The opening moments of “Destiny” are mesmerizing. It’s a Mars landing, complete with sparkling views of our galaxy and crystallized red space dust. It’s a vision that looks lifted straight from photographs sent in by NASA’s Curiosity rover.
It’s immediately inviting — optimistic, even. This is “present day” Mars, the game tells us, and considering that manned spaceflight isn’t a top legislative priority anymore, watching an astronaut leave a footprint on the surface of Mars is a reminder that a venture into the unknown can be downright inspiring.
Then out come the rifles.
What’s the fun, apparently, in looking for life on Mars if we can’t kill it? For all the innovation and sci-fi-meets-fantasy overtures here, “Destiny” ultimately doesn’t feel all that futuristic. It’s a refinement, rather than a reinvention, of the dominant video game genre on home consoles: the first-person shooter. “I hope you know how to use that thing,” our main character’s robot-like companion, voiced halfheartedly by “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage, tells us upon our first encounter with a gun.
Of course we do. Anyone who has owned any iteration of Sony’s PlayStation or Microsoft’s Xbox knows “how to use that thing.” “Destiny” is comfortable and familiar in the same way a new U2 album can be comfortable and familiar. That is, “Destiny” hits all the expected marks and only sparingly takes risks.
But, wow, can carnage be pretty. “Destiny” is gorgeous, sending players off a-hunting aliens (and wizards and zombie-like creatures that have been hibernating in the moon, or something) across luminescent Milky Way destinations. Already a blockbuster, publisher Activison has announced that more than $500 million worth of “Destiny” has been sold to retailers since it was released this week.
Developed by Bungie, the studio that brought us one of the most successful video game franchises of the last decade and a half in “Halo,” everything about “Destiny” is aiming big. The game, for instance, is always “on,” meaning it requires an Internet connection, and you’ll never really be playing “Destiny” alone.
Players regularly will encounter other gamers who are on their own missions to save humanity — and sometimes those other players will butt in on some aliens you’ve been trying to pulverize and take care of business for you. And like the Hollywood blockbuster franchise it seemingly hopes to be, “Destiny” even boasts an end-credits song courtesy of Paul McCartney (it’s called “Hope,” and, yes, there are strings).
It’s all a technologically slick experience — and the look is brightly appealing in that “Star Wars” special edition way. “Destiny” also cleverly blurs the lines between single player and multiplayer games, and the fact that it does so by largely avoiding the often crass and reprehensible behavior prevalent in multiplayer games is an achievement.
This is accomplished because chat options are more or less invite-only (a blessedly smart move), and a press of a button will have avatars setting aside their guns to shake their tails. It’s worth noting that the dance maneuvers are entirely PG. (Is it any wonder the game has been earning online raves from members of One Direction tour mates 5 Seconds of Summer?)
“Destiny’s” momentum slows when it offers an attempt at a story. At some point in the future, mankind discovers technology — or, rather, the technology discovers mankind — that allows for interplanetary travel and the settling of once uninhabitable worlds. Only this technology has a foe — “the Darkness” — and now all life is in peril as ancient species have risen to destroy this renaissance-inspiring machinery.
It’s more complex than that — too complex, in fact. Bungie focused on allusions to alien myths rather than any specific plot. It keeps things open-ended and vague, all to better prevent the player from questioning why nearly every species must be shot. Sometimes we’ll catch glimpses of alien races in battle with one another, but the enemies of our enemy are still our enemies.
It’s standard video game procedure to put us in the role of someone whose memory has been wiped, and “Destiny” too gives writers an easy pass. The character players create is brought back to life in the game’s opening moments. “You’ve been dead a long time,” says robot Dinklage. “So you’re going to see a lot of things you won’t understand.” This is fact.
Most of what we see has allusions to “Star Wars” or “Halo.” Our ship looks pulled from “The Phantom Menace,” and Dinklage even drops the franchise’s iconic phrase “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Yet the bulk of the effort went into constructing a large universe, one that is sequel-ready and fit for hundreds of hours of multiplayer matches.
Even in solo play “Destiny” will attempt to divert a single player’s attention to its vast, continually evolving reality. To underscore the notion that this is a living and breathing universe, “Destiny” has no pause button, which will infuriate those not willing to devote more than 30 to 45 minutes to a play session (hand raised).
But it’s intended to keep everything in motion and allow strangers to interact, even if they’re not speaking to one another. Follow, for instance, another player for a few minutes, and “Destiny” will suddenly whip up a short multiplayer challenge aside from the main directive. Visit the home base, and mail will be awaiting you, asking you to accept an optional challenge for the cause.
These are nice touches. Any game requiring dozens of hours of a player’s time can overwhelm, and “Destiny” manages to encourage exploration without loading the player up with chores. Just understand that the exploration always leads with a gun.
For most, this shoot-first mentality is exactly the point, but “Destiny’s” opening moments still offer a promise that’s never quite fulfilled — the awareness that a single step on Mars is more exhilarating than blasting a space wizard.
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