A Retrospective on Destiny: A Polarizing Three Year Experience

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Destiny, the 2014 MMO-shooter hybrid created by the talented folks over at Bungie, is winding down. In the next couple of days, Destiny 2 will see a worldwide release and will inevitably sell millions of copies, including one already pre-ordered by yours truly. However, the first game is potentially the most polarizing video game that I have ever played. It does so much right, but then so much is horribly wrong. Join me, as I take a look at the legacy of the three years of Destiny.

A Retrospective on Destiny: A Polarizing Three Year Experience

The Troubled Development

Destiny, under the guise “Project Tiger”, began development in late 2010, following Bungie’s Halo swansong, Halo: Reach. Details were scarce, but their deal with publishing giant Activision turned some heads. Activision already had the Call of Duty franchise in their pocket, and so their partnership with Bungie looked set to spawn another behemoth of a franchise. A four game project, spread over 10 years, encompassing a vast MMO-esque world, was the goal. That, however, had some complications.

Midway through development, things took a turn for the worse. Bungie promised open, sprawling environments, where the player could “go as far as the eye could see”, but this proved difficult to create. The game’s story, penned by lead writer Joseph Staten, was scrapped entirely in mid-2013, leading to him leaving Bungie in the process. Longtime composer Marty O’Donnell, who famously orchestrated the immense Halo score, was fired, as rumours of erosion within Bungie’s ranks began to surface. The game was hit with two further delays, pushed back from late 2013 to Spring 2014, then back to September 2014.

These delays were used to completely overhaul the game’s story, leading to the hopeless mess that was the story at launch. The structure of the game’s planets were completely changed, missions were chopped and changed to accommodate the rewrites, and certain areas, such as the Dreadnought, were cut completely. With Staten’s departure, the writing team that he had spent so long developing at Bungie had fell apart, and the story was “written without writers”, as one person who worked on the game put it bluntly.

After two setbacks, a complete story overhaul, a rearranging of the mission structure and a massive amount of content cut and changed, Destiny released to a massive amount of hype on September 9th, 2014, with £500 million worth of marketing pushing it. This is where the trouble, and my problems with the game, begin.

The Release

Destiny, at its core, is a first-person shooter with some light MMO mechanics, meaning the game is always-online. You take on the role of a Guardian, one of the defenders of a giant white ball called the Traveler. This giant egg apparently caused the lifespan of humans to triple, and even turned the planet Mercury into a garden world. A number of years after its arrival, something called ‘the Darkness’ arrives to claim the Traveler, injuring it. The Traveler retreats to hovering over one city, dubbed ‘The Last City’, the last place that the Traveler’s light can influence.

All of this information is given to you in a hastily chopped opening cinematic, which does hardly anything to establish the world or its characters. The Darkness is made to sound genuinely threatening, when it is later found to just be a bunch of random factions that fight one another.

From there, the story becomes a complete incoherent mess. Things that are happening are never explained, you are given a vague goal and a gun and off you go. The biggest slap in the face is the character of the Stranger, a robot woman who just turns up, gives you an objective and then literally says “I have no time to explain”. Great storytelling. Bravo Bungie.

The story missions are also ridiculously short, and offer little to no gameplay variety. Missions take place on four different planets, that open up as the game progresses, fighting different parts of the Darkness on each. On Earth are the Fallen, a bunch of scavengers that aren’t established at all, they just choose to shoot on sight for no reason. Joining them are the Hive, a group of basically undead that swarm you.

The Hive are fleshed out a little more, but not until DLC. The same exact enemies reoccur on the Moon too. Venus sees the arrival of the Vex, a massive army of robots controlled by a single mind. They are decent enough, but the game, yet again, just doesn’t explain where they came from. Finally, Mars introduces the Cabal, planet destroying invaders who initially seem really quite threatening, but once you gun down thousands of them they seem trivial.

The story missions see these same enemies appear again and again, as you run to an objective, plonk your Ghost down, and then shoot wave upon wave of enemies.

Rinse and repeat.

Even boss fights, which should be awesome, are just slightly bigger variants of enemies you have already encountered. The main story also sees these random missions appear from out of nowhere that aren’t even required to progress. They are just… there.

So the story at launch is complete and utter garbage, but what about the gameplay? Destiny’s gameplay is where the game truly shines, a game with such tight and satisfying gunplay that it’s hard to put down. When you begin the game you choose from one of three classes.

Titan is your gung-ho, go in and clobber everything in your path type of guy. Hunter is your assassin, and Warlock is your stereotypical RPG mage. Each class has three subclasses, unlocked as you progress, that give different melee attacks, grenades and supers. Melee and grenades are on a cooldown in the game, with the Super having a long cooldown, which can be boosted by killing enemies.

Each subclass is adapted to different situations, which is great. Other than that, your character can be equipped with a whole variety of weapons and gear, dropped in different rarities from all manner of sources. Weapons drop at specific levels, which you gain by killing and completing missions to gain experience, the max being Level 20. After that, your gear gains a stat called ‘Light’, which acts as the level mechanic up to Level 30. The problem with Light was that gear only dropped from normal sources up to about 27. This meant that you had to participate in the Raid to reach max level.

The Raid is a six man experience that sees you tackle a ton of excellent content in a row, gaining rewards as you progress, including the aforementioned gear that is required to reach Level 30. The issue is that the game doesn’t matchmake for the Raid, so you have to create your own team. The good thing is that websites were set up, such as DestinyLFG and the100.io, to solve this. What proved frustrating for a lot of people was the inability to progress anymore due to the best gear being locked by the raid, and the lack of a dedicated matchmaking system.

By the time the Raid launched a couple weeks after launch, I had already had enough of the game. The daily bounties and PvP activities began to grate, and the inability to progress caused me to quit, but a lot of people did not. A strong community remained, driving the game forwards, and it is remarkable that a new IP such as Destiny, with its many, many flaws, kept going. What happened next, however, wasn’t ideal.

Expansions 1 & 2

In December of 2014, Bungie released the first of two planned expansions for Destiny, The Dark Below. This first part of the expansion pass, which retailed at a whopping £34.99, was an immense disappointment.

The DLC centers around the Hive, who are attempting to resurrect their so-called god, Crota. It featured around six story missions, culminating in the destruction of Crota’s soul, a strike and a raid. That is it in terms of content. The community was understandably baffled by the high price and distinct lack of content that this DLC provided, and it didn’t stop there.

In May 2015, the second expansion, House of Wolves, released. This second part of the expansion pass puts the Fallen in the spotlight, namely a Kell named Skolas, who is trying to unite the Fallen houses to mount an attack on the Tower.

Again this pack contained only a handful of story missions, another strike and a new social space. Strangely enough, this pack shuns a raid in favour of an arena-style location called the Prison of Elders, which was a baffling decision in the eyes of the community. One good addition in this expansion was an item called Etheric Light, that could be used to boost any of your gear to max Light. This allowed for more freedom when choosing which gear sets and weapons to use, rather than being confined to raid gear.

Despite some decent additions to the game, these two expansions ultimately fell flat, with too little content for too high a price. The community was running out of steam, but Bungie had an ace up their sleeve.

The Taken King: A New Game

September 2015. Destiny has been quiet for a couple of months, but Bungie had been working on an expansion that would drastically change the game: The Taken King. Retailing at the price of a full game, The Taken King drastically overhauled almost every aspect of the world, under the leads of new series leaders Luke Smith and Mark Noseworthy, crafting a new storyline and changing everything.

Set directly following the events of The Dark Below’s raid, Oryx wants vengeance for the death of his son, so he brings a massive Dreadnought into orbit around Saturn. He then travels around the Solar System, harvesting beings and turning them into Taken, a new enemy type. Sadly the Taken are not great, basically just being reskinned versions of existing enemies with a new ability.

The fantastic story of The Taken King, however, more than makes up for a lack of enemy variety. The Vanguards Zavala, Cayde-6 and Ikora Rey are fleshed out and become actual characters, instead of one-dimensional vendors. Cayde especially becomes a compelling character, voiced expertly by the excellent Nathan Fillion, cracking jokes. This humour and soul was something that was missing in the first release, but the Taken King makes up for it in spades.

A new patrol zone, the Dreadnought, was added. This hulking spaceship is only ripe for on-foot exploration, making seem massive, with many hidden secrets, enemies and events tucked away. One of these events is the Court of Oryx, a new public event that can be reliably activated using items located in the main story and around the other worlds. Taken have also made their way onto the other worlds too, attacking in waves and creating another new type of event.

The biggest feature, however, was the complete overhaul of the Light mechanic, with Light being an average of all of your gear pieces to give you a power level. Engrams, which decrypted into better items, began to drop more reliably and from all sorts of different activities. There were now more ways to reach max Light, including the infusion system, which allowed you to sacrifice higher level gear to boost another piece.

These changes resulted in a dramatic transformation. Destiny became an excellent game, with all of the issues from its first turbulent year fixed.

Following The Taken King, one final expansion, Rise of Iron, released in September 2016. A smaller expansion than The Taken King, Rise of Iron did include some decent content, including a new storyline, strikes, raid, patrol zone and social space. There was no dramatic overhaul, however, and this expansion served to reaffirm that Destiny was finally hitting its stride in terms of providing consistent, quality content.

Even outside of the expansions, Bungie provided frequent updates to the game to keep the ball rolling. Some of these included the Sparrow Racing League, a new racing minigame, the Festival of the Lost, a special Halloween-themed event, and the Age of Triumph, which raised the max light cap and raised all of the raids to Year three standard, with updated gear to boot.

Destiny, when all is said and done, did recover superbly from a turbulent first year. The nonexistent story and lack of content dragged down the excellent gunplay and loot mechanics to create a terribly mediocre final product, but The Taken King brought it back from the dead and shifted Destiny up a gear.

The Sequel

Destiny 2 is mere days away, and excitement is in the air. The sequel is aiming to actually tell a coherent story from the off this time, without keeping the lore out of the game entirely. The Tower is besieged by Dominus Ghaul and the Red Legion, a fierce division of the Cabal’s army, who steal the Traveler and strip you of your light. As you recover, you must recover the scattered Vanguard, who have traveled to the far reaches of the Solar System to seek shelter from the Cabal. This story of recovery actually seems to look quite good, with a clear villain being established this time from the off.

The story missions appear to be heavily improved too, with more cut scenes and set-piece moments in them. The first mission, Homecoming, was featured in the beta and was exceptional, and so I am hoping for more of a similar quality. Strikes, the multi-stage fireteam missions, are back, but there are only five of them (six on PlayStation 4), which is slightly concerning.

One area which looks to have seen significant improvement is the patrol zones, which are now located in the European Dead Zone of Earth, Saturn’s moon of Titan, the Vex planet Nessus, and the last place that the light reaches, Io. Patrol zones now have Adventures, multi-stage missions which yield decent rewards, as well as Lost Sectors, dungeons hidden throughout the zones that have bosses at the end. An overhaul of the public events, and massive World Quests complete the expansion of patrol.

The core gameplay remains the same, and that is completely fine. Destiny had brilliant gunplay and a compelling loot system, and so changing that could have derailed the whole experience. A couple of new weapon types, including sub-machine guns and grenade launchers, as well as a ton of new exotic gear, have the loot system looking better than ever.

Destiny 2 looks to be continuing where the original, post-Taken King, left off. The shooting and looting gameplay has proved highly divisive. I have changed my mind multiple times on whether I enjoy the game, and still I am unsure. There’s a lot to like about the series, but I, and you, should approach the sequel with some caution. The wind could be knocked out of the sails yet, we shall see.

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