Destiny, Manifested: Thoughts on Bungie's Shooter MMO

Bungie announced a three-day exclusive alpha trial for Destiny, its first game published by Activision, at Sony’s E3 press event last week. Because I love testing games before release, and because I knew Sony’s sign-up page would be flooded seconds after the news dropped, I jumped at the chance to experience a pre-release version of the next franchise from the former house of Halo.

And you know what happened? Something I never expected: I witnessed, even in this raw form, the connected future of first-person shooters. If Bungie ensures the full game’s online features are as effortlessly enjoyable as the alpha’s, I expect it’ll change the way developers approach shooters in the future -- they could become less competitive, and more cooperative.

Read on for my brief impressions of how Destiny, by embracing the best features of today’s massively multiplayer games, might just change FPSes for the better.

Anyone ensnared by MMOs in the past 10 years knows they all share common, World of Warcraft-derived mechanics: a hub city with mailboxes and class trainers, random loot with varying levels of rarity, branching skill trees and, perhaps most definingly, unscripted interactions with real people (usually devolving into dance parties).

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Destiny would be called an MMO if it weren’t another shooter. Previews, and Bungie itself, haven’t hit on just how much this console game behaves like a PC MMO. It’s jarring at first.

After my first mission I loaded the game’s hub world, the last bastion of humanity on a ruined future Earth. While fairly small, the Tower has every conceivable NPC trope from any online RPG, minus the crafting stations. The game’s player-versus-player mode, the Crucible, even gives marks for winning which can be handed in for epic-tier equipment. Former WoW players will flash back to more feverish times, for sure.

But Destiny, at least in alpha form, eschews the color-coded insanity of grinding for loot -- and that’s a damn good thing.

I played two separate characters during the alpha (a Hunter and a Warlock, for reference), and up to the alpha’s cap of eight levels, I never begrudged my equipment. Not once did I farm mobs in the hopes I’d get a better helmet. The quest rewards, at least at an introductory level, properly equip characters and put the focus on combat skills over grinding away endlessly for rare items.

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Perhaps the most reassuring thing Destiny does opposite of Borderlands, which it’s been endlessly compared to, is to never put players in an endless feedback loop of gear-for-the-sake-of gear. Maybe the final game will encourage loot hunting, but from what I could tell the experience is nothing like what Gearbox baked into the Borderlands franchise. In Borderlands, it was easy to chase the specter of better weapons due to the sheer enormity of randomly generated equipment. After two games, it got old. In Destiny, gear is only a means to progress into more-difficult quests. Ideally, the purpose of tiered equipment is progression. But far too often, loot becomes an obsession -- an excuse to claim “replayability” just because the math is randomized.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/3qPJIjDiB5E[/youtube]

Playing Destiny is like playing a rudimentary RPG, and I mean that as a compliment. Instead of imposing a complex skill tree as so many other RPGs do, your character will, at least in the alpha, take a predetermined path based on skill use  (see the above video for an example). Just leveling up doesn’t guarantee a skill point to slot into some new box. For me, it’s a welcome break from obsessing on “builds” (à la Dark Souls II) and just devoting my time to shooting lots of aliens, which is more satisfying than it sounds. Why? Because Destiny does gun combat better than any other console shooter I’ve played. If you loved the way Halo controlled, this game does it better.

Other MMO systems like instanced dungeons and quests are welcome in what could have been a haven for trolls. Quests are also shared regionally, so even if you don’t group up in a fireteam with two other players, nearby players’ kills will give you experience, items and cash. There’s no need to camp enemy spawns to fill out your backlog of quests.

Speaking of quests, my only major concern with Destiny is task variation. Gameplay modes are controlled via an orbital map. While the campaign and dungeon modes are quite enjoyable, free roaming amounts to a whole lot of zooming around on your future bike looking for quest beacons -- and not much else. That part’s fine, but the quests are all depressingly banal: kill this, collect these, etc. But as long as the campaign and boss fights hold up, Destiny won’t be another boring MMO time suck.

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Opposite of traditional MMOs, Destiny locks players into a series of loading menus similar to setting up matchmaking in Halo, and these lulls in action were the times I became the most concerned about the execution. The game avoids the logic-break with teleporting from map to map by showing everything (other players, your hover bike, etc.) as teleporting in from some ship in space. It’s a clever way to avoid pointing out that areas are limited maps, and not sections of an MMO-sized free-roaming world.

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What I loved most about Destiny was the random frequency with which other players appear, and how you interact with them. Nothing is forced by Bungie, and in many cases real players teleport in as often as they disappear. This “player buffering” reinforces the feel that there are thousands of other people experiencing the world alongside you, and at any time three other players might appear to help you with a sudden region-wide public event. As with most modern multiplayer shooters you can invite friends to a fireteam and play only with them, but it’s almost better to wander around and team up with the people you come across during a mission.

Back in the Tower, players hang out near item vendors, dancing with one another through d-pad emotes. If that’s not an MMO, then I don’t know what is.

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If Destiny becomes the success that Bungie and Activision expect it to be, I imagine I’ll never feel alone while questing among the ruins of Earth. Thanks to some fairly seamless technology and an adoption of the best parts of MMOs, Destiny is the first shooter I’ve been excited for in years. My excitement isn’t just because it’s fun, but because it proves that there's confidence in the games industry that a progressive, massively online shooter can succeed in pushing the genre forward.