about how the Traveler’s Light works, or even any mention of a Fallen hierarchy. If you want to see a textbook example of what the word pretentious means, look no further than any of the story points in Destiny: a bunch of cryptic and mythical sounding terms and phrases masquerading as depth where there is nothing but shallowness.

It is honestly quite mind-boggling just how toothless and inert the world of Destiny is. For all of the build up of your Guardian meant to save the last human settlements on Earth and protect the galaxy, you never get a feel for the stakes or what the world is like now. You can choose to play as one of three different races but all you get is maybe a sentence explaining them. Humans are boring, Awoken are space elves/ space vampires, and Exo are sentient machines made to fight in a war that everyone knows about except you. Finally, the social hub is a pathetically small tower area that is only there for you to buy new armor and weapons or trade in quests while everything you’re supposed to be invested in protecting is relegated to a pretty skybox in the background. It’s a perfect allegory for the game as a whole. There is so much amazing stuff that is happening and awe-inspiring, but we’re never going to explain or fill you in so just get back to shooting things.

The much touted MMO part of Destiny’s MMOFPS gameplay isn’t much better. The game gets as far as having other players in the game world and being able to do missions together, but are hampered by the more tedious elements, like having to return to the tower to do a game of fetch with the NPCs to get quest rewards, unlocking new stuff you got in the field, and above all, the fact that the story missions are completely interchangeable and feel like padding. Defend a point, defeat a certain amount of enemies, go to next area, activate cutscene full of awfully written dialogue that tries to explain the mess of a story, rinse and repeat. It must also be said for a game that allows you to go to the moon, Venus and Mars, all of these areas feel small and restrictive instead of the large sprawling venues of opportunity they should be given the budget on hand.

It also doesn’t help that the weapons and armor are so unimaginative and basic. This could have been a wonderful opportunity to do some subtle storytelling through item descriptions and give some flavor and much needed diversity to the character classes. But much like the dialogue, the flavor text is just as unoriginal and forgettable as the world’s pathetic excuse for lore. In some ways, the more basic design helps keep the benefit of certain weapons more clear cut, a far cry from Borderlands’ flowcharts of buffs and stats, and certain weapons unlock perks if used enough. But for a game that puts so much focus on gear and weapons as opposed to its pitiful 20 level cap, a great opportunity was missed.

If there is a saving grace to these haphazardly assembled elements, it is the gunplay itself. Bungie remains skilled at mixing together old arena style shooter sensibilities with modern design touches, not to mention jetpacks. If you can ignore the terrible writing and one-dimensional characters, there is some joy to be had in fighting wave after wave of tough enemies online with some friends. Hit detection is rock solid, every shot fired feels good and meaty, and the different factions of enemies use different tactics, even if you don’t know or really care what their deal is. The three classes, Titan, Hunter, and Warlock, don’t exactly break any fantasy mold, they’re basicaly space-flavored Warrior, Rogue, and Mage, but have distinct powers and super attacks that keep fights interesting.

The PvP mode, or Crucible, is by far the best thing about this game. You bring your weapons and powers with you and fight fellow Guardians in standard modes like Control, Team Deathmatch and Free-for-All. With all the RPG fluff out of the way and the story in another star system, the Crucible mode manages to keep things clean and simple, something that wouldn’t be out of place in a normal FPS, and there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in its different maps.

Bungie should be congratulated with their netcode in Destiny. While there have been some odd moments where players have dropped from the game, there haven’t been any framerate drops or odd lurches while playing online with friends. When you’re being billed as MMOFPS, it’s good to remember to make sure your infrastructure can handle the workload, and it looks like Destiny is doing its job well.

Visually, Destiny is quite pretty but never really moves past that. The texture quality is good, lighting is alright, framerate is consistent, and the art department did a good job with the large vistas of the planets. But despite this game being set in the far future, no real consideration was given as to the nature or reason for the architecture. I remember finding a statue on Venus and tried looking for an inscription at its base, only to find nothing. The statue was just there to look nice and nothing else.

Probably the biggest strike against the story is the voice-acting. It doesn’t help that most of the exposition in the game is told through your Ghost, voiced by Peter Dinklage, breaking the rule of “show don’t tell” like a brittle twig, but what exacerbates it is his performance. Dinklage is a very talented actor, most know him as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, but he is just awful in Destiny. Whenever he isn’t delivering half-hearted technobabble, he’s droning on about events and factions that mean nothing because the script hasn’t bothered cluing you in. You won’t believe that wizard came from the moon, but after a while you can guess that’s where Peter’s mind was when in the recording booth.

The score on the other hand is quite gorgeous. Marty O’ Donnell brings his best to Destiny, helping to keep things from devolving into a complete and total slog.

Bungie has argued that early reviews of Destiny won’t do the game credit. There will be updates, patches and tweaks to the game to try to keep things chugging along until it’s previously announced expansion packs arrive. It can’t be treated on the regular merits of a standalone experience.

But you can’t patch a poorly written script and you can’t just forget that you have paid full price for an experience that willfully holds off its better material until the very end, then teases that things will get better later. The story mode as it stands can be finished in about twenty hours, half of which I completed in a haze, and ends on such a whimper that I wanted to chuck my controller at the screen.
First impressions are life and death when it comes to launching a new IP, and Destiny fills me full of contempt and regret more than joy and wonder. When I can end up bored playing a space wizard throwing dark energy at giant four-armed alien soldiers on Mars, something has gone terribly wrong.

If you’re into competitive multiplayer or socializing with friends while shooting aliens, Destiny is a solid inoffensive experience that passes the time. As a new IP and as an ambitious new world of fiction, it couldn’t be any more flavorless and derivative.

Final Score: 6.5/10

Now let's fast-forward three years to...

Destiny: Rise of Iron Review (Originally published at

I initially wrote Destiny off as an experiment that fell flat. An experiment that cost half a billion dollars and had some excellent gunplay but wasn’t the grand marriage of intense action and epic scale needed to sustain an MMOFPS. It had incompetent storytelling, banal mission structure, and an incongruous design philosophy that encouraged skill but only rewarded luck. However, a lot of goodwill was earned back with the release of The Taken King last year, basically a soft reboot of Destiny with a lot of systems streamlined and a new campaign that lived up to the promise of the original game.

The latest expansion, Rise of Iron, builds on this new foundation. By the developer’s own admission, it is not nearly as in-depth as the last add-on, which explains why it’s $10 cheaper, but what it delivers is the textbook definition of more of the same. It’s a good thing Bungie has finally discovered a formula that works and has chosen to build upon it, but on the other, it highlights Destiny’s more internal flaws.

The new campaign revolves around Lord Saladin, the last of the first generation of Guardians referred to as Iron Lords. When he isn’t leading the game’s Iron Banner PvP event, he protects secrets hidden by his fallen comrades, preserved within the Iron Temple located in uncharted Russia. Things seem alright until a subgroup of the Fallen enemy faction, the techpriests known as Splicers, uncover the source of the greatest threat that led to the extinction of the Iron Lords: a deadly nanovirus known as SIVA. In order to prevent the Splicers from weaponizing SIVA and waging war against Earth, your player helps Lord Saladin locate the source of SIVA, destroy it and deal with the Splicers’ newly minted armies, war machines and experimental abominations.

 It’s not a bad concept for an expansion, but there are some things holding it back. With that said, the campaign is more tightly structured, complete with cutscenes of actual coherent storytelling and world-building (the very fact I had to write that out shows how far things have come). A particular shout-out must be made of Lord Saladin, who manages to be both sympathetic as well as a strong mentor of sorts to your Guardian, teaching him or her the history and might of the Iron Lords in their prime while also remembering how they fell to vanity as well as nanite-infused nightmares. However, in terms of scale, it can’t exactly compete with The Taken King’s plot involving taking out a god from the darkest reaches of space who has arrived in the solar system with an armada, a doomsday weapon and an ever expanding pan-dimensional army.

Also, for all of Bungie’s insistence that Rise of Iron would feature completely brand new content the new patrol area, The Plaguelands, is made up of roughly half of the Cosmodrome patrol area with a different coat of paint, to say nothing of the Splicers themselves being old enemies wearing new hats. Even the actual campaign’s content is lacking with the basic story wrapped up in a little under four hours, which is an issue no matter how many well-made set pieces and encounters are presented.

Thankfully, when it comes to long-term content things are more stable. Rise of Iron gives you a progress book similar to the Moments of Triumph in the beginning. Instead of major undertakings like finishing the latest raid on hard, the progress book is full of smaller manageable obstacles like hitting a certain K/D ratio in PvP or obtaining a certain amount of collectibles. Finishing these tasks yields rewards like special pieces of armor, ornaments which reskin special weapons you may have, new colored shells for your Ghost and more.

 On the topic of PvP, the new maps are decent. A solid mix of close-quarters corridor shootouts and wide open venues with an emphasis on verticality. The new Supremacy mode is also welcome even if it plays similar to Call of Duty’s Kill Confirmed or Halo’s Headhunter modes. Kill an enemy Guardian and he’ll drop a crest, pick it up and you get points, the first team to a fixed amount of crests wins. Personally, I enjoy the mode since it encourages a lot of short to medium distance play, lots of intense gunfights in claustrophobic locations as opposed to getting hit by a sniper across the map.

As for PvE content, it’s more of a mixed bag. The biggest addition is the surprisingly addictive Archon’s Forge. You activate the Forge by using a new collectible called a SIVA offering, which will summon a wave of enemies with a boss fight breaking out once enough waves are defeated. Other players can even jump in at any time to help. Finish off the boss and everyone involved gets rewarded. Even when this novelty wears off, this public event is a lot of good fun, since it helps get everyone in the area involved and helps emphasize the strength of being an always-online shared experience. The same cannot be said for the new Strikes, which instead of introducing two or three merely brings in one brand new encounter and adds a hard mode variation to two Strikes from year one. The revised Strikes have a bit more going on than just higher numbers being thrown around but savvy reused assets are still reused assets.

Surprising no one, the highlight of Rise of Iron is its new raid. The aptly titled Wrath of the Machine is a great testament to what Destiny is capable of when taking full advantage of the current console generation. This latest addition is the first one not to also be designed for Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. The highlight of the entire encounter is the battle against the Siege Engine or what the community has dubbed the “Death Zamboni” sequence. A harrowing boss battle where a large mechanical monstrosity slowly pursues your team. It’s a fantastic challenge since the key to victory doesn’t just come from pumping enough bullets at a weak spot, but also maneuverability, speed and coordination. It’s one of the greatest bouts of teamwork I have experienced in online play and the only legitimate instance I have witnessed of Destiny’s framerate dropping to keep up with all the action.

But for all of the improvements Rise of Iron brings, almost none of Destiny’s lingering problems are addressed. There is still no in-game looking for group feature, creating a clan still involves logging into a separate website, and there’s still no player-driven economy or trading system. That last feature isn’t as glaring anymore since the game has moved towards earning certain legendary and exotic items being tied to quests that can be completed with friends rather than be completely dictated by RNG. If weapons and armor are more status symbols that have to be earned, not being allowed to trade them is understandable, but it still says something when I can be completely maxed on in-game money and have nothing to spend it on, even if it’s something as simple as something cosmetic for a friend.

Overall, Destiny Rise of Iron is a good enough extension of the original game at its core. It’s the equivalent to interactive comfort food. A reliably entertaining experience that occasionally tries to reach something resembling its full potential. If you hopped off the bandwagon after year one, there won’t be much to bring you back, but if you are craving another reason to dust off your Guardian and get back into the swing of things, this expansion will hold your attention for a while.

Final Score: 7.5/10

It is now 2017 and I am tucking into the game's Age of Triumph event, re-experiencing the Raids with my own clan. And yes, I am actually interested in the sequel coming out in September.

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing to see before and after thoughts of a game. How a game evolved from being just mediocre to surprisingly decent to actually good. I enjoy that comparison. Very expressive and articulate.