Everything anyone needs to know about Destiny is contained in its ending theme song: an overly earnest and over-produced power ballad from Paul McCartney about hope for the future that would’ve been more at home during the end credits of some misbegotten Dark Crystal sequel than it is at the end of a massive gamble of an AAA video game about shooting aliens in the face a lot. It’s charming in its complete lack of cynicism.
Destiny is the video-game equivalent of McCartney singing his heart out about building bridges into space. This is decades of goofy sci-fi fantasy books, movies, and video-game influences celebrated in dizzying, grandiose terms. It’s at once a colossal achievement and almost appallingly basic, and there’s something endearing about the game’s developer, Bungie, bringing that level of pretense to the genre.
The question, really, comes down to “Is all that a good thing”? Unfortunately, it’s a question no one review is going to be able to answer, at least not a week after release. The tale that is Destiny will be judged by years, not hours, if Bungie sticks to their post-release plans. So, to review Destiny is to review a brick-and-mortar foundation upon which—as one hopes as with any game—a masterpiece will be built.
Playing around in Bungie’s galaxy for its own sake is still just so undeniable and compulsive a draw that the disappointingly threadbare “why” starts fading into the background.
The on-disc version of Destiny is a strong foundation, all things considered, built on a platform of epic-ness, in every respect. You can almost hear Richard Attenborough in John Hammond mode grinning and babbling on about sparing no expense every time you turn around in this game. This epic feel extends to the graphics: achingly gorgeous landscapes, alien cathedrals, detailed galactic wreckage. And this epic feel extends to the sound design: Every weapon has an aural weight and impact, and creatures skittering around or roaring can be heard from a mile away in any direction. The score is a thing of magnificent beauty. And aside from Peter Dinklage’s Ghost, there’s an eclectic but impressive number of big-name voices scattered around the Tower, Destiny’s hub world, you’ll only hear from when you try to buy something, or start a mission.
It’s all the elaborate window dressing for a game that is, at its core, Bungie’s typical bag of tricks from the Halo days polished up to a high shine and forced to mate with a MMORPG. The unholy union actually does work. The combat is strong, as expected from the makers of Halo, but that pedigree doesn’t even begin to explain just how satisfying every action you can take in Destiny is. More than, say, Borderlands, finding a way to play that suits you, with the right gun, the right armor, the right set of perks, is fun, fluid, and easy. The classes are balanced just right, doling out the spectacular new abilities at just the right measured pace to keep you interested in whatever comes next. Grinding for XP is a part of Destiny life here, but the biggest scores for loot and experience happen by just exploring the game world, doing the array of activities the game has to offer. You grind by simply having fun with the game, not just killing the same re-spawning enemies over and over. This is the way it should be.
And yet, even with all that, the creeping feeling sets in after a while, like it typically does for a MMORPG, where you start looking for reasons to continue. Destiny isn’t as dismissive with those reasons as most MMOs, seeing as every major mission outside of the Patrols has history and purpose given at the outset, and it’s always more than the usual “collect five of these things” fetch quests MMOs are infamous for. But where Halo at least had the unveiling of corruption at the apex of Covenant theocracy and Cortana’s abduction/corruption to fall back on, here, Bungie chose nigh-incoherent babbling about alien civilizations, techno-fantasy jargon that has no bearing on the rest of the game, and the near-total neglect of any sort of individual character development, beyond the continuing, pressing need to Always Be Leveling. There’s no heart or soul in Destiny’s primary campaign, beyond being told at the outset that a war is being fought to keep a Great Darkness at bay, leading your Guardian on a very pretty march toward a trivial end. All that money spent on the aethestics did not extend to giving players a simple, logical set of reasons to play on beyond just the act of playing it for its own sake.
Still, is that enough to call it good? It’s strange, but it is. It’s an extravagant sandbox Bungie has built here, and there’s a considerable amount more to come, purportedly years of it. Playing around in Bungie’s galaxy for its own sake is still just so undeniable and compulsive a draw that the disappointingly threadbare “why” starts fading into the background. Bungie’s first and most impressive magic trick with Destiny is in watching immeasurable style and function somehow managing to slay, or at least silence, substance. The true flourish would be if they actually succeed in sustaining it.