Videogame Preview: My Weekend With The Destiny Alpha
Eager to join in the excitement of the limited time Destiny Alpha, I rushed to the registration site the literal second they mentioned it in the E3 Playstation Conference, only to find that the site in question wasn’t yet live. When it did finally go up, just after the conference ended, I registered and prayed for a spot. A day later and there I saw, downloading all 6.7GB of preview gaming. As a Bungie fan, I’ve been interested in Destiny for a while now. I’ve got the game preordered on PS4, did that months ago, and I salivate over every new screenshot and released clip. As a science fiction nerd, the idea of exploring our own local solar system in a game is something that intrigues and entices me. But this isn’t the full game, nor should my words here be considered indicative of the final game’s quality.
What we have here is a brief glimpse, a peek behind the curtain on one of 2014’s most anticipated games. I’ve now spent the weekend with Bungie’s upcoming Epic Online First Person Role Playing Shooter. Which is the best way I can describe the game that seems not to fit in any one typical genre. So how did I fare? Let’s break it down. Excluding the character creation video, all screencaps are from my own gameplay sessions.
From the get go you’re given access to the character creation screen which is robust without being overwhelming.
You’re given options of races and genders, followed by facial styles, headgear or hair, tattoos or markings and colours for each. You don’t get to name your Guardian, you’re known (at least during the alpha) by your PSN ID, or Xbox Live Gamertag. This is the first aspect that gave me the shits, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. For the most part I found the options to be pretty great but even with the variety of facial options, there’s going to be a certain overlap between players.
Part One: The Titan
Having created my character, a male Xxo Titan (read: robot tank guy) with black and white metal skin and glowing pink eyes, I was dropped into the world to see this:
I just sort of stood there for a moment. I looked around. I enjoyed the view. The plants swayed in the breeze. The ambient sounds were great, and the incidental foley for character movement is crisp, and realistic. I encountered a group of Fallen (the game’s enemy of choice) very quickly and was struck by both how familiar they are in appearance and movement, with key Bungie styling, but by how organic it all felt. Although the enemies were placed to be found – and as it happens, within the alpha at least, perpetually respawning – it felt like a genuine group of critters who wished me dead. They move and sway, seek cover, and adapt to your playstyle.
With familiar gameplay controls, I was able to get right into battle. Everything is where you’d expect it to be, with a few exceptions that are still intuitive. Fire with the right trigger. ADS with the left. Right bumper is melee, which took me a moment to figure out, and left is grenade. The d-pad is exclusively used for emotes like pointing, waving, sitting or, yes, dancing. Sadly my Exo did not do the robot. I was gutted by that.
With such familiar options, killing the enemies was no issue even though in swarms of five or six they can present quite the challenge. Each group is a mixture of ranks and types and although the respawn locations seem to be consistent the speciic ranks that spawn are not. Early on, I did wander into a spot with a different kind of enemy, a Hive Knight who killed me five ways from Sunday as he was much too powerful to be taken on that early. I came back to him later and finished him off though which speaks to the open world nature of the game and the nice progression you’re given. The game allows you to grind, giving you experience for each enemy, but you get a lot more for exploration, completing story and short missions. It’s not open world in the sense that Grand Theft Auto or Watch_Dogs are.
It’s not open world in the way the No Man’s Sky purports to be (which remains to be experienced first hand, naturally) but in that the world is dynamic, and the player is free to explore as they will. I found at first that in the area provided in the alpha we players were quite walled in. There’s one location offered on Earth at present – the Russian space monitoring station seen in the preview footage – and this is the only place I was able to visit, outside the tower. It’s gorgeous, with ambient snow, and rusted structures that contrast with the tower but it’s not open. Not as far as I could tell anyway; I wandered around a lot, and it’s an incredibly expansive environment but when I think open world I think Skyrim, and although you are able to explore freely, the game certainly doesn’t have the “if you can see it, you can reach it” philosophy of other titles.
Rather you explore via your upgradable ship, which can be recalled to take you to orbit at any time. From there you can select your destination.
Once I’d finished the mission I was taken to the Tower, kind of the central hub where the player can buy new gear, get new bounties (rewards for attaining certain targets like not dying in a firefight or killing a certain number of a certain type of enemy), and catch up with other players. It’s not very big right now, as parts of it look sealed off, so I hope they open up more of it so it doesn’t get too crowded. I’m not 100% sure how multiplayer works in Destiny. It’s certainly not an MMO. It doesn’t have dozens of other players with you all the time. It feels more like Journey, where you traipse about on your own, occasionally meeting up with another player.
The fact that characters use PSN IDs was, I must say, jarring. While I understand the ease of use factor, seeing a character named Xx_kittyfighter_XX for example does shatter the illusion of this being a living, breathing world, something that Bungie have gone to great lengths to provide for us. The way player names were displayed too, text over the general terrain made it quite difficult to read. I met five or six people while playing but I couldn’t tell you any of their names and I was, in fact trying to figure them out. It seems a bit of a pitfall, one I hope they will stamp out for the final release but genuinely doubt will be changed. Following that I was encouraged to revisit the planet, and picked what I thought was a new location.
The way travel works is that rather than piloting your ship, you get a screen with your ship in orbit (my first ship is below), and you pick a planet from the map (in this case the only options are Earth or the Tower but it’s an alpha so what more did you expect) and then from there you get another map to choose from. Hit X and you’re teleported to the surface.
When I arrived, it was more or less where I had just been, although this time my Peter Dinklage robot encouraged me to ‘go anywhere I liked’, which I kind of already had been doing so I just did it some more, killed a bunch more enemies and met up with some new people. This was where the alpha fell down a bit for me. During the mission I had gone from A to B to C to D, killing various enemies culminating in a sort of space wizard and his horde of horrible minions. It was super fun, and the wizard was a challenge while evert being a total chore.
Sadly though, on my return visit I was exploring and got a mission from one of the green beacons to seek out the best vantage point to survey the area. Since there was really only one way to go from where I was, I followed A to B to C to D again as this was the directed path and got exactly the same enemies in exactly the same places including the damn space-wizard in the space-wizard room.
It felt. I dunno. Cheap. It certainly cheapened my earlier victory over the space-wizard knowing that when I killed this one and left the room, he’d come right back to life again or at the very least be replaced by a new space-wizard brought in from the space-wizard temp agency. I’m really hoping it’s just the alpha and the fact it’s running in a limited scope because that there felt like a completely last generation issue; something that should be solved by now in one way or another.
The next mission I got thankfully took me to a totally new part of the increasingly diverse Russian base, and I encountered someone called Karrhis, Archon Rising who was about eleven feet tall and had a grenade launcher of some kind and kicked my ass all around the place before I killed him good and proper. It was easily a fifteen minute back and forth that netted me a whopping 82xp.
That’s him. He was a nightmare, in the best possible way. Seriously though, Bungie. Look into that guy. He’s too hard to deal with for 82xp. After that I pottered about a bit, got to level six and called it a day.
Part Two: The Hunter
The Hunter is the rogue-like class of Destiny. Where the Titan excels in running headfirst into battle, the Hunter prefers long range weapons and stealth cloaks. I went with a human, seen above. I never play as human when given an alternative. Humans are boring. I already am one, and I tell you it leaves a lot to be desired. For the sake of the alpha though I decided that each new class should have a new race. Awoken seem more magical, so my Hunter became the dark-skinned chap you see above. A mohawk and some nice red lipstick. I can only assume gender expression is more free at this stage in Earth society.
I finished the build, dropped into the game at the start of the mission area. Much to my surprise I had the same weapon loadout as I had as a Titan, the tank class from the previous day. Same assault rifle. Same shotgun. 64 points of armour. One grenade. A double-jump. I mean fine, it’s an alpha, so I’ll reserve judgement til the beta. If it hasn’t changed in the later release though, colour me disappointed. I think different classes should start with different items, but that’s just me.
The armour, although the same stats, did have a new appearance. So that’s something. The Hunter is, as you’d expect, a lot squishier than the Titan. Instead of a one-punch melee assault, the Hunter gets a knife with which to face-stab his enemies. It works quite well. The secondary feat is the ability to throw a knife if at a distance. It works more often than it doesn’t although like the grenade you can only throw one of them before a long recharge to I assume 3D print another. Aside from generally being faster, the Hunter plays identically to the Titan. Run and gun. Perhaps a little more jumping to prevent frequent death. There isn’t a huge difference though between these first two sampled classes. I actually forgot momentarily that I wasn’t playing my Exo anymore, and tried to do his supercharge ability, only to wind up with the Hunter’s one instead.
Since you can’t see your character, and the guns were the same until I bought new ones after that first mission; you do the math.
I did however find the game more open this second day. There are still disappointing limits to exploration; you cannot reach the far shore of the river bank and in the image above I could get atop the two round pipes but could not get atop that structure directly aside it. Even though my Hunter could easily jump to an adequate height, an invisible box prevented me from landing.
You can see them for scale in the above picture, bottom centre.
It basically meant that the entire structure, even at its lowest levels, was totally inaccessible. That said, I noticed a pathway through the rocks during my second foray, and followed it on speeder-bike (those things are super fun) to find that it opened up into a whole new area. Which continued onto another area with super hard enemies I couldn’t see the level of and kept getting killed by.
I guess the moral of that story is that in the Destiny Alpha, open world means at ground level, with little verticality. As long as you’re willing to explore though, you can go pretty far and wide.
Back at the tower I bought a new ship (seen above), the benefits of which I am not completely aware of. It claims it can fly further so maybe in the full game ship style will decide where you can go. They’re not super expensive so upgrading’s not going to be a huge deal. Since you can’t fly them directly and only through menu screens, and since there’s only two places available in the alpha, I just bought it to see if I could so I wasn’t comparing stats.
There were three different models to choose from and I picked the red one.
Part Three: The Warlock
Changing up characters, or designing a new one is a breeze and so on my third day I decided to try the final race and class combination: an Awoken Warlock. He’s kinda pretty, don’tcha think?
When I’d finished and dropped in I found that yes, yet again, I had the same assault rifle, shotgun, grenade (albeit a rad one that sucks enemy health into some kind of purple netherworld) and double jump. So for the first, I dunno, twenty minutes he played exactly like all the other characters: point and shoot. This was day three though – I spent roughly five hours with each of the class/race combos, one character per day and did as much as I could in that time. Each time I played through the mission, which was great because it let me see what each of the classes strengths and weaknesses were in identical circumstances.
The Warlock’s main weakness is that he is made of glass or something because he is by far the most prone to frequent death of the three.
Whereas I was hopping around out of harms way with the Hunter, and just standing there absorbing every hit with a wry laugh as the Titan, the Warlock was so easily killed that I frequently had to run away and hide, charge my health, and then head back into the fray. Which wasn’t ideal for my play style.
That said, once I’d hit level five and was equipped with a much better weapon set, some decent non-peasant armour and a new ability to drain the literal life force out of an enemy to recharge my grenade (I would have preferred it recharge my health but nevermind) I was much more of a powerhouse – zipping around and dissolving mofos left and right. The end boss (a Wizard) killed me over and over again, mostly because my ability to zip away was hampered by being inside a collapsing Russian megastructure.
Ceilings tend to get in the way of flight, particularly low ones.
That over, and my loot collected, I encountered an event, one of the public raid that you can take part in, or just ignore, by attending the site or not. Your choice. I’ve engaged a few, never won any because they’re designed for multiple players and I seemed to be alone most of the time during the Alpha. Part of the drawback of living in Australia is that when most people are asleep, I’m ready to roll. There was variety in the event models; from missions to kill one specific enemy, to wiping out a whole group, to killing (in this case) a giant walking tank.
For the first time, people joined with me but we were all still pretty low level and although we came very close, we didn’t actually manage the job. Still, with greater numbers, this will be an exciting addition.
I did however, on this my third day, find a whole new area. Down a rabbit hole, one I’d visited previously, I found that what I had taken for a dead end (it’s pretty dark in places) was actually another corridor:
Which lead out and down to a creepy tunnel:
That lead out to a whole new area I hadn’t seen before – the area from the E3 demo! A big old car junkyard leading into the Cosmodrome.
There’s a lot to see in Destiny, more than I’m sure even I discovered during my brief playthrough. Without a map, the game encourages exploration, and it pays off. You never skip through sections because you know exactly were you’re headed by waypoint and map guidance. Even the waypoints offered by your Ghost only take you a certain distance and then you have to check again; they don’t auto update, so you can get caught up wandering around.
Destiny was an interesting experience. Going in I wasn’t sure what I was going to be playing in terms of content or quantity of it. I started playing like a standard shooter, but it became more exploratory and investigative as the time went on. There’s so much to see and to do, that even in the tiny sliver of the game provided for use this weekend, I never ran got bored, or ran out of things to do, and to see, and to explore. There were always new missions, new areas, new loot.
It was a wonderful experience; both novel and blessedly familiar. It wasn’t perfect though.
This weekend was fantastic, and I’d like to thank you guys for making the Alpha available to us. There are no major complaints here, the game runs smoothly, plays solidly and looks divine. I do have some suggestions, or more appropriately requests though.
1. Switch up the starting weapon loadout for different classes. Make it feel more varied. At least for a while in the Alpha, they all played pretty much the same.
2. Give us the option to manually toggle the Ghosts flashlight on or off. Even going into the Ghost interface and hitting a button would be great. SOme parts of the game are too dark to see clearly in, but not dark enough for him to engage it on his own.
3. Calling them different names doesn’t change the fact that everyone starts with a more-or-less identical double jump. Maybe you could switch it up so the Hunter had a sprint or something. I get balance but, this was a bit much.
4. More enemies need to drop purple ammo generators. We could have killed that Fallen Walker if I had been able to get any ammo for my epic heavy gatling gun.
5. Speed up the grenade recharge. That shit be slow.
6. Voice chat?
7. Could there be a way to remove the HUD and weapon? You’ve got a gorgeous game there, and sometimes it’d be nice just to take in the view without all that stuff in the way – particularly in the tower. Speaking of, could you make it easier to take a selfie? A closer up view of your character when in third person mode? You everybody is going to want to.
Some things I learned.
During this alpha I learned a few things that I’ll pass on to you.
1. Explore. Explore. Explore. The game is littered with small caves, hidden tunnels, bunkers and passages. Any one of them can have a new area to explore, dead Ghosts to revive (it’s a thing apparently), chests to loot and enemies to kill.
2. Don’t be surprised if you stumble upon some dudes you can’t kill. I did it plenty. North (I think north) of the Cosmodrome was an area with Level ?? (that’s right, enemies so high I couldn’t even tell how good they were) Fallen, including a new one I was unable to take a screencap of, that looks lik an orb that shoots death at you. There was also a cave with some Level 11 dudes who kicked my Level 5 butt. There was a big guy, another Hive Knight of some kind, who also had a Level ?? rating and killed me a lot.
Just leave. Grind. Return. Seek vengeance.
3. Your speeder-bike is a godsend. Summon it to traverse any area you’re not going to explore. You can hop off easily and it means you don’t get caught up by attacking Fallen or Hive when you’re just trying to collect that last piece of spinmetal.
4. There’s a lot of stuff to collect, (like spinmetal) so do that. You can sell them to one of the guys at the Tower.
5. Not all chests are alike. Most look like this:
and offer Glimmer (the game’s currency) as well as armour and weapons. Some though, more rarely in my personal experience, look like this:
These guys tend to only have cash, but often quite a bit of it. I only saw two of these my whole weekend, but both gave me over 300G
6. A good fireteam is vital to your game. Get friends. Add them. Make new ones. Invite old ones. Most of the events are difficult bordering impossible by yourself and sometimes there aren’t people around when you get an event warning, or a particularly difficult enemy. Travel in packs. It’s safer, and also more fun that way.
Destiny is out in September on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. I’ve got the game on preorder so I’ll be in the Beta for sure, and I’ll be posting a follow up to this article when I have it under my belt.