The open Beta for Destiny starts... now. You're probably reading this on your fancy second-screen device, while you wait for the game itself to finish downloading on PS4. I was lucky enough to play the Beta for five hours yesterday, and what strikes me most about Destiny is how much like Halo it feels. That's not to say it lacks merit as an original game, or that the Halo-feel is a detriment, but that Destiny feels comfortingly familiar while exposing players to some wonderfully ambitious ideas that Bungie has clearly been brewing for some years.
After all: why should Bungie simply throw away all the lessons it learned while making a series that not only became the flagship title for Xbox, but also defined an entire generation of shooters? Its like saying: “Hey, Polyphony--good work with the Gran Turismo series, but now we'd like you to make a strategy game about pixies and warlocks”. Madness. I imagine many will beat Destiny with the metaphorical stick for 'being too much like Halo', but for me that's no bad thing.
The tutorial itself is a cheeky nod from the developers, as you're greeted right at the start by Ghost--a floating robot that would win first-prize in a Guilty Spark Look-a-Like competition. Voiced by Peter 'Tyrion Lannister' Dinklage, Ghost takes you through the basics like running in a straight line, and shooting bad-guys. Although Destiny features a more traditional Left Trigger = ironsights style of shooting, weapon feel and feedback is very, very Halo. There's a pleasingly relentless pace to each combat scenario, and enemies have those trademark Bungie smarts, where they'll dodge behind cover and coordinate attacks organically. And yes, getting in close for a melee attack is just as satisfying as a Mk2 Pistol to the face.
If I was being pedantic (and I totally am), I'd even say certain enemy types and vehicles are ripped straight out of Combat Evolved. The Stealth Vandals, for example, are semi-cloaked enemies with swords attached to their arms; hugely similar to Halo's Elites. The Sparrow hover bike, which you can spawn at any time, is essentially a posh version of the Ghost. However, while handling is similar the Sparrow feels lighter, nippier, and less clumsy to rotate. There were several beautiful moments during my play time when my whole fireteam forgot about the mission objective, and simply spawned Sparrows to race around the playing area for larks.
It's the playing areas and non-combat hubs where Destiny feels more like an evolution of Halo, rather than a direct relation. While combat maps are still wide-open spaces, there's much more to see and do in Destiny; a greater sense of conflict. Although I didn't see it myself, there are public areas in each map where fireteams (usually three players in a party) will meet each other and attempt to tackle massive, or swarms of, enemies. There's always something to randomly murder but, if you want to just crack on with the mission, that's easy enough to do. Halo feels very directed, very linear. Destiny is a true open-world multiplayer game that simply uses Bungie's broad sci-fi environments to give players more freedom. Plus, it's massive in a way that Halo only manages via clever art direction and visual smoke and mirrors.
And then there's customisation. While Halo pioneered multiplayer customisation, Destiny really takes things to a new level. Before you even start, you're greeted with a wealth of character creation tools. I choose to play as an Exo, Hunter Class, with robotic spiked-hair and a striking, green face-mask, although there are three species and a huge variety of cosmetic-choices to wade through. Thankfully, you don't need to spend hours fiddling with your character's face to prevent them looking like they've gone seven rounds with Mike Tyson.
Although the action in Destiny takes place in first-person, there are third-person areas and options. If--like me--you choose to break into a funky dance half-way through an intense fire-fight, much to the annoyance of your team mates, the camera switches to third-person. You can then view your custom character strutting his/her stuff while your buddies die. There are four 'emotes' mapped to the d-pad, and when you're in the hub area prepping for missions and chatting to other players, it can often feel like a ComicCon version of PlayStation Home, as players wave, dance, and flock around female avatars just in case they're real women. Which they rarely are. Sorry.
The main hub city itself is classic MMO territory, so nothing like any existing Halo games. Fair enough. It's actually one of the more underwhelming aspects of the Beta, as there isn't a whole lot to do beyond socialising and buying gear, but it may become more of a bustling metropolis in the final game. What I do like is the way it lets you 'decode' weapons that you pick up during combat missions. Enemies will sometimes drop glowing orbs that represent firearms, but until you bring them back to the city and have them decoded, you don't know what stats and effects they'll have. Weapons are varied, but Bungie seems to have kept them well-balanced too. We're not talking Borderlands-levels of guns here, but a decent mixture that allows you (and your team) to adapt according to every scenario. My favourite weapon, so far, is a short-range rifle that charges like a Spartan Laser before unleashing a shot that burns enemies to cinders.
While many of the things in this Beta are brilliant fun, there are problems. Some of the environments will start to feel very samey when you've done the 10th mission in the same part of the world, and boss fights are... inconsistent. While the 'over-powered regular enemy' versions are a great challenge, the 'massive hulking' bosses (like one Fallen Walker I encounter) are pure grind. It takes my fireteam 20 minutes to kill the Fallen Walker, despite the fact that it never really threatens to kill us outright. It's just a matter of finding ammo, and peppering the hulking menace until its health-bar is depleted. If a team mate goes down, revives are quick, and you respawn after 30 seconds anyway. These boss fights have none of the smart pacing or spectacle of the Scarab fights in Halo 2 and 3. Shame, because other foes level naturally, creating a very balanced difficulty to the whole game.
Again, though, there's time to fix problems ahead of September's release. And isn't balancing exactly what Betas are for? The secret to staying successful in games isn't through constant reinvention, it's through learning from your past, and being ambitious with your future. That's exactly what Bungie is doing with Destiny. The Chief may have moved house, but this is still the home of aspiring sci-fi gaming. Don't believe me? Surely the Beta has downloaded on your console by now... better start playing.