The agony! The jubilation! The drama and disappointment! I have reached the top of Destiny mountain, and the view is spectacular. It was a pain in the ass getting here, but I guess that was the point.
For the first eight months of its existence, the “best thing” in Destiny was the Vault of Glass raid. It was fun, it was challenging; it required teamwork and careful play.
That is no longer the case. Destiny has a new Best Thing, and it’s an unexpected one. The weekly, competitive Trials of Osiris multiplayer event has overtaken the Vault of Glass as the most challenging, intense, and rewarding activity in the game. It also signals a significant readjustment of Destiny’s focus, and it’s one that many longtime players aren’t happy about.
On Monday, Jason Schreier and I “beat” the Trials of Osiris. Along with our talented teammate Todd (more on him in a bit), we managed to complete an undefeated 9-0 scorecard against some of the best Destiny players in the world. I have never worked harder for a video game achievement, nor have I been prouder to finally accomplish one. I’m still riding an emotional high.
If you’d told me in the fall of 2014 that a 3v3 deathmatch tournament would wind up being the most exciting thing in Destiny, I would’ve had a hard time believing you. What a difference a year makes.
Since it came out last September, Destiny has been a game with two primary focuses. First, there’s PvE, which stands for “Player vs. Environment.” That’s the cooperative, story-based action game that has players teaming up to take on computer-controlled enemies. PvE encompasses activities like story missions, strikes, raids, and most recently, the Prison of Elders challenge mode.
Then there’s PvP, which stands for “Player vs. Player.” In PvP, players go into a virtual space called “The Crucible” to fight against other players competitively. In the game’s fiction, you’re not really fighting other guardians… this is just training for the real PvE fight out in the world. Destiny PvP is not unlike other competitive first-person shooters like Call of Duty or Destiny developer Bungie’s previous series, Halo. You run around, you stay in cover, you aim for the head. PvP Destiny includes a few different types of Crucible matches as well as a week-long, on-again-off-again event called the Iron Banner and most recently, the Trials of Osiris.
For the first months of its existence, Destiny’s PvP wasn’t all that much to write home about. It was fun, but there wasn’t much to it, especially when the game first came out. Furthermore, it had (and continues to have) some glaring balance issues along with regular, game-crippling lag. Both of those things made it hard for salty FPS veterans to take Crucible seriously.
It was—and still is—possible for a player to focus mainly on PvE play and have a perfectly good time. That’s how I played until May’s House of Wolves expansion—my experience of the game (and as a result, our coverage of it at Kotaku) was resolutely PvE-focused. I’d do raids, and patrol bounties, and the weekly Heroic and Nightfall strikes. Then Trials of Osiris happened. In the weeks that followed, my perception of Destiny underwent a fundamental shift.
The first weekend after Trials launched, I hit up two friends thinking I’d try it out and see what the deal was. We played for the next six hours straight. Here’s a text I sent to my friend Mike after we finished:
Trials of Osiris combines the rush of competitive first-person shooting with the seductive whisper of carefully controlled gambling to create something that is both exceedingly rewarding and terrifyingly difficult to quit. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing competitive multiplayer—full stop—but it’s also Threat Level Alpha for anyone with a social life to maintain. It is the true test of player ability that many hardcore Destiny PvPers have been begging for, even while its purity has alienated a large number of less skilled players.
Like most things in Destiny, Trials is complicated, full of jargon, and difficult to parse for a newcomer. Here’s the gist:
Trials runs weekly, beginning early on Friday and running through to the weekly reset late Monday night. To participate, you need to form a three-person team (there’s no built-in matchmaking) and each character needs to go to a special vendor and spend a little bit of in-game money on a “Passage Card.” Your Passage Card is your entry ticket.
You then compete in matches against other teams of three. Each match consists of up to nine rounds; whoever wins five rounds first wins the full match. The game-type is elimination deathmatch—if you can kill all three members of the opposing team, your team wins the round. If you only kill one or two of them, the remaining players can revive their teammates and keep the fight going. This opens the door for all sorts of unlikely comebacks, moments of solo heroism, and scrambling, on-the-fly strategy shifts.
Once you win or lose a match, that outcome is recorded on your Passage Card, which eventually starts to look like this:
You can also buy a few “buffs” for your card using yet another form of currency called Passage Coins. Once per card, you can snag any of three modifiers—your first loss won’t count, or you’ll start with a win, or your next win will count double.
If you get three losses, your card is closed out and you have to trade it in back at the Trials vendor for a fresh one. However, if you can get more than four wins on a card, you start unlocking really good rewards—guaranteed rare items, excellent guns and armor, and—if you can get nine wins without a single loss—a trip to Mercury, where you’ll have a chance to get the most elite items currently available in Destiny.
(If you’re good at math, you’ve figured out that with all three buffs purchased, that “flawless” 9-0 run really only needs to be 7-1.)
The result has been a challenging and intense new game mode that stands apart—far apart—from everything else in Destiny. It puts the entirety of Destiny’s PvP under a magnifying glass, exaggerating all of the things that make it fun while bringing its many flaws and imbalances into sharp relief. It is both the best and, sometimes, the worst thing in the game.
Let’s start with what Trials does well. There’s a lot to go over! For starters...
I am not good at Destiny PvP. But I’m way better than I was when I started playing Trials of Osiris. I can look after myself on the virtual battlefield these days. I can stay alive in a free-for-all, and when I’m facing down an opponent one on one, there’s as good a chance as not that I’ll come out on top.
It’s possible for a mediocre, careless player to skate by in vanilla Destiny crucible despite not possessing the headshotting, blink-shotgunning skills necessary to truly be competitive. That’s especially true of Destiny’s king-of-the-hill style Control matches, which are the most fun and popular type of game-mode in Crucible. In Control, other players are so focused on taking capture points that you can spend a lot of your time gunning down opponents who didn’t even see you coming.
In Trials, you have your opponents’ undivided attention. There are three of you, and three of them, and the only way out is through one another. It can be brutal for a player (like me) who isn’t used to direct head-to-head competition, but it will force you to up your game.
On top of that, the players you’ll be taking on in Trials are the cream of the Destiny crop—this activity has attracted the very best players from around the world. According to Bungie, a player’s skill and overall kill/death ratio don’t factor into matchmaking, so you’re just as likely to be matched against a badass from one of Destiny’s top clans as you are against another ordinary civilian.
I’ve taken to watching Trials of Osiris videos from streamers like TripleWRECK and marveling at how these guys can be so totally laid back while dismantling other teams so thoroughly. Week after week, players like him and his teammates cruise through to a 9-0 card, careful in their strategies and merciless in one-on-one combat.
Fighting against players like that can be maddening and disheartening, but it’s also highly educational. As I mentioned, I’m a ton better at PvP than I was when Trials started back in May, and it’s mostly because I’ve paid close attention to all the people who’ve beaten me. (Also because I finally got Thorn.)
In vanilla Crucible matches, there’s a level(ish) playing field. The numbers are filed off guns and armor, and level differences don’t matter. Unique perks still apply, so players with high-level exotic guns and tricked-out armor still have some advantages, but a headshot from a level 20 character will do the same damage as a headshot from a level 34 character.
In Trials, level differences do matter. You’ll want to be level 34, with the best possible armor and fully ascended weaponry. But beyond that, you’ll have to put a lot of thought into what you equip for every given match. Is this map better for Thorn, or for The Last Word? Snipers, or shotguns? Will you switch to Truth for the heavy ammo round, or stick with your Ash Factory? (Probably you’ll just use Thorn.)
Armor that had previously seemed marginal suddenly becomes crucial. Pieces like the Crest of Alpha Lupi and Light Beyond Nemesis are now invaluable, as both shave precious seconds off the time it takes to revive a teammate. I used to roll my eyes at grenade-enhancing exotic armor like Lucky Raspberry and Nothing Manacles, but depending on your subclass, those can be two of the most useful pieces of armor in PvP. Play enough Trials, and you’ll probably find yourself with a very specific loadout that differs slightly or even substantially from your regular Crucible gear.
Your character subclass and specs become equally important. Should you roll as a Warlock Sunsinger, able to self-revive once or twice per match and possibly surprise an opponent who thought you were down? Or should you be a Hunter Gunslinger, able to pop a golden gun and (maybe!) clear out the entire opposing team if they bunch up? You’ll really want to communicate about your choices, because…
Teamwork and communication are more important in Trials than in any other part of Destiny. Now that most dedicated players have both raids down to a science, the only PvE activity that comes close to Trials is the grueling final battle against Skolas at the end of the level 35 Prison of Elders.
First, you’ll need to carefully coordinate your pre-game loadout, classes, and initial tactics. You’ll then call out enemy locations, and coordinate on when to use your potentially game-changing super moves. Even if you get taken out, you can still help your team by calling out enemy locations as they run past your corpse.
Good Trials teamwork is about more than tactical communication—it’s about emotional support, giving pep talks, psyching each other up, and shaking off tough defeats. It’s about camaraderie in the face of adversity, and about gradually becoming an effective fighting unit.
It took me a long while to find a good team for Trials. I played with Jason a lot, but would also find myself in random pickup groups with PSN acquaintances or other members of my clan. No group of three stayed together for long, and it was difficult to get a steady thing going and maintain it. Then we met Todd.
Every Trials team needs at least one “ringer,” someone who really kicks ass, to take point. That guy or girl is the one who wins most every one-on-one shootout, the person who calls the strategies, who can play any class, and can snipe or shotgun with equal ease. A couple of weekends ago Jason and I were online looking for a third, and Jason asked if anyone on the Destiny hub DestinyGAF would like to play. Todd, a regular DestinyGAF presence and host of the Destiny “Mythocast” podcast (iTunes), said he’d be down.
It quickly became clear that Todd could be our ringer. Jason and I had been steadily increasing our PvP skills, but we still needed someone who had Todd’s killer instinct and skill. He’s also a laid-back, chill guy, which is surprisingly important. Jason and I both bring a lot of… uh, personality, to the game. Jason is chatty and kind of hyper, while I get frustrated and morose when I’m losing too much. Todd’s steady demeanor—along with his steady aim—did a lot to keep our team grounded.
In the two weeks since we started playing together, our team has come a long way. We’ve learned how to communicate more efficiently, which roles best suit each of us, which sorts of call-outs are most useful for our teammates, and what advice to give when. Sometimes we get stressed or frustrated with the game and with one another. But we work through it just like we work through everything else: As a team.
All good team-based video games give you stories to tell. Trials of Osiris has inspired some of my best Destiny stories yet. The tense moments when Jason and I were both down and Todd would carefully take down the other team, one at a time. The time I was all alone, threw caution into the wind, and closed on the last remaining enemy, taking him down and winning the match. Or the time when Todd and I were ambushed, and Jason somehow rolled through all three of the other team with his shotgun, saving the day. (You can see that go down in the gif a few paragraphs up. Fun fact: When Jason pulls off a clutch kill, he sometimes starts singing the Indiana Jones theme into his mic.)
Not all of your stories will be victorious ones. My team spends just as much time reliving our spectacular defeats as we do our glorious triumphs. But the important thing is, they’re our stories to tell.
The House of Wolves expansion got a lot right with how it structures player rewards: Destiny feels less arbitrary than ever, and the Etheric Light system means any gear you get can theoretically be good. But the rewards themselves… they’re more of a letdown. Most of the new guns you can earn aren’t as good as older guns, with perks that don’t measure up to the ones that were available earlier in the year. The best guns in the Prison of Elders are… well, they’re junk, and they can’t compete with ascended versions of old vendor weapons or guns from the Vault of Glass.
Trials of Osiris is the exception to this. The guns and armor you can win are the best in the game, mainly because they’re specifically tuned for PvP play. Rifles like The Scholar and The Messenger are wicked pieces of work, good enough to (almost) stand in for current primary mainstays like Thorn or The Last Word. The Trials armor is a badge of honor for those who earn it, and it also has elite stats and perks.
On top of all that, Trials also offers the single best reward in Destiny—the ultra-exclusive Mercury lighthouse, an entire area that can only be visited by the elite few who manage to turn in a Trials card with nine wins and zero losses.
On Monday, Jason and I made it to the Lighthouse for the first time. Did I mention that already? Well, it happened. Just saying. We made it to the Lighthouse. The one on Mercury.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it was the most gratifying accomplishment I’ve ever managed in a video game. Mercury is a terrific reward because it gives you something to really do with your team to celebrate. You don’t just say “good job” and call it a night, the three of you go somewhere together and are given a moment to relax and rejoice.
Todd—who has been there a bunch before—showed us around Mercury, taking us to the hidden underground area, then up and over to the “edge of the world,” where the graphics start clipping and the whole of a digital universe unfolds. I’ve never been happier to just walk around and take in the view.
And, yeah, there’s also a chest there where you get the most elite emblem in the game, along with a special “adept” elemental version of one of the primary Trials weapons. I got this bad boy:
Turns out it’s not even that great, but I treasure it anyway.
Destiny has long had a problem with rewarding its players, but if the splendors of Mercury are anything to go by, Bungie really has learned a thing or two over the past year.
With all that said: This is Destiny we’re talking about, so all of that good stuff must surely be accompanied by some bad. And what do you know, for all of its positive attributes, Trials of Osiris can be maddening and dispiriting. Let’s get into the bad stuff.
Let’s get this one out of the way: Trials of Osiris will crush your spirit and break your heart. The opposition can be downright stifling. You will get your ass kicked harder than you knew it could be kicked. You will go entire matches without scoring a single kill or assist. You will question your worth as a Destiny player, and as a gamer, and as a human being.
For players (like me) who categorize their FPS skills as “medium,” I’ve found that Trials opponents fall into two categories: Beatable, and Unbeatable. Beatable opponents are (usually) very good, but they’re still on my team’s level. They’re mortals. With careful strategies and coordinated play, we can take them. Unbeatable opponents are simply that: They cannot be beaten. They usually clean up three rounds without giving us a single kill. They run roughshod over our most careful strategies, and once they have us on the ropes, there’s no recovering.
On our first weekend playing with Todd, we got a good run going. We were 7-0 and had purchased the buff that would make our next win count double, as well as the other buff that would erase a single loss, should we get one. All we had to do was win one more match—with a cushion for a loss!—and Mercury would be ours.
We proceeded to come up against not one but four unbeatable teams in a row. These matches weren’t even close. We got stuffed again and again, losing not only our chance at the Lighthouse but also our chance at the reward package you get for eight wins. To come so close and have it ripped away… it was heartbreaking.
We recovered, but it wasn’t easy. It’s losses like that that make it so important to have a good Trials team—people you actually enjoy spending time with. You’ll need to give some Coach Taylor-worthy pep-talks as you go, because things can get so dispiriting otherwise. The mental game is as important as the actual game.
Not only will you suffer some agonizing defeats, your Trials opponents will often be super huge dicks about it. You will be aggressively teabagged by other players, and it’ll make you so mad you’ll want to throw your controller out a window.
The teabagging thing baffles me—when a team is so good that they just walk all over us, why do they feel the need to teabag us afterward? I mean, I get it, it’s psychological warfare. It’s a way to express some small amount of power over your vanquished foe. But also: Fuck off.
It’s even worse when some jagoff teabags me after his team wins the first round, only to have my team ultimately smoke his ass and win the match. If ever there were cause for retaliatory teabagging! So far, I’ve managed to restrain myself. I can feel it coming, though. Some little shit is going to go too far, and I’m going to lower myself to his level and perform a victory crouch or two.
Over the last year, I’ve been impressed by the affable nature of the Destiny community. The Destiny subreddit, for example, is a largely positive and good-natured place, particularly by video game subreddit standards. Trials has reminded me both of how many assholes play competitive video games, and, in my own furious reactions to my opponents, of the ways that competitive video games bring out the asshole in all of us.
As I already mentioned, Trials of Osiris’s laser focus has put all of Destiny PvP under a magnifying glass. The result has demonstrated how fundamentally fun the game’s PvP is while also bringing its many problems into sharp relief.
Most glaringly, Destiny PvP has some serious weapon balance issues, as demonstrated by the fact that almost every team in Trials rolls with a near-identical loadout. With scant few exceptions, every team is using some combination of: The hand cannons Thorn, Hawkmoon, or The Last Word; shotguns like Felwinter’s Lie/Matador 64/Party Crasher +1; an Efrideet’s Spear or an LDR 5001 sniper rifle with the final round perk; and a rocket launcher with the Grenades and Horseshoes perk.
There are dozens of cool, interesting weapons in Destiny, but weapon imbalance has rendered the majority of them irrelevant. In regular Crucible you can get away with using a MIDA Multi-Tool (so fun!) or even a long-since nerfed SUROS Regime, but the stakes in Trials are just too high. Everyone uses Thorn because Thorn is a ridiculously deadly mid- and long-range weapon. If you don’t use it, you’re at a disadvantage.
Then there are final-round sniper rifles, which lead to the most horseshitty technically-not-cheating strategy in all of Trials. The perk, which is no longer available on new rifles, makes the last round in your clip do enough damage to be a one-hit kill even as a body shot. No gun should be that powerful. I’ve seen teams rolling with three final round snipers, near-emptying their clips at the start of each round to prepare, then killing your whole team before you even have a chance to shoot back. It’s garbage... yet I’ve used my own final-round sniper rifle to score a few cheap kills. I wanna win, after all.
In addition to weapon imbalances, there are also straight-up exploits and loopholes, which lead to tactics that go well beyond “clever” and into “pure bullshit.” For example, there’s a bug in the game where a certain armor perk combines with a specific hunter grenade to give a ridiculous amount of super energy per hit, meaning a hunter character can have an obliterating Golden Gun ability ready by the second round, one round before anyone would expect it.
Another exploit has you de-equip and re-equip Thorn after dying, which makes your first shot after you respawn somehow activate Thorn’s final round perk. We only just found out about this one, and it’s blowing my mind. I’m now questioning all the times I got hit by a single Thorn shot and took more damage than I thought I should’ve. And I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t considering seeing how that exploit would work in Trials.
The stakes in Trials are so high that the Call of the Exploit can be seductive. It’s the same justification athletes use for taking performance-enhancing drugs: “Everyone else is doing it, so I just need to level the playing field!” Hopefully Bungie takes steps to actually level the playing field before too long.
Lag is a problem across all of Destiny PvP, but its effect is felt most acutely during Trials. Bungie claims that Trials matchmaking is based on connection quality and nothing else, meaning that theoretically, players with good connections will be paired with other players with good connections.
To the game’s credit, Trials does have less lag than ordinary Crucible or Iron Banner. But it’s still there, and when it happens, it is infuriating. You’re never sure whether you’re up against someone with a temporarily bad connection, or whether you’re taking on unscrupulous players using a lag switch to cheat their way to Mercury.
Last week, I came up against a hunter walking straight backward while being impervious to damage. He just kept walking and walking, and eventually fell off the map. I have no idea if it was even the guy’s fault—it could’ve been his ISP, or someone on his team, or any of a number of other factors. Before that happened, we’d gotten the “all opponents down” notification… but the game kept going. Then we got the notification again. Chaos reigned. As I was trying to kill this lag-figment of a player, it would have been easy for another player to pick me off.
A good Trials match should be a seamless test of skill, and lag throws all of that out the window. I know several people who have missed out on a Mercury trip due to a bullshit lag-induced loss, and the mere thought of that makes me break out in a cold sweat.
Furthermore, Trials exacerbates Destiny’s more general connectivity issues. If your internet connection cuts out in the middle of a game, you’ll simply vanish, and your team will have to carry on without you. A team of two has little to no chance of beating a team of three, meaning that your bad internet connection has doomed your team to taking a loss.
Meanwhile, it’s possible for Destiny’s servers to barf and kick your whole team from a match, which results in an automatic loss on your card. I understand why it’d work that way—if players didn’t get a loss for disconnecting, losing teams would just unplug their internet before the end of the match rather than take the loss. But just this past weekend, a friend of mine had two consecutive flawless runs ruined not by other teams, but by Destiny server errors. That ain’t right.
Destiny is one of the most social games I’ve ever played. It’s led me to make new friends from all walks of life and from all around the country and world. Through shared experience, I feel like I’m an active participant in a worldwide video-game community in a way that I never have before. Trials of Osiris, however, has added some tension to all of that.
In PvE Destiny, skill isn’t generally that big a deal. Yes, it’s better to roll with skilled players, but if your friends are all high enough level and reasonably dedicated to the game, they’ll have the tools necessary to help you beat whatever raid or whatever boss.
Trials of Osiris changes that. In Trials, you simply must have good players on your team. I’ve tried playing Trials with two other average PvP players, and we get slaughtered. It’s not fun, and it’s not even educational. We can go an hour with nothing to show for our efforts but bruised egos and a bunch of punched-out Trials cards.
It’s equally tricky for the skilled players among my Destiny peer group. Those guys want to get to Mercury—they want to win—but they’re usually not good enough to carry two unskilled players. Yet there’s this pressure on them to play with the rest of us, since the rest of us want to win, too. It leads to a palpable tension, where you want to ask them to play with you but you don’t want to impose, and where one player may need to tell another player, “Sorry, but we need someone better.” Everyone’s pretty real about it—we’re under no illusions about which of us is good at PvP—but it still can be a bummer.
My raid bro Adam Rosenberg wrote a good article about this phenomenon over at Mashable, summing it up thusly:
Players who have spent the past nine months developing a rapport with their regular raid-runners face a dilemma: groups of six need to be cut in half to face either of the new challenges. Larger groups have even more complicated divisions to deal with. But regardless of group size, it’s like high school gym class all over again: someone’s going to be picked last. Or next-to-last or third-to-last… That sucks.
He’s not wrong. Jason and I have worked it out so that we have a fun regular third for our Trials team, but it’s been at the expense of the time we’d normally spend with our regular raid buddies.
I can imagine many raid teams breaking up into three-man groups for Trials, only to be undone by the contest’s sheer difficulty. You gradually start to resent your worst player, looking at his or her low kill-counts and daydreaming about replacing them with someone better. Your desire to win begins to supercede the relationships you’ve spent the last eight months building. It’s not pretty.
I’ve seen a lot of anger over Trials on various message boards and in Kotaku comment threads, and I think a lot of it is tied to the way Trials encourages exclusivity and skill-over-friendship. It’s also tied to the feeling that Destiny has pulled a bait-and-switch: A PvE game has suddenly become better at being PvP. If you simply hate PvP and never want to try it, you’re out of luck.
After months of working together beating buggy raids and cracking jokes about cheesy strategies and boss behavior, Trials’s hardcore, exclusive nature almost feels like a betrayal. It’s like joining a really great group of theater nerds, only to realize that they engage in the same cliquish jock nonsense that turned you off from sports.
There’s no real solution for this problem. Trials is as exciting and enjoyable as it is because it’s so high-level and exclusive. The Mercury Lighthouse is an exhilarating reward because of the sacrifices and hard work it takes to get there. Still, I understand why players would feel put out.
Trials of Osiris may be the new best thing in Destiny, but it still only works as a part of a greater whole. It’s the mother of all challenges, but it can only be that because it exists within the ecosystem that makes up the rest of the game.
In other words: Trials is the peak of Destiny, but there really is a mountain underneath. I like that the contest doesn’t run all week—it makes it feel like the special event that it is. Recently I’ve been spending my downtime practicing in regular Crucible, trying new character builds and strategies, casually working through PvE stuff, and mentally preparing for the weekend. As I do that, I’m reminded of all the things I like to do in Destiny, and how relaxing and fun it can be.
Trials of Osiris has exposed the flaws, imbalances, technical problems, and exploits that have plagued Destiny’s competitive PvP for the better part of a year. It has divided the game’s community and left a good number of players feeling excluded. At the same time, it has highlighted just how fun, focused, and intense Destiny PvP can be, and it has converted this previously PvE-only player into a Crucible diehard.
I may have made it to Mercury, but I’m far from finished. It’s a new week, and the Lighthouse is beckoning. See you all out there. Please don’t teabag me.
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