After creating one of the most beloved, bestselling video game franchises of all time, what's your next move? And how can it possibly live up to expectations?
Destiny is the next big thing from Bungie, creators of Halo. (Halo lives on, of course, in the hands of Microsoft’s custom-made, in-house development studio 343 Industries. 343 recently delivered the excellent Halo 4, which marks the beginning of a new trilogy of games starring Master Chief.) But Destiny is more than an encore. Like Halo, Destiny marks the dawn of an entirely new science fiction universe — a universe that Bungie has very big plans for. And unlike their last big thing, which was the flagship series of the Xbox platform, Bungie will publish Destiny through Activision, so that this title isn’t restricted to a single console. PS3 and PS4 players are even getting exclusive additional content.
Naturally, fans are drooling in anticipation for this new universe, particularly after seeing concept art, a few screenshots, and a tiny glimpse of the game in action. Yet despite all the hype for the game at Sony’s PS4 event, not to mention Activision’s breathless, hyperbole-filled press release, we still know precious little about Destiny.
What we know is this: Destiny is set in the distant future, after the Earth was visited by a benevolent alien known only as the Traveler. This alien parked his huge, spherical ship close above the surface of Earth, and humanity became emboldened to branch out into space. We built an enormous civilization that spanned the solar system. But just when things were going so great, we were invaded and nearly annihilated by presumably an alien force. Whatever it was, we know almost nothing about it. Ages ago, mankind’s small remnant built a refuge, a city beneath the Traveler (who may or may not now be dead). But a slew of aliens have moved in to the parts of the solar system we vacated — and aren’t eager to give it back. Destiny puts you in the shoes of a Guardian of this vast city, playing alongside thousands of others in a persistent online world. Through means not yet explained, Guardians have access to a small portion of the Traveler’s immense power, making players more than human. But though the city is wide open for you to explore and have adventures, you won’t be confined to this one location. Bungie promises that you’ll be able to leave the planet and explore mankind’s ruins throughout our solar system, which so far are known to include Mars and Venus as playable locations, and you can expect to find plenty of alien baddies waiting there.
Solving the mystery of these aliens and why they attacked us, not to mention the Traveler’s identity and purpose, will doubtless be a big part of Destiny‘s ongoing story. There will be plenty of scripted events in the game, but Destiny is being designed as a “living world,” so that unscripted things will happen that will take even Bungie by surprise. But since every player will be creating their own character to play as, it goes without saying that Destiny will not boast any iconic characters like Master Chief. There will be plenty of enemies to defeat though, and doing so will bring you customizable gear, weapons, and vehicles. (Clearly, Bungie’s devs are fans of Borderlands.) And not just land vehicles — you’ll get to pilot ships through space as well.
In Bungie’s official documents about Destiny, there’s a strong emphasis on the “unprecedented variety of FPS gameplay,” making it sound like Bungie’s creating a universe, and you’ll be able to play your way through it however you like. Story-driven players will find plenty to enjoy, multiplayer gamers will feel right at home, shooters will have plenty to shoot, and social gamers will find fun social activities to feed their need. The game world will even allow players to interact when not on their Xbox or PlayStation, via smartphones and other devices.
They certainly make it sound innovative, but again, there’s a real lack of concrete details about exactly how all of this stuff will work. Okay, so it’s wildly innovative, and a “next level” kind of thing for Bungie. But how so?
And boy, they really have a thing for circles, huh? The Halos were a cool scifi concept that excited the imagination, and now Bungie’s come up with another Big Idea™ with this giant floating sphere that hovers over the last city on Earth. I hope the game lets you go up inside the sphere at some point, because whatever secrets it holds are (so far) more intriguing to me than the City stuff down on Earth. Although that looks pretty cool, too.
My hopes are high. The ingredients are all here for something fresh and cool and epic. And yet… Part of me fears they might be playing it too safe with Destiny. The similarities between it and Halo are not few: they’re both high-concept science fiction universes set in the far-flung future, starring full-body-armor wearing protagonists who use lots of scifi weaponry, drive lots of vehicles, and traverse the universe to fight in spectacular, showpiece destinations. The technology has advanced, and the MMOish “persistent online world” part is interesting, but doesn’t this whole thing sound like it could have just as easily been another chapter in the Halouniverse?
Bungie’s strength has always been its stellar gameplay. High-octane firefights, smart maps, finely-tuned balance. They do these things better than almost anyone. So I have no doubt Destinywill be a blast to play.
Where they’ve fallen short is in their storytelling. I’m not saying they don’t have good story ideas; the problems arise in their execution. Halos 1 through 3 had loads of cool ideas, but there was no emotional resonance, no tension or personal stakes. No drama. And we’ve passed the point where triple-A games can get by without engaging the player emotionally. There are higher standards of sophistication now. 343 Industries’ Halo 4schooled Bungie on the art of good storytelling in modern video games; that was the first Halo game that I truly connected to on an emotional level. For all the cool ideas and scifi spectacle of the universe Bungie created, it wasn’t until someone else took over that universe that I actually cared about the fates of Master Chief and Cortana.
So it’s quite a surprise to find that the biggest, most ambitious aspect of Destiny is how it brings a new focus on storytelling for Bungie. Activision describes Destinyas “a story-driven universe,” a “saga unfold[ing] through grand tales and sweeping adventures.” Bold claims for a company that’s always put gameplay above story and all else. Bungie is promising a dynamic world that’s always changing, evolving, filled with enough adventures for countless players.
They’re aiming to create something akin to an MMO/FPS hybrid, complete with social activities, cooperative modes, competitive games, and public activities, and “all seamlessly connected” to this story-driven, “cinematic” gameplay that Destiny is built around. And they say they’ve got enough story planned for Destinyto allow the game to live for at least ten years.
Can Bungie up the ante, story-wise? Will this brand new universe stand the test of time the way Halo‘s has? Could there possibly any more pressure on Bungie to get this right?
I have reservations about Bungie’s skills as storytellers. But I’m rooting for them to knock Destiny out of the park.
All images: Bungie