Gaming: Destiny Alpha Impressions

J.G. is here to weigh in on Destiny Alpha.

"Tell me my cloak is fabulous!!
Tell me!!!!"
When information first released for Destiny I was in awe over its ambition. Bungie, the development team responsible for the original Halo series, seemed to be breaking ground with this new FPS. When gameplay videos first appeared, my awe took a swift nose dive back into "meh" territory.  I've had a chance to play the alpha release of Destiny for a week, and after attempting to wring this early version of the game dry of its content, my enthusiasm went back up into the definite purchase range, although with reservations.

The presentation is refreshing. Bungie threw away the frustrating icon switching in favor of a PC-style "mouse-over," which is something I've been asking for since the PS2 days. Every menu and prompt is clean, simple, and operates intuitively. It's all controlled with a gliding circle you move across the screen, followed by a button hold to ensure that you're making the selections you only intend to.

Visually, I was expecting a lot more from this game. Its technical performance is pristine. The backdrops are gorgeous. Structurally speaking, the map design is as honed as one would expect from Bungie. However, upon arrival at my first land mission, the first thing I noticed was not how empty the landscape was—after all, it is post-apocalyptic Russia—but the lack of story or intrigue in the immediately explorable terrain.

Just what do I mean by that? Destiny is obviously spilling over with intensely woven lore, which I cannot wait to immerse myself in with the full release. But so far there is a lot of wasted potential as far as visual cues of what the world was like before or what's happening now. For instance, why not put a corporate advertisement on the side of the dozens of rusted trucks strewn about? What were the crashed airplanes carrying? Where were they going? They could just slap some labels and graphics on the elements in contextually appropriate ways to get your brain itching, like they did so effectively in Fallout 3 and Bioshock.
"Guardian Landscaping.
Make Those Weeds Lawn Gone."

Why not have a billboard tipped over, gouging into the rocks with a top actor endorsing a long lost Presidential candidate? As we investigate dark caves, where are the remnants of dead animals or skeletons of lost urban explorers? Where is the evidence of life? Personality? Where is the sense that this place was once inhabited, explored, manipulated, or studied? Where is the story in the landscape? I think the game deserves more tangible details that show a strong contrast between the times before it all went wrong and now. A big satellite dish, overgrown foliage, and rusted out architecture is something I've seen hundreds of times in post-apocalyptic games. There's very little to set Destiny apart in this regard, though it is exceptionally gorgeous to stop and bask in the grander view. It's only the smaller details that are lacking here.

Much of this could be forgiven, however, if there were more unique rewards for exploration. Loot boxes are extremely rare, so I thought that they'd provide more useful goodies for me. Give me something else besides chests to find. Nine out of every ten loot boxes offered me something I already had or couldn't use. I scoured every nook and cranny to find everything I could. Speaking of nooks or crannies, frequently I found identical tile sets which appeared as locked off rooms that lead nowhere. I'm not going to hold this against Bungie's design at the moment, because I'm very positive these dead ends are intentionally implemented into the alpha to maintain the focus of this build.

"Pre-order for the Xbox One
and receive this custom
Sam Fisher alien armor."
Geometrically, the landscapes are brilliantly designed. Paths are clear, yet inspire breaking away. Vantage points are balanced on all corners. Your “Sparrow,” a digitally materialized speeder bike, can get through or over virtually all obstacles or pathways I chose to take, and I never felt like it didn't maneuver the way I commanded it to. I could take it across plains or through hallways and upstairs. It's an extremely well implemented tool that is a necessary component to the experience.

At first, I was miffed about the lack of a mini map, but soon realized how detrimental that would be to the unrivaled sense of discovery in Destiny. It would also severely hinder the real world sense of the immense map scale. I rode my Sparrow for what felt like an hour trying to get from one end of the map to the next and the only reason I couldn't go further was because there were enemies who far outclassed me to the point of insta-death. Perhaps the most astounding technical feats on Bungie's part are that there are virtually zero load times once you're in-game, and there isn't even any texture pop as you're soaring rapidly over the terrain in your Sparrow. The experience is as seamless as it is massive, and yet, you only have a single map available to you in the alpha. Just one!

Accompanying the exploration is a decent musical score, but nothing exceptional yet. The only memorable tune plays on the title screen. Everything afterward, though not remotely close to bad, doesn't do much to inspire the action or the mystery of discovering new environments. The score doesn't compliment the scope of the story. Perhaps, the more the game expands, the more varied the score will be from planet to planet or city to city. At this point, it's quite run-of-the-mill as far as music goes.

The overall sound design goes from decent to great, with a few particular elements being exceptionally cool. The Sparrow, for instance, has a dynamic layer of noises pulsing, fading, and popping as you ride. Some weapons are more interesting than others, but most are disappointingly generic, sounding little like futuristic technology, and more like firearms in any other game.

When facing off against a swarm of enemies, I expected to hear an alien language issuing esoteric orders, or
"Tell me my wing tips are fabulous!!!
Tell me!!!"
calling my presence to the attention of their brethren; they did neither. This subtracts from the sense of scope as this can be coupled with the fact that enemies are just there. Their actions provide no explanation as to why they are there. Are they protecting something? They appear to simply be hanging out and respawning with the sole purpose of providing target practice for my sweet guns. Are they on a scout mission? If so, there's no organization to their ranks, routines, or motions. In fact, they don't do much in the form of flanking or strategy, unless their strategy is just to walk aimlessly until I shoot at them. The most interesting thing enemies might do is hide around a corner, or slide-strafe to avoid fire.

Narrating your path is Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) as a Rubik's Cube-like information avatar, or 
“Ghost,” that you carry around with you. Now, I love me some Dinklage, but dude, what happened? Why does he sound like a homeless guy paid in Happy Meals to deliver a few lines of text!? A friend of mine watching as I played heard my incredulity at his awful performance and said, "I didn't want to say anything at first, but he sounds horrible!" I know the exact defense that is coming; "but he's a robot, durr!" Yeah, I know he is, but did we forget about Cortana? Who directed the voice work here? How could you make Peter Dinklage sound like an amateur? If he's going to sound this uninspired, please put a flange or phaser or anything on his voice to mask what sounds like a phoned-in performance. I have no idea how you can defend his voice unless you also think Kirsten Stewart deserves an Oscar, in which case I have nothing to say to you. Dinklage sounds awful no matter what perspective you're looking at it from. Even if his performance were exceptional, he's not given anything interesting to say or do, at least in this build. Perhaps his Ghost will become a more exciting addition later in the game. At this stage, the Ghost feels gimmicky, especially when tasked with the "I need a few more minutes to hack this thing" cliché while you fight off hordes of enemies. The Ghost essentially doesn't do anything the player couldn't do with a simple find-the-switch mechanic.

On a related note, another friend of mine was severely disappointed with the narrator of the “Crucible” matches, which are Destiny's PvP offerings. After playing a few dozen more rounds, I've grown accustomed to it to the point of not really hearing it anymore. While my feelings about this narrator are less harsh, I still think it doesn't fit. The voice actor does their least to keep my attention or get me pumped to win. Halo's narrator was energizing. This one does nothing of the sort.

The only PvP game available in the alpha is a domination style match, which is fine, though offering little that's new. However, this won't be a bad thing to Bungie fans for obvious reasons. The two maps I played were unsurprisingly masterfully designed—like we should expect anything else from Bungie. Each map is a breeze to navigate on your way to capture points or to meet up with your fire team. Protecting a point is stressful in a good way and necessitates communication, because each point is balanced with access from all sides high and low. Player to player communication is absent in the alpha. 

There are only two PvP maps that were available encourage frantic action, yet also require keen strategic choices, especially in remaining inconspicuous to possible conflicts with other players. Vehicles also play a part in the Moon map, which I wasn't inspired to utilize much—I tended to lean toward my Sparrow in order to simply get to points quicker.

"Warlock Condoms:
For Those Magical Moments."
I hope to see a few more unique PvP offerings. It would be a shame to compromise the ambition of a title like this by rehashing typical old game types, without anything new that you can only play in Destiny. Bungie no doubt has a few cards that they're holding up their sleeves—those cards, I hope, will be some interesting PvP types. I'm a huge fan of asymmetrical competition. It would be nice to see an option to play as the Fallen or other creatures. I would also love to see dynamic maps that can shift the design or paths into new territory, opening up the battle in fresh ways. For example, an objective point that, when captured, opens a hangar that unlocks the use of offensive vehicle-types for all. Maybe I'm dreaming a bit, but I know I'm not the only one who'd like to see Destiny offer a completely new versus type that compliments the ambition and other fresh ideas Bungie is delivering here.

The combat, in particular, is what was turning me off prior to the alpha release in those preview videos. All of my hopes built up for Destiny crashed as soon as I saw the game play. Fortunately, everything changed the very second I pulled the trigger and downed my first enemy while playing the game for the first time. The controls are lush. Why did I expect less from Bungie? How dare I! Halo, trumped only by Destiny, is the best controlling FPS on the market, and I think very few would disagree with me on that no matter how you feel about the franchise. They seemed to outdo themselves this time. Aiming is cooperative with my inputs. If I missed, I missed. I'm normally not a high-sensitivity guy, but this is an exception. Dropping one alien species after the next is gratifying, even with low level weapons, and it only gets better as you discover new gear.

The grav boots/jet-pack mechanism of the Warlock class confused me at first. I realize it's a tactful design requiring skilled timing, and it's a ton of fun. Blasting off from around corners to rain death upon my clueless targets feels as epic as it sounds. Traversing from one broken out shelter to the next is buttery and precise. You will make a lot of mistakes at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll feel something is missing in other games employing similar mechanics. Somehow they've managed to make a purely fictional device feel as if it had real-life physics driving it. The sense of your own weight and velocity is something you'll have to be in tune with in order to master this element.

Gaining new gear and abilities seemed to happen exceptionally fast in the alpha. I'm not sure if this is due to Bungie wanting its players to get the most out of the alpha in a short period of time or if it will progress identically in the full release. As you earn new gear, the old gear can be dismantled for scrap, parts, or Glimmer, the game's most common currency type. Doing this requires a button hold and a progress bar which will prevent you from accidentally dismantling any items you wished to keep. In fact, this has saved my life a couple of times already.

You'll discover a fairly wide variety of weapons with some slick designs and options for upgrading as you progress. Some weapons might have an ability which you can work toward that increases effectiveness of grenades, ensuring more replay value from one gun versus a similar one which has little room for improvement. Another gun might have several upgrades to choose from as you gain experience such as scope attachments, stability enhancements, or magazine size increases. A particular firearm you really enjoy might provide you a ton of replay value as you level up its unique abilities. While the guns aren't as wild as Borderlands, there still remains a robust and rewarding upgrade system which will keep you checking in for potential enhancements. I got a fusion shotgun requiring a charged pull that fires out a burst of midrange shrapnel that can disintegrate multiple targets; it's one of my favorites so far. The variety of firearms can be deceptive in their subtle futuristic designs, yet still pack an exhilarating punch.

Not only the guns, but each piece of material you wear, whether it be a helmet, boots, or armbands can
"There! Beyond those rocks! It's
a Taco Bell!"
provide new traits which further inspire the personalization of each class to your play style. The grenades of the Warlock class, in particular, have some especially fun upgrades. At its base level, the explosion yields a gravitational burst that constantly damages foes within its radius. At roughly level 8, you'll get the option to upgrade the detonation to fire out multiple projectiles. Even your melee attack, which begins as a simple push, becomes a powerful void blast that dissolves your opponents into light vapor. Most of my experience was with the Warlock class, which has turned out to be my personal favorite. While the Warlock has the weakest defense, it is also a tremendously powerful and rewarding class if you play smart.

During the combat, I was facing enemies that felt identical to each other. I came across several enemy variations, which largely felt like re-skinned versions of the ones I defeated before. In all of my playtime, I didn't notice an enemy class that did anything particularly surprising. Some floated. Some ran straight at me. Some were bigger. Some were green. Some red. Even in the very first Halo, released 13 years ago, each enemy type felt totally different. You knew that you had to switch up your strategy between Brutes and Grunts. In the Destiny alpha, it never once felt like I had to try anything different in order to succeed, with the exception of the Devil Walker. On top of all of this, I really didn't know why I was fighting these things or why I cared to complete what I had to complete. These critiques, however, can be dismissed because, again, this is merely the alpha build. Undoubtedly, the motivation will be made clearer in the final version. Again, though, this is just one map. I don't know what those creatures fought like which hindered my progress further into the map. I don't know what the other adversaries will have in store once I dock my starship on other planets! I only played in Russia!

The best part of the alpha campaign missions, if you want to call them that, is certainly the Devil's Lair, a very challenging "dungeon raid" style of mission where you battle from one end of the map to the other with a full fire team at your side. The enemies here are higher level and tough as nails, especially in the boss fights. One such battle had me in way over my head, as I was just barely a high enough rank to even think about facing it. Thankfully, I had a solid squad on my team, that even without voice chat yet implemented, we worked our asses off to keep each other revived, loss after loss, and scratched away methodically at the Devil Walker. This jerk wiped us all out numerous times, but we patriotically strapped back in with hardened smiles and gleefully reentered the map again and again. I went up two levels trying to beat this damn thing, and when I returned later after I maxed out at level 8 , which is the level cap in this early version of the game, I obliterated the entire population of the map and both bosses with all my new toys and skills. This was enormously pleasing.

When returning to the Tower to recoup, recollect, dismantle, upgrade, purchase, and socialize, you are provided with what appears to be another limit on what you'll be able to do here. I found several tantalizing sections of the map locked off with only glimpses of what lies beyond in the full game. It's otherwise pretty basic stuff here, though just as hearty as any RPG. The only thing I was disappointed to see, is that the world here doesn't feel alive. It's standard fare, with shop owners asking for your patronage as you pass. There's little else in the way of passerby, NPCs, or even news of the goings-on in the war... or whatever it is we're doing here. I imagine this will be remedied, in a way, when the final retail version is released. I picture the Tower, packed to the brim with other Guardians playing around the world, with a fully integrated story to follow.

"Take my balls. Return them
to the Queen. She will know
what to do." 
Making the tower far too sectioned off to compliment the otherwise huge scope the game implies seems like a design flaw. If these sections were opened up to each other instead of separated by enclosed stairways or halls, the sense of being part of a large arms market would be a more thrilling environment to immerse yourself in, especially when populated by a handful more NPCs and hundreds of Guardians. Having to backtrack several hundred feet through the arms market, up some stairs, around a corner, through a fence, down another hall to the hangar, then up some more stairs just to upgrade your starship is an unnecessary chore. Hopefully, there are more places like the Tower, or at least additional open spaces to explore within it in the final build that will lend a better sense of life. I'd love to be a Guardian on a busy civilian street corner far below the Tower, surrounded by NPCs living, speaking, and working in a world drastically altered from what we know now.

Nevertheless, The Tower does an astute job at serving its purpose. The slick menu navigation permeates each shop as you peruse the goods, making it easy to decide what you want or need. The alpha even teases you with potential upgrades you'll see once you're a level 20, further solidifying the fact that there is an epic crap load of cool stuff to work toward in the final release; things I don't even understand yet.

With the small keyhole look into Destiny that I got through the alpha, the game is undoubtedly shaping up to be just as massive as expected. Though several elements serve to detract from the grand scale, it is a grand scale, indeed. It's unfortunate that Destiny presents itself with such a gigantic world to explore, yet forgets the small things that kill the immersion. Your alien foes are reduced to being basic moving targets you can shoot at, and exhibit no personality that should place them in this majestic scheme. The laboratories, vehicles, computer desks, airplanes, and crates all feel like objects to fill space instead of an intrinsic part of what this desolate environment once was. On the other hand, look to the distance and pop a squat and you'll be treated to some of the most striking grandiose world designs yet seen in any game.

The most exciting and important thing about the Destiny alpha is that it's fun, and that's all that matters. It's fun without being able to talk to other random Guardians that you might happen to meet along your journey. It tickles my inner-child to discover places that feel like I'm one of the only people that might find them. It's endlessly enjoyable to take down a dozen enemies with my entire array of magic tricks, charged fusion shotguns, jet packs, and gravity grenades. It's especially fun to do this with other people, even though I don't know who they are yet. The Sparrow is a blast to ride over airplane wings and to see how quickly you can swoop around and over obstacles. And all of these features can be upgraded and customized! Clothes, character class, powers, vehicles and weapons; they can all be made your own with custom colors, designs, and abilities.

Despite all of its shortcomings, it's important to remember that this is merely the alpha build. This isn't anywhere near a complete experience, and it's already a fulfilling and engaging title. Almost all of these critiques could be made null and void upon release, with countless fixes or enhancements being inevitable. For all of you that have to wait for the beta, or even the full game in September, know that you are in store for one awesome experience once you've played an even better version of the game that I am now considering a must-own and the very best title Bungie has made to date. I am dying to take on the full story with friends and experience the sum of the rich and diverse lore that inspires the action. I am dying to discover more hidden underground factories or lost decimated highways packed with what was once congested traffic. Destiny might just end up being everything we hoped for, but Bungie still has a lot of work to do before they get there.

-J.G. Barnes