Breaking Down the Destiny Beta

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Reid and I have had plenty of time to sink our teeth into the Destiny Beta since it began last week. There was plenty about it that we both loved, but questions about how much the game’s story will actually matter, and how much more complex enemy encounters will eventually get, still leave both of us with a handful of reservations.

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Ethan: Reid, my fellow guardian of humanity’s last remnants: what was the coolest thing you did in Destiny this past weekend?

Reid: The coolest thing I did in Destiny this weekend was shoot a moon space wizard with a rocket launcher. Or jump on and off the Star Wars hoverbike. Those were both pretty cool.

Ethan: That’s an interesting place to begin, because for me at least, one of the things I’m really digging about Destiny is its strange mashup of D&D style fantasy and run of the mill space marine badassery.

At the same time, hoverbikes cribbed directly from Star Wars and gameplay elements that are uncannily reminiscent of other games makes me worry that Destiny could be overwhelmed by its own derivativeness. Does the MMO shooter feel wholly fresh to you, or more like the Frankenstein’s monster of popular genre tropes and gameplay mechanics?

Reid: I wasn’t expecting to like Destiny much because it keeps being described as Borderlands crossed with an MMORPG, and neither Borderlands nor MMORPGs are very appealing to me. But, even though these are valid points of reference, the game itself actually feels like something of its own. I didn’t think it would.

It’s like the fantasy/sci-fi mash-up you mentioned–it definitely has strong reference points, but I think it ends up feeling like its own thing by smushing them all together into something new. I don’t know if that will be the case throughout the whole game, though. What did you think?

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Ethan: The first thing that jumped out to me about the game was its score. Despite Bungie still using Michael Salvatori and Martin O’Donnell from the Halo series, the compositions in Destiny remind me much more of The Elder Scrolls in space and Jeremy Soule’s moodier and more subtle work  from that series.

It helps set a tone for the game that puts me in the frame of mind that Destiny is it’s own thing, and more than just the sum of its parts.

Which is important I think, because as tried, true, and fun as each of the parts is by itself, there’s little here that we haven’t seen in some form or another before.

Reid: Maybe it is just the aesthetic that sets it apart. I don’t find the visuals all that unique (even though the game does look awfully pretty), but the music is a real highlight. Too bad about that voice acting, huh?

Ethan: What a leading question! So I mostly ignored the “controversy” over Peter Dinklage’s VOA as ‘Ghost’ the alien artifact of sorts that acts as your spirit animal guide (despite being a floating cube). Rarely do I love the voice acting in games, but rarely is it terrible enough to distract me from whatever else is going on.

And yet somehow Dinklage manages to give Ghost no hint of a consistent character while at the same time failing to simply make him a characterless alien robot presence. There’s no dry wit reminiscent of Borderland’s Claptrap, nor the icy remove of the first Halo’s Cortana. Instead it’s clunky and stiff; similar to how my dad might sound if asked to voice the part and modeled it after Dave Chappelle’s dry-toast, white guy impression.

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Reid: Yeah, I’m with you on that. I usually only notice really good or bad voice acting, but Destiny is interesting because it stands out for just how incredibly flat its voice work is. And this isn’t just Peter Dinklage, to be fair. If you play the multiplayer mode it pops up there, too, with another actor.

And the rest of the sound work is so good (I meant to call-out the sound effects before) that the voices stick out like a sore thumb.

But, is that interesting? Like, how much attention are you going to pay to the story anyway. From the Beta it seems kind of irrelevant–which is weird because there’s actually quite a lot of exposition in the game. I couldn’t make much sense out of the story from what I played of the Beta.

Ethan: Wait, Destiny has a story? The sum total knowledge I have of the game world and my place in it is: I’m a moon wizard tasked with defending the last city on Earth from “the darkness.” I actually thought the pre-game intro bits about the giant alien space ball in the sky, and how it spurred an unparalleled age of human progress and expansion, were really cool and created an interesting backdrop to environments you then explore and, more often than not, shoot things in.

But over five hours in that flavor text has yet to be expounded upon, or woven back into the missions I’ve completed, even in the form of unique enemy characters or discovered artefacts. This is a pitfall of many MMOs that lead with the promise of a fascinating world and riveting drama, only to immediately devolve into fetch questing and creep stomping for 20+ hours until the end game starts to pick up. Do you think it’s one Destiny will encounter as well?

Reid: That’s probably what I’m most worried about after generally liking the Beta a whole lot–that all of the most interesting parts of Destiny will fall into the background after playing it for a few hours. I mean, the story does do a good job of pulling the player in right off the bat. But, once the introduction is over and the regular gameplay gets going it just gets mushed into the background of the missions.

I’m worried that the same might happen to the combat, which is really excellent for the most part. As a shooter, Destiny plays really, really well, but there’s the risk that, as enemies get bigger health bars and there’s an increased emphasis on crafting/looting good equipment, it will become less about snappy gunplay and more about throwing your numbers against the enemy’s numbers–turning more RPG than shooter.

But, it’s so hard to know how everything will pan out because the Beta is (hopefully) just a small chunk of the finished game. Who knows how the missions will be structured?

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Ethan: Yea, this is probably what I’m most curious about. Will there be challenges later on that require coordinating with other players not just to revive one another and unload on the boss from opposite directions, but which require something more complicated though still pretty basic like baiting and switching, haveing one or two people draw fire while another snipes, etc. Or will it just be six people popping in and out of cover while they slowly soak the enemy with bullets.As good as the gameplay feels (i.e. running, jumping, and shooting are snappy and intuitive), I’ve been able to get through far too many enemy encounters by simply shooting forward while walking backwards (and occasionally side to side).

Which leads into one of my only direct complaints: that the game (or at least the Beta) has no shield or active health regen mechanic. For whatever reason I’m a big proponent of the first Mass Effect’s system, wherein health recovers only slowly over time while a shield prevents any lasting damage up to a certain point for a specific time interval. Simply restoring health after five to ten seconds of not taking damage encourages too much running away and allows you to weasel your way out of tough spots by simply playing the waiting game against an impaired enemy AI.

Reid: I think a system like that would go a long way. And I know what you mean about the tactics emphasizing either unloading on enemies or hiding behind a pillar. It’s kind of a shame because the way Bungie has designed some of the areas you fight in is really neat. They’ve done a good job of mixing up-close fights in enclosed spaces with wide-open areas that reward jumping around or trying to out-flank enemies.

But if the combat ends up being Borderlands-style “keep holding down the trigger until it dies” I’ll probably lose interest. It’s a bit annoying not knowing how it will all pan out further into the game, but I guess that’s kind of the give and take of this Beta. On one hand it made me interested in a game I probably would’ve passed on. On the other it makes me wonder if Destiny is something that will be fun to play for more than a handful of hours.

Do you think you’re going to buy the full game? Did the Beta sway you one way or the other?

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Ethan: I think I committed myself to Destiny even before playing the Beta because of just how much I’ve been pining for anything that even remotely resembles Mass Effect. And the fact that so many of the levels play like the multiplayer ones from Mass Effect 3 (in addition to being a thousand times prettier and more varied), certainly helps.

At the same time, however, I’m certainly slightly less enthused than I was after the first hour or two when I was still riding high off of Destiny‘s sci-fi mythology and wonderful score. The game has the level of polish and clean design you would expect from an AAA Bungie title, but whether or not there’s enough complexity underneath to the surface to keep players coming back (including myself) remains to be seen.

Have you had any interesting interactions yet with strangers? I remember at the initial press briefing that much was made by the developers about how in Destiny players would be adventuring through the exotic locales and encounter other players in startling and unique ways.

At one point during the Destiny Beta I was blasting my way out of a crashed alien spaceship. The enemies looked like rock encrusted hammer head sharks on two legs and deposits of kryptonite-like rocks were glowing bright green. I imagined it might have looked cool to the players standing out in the field on the other side when I used my warlock special to blast three or four of the enemies out the entrance of the ship, but that was about it. None of us then started roaming together. Then again though, none of us needed to because the difficulty was so scaled down.

Reid: I definitely didn’t feel like any of my interactions with other players were “startling or unique.” When I went through some of the missions on my own the other players who dropped into my game were pretty much just up to their own thing and it never seemed like we were working toward a common goal. Everyone seems to be running around with their own objectives in mind, occasionally showing up nearby just to steal one of your kills.

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It was more fun when I grouped with a friend one day and you on another. But without verbal communication it’s pretty tough to properly link up and work together. Even when you and I were actually talking to one another it was really easy to get separated without meaning to. For all the co-op hooks it has built into it, Destiny feels like a very solitary game so far. I’m okay with that to a certain extent because I like single player games, too, but I was expecting something different.

Ethan: Am I the only one unable to ignore the dissonance between the background story–Earth is overrun with dangerous aliens and humanity seeks refuge in one last city–and how easy it is for players to rampage through environments? It certainly doesn’t feel like “survival” plays any part in the game beyond the sci-fi premise, and yet I think it might have been cool if running into other players out in the field was a relief rather than a slight nuisance (stop stealing all my kills!).

Reid: I think this is the fault of the story falling into the background of the game. It opens up with the idea that your player character is special–a reawakened Guardian fighting to save a doomed world–and then throws you into situations where you’re just one more person with a gun mowing down waves of aliens. Part of the issue is that the mission design is at odds with the plot. I think you are supposed to feel a bit of desperation at times (like the many missions where you have to defend the Ghost against tonnes of enemies while it downloads data), but the gameplay itself doesn’t do much to capitalize on the need to survive. It can be a relief when another player shows up in these moments, but, unless you’re already following each other around, that’s probably not going to happen in the middle of a big gunfight.

If the game was programmed to introduce another player at the 11th hour of these kind of missions it would probably bring out the sense of desperation that the plot seems interested in creating. But then you ruin that player’s ability to get invested in whatever they’re doing by pulling them into someone else’s game. I don’t know. I think the story we get to see in the Beta wastes its premise. I’m not sure that the full release will be able to fix that, either. The game design just doesn’t seem compatible with the plot Bungie has drawn up.