By Jess Goulart
A promotional image from the hotly anticipated “shared world shooter” game, Destiny. Image courtesy of Bago Games.
When Bungie Studios released Halo in the early 2000s, they re-defined the first person shooter (FPS) in a sci-fi revolution often discussed on par with what Star Wars did for movies. Not only did the combat system eradicate mainstay problems like having to cycle through weapons until your fist for a melee, but online cooperative gameplay moved to the forefront of the industry.
Now, the same studio is poised to reinvent the wheel again with the highly anticipated release of their latest project, Destiny. The game cost $500 million to produce, making it the most expensive in history–but that’s not why we’re paying attention. The ultimate mash-up, Destiny combines a myriad traditional story techniques, gameplay, and battle systems to create an entirely new experience.
In an unprecedented move by a big-name studio, Bungie released an alpha version to the limited public for three days in Jun 2014. Reviews based on that alpha fumble to classify it as a definite massive multiplayer online game (MMO), role-playing game (RPG), or FPS, and instead focus on the ingenious combination of elements from all three.
Bungie itself avoids calling Destiny an MMO, presumably not wanting to align themselves with games like World of Warcraft. Instead, they brand it as a “shared world shooter” with a dynamic platform so advanced it molds to the interactions between players in ways beyond the original programmers’ control.
Alan Dave, a game developer based in NYC, tells BTR that Gearbox Software’s Borderlands is an early example of a story-based RPG and shooter combo, but says Destiny will be even more complex.
“One trend we’re seeing in gaming in the last year is the next generation of multi-player, where you have these experiences like Watchdogs or Assassin’s Creed that have a cooperative storyline,” Dave says. “There are now dedicated games to co-op multiplayer, like the upcoming Evolve, where you play four or five different characters that are trying to take on a monster that’s played by someone else. Or Destiny where the universe is shaped by player interactions.”
A basic component of an RPG is the ability to customize and grow your character. In the Halo series, the player started out as the all-powerful Master Chief with the story revolving around him (you), the hero. Not so in Destiny, where the player starts with little and must grow. The alpha even begins by allowing players to choose their race and customize nuances of their look for a much more personalized character, similar to The Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda Studios.
Playing through the alpha, you are at times moving about arenas with your comrades and shooting enemies as in a classic FPS. However, you can also move through the larger universe at will (though there were limited available places in the alpha) and in some maps, you walk around and interact with non-player characters. That includes buying and trading supplies, forming alliances, and (probably) triggering side quests. Sci-fi, shooter, and fantasy merge into a universe full of surprising encounters. Yes, you have a gun and are moving through space, but you are also battling wizards with magic, robots, and other soldiers.
Stuart Andrews, a tech journalist for over 16 years and game critic for the Sunday Times, explains to BTR that the RPG feel combined with the shared experience of playing with up to 16 others is key to Destiny.
“When I played the alpha a few weeks ago, that shared experience was the most enjoyable thing about it. Because, in terms of the mechanics, it’s not really that different from Halo, but the fact that you’re sharing the narrative with other people is really interesting,” he says.”I think that’s what Bungie’s biggest challenge was–how do you make the story compelling narratively, while also making it work for more than one person at a time.”
Andrews points out a growing divide between AAA games (major recurring titles like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed) and small indie-games. There’s a wealth of material at these poles, but not much in the middle anymore, and though indie-games are unusual in art and play, they often lack the budget for truly lush graphics or intricate design.
Producers of some AAA games are therefore attempting to make them more imaginative. They have the financial backing to take chances on experiments and attempt to fill that void. For example, Ubisoft developed and published the recent critically acclaimed Child of Light. Its story line is simple but its gorgeous graphics give players a visual effect like they are maneuvering through a watercolor painting. Another example is Gearbox Software’s upcoming Battle Born, which combines cinematic graphics with first person shooting to create a “first-person battle arena” game.
Destiny, Andrews says, stands at the forefront of this type of innovation.
After last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), analysts at the NPD group, a market research company, predicted every game released from 2014 onward must be open universe platform or it would fail at market. After this year’s E3, their predictions proved accurate as trailers for open-universe games like Hello Game Studios’ No Man’s Sky were clearly the best received. Players simply expect to have the utmost agency with this generation of consoles, which explains why Destiny offers the ability to move about the universe at will.
“This year shaking up old standards is particularly important, because we finally have that next generation of consoles,” Andrews says. “When people buy those consoles, they don’t want to play what they played before with prettier graphics–they want to come away thinking ‘yeah, this is new, this was an experience.’
The Destiny beta will launch on Jul 17 for Playstation, followed shortly by Xbox. The official release date for the final version is Sep 9, 2014.