The creators of Halo aren't leaving their face-shooting skills behind. Destiny, Bungie's first new game since they parted ways with Microsoft, looks and sounds like a first-person shooter—even if they don't like calling it that.
I flew to Seattle this week to get the official reveal of Destiny, or at least what teases Bungie and publisher Activision were willing to spill.
According to Activision's Eric Hirshberg, it's not quite a first-person shooter so much as it has "elements of a first-person shooter." Which is fair to say, considering that we've known for a while now that Bungie's next project would also have some sort of persistent online world that will be "always there for you," the boasted scope of which led people to believe Bungie's new project would be a cross between a shooter and a massively multiplayer online game.
But this isn't an MMO, no, they don't want us to call it that either, even if Destiny does take place in a big persistent world and borrows from other familiar MMO features. Forget semantics. Let's dive into all the details revealed at this not-so-revealing reveal event.
Bungie's engineering lead, Chris Butcher, immediately debunked the MMO theory when he took the stage on Wednesday afternoon to tell us about all the new technology used in the game. In fact, it's so far from an MMO, he implied, that they've coined a new term for this game. You can call it "the world's first shared world shooter," to the crying protest of games like DayZ.
It's a persistent world. You can watch the sun set and rise and the hours fly by. You'll see inclement weather like a brief flash of lightning that I saw all two seconds of.
It's also a sandbox world. You're free to move around and explore different planets or hang out in hub cities like Overwatch where you can find people gambling for better gear. There's a sandy Mars location and a snowy landscape of a buried city. Chicago is a swampland. Europe is a deadzone. Vines wrap around dilapidated buildings. The solar system is flecked with rubble and long abandoned fleets. You can fly through the rings of Saturn. The entire universe of Destiny—the solar system including the Earth, Moon, and Mars—is open to your expedition needs. Which brings us to my next point...
Requiring a persistent Internet connection is not a new concept. It's also not exactly a favorable one, either, as we've seen with Diablo III. But Bungie managed to explain their need to be constantly connected.
In Destiny you live in a persistent world. It's constantly being affected by not just the passage of time, but by other players. As you enter certain areas of the game, the server will register which of these are public domains/combat areas. If you stumble into one, it'll automatically, and invisibly, search for another gamer to matchmake you with. Kind of like Journey, except the server will download all of that player's customized gear (which potentially makes up millions of unique, personalized characters). So as you play, the server should seamlessly integrate another player into your game. As you're scouting a safe path around the dangerous Cabal, for instance, you might bump into another player. So even though you're playing out your personal story, a lot of your time is spent in shared adventures. And even if you don't want to go on a quest with another player, you can watch other players carrying out their own missions together, right there in your game.
This is still your personalized story. You still have control. But it's constantly impacted by other players (in what way exactly, we don't know yet), and by events both planned and spontaneous. Kind of like what they do in MMOs—except Bungie says they have no plans to charge you a subscription fee. The game, required Internet connection and all, is built for social and cooperative play. But that doesn't necessarily mean Bungie is trying to jam-pack as many players into your experience as possible to say, hey, look how cool it is that this world is so big and full of people. They specified that the amount of players you see in your game is "design-controlled."
This kind of social interaction in console gaming is the way of the future, Bungie said.
If you haven't read Childhood's End, go read it now. Seriously, it's fantastic. Most of Arthur C. Clarke's work is. Destiny seems to be the game version of this science fiction novel.
The premise of Destiny is this: some mysterious entity has crippled civilization as we understand it. We don't know how, why, or even what it is.
You play as a Guardian, protector of the last safe city on Earth. What remains of society gathers for safety under a giant, hovering sphere known as Traveler, concept art of which we saw (leaked) as early as November. Your home is the tower in the city wall. When you're not fighting on the frontier, attempting to keep aliens and creatures at bay, or exploring the solar system to discover and reclaim lost items and secrets from humanity's Golden Age, this is where you'll wander and interact with other players.
It's a mythic science fiction, said art director Chris Barrett. It's futuristic sci-fi, but with a touch of history.
Bungie even often refers to Destiny as a series of books, a series of stories that unfold like chapters. So as we play, we're completing micro-stories, perhaps under an overarching storyline in the solo "campaign," but they wouldn't say one way or another on that one.
As a Guardian you can pick one of several classes, three of which were mentioned during the press conference I attended. You can play as a Hunter that looks like she stepped straight out of Mass Effect (Tali resemblance, anyone?), a cape-draped Warlock, or a Titan that specializes as a soldier (all pictured in order below).
Though Bungie didn't go into specifics, it sounds like there will be vehicles and customizable space ships at your disposal. In fact, your space ship even sounds like a mobile home of sorts, carrying your spoils of war. Scoring points in competitive multiplayer rounds can get you enough of whatever currency system is in place in this economy to buy a glamorous space ship (or maybe you score other players' pink slips, Bungie didn't say exactly how the process goes down). Or you can earn ships through picking up bounties.
Bungie story lead Joe Staten told us a "legend" (a sequence of events and missions that make up a story in your world) of a random encounter with another player. He set out to play with coworker Jason, who showed off his new ship earned through the Queen of Reef bounty. Their mission was to fly to Mars to investigate a lost, ancient city from humankind's Golden Age. They fought through the Cabal-patrolled territory (concept art of the Cabal were not sent to us, but from my glance at them during the event I'd say they look remarkably like The Fifth Element's Mondoshawans). Staten described them as Rhinos carrying slug throwers and riding in big tanks. These legion of Sand Eaters occupy the city, and they're apparently incredibly dangerous, so they're best avoided while Joe and Jason were on their way to the Dust Palace.
Suddenly they were swarmed by rockets and a fresh batch of Cabal backed by a centurion, thanks to a drop ship that spotted them overhead. But fortunately, the Dust Palace is part of Destiny's public combat zones, and so a random Guardian player happened their way just at this moment. Riding in on her Pike (seen above), she demolished the threatening Sand Eaters and hopped off the vehicle to greet the two strangers with a pose. If you've ever played an MMO like World of Warcraft, the concept will be immediately familiar to you. You can type in a command to activate various emotes, dancing or sleeping or what have you. In this case, the Hunter that just saved their life struck a "let's do this" pose to indicate that she'd like to help them invade the Dust Palace to search out the lost treasures of Charlemagne, which are apparently ancient powers of Mars.
"This is a dungeon raid," I think. Staten confirms my suspicion when he tells us that at the end of this fight they're granted with new weapons. Staten gets a hand cannon and his companion gets a shiny new shotgun. The Hunter bids them adieu.
Just as you build the story, you'll apparently build its ending, too. Bungie story lead Joe Staten explained that, happily, stories left up the devices of the players are a lot less daunting than constructing every plotline step of the way themselves. Mysteries of the world and the looming aliens will be revealed as players discover them. Or perhaps create them? This part wasn't clear and they wouldn't elaborate.
Bungie co-founder and project director Jason Jones kicked off the presentation with a look at Bungie's "seven pillars." They're what guided the goals of Destiny through development. Here they are:
- An interesting world you want to spend time in
Bungie kept using words like "hopeful" and "mystery" to describe the world of Destiny. They want to create a world that players will be interested enough in to want to spend their time there.
- It has to—duh—be fun
Put players in a sandbox, give them tools, let them use these tools against enemies. Bungie has always been good about sticking to a formula when it comes to battles, and it sounds like they haven't lost sight of that with Destiny. They believe that players have more fun when they feel like they're being successful in a game. It's not about the content necessarily. It's about having a broad range of activities, both competitive and cooperative, and completely non-shooting related activities, too.
- Offering rewards gamers care about
No bullshit points and number-crunching stats. Players want to customize the look and feel of their games. So let them customize their appearance and their fighting style. Let them build their characters.
- A new, unexpected experience every night
Bungie wants you to jump in expecting to do one thing, and be seduced into doing an entirely other thing. Hopefully the random and spontaneous game events will lend themselves to this experience. Interactions with people are unpredictable, and they're excited about what possibilities that will bring.
- A shared world with other people
Everything is more fun with friends around. As Bungie said, going to an empty gym is creepy. Certain cooperative activities will specifically require multiple players. And even when you're just playing solo, you'll still see other people in your game, because there's always someone playing with you, according to Bungie.
- Accessible to all skill levels
You'll have to have basic coordination for this shooter, as any other, but Bungie wants all sorts of people to enjoy this game. All the core activities should be enjoyed by any novice player.
- Enjoyable even for the tired, impatient and distracted
Bungie said that a player's mindset when they come into games is that they don't want to work hard or read too much. They want to feel things they don't feel in their otherwise everyday lives. This pillar in particular influenced Bungie to put a huge investment into their UI design. They had to throw out dearly held ideas because it just wouldn't work with all players.
I already touched on the Rhino, Fifth Element-looking enemies back on Mars. But there are several other enemies you'll encounter throughout the solar system. Like time traveling robots, warlocks, spider pirates, space zombies...I'm not sure what half of these things will be like, though you can at least see some of them in the concept art spread throughout this piece.
And these are just a handful of the concept art Bungie has. In fact they have so much concept art for this game that it numbers higher than all their previous games put together. Let me be the first to say, "wut."
Engineering lead Chris Butcher was on stage to talk about an entirely new graphics engine that they built to give their artists more tools to see their wildest imaginations come to digital life. After all, with all that concept art, something has to be done, right?
A lot of the technical babble is over my head, but it's obvious this is going to be a large world with a lot of new landscapes spanning all sorts of weather and aesthetic grounds. So they've built a new construction method to help build worlds faster. Technical art director Ryan Ellis brought up a moon base on screen to show off how it's made up of reusable pieces and polygons meshed together. He showed a time-lapse of mountains being clicked into place and little pebbles dotting the floor.
They're using new lighting techniques, too. Real-time lighting can be updated on the fly, but while it's faster it loses some of the subtle lighting effects of the alternative global illumination method. So they combined features of the two to get some of those effects back. More details, shadows and depths popped up on screen as senior graphics artist Hao Chen compared the visual output of these techniques on some in-engine shots.
They refer to it as large scale ambient occlusion, and their world-building tool as Grognok. It's their nexus of art and world design, and with it comes the most highly requested new feature: an undo action. I bet that one was a long time overdue. And yes, they built Halo without an undo feature.
Not many details were gone into on this front (much like everything else), but it's obvious that Bungie is leaning more towards a story focus than a stats focus. Your profile will show, visually, where you've been throughout your legends. It'll notify you when there's new stuff to do in the game. It can connect you with friends and your social groups. You'll be able to share stories through the app, too.
Despite my lengthy post on Destiny here, a lot of these details feel empty to me. I didn't see a single shot fired in the game. I didn't see enemies in motion. I saw a few seconds of some Guardians running up to some sort of time warp-looking gate. But there are still so many questions left unanswered.
Will there be a voice chat system? Are the ships we get mostly cosmetic, or are we going to fight in space battles as we travel from Earth to Mars? Are there any sort of allegiances, guilds, groups that aren't merely for social purposes? Are there more than three character classes? What does it mean when Bungie says that players will affect the world, or that the ending won't unravel itself until we as players do something? Is there even a proper ending? A proper, single storyline, or is it just mini stories that you build into your own world? Is it going to be available on next gen consoles, or just Xbox 360 and PS3 like they keep insisting?
This was the first official reveal for Destiny, so Bungie and Activision wouldn't answer a lot of our questions. For now, they've certainly got some interesting ideas, but I'll have to reserve judgment until I see some guns.
I leave you with some more of that concept art:
Hellmouth (enemy base)
Exclusion Zone (where the Dust Palace is located)
Ocean of Storms
Fire Team of Guardians
Citadel (another enemy zone)