Compared to a whole lot of people on the Internet, I have not played much of Destiny at all.
In fact, according to an online calculator, I have spent 12 hours playing it (although it doesn’t count idle time spent in orbit or in the Tower, so it’s probably closer to 25 in real hours). The vast majority of that time was in the first week or two after launch, when everybody I knew was playing. I blasted through the story missions, reached level 20, and then abruptly stopped.
I stopped because frankly I looked at the collective mania that my post-level-20 friends were experiencing, with their loot caves and their Light and their endless, endless grinding for equipment that I did not fully understand, and determined that there were better things to do with my brief time on this Earth. Plus, the game would probably be a lot better further down the line. Almost every game you buy nowadays is likely to be better a few months or even years after launch, but with Destiny this felt especially true.
I returned to it last weekend because The Taken King looks frankly awesome, and promises to fix a lot of the things I didn’t like about vanilla Destiny. I found my weekend playing it to be a timely reminder of everything I loved and hated about this perplexing video game. I believe that Destinyis simultaneously excellent and terrible, a fascinating paradox that is equally worthy of the devotion of its players and the derision of its detractors.
Some of the things I hate about Destiny are actually the precise things that have made it so popular. Firstly, in the vast majority of Destiny’s missions, you do not need much skill to feel like you’re being an amazing space-hero. I have gleaned this from watching my partner’s 9-year-old son play, which opened my eyes to the fact that as long as you can point and shoot at things, the rest is done by the numbers behind the scenes. It is really very difficult to fail at Destiny unless you are suddenly left on your own in the boss section of a strike. I mean, the kid would stand there in open ground, getting shot at whilst he fiddled around with his equipment in the menus, and still wouldn’t die.
This made me realise that pretty much all of the tension I’d been experiencing in Destiny missions existed only in my imagination. The stakes are very low. I understand that this can be offset by jacking up the difficulty (or indeed visiting the Crucible, which is very good at showing up how terrible you really are) - but still, this is a design choice that’s at the heart of Destiny’s appeal: point gun, shoot gun, feel amazing, do it again. Everything else is secondary to that core gameplay loop.
Good lord, though, shooting those guns is SUCH fun. I kept playing Destiny - and keep coming back to it - because it is the best shooter I have ever played in terms of feel. The guns are amazingly designed, science-fiction masterpieces of smooth lines, bright colours and interlocking parts. They sound amazing. Shooting them at robots and aliens and watching them dissolve or crumple never gets old, because every different gun makes that same action a slightly different sensory experience. This is what makes both PvE and the Crucible such fun to play - that variety, combined with the variety of character classes and supers. Destiny absolutely nails the actual shooting.
It’s also gorgeous. I can’t get over how beautiful Destiny’s planets are - although every time I admire it, I find myself simultaneously lamenting that there is nothing IN this world. It is an MMO without any exploration. (No, finding dead Ghosts does not count, because that only unlocks Grimoire Cards and those are a whole new flavour of bullshit that I’ll get to later.) There is nothing interesting to find in the whole world of Destiny, which is kind of heartbreaking. I thought it was going to be a galaxy to explore, and instead it is a selection of pretty places to shoot things in. There’s not even anything to really do in the Tower.
I was more disappointed by this a year ago than I am today. I’m over it now - there are other games where I can explore space. But still, every time I play Destiny I’m reminded of how it could be better. And it would be easier not to care about the lack of interesting environmental storytelling or exploration if the main story wasn’t such a big load of nothing.
Destiny’s story - as presented in the game - really is such nonsense that it’s painful to sit through. I “completed” that game without coming to know or care what The Traveller actually was or how anything I had done contributed to saving it. I still do not know which ones are the Hive, the Fallen, the Vex and the Cabal, or why any of them are shooting at me. Why would you have four different races of enemy? Why wouldn’t you focus your story on a single bad guy that’s easy to develop antipathy for (or, you know, actually give the player a clear reason for shooting the bad guys)? This is basic storytelling.
This is even more frustrating when you learn that Destiny does actually have a pretty good story, but the game actively hides it from you. I discovered this by reading things like this great, exhaustive summary of Destiny lore on Game Informer. Why would you hide it in Grimoire cards that you have to read on a SEPARATE APP or on Bungie’s website? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? It’s maddening.
Another thing I can’t stand: the jargon. Destiny explains itself extremely poorly, and so anyone who wants to understand the game properly has to turn to the Internet for advice. And yet every time I decide to do some reading to catch up on Destiny, I am presented with sentences like this: “I always break down the rate of fire pulse rifles: you’ve got your 77s, which is a 24 impact with a headshot, you’ve got your 73s, which is 27, you’ve got your 66s, which is at 31...”. Or: “Once I’ve maxed out all my vanguard bounties for the day, if I only need a few hundred more rep points to get to a new level, I’ll farm specific patrol missions.” This is what happened to me last year: I started reading up on Light, bounties, vanguard marks et cetera, and just decided I’d rather do something else.
To put that into perspective, I play a lot of Monster Hunter. I can decipher Monster Hunter’s arcane stats, but not Destiny’s. Several of my Destiny-playing friends have told me that life begins after level 20, that if you just spend 50 hours on it, it all starts to make sense. I am not into spending 50 hours of my life on a game before it gets good. A lot of the people telling me this are the very same people who used to mock me for insisting that if you just suffered through 15 hours of picking mushrooms and killing raptors, it was worth it to hunt a Rathian. (Monster Hunter is a much easier sell now that 4 has done away with all that nonsense.)
All of this has made Destiny difficult for me to enjoy, so far, for its first year of life. I am simultaneously delighted and infuriated by it. But I am looking forward to going back to Destiny for The Taken King. From what I understand, a lot of these problems are being directly addressed, particularly the story-telling and the difficult-to-parse relationship between Light and character level. And the best thing about Destiny, in my opinion, is the community it’s fostered - people like the Dads of Destiny, which is part Destiny clan and part support group for fathers of young families.
Most of my Destiny-playing friends are way, way beyond where I am in the game now, and some of us haven’t spoken in a long while. But The Taken King is going to be a new beginning for all of us. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them even more than reconnecting with the game.