My beloved Oakland A's are shitting the bed. One minute they're the toast of baseball— with the game's best record, its highest run differential, its best pitching staff—and the next they look like the Washington Generals, playing well under .500 ball since the All-Star break and struggling now to even limp into the playoffs. It's heartbreaking, it's gut-wrenching, it's sort of how I feel playing Destiny.
What a strong start for this game! Gorgeous interstellar graphics, reliably great shooter mechanics, a customizable character that seemed to promise a rich narrative experience. And then ... blammo. Roughly two hours in, you've seen everything the game has to offer. The story sputters, the gameplay fails to evolve, the missions start t0 feel like trips to the laundromat. In attempting to build the ultimate RPG/FPS/MMO—not merely a game, but a "platform," because everything's a fucking platform these days—Destiny bobbles the most enjoyable aspects of all three, touching the same nerve frayed by my hometown nine's recent play.
How the crap did this happen? Developed by Bungie—the team that created Halo, one of the best shooter franchises of all time—Destiny is marginally a reboot in that involves space and lasers, and is available for both the new and old Playstation/Xbox consoles. (I played it on Xbox One.) While this is a new game running on a new engine (er, platform), Halo vets will recognize the virtuoso mechanics: One of Destiny's great thrills is being utterly besieged by enemies in wave after wave, your only hope of survival being to blast your way out, a la the original Halo's Flood levels. But what's it saying when some of the things your new game does best are the things your old game already nailed 10 years and two consoles ago?
Don't get me wrong: Destiny is innovative. But that's its problem. There are multiple games within this game, and they're like an orchestra playing out of tune. In attempting to create a multiplayer experience that blends seamlessly with the single-player campaign, then layering in RPG elements like looting and leveling, it creates endless hoops for itself to jump through, giving you no real easy way to just play the damn thing. A typical session involves playing through a story mission, flying back to "The Tower" to redeem loot and/or get a new side mission, being forced into a multiplayer match in order to gain XP, flying back to "The Tower" to redeem additional loot, flying back to the mission you just played for an annoying patrol mission, flying back to "The Tower," etc. all the while putting up with the wan dialogue of the various merchants ("You take care of that gun, Guardian"), a finite number of characters I grew sick of quickly and never wanted to deal with again. It's intergalactic space warfare as a hamster wheel.
Here's another unwelcome innovation: Instead of playing as the game's lone hero, because it's not like there's a millenniums-old tradition of that narrative device working, you're one of countless "Guardians," a single star in a galaxy of mooks, anonymous if not for your clever screen name and customized face tattoos. Together with your brethren, you're charged with … honestly, I have no idea.
What little preface there is establishes the existence of this thing called The Traveler, a metallic mini-moon that hovers above a vaguely imperiled earth. At some point in this universe, aliens showed up, robots turned sentient, planets got colonized, and space travel became as easy as driving a station wagon to Wally World, but the details of all this are sketchy. At the onset of the game, after choosing to play as either a Titan, Hunter, or Warlock (the nuanced abilities of which you're left to speculate on), your character is just tapped awake one day by a floating, talking Rubik's Cube, voiced by one Peter Dinklage. This is how all the best tales begin.
Your avatar's history is left ambiguous forevermore, and not in some cool High Plains Drifter way. It's just kind of left dangling. Likewise, the story itself feels perfunctory and hollow, involving various aliens taking and/or losing various outposts on the Moon, Venus, Mars, whatever. There are no cut scenes or dialogue interactions, so Destiny's frazzled plot is left to poor old Mr. Dinklage to convey in big wordy globs as each level begins. Try this in your best Tyrion Lannister voice: "I have a plan to charge the Gate Lord's Eye. Deep in their Warbase, the Cabal are sitting on a Vex Spire that connects to the Black Garden Gate. We free that Spire, we charge the Eye."
I have to note here that Dinklage's presence in the game is a blessing. His delivery of the tortured dialogue, befuddling plot points and all, is so dry and unamused, you get a conspiratorial kick from hearing him deliver it, as if he, like you, is just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ing his way through it all. The effect is so pronounced it caused Bungie to rewrite one of the game's most ponderous lines after early beta-testers pounced on it, ultimately turning it into its own meme/t-shirt. Verily: That wizard came from the moon.
But so yeah, you're a Guardian, you're fighting aliens. The alien species, despite coming from different parts of the galaxy, all behave pretty much the same, requiring the same combination of cover/shoot, cover/shoot to dispatch. This kind of transparently uncreative design plagues Destiny. For a game that uses space as its setting, it feels the opposite of expansive, with the various planetary landscapes repeating like the backdrop in a Bugs Bunny cartoon: Wasn't I just here? Didn't I just kill that guy?
Monotony appears to be a guiding principle. There's a looting system whereby you can find/buy/earn guns and armor, but the gun types are all familiar (pistol, shotgun, RPG, etc.), and each one shoots basically the same as the one you just upgraded from; every helmet/gauntlet/chest bodice is the same model, just painted differently. Some of these things come with perks or upgrades, but I've yet to really notice their effect on my play, certainly not the way the Borderlands series makes firing an acid-shooting sniper rifle such a hoot.
Here's the part where I rant about multiplayer for a second. Why does every game developer insist that I play games online with strangers? They're like mothers pushing their children out the door and into the street, forcing them to interact with the kids with boogers on their shirts and/or bullies intent on humiliating them and/or guys who talk like Paulie D yelling into a Ham radio. What is it about me playing video games in my underwear on a Saturday morning that makes you think I want to socialize? Do they know how stupid it looks to members of the opposite sex to see their mate in a dark room, their face lit up by the sea-foam glow of the screen, talking vague Army nonsense into a headset like a delusional Vietnam vet? Jesus!
Anyway, multiplayer's a BFD to the Destiny folks; they're desperately trying to innovate an MMO universe that encourages cooperation and interaction. Rather than do this from a bland start screen, Destiny gives us the concept of the aforementioned Tower, which is both your standard RPG village concept where you can buy weapons, armor, etc., as well as the game's multi-player lobby, which is novel, I guess. So instead of gamer handles on a flat screen, you get this entire space station full of other players running and jumping and talking to one another. But while Destiny could have used the directional pad to give players various inventory-management controls—the way most games nowadays do—the developers instead use it to allow you to perform dance moves, point at someone, and sit down. That's right: You can sit down in this game. It's an Andy Warhol film waiting to happen.
It behooves me to mention that this game is a runaway success. Released a few weeks ago, it smashed sales records despite rampant mediocre reviews like this one. This is both encouraging and disconcerting. It's encouraging because Triple-A titles like Destiny, the budget of which was reported at approaching half a billion dollars, are uniquely enthralling, and if they start bombing outright, we'll see even less of them than we do now, and we already don't see too many of them each year, especially not wholly new IP like this game. It's disconcerting the same way James Cameron movies are: This is really the highest standard of commercial and artistic excellence the industry can produce? Man. At least the Oakland A's are underdogs. I expect them to let me down.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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