Monday 24 November 2014

Destiny Beta: First impressions of a blockbuster

It's slated to be one of the biggest games of the year and launches in just six weeks, but this week's public beta raises more questions than answers

Published 26/07/2014 | 18:53

Destiny for PS4/Xbox One/PS4/X360
Destiny for PS4/Xbox One/PS4/X360

MINGLEPLAYER is a thing now. Or at least it will be when the final version of Bungie’s Destiny launches in September.

Meeting at the intersection of single-player and multiplayer modes, mingleplayer blends sociability and co-op play with the untethered freedom of going solo.

Of course, Destiny hasn’t pioneered such a freeform drop-in, drop-out story mode. Everything from Project Gotham Racing to Journey to Brink has led up to this, evolving from asynchronous multiplayer into a world where you can engage alone or join up briefly with strangers and pals when it suits you.

One of mingleplayer’s greatest exponents has always been World of Warcraft, which is no coincidence because the elevator pitch for Destiny must surely boil down to “Halo meets WoW”.

Bungie’s combination of two gaming touchstones in one shooter is what gives Destiny a fresh flavour and a chance to put mingleplayer in the mainstream.

On the evidence of the current public beta, which expires Sunday night (get downloading, fast), though, it’s not clear that Bungie has done enough to distinguish each pillar of the elevator pitch from what's gone before.

Unsurprisingly, Destiny is built on a foundation that strongly resembles Bungie’s own sci-fi classic Halo - the characters, vehicles, the weapons, even the landscapes draw heavily on its past. Gameplay too follows the classic loop of a bubble of action – engaging the aliens in a firefight – interspersed with a little exploration. Then repeat.

None of these things are bad in themselves – indeed, the fact that they’re all wrapped in the most gorgeous high-def visuals might be enough for many Halo fans. But it does suggest Bungie wasn’t prepared to rip up its template and start anew.

What sets Destiny apart – and by how much remains to be seen – is the integration of MMORPG features that are standard in genre kings such as World of Warcraft but almost unknown in shooters.

Destiny for PS4/Xbox One/PS4/X360
Destiny for PS4/Xbox One/PS4/X360

The beta introduces us to The Tower, a typical world hub with a familiar cast of merchants selling new weapons, armour, etc, and quest-givers.

Zoom down to the planet to do battle and you’re immersed in a fairly standard FPS – Halo with a side-order of Borderlands and even Titanfall. But it comes with the ability of wander off into the hinterlands, fighting alongside other players or being joined by them as you clear out nests of aliens.

The combat feels weighty and connected – not like WoW at all then – but the enemy AI seems stuck in the last-gen, restlessly prowling but displaying little cunning. Like Borderlands, you’re drip-fed a steady flow of loot – new weapons and armour – and XP for levelling up but nothing that stands out in the memory.

It does feel good – a la WoW - when you stumble into an ambush of aliens only for other players to ride to your rescue in a display of bullet-flinging humanity. Similarly, at least one mission requires a three-member fireteam – online players thrown together – to hold off wave after wave of monsters in a raid-style dungeon. As satisfying as it is to work in co-op for a while, there’s precious little strategy beyond everyone-kill-everything. That’s where WoW has an enormous edge.

No modern shooter would be complete without player-vs-player and Destiny’s brief glimpse showcases its Halo pedigree. However, Titanfall showed the tired CoD-style cycle of shoot-die-respawn-repeat need not apply and Destiny looks to have learned nothing from that salutary lesson.

Lightning reflexes and dead-eyed aim reign supreme in its PvP clashes and Halo’s special abilities seem missing in action.

It would be brutally unfair to pass judgment on Destiny now, based on the Beta experience, no doubt only a small slice of the final game. With a reported 500 people working on its massive, persistent world, Bungie will have many surprises still to reveal come launch day.

For now, we’ve learned that Bungie has not forgotten how to craft a polished shooter. Whether Destiny can reinvent the genre as Halo did remains a question that won’t be answer for another six weeks.

* Destiny will be released for PS4/Xbox One/PS4/X360 on September 9

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