Saturday, July 19

Destiny Beta Impressions (PS4): No surprises

Until this past Wednesday morning, I hadn't shown any interest in Destiny. Bungie's much anticipated and more hyped MMO/FPS hybrid looked pretty, but it also looked hollow. I couldn't see any personality hidden behind the armoured Guardians that populated almost every screenshot. Even Master Chief looked to have more going on up top than any of the colourful avatars that were locked in battle with what I now know to be The Fallen, and truth be told, I've no love John-117 or whatever the hell you want to call him. Give me Noble Team or the ODST squad anyday.

The buzz surrounding the beta that runs from 17 July through to 26 July hit fever pitch on Twitter, however, and I'll jump at pretty much any chance to board a speeding Hype Train. Whether it's packed with well-dressed peeps who've nothing to say or teeming with loveable rogues, it makes no difference. HYPE TRAIN A COMIN', BABY! TOOT TOOT!

I wasn't willing to pay for a ticket and thankfully, the Twittersphere was raining beta codes for those looking out for them. A generous follower came through for me and assured that he had all platforms covered; no need to pre-order.

The download took about 12 hours all up and I wasn't really in any condition to start playing last night when it was ready. Thankfully (?), an intense fit of coughing had me up at 4 this morning, so what better time would there be to start an intergalactic adventure?

As I made my Mark Hamill circa 1980 avatar complete with Ultimate Warrior eye makeup, I reflected again on why, until days ago, Destiny hadn't really illicited anything other than a hearty shrug from me since the big reveal towards the end of 2012. I think by conflating MMO with FPS, Borderlands was immediately brought to mind. I don't hate Borderlands or its sequel, but there's a litany of better shooters on the market. Gearbox's series looks fantastic and plays pretty well, but it's paced in such a painstakingly slow manner. Even with a deadeye and an itchy trigger finger, if you see that skull indicator next to your target's health bar, you're not going anywhere (other than into a body bag). I made the assumption that Destiny would conform to the following mathematical formula:

Destiny = (Halo X Borderlands) - humour + pretty graphics

I was right. Well, just to be clear, when I include "humour" in the function above, I think that Gearbox (and, to be fair, a lot of the series' fans) are of the opinion that Claptrap and co. are funny. I'm more of the opinion that the games have a "sense of humour", but rarely approach anything remotely humorous. I guess what I'm trying to say is, Destiny is pretty dry.

Be it your Ghost companion or any number of high and mighty merchants and guild (?) reps, no one is in it for the laffs. That's not a game breaker and that's not to say that every game I play is 100% comedy gold, it's more that I can't imagine investing a significant amount of time in a game, MMO or otherwise, that doesn't connect with me. Humour is one way to pull me in, but a compelling narrative and/or memorable characters work just as well.

Destiny ain't got none of that.

What it does have though is a powerful orchestral soundtrack that creates more atmosphere and feeling than anything else I've seen in my time with the game so far. It speaks to me more directly than the haughty script and does a great job of creating genuine tension when you're exploring some of the darker parts of Earth post galactic expansion (and potentially, apocalypse). Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton looks at it in greater depth, but I reckon this might just be the element that hooks me in to the finished product.

Combat and movement have that distinct Bungie flavour: floaty jumping, competent driving and lots of circle strafing characterise the majority of your time in conflict. If you've played any game in the Halo series, you're going to feel right at home here; moreso if you've had a crack at Borderlands as well. The pace, in terms of character progression, feels similar to Borderlands; although I must say that I hope it doesn't slow down much more in the final version. Well, not until the end game at least. There doesn't appear to be any element of choice in terms of skill trees like there is in Borderlands, other than the ability to switch Sub Classes once you've unlocked them. Abilities are unlocked in a predominantly linear fashion, and it works well enough.

I reached the level cap with my Warlock character and am still yet to sample each of the game/match types available in the beta. Story missions work just as you'd imagine: progress from Point A to Point B, defeat waves of enemies, listen to expository dialogue, repeat. It felt a little disjointed seeing several other players completing the same objective that I was on without directly impacting on my progress. Kills by non-party members still added to my experience point tally, but they couldn't progress me to the next objective and vice versa. It's co-op but not really.

The Explore mission I played didn't seem to end. More sub missions kept popping up to the point where I went from level 6 through to 8 (the current cap) on the same map. Enemies varied in level depending on my location, meaning that a greater challenge was almost always around the corner. Literally. This mission type didn't work particularly well unless a Public Event was on. The time-limited missions turned a listless wander through a wasteland into a multiplayer free-for-all. The most enjoyable event I took part in tasked me and whoever else was around with taking down a Devil Walker (or spider tank). A tense 5 minutes awaits you in that instance, rest-assured.

The Crucible, Destiny's Player versus Player component is also playable in the beta. I've only trialed the Control match type (think Domination from the Call of Duty games), but I'm pleased to say it handles just as it should (read: it's freaking Halo). There didn't appear to be any issues with balance, even with variance in player levels. The only thing I can foresee being tweaked is the use of the Super ability. After completing enough objectives / scoring kills you'll get access to the same "Super Charged" attack you'd use when playing solo. It's ridiculously powerful and it's great fun when you're the one firing, but as someone who lost a pretty impressive kill streak to this one-handed Hadouken, it can feel like a cheap note to end on.

Destiny hasn't provided anything in the way of surprises, but that hasn't turned out to be a bad thing. I'm chomping at the bit for more and have just started up my next character with a new class. It looks beautiful and it handles well, but was there any doubt that Bungie wouldn't deliver on these fronts? What I'm more worried about is the hook. What is it that's going to keep me playing? From my time with the beta trial, I'm guessing it's not going to be the story or the characters. A beautiful score might be enough to get me started, but I doubt it'll have me investing anywhere near as much time in it as a World of Warcraft enthusiast has in Azeroth's varied locales. Maybe there's a few surprises in store. Then again, maybe not.

Friday, July 18

A New Error

(Image source:

People respond to pain in different ways.

Some drink it away. Some lash out, hurting the ones they love or people that only want to help. I retreat. I retreat and surround myself with anything that could possibly illicit feelings of nostalgia. The familiar brings the pain to the surface and usually ends in a few fits of good, hard sobbing. After this I usually feel better, or better enough.

The last few weeks have been pretty bloody painful. After returning from 5 weeks in Europe, the best 5 weeks of my life, I got back to some pretty hard truths. I quarreled with people I love. I lost a lot of sleep. I still don't know if my dad will get better. I feel useless.

Cue video games. Cue games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution that empower you with superhuman abilities whilst also forcing you to reflect on the frailty of our bodies and the notion of what it is to be human.

I hadn't played Human Revolution since I started my second, ultimately futile ghost run (read: finish the game without being seen) on the highest difficulty in the dying days of 2011. I've since traded up to the Director's Cut version and am now playing on the Wii U. Off TV play has allowed for me to steal a few hours before bed and Carly's renewed hunger for real estate reality shows hasn't slowed my progress either.

The striking use of yellow remains my favourite element of the game's visual design. Whether it's the golden highlight of all items that can be interacted with or spaces like The Hive, there's a sleazy warmth to Detroit and Hengsha. The locations need to emanate this lived-in feeling as most of the NPCs look as though they're ill-handled marionettes.

Despite some truly awkward character animation that looks even worse with age, the costume design still holds up. The impossible prismatic design of David Sarif's vest, the beautiful embellishment on the shoulders of Jensen's trench coat, the Victorian necklines of Megan's jacket: there is so much drama in the clothes each character wears.

The gunplay is still woeful, but the loading up with powerful and visually-stunning abilities more than makes up for this shortcoming. There's nothing quite as satisfying as sneaking away from enemy pursuit fully cloaked, or busting through a brick wall and snapping the neck of the poor schmuck on the other side.

Best of all, still, is Elias Toufexis growling voicework. As Adam Jensen, he manages to sound three parts dreamy lead and one part Batman. He is as instantly likeable now as he was back in 2011. For the last few days it's been like hanging out with an old, heavily-augmented friend. I don't feel great right now, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution has provided that little pang of nostalgia that I needed to start feeling better.