A Tale of Two Destinies: Revisiting Destiny Five Years On
The Traveler in the original Destiny is still, over five years later, a breath-taking sight. The monolithic white sphere, so large it has a ring of orbiting debris, dominates the landscape surrounding The Last City. From your vantage point at The Tower, the city stretches across the horizon for miles, with lightweight spacecrafts seamlessly drifting in and out of the star-studded sky.
Five years after it’s launch in 2014, Destiny has spawned multiple expansions and a continuously updated sequel (which recently went free-to-play). Developers Bungie, previously known for the Halo franchise, have arguably created a defining series of this gaming generation. So how does the original, vanilla, console-exclusive Destiny game experience hold up? You can’t even buy the digital version of the base game anymore, with the Collection edition the only option on console storefronts as of writing.
So, I got my hands on a copy of the disc for the PS4 and booted it up; pure vanilla, no DLC included. However, there are a few things to note…
Firstly: The sequel is free-to-play, and it’s better.
Side note: I’ve had a good few play sessions with Destiny 2, which drastically improves on nearly every single issue I have with the original game. I’ll touch on that in more detail later.
Secondly: The first game’s DLC was game-changing and widely praised as massively improving upon the base game, as well as introducing global quality of life updates.
Finally: I’m really not a social gamer and played the game solo, bar mandatory co-op missions and public events. I didn’t even play the first raid (although technically I have a free pass: it was released a week after launch. It’s amazing just how bare-bones Destiny was at release).
So consider this a rough reconstruction of a fascinating slice of gaming history, minus Peter Dinklage’s naff voice acting.
Jason Jones was design director on the game, with Joseph Staten as story director. Both are Halo veterans, and that influence is ever-present in this sci-fi first person shooter. Character creation asks you to choose one of three classes. My Guardian was a “Gunslinger”, a lithe Hunter whose super summons a golden hand cannon for three lethal shots [and gets to wear fancy cloaks; easily the best part of the game].
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The intro is short and snappy; it’s the future, and a small floating machine called a Ghost flies over to you in a post-apocalyptic car scrapheap in Old Russia. One magic scan later and you’re a Guardian, set out to murder any living beings your robot buddy tells you to.
Looking and moving around Old Russia’s abandoned Cosmodrome for the first time is a powerful experience that still rivals many newer games for sheer scope, detail and visual fidelity.
Clearing out the factory rewards the player with their very own ship, which unfortunately only enables fast travelling and stylish loading screens.
On you hop, and a minute later find yourself in The Tower, the game’s main social hub. The Speaker (a criminally underused Bill Nighy), a representative of the Traveler, charges you with helping fight off the alien forces of The Darkness, and off you go.
Destiny is an always online game, with a small group of players running around The Tower and the various solar system planets your Guardian visits. Aside from a smooth matchmaking system that groups solo players up for co-op missions, the base game can still be played (and beaten) primarily as a solo experience, and any MMO vibes are minimal.
NPCs in the Tower are near-completely uncharacterised, giving the game an oddly sterile quality. This aspect of the game would be massively overhauled with expansions and the game’s sequel, but the base game Tower feels closer to a futuristic supermarket than home.
In game, missions tend to be linear paths through different sections of the open world planets, near-exclusively boiling down to deploying your Ghost to scan computer systems for information and shooting off waves of enemies. Honestly, it’s a half-baked whimper of a campaign compared to the work Bungie did with the Halo series.
Generally, the most you get in-game by way of narrative justification is a few sentences of context given by your ghost or the Speaker at the beginning of a mission, with Destiny being notably cutscene-light.Nolan North voices your floating companion Ghost, delivering cheesy 80s action film lines with cheery enthusiasm. However, the near total lack of communication between your guardian and their ghost results in a buddy comedy without the buddies or the comedy.
The environments are visually stunning, from the moon’s neon green caves infested with the zombie-like Hive to clifftop portals summoning legions of enemies. Outside of missions however, planets are barren, populated by patches of enemies, the odd chest, some resources to gather and lore collectibles that re-direct to an offline website. It’s a preservationist’s nightmare.
The main upside to the semi-open world is the opportunity to ride your Sparrow between missions, a lightweight hovercraft with a really satisfying sense of speed and agility, and appreciate the amazing skyboxes. The ghost of a forgotten story is buried in the original Destiny. Although the years to come would massively pad everything out, the base game is a hollow shell. More importantly, the raw gun-play mechanics of Destiny still shine five years on, despite issues with loot and enemy AI.
Weapons types are focused into single, polished archetypes, such as roaring hand cannons or booming rocket launchers, that rip and tear through enemies with visceral audio-visual feedback.
However, this design choice clashes with Destiny’s looter-shooter structure. The drip-feed of bigger numbers does hit a primal button in the back of the lizard brain, but the lack of variety and focus on archetypes takes much of the excitement out of the hunt for loot.
In something like Borderlands 2, guns handle differently depending on which of the game’s fictional manufacturers produced it, and epic and legendary weapons often have bonkers and bizarre effects. I genuinely can’t remember a single exciting loot drop from my time with Destiny’s base game. That’s pretty damning for a loot-based shooter.
The enemy AI is iffy, particularly in the open world. Enemies have an extremely limited aggro area; run away for a few seconds and many will completely forget you exist. Those that stay are as likely to stare at a nearby wall as attack you, and their grand strategy seems limited to “mix X slow health sponges with Y swarm enemies”. Encounters in “Darkness Zones”, sections book-ending story missions where a death sends you back to the last checkpoint, ask the player to focus on crowd control tactics in large arena spaces.
These spaces are designed with verticality and continuous movement in mind, ultimately making these the most difficult, rewarding and satisfying moments in the main campaign. Even these encounters feel a bit raggy; difficulty feels more influenced by your gear and power level than enemy layout and level design. On the one hand, Destiny is a bona-fide looter shooter, so that’s what you pay the price of admission for. Still, the lack of tight and focused combat encounters in the main campaign is extremely noticeable, especially compared to the studio’s past work.
Some moments do have an undeniable sense of intensity, owed in huge part to the wonderful soundtrack composed by Martin O’Donnell, Paul McCartney, Michael Salvatori and C. Paul Johnson.
The base game also features several strikes, involving hunting down groups of progressively tougher baddies culminating with a boss fight. Whilst the base game is tweaked to accommodate for solo players, strikes strongly encourage co-op. When strikes ramp up, they reveal layers of previously unexposed tactical depth to Destiny’s gameplay, with different class synergies and divided enemy prioritisation proving crucial to get through the chaos of the final bosses.
PvP is fast-paced, chaotic and surprisingly compulsive, with one-hit-kill ultimates accompanying a relatively low time-to-kill.
The annoyance of the occasional instant death is outweighed by the amount of strategy you can put into traversal skills and memorisation of the small, twisty maps. Even in 2019, it still feels damn good to bust out your golden gun to turn the table on level 40 veterans. Going into Destiny 2 as a completely new player earlier this week really highlights some of the major overhauls the Destiny experience went through.
From my impressions of the first half of the main campaign, Destiny 2 fleshes out story-lines that drastically overshadow the original’s base game for variety and creativity, giving NPCs strongly defined personalities and an actual in-game presence. An increase in lavish CG cut-scenes is accompanied by moments of thrillingly orchestrated blockbuster set-pieces and significantly improved encounter design.
For example, a bombastic intro strips you of your Guardian of most of their abilities. A time-lapsing montage of a trek through a wilderness is followed by a set-piece giving you unlimited license to spam your super ability; it’s surprisingly epic.
Later on, one mission takes the guise of a heist as a tense descent into a gigantic, brutalist cavern filled with cyborg enemies. You’re accompanied by a split-personality AI with a busted morality compass to rescue Nathan Fillion’s Cayde-6, a wisecracking robot gunslinger.
A gunfight in the enormous inner chamber proves to be genuinely difficult, followed with a getaway sequence in a hijacked truck and a shootout in a cross-faction skirmish.
While there’s the odd snooze-fest in between the highlights, the overall package is light years ahead of the original’s base game. This extends to free-play open world areas. Planets feel both more compact yet more active, pairing ongoing public events with voice-acted NPC characters providing engaging banter as you complete missions.
For example, one public event on the planet Io was a lovely three-minute slice of chaos as myself and a few other players blasted through hordes, exploded an airship and cut down an enemy commander. What made it stick out to me was a lovely exchange where my Ghost excitedly babbled about how exciting it all was to an unimpressed NPC, a small moment of incidental life breathed into the world.
The game is more generous with loot, with a wider breadth of interesting archetypes, but overall the variety is still lacking. The gun-feel is outstanding; chaining punchy bullet barrages with flashy ultimates is deeply satisfying, even if the underlying design still feels a bit flabby and the AI is a bit shonky,
It’s also quite versatile: just a few hours in and I was able to re-tool my gunslinger into an agile, close-range build focused on dodging through around enemies, chaining melee attacks and busting out a gigantic energy sword whenever things got sketchy.
With a continuously updated online game, comparisons between experiences released five years apart are never going to be flattering. However, going back to the original Destiny unearths a hefty, responsive shooter, despite the flawed loot system and dull campaign.
Destiny 2 is comedically generous as a free-to-play title, offering players multiple legacy campaigns for free, and I’d encourage you to invest your time there. However, Destiny still stands on its own merits, well worth re-visiting if only to experience just how far Bungie have come in the last five years.