Over the last four days, we've spent 26 hours exploring Destiny's surprise First Look Alpha. Announced during Sony's E3 2014 press conference, the 6.6GB download offers a shockingly robust early look at the upcoming sci-fi epic, sporting an impressively vast map full of enemies, a player-versus-player mode, a lengthy co-op mission, and the hub-like Tower. The fact that we managed to spend so long playing what is essentially just a single chunk of the full game speaks volumes, and simply put, it's hard not to feel that developer Bungie is on to something very special.
Dropping into the wasteland that is Old Russia, you're initially tasked with delving into a long abandoned satellite relay station. This is definitely a first-person shooter, but it bucks the trend by placing an expansive stretch of land between you and your objective. The location itself is split up into numerous large areas, which are all seamlessly connected. You're free to go anywhere that you want within the boundaries of the location, and it's this freedom that augments the property with a very tangible sense of discovery. Just wandering around the first area, you'll come across several camps that house patrolling Fallen – the four armed enemies that we've seen countless times in the game's promotional media.
Indeed, it isn't long before you're sampling the combat, which is thankfully a bit of a revelation. Movement is smooth, and gunplay is even smoother. Much like Bungie's most famous creation, there's an emphasis on traversing the environment in order to get an advantage over your foes. Hitting X makes your custom-made Guardian hop, and pushing it again while you're off the ground boosts you further into the air. Needless to say, jumping and controlling both your trajectory and fall is paramount to avoiding your adversary's fire while also taking up a better position on the battlefield.
Your Guardian's agility is needed, too, as enemies are quick to surround you and flush you out of cover. Unless you've got a sniper rifle and you're sitting a mile away from the action, staying in the same spot usually results in death, and for that reason, it can be a little difficult to get used to the need to keep moving – especially if you're used to cover based shooters. Thankfully, in the Fallen's case, projectiles tend to move slowly, giving you just enough time to avoid damage by strafing or jumping at the right moment. It feels like a very reactionary system, but it's a one that manages to keep you engaged even when you're trading blows with low level, easily beatable foes.
As hinted, gunplay is absolutely solid. The various types of weaponry on offer seem balanced – at least outside of competitive multiplayer – and there's enough a variety to make you stop and think about what suits your style of play best. Speaking of styles, there initially isn't too much difference between the title's three main classes – the Titan, Hunter, and Warlock – but judging from the skill trees on show, there are plenty of ways to alter your avatar's abilities. Even just a few hours into the experience, each type of Guardian begins to veer off into their own unique skill sets, with differing grenade types, statistic boosts, and super moves. The latter of which take time to charge, but are utterly devastating and very satisfying to pull off.
When you're having so much fun with the gunplay, it can be easy to forget that Destiny is very much set up like an open world RPG that's full of loot. You'll find equipment suited to your class in chests or scattered on the ground near defeated opponents, and these early signs suggest that the title gets it right when it comes to rewarding the player. Stumbling across a powerful new rifle or a beefy bit of armour feels great, and it's even better when you bring an encrypted drop back to the Tower for it to be analysed and changed into a rare item.
The Tower itself represents an area where you can catch your breath and run into other players without having to worry about enemies spoiling the party. The reasonably sized hub is the only place where you'll see your character in third person, where you're able to show off your lovingly crafted facial features and bad haircut. Here you'll spend your hard earned glimmer on weapons or ships, and pick up bounties that task you with completing different challenges out in the field. Of course, what you're really here for is the opportunity to entice others into a dancing contest, which is even better if you begin your disco in an awkward corner of the map.
Indeed, it's safe to say that player interaction is what may set Destiny apart from its peers. Bungie refuses to call its creation an MMO, but it does capture many of the same qualities. During its development, interactions with other humans have been likened to the PlayStation 3's Journey, and in reality, the comparison is something that does come to mind. You'll be making your way through the barren landscape, and you'll suddenly spot another player or two going about their business, and it's entirely up to you how you approach your new friends. A wave usually does the trick, but it's also important to note that the game doesn't seem to populate locations with many Guardians. At most, we came across four different players in one area, a number which thankfully keeps the map feeling atmospherically empty. That said, groups of random enemies tend to respawn quickly, and some environments even showcase battles between two factions, so there's never a lack of action despite the expansive design.
Much like Fallout 3, it's the detail of these dilapidated locations that keep them feeling interesting, and urge you to explore every nook and cranny. The Alpha may only boast one overall area, but we were still finding places far from the beaten path 15 hours into testing. As such, imagining the scope of the full release is exciting to say the least, particularity when you take journeying to other planets into account.
Of course, you're free to jog around the map alone, but there's no doubt that much of the experience is tailored to co-op play. Boosting through canyons on your space bike as friends zip by proves to be a very cool way to get around, while decimating platoons of adversaries side by side with your best buddies means that you can bring some strategy into the mix, especially when you're up against bigger baddies. Best of all, however, is how seamless actually teaming up with friends is. All you need to do is go into the menu and tap L1 to jump to your roster screen, where you can peruse everyone who's online, from your friends to those who are currently in the same world space as you. From here, you simply click on a name and hit join or invite, and you're good to go. Load times when picking a new location or joining a fellow Guardian are a little lengthy right now, but once things are underway, we're incredibly pleased to say that we suffered no connection-related problems whatsoever, making it immediately clear that we're dealing with some very, very reliable netcode. How it holds up for the finished product is obviously the big question, but our Alpha experience has undoubtedly been very promising.
The same can be said of the title's competitive offering, which straddles a line somewhere between the quick pace of Call of Duty, and the more tactical approach of Halo. As we hinted earlier, some types of guns seem more effective than others, but it's too early to say whether or not there's an imbalance at work. There are rewards such as random loot to be had for battling your Earth saving allies in the arena, too, and you'll also gain experience as you would while taking down artificial intelligence driven opponents, which reinforces the connected world concept that Bungie's project relies so heavily upon. With enough modes of play, the game's PVP component could easily add an entirely different way to get your fix, as well as a fiercely competitive way to test out your endgame skills and equipment.
As it stands, the sci-fi shooter is certainly poised to make a lasting impression on the gaming sphere. With Activision's marketing at its back, there's little doubt that Destiny will rake in the cash, but it's looking like it'll be worthy of every penny. The Alpha blends great gunplay and robust RPG mechanics with a huge, detailed world and thoughtful player interaction. Imagining this impressively polished concoction on a far grander scale is an incredibly exciting prospect, and given Bungie's pedigree, it's difficult to see anything going wrong between now and the title's September release. With the game's public beta slated for next month, we're eager to see if any tweaks will be made, but right now, there's more than enough reason to believe that Destiny will easily live up to and perhaps even surpass what's expected of it.
Are you equally excited for Bungie’s ambitious intergalactic adventure? Did you dip into the Destiny Alpha over the weekend? Gun us down in the comments section below.