Expectations breed negativity, and Destiny's long awaited launch has suffered for it. Despite making more money than we dare to imagine in its first 24 hours on the market, Bungie's latest project has attracted the ire of many players since its servers went live. After what feels like an eternity of hype and huge marketing campaigns, it's safe to say that the release has had to endure a lot of criticism – some of it fair, some of it unfounded – but as hinted, most of the negativity comes from people's expectations for a game that they've been anticipating for years now.
And indeed, our expectations have got the best of us as well at times. After penning glowing previews of both the alpha and the beta, we went into the full release full to the brim with hope, ready to be blown away by the mega-budget shooter. But as it happens, Destiny is, by and large, exactly what we experienced in the pre-release server stress test: surprises are few and far between, and the vast majority of the mechanics work in an identical fashion, although obviously, everything's been expanded far beyond what was available in the sneak peek download. But is that good enough for a title that's bearing a lot of next-gen weight on its shoulders?
Once again, it all comes down to expectation; if you were waiting on a glorious sci-fi story full of depth and discovery akin to something like Mass Effect, you'll be brutally disappointed. Likewise, if you were looking forward to a varied and colossal trek across the galaxy, you're going to leave feeling very unfulfilled. However, even though your enjoyment of a game can be greatly affected by the expectations surrounding it, it never leads to a reasonable and rational judgement. When observed with a clear head, it's obvious that Destiny has flaws, but there's no denying that it's still an absolutely sublime shooter.
Developer Bungie is no stranger to shooters, of course, but Destiny really is the pick of the bunch. Gunplay is fast and snappy, but also punchy and stupidly satisfying. Auto rifles tear through grunt enemies, shotguns send them flying, and rocket launchers let off projectiles that explode with a bass filled boom that echoes around the battlefield. Each weapon type feels unique, and finding a particular gun that really clicks with your style of play is immensely rewarding. As far as gunplay goes, it's difficult to think of a shooter that feels as smooth and as natural as this.
The game's shooting is at the core of its combat, which is easily one of the title's greatest strengths. You'll be taking the fight to several different alien races which all have some sort of typical weakness. The four-armed space pirate Fallen, for example, really don't like being shot in the head, while the mechanical and surprisingly creepy Vex transform into a pool of goop when they take a blast to the stomach. It's standard FPS fare for the most part, but the aforementioned fantastic gunplay combines with the need to keep moving throughout the environment to create frantic, visceral battles no matter what kind of loadout your Guardian is packing.
Because of your foes' persistence when it comes to flanking and flushing you out of cover, the release's combat is often heavily focused on verticality and finding the right position from which to unleash hell. As such, many fights force a recognisable fluidity as you duck in and out of cover, sprint to a better vantage point, or leap across a location thanks to your hero's enhanced jumping skills. It feels like there are always a multitude of different options during battle, whether you're sitting at a distance and sniping, or running in close and ripping through the enemy ranks with your super ability.
By tapping both the R1 and L1 shoulder buttons when your super gauge is full, you'll activate your avatar's class specific technique. Most see you lay waste to whatever opposes you, while others are slightly more strategic. Whichever character class you choose, though, these supers define your choice, and add some welcome, over the top elements to general gameplay.
Speaking of classes, there are three to choose from when you first create your Guardian: there's the Titan, who adores heavy armour and has a penchant for punching things; the Hunter, who looks like the epitome of a space age rogue, and; the Warlock, who's essentially a futuristic, robe wearing spell slinger. All three classes can equip any weapons that they want, but their armour, melee attacks, and abovementioned supers are what make your initial choice an important one.
No matter which path you decide to follow, though, growing your own custom made Guardian is accessible and addictive. Working on a traditional experience point system where killing enemies and completing mission objectives powers you up, it won't be long until you're soaring through the levels, acquiring new perks, skills, and equipment as you progress. This is just one aspect of the role-playing side that Destiny flaunts, and for the most part, it's very enjoyable, as you gradually mould your gunslinger based on your unique style of play.
That said, for many, it'll feel like the days of earning experience points are over far too soon. The sci-fi shooter has a soft level cap of 20, and once this is reached, things get a little more complicated. To progress beyond, you'll have to acquire pieces of equipment that boast a 'light' statistic, which then contributes to boosting your level. On paper, it's not a bad system since you're always on the lookout for that all-important loot, but at the same time, it turns proceedings into more of a grind than they need to be. It wouldn't be so bad if loot dropped at a steady and rewarding rate, but the apparently completely random design means that you can go from getting several drops in quick succession, to spending hours playing only to find next to nothing of worth.
Because the system can seem a little unfair, however, when you do eventually come across a rare and useful trinket, you'll be – pun intended – over the moon. Taking your unidentified gear to the cryptarch back at the hub-like Tower, you're able to discern whether or not it's worth lugging around, and if it does turn out to be a powerful new rifle or stat boosting helmet, the feeling of joy is hard to contain. Similarly, you can also buy better stuff if you've got the money, and unsurprisingly, seeing an enhanced version of your favourite killing machine up for sale can feel just as joyous as picking it from the remains of your aggressors.
If it isn't already clear, there's a heck of a lot to do in Destiny. From the story missions to exploration, co-op activities to competitive multiplayer, there's always something to work towards, which is only amplified by the need to obtain better and better equipment. Brilliantly, loot actually scales to your level, so even when you're helping out a newbie on their first few tasks, you'll still have a chance of finding gear that'll buff up your own Guardian, meaning that no matter what you decide to do and who you decide to do it with, there's a constant sense of progression that keeps you hooked.
What won't keep you hooked, however, is the story itself. The universe that Bungie has crafted is an intriguing one, but you're given almost no insight into its workings. The baddies are bad, the goodies are good, some guy wants you to kill things, and you're more than happy to oblige. If anything, the narrative is in place simply to tie together the fact that you'll be jumping from planet to planet, and at times, the extremely thin plot does manage to evoke some sort of purpose during the scenarios that you'll find yourself in, but there's an overbearing feeling that so much more could have been expanded upon.
Around halfway through the story, things seem to pick up as some interesting characters are introduced and your own Guardian suddenly discovers that they have a personality, but then within a few missions, all of that is cast aside and never even mentioned again. Before you know it, you're jogging into the final mission, which is only recognisable once the suitably epic musical score kicks in and you're clashing with what is obviously the last boss.
Thankfully, the missions that the narrative accompanies tend to be pulse pounding, gripping affairs – especially on the harder difficulties – although they do usually follow a disappointingly stereotypical structure. Still, the light narrative means that replaying individual missions or even the entire storyline is accessible, and what little exposure there is ends up being admittedly enjoyable thanks to some well acted cutscenes.
It's a real shame that Destiny doesn't do more with its story, but there's a good chance that most players won't be too bothered because of the release's other main features. After all, the shooter RPG hybrid is only playable online, and so much of your time will likely be taken up by interactions with other users, be it slaughtering them in the Crucible, exploring vast planets together, or setting up an obligatory dance party at the Tower.
Fortunately, co-operative play is another area where the title truly shines. Get a couple of friends together, and journeying around the huge, open maps can be utterly engrossing, and when you're done delving into the depths of the moon or zipping around the deserts of Mars on your amazingly cool space bike, you can all jump into a frantic Strike mission to try and nab some rare loot.
The Strikes themselves are unlocked as you move through the story, and by the time that you're done, they'll make up much of your endgame experience. These lengthy objectives can last up to an hour depending on how well you and your two partners work as a team, but it's not all as good as it sounds. Tearing through waves of alien scum with your best buddies makes for a fantastic experience, but it's the mode's bosses that create an unmistakable air of disappointment.
Ridiculously hefty health bars mean that clashes with colossal bosses will likely account for most of your time spent doing Strikes, where you'll be chipping away health at such a slow rate that you'll begin to realise the real challenge of these encounters comes from trying to stay awake. It's an oversight that doesn't ruin the three player tasks, but it does make you think twice about trying to complete them – especially when you're not even guaranteed to find loot that'll make it worth the effort.
But like everything else that you'll do in the game, there's still that sense of progression that's just enough to keep pulling you back in. Even when you're just gallivanting around the open world's randomised side quests, you'll be gaining Vanguard points that you can save up to buy legendary grade equipment. The same is true of the competitive Crucible, which is perhaps the title's most solid and consistent feature.
Spanning several game modes that encompass free-for-alls, team battles, and objective based ventures, the Crucible proves to be an incredibly reliable alternative to blowing up computer controlled baddies. Destiny's very impressive online structure means that joining a match with strangers or friends is easy and quick, which allows you to jump straight into the action and rack up some marks and reputation points for yet more exotic equipment.
As with any player-versus-player component, there are some concerns over weapon balancing and the like, but any relatively minor issues are soon forgotten as you find yourself on a glorious killing spree – just remember to hit that share button. Like the rest of the release, the environmental design is top notch, and each map allows for multiple strategies and approaches depending on your favourite gear. Indeed, your Guardian carries across all aspects of Destiny, which creates a superb sense of belonging in the online-only world.
With commanding co-op components and moreish multiplayer, Bungie's latest is often at its very best when you're fighting side-by-side with your friends – or even with total strangers who you've found roaming the abandoned expanses of Earth as a public event occurs. That's not to say that tackling story missions and exploring by yourself isn't fun, though, as there's definitely a certain intrigue in navigating the atmospheric locations with only your Ghost as company, but your continued interest in doing so will largely depend on how repetitive you find the optional objectives, and how quickly you like to get into the action.
Regardless of the perks that come with an online-only product, though, there's always the worry that if the servers go down for whatever reason you're left with an expensive coffee coaster. Fortunately, if the first week has been anything to go by, then Destiny is founded on an incredibly stable network. In around forty hours of play, we've had but one single disconnect over the entirety of content available. Couple this strong connectivity with hassle-free friend invites, and the advantages of an always online title appear much more appealing.
And so we move on to another of the game's best elements: its user interface. It may seem like a rather trivial point in a title of Destiny's scope, but a sleek, easy to use menu system can make a massive difference when it comes to micromanaging your inventory in a role-playing game. Taking inspiration from a mouse-based system, you move the reticule with the left analogue stick. Hovering over icons or text brings up further information, and clicking on something allows you to interact. Something as simple as holding down the R2 button to quickly compare gear saves you precious time, and in truth, we struggle to think of better interface that we've seen in years. It's simple, shockingly accessible, and is everything that it needs to be.
Bungie's masterclass in design doesn't stop there, however. As we've already mentioned, the locations are beautifully crafted, even if the game generally doesn't measure up to the PlayStation 4's exclusive releases in graphical terms. The same is true of character designs and the designs of the equipment itself; armour always looks interesting and effortlessly cool, while the enemies are distinct and very well animated. As such, it's near impossible to find a flaw in Destiny's presentation – especially since it seems to ooze polish and dollar bills at every turn.
The quality bleeds into the audio, too. The soundtrack is, in a word, stunning, while the sound design is something that demands to be heard through an expensive pair of headphones. The amount of effort that's gone into the auditory side of things is staggering, with a tune to suit every occasion and tiny little noises and echoes that cram the game full of atmosphere.
Destiny's budget was out of this world, and it's there for all to see in the finished product. Bungie's smash hit isn't the gameplay revolution that some wanted, but its accessible RPG systems, sublime gunplay, and incredible presentation over all aspects of the release elevate it beyond some of the very best shooters on the market. And although its flaws keep it from becoming legend, group together with friends, and you'll partake in an intergalactic experience that's a beacon of light in an increasingly darkening genre.