The past few weeks I've been sorely addicted to Destiny, Bungie's new(ish) MMO-FPS. Every other MMO I've seen falls into the action-RPG genre. So, in being an FPS, Destiny has the potential to be a watershed moment for massively multiplayer games. In some ways, it lives up to these possibilities; but in some ways, it falls far short.
I'm a sucker for good storylines, that's why I love RPGs so much. So my formative experience with Destiny was running through the single-player plot levels, though I've probably spent more time on the post-game MMO aspects. I played the whole thing on hard/heroic, which will take you up to the soft level cap with a minimum of grinding. The initial setup for the world is pretty interesting. In particular, the idea of playing in a post-human universe is pretty cool, and offers a nice counterpoint to the transhuman universes which are starting to become popular in the tabletop RPG community. The presence of post-human technologies also helps some system details make sense in-game. For example, using reprogrammable matter as money makes it natural that you should be able to break items down into money without a vendor.
Many aspects of the universe are reminiscent of Bungie's other FPS franchises: Marathon and Halo. There's a Covenant-like race (individually strong, with shielded elites). There's a Flood-like race (though they're less zombie-like). There are warmind AIs. There are murderous robots (though less entertaining than the Monitors). Introducing a new race for each planet gets a bit stale, especially since every planet has two races fighting among themselves; but it's not too terrible.
The storyline itself is decent, though nothing amazing or unique. There are no major twists (e.g., the introduction of the Flood in the first Halo), but there are a bunch of minor ones to hold your interest and to keep things open for the expansions. The final boss fight is well done, both challenging and interesting. Though I'm not entirely convinced the Vex pose a greater threat than the other races; certainly not enough to make them the first Big Bad. It'd've made more sense to have had the first major villain be Fallen so the heroes can reclaim a chunk of Earth, and then make the Vex the main villain of an expansion.
An FPS and an MMO
As a hybridization of the FPS genre and the action-RPG MMO genre, Destiny works surprisingly well. You can definitely notice the difference from leveling up or fighting higher level enemies. Just as in other MMOs there's the exponential power curve which makes it impossible to confront enemies who are too many levels above you, and lets you ignore enemies too many levels below you— whether you like that sort of thing is up to you, but it definitely gives the MMO feel in ways I never would've expected of an FPS.
The upgrading of equipment fits the FPS genre surprisingly well. There are even some interesting tradeoffs. What is just a single gun in traditional FPSes (e.g., a hand cannon or a sniper rifle) is a class of weapons in Destiny. And while all guns in a particular class behave basically the same way, they differ significantly in terms of recoil, rate of fire, magazine size, etc. Thus, whenever you pick up a more powerful gun, there's always the question of whether the extra damage is worth the change in how it feels. In my first run through I often stuck with an old gun that felt better, only upgrading when it was a few levels behind or when the new gun had a similar or better feel.
Destiny has six character classes: three of which you can choose from the outset, the other three being subclasses available later on. Unlike traditional MMOs the classes don't really fall into the standard team roles of tank, dps, healer, buff/debuff, etc. Like an FPS, everyone on your team is just someone on your team. But each of the classes does come with different types of grenades and different special powers. So the classes play rather differently, even if they don't contribute to a team dynamic in the way you're used to from MMOs.
Once you reach the soft level cap (i.e., as far as XP will take you), you unlock all the various ways to play the game as a true MMO: daily and weekly challenges, cooperative strikes, raids, etc. From there you work towards the hard level cap (i.e., as far as equipment will take you). Either reaching the soft level cap or beating the single-player storyline (I'm not sure which) also unlocks higher level hard/heroic versions of the storyline levels. All in all, the MMO content is as addictive and entertaining as other MMOs. However, there's not a lot of content there. After a few weeks of running the same half-dozen strikes over and over, you know them inside and out. Perhaps this is just because Destiny is so new, whereas other MMOs I've played had been around much longer and so had more time to accrete expansions. Only time will tell.
The inevitable comparison
Let's get this out of the way: I don't like FPS games. The only FPS I've really enjoyed is Halo, another Bungie offering. What I loved about Halo —the first one especially— is the way that it revolutionized the FPS genre. Instead of being a walking arsenal carrying fifty different guns and going through a complex menu to switch between them, Halo came up with a brilliant innovation: you have a gun and another gun, that's it. Instead of classifying grenades as a type of gun (going through that same complex menu to switch to them and back, rendering them useless in most games), Halo considered grenades integral and gave them their own trigger. Not to mention the vehicles: (a) they had them, (b) they had unique and interesting offerings like the aerial Banshee and the multiplayer Warthog.
In Destiny, rather than two gun slots there are three, but each class of weapons is restricted to fitting only one of them. This can be annoying —in the beginning I'd've loved to have used a hand cannon as a secondary weapon— but it's still simple enough that you can switch freely in the middle of a firefight. However, Destiny nerfs many of the traditional FPS guns.
Shotguns have too wide of a choke to get all the pellets into one target, and not enough pellets to be effective against multiple targets. Also, per FPS tradition, they're only usable as melee weapons— something Halo nicely got away from by making them short-range rather than melee-range weapons. But that's fine, I just won't use shotguns, whatevs, no big loss.
Sniper rifles are an all-time favorite of mine, I'm much more interested in getting a headshot from a mile away than in riddling people with bullets up close. The sniper rifle fills that role, but there are very few scenes with enough distance to make it worthwhile. Besides, there's the scout rifle: a primary weapon which acts as a light sniper rifle. For all the really excellent sniping scenes, a scout rifle has enough range to make the shot if you have the aim. So sniper rifles are a bust (leaving the fusion rifle as far and away the best option for the secondary weapon slot), though this is heartily made up for by the presence of the scout rifle, which operates much like the beloved pistol in the first Halo.
But the most annoying is how they nerfed rocket launchers. Traditionally rocket launchers have a handful of uses: (i) to thin a clump of enemies à la grenades, (ii) to take out vehicles, (iii) to take out or severely wound strong enemies, (iv) PvP. The first use is generally thought of as a waste, given that we have grenades. (But Destiny's rocket launchers do fill that role nicely.) And I don't like PvP, which is no doubt a major component of why I typically dislike FPSes. (Though Destiny's rocket launchers also fill the PvP role nicely.) So that leaves the main roles: vehicles and strong enemies. Alas, there are only two spots where you encounter enemy vehicles: a few Ghost-like speeders in the middle of the first moon mission, which you can just avoid by using your own (gunless) speeder to get to the next section; and a tank miniboss in one of the strikes. Moreover, against any of the major bosses, you can get far better DPS with the scout rifle (and no doubt any of the other primary weapons) or a fusion rifle (a secondary weapon), making the rocket launcher (one of the two heavy weapons) a mildly entertaining waste of time on bosses. I got a legendary rocket launcher in a drop fairly early on so I've used it a fair deal and discovered one or two niche uses (against clusters of Phalanxes, and as a well-targeted grenade against drop ships), but otherwise I stick to my (non-legendary) LMGs.
Nestled in that diatribe against the rocket launcher is what I think is a greater loss compared to the Halo franchise: the lack of vehicles. After playing through the first Halo which had a number of excellently crafted vehicle levels, and the second Halo which had vehicles all over the place, the relegation of vehicles to a few throwaway moments in Destiny feels like a major step back. Destiny deserves to be far greater than an MMO Halo. The Halo franchise is well and thoroughly played out, and players want something new and different. But nerfing the classic FPS weapons and all-but eliminating vehicles doesn't seem necessary just to distance the Destiny franchise from Halo.
It'd be cool if the reprogrammable matter ("glimmer") idea was played up a bit. In the early game, glimmer can be useful for buying up your equipment if you're not getting good drops. But by the mid-game, there's nothing worthwhile for sale, and you have more than enough glimmer to meet your needs for leveling up equipment. By the end-game it's easy to hit the glimmer cap, especially if you've been using the items that make all enemies you kill drop a bit of glimmer. But the idea of glimmer could be so much more interesting than just money. Imagine:
Instead of relying on ammo drops at all, you could fabricate all your ammo, making some weapons more economical than others (in practice instead of just in the flavor text). Ammo would take a while to fabricate, but you could have a small pre-fabricated stockpile on hand, much as the current/standard ammo system. Tuned to be fabricated at the right rate, this would make it so you either need to take some downtime between stages or else have to buy ammo off others.
Rather than having a long recharge cycle for grenades, you could treat them more like the ammo suggested above. Instead of having only one at a time and saving it up for the right moment, at the end of the charge cycle you've fabricated a grenade which you can keep in a small stockpile. This way you can use a few at a time, or use them more frequently, but at a cost. You could even introduce new grenade types which recharge faster but cost more, recharge faster but are weaker, and so on.
Instead of buying or finding equipment, you could buy, find, or invent(!) blueprints which allow you to convert glimmer into equipment— as often as you like! With an exchange system for trading items with other players, this could make for some very interesting commercial models. When you've found or invented a new blueprint, do you sell people the blueprint itself, the rights to use the blueprint some number of times, or do you sell them the product? Some players could be dedicated to inventing new equipment, focusing on particular sorts of armor or weapons. Or, rather than inventing items wholesale, perhaps the art is in figuring out nice combinations of level-up features to put on your equipment.
Perhaps the fabrication units are too large or delicate to carry around with you, and so they have to remain on your jumpship. Now, instead of only changing the skin of your ship whenever you get bored with the old one, you could get new ships with different manufacturing capabilities.
The essential core of any MMO is, ultimately, the economy. There's only so much you can level up, and only so slow you can make leveling, so the way you indefinitely extend the length of a game is by adding in various farming tasks: whether that's collecting raw materials, converting those materials into items, or whatever. But all these farming jobs generate products, and there are only so many products of a given sort that a single player can use. Thus, it's imperative to have some sort of exchange system so players can buy and sell items with one another. By allowing trade between players, the costs of items will naturally adjust based on their scarcity. In addition, the auction house will usually take their cut, which helps to siphon currency out of the system.
Alas, Destiny lacks both a trading house and any sort of item fabrication system. Before the patches to make way for the first expansion, you could trade collected raw materials for Crucible points— which was great! It siphons the materials out of the system, it gives you a farming game, and it gives players like me who hate PvP a way to gain the Crucible points necessary for buying legendary equipment. Unfortunately, the first patch for the expansion (prior to the expansion itself) reversed this: you could only spend Crucible points to buy raw materials. By this point I'd gathered far more raw materials than I could ever use up —via opportunistic collection alone, not even by farming—, so there's no reason to ever buy them. And now I have this huge pile of raw materials I can neither use nor sell, yet I'm forced to PvP for Crucible points.
Another unfortunate departure from traditional MMOs is the reliance on voice chat instead of textual messaging. Technologically it makes sense: Destiny is only available on consoles, so the lack of a keyboard makes typing difficult. But women get a lot of shit for being gamers. And both the FPS and MMO communities are especially renowned for their misogynistic behavior. It'd be nice if I could make friends for going on raids and such without opening myself up for that sort of abuse. When I do strikes with a random team, I often end up making by far the most kills. Whenever a teammate falls, I do my best to rush in and revive them. I switch between crowd control, taking out vips, or maximizing dps, depending on what the team needs and where we're falling short. Traits like these are looked up to in (male) players, so I've managed to make a few friends on merit alone; but if people knew I'm I woman, how differently would they interpret these traits? Do I revive teammates because of my "motherly instinct" or because I'm "flirting"? Is my kill ratio "compensating" or because I "have no life"? Do I take on crowd control because I "can't handle" the boss? When I dps the boss instead of doing crowd control am I "focusing on the wrong thing"? When the inevitable death happens, is it "because girls can't play"? Men never have to deal with these accusations, but women are always vulnerable to them if we make our gender known. By relying on voice chat, Destiny makes it difficult for women to form the friendships necessary to make MMOs fun and to tackle the hardest challenges.
A few days ago the first expansion for Destiny came out. At first I was excited since I'd started to get bored by the repetition of the content from the first/main game. But then the patches started coming out. The first patch introduced a bug whereby precision kills no longer register. You still get the bonus damage and death animations, but you no longer get better drops from headshots. Hence, I went from getting almost exclusively blue/rare drops (my precision kill rate is over 60%), to only ever getting green/uncommon drops— which are utterly useless at my level, even for the raw materials you can break them down into. This is the same patch that reversed the Crucible points for raw materials trade; thus, since I will never get a legendary drop again, and I cannot sell raw materials to gain Crucible points, the only way to get legendary equipment is to grind away in PvP. Have I mentioned how I hate PvP?
In addition, with the official release of the first expansion on December 9, they introduced new currencies of Vanguard and Crucible "commendations" in addition to the Vanguard and Crucible "points". The old legendary equipment which only cost points went away, and now there's new (stronger) legendary equipment which costs both points and commendations. In short, buying legendary equipment went from being extremely time consuming (at least a week and a half of grinding per piece, since there's a cap on how many points you can earn per week) to being effectively impossible. I get that MMOs are all about grinding, but there's a big difference between making slow progress and making zero progress. As things are, I'm permanently stuck at level 27 because the only non-PvP way to improve my level is to go for raid drops— which requires level 28 or higher thanks to the exponential power curve. I might be able to handle the raid if I got an exotic weapon, but that requires beating an epic stage with an effective level requirement of 30 or so. Chicken, meet egg.
So yeah. I'm kinda done with it for now, but it was fun while it lasted. The hours I put into it were well worth the sticker price, but I don't think I'll be getting the expansions for now. Maybe I'll come back in a few years.