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Platform(s): PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Bungie
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2014


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PS4 Review - 'Destiny'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 11, 2014 @ 1:15 a.m. PDT

Destiny offers unprecedented variety of FPS gameplay, including story, cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes combined with public and social activities.

There are few games that can say they've changed the face of a genre forever, but it's no exaggeration to say that Halo did. Many of the mechanics it introduced became commonplace, and it almost single-handedly defined the console shooter. The first new IP from Bungie since Halo and one of the most expensive games ever made, Destiny has a lot of expectations riding on it. Is it another Halo? That question isn't as easy to answer because despite the similarities, Destiny is very much its own beast.

Destiny is set in the distant future. Humanity discovers a being known as The Traveler, who gifts mankind with knowledge that leads them into a golden age. An evil darkness followed The Traveler to Earth, and the ensuing war decimates humanity and the Traveler. The remainder of mankind is forced to live in a single city, The Tower, and Guardians are tasked with stopping threats to the city, aiding the Traveler and eliminating the forces of darkness.

Destiny's story is the weakest part of the experience. It teeters between generic and melodramatic and never manages to capture a consistent tone. There aren't any memorable characters, and the central plot is muddled and unsatisfying. It takes a long time for the story to get going, and once it does, it's a long string of barely explained MacGuffins until a final boss fight that's so generic and faceless that it's difficult to care when you defeat it.

Characters are introduced and dropped without much thought, and most of the story line is told through the repetitive mutterings of your trust robot companion, The Ghost (Peter Dinklage). Dinklage doesn't bring his "A" game to the role, and it really shows. The Ghost feels wooden and uninteresting, and its attempts at being charming or snarky fall flat. Since it narrates most of the game, it really needed to be a more dynamic and interesting character. Destiny feels like it is torn between the plot-light stylings of an MMO and the more involved drama of a traditional FPS, but it doesn't manage to find the balance between either.

Fortunately, the weak story can be comfortably carried by the excellent gameplay. The gunplay is instantly recognizable as being a descendant of Halo: Combat Evolved. It's a fast-paced action game with an emphasis on mixing melee and ranged gameplay, and there's a large focus on mobility. If you played Halo, it won't be a one-for-one translation to Destiny, but you'll have a clear idea of the combat mechanics. This is one area where Destiny instantly stands out from its competitors because a lot of time and effort was spent on making the gunplay feel good and balanced. The speed and mobility of combat, combined with Halo-style regenerating shields, keeps things feeling fast-paced, and the system rewards skill as much as the ability to get the drop on the opponent.

For better or worse, this emphasis on gunplay comes with a serious reduction in the usage of special powers when compared to other, similar shooters. There are three classes in Destiny: Hunter, Titan and Warlock, and each has one of two subclasses available. Every character has three different special moves: a grenade, a melee, and a super move. Each special move has infinite usage but a cooldown between uses. The relatively long cooldown times can be altered and modified by equipment, but you're not going to depend on them. Each class also has passive abilities that augment the stats, and while they alter the way your class plays, the difference isn't as significantly as in a title like Borderlands, where different classes have extremely significant and frequently used powers.

Destiny is better off for this. The balance is quite solid, and each of the three classes feels fun and significant. More importantly, combat never descends into the rote mechanisms of repeatedly pressing the "Win" button. It's possible to outplay and outfight your opponents at a lower level, and being at a high level merely offers variety instead of power. It feels really fun and exciting and keeps the gameplay feeling fresh, even when you're fighting the same kind of opponents. It's pretty clear the gameplay is tuned for PvE and PvP, and it shows in all elements of the design. If you enjoyed Borderlands' Diablo-style enemy-wrecking, loot-gathering, unbalanced excitement, this may feel like a step backward.

Destiny's PvE gameplay is strongly inspired by MMO games like World of Warcraft. There are four hub worlds — Earth, Mars, The Moon and Venus — and each is comprised of a large, open environment that you can explore. This environment is populated by enemies, and you can take on missions, collect materials, and uncover loot caches. The worlds are semi-instanced, so you encounter other players in the same world, but not every player exists in the same world. These encounters allow players to help each other out, but that's about the extent of the interaction. Public events are the exception, tasking everyone in the area with defeating a special monster for rewards.

If a player takes on a story mission, he's placed into an instanced version of the mission, which functions differently. Only fire teams can exist together in these zones, and respawning is also significantly more limited. A player who dies in a Darkness zone can be revived by his allies, but if the entire team dies, then they are sent back to a checkpoint, and enemies respawn. You also can engage in special strike missions that pit you against high-end bosses in exchange for loot and equipment.

Destiny's structure feels repetitive. Each world has a distinct group of enemies, but despite this, the foes all feel the same after a while. A lot of environments are used for multiple missions, and once you've gone through them a few times, it loses the sense of excitement. More frustrating is that a lot of the major bosses are merely bigger versions of regular foes. It's very disappointing to reach a hyped foe only to discover that it's the same enemies you've defeated, only twice as large. Many bosses also have overinflated hit points and take entirely too long to defeat. Even with a coordinated team of three pounding at the weak points, it can take over 10 minutes to take down some of the bosses.

Despite what it may look like at first blush, Destiny's leveling system isn't traditional. Players level up, but that only influences the base stats and level of equipment you can use. You learn new skills as you gain experience points. During the first 15 levels on your first character, this coincides with a new skill every time you gain a level. The moment you swap to a subclass, you begin leveling skills on their own. Weapons and armor can also level up, with various pieces of loot having passive attributes that you'll unlock through a combination of experience, money and crafting materials. The level cap is also a shockingly low 20. You continue to gain new abilities and higher stats by increasing skill experience and armor experience, and you can only go above level 20 by finding and equipping special Light-infused equipment that grants bonuses.

The pros of Destiny's level system aren't instantly obvious, but they become clear as you play more. The title doesn't require a heavy time investment to reach the end-game. Destiny has a low level cap, but the focus is on getting better pieces of equipment. This makes it easy for both casual and hardcore players to stay within the same rough range. It isn't an exaggeration to say that Destiny begins at level 20, rather than ending there.

Some of the MMO-style elements are poorly integrated. The Tower is the game's social hub and only town. Unlike in a "true" MMO, The Tower doesn't feel like it's naturally integrated into the game, and there's no real social aspect to it. Other characters appear, but you can barely interact with them. The selection of players you'll encounter is randomized, and your interactions are limited to dancing or pointing. The Tower is also poorly laid out. You have to wander across the map to perform basic shopping tasks with vendors that are located pretty far apart. This makes sense in an MMO, where the immersion is part of the world setting, but it's tedious without the social aspects to back it up. There are excessively long load times to get in and out of The Tower, so I'd often not bother to identify loot until I was ready to stare at the loading screen for a few minutes.

Destiny's end game may be strong, but the early game is extremely weak. You have limited powers, the loot isn't interesting, and the plot does little to pique your interest. You can't hop into PvP until you're at least level 5. Things pick up as you progress, but it takes some time. Games like Borderlands have a similar problem but depend on the plot to propel you forward, and you see the payoff sooner. Destiny's early game feels too unfocused, making it difficult to reach the later game, where things are more interesting. It doesn't help that the game locks away so many things. Subclasses are locked away until level 15; this makes them feel less exciting since you need to level up a new class from scratch or stick with your previously leveled class. Destiny is full of little annoyances that are clearly designed to create a smooth path to level 20 but end up detracting from the experience instead.

Destiny's PvP gameplay is interesting and will likely maintain a strong player base after interest in the PvE content starts to dwindle. Players can bring in their characters from the story mode, and they retain all the skills they learned in the PvE mode and have access to all their weaponry. They can even swap weapons mid-match. The weapon and player stats aren't carried over, but any unlocked passive bonuses are. The core PvP gameplay includes classic modes like Deathmatch and Capture The Point. Players continue to gain experience points while in PvP, and they can even unlock special equipment to bring back to PvE. It's a fast and exciting mode that is the closest you can get to Halo on the PlayStation 4.

Even without the stats influencing combat, there's a very significant power gap between low- and high-level players. The additional skills and abilities have a significant impact on how things play out. When one player can triple-jump, perform two special melees in a row, or recover health after a kill, it's difficult for lower-level players to compete. This is a problem with many FPS experience since Call of Duty popularized leveling systems, and the gap between players isn't so significant that a lower-level player can't have fun. It can be frustrating when you lose a fight you should've won because the gap in levels gave the other player more advantages.

For the most part, Destiny looks great. The game runs smoothly, and the environments are large, interesting and distinctive. There's some repetition in the areas here and there, but each of the four major areas has a distinctive look and feel. The soundtrack, the last one Halo composer Martin O'Donnell did for the company, evokes the feel of Halo and does a great job of setting the mood. The voice acting doesn't fare as well. There are some talented actors present, but none put their best foot forward. The aforementioned lackluster performance from Dinklage is unfortunate, as it drags down the game, and fans of the actor know he can do better.

Destiny suffers from a serious case of rough edges. A number of elements, from the repetitive mission design to a weak early game, are a lot rougher than expected from an otherwise polished game. There isn't one glaring problem that detracts from the experience, but a number of minor issues hurt the game. Beneath those flaws lies an extremely enjoyable MMO-styled shooter that plays excellently, looks great, is extremely addictive, and has a strong and varied endgame. Destiny makes a strong impression on anyone who's willing to give it the time. It may not be the game-changer that Halo was, but Destiny is a strong game in its own right.

Score: 8.5/10

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