As announced at Sony's E3 2014 press conference, the Destiny Alpha opened up for this weekend on PS4. I've taken some tentative steps into Old Russia, and come back with a few thoughts on Bungie's newest Sci-Fi epic. Be Brave, Guardians, and pay attention: This is the part of the story that's really important...
All good stories have a great beginning, and Destiny's character creation is just that. Although slightly limited - there doesn't feel like that many options for hair or faces of any race/gender combo, and some variety instead of preset faces would've been nice - what is there is crafted wonderfully, with each race (The Humans, the blue-skinned Awoken and the robotic Exo) getting some strikingly detailed character models, along with some gorgeously rendered hair. In an attempt to preserve my excitement for launch, I decided against creating the character I intend to play in the full game, an Exo Warlock, and spent the Alpha weekend with another character - A human female Titan, the sturdy space-knights of Destiny's future world:
Isn't she lovely? You won't be saying that when she leaps from upon high and smashes your face in!
Destiny is defined by its activities. Alone or as a group, Guardians can forge their path from Earth's last city out into the wilds and beyond through a variety of means - to progress their own story, to adventure against formidable opponents in Strikes and Raids, to take in the sights (and precious materials) in Exploration, or do battle against each other in The Crucible, a 6v6 PvP arena. Most importantly though, is perhaps your home base in The Tower, under the Traveller's watchful eye, and Destiny's first great impression.
Now this is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky.
The Tower is Destiny's social hub, a place for Guardians, helmets removed to show off those handsome customised faces, to gather, gear up and... well, dance a lot.
The Tower is not only home to the Vanguards, the leaders of the three different Guardian Classes, but also vendors to purchase gear from (or even ships, and sparrows, to customise your vehicles - even though your spaceship only really shows up in loading screens as you fly to different locations, it's a nice touch that you can change them up), a 'Cryptarch' who can convert Gear Engrams (think randomised Crafting Recipes) you find into rare, powerful pieces of loot, several factions for you to earn reputation for, and even a Bounty Board, offering challenges akin to the ones Bungie introduced to the Halo franchise in Halo: Reach that reward you with items and experience points upon completion.
Speaking of vendors, Destiny's slick menu design extends to these guys too, offering a really cool interface for you to part with your Glimmer (that's the currency, by the way) and pick up some fancy loot. I love the menu design and the interface in the game - it's a definite evolution of what Bungie tried with the menus for Halo: Reach, and they're slick, snappy, and jam packed with all the information you need, from gear comparisons and Class unlocks, to your different reputation currencies. They've done a cracking job creating an aesthetic that works with the world of the game. Plus, look how cool your character looks in your inventory!
It's a nice little area of respite - especially thanks to the gorgeous skybox, another Bungie hallmark, featuring the ginormous Traveller floating above you - to meet friends in and sort your gear out, but at the same time oddly small. I hope the area in the Alpha is just a small part of Humanity's last city that we can explore.
The Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
Destiny's Alpha includes only a tiny sliver of its overall single player campaign, a Level 3 mission called The Darkness Within, that you're thrown pretty much straight into as the Alpha opens. It's pretty early on and therefore pretty simple - got and investigate an abandoned satellite station, station is run over by moon wizards, ya know. The usual. What little you get of the story though, coupled with the game's overall pretty stellar sound design, really does sell the idea of you heading out into a great unknown. Despite the familiarity of Earth, everything feels very alien and isolated (even if you do occasionally see other players out on their own adventures). You feel uncomfortable heading into the Relay station, it's dark and foreboding and full of creepy noises and discordant strings, you don't quite know what to expect - even Ghost, your constant, Peter Dinklage-voiced companion, doesn't really know what you're getting into. When your super smart AI voice doesn't have a clue, it's really unsettling!
The moment the Hive appear for the first time, in a danky, pitch black room save for your flashlight's beam, it's Ghost's apparent shock (expressed with an emotion that the AI had seemed incapable of up to that point) that drives it home: You may be on familiar soil, but you're still a stranger in a strange, strange land. It'll be very interesting to see how it progresses in the full game, when you venture beyond Earth and into the wider Solar system. It's hard to tell what the story's like from such a short snippet, but the atmosphere in which it's told is so far very effective.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;
Even in the single zone of Old Russia, Destiny's sandbox 'Exploration' mode presents a size and scope that is mouthwatering to contemplate when you'll eventually have a game packed with other zones and other planets to visit. You're literally just loosed upon the area of your choice, to go take in the sites, perform a few side missions (which feature some surprise voice acting guests - the two missions I got in the above video came from long time Bungie fan Nathan Fillion himself, and the wonderful dulcent tones of Shohreh Aghdashloo!) and occasionally even gather resources for use in crafting and trade over in The Tower. The things to do are nice, but it's in the unstructured form of just venturing out and finding things for yourself is totally liberating. There's no map (or as far as I can tell, there isn't) of an area, so if you want go and see stuff, you have to sprint - or summon your nimble, Covenant Ghost-like Sparrow mount, which is extremely satisfying to zoom around in - to it and get if for yourself.
The sense of freedom and exploration adds even more to that frontiersman vibe that Bungie want to convey in their world, and it's done superbly. Powerful enemies prowl zones to keep lower level players out (I accidentally delved too far into one cave system and found a huge mass of Hive that were level '??', so I had to hastily book it out of there in the opposite direction!), caches of loot and money offer reward to the inquisitive explorer. It's a huge zone too - I still don't think I've seen all of it yet, and even the idea of getting another gorgeous vista or exotic location to gaze at is a reward in and of itself. I can see myself spending a lot of my time in Destiny just wandering around, taking in the views.
For the strength of the pack is the Wolf...
When you're tired of teaming up to shoot alien foes in the face, you can retire to The Crucible and shoot fellow Guardians in the face in Destiny's PvP multiplayer. The Alpha has access to one of 6 game types, a Domination/Territories style mode called Control, and 2 maps - one on Earth, an abandoned factory in Old Russia, and one on the Moon, a big lab facility that also features vehicle combat (also, the loading screens depict you and your team flying through space to reach your PvP match's location, which is a really neat touch). You bring your own Guardian in, gear and and abilities all, but that's then balanced onto a level playing field - it's less about the numbers than the game's PvE (that said, it can effect the PvE game in that victory in the Crucible earns marks and reputation to buy gear from the PvP vendors in The Tower), and more about the skill.
It's also about an absolute ton of fun. It's classic Bungie multiplayer, floaty jumps and movement that feels plucked right out of the likes of Halo 3 or Halo: Reach, and crossed with some of the twitchy ADS-based gameplay of shooters like Call of Duty, but it's emboldened by each classes' special powers and super abilities. The freedom of movement (every class has access to a double jump/jetpacky sort of ability), combined with each classes' special grenades, melee attacks and supers just elevate every match to fast paced, crazy action. It's hectic and intense, but completely satisfying. Especially when you get to pull off a move like this:
And the strength of the Wolf is the pack.
When Bungie débuted Strike Gameplay earlier this year, I wasn't entirely impressed - it seemed to be a pretty short, simple endeavour. However, as with a lot of Destiny's gameplay elements, playing one of them reveals a much more exciting prospect than what we've seen in trailers and previews.
Strikes are essentially the equivalent of a MMO dungeon - 3 Guardians go in, searching for lovely loot and doing battle with mobs and 3 different bosses. They're a lengthy endeavour too - the first time I attempted the Level 6 Strike The Devil's Lair, it took me about 45 minutes - but it's also where Destiny gets to play with its gameplay loop and offer something worthy of a challenge for 3 players working together. Two of the boss encounters in The Devil's Lair (one is, as in Bungie's gameplay reveal, a wave-based 'defend the hacker' style scenario that, whilst intense, is a bit bland), feel straight out of a usual MMO's bosses repertoire - mechanics that you need to learn and plan for, strategies to form, weak points to exploit. The Devil Walker in particular is a tough encounter, having to deal with its pattern of plasma volleys, a charged up super cannon, waves of enemies, bouncing grenades and even a pretty nasty AoE when you get too close to it it. But the feeling of triumph (and the promise of precious loot) from overcoming these larger foes is definitely worth dealing with learning the often explosive mechanics of encounters.
The difficulty steps up a notch too when you up the difficulty of the Strike from 'Brave' to 'Legendary' - The Devil's Lair on Legendary requires players at Level 8 (the Alpha's cap), and it really does take it out of your group of Guardians: More enemies, tougher foes, and the chance for better rewards. If Strikes are Destiny's Dungeons, Legendary Strikes are its World of Warcraft Heroic Dungeon. Above is the whopping 15 minutes it took myself and some fellow Guardians to bring down Sepiks Prime, The Devil's Lair's final boss, on Legendary. It was tough to say the least!
In all, I've had an absolute blast with this teeny taste of what Destiny has to offer. Whilst its marketing has failed to explicitly explain just what the game is to its audience, even to someone like me who has been incredibly excited for it, the Alpha has been a perfect way to dip your toes into Destiny and get to grips with it - it's gone beyond the marketing talk and started to prove that Destiny can live up to Bungie's lofty promises. Even though it barely scratches the surface of what the full game has to offer - more levels, more planets to explore, more aliens to encounter - my weekend with one of this year's most anticipated titles has been an immensely exciting one. Now it's just a case of waiting for the Public beta, and launch after that. Take us out with a little dance, Titan!
Destiny will be out on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PS3 September 9th. Preordering a copy will net you access to the public Beta, beginning July 17th on PS4 and PS3, with the Xbox One and Xbox 360 Beta commencing shortly after that.