My Second Impressions of Destiny
There is a reason why these passages are my “second impressions” of Destiny. During E3 this past June Bungie announced a limited access, invite only, Alpha trial of this game. It ran for one week and included a story mission, a chance to roam the starting-area Old Russia Cosmodrome map, and an end-Alpha strike mission, as well as a sliver of the multiplayer. I wanted to do a review/first impressions piece on that Alpha but since this blog was still not up and running then, the timing wasn’t quite right. But it all worked out, because now I can give my “second” impressions on the bigger, meatier, more polished Beta build of the game that ended on July 28th, and is just a few weeks away from release on September 9th.
Of course, if you’re a gamer who follows industry news at all, you should be pretty familiar with Destiny by now. Publisher Activision and developer Bungie’s (Halo creators) larger-than-life, $500,000,000, decade long gamble to create a new worldwide shooter juggernaut. This is the largest production budget for a video game in the history of the industry, nearly doubling the already double-take necessary budget of the former most expensive game ever; Grand Theft Auto V at upwards of $260,000,000. To break even Bungie and Co. are looking at the suitably daunting task of needing to move 10,000,000 units of this game once it hits store shelves, a feat usually reserved for the Call of Dutys, GTAs, Battlefields, Pokemons, and Elder Scrolls of the world, and something almost never achieved by a new IP. But Activision is confident, and actually exceedingly so, because they believe they have invested in the right people, with the right top notch pedigree, at the right time, to make the right game. And judging from my time with Destiny’s Alpha and Beta, I think they just might not be so crazy after all…
Destiny is, at it’s core, both a revolution and a continuation of industry norms. It is a melting pot of previously successful game ideas mixed together in novel ways to create something that feels unique and exciting. Combine this feat of innovation with Bungie’s stellar art direction, and ability to tell a quality Sci-Fi story and anybody can see the inherent recipe for what should be an amazing experience. Destiny pulls from numerous games like Borderlands, Halo, Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Mass Effect to create a new inventive mix. Combine the loot gathering of Diablo, plus the endless gun variations of Borderlands, with the PvE and raids of WoW, a re-finished version of the gunplay, vehicle combat, and art direction of Halo, and the 3rd person vibe, biotic powers, and sweeping Sci-Fi scope of Mass Effect, and you’ve got yourself a Destiny stew that, so far at least, tastes as good as it looks.
Much like the Alpha, the Destiny Beta included a number of story missions set in the Player vs. Enemy section of the game located, just as in the Alpha, in the Cosmodrome map of the play space Bungie calls “Old Russia”. There were a few more missions this time that brought the story a bit farther and fleshed it out with new cutscenes, giving players at deeper look at the growing world of Destiny. Additionally, the Beta also included a three person strike mission, just like in the Alpha. These are the “raids” of Destiny, and the part of the game that feels most heavily influenced by it’s pseudo-MMO game design. You and two others in your “fireteam” battle your way through a level, with increasingly difficult encounters until you fight the final boss and collect a bit of loot and currency, called Glimmer, that made your time worthwhile. Additionally, the Beta featured an expanded competitive Player vs. Player mode that included four maps, two of which could only be played during the timed “Iron Banner” events. On top of the story missions, raid, and PvP, you were allowed to wander around and explore both the Cosmodrome map, and the Guardian’s Tower; your character’s base of operations in the game. And much like any hub world in an MMO, running about the Tower allowed you to purchase items, equipment, and bounties for your character to use and complete when out in the field or in PvP. It also let you interact with potentially dozens of other player’s characters, as they go about their business as you do all in a cool 3rd person camera view that shows off your character.
Overall I enjoyed the story missions. They were general “go here, shoot this” or “go there, fetch that” missions. While that may sound boring, the gunplay, and the difference in enemies was more than enough to make them enjoyable experiences. However, in the full release of the game, and further into the story, I hope to see greater difference in what the missions are about, and how they are laid out. Halo has a great history of story missions that, while are fundamentally similar, play and feel significantly different from one another. Although I hope Bungie can bring those differences into Destiny in later parts of the game, I’m not holding my breath for anything on Halo’s level. Destiny is a game based on hub worlds, like the Old Russia Cosmodrome map in the Beta. Because of that, missions have to be built into the world much like quests in any MMO, and will have to feature environment and mission objective re-usage. However there are some great cinematic mission elements during some of the story missions. One that sticks out in my mind was the mission to activate the “warmind” array up at the Skywatch. When activating the array, Hive Tombships (the baddies in this particular level) warped in from their base on the Moon, right in front of you and spawned a few waves of enemies. It’s certainly a favorite moment of mine from the Beta, and one of the cooler things that happened in the slice of the game that we got.
For a game that has built itself up as one that blurs the lines between what console gamers think of as singleplayer and multiplayer gameplay, it can be quite a challenge to describe the differing natures of the game’s story versus it’s arena combat mode. Ostensibly both are “multiplayer” in the traditional sense, with players actively cooperating during the game’s story mode content, and then being pitted against each other in the game’s other mode, the “Crucible”. In fact, the best way to describe this console game’s new nature is seemingly to describe it by classic PC MMO terms; Player vs. Environment, and Player vs. Player. The Crucible is most certainly Player vs. Player, and in the best way possible. Bungie made Halo famous because of its groundbreaking multiplayer when it launched on the “real” Xbox 1 way back in 2001. Since then the importance of multiplayer in the Halo series, or with Bungie, never waned. So it seems that even after Bungie and Microsoft parted ways over Halo, and Bungie moved onto its next big franchise in Destiny, multiplayer PvP has been a major focus.
That Halo pedigree definitely comes across in the PvP. Whereas the story missions feel very similar to Borderlands, with a splash of Halo, the multiplayer feels a bit like the Halo goodness of yesteryear with some new additions that make it play and feel different enough. The biggest change, both from past Halo games, and PvP multiplayer games that I’ve experienced is weapon and equipment system. Because of the way Bungie has built the Crucible into the story aspect of the game, your character or “guardian”, is the same character that is used in the Crucible. This means that the only weapons you can use in your PvP adventures are the ones that you found or unlock during your time with the game’s story missions and exploration. Eventually you can earn gear through the Crucible itself, but your main source of equipment will be what you have earned in your story travels. This adds a refreshing new dynamic back into how you pick and choose your weapons, rather than the traditional and thoroughly tame, custom class system found in most of today’s modern FPS’. I found great reward in earning a new weapon for completing a story or side mission, and immediately jumping into PvP and using it to vanquish a foe or two; much more so than using a gun you ranked up 30 multiplayer levels to unlock in Call of Duty. It is a very individualizing experience not found amongst most of the console realm.
The individuality that each person’s guardian seemingly has in weapon choice during a match means you never know what to expect in each encounter with an enemy. That goes doubly so with Destiny’s class system for its guardians. Upon the game’s start, each person is asked to create their own character. Players can choose between three different races of characters, including sentient robots and blue skinned “awoken”, and then choose their desired gender, and so forth, much like every game that includes character customization. Although as a side note, Destiny has, by far, some of the most realistic hair I have yet seen in a videogame, it’s absolutely fantastic, and hopefully will force other developers step their game up on that front. But aside from all that, the most important choice you will make for your character is what class they should be. In the Beta, as I assume will be in the full release, there are three to choose from: Warlock, Hunter, and Titan, and all handle like you think they would from their names. The Warlock class (and my main personal choice for both the Alpha and Beta) is the token Mage of Destiny. Wielding arcane magic imbued by the Traveler (the giant alien orb floating above the last human city on Earth), the Warlock is able to cast blasts of energy at their foes. The Hunter (unfortunately the only class I never got around to playing) seems to be the token stealth/thief class of the game, focused on the more nimble pursuits such as wielding a sniper rifle and throwing knife. The Titan is certainly the tank of Destiny. Focused on big armor and bigger weapons, designed to deal and soak up as much damage as possible. Each class has a skill leveling feature that unlocks abilities over time as you level up your character. As opposed to more traditional skill trees found in RPG games and MMOs, Destiny doesn’t force you to choose between one power or another, instead unlocking everything over time, and giving you the freedom to pick and choose which unlock you’d like to use at that specific time. For instance, by the time I had reached the Beta’s level cap of 8, I had unlocked two different grenades for my Warlock class to use. One, an energy vortex that kills enemies situated in it’s radius, and the other an almost anti-personnel mine like grenade that detonated when an enemy walks too close to its floating projectiles. Both were useable choices, but I was very happy to not have to choose between the two like most games. The specialization allowed for with Destiny’s characters gives the game’s PvP a completely different feel from CoD, or even it’s cousin, Halo, and it’s most certainly a breath of fresh air.
In general I had a great bit of fun with my time in the Crucible section of the Beta, even though only one of its game modes was unlocked for this run before the final release. The large Crucible PvP game mode is subdivided into smaller pieces, five to be exact, but only one was available during the Beta. This game mode was “Control”. Control is your standard Domination game mode from the likes of most any FPS game with a multiplayer aspect, most notably of course being Call of Duty. It plays like one would think a standard “capture and hold three flags to win” game mode would. But there was another “mode” as well, unlocked for only two hours at a time over the course of Beta was called the “Iron Banner”. The Iron Banner was a different take on the Crucible in general as it removes all handicaps and safety railings from the normal PvP game modes, like Control. In normal PvP, all players, regardless of level are able to access and use their class specific abilities to their full potential, even if they have not unlocked them yet in the PvE story mode. This evens the playing field between new players and veterans. However, in the Iron Banner, the field is anything but even. Players are only able to use the abilities they have unlocked through their level, and may very well find themselves going toe to toe with another player a dozen levels higher than they are and with a dozen more power ups. Although the forced level cap of the Beta kept the player population relatively close level wise, meaning no drastic differences in power levels, I expect the full release to see many a helpless and unknowing newbie get devastated by max level players almost immediately. The upside to a system like this (and why anyone other than a sadist would want to play it) is the large experience and reputation boosts that come with competing in the Iron Banner. On top of that, certain rare and valuable weapons and pieces of equipment to deck your character out with can only be unlocked by playing in this mode. It’s an incentive to challenge yourself as a player and to see if you can overcome an obvious imbalance. Overall both Control, and the Iron Banner version of Control, were solid modes that I found myself enjoying, although Iron Banner moreso as I neared the level cap. Bungie has also announced the addition of a number of new modes for the final version of the game to go alongside of Control, including “Skirmish”, “Lockdown”, “Team”, and “Rumble”.
Along with the limited number of modes, the Beta also offered a limited number of maps to play in. Two of which were only available during the two hour Iron Banner windows. The two maps included in the basic mode were “First Light” and “Shores of Time”. First Light is a large vehicle-based map located amongst the decrepit remains of a colony on the Moon, while Shores of Time is a smaller, infantry focused, map located in what I believe are temple ruins on Venus. First Light allows for wide open vehicle combat, as well as interior combat for guardians around the control points. Two spawning vehicles are available for use, the Pike and Interceptor. The Pike is a fast moving speeder bike like vehicle armed with machine guns, while the Interceptor is a large slower-moving tank like vehicle armed with proximity missiles that detonate when near enemies. Additionally, guardians can spawn their personal Sparrow vehicles from the PvE campaign as quick personal, but unarmed, transport. There are also three hard-hitting stationary turrets, one at each team’s spawn, and one that covers the B control point. I would say with certainty that First Light was my favorite of the four maps in the Beta, it certainly felt the most Halo-esque with the drivable vehicles. Sniping also became a viable, and sometimes very good tactic on this map. First Light was the one map in the Beta where it made more sense to carry a sniper rifle as your secondary than a more traditional shotgun, or fusion rifle. Shores of Time is a purely infantry focused Venus based map, with a good mix of enclosed and open combat. It became a map where the Titan and Warlock’s room clearing supercharged abilities became especially useful, as opposed to the largess of First Light, where the Hunter’s “golden gun” one shot kill super was a bit more viable. Additionally, Shores of Time features a few unique routes and corridors that make the map a bit tricky to navigate, but allow for strong flanking options and surprise attacks, making sure each game of Control was always hectic. Shores of Time is certainly a strong map, and probably my second favorite of the Beta, although it is a close race against the first of the Iron Banner maps.
In it’s quest to prove itself a different animal amongst the Crucible game mode, Iron Banner featured two different maps that were only playable during the two hour stints that IB was available. “Blind Watch” and “Rusted Lands” bring a bit of the old and the new to the Crucible and the Beta. “Blind Watch” is a map located on Mars, in the halls and courtyards of an abandoned Human colony, and was actually the first map shown by Bungie in one of their very early ViDoc’s of the game. Blind Watch is another mix of combat styles, much like Shores of Time is, however there are both longer sight lines (for snipers and Hunters) and closer quarters (for shotgunners and Titans) on Blind Watch. When playing this map I found I commonly felt more on edge than playing in any other map. When a map is more focused on extremes like Blind Watch is, in terms of it’s level design, it is more challenging to choose a weapon loadout that can handle all aspects of the map. I found myself swapping between a shotgun, the slightly longer ranged fusion rifle, and the sniper quite a bit, but discovered that carrying a longer ranged three-round-burst pulse rifle, and either a shotgun or fusion rifle to be the best mix of both long and short range combat. The other Iron Banner map, “Rusted Lands” actually takes place in the Old Russia Cosmodrome map near a downed Hive ship from the Beta PvE missions, and was the main map in the Crucible section of the Destiny Alpha.. As it came to be, I found myself liking this one of the four maps the least. Perhaps it’s because I’ve played on it the most of any map, since it was so heavily used in the Alpha, but I think it more has to do with the focus on close range combat this map has. The being the smallest of the maps there is a heavy focus on closer range weaponry. Although there are a few longer sight lines, this map is dominated by assault rifles and shotguns in general moreso than any other. It’s not a huge negative per se, but it does dramatically limit your options if you want to stay competitive and ruling the leaderboards. But despite that, I don’t dislike the map, nor do I dislike any of the maps that were featured in the Beta. It was a solid selection of maps that each generally played and felt different from one another, and that is a big ol’ positive for a multiplayer focused game. But not everything was great about the Beta, there was one glaring problem that I kept running into, seemingly multiple times during the course of each and every match I played. The same problem that has bogged down another major release from another major publisher significantly since it was released last year, netcode.
Netcode is the crucible (pun intended) by which multiplayer shooters either live or die. Netcode is the part of an online game that handles the communication between you the player, playing your copy of the game at your house, and the game’s servers where the match is being hosted. In an effort to limit bandwidth excesses and the processing power needed for the game to run, this communication between you and server is fundamentally different than say, streaming Netflix. Instead of a constant stream of information flowing from the server to the client (you) the server updates the current state of the game world to the client at random intervals of time, per second. These intervals are called “ticks” and the frequency of these ticks are called a “tickrate”. In short, the faster the tickrate, the smoother and more up to date the game you’re playing is. Usually the more graphically intensive the game is, the slower the tick rate as more information has to be processed in each tick. For fast paced and competitive (but less graphically intensive) multiplayer shooters like Counter Strike where finesse and skill are imperative, a server can have a tickrate as fast as 140. Meaning the game is in a nearly constant state of update, meaning every player, on both teams, has 99.9% the same state of the game at anytime. However, in a gorgeous game like Battlefield 4 which had horrendous netcode problems for months after launch, the tickrate was an abysmal 10 updates per second. While that may sound quite fast, take into account the speed at which a bullet travels. At hundreds of meters per second there is more than ample opportunity for a bullet to find its target in-between updates, when there are only a few per second. This causes a host of problems in shooters, mostly stemming from the inadequate transfer of information between players and the server during fast paced games. A player may shoot right at another player, and theoretically hit them, but since the other player is at a different state of the game, or in between updates, their body isn’t actually where it is on your screen, it might be a meter or so in front of that, registering a miss, when it should be a hit. It also works the other way. When your character is running to take cover, it is a common occurrence to make it safely behind cover, and away from the danger, only to be killed immediately by a “phantom bullet” that seemingly traveled through the cover you just ran behind. This is exceedingly annoying and occurs because the enemy player can have a different state of game than you do, because of the slow server updates. Where on your screen you might just have made it behind cover, your opponent can still see a part of your character running behind said cover, and they have an additional split second to kill you, ostensibly through the cover you just ran behind. This a major problem for shooters, and can be cured through faster updates. A third problem caused by inadequate netcode is what’s known as “kill trades”. Kill trades occur when two opposing players kill each other at precisely the same time. Like in life, it should be a near impossible occurrence, but in games with poor netcode it is quite a common annoyance, happening not once in awhile, but multiple times a game. Just like with the other netcode problems, this occurs when two enemy players are in different states of the game. You might kill another player, but the other player still has an extra split second to kill you as well because of the time between updates. While it’s only a tenth of second it’s usually more than enough time to fire off one more killing bullet and complete the kill trade, boiling your blood.
An in depth look at Destiny’s Netcode:
So what does this all mean? Well it means that Destiny has some serious netcode issues going on. Multiple people have reported a possible tick rate of 10-20 for the game during the beta, and from my time with the game I’m inclined to believe them. The netcode handles very similarly to the way Battlefield 4 did at launch, and if the full version of Destiny handles that way when it launches I’m sure there will be quite a few angry complaints of the game’s “unplayability” from fans. While one has to take any “Beta” product with a grain of salt, as it is still an unfinished product, Bungie has said there are not making any real changes to the game until it releases. If the game’s poor netcode continues to be a problem at launch, I hope we’ll see a fix soon. I hope Bungie has gained some insight on how to handle something like this from the debacle surrounding the very same problem that EA and DICE faced with Battlefield 4 last year. But regardless, Destiny is still, at its bottom line, an extremely enjoyable game to play, even with the netcode issues. I think that is a testament to the way Bungie has been able to reform and create something new after Halo. The team has built a fun game, with lots to do, and quite a bit of content to digest, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it all come September 9th.