Along with millions of people around the globe, I played Destiny at its launch around a year ago. I was looking forward to an enjoyable time shooting monsters, which seemed like a fair expectation from Bungie, the creators of Halo. After a month of endless repetition, an overcomplicated leveling system and practically non-existent storytelling, I called it quits and moved on to better things like Alien: Isolation and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. However, Destiny has had a remarkable amount of staying power, building a community obsessed with what they promise is enthralling lore and the loot hunt at the heart of the game. It’s a game that, despite a lukewarm critical reception, has been hard to escape, garnering at least a headline or essay on most major gaming sites every week since release.
I decided to give Destiny another shot last month, with only a few weeks left to go until The Taken King, a hotly anticipated expansion pack that came out today. One of my goals was to finish leveling my main character from last year. When Destiny 2.0, a massive 17 gigabyte update filled with user interface tweaks and a bevy of other enhancements, hit this past week I rolled a new character and replayed the game from the very beginning to see if these changes had a significant impact on the experience I initially had last year. What I discovered is pretty much I what I expected to find: Destiny is still Destiny, and that’s a bummer. It looks prettier and the convoluted leveling and quest systems that have frustrated players for so long now have been streamlined, but there’s no getting around the fact that the fundamental design elements of the game, taken from first-person shooters and massive-multiplayer online RPGs (MMOs), mix together about as well as oil and water.
From the very beginning of the game so many of its own elements clash. It gives you one of the greatest, most beautiful character creators the world has ever seen and then requires you to wear a helmet 90% of the time. The game’s structure essentially forces you to either replay quests constantly or play PVP multiplayer matches ad nauseam in order to level and get new gear. I can’t even call Destiny a content factory like most of the MMOs I’ve played because there isn’t that much to do to begin with since the story (sans expansions) might take you five hours to complete. To make matters worse, the game locks you out of a good portion of its activities if you don’t have a number of reliable people to play with. Raids and certain special scenarios require multiple players to have a chance at beating them, but there’s no matchmaking for them even though there’s matchmaking for Strikes—scenarios where you team up with other players to kill a boss—and PVP, essentially demanding that you get with a group of other players and pencil in a couple of hours on your schedules in which the three or more of you can get access to the best parts of the game. It’s bullshit and it’s bullshit they should have fixed last year. But no, replacing Peter Dinklage’s odd yet endearing voicework with Nolan North (because he wasn’t in enough videogames already, I guess?) ranked a higher priority than making the best bits of the game more accessible for a larger audience, which actually says everything you need to know about Destiny’s update. It attempts to improve the game in the smallest ways possible but in doing so shines a light on its biggest flaws, issues that won’t go away with a simple facelift for the user interface.
Those vast worlds on the map screen, shining with the promise of rich stories for you to experience, are instead small, dull labyrinths of arenas and tunnels to traverse and kill monsters in over and over and over again. Destiny’s crime isn’t that it’s repetitive—by god, the vast majority of shooters are built upon repetition—but instead that it fails to make that repetition enjoyable or worthwhile. Every shotgun feels like the same gun regardless of its own power and rarity rating, and the same is true for the vast majority of weapon classes in the game. As you level up, you don’t meet tougher monsters, just the same handful of beasties leveled up as well for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Why do you have to kill the same giant, bullet spongy bosses repeatedly to unlock new loot? Because its MMO design requires it. There’s no plot justification for the Big Bads you’ve killed continuing to exist. Outside of loot collection, nothing you do feels of significance because the game makes your actions meaningless. You’re not helping to make a dent in this universe. You’re not progressing through a decent story (not even if you’re willing to abide by Bungie’s absurd design and go online to read the shreds of lore of they’ve thrown up on there). Destiny is Sisyphus’ hell perfectly adapted as a videogame. Dull, torturous, but with a constant nagging—something in the back of your mind telling you that there has to be something over that hill, right? There just has to be. You’ve been doing this for so long there; you wouldn’t be doing this otherwise.
But there isn’t. There’s nothing. In spite of the game’s posturing as a rich journey through our solar system, in spite of the numerous attempts by Bungie and fans to make the game out to be a mysterious and layered experience, it’s nothing more than a grind without end, a beautiful looking but ultimately unsatisfying distraction. The Taken King arrives today and is supposed to address a number of concerns, namely actually having an integrated story, but I remain skeptical that Destiny’s problems can be fixed with anything other than an actual massive overhaul, one that adds a load of stuff to do and variety to a game constantly trying to distract you from just how hollow it is.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.