In the 40 minutes it took for Destiny to install onto my PS3 hard drive, I got to look at a lot of pretty artwork. It detailed worlds of ships and alien spheres, floating rock formations and vast cities half-abandoned to terraformed nature. When the game finally boots up, players are given a choice of three races to portray–plain humans, mutated humans who resemble elves, and machines curiously divided into two genders–then are sent out, in spaceships lifted from the Star Wars prequels, to fight aliens in the ruins of a great human diaspora.
This being a Bungie joint, the plot is more Joseph Campbell than Octavia Butler. Like their Halo franchise, Bungie slots player avatars into the role of a hibernating super-soldier, revived in humanity’s darkest hour (reduced to a picturesque city one only sees as a skybox from a tower hub, between quests). You are a chosen one (ironically one of many, since this is an online multiplayer game) to save the empire from a “Darkness” fronted by three shades of bloodthirsty alien hordes. They seek to destroy the Traveler, a machine god which spurred the acceleration of human evolution (and holds the key to stopping the evil). There’s even an A.I. sidekick (voiced by a bored-sounding Peter Dinklage) for exposition, comic relief, and key to all the locked doors and deactivated tech–a walking monomyth device.
Lore established and universe primed, players are thrust into total war. Destiny‘s society, like Halo‘s before it, gives pride of place to combat and scavenging: kill aliens, collect bounties and valuable minerals, bring them back and get better gear to help kill more aliens (and collect more bounties and minerals) (there is a currency system, but it’s largely made irrelevant by quests which offer the same rewards as hoarding money). Story missions get all the pomp and circumstance (complete with a rousing soundtrack and Dinklage assuring you everything is important), but each planet’s Patrol segments are littered with barely-disguised fetch quests, meant to get back a piece of tech or gain some tactical insight into the enemy. Grunts are put through punishing firefights to help their superiors make incremental gains.
Curiously, though, there is no evidence of a rigid, militaristic hierarchy on Earth. Soft-spoken beings with important-sounding titles (i.e. “the Speaker) are on hand to say what needs done, but this never gets harsher than a strong suggestion. MMO quest mentality is taken for granted, the developers anticipating players willing to go into battle simply for the promise of better gear. Here is where Destiny finds its place and its fun.
Players drop into their battlefield from orbit. They wander around a bit, marvel at colossal structures, get into firefights. Other players may ride over a hill, then rush in to assist in eliminating enemy forces. This may lead to one party inviting another to join a “Fireteam,” to keep working together on whatever problem is to be killed. Just as often, players will simply tag along until paths diverge. Calms between setpieces allow for reloading, friendly actions mapped to the D-pad (if you don’t have a headset to help build camaraderie). A community of loose affiliates facing annihilation, ready to split up at any time but will back each other up–more utilitarian than heroic.
Unfortunately, this aspect only seems to be an accident of an efficient, online shooter design which borrows liberally from World Of Warcraft and Farmville. After all, Bungie’s emphasis remains on rote dynastic struggles, appeals to vague ideals, nonexistent plot, sturdy soldiers of fortune wiping out those different from them, and dangling hooks for sequels/DLC. Capturing anything resembling human in their space opera, let alone exploring it, never seems close to the front of their thoughts.