The public at large has gotten a taste of Destiny, Bungie's latest sci-fi epic. The chosen few got to get a glimpse just after E3, but what was different in this newest build? I took to the Wild this past week to find out.
I've already covered most of the basics of Destiny's structure and format in my impressions from the First Look PS4 Alpha, which you can read here. I'll be spending this post covering what's new and different in this much larger Beta: A few more multiplayer maps, more story missions, the extended levelling process, and finally being able to explore the Moon.
First things first, let's get down to business - creating a character!
If I'm perfectly honest, I wasn't particularly interested in the Hunter class heading into the Beta. I'm fully on board the space-magic train that is the Warlock, but I'm saving that experience for launch, and whilst I absolutely loved playing a Titan in the Alpha, I wanted to try something different here. So I was left with the only other choice: The cape-wearing, gun-slinging space scouts of the Traveller's Guardians, the Hunter.
And even though there's things I do like about the Hunter - mainly the throwing knife, because it's immensely satisfying to sink it into someone's face from afar - it's definitely not the class for me in the full game. The Golden Gun, the Hunter super, seems practically useless outside of PvP, and for all their mobility they do feel rather squishy. Even all the weapon synergies you can build - increased stability and faster reloads on weapons rewarded by precision kills - just don't really cater to my playstyle. Which is a shame, because they do get to wear some very fetching capes... not that you'll get any Hunter worth their salt letting you know how well they dress. Leave that to the Warlocks and their fanciful robes.
When it comes to Destiny's launch, I'll be levelling a Hunter last - but I think I'll be skipping the Gunslinger subclass and looking at something a little sneakier instead (more on that later!). But that's not to say I didn't have some fun with it:
Being able to start from the get go gave us a little more of a snifter of Destiny's bigger story than we could get from the Alpha, including some pretty gorgeous cutscenes - and whilst there's a few mysterious set up, we honestly couldn't gather that much more than what we already knew... but in a way, that makes me even more excited for the main story.
Above all, Destiny feels like it's about the optimism of adventure and exploration in what we've seen. There's a simple setup, and you're largely left to then go explore disparate threads as you get to grips with the world around you: an old A.I reactivating on Earth for some unknown threat, following the footsteps of another Guardian as they explore The Hive's growing presence on the Moon. The simplicity might be a bit much for some - there's not really a consistent, strong arc so far, outside the repeating presence of a mysterious Exo Female in some of the cutscenes (she appears in a few trailers too) - but in a way that feels a bit refreshing. It's not overtly complex or there to constantly hammer is presence to you, or perhaps deliver something profound. It's a platform, a simple idea, to bound off - there's something very old school sci-fi about it in so much as it's not trying to be complex and clever for its own sake: It's just 'here you are, get out there and explore!'. It's not necessarily about experiencing a set tale, it's about delivering a world - a very interesting world so far, given Bungie's penchant for worldbuilding and lore - for you to make your own stories in. It's also got some great setpieces punctuated by Marty O'Donnell's fantastic soundtrack like this fight in 'The Last Array' against the Hive:
Time will tell just what lies in wait in all those lovely cutscenes, but I'm liking the simple approach so far.
Bungie spent the beta flaunting access to the Moon in front of players, dangling it on the map just barely out of reach. For the last night of the Beta though, the Sea of Storms became accessible for a mission - and boy howdy, it lives up to the teasing.
Although there was only a tiny slice on offer in the extra story mission, the Moon is already a vastly different environment to what we saw in Old Russia on Earth. Tight nooks and crannies, abandoned colony outposts littered with the decayed bodies of astronauts of the Golden Age, and underground cave networks marked by ominously locked gates, our first trip away from the optimism of exploration on planet Earth is replaced by a coldness, a sense of dread at just what is out there in the great dark beyond. Destiny's storytelling relies on a sense of place above all, and the Moon really does reflect the sense of trepidation and fear you'll feel as you head out into Space to uncover what remains of Humanity's empire. There's a lot of things out there, going bump in the dark. It's quite scary!
But at the same time there's a sense of serenity and beauty about it. The broken up ISS quietly drifting across the sky. Sunrise across distant mountains. And the immensely satisfying image of the Earth in the sky above you, almost constantly in sight wherever you go: there's something profoundly compelling about the image, even moreso knowing that you've been down there. If the full game can capture even a sliver of that sort of feeling, it'll be very special getting to explore this universe.
Although the Beta's level Cap remained at 8 - the same as the Alpha - Guardians could take themselves from Level 1 this time, and Bungie also increased skill limits to level 15, allowing players to tweak a few more stats and perks on their characters.
Levelling itself is a simple enough process, with experience coming from virtually every avenue of play in Destiny, and it doesn't take long either - experience gain has been buffed for testing purposes, but Bungie have gone on record stating that Destiny's soft cap of Level 20 (beyond that epic gear with the 'Light' stat can increase your level to face tougher scenarios and raids) shouldn't take more than a few days to hit - it's not really about the journey, it's about what you do with your character after that. And there's plenty to do! Various perks can enhance your character's super, their jump ability, their grenades and their melee, as well as bring bonuses like faster health recovery or increased resilience. Honestly though the Gunslinger focus for Hunters wasn't really my thing (outside of a tasty opportunity to have your throwing knife also set people on fire. That sounds badass!) - but Bungie also teased people by placing a copy of a second subclass item, only usable at level 15, into their inventories so you could see what the other side of the coin plays like. This is the Blade Dancer, the other Subclass for Hunters:
Teleports? Halo-esque Backstab melees? Turning invisible when you crouch!? Now this sounds way more interesting than throwing knives.
Although there wasn't much new for The Crucible in the beta - we did get to see a new map, Venus' Shores of Time, which felt like a classic, small scale Bungie-designed map that evoked images of Lockout or Guardian in my head - the weekends of the Beta did have a few special events for players to try out where the kiddy gloves came off: The Iron Banner.
In general PvP for Destiny, damage and defense statistics for gear and weapons is normalised - A level 5 assault rifle will do the same damage as a level 8 one, and a Titan with 160 defense rating will go down just as quickly as a player still running around in their starter gear. This doesn't happen in Lord Saladin's Iron Banner, designed to test your gear to its limits against other players. What you've earned in PvE directly comes into PvP, stats and all. When you're up against teams clad in the best gear the beta can offer, and at the Level 8 cap, it's also surprising just how closer to Halo it feels too, thanks to the slightly extended time-to-kill granted by having all of your gear's defense rating matter.
It's actually an interesting twist on the standard multiplayer that promotes you to think a little more about your character's build and their gear, and when it comes to the full game, it'll be interesting to see how endgame gear will factor into it, and the sort of tactical on-the-fly decisions you'll make. I can definitely see players tarting to plan separate character builds for PvP and PvE, and Iron Banner seems like a great way to experiment with new pieces of loot you acquire.
Speaking of which, the Banner comes with its own trinkets and rewards: Whilst the tournaments were running, a new section of the Tower opened up for Guardians to meet the Iron Banner's faction representative, Lord Saladin, and get their hands on some exclusive gear for emerging victorious from his challenges. Like most vendors, what was on sale would only really matter to Level 20 players, but characters could get a few bits and bobs in the beta to show off. Hunters got the best deal of the accessible trinkets though, with this full-length epic cape, the Mantle of Ghelon:
Pretty swish! If Iron Banner operates the same way that it did in the Beta, only appearing occasionally as special events, it could be a really neat idea and a fun way to get some gear to make your accolades stand out amongst fellow Guardians. As much as I enjoyed it, I hope it stays as an occasional event instead of being in constant rotation.
In the end though, it wasn't the epic space spectacle that I loved about Destiny's Beta. It wasn't facing off against insurmountable odds in The Devil's Lair (again, after spending so much time with it in the Alpha), or exploring the surface of the Moon, or going toe-to-toe with other Guardians under the Iron Banner. It was a few strangers and a purple beach ball one quiet afternoon in The Tower:
People - friends, strangers, passers by in the wild - and the stories you make with them are what make Destiny special. All it takes is a moment of coming together, to share the fun, to sink its hooks into you. See you starside, fellow Guardians. Not long to go now...
Destiny will be out on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PS3 September 9th.