10 Thoughts on… The Destiny Beta (Sony Playstation 4, Microsoft Xbox One)

When Bungie decided they were more or less tired of making Halo and opted to hand off the franchise to Microsoft so they could go do something else, it should probably come as no surprise that their next venture would be a futuristic FPS (though I was holding out for a Pathways into Darkness reboot personally). For those who have been looking askance at Destiny, assuming it to be another retread of the ground Halo paved, think again; Destiny certainly has its resemblances to Halo, but has just as much in common with Borderlands or Defiance in terms of lineage. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of hype behind this game, and Bungie has been going out of their way to keep that hype going, first with the closed Alpha they released about a month ago, and now with the closed-then-open Beta they just wrapped up for the game. We’ve spent some time with both the Alpha and the Beta, testing out various things, and with the Beta having just recently wrapped up we wanted to take some time to talk about what was on display, where it’s going and what it could mean for the game when it launches in September.

1.) One thing that’s been consistent between the Alpha and Beta is the startup; when you jump into the game you get to customize your first character (though you can go back and build more whenever you wish) before you’re taken to the story proper. The game offers three classes to choose from: Titans, which are your more standard combat tanks, Hunters, which act as scout/ranger type characters, and Warlocks, which are more space mages than anything else. You can also choose your race, between standard looking Humans, ethereal humanoid looking Awoken, and robotic Exo, though this doesn’t change your stats any and is entirely for your personal amusement. Each race also offers male and female options from the get go so no one is left out in the cold, as well as different modifications for appearance, such as face structure, hair, eye color and other little enhancements. When in combat you won’t be seeing these changes, but they’re visible when you’re in the Tower, so there’s still benefit to doing it, and if nothing else, it lets you make your characters your own.

2.) The Alpha more or less dumped you into the game with little to no information, but the Beta gives you a pretty good idea of what the plot is about at least. Destiny takes place in something of a post-apocalyptic future where the Earth has more or less been ruined by “The Darkness,” which is less Jackie Estacado and more hostile alien races who want to see the remnants of Earth society dead. As the game begins, a Ghost (robotic AI’s that act as helpers) finds you dead in the middle of a junk-filled field and brings you back to life. It appears, from his dialogue, that you’ve been dead for a long time, and he’s been searching for you, presumably, because of the capability you possess. The intro sequence itself acts as much as a tutorial as it does an introduction to the game world, but there’s a fairly good introduction to the plot in the Beta, as it fills in many of the blanks about why the world is the way it is and what your purpose in the world is. On a base level the plot isn’t anything amazing but it’s interesting, and it gives you an idea of what’s going on without spelling everything out, so you’ll want to come back to the final game when it launches.

3.) Having spent a good bit of time with both the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the Beta (mostly the PS4 version), assuming the final product matches up to the Beta content, players on either console should find Destiny to be a good example of what their console of choice is capable of. Visually, the game has an interesting aesthetic to it that feels somewhat like a cross between Brink, Mass Effect and Fallout 3, between the futuristic landscapes, the sterile menus and the bombed out outside world, and it works. The enemy and player models are interesting looking and the various combat special effects really pop, and while not everything is perfect (at least two of the running animations look like the character’s holding it in), the vast majority of the visuals look rather nice. For those who are wondering, the visual fidelity differences between the Xbox One and PS4 versions are generally minor; while there are extensive technical comparisons online in various places for those who are interested in specifics, I saw little significant difference between the Betas so far, so if the final version mirrors this, the game will look great for everyone. Aurally, the music is basically what you’d expect, IE a mix of orchestral score and electronic beats, and it all sounds good so far. The voice work is also pretty top notch; the obvious note is that Peter Dinklage does the voice work for the Ghost AI, but interestingly enough it’s the rest of the voice acting that shines, partly because the other voices are all generally fitting and well done, and partly because… well, Dinklage sounds kind of bored to be there, to be honest. That may change in the final release but so far it’s… not great, let’s say that. The effects are also kind of mixed; special sounds and enemy grunts are all top notch, but gunfire sounds a little muted, though not enough to be problematic or distracting. With a few tweaks the presentation should be exceptional, though even so, at this point what’s here isn’t bad.

4.) This being a first person shooter, you’ll almost certainly have an idea of what to do from the get-go when you’re given control of your Guardian and set loose upon the world. The sticks and triggers more or less do everything you’d expect, and the bumpers are relegated to tossing grenades and melee attacks. Most of the face button functions are as you’d expect as well, so jumping, ducking, reloading and so on are immediately obvious and readily accessible. The game takes a Borderlands sort of approach for its character layout, meaning that you have an inventory you can access at any time that allows you to change up your weapons and armor as you see fit, as well as improve skills relative to your experience level. Armor falls into four types, to cover your head, arms, torso and legs, and each can potentially have various improvements attached to it that give you added bonuses in battle. Weapons fall into one of three main types: Primary (your rifles and handguns), Special (shotguns, sniper rifles and oddities) and Heavy (rocket launchers and heavy machine guns), and you can carry several at once, though only one can be equipped to each slot at a time. This lets you have a gun for every occasion on your person, even if they’re not always equipped, and once equipped, swapping between them is as simple as pressing the top face button (to swap between Primary and Special) or holding it (to draw the Heavy), so you won’t have to fumble to get what you need.

5.) Where Destiny gets creative is in its more advanced systems. For one thing, when you level up you can buy skills relative to your chosen class that improve the functionality of your tools, modify your stats or give you powerful class-specific attacks. All classes have three primary stats: Armor, which governs defense, Recovery, which governs health regeneration, and Agility, which governs movement and jumping capability. You’ll also see other secondary classes pop up on your equipment, as well, such as Light (increases your damage level), Discipline (reduces cooldown timer for grenades) and more, which can improve your performance beyond your core stats. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the leveling system itself, as instead of unlocking more and more powerful buffs the higher you level up, you’ll unlock different modifications that can allow you to tune your character a specific way. The Beta only allowed players to level up to level eight, so you could really only get a taste of the categories available to you, but it’s apparent that there’s room for much depth, as you can customize your jumping ability, grenade effects, stat focus and more to build your character how you like. Further, each class has an available subclass that’s unlocked at level fifteen which offers new tools to play with; it looks like these classes are treated as separate classes rather than add-ons to existing classes, so you can have two different playstyles available to you with each class, and can customize your character as you see fit for whatever you need. It also bears noting here that some of the weaponry you find also has its own experience levels, and when they level up, you can buy new stats for these weapons, such as damage or capacity improvements, stat boosts and more, so with the right loadout you can become a serious death machine.

6.) The three classes offered didn’t show a lot of variance in the Beta, most likely due to the low level cap, but they had some minor differences on display that could potentially play into bigger differences later in the game. Titans, as one would expect, are primarily Armor focused and can take a pounding before they need to recover. Their melee attack revolves around punching dudes out, their primary grenades are flashbangs that damage the immediate area and cause stun effects on surrounding enemies, and they’re mainly your tank/assault class. Hunters are a lot more glassy, and are mostly focused on Agility to get them into good attack positions and get out before they’re decimated. Their melee attack is them knifing dudes, their primary grenades are Area of Effect incendiary grenades, and they’re mainly your scout/ranger class, meant to hit hard at a distance or strike quick and back off. The Warlock class is probably the most interesting one of the lot, so far, in that they’re mostly Recovery focused and can regenerate quickly, meaning they can pop out and hit hard, then drop back and regenerate before moving back in for more. Their melee attack, fittingly, is a sort of force-punch, their primary grenades create a vortex that deals AOE damage for a few seconds, and they’re mainly meant as a class that deals high damage with weirder effects associated than the other classes. How these skills are going to play out long-term remains to be seen, but by level eight it becomes apparent that each class has its own unique play style, if only slightly, and it’ll be interesting to see how much variance is there in the late game.

7.) At its core, Destiny essentially works as a sort of FPS MMO; you have a ship you can deploy from, be it to take on missions, jump into PVP, or replenish supplies and upgrade gear, and the game uses elements that will be familiar to fans of Borderlands and Defiance to build its world, albeit with its own twists. When jumping into missions, the Beta showed three major types: Story, which lets you play through the campaign and learn more about the game world, Strike, which are multiplayer co-op missions that involve specific targets and mission objectives, and Exploration, which are literally free-roam missions that let you take on mini-missions as you explore the zone. Story missions are immediately the most profitable, and allow you to jump in at the normal level or at a harder level if you want to risk a lot of death for big experience rewards, though after the first time around they pay out less overall. Exploration is more for grinding if you want to get a level or make some cash as missions are generally simple and pay out well enough and there’s plenty hidden in the world to find. Strike missions strike a balance, and require other players, so they’re the best to jump into with friends overall. When you’re playing through the game world normally you can respawn, should you die, a short distance away from where you were, and there will normally be people running about (if you’re online) who will help you out. In specific missions, however, there will eventually be Darkness Zones, which are instanced and require you to respawn at checkpoints should you die, so if you kick it halfway through the mission you might be starting over, more or less. In the Beta the checkpoints are fairly liberal, however, so this isn’t a huge concern.

8.) When you’re looking to change up your gear, set up fireteams (player groups) or just goof off, you’ll want to head to the Tower, which is your hub, more or less. Here is where you’ll find the various vendors you can talk to, who sell the goods your class can equip as needed, which you can buy with Glimmer, this game’s answer to money. There are other novelties here, like the ability to pick up Bounties (side objectives to perform in the game world), check your mail, translate unknown items called Engrams (unidentified items, more or less) or even just dance in the center of town if that’s your thing. Since you can break down unwanted items whenever you want, you’ll mostly find you don’t need to head to the Tower constantly unless you need to identify something or pick up an upgrade, but it’s a well-designed zone all in all, and you’ll find that it does its job well enough.

9.) There are a lot of random things that I honestly can’t even begin to do justice here that are only touched upon in the Beta, but let’s try to do a quick round-up of the little things that came up that don’t really have a home anywhere else. As noted, your character has an inventory that stores various weapons and armor you find, but you can also find other random items in the game world, such as Spinmetal and glass shards, that will presumably factor into item advancement in some way (how wasn’t addressed in the Beta). It’s also interesting to note that the game allows you to carry currency between characters, including Glimmer, Vanguard Marks (which you earn from Bounties) and Crucible Marks (which you earn through Crucible performances); if that carries to the final game it should be easier to level up secondary and tertiary characters, if nothing else. Speaking of the Crucible, this seems to be the place to go for those who want to engage in competitive multiplayer, so that’s an option for those who want it. The Beta really only had “Control,” AKA King of the Hill, on display, so it’s hard to know how satisfying this mode will be for those looking for competitive play (though with this being Bungie expectations are strong), but it wasn’t much of a focal point in the Beta, so until the final release there’s not much to say about it, honestly.

10.) At this point, Destiny is shaping up to be an interesting experience, and while there’s more than a little here that will be familiar to FPS fans thanks to the game’s pedigree and inspirations, if Bungie can develop the teased unique aspects shown in the Beta into something robust, this should be a must-play game for 2014. At its core, the game has more than a passing resemblance to Halo by way of Borderlands with some smatterings of MMO’s tossed in, which… isn’t a bad cross-breeding of concepts, to be honest. The semi-unique elements the game has simmering below the surface, however, such as the variable build options and the multiple classes and subclasses, could really help the game come into its own. The fact that the game seems to offer all of the core story content offline but offers several online co-op and competitive modes also makes it an attractive proposition for those who might have shied away from Titanfall‘s “always online” setup. How well Bungie manages to tie all of these elements remains to be seen, but so far, Destiny is shaping up to be something interesting, and we’ll see how well it works next month.



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