Destiny Beta: State-of-the-Game Review and Impressions

The USgamer crew spent the weekend leveling up in Destiny. Dozens of hours later, here's where we stand on Bungie's next big thing.

After pouring our lives, our hearts, and our souls into the Destiny beta over the weekend, your friendly neighborhood USgamer crew has come away with decidedly mixed impressions of the game. Some of us love it, and some of us… not so much.

Of course, we recognize that this is a beta build of the game (in case you ever forget, there's a handy reminder in the upper-right corner of the screen at all time). That is to say, it's hardly the final build of the game. And given the dynamic, MMO-like feel of the project, we can pretty safely say that even the launch-day version won't be the final product, either.

Nevertheless, we also know that Bungie and Activision wouldn't have opened up the beta to countless thousands of players if they weren't fairly confident with the current state of the venture. It may not be the finished product, but it's clearly good enough for us to muck around in for a few weeks.

With that in mind, we have quite a few things to say about the Destiny beta. Some things good, some things more critical. Read on for our take on the beta — more than mere impressions, less than a full review. And naturally, we'd love to hear your own thoughts on the game. What do you love, and what do you want Bungie to fix before Sept. 9?

What is Destiny?

Jaz Rignall: I was certainly happy when I discovered the battlegrounds aspect of the game. It looks like you can grind for faction gear, and you also level up by PvPing, although progress seems to be far slower than doing missions. I actually prefer PvP to single-player PvE, but of course I can't get decent weapons for the former without doing the latter. Like I do with most MMO-type games, I wish the two were treated differently.

One of the things that I'm not feeling yet is being part of the Destiny Universe. Everything feels a little discombobulated, because it's not like in many other MMOs where you travel from one place to another, and the world around you feels connected. Although the loading screens try to convey travel, they just feel like loading screens, and you end up feeling like you're just loading a leve, and not really traveling somewherel. I guess that won't matter if this is a more missions-and goals game, and less a story-about-something game. If it isn't, though, this might be an issue.

Kat Bailey: As I discussed last week, I feel like Destiny is basically a traditional shooter. The online elements make for a more seamless experience than most, and they also add a good deal of flavor, but I wouldn't say that it's a traditional MMO by any stretch of the imagination. In some ways, I almost feel like Bungie took Call of Duty's perk system and built a whole game around it.

With that said, the Destiny Beta does hint at some elements that can be called distinctly “MMOish." For instance, there are three-person raid dungeons that can be tackled with a random group or friends. And there's loot—lots of loot. When all is said and done though, I feel like PvP is going to dominate Destiny; meaning that once everyone caps out, it will effectively be more Halo with more gear. I can probably dig that, but I'm not sure that makes Destiny all that Bungie or their fans hoped for.

Jeremy Parish: Actually, I'm pretty sure that's exactly what Bungie's core fans have been wanting. Campaign has always been Bungie's baby, but the Halo games have such long legs precisely because of the multiplayer component. It makes sense for them to try and turn the entire campaign into basically a multiplayer sandbox. The Crucible is where Halo nuts can go for the more traditional competitive fare, and something tells me they'll be migrating in droves given how poorly the fanbase responded to the Call of Duty-like changes 343 implemented in Halo 4 — even with its RPG mechanics and numbers and all, Destiny feels more like Halo than Halo now. And when people want some variety from king of the hill and capture the flag, they can wander into the world and play with friends to level up (novel, right?). Viewed through that lens, I think Destiny is pretty brilliant and has real potential to be a world-beater.

Mike Williams: Destiny is the mid-point between Halo, Borderlands 2, and MMOs. It takes a bit from those different games and genres, but only a bit. There's a story campaign, the Crucible for PVP, a bit of exploration, and the Tower hub for a bit of socialization.

The surprising part is how little it takes from all of those different sources. It feels a bit Halo because it's Bungie, which is no surprise. In the story campaign, you're fighting against the not-Covenant (Fallen) and the not-Flood (Hive), with the help of not-343 Guilty Spark (the Ghost). There's definitely a feeling of having been here before, even though it's new universe. This could be Bungie acclimating players to the pool, as there's two other races involved that haven't been shown yet. Like Borderlands 2, shooting, looting, and class-specific special attacks are the name of the game.

Finally, the MMO part is rather faint. You'll see a number of player while you're at the Tower, but once you're down in Old Russia exploring and doing beacon missions, you'll only see the occasional one or two other players. The MMO part is really understated, and feel more like other frequently online single player titles like Watch Dogs or Dark Souls.

Jaz: I don't really get the multiplayer aspect. When I encounter other players, it'd be nice to have some sort of public group prompt option to help get people together - perhaps by spawning a sub-mission, goals or whatever. Instead, it everyone feels like everyone is doing their own thing - there's no dipping in and out of group play in the way that Rift and Defiance make so easy.

Destiny is trying to be a variety of different things, but it doesn't seem to have the presentation layer to effectively drive activities along. Over the last decade, the WoW developers have created and implemented things like looking for group, organized PvP, ranking tables, challenge modes and so on. I'm surprised these sorts of convenience features aren't in this game too: to me they should be standard.

What We Like About the Beta

Jeremy: Above all else, the shooting in this game feels great. It's tilling a similar field to Borderlands, but it's such a better shooter than that. It manages to make both levels and twitch skill matter; if you can damage a foe, you can damage it more efficiently by shooting well. If you can't damage a foe… well, that little "immune" pop-up means you'd be wise to turn tail and make it to safer ground.

Bungie's done a great job of transforming Halo's mechanics into something that works even with the nuts and bolts of aim-and-shoot abstracted with a layer of role-playing numbers and rules. I felt totally at home rolling into the Divide and taking on the suspiciously familiar alien hordes there. Shielded foes frustrate, and weaklings with sniper pistols infuriate. And I certainly have fallen to a heck of a lot of invisible clones of General Grievous.

Still, this is anything but Halo redux. The new skills and options unfold slowly, but they're deeply satisfying. Going toe-to-toe with a higher-level shielded Fallen Captain and coming out on top by surprising him with a throwing knife to the face is as satisfying a victory as I've ever had in any FPS, and I feel like I've only seen a fraction of the mobs Destiny has in store for me.

Jaz: The shooting feels more like Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare than Titanfall, which isn't a bad thing because I like both those games. There's a certain steadiness to much of Destiny's weapon cadence that makes it really enjoyable to play. Even when the action is at its most frantic, your actions feel controlled. It's that effect is by design, I tip my hat to whomever came up with it.

My best experiences so far have been with matchmade missions. Those are exciting and fun, especially when you get grouped up with good players. Like all MMO-type games, player quality is the biggest bugbear, and perhaps half my missions saw one person drop out after just one or two deaths. That's kinda annoying, because when you're playing in teams of just three, one person dropping out has a big affect on the mission. But when you have three people who are serious about wanting to complete their task, the gameplay can be breathtakingly frenetic.

Jeremy: Bungie has been trying to implement cooperative play into the campaign shooter since 1996's Marathon Infinity. Each time, they do a slightly better job of it. Here, I really think they've nailed it. There are so many ways to work with others — pre-arranged matches, on-the-fly team creation, or just helping out a random stranger as you wander past their skirmish — that you really can't play the game solo. But it doesn't feel like it's being forced on you, either.

Jaz: I've spent most of my time PvPing, which has been largely fun - once again, the variable being player quality. Since this is Beta, it's hard to know how much difference armor and weapons will make, but I've definitely had a few matchups where certain enemy players were destroying my team. Sure, there are plenty of good players out there, but some of these guys seemed way OP.

I'm very interested to see how the game opens up, and how big the landmasses really are. The Beta area seems quite small, and I felt like I was going over old ground quite a lot. I'm wondering if these kinds of areas are basically shooting grounds, as opposed to the sort of “living world" an MMO attempts to produce, complete with townships, people and indigenous species.

Kat: Once you're on the ground, Destiny is really fun. Bungie has a knack for building levels that feel interesting and open without being overwhelming, and that talent is on full display in the opening levels of the Beta. As thin as the customization felt at times, I was pretty disappointed that I couldn't continue on to the Moon. I suppose that's the mark of a pretty good shooter—I wanted to see what happened next.

After eight levels, I feel like the gear balance is in a good place at the moment. Thus far, I've managed to pick up some decent equipment, including a rare gauntlet and an excellent assault rifle. Most missions seem to yield at least one intriguing piece of loot; so for now, I'm happy. With the level cap being as low as it is (it will only go up to 20 in the final game), a disproportionate amount of the single-player mode's replayability will be down to the quality of the loot that's available. So far, so good.

Mike: The first run-through of each area is full with a sense of exploration. The first time you meet the Hive is wonderfully tense and almost feels like you're playing a horror game. Running up against the Noble Walker and the completing the only Strike missions available in the beta is pretty thrilling.

Everything looks great and the levels are well-designed. It honestly feels like you're wandering around an abandoned area on post-apocalyptic Earth. The areas in Old Russia have a sense of character to them and I can't wait to see what Bungie does with the rest of the Earth.

What Needs to Change Before Launch

Jaz: The vehicle control can be frustrating at times. The steering feels vague and sluggish, which makes them less fun to drive than it feels they should be.

I'd really like a music off option. I don't find the soundtrack particularly compelling, and like I do with most games, I'd like to be able to listen to my own soundtrack. Something I did find annoying sound-wise is when the game goes into some sort of dramatic musical loop preceding something big happening, which keeps on going until it does. That can be annoying if you're standing and waiting for someone, or want to scout something before starting a fight.

Jeremy: What kills me is when you go into a no-respawn zone and wander into some kind of overwhelming enemy ambush. Peter Dinklage does his usual, "Wow, wizards! Battle now!" exclamation… and then you die, because it's a boss encounter stacked against you. You respawn outside the dark zone and for some reason now the enemies haven't reset to their original positions, even if you're playing solo. So they attack you before you trigger Dinklage's exclamation again, and you can even complete an entire scripted encounter before reaching the trigger point. So then he starts screaming about aliens after they're all dead. To me, that's indicative of the developer's struggles to figure out how to make a single-player-style experience work in a multiplayer sandbox — still lots of rough edges.

Jaz: The interface is just plain dumb. You're constantly dragging a cursor around the screen when it would be far quicker simply to navigate through option boxes. The cursor is sluggish, isn't particularly accurate, and the boxes narrow. It's all exceptionally poorly designed. You'd think with the budget this game has, they could afford a UX person to come in and make it fast and efficient.

Jeremy: My biggest complaint about the UI is that so much of it seems to be missing. Maybe this is a factor of it being a beta still, but I feel like there should be things available in the menus that simply aren't. Like all the "Grimoire Cards" I keep collecting — to me that implies some sort of database or compendium that I can access on a whim, but no. I have to assume that'll be present in the final product, because it feels like a massive gaping hole here.

And really, that ties into my biggest complaint about the beta: I have no idea who or what anything is, nor can I even begin to fathom why I'm supposed to care about all this stuff. Yeah, OK, so there are aliens who took over all of Earth except that one city, and then there are other aliens from the moon. But how are they related? What's the history here?

And then you get to the hub city and it's even more vague. There are all these factions who offer to sell you stuff — who are they, exactly? A sentence of two of flavor text does not offer sufficient incentive for me to visit these shops again or join up in some extra alliance. This is supposed to be some kind of RPG, and it drives me crazy that I can't have conversations with anyone but shopkeepers. Bungie made their mark by integrating story into shooters, but outside of combat zones Destiny feels like a crippled, inadequate version of Mass Effect.

The non-shooting bits of the game — namely the NPC interaction, the narrative — need major work based on what I see in the beta. I want the game to be more than just visually engrossing. And it feels good as a shooter, but it's supposed to be more than that.

Jaz: What's with all the hold-down-the-button nonsense to talk to people or pick stuff up? It makes the game feel like it takes everyone three seconds to do anything.

Kat: Being as this is only a beta, I expect that Bungie will add significantly more context to the story in the final version (at least I hope they do). From a balance standpoint, I'm much more concerned about the balance of the raid instances. When I hit Level 6, I decided to tackle the Level 6 raid instance with a couple random companions; and even with some decent gear, it was a slog.

At present, Destiny suffers from a common problem among MMOs—the bosses take too long to kill. Working with my companions, we were barely able to put a dent into the raid instance's two bosses, no matter whether we used normal, special, or heavy ammo. All told, I would say each encounter lasted between 15-20 minutes, but they felt much longer. Ultimately, it's pretty boring to just sit there and pour round after round of ammo into a boss until they die. Without special abilities or any real party roles to speak of, the raid battles get really repetitive really fast.

I suppose the best way to balance things out is to have the dungeon level match whatever the party leader's level happens to be, and also reduce the raid boss' hitpoint count. At present, it's too high, and it makes the raids a real drag.

Mike: I'll agree that the Fireteam and Strike boss encounters are impressive, but take entirely too long to finish off. If you don't know the trick to the Walker, I could see that taking up to 30 minutes to finish off, but even with the strategy down pat, you're going to be fighting for 10-15 minutes. In fact, in Walker fights, I'm far more likely to run out of ammo instead of being in fear of dying.

The big problem I'm having is once I'm outside of the set Story and Strike missions, there's not much to do if you're not into PVP. The beacon missions in the game's explore mode are randomly-generated and rather boring: go here, touch thing or kill enemies in the immediate area. I wandered around in a Fireteam and the most exciting thing happening was the conversation. When there's a story to what you're doing, Destiny is pretty great. Without that, the game just sort of meanders.

I also wish the armor had more differentiation. Frequently, I'd pick up a new piece of armor, put it on, and find the only difference is a bit of color. Makes me sad. I'm hoping that's something that gets corrected beyond Beta.

Jaz: I've had a couple of multiplayer missions go badly wrong. One of us has died, and spawned in a place where the enemy that the team previously killed has respawned, making it impossible to fight your way back to your teammates. This feels like poor design: whatever happens, it should be easy for the team to reassemble after something has happened.

Conclusion

Kat: I'm really interested to see how Destiny ultimately turns out. Thus far, it's been pretty divisive among the staff here at USG, with some really enjoying it and others coming across as being pretty underwhelmed. That seems to be the sentiment at large, as well. After all the promises and all the hype, Destiny may just be a fairly typical (albeit well-made) shooter with some MMORPG elements bolted on top.

My personal hope for Destiny is that Bungie dramatically expands the customization; tunes the raids so that they're fun, and puts out a really fantastic single-player campaign. All of this is certainly within the realm of possibility. Hell, it's a beta. And the gunplay (and the art!) is quite good. But I do think people are right to be worried about Destiny's overall depth. It seems to me that in trying to keep things balanced for PVP, Bungie is hesitant to go whole hog on the gear specs and the abilities. If that's the case, then Destiny is inevitably going to suffer from the “jack-of-all trades" syndrome. Bungie needs to decide what this game is going to be and commit to it.

Having said all that, I'm betting that the final release of Destiny will at least treat us to a really nice single-player campaign and some good multiplayer; so no matter how disappointing it turns out to be, it won't be a total loss. I'm a bit skeptical though. After all the time and money that has been put into this production, the current package feels thinner than it should be. Here's hoping that Destiny has one hell of an endgame.

Jeremy: I wouldn't count on a great endgame; Bungie doesn't do endings very well. Either the game just kind of ends or else it wraps up in some kind of mindless driving sequence. But I'm willing to forgive it if the parts leading up to that manage to be interesting.

So far, Destiny is building up plenty of forgiveness currency with me. It brings the Halo combat mechanics I love into a much more ambitious and open framework, and I feel like Bungie's designers have been able to breathe instead of suffocating under the limitations of the grandiose story of the Master Chief. Destiny taps into the same "find your way, do your best" vibe as Halo 3: ODST, and now I realize that game was really their attempt to explore the ideas that would eventually become Destiny.

I realize I'm calling back to Halo a lot, but don't take that as a mark against Destiny. I don't think (from what I've played) it particularly lacks creativity; Bungie has been iterating on a common FPS thread for decades, and this is the latest permutation of that sequence of inspiration. The core mechanics of Halo are the main carryover here, but the game goes far beyond that.

However, the drawback is that as polished and perfect as the shooting mechanics feel, all the other new additions to the sandbox — the elements Bungie hasn't been polishing for 20 years — still need a lot of work. I have a feeling Destiny's going to get off to a somewhat rocky start, and it'll only come into its own with persistence and patching. Perhaps I'm wrong and the final launch version of the game will surprise us with how impeccably it all fits together, but given the rumors that beta progression will carry into the final version, I don't have my fingers crossed.

Still, I'm looking forward to the final game more than ever after spending a few days with the beta. Finally, a massively multiplayer shooter for people like me, who have zero interest in PvP.

Jaz: Destiny ticks all the right boxes for me. It has everything I want out of an MMO-shooter, yet I'm not feeling it yet. Character creation and development feels fairly limited right now, and there doesn't seem to be much choice in terms of customization. I'm interested to see how it pans out. Hopefully at higher levels you can personalize your character a little more. The high-stress shootout gameplay is entertaining, but only for so long. Other MMOs really mix up the action with different kinds of quests/missions, and by giving you a world to explore. I'm hoping that Destiny will also do this, though I've seen no evidence of that so far.

I've enjoyed the PvP most of all. That's pretty entertaining and feels fairly well designed, although we'll have to see how the player/gear balance and matchmaking works in the release version. Quality PvP revolves around well-matched teams and a well-controlled player disparity range, and I've definitely had more than a few matches that seemed exceptionally one-sided.

Multiplayer missions have also been a lot of fun, although the game needs a little more in the way of convenience/social features to ensure the group can stick together and communicate, even in a basic way. It feels just a little loose, like everyone's doing their own thing. Which is true: groups are just random people thrown together. But on-screen prompts or something to help focus the team would be useful, and help ensure that teams don't end up getting broken up as players scatter in different directions - something that happened a few times over the weekend.

The biggest challenge Destiny faces for me is simply do I have the time for it? A game like this needs a lot of dedication to play seriously, and because of that, I'll have to sacrifice time with other games to make any kind of significantly rewarding progress. That's going to be a tough decision, especially with some of the other long-term games and MMOs that I'm currently playing, least of all Warlords of Draenor, D3, Hearthstone, Hex and Swordsman. Destiny will have to be absolutely tip-top to dislodge my current roster of favorites, and while it seems very good so far, I still have too many questions about it right now. I'm looking forward to playing the release version to see how it all comes together - but if Beta is largely indicative of what the end product will be, I can't see myself becoming a long-term player.

Mike: I feel like Destiny is a game that's well-designed and well-developed, but I'm finding I'm not completely over the moon about it. It's a house with solid bones, but I don't necessarily want to live there right now. When Destiny is good, it's great, but the lifetime of that greatness is rather short in beta. You'll hit the highpoints and then things drop off really quickly.

Honestly, as a primarily PVE player, I just need more content. Beta is better than alpha, giving me a stronger reason to be wandering around Old Russia with Ghost. I'm hoping as Beta continues, there's vastly more Story and Strike content added to the game.

One thing I'm missing in Destiny that I can't hold against the game is the improved movement found in Titanfall. Frequently, I'd jump near a ledge or wall and expect my character to mantle or running along the wall, only to realize that I'm not in Tiranfall. It's surprising how much that improved movement now means to me in an FPS and how much I hope it becomes a part of other FPS games moving forward.

When it comes down to it, I'm not as enthused by Destiny as the rest of USG is. I want more from the game and I'm finding myself hoping really hard that Bungie beefs up the available content. Right now, things are pretty sparse on the road to level 8, but I'm not sure if that's because of Beta, or if this is all that's available for these levels. If it's the former, Destiny could be a winner; if it's the latter, I can't see Destiny holding my interest for very long.

Tagged with Activision, Analyses, beta, Bungie, PlayStation 4, Previews.

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