Over the next two weeks, USgamer will be looking ahead to the biggest games and most anticipated new from this year's E3. Today, we contemplate the herculean task Bungie's Destiny has before it.
My E3 plan includes a session to spend some time with Bungie's Destiny, which will be my first chance to play the game. The prospect has started me thinking about my history with Bungie's games, and why they've had such impact — not only for me, but for millions of fans.
I still remember my first experience with a Bungie shooter, Marathon. I was familiar with the name, of course, but I had assumed it was the same thing as Doom: Fast, bloody, violent, shallow. All the things I tend to avoid in my games. At that point in my life, I was quickly growing into a devoted role-playing game fan thanks to slick Super NES adventures like Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Final Fantasy VI, and other meatier games that pulled me back from the precipice of abandoning video games altogether. The idea of running around doing nothing besides blasting aliens into bloody chunks seemed downright antithetical to my developing tastes.
One evening, I happened to walk past my graphic design professor's office slightly after hours and spotted him playing some sort of shooter on his computer. Of course, he had the beefiest Mac on the campus, so it looked pretty amazing. But what really caught my attention was the fact that it didn't quite play the way I had come to expect based on my experience with Doom and Dark Forces (which had been the one exception to my shooter disinterest, because it was 1995 and Star Wars was cool again. I heard Lucas is really gonna do a prequel trilogy! It's gonna be so awesome!).
Sure, he was shooting aliens, but the setting seemed so atmospheric and the pacing so deliberate — dark and violent, yes, but with other traits to balance it out. He was using weapons to manipulate the environment, turning the levels into something like a puzzle. He was stopping at computer terminals to read fragments of story. This wasn't some mindless shooter — it was an adventure. Maybe it would have seemed less unexpected if I had played System's Shock, but that grotesque cover art never compelled me to check the back of the box. So, to someone whose experience with Doom clones had consisted entirely of dumb, loud shooting, the vision on my professor's monitor was nothing less than stunning.
"What are you playing?" I asked in wonder.
"Marathon," he replied, and backed up along a corridor to draw a bead on a distant switch, which he activated by launching a grenade at it. A door across the room slowly began to draw open with a humming mechanical sound. I was enraptured.
The next day, I brought a disc that included a demo for the upcoming Marathon 2 when I made my daily stop in the computer lab. I think it was a MacAddict pack-in disc, which just goes to show how different an era it was. Not only did Apple products emanate waves of anti-cool back then, the print industry was vital enough that you could have multiple magazines dedicated to a dying computer platform, including one predicated entire on a bratty insistence that Macs were too cool. But it came with 600 MBs of free utilities and game demos, and that's all I cared about. I inserted the disc, launched the demo, and immediately fell in love.
Marathon 2 presented itself with bright, bold colors, and the demo took place in a large-scale environment with views that stretched into the sky, filled by armies of faceless aliens determined to prevent me from completing the mission's main objective of lowering a two-part gate by activating switches in different areas. Although the core content was hardly different from what you could have seen in any of other entries in the rapidly growing FPS genre (shoot stuff! Activate switches!), it had a distinctive feel and style. Plus, when you logged into computer terminals, the NPCs spoke to you with a distinctly sassy attitude.
When I picked up the full game, I found Marathon 2 to be every bit as satisfying as the demo. More so, actually, because it also included a brilliant multiplayer component filled with modes far more compelling than the competition's standard deathmatch. When Marathon Infinity came along, it even folded the concept of cooperative play into the campaign mode. My friends and I never did manage to trigger the secret level that could only be reached in co-op play, but mopping the floor with alien mobs was entertaining enough that we had a great time anyway.
Bungie's subsequent works proved equally engrossing. Myth put technologic advances to work as a way to add new strategic depth to the RTS genre, integrating factors like height, gravity, and terrain deformation to a genre defined by the comparatively staid Command & Conquer and Warcraft. And Halo, of course, launched Bungie to even greater heights by bringing a PC-level shooter experience to consoles, popularizing new forms of multiplayer and the genre's now-standard controller setup along the way. Both Halo and Marathon also included easy-to-use customization tools to encourage player-created content way before Minecraft was a twinkle in Notch's eye. Even Bungie's flops, like Oni, didn't fail for lack of ambition.
Now, here were are, 20 years after the debut of the original Marathon, and Destiny promises to combine the narrative-driven campaign and infinitely replayable multiplayer elements of Bungie's previous shooters with an unprecedented sense of scale.
Well, I say "unprecedented," but that's really only true in the sense that Bungie's never done it before. Massively multiplayer shooters are hardly a new concept at this point — everything from M.A.G. to Dust 514 to Defiance has covered that ground over the years. We've yet to see a true breakout hit in that space, though, and that's where Bungie and Activision clearly hope to make a name for themselves with Destiny.
By all accounts and appearances, Bungie's approach to forging Destiny has been to combine the mechanics (and even the sounds effects) of Halo with the leveling and loot concepts of an RPG. It would be easy to write this off as "been there, done that" in the wake of Borderlands, but Destiny also makes use of massive-scale combat, both persistent and instanced. Public events. Free-roaming environments populated by other players. Unsurprisingly, Destiny incorporates other features derived from MMOs as well, such as class-specific super skills that offer tremendous power mitigated by lengthy cool down times.
So basically, Bungie is covering familiar ground. The studio is still arguably in the top percentile of developers when it comes to shooter design, so Destiny will definitely play well; there's little doubt of that. But will the nuts-and-bolts of Destiny's Halo elements (up to and including Ghost, the little floating AI who wanders around with your team a la 343 Guilty Spark) mesh with the grandiose format of the MMO shooter? It's a new area for Bungie, and one that frankly has never been done well by anyone. While the idea of taking an MMO and replacing spells with guns seems utterly intuitive, we've yet to see proof that it can actually be fun.
And even if it does work out, the bigger question remains: Does anyone even care? The Halo series has slumped considerably in popularity, though it's hard to say if that's a result of collective Halo burnout or a result of the tinkering the franchise's new masters, 343 Industries, has performed under the hood since taking over. By clinging so closely to conventions established in a franchise whose salad days appear to be in the past, Bungie runs the risk of having doubled down on a losing formula.
There's no question that the world craves the opportunity to revel in online multiplayer first-person shooting; witness the continued hammerlock Call of Duty has on the planet thanks primarily to its expansive (and, it should be said, heavily RPG-influenced) multiplayer element. But not only does Call of Duty draw on accessible real-world settings rather than far-flung sci-fi tropes, it also represents a sort of low-impact match-by-match approach to multiplayer — a far cry from Destiny's persistent, large-scale, open world.
It could very well be that gamers desperately long for someone to perfect precisely that combination of elements. Maybe Destiny is the ideal fit for the market at the ideal time. My greatest hope for the game is that when I finally have a chance to play it, I'm shocked and pleased by its defiance of my expectations, just as I was by Marathon all those years ago. That could be a tall order, given how much it draws upon the familiar and how little room there seems to be for innovation in today's big-budget game space. But Bungie has built its reputation on putting a compelling twist on the known, and I'd like to see that talent at play again in Destiny.