Destiny isn’t that great, so why can’t I stop playing it?

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Developer Bungie have done some incredible things. They defined the first person shooter genre decades ago with Halo and, in the same moment, saved Microsoft’s first console – the original XBOX – from irrelevance. Indeed, the Xbox 360 and One may never have happened without Bungie’s seminal shooter giving Microsoft their first killer app.

Today, Bungie have moved on. Leaving behind their intimidating legacy in the competent hands of 343 Studios, Bungie are off chasing new horizons. Away from the shackles of exclusivity and corporate-directed production they’ve begun creating the game series they’ve ‘always wanted to make’. This freedom resulted in the multiplatform behemoth Destiny launching on the ninth of September. Exactly one month on, how is it faring? It’s hard to say.

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Destiny was a victim of its own hype. Considering its morbidly bloated budget and its ambiguous trailers that not only promised the world, but promised all the worlds, Destiny was never going to live up to it all. A sizable portion of that $500m allowance was spent, no doubt, on the frankly obnoxious marketing campaign that ended up ensuring Bungie (and publisher Activision) made back most of their costs in one day when the game finally launched, regardless of underwhelming review scores.

Despite the fact that such a huge playerbase adopted Destiny on day one, there’s not much love for it online. The dissatisfied are always going to be the most vocal, it’s true, but even taking that sad modern maxim into consideration it’s astounding just how many complaints there are out there. Bungie are a developer that are more in touch with their players and fans than arguably any other studio, so it must be a particularly bitter blow for such a feedback orientated company to be receiving so much negativity. To their credit, Bungie have already started working on fixing features that garnered the loudest complaints, and Destiny has already begun to evolve because of it.

Warlock_RenderStill, Destiny launched half-baked. For a game that purportedly had the breadth of content and scope as some of the biggest MMOs out there, it was a criminally meagre offering. Bungie’s unparalleled vision and world building ended up amounting to four planets, a handful of weak missions and a limited, reductive class system. The campaign still feels like a tech demo without a real game to validate its own systems. Core missions are cookie cutter affairs of shoot this, scan that, lacking the cinematic bombast of Halo or its peers.  Despite the hoverbike Sparrows handling beautifully and lending a real sense of speed to proceedings, they’re never used to, say, blast away from an exploding ship, tear away from an oncoming swarm of insurmountable enemies or careen through a valley on Mars as part of a race. Instead, they’re just used to transport you to the next shooting range.

It’s not all bad – the game handles brilliantly. The enemy AI is interesting and pressures Guardians constantly, and the punchy weapons feel great – interestingly players will find themselves gravitating towards guns that really resonate with personal playstyle rather than some arbitrary power meter or community ranking. But the weapons themselves never really feel very out-there or imaginative. There’s a suite of auto-rifles, shotguns and snipers, but the most sci-fi Destiny dares to get is with its standard laser rifle. They are tired and simplistic iterations on overused archetypes, with none of the imagination or verve present that Bungie have previously proven themselves masters of.

To wring the most out of these offerings Bungie seemingly crafted a game that abuses its own limitations. Forcing players to repeat the same bland levels over and over again made the endgame a painful slog through content we hadn’t enjoyed that much the first time round. Shooting galleries intersected with corridors – no matter how good the shooting is or how pretty the corridors are – made up an experience that quickly became dull and lifeless. Bungie want you to play Destiny one way – their way – and methods that arose to make the process less painful have been patched out, or ‘fixed’.

If I’ve learned anything about videogames in my decade of writing about them however, it is to never underestimate the power of numbers increasing and bars filling up. These are the purest form of crack we can find in our medium and their presence almost guarantees a title staying power. True to form, Destiny’s playerbase – whilst more disappointed and vocal than ever – have stuck around for the long haul. I myself have sunk eighty hours into the title in a month. That’s close to an average of three hours a day – no small feat for someone with an attention span as short as mine. Example: In the time it’s taken me to write this article, I’ve booted up Shadow of Mordor twice, eaten three quarters of a roll of digestive biscuits whilst staring at a blank screen and played Destiny for another hour. I am not a player who becomes committed to a title easily, and it can’t just be because the gold numbers on my stats page increase every now and then.

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So what is Destiny doing so right to keep us all playing? Sure, the miserly drops certainly kept us all around if only to spite that bastard Cryptarch, and the loot cave was mindless fun that gratified us in shiny ways that vanilla Destiny so rarely did. But what really kept our attention during the repeated missions, the excessive load screens and Peter Dinklage’s awful voice work? Unlike Destiny’s flaws, the elements that Bungie have gotten right are much harder to pinpoint.

The Tower, a galactic hub of sorts, is always my first stop after booting up. I’ll peruse bounties – daily tasks that challenge players to beat missions and strikes under certain conditions or embarrass people in the crucible – and head out in my spaceship to work on them. Bounties are a crucial part of what makes Destiny tick, and what keeps players coming back. Without them Destiny could feel directionless, but these tests of skill and perseverance give players achievable goals to shoot for. They give Guardians motivation to get out there and explore the worlds Bungie have created. In undertaking a kill challenge on Mars and stocking up on any bounties I can simultaneously achieve there, I’m signing up for a whole slew of additional content. I’m bound to participate in a Public Event whilst I’m there – semi-randomized boss-drops that task strangers to group up and take down a difficult challenge – or stock up on materials for crafting better gear, or complete bite size missions that are dotted around the worlds. And whether you’re competing or cooperating – or even going alone – you’ll be earning experience on all of your gear, leveling it up and constantly getting better as a character and a player. There’s always a genuine sense of progression, of growth, no matter how lengthy the process.

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There’s a cohesion that lends Destiny a lot of its greatness. In the past, shooters have built walls between campaign, co-operative and competitive play. Destiny relishes tearing these walls down. Your character – a constantly evolving mess of skill trees and upgradable weapons – travels with you wherever you go. A shotgun you find might be useless in high level campaign content, but in the respawn-friendly player vs. player arenas of the crucible its autofire upgrade makes it a quick way to rack up some brutal kills. The Warlock’s ability to self-resurrect serves both as a way to save a raid run in peril when playing with friends and a shortcut to bloody revenge after a scrub thinks he’s got the better of you in PvP.

rightThis interconnectedness serves Destiny well. It comes to life most vividly in the effortless jump-in, jump-out nature of the cooperative play. if I see a friend on a planet I need to be, I’ll hop in and play for a while. Co-op is a great experience that really bolsters the core game, whether doing the intense or the mundane together. Destiny’s backwards design is an opponent as much as the AI shooting at you, and by having fun at Destiny’s expense or – in regards to the loot cave or other such exploits – against its explicit wishes, you feel like you’re not only beating Bungie’s enemies but their own plan for your play. In this regard Destiny becomes the enemy, and together with friends it’s an incredibly strange but fun experience to topple.

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The instantaneous and fleeting nature of co-operative play in Destiny’s galaxy means that I might end up teaming up with a buddy for the next few hours and take down some of the tougher challenges that demand organized teamwork and hard-working fireteams. Or I might wave goodbye after twenty minutes and take care of business someplace else. This asynchronous aspect of multiplayer makes Destiny’s universe feel real. Every time I open up the start menu I can see my friends going about their own business, travelling to distant planets and tackling their own enemies. It’s the “Wish you were here!” postcard of Destiny, and it’s both exciting and irksome to know the game is happening all the time, with or without you.

Knowing that Destiny is doing fine without you, thank you very much, becomes an insistent, nagging motivation to get back to it, especially when you’re constantly reminded that a lot of what it offers isn’t there forever. Special events, game types and pockets of content appear suddenly and unexpectedly before disappearing again. Hopping on and completing all of these limited edition challenges – dailies, weeklies and PvP modes – gives players unique rewards, rep grinds and, most importantly, a great reason to continue returning to the world, even just for a moment. No one wants to feel as if they’re missing out – whether it be on a one-off event or just a good time with friends. As long as players are doing this, they aren’t selling the game, they aren’t moving on. Bungie has hooked people in and kept them interested. Disappointed, but interested. By spearing our attention and offering these small reasons to keep coming back Bungie are able to get more content out of the door. This cyclical development cycle ensures we’re never done – it’s a constant battle to keep us hooked, but Bungie are winning.

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Shortly after launch Destiny’s first raid, the Vault of Glass, was released. It’s a huge mission exclusively aimed at an experienced and high-level group of six players, but it’s hands down Destiny’s best content to date. Varied and exciting throughout, it beautifully exemplifies Bungie’s plan for the franchise. Made up of much more than just mindless shooting and offering some of the coolest loot in the entire game, Vault of Glass is a reward for players who have stuck with Destiny long enough to experience it. My first run through – a blistering eleven hour marathon that pushed my FPS skills to their limits and bonded me with a group of five strangers – was one of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve had in years. Now, with the benefits of a higher level and the knowledge of how to best it, my VoG runs clock in at about two hours, but they’re still an absolute blast.

If you were to look a year in the future I’m sure Destiny would be an unrecognizable beast, the shooter-MMO it was – ahem – destined to be, bursting with exciting content. For now, it’s an incredibly interesting prologue to a game I’d love to play when it finally launches. Unfortunately, its state at launch was yet another phase of its own endless alpha/beta testing cycle. No matter how limited Destiny is in its current form, it’s not hard to see where it can go from here. Viewed as a platform, Destiny is an exciting prospect that the industry can’t help but root for. Destiny is a foundation, a skeleton, a promise. I’m just hoping it’s one Bungie will eventually fulfill.

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