Marketing is a complicated thing. If you’re about to release a new product, conventional wisdom might suggest that the more advertising spend you throw at it, the more anticipation you build, and the more successful the product will become.
But the reality is more complicated than that - you have to hype up whatever it is you’re selling enough to get people interested, but without overselling it, lest the final product not live up to expectations. Good marketing isn’t just about money, it’s about striking the perfect balance between braggadocio and authenticity.
As has been a trend lately with videogames, Activison went with the more-is-more approach with Destiny - with a large chunk of the game's $500 million budget directed towards advertising. Between live action trailers, a Google Street View-style map of the planets players can visit, and all manner of gameplay trailers, press releases, and previews, it’d have taken a concerted effort to not hear something about the game in the last few weeks.
And fair enough, too. This is a new game from Bungie, the studio who created Halo: Combat Evolved, a game that refined the first-person shooter genre and introduced elements that are now standard, like regenerating health. From the way Activision and Bungie have been talking about it, Destiny was set to bring about a new era of first-person shooters, to change the way we think about the genre.
It’s for this reason that, despite it being a decent enough game, I feel so let down by Destiny. I was expecting something mind-blowing, but what I got was an enjoyable, but generic and unremarkable sci-fi shooter that does little to push boundaries, and stumbles with the few innovations it does attempt.
Destiny is best described as “safe.” In an effort to not rock the boat, the game sticks religiously to the tried and true: if you’ve played a first-person shooter at all in the last 10 years, you’ll find yourself right at home (which is handy, because there’s no tutorial or manual of any description).
Enemies are varied enough, though with a few exceptions, they’re mostly your stock standard FPS fodder that you’ll take on in the stock standard FPS fashion - careful use of cover and well-timed shots to take out snipers, back-peddling and bullet spray to stop rushing melee attackers, and so on. They’re not particularly smart, for the most part, with a tendency to stand around and let you line up headshots in a gentlemanly fashion; though admittedly, this is truer for some than others.
Bosses are impressive from a visual perspective, but are more or less just bigger versions of the regular enemies in terms of mechanics, and they all demand the same approach - find the weak point, shoot it, and avoid the big attacks that are usually clearly telegraphed.
Role-playing elements keep you getting stronger and hanging out for the next level up or piece of loot, but are light enough that you’ll pick it up quickly, even if you’ve never played an RPG before. Earning experience from downed enemies and successful missions helps you level up, and with each level you get a new ability or perk. Growth is strictly linear, which makes the requirement to manually activate each upgrade as though you’re spending skill points an odd and annoying one, though you have a bit of freedom at higher levels when you’re forced to choose which perks from a set of mutually exclusive ones to have active at any given time.
There are no stats to deal with beyond attack power and defence, both of which are governed by gear, and armour, recovery, and agility, which are determined by class selection and currently selected passive abilities. Like the FPS side of things, the RPG elements are strictly by-the-book, doing nothing wrong, but nothing memorable, either.
The safe, careful approach is applied to the plot, too, which basically amounts to “those guys are bad, please shoot their heads off.” It’s the standard good-versus-evil affair that’s been being told for thousands of years, with no surprises or complex character development to muddy the waters; functional, but forgettable.
It’s not helped by a particularly sterile brand of world-building. At first, the beautiful, panoramic backgrounds and detailed textures of the worlds you visit will take your breath away, but it doesn’t take long for that veneer to give way to environments that feel like exactly what they are - carefully manufactured maps designed for shooter gameplay, without the slightest hint of any kind of life. Even Venus, a lush, tropical world (and the only one that’s not a dusty, desert wasteland) feels more like diorama in a glass bottle than a living, breathing world.
Sticking to the familiar isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it’s familiar for a reason. Destiny’s mechanics are solid, and the story, while not particularly memorable or engaging, isn’t terrible. But in sticking so close to what we know and have played hundreds of times before, Destiny struggles to set itself apart from a sea of Halo clones.
The point of difference that’s been the core of Bungie’s message since Destiny was announced is its “connectedness”. This is a game where you’re not the big damn hero, saving the world all by your lonesome (even though the plot involves exactly that), but one of many heroes, part of a thriving community. To that end, Destiny delivers a persistent, online world and a multiplayer experience that we were told be revolutionary.
Revolutionary? It’s anything but. Destiny is often described as a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, one in which hundreds or thousands of players all co-exist in the same space - not necessarily playing together, but interacting with one another, and being part of something bigger. Destiny is more of an MMO-lite, it has the persistent world and occasional run-ins with other players, but with three basic actions (wave, point, and dance) as your only means of communication, the social aspect is all but null and void.
However, you still get all the problems that come with an always-online game: a requirement to have a stable internet connection in order to play, a dependency on the game’s servers to be running smoothly, and an inability to pause the game. We put up with these in multiplayer games because they’re part and parcel of a functional online infrastructure, but the core of Destiny’s main campaign is more of an “online singleplayer” game.
At best, the always-online element adds nothing to the game, while not getting in your way too much either; at worst, you have random encounters with players named SmellyUndiesLUL destroying any sense of immersion, and an inability to pause when nature suddenly calls during a big boss fight.
There are, of course, more traditional multiplayer modes as well, both co-op and competitive. On the competitive side of things, you have the Crucible, which continues Destiny’s trend of playing it safe and sticking to the formula. There’s a limited, but diverse array of game modes which will be immediately recognisable to fans of the genre, and a decent selection of passable, but not particularly noteworthy maps on which to fight. Sadly, anyone wanting to play through a variety of game modes in one session without having to back out to matchmaking every time is out of luck, as there are no playlists of any sort for the Crucible.
For those concerned about the RPG elements, fear not. Gear is normalised in competitive multiplayer, so everyone is more or less on even footing. The only exception to this is to do with abilities gained through levelling up; you only have access to whatever skills you’ve unlocked, so if you go into the Crucible at a low level, you’re going to be hindered to some extent by a lack of mobility options and stat-boosting perks unlocked at a later stage.
For co-op, you have Strikes, Destiny’s answer to dungeons in MMORPGs, and the single worst thing about the game. Strikes are horrendous. They’re glorified horde modes, sending you and two others to one of the same locations you visited in the singleplayer campaign and pitting you against wave after wave of the same enemies before a big, ugly boss.
The problem is that, despite being a co-op mode, they demand no cooperation or teamwork beyond reviving allies who have fallen; regular enemies either rush you or stand back taking potshots, while every boss is functionally identical and requires the same strategy - find and shoot the weak point while avoiding the big attacks. There’s nothing whatsoever to encourage, or force any kind of teamwork, to the point that Strikes just feel like three people playing a singleplayer game, albeit on the same map and against the same foes.
To make matters worse, they’re unreasonably, frustratingly difficult. And not from any kind of complexity that can be overcome by strategy, but from sheer weight of numbers. If you attempt a Strike at its recommended level, you can expect to be overrun by more enemies than you can feasibly handle, giving you little to no time to focus on attacking the boss. When you do actually catch a break and hit the big baddie, you’ll find that they have a ridiculous pool of health - to the point that taking down a boss will take anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour, depending on how over-levelled you are. And, if you should be unlucky enough to get wiped out, you have to start the whole thing again, from scratch.
The real kick in the teeth is that once you get to the level cap of 20, farming strikes to get tokens for better gear is basically what the game is reduced to. Bungie is promising big things with Raids, six-player dungeons that can only be attempted by a pre-formed group of friends, that are said to require high levels of coordination. The first Raid won’t be in the game until September 16, though, so for now - and for anyone who isn’t able to find five friends with matching schedules to form a raid group - Destiny’s endgame amounts to repeating the game’s most tedious, boring, and terribly designed element ad nauseum. And honestly, given what I’ve seen with Strikes, I don’t have much hope for Raids either.
Destiny isn’t a bad game, by any means. If you like sci-fi shooters, you’ll get a good 20 hours of enjoyment out of this. But that’s really all it is; a fun, forgettable shooter that plays it safe and sticks to what’s been proven, with nothing to really set it apart from its peers. But maybe that’s for the best, because Destiny’s one area of attempted innovation - its hyped up social elements, persistent world, and multiplayer gameplay, are its biggest failing.
Update: The $500 million figure was the overall budget for Destiny - both production and marketing - not just marketing, as initially suggested by the review.