A Brief Encounter With Destiny, Bungie's Gorgeous MMOish Sci-Fi Shooter

We started in Old Russia, "many years from now." A dramatic score swelled in the background. That was from the game. In real life, the bass from a Call of Duty trailer thundered from the other side of the wall. I was seeing Destiny, one of the next Next Big Things.

Chris Butcher, a lead engineer at Bungie, the studio behind Halo and now Destiny, was talking me through it while a colleague of his played. We were in a demo room in the Activision booth at E3 earlier this month. Butcher told me players would be going to all kinds of places in Destiny, including "Golden Age" colonies on Venus and Mars (remember those good old days?). We'll be going to abandoned places, overgrown by nature.

"We call this mythic science fiction."

My eyes were calling what I was seeing "stupidly impressive graphics."

The game looks very good.

A Brief Encounter With Destiny, Bungie's Gorgeous MMOish Sci-Fi Shooter

"You can see all the details in front of us," he said, as the demo player slowly walked toward a massive and obviously-not-completely abandoned installation. "Just listen to the ambient sound," he said, as wind whistled by and, from the other side of the wall, the bass thumped some more. "Well, you could if Call of Duty wasn't playing next door."

He pointed to the birds resting on a rusted car.

The demo player shot at them.

Yep. This is a shooter. It's from the Halo people, so of course it is. We're going to be shooting stuff in this lovely world. And also, if the finished version of the game is going to match the demo build being played at E3, we'll be gawking at it a lot.

What I saw and what was shown throughout E3 was running on a Bungie PC running at PlayStation 4 standards; the game was controlled with PS4 controllers.

So you can follow along, the video below is the stage demo Bungie played live at Sony's E3 PlayStation press conference. The playthrough is similar to what I was shown privately and am describing in this post.

Destiny is built for co-op. Most of it can be played in co-op.

The demo guy was playing a male human warlock.

Study his controls!

A Brief Encounter With Destiny, Bungie's Gorgeous MMOish Sci-Fi Shooter

Another demo player who joined in was controlling female awoken hunter. "Each of them is a guardian of the last safe city on earth," Butcher said. One of the characters went into third-person to do a little greeting dance, but the game is a first-person shooter. You play in first-person.

Both players went inside the big Russian installation. I wondered if this was an open world, but I was told that the lead player was on a mission; the other had joined him.

Each Guardian has a "Ghost"... a floating drone. The one in the demo was voiced by Peter Dinklage, of Game of Thrones fame. He was talking about where they were, complaining that it was dark, saying he'd get the lights on.

"Was it a stretch for you guys to have a floating character talking in a Bungie shooter?" I asked. My joke was ignored.

"The Ghost does a lot of things for you," Butcher replied. "He's a companion that helps you."

The Ghost seemed to wake the installation in some way. Enemies rushed in. They were the Fallen, one of the alien races who came to our solar system after the fall of humanity's golden age.

Gunfight time. Lots of first-person shooting. You know the drill. The good guys—we're the good guys, right?—won.

Enemies drop loot in this game. Each player has their own loot stream, so there's no arguing over who gets what. I'd get my own stuff. You'd get yours. Among that loot, there are regular upgradable weapons and also exotic weapons with names and more complex, unique upgrades. Players can upgrade armor and change appearance. Yep, it's a loot game. Think Diablo with guns or, more appropriately, Borderlands.

Halo's combat was about guns, grenades, melee and, eventually, equipment. Destiny goes with guns, melee and a trio of customizable abilities. Check the image higher up to see one possible loadout of abilities. You get things like the ability to glide while jumping or toss balls of energy.

A Brief Encounter With Destiny, Bungie's Gorgeous MMOish Sci-Fi Shooter

A third player joined in. She was playing a higher-level Titan, which is the game's third class. Players of different levels can play together, Butcher said. Combat balances to accommodate them, he said.

Now a trio—a fire team—the demo players moved to a "public area" of the level's map. "That's where we think first-person shooter players are going to find the most interesting and unexpected gameplay in Destiny," Butcher said. "When your fireteam goes into a public area, the game engine is reaching out and matchmaking seamlessly with other fire teams that are in that same area. And then those players will just show up in your game. There's no loading screen, UI or progress bars." This public area was set for up to three-person fire teams. In these areas, dynamic events can kick off randomly. In the demo, they triggered it manually. A big walker tank dropped in. The fire team took it down.

At E3, Bungie showed up to seven players, and Butcher said there could be more. He discouraged me from expecting hundreds of players.

Each player has their own spaceship and will be flying to Earth and other planets. They'll be doing story missions or tinier stuff. Any multiplayer in the main areas of the game will be co-op; there will be other competitive modes. To a limited extent, there will be vehicles like tanks and speeder bikes. Reminiscent of Halo, you can steal enemy vehicles.

Destiny is announced for release for next year on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360. Gameplay looks traditional, but, visually, it's stunning. Bungie is making a gorgeous world and presenting it as, oxymoron as this may be, a small-scale massively multiplayer online game. They're not using the MMO term, referring instead to it as a first-person game. But it's clear that the online experience in Destiny and the sense of exploring a grand world that others are in will be key.

The game's publisher Activision only makes big bets and Destiny, like the phenomenally popular Skylanders before it, is a game the company is going to try to turn into another Call of Duty-scale juggernaut. You'll be hearing a lot more about this one.

This preview is partially based on a live hands-off 12-minute developer playthrough of the game that was shown in a theater at E3. To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo