Genres collide all the time, especially these days, when the fundamental expressions of what a video game can be seem to have been more or less nailed down. Concepts for wholly new genres are hard to come by, but interesting mash-ups of existing game types? Easy, and often quite excellent.
So the first-person shooter is not exactly a stranger to the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Terrifyingly intricate MMO EVE Online has Dust 514, its free-to-play FPS spin-off; last year, there was Defiance, which didn't just combine genres but also media types, with its television tie-in. And there have been several others, with roots stretching all the way back to Tribes and SOCOM.
In other words, the ground that Bungie's Destiny covers is in no way new or unique — massively multiplayer first-person shooters exist. And yet, playing the Destiny alpha, I've never seen it expressed quite like this... or quite so well.
Make no mistake, Destiny rises from the foundation of Halo. The feel and mechanics of Halo carry over directly into the new game, albeit with different faces. There's even an enemy handgun that behaves (and sounds!) like the Needler, for crying out loud. The hard-pressed human alliance struggles to maintain its existence in a walled-off city as the wastes of earth are marauded by an advanced, organized alien species and a second, more bestial species -- like the Covenant and the Flood. There's a mysterious heavenly body hanging in the skies above earth, not unlike the Halo, and lots of the more advanced enemy types have shields that work exactly like the shields in Halo — once you knock them down, you need to maintain pressure to prevent them from rising again.
Even the tactics and strategies of Halo work neatly in Destiny. I found myself slipping into familiar patterns of behavior — tossing a grenade into a throng of foes to soften them up (or dropping one at my feet to counter a powerful charging foe), shooting from a distance with precision headshots, then moving in close for deadly melee strikes from behind. Bungie's famous "triangle" of tactics work just as well here as ever.
Despite these similarities, however, Destiny is not simply Halo with the serial numbers filed off. It's more like... Halo without the suffocating limitations of the Halo sandbox and Microsoft's corporate conservatism. Bungie left the Microsoft fold for a reason, and Destiny makes the reason clear: They wanted to create something much bigger and grander than would fit in the tiny Halo universe. But they still kind of wanted to create Halo, you know?
So Destiny has its MMO hooks, and they run deep. The world surrounding the walled-up Tower that represents humanity's last stand offers vistas stretching into the distance, which — unlike with that ribbon of the Alpha Halo stretching into the sky — you can set off to explore at your leisure. Other players drop in and out as you roam the world. At any time, you can summon a personal vehicle to allow you to cruise around and explore. Waypoints that initiate new on-the-fly missions litter the extensive landscape.
In the Tower itself, players can stock up on goods like in the hub town of any MMO. You can swap currency (Glimmer) for better weapons, armor, and gear — though as in any MMO, better gear tends to be locked behind higher level requirements. Leveling factors into combat, too. Enemies and player characters alike level up with experience as they battle through the wastelands, and the higher an enemy's level the more durable it is. Your sniper rifle in Halo could take down even a shielded Covenant Elite with a well-placed headshot, but there's no such luck here; snipe a foe a few levels higher than yourself and you'll probably just make him angry. And then you'll die.
Similarly, in my 90-minute session, I faced a much more diverse bestiary than in the entirety of the Halo franchise. While enemies tend to fall into familiar categories, there are new and unfamiliar threats, like the intensely powerful Wizards that float about and bombard you with high-energy projectiles as their minions bum-rush you. Destiny seems to have no lack of high-end bosses, too; in the alpha's team mission, we took on a Ghost in the Shell-like walking tank (seen at the end of last year's E3 demo) followed immediately by a pitched battle against a massive spherical mechanism whose only weak point was its eye... which happened to be capable of firing beams of concentrated energy capable of taking out a player in a single shot. Meanwhile, both foes flooded the screen with underlings. Bungie says you can technically go through Destiny solo, but the balance definitely seems to be weighted toward cooperative play.
I was uncertain before playing Destiny what it would stand out as its own creature, but after spending some time with the alpha. There's much about the game that feels familiar, but the glimpse I've seen of Bungie's massive new project comes together in a way that similar mash-ups never have. The action feels rock-solid, and unlike Borderlands the RPG leveling elements affect but don't utterly dictate the experience. Bungie will be launching a wide beta for the game next month; I'm already counting down the days until I explore more of its world.