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Darkness bad, go shoot it: EW's 'Destiny' journal, pt. 1

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Out this week, Destiny is, by most metrics, the biggest video game of the year. If you’ve read our primer, you know why it’s a big deal. But is it any good?

That’s a tough nut to crack. 

Destiny is an online game that promises to grow and change, one that doesn’t really take shape until people are actively playing it. And so in lieu of a traditional review, several EW writers will be documenting their journey through the game. Think of it as a journal meant to give you a perspective on the game over time.

Sound good? Let’s go. 

9.11.14: Do you like shooting things?

So far, I’ve played Destiny for about eight hours total. I’ve unlocked three of the your four playable worlds, which ought to place me roughly halfway through the story, if I’m guessing correctly. I’ve dabbled in its suite of competitive game modes. My Warlock has reached level 13. But I’m not sure if the game is actually good or not yet.

Yeah, I’m confused too.

Here’s the thing: Destiny promised a lot of things, and went so far as to invent phrases to describe what was so unique about the game. “Shared-world shooter,” is one. It was used because Bungie—the studio that makes Destiny—didn’t feel their game fit into the standard genres from which many of its various parts are traditionally found. It is a little bit like an MMO (think World of Warcraft), a little bit like an RPG (think Diablo), and a lot like a shooter (think shooters). But Bungie doesn’t want to say that, hence the cumbersome phrase “shared-world shooter.” Someone should tell Destiny that labels don’t matter and really what’s important is to be yourself, man. High school is going to be rough on Destiny.

However, the frustrating thing about Destiny is really that it’s so well made. The controls are pitch perfect. The visuals are beautiful. There are a number of finely tuned and satisfying methods for shooting things in the face. But I’m not sure if it’s all that special yet. At the very least, the things that make it special haven’t had time to spring up yet. Now that the game is released, the cookies are out the oven, so to speak—but it still needs some time to cool down. As such, most of what I have to say here has to do with the game’s story.

And holy crap is that story boring.

Destiny’s narrative badness is the total inverse of its technical goodness. Here is a story that refers to its bad guys as Darkness and its good guys as Light, where the remnants of mankind live in a city called The City and visit a tower called The Tower and really great actors are forced to deliver really terrible lines. When it’s time to for you to experience a new narrative tidbit, you’ll experience a cutscene that saps all momentum from what you’re doing because it’ll remind you that there is no real reason for you to be doing any of it. Sure, there’s The Darkness That Threatens To Extinguish The Light, but the only reason there is to care is just because the game assumes you will.

I mentioned the game’s underwhelming story to some friends online, and one of them asked me to describe it in five words. So I did: ‘Darkness bad. Go shoot it.’  He told me to make it the headline. I thought that was a pretty good idea.

While I can’t say for sure until I reach the end of said story, it definitely feels like that the plot of Destiny is merely a starting point—not very concerned with a satisfying or compelling narrative arc, but just the thinnest of excuses to get you to shoot things on every level the game has to offer. So you can then get excited about the potential for future, more satisfying stories set in those worlds that can be sold to you later.

That sounds damning, but it’s really not—games don’t really need a story to be good, and can still succeed if they have a bad one. But it’s particularly frustrating given the amount of work gone into building this grand universe. It’s easy to see that a lot of work and thought has gone into the building of this universe, that the lore is deep and maybe even compelling. But world-building and story-telling are two different things, and if you’re hoping for a good yarn, you’ve come to the wrong place. Destiny is for shooting, preferably with friends. But if you want to shoot at friends, you can do that too.

I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with the game’s competitive modes, but they do seem a little thin. There are only four variations available: one where you fight to control three flags on a map, one where you join a six-person team to take on another six-person team, another where you do the same thing but with three-person teams, and a free-for-all. They feel like Halo, but with superpowers, and denser, more complex maps.

I’m more or less okay with this. The appeal of a good shooter comes down to the concept of flow—how easy is it for the player to reach a trance-like state of zen digital murder, traversing complex digital environments and solving countless problems in a fraction of a second. A good shooter will give you the tools that, with a little practice, will have you settling into a comfortable loop of live/die/repeat (see what I did there?), with the carrot on the stick being your continual improvement. You keep playing hoping to make each life last a little longer, to win a few more firefights, to score a little bit more than some of your teammates. Destiny is fine at this, but if you’ve been playing Halo for years (I have not), you might be underwhelmed or pleased, depending on how you feel about such things.

I’m pretty ambivalent. —Joshua Rivera

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