The Problems With Destiny's Multiplayer

Games Features Destiny
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Destiny has received mixed reviews for a number of reasons: a forced story, repetitive action, and a plenitude of other, often-contradictory, statements. Rather than spending the last week playing through the story (I’ve only made it halfway through), I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time in the player versus player (PVP) arena, The Crucible.

The Crucible is made up of several different game modes. There’s Clash, a game mode where two teams of six compete against one another to rack up the most amount of kills the fastest. There’s Control, where those two teams fight to control three points on a map. Rumble is a free-for-all where everyone is trying to kill everyone else as fast as possible. Skirmish takes team combat down to two teams of three attempting to tactically eliminate each other. All of these are bog-standard, no-risk game modes. Salvage is the only outlier, being a map with rotating zones that teams fight over in a combination of Control and Skirmish, but its outlier status only comes from when it is playable. It only appears on the weekends.

Destiny’s PVP is strange in contemporary multiplayer shooters because of how safe it plays it. Each iteration of Call of Duty ships with several strange objective-based modes. They fall in and out of each game, but the experimentation is a guaranteed part of those games.

The very construction of The Crucible lacks any kind of experimentation. You queue up for the playlist and you play the same game modes that have existed in every shooter since 2005. This is, I assume, in the interest of creating an incredibly specialized and enclosed player versus player ecology. The game modes themselves are extremely predictable, which allows for a swerve to come in the form of the classes, subclasses and unique weapons.

Destiny’s three classes are the Warlock, the Hunter and the Titan. Respectively, they are Squishy McShooty, Cutterling Knifethrow and Punch Jumpfist. What I mean by that is that the Warlock excels at range, the Hunter excels at guerilla in-and-out combat, and the Titan is your tank that rushes in and gets things done. Their subclasses allow them to dive even further into those niches, taking them further away from general capability and driving them deeper into territory that requires the player to wait for very specific conditions. For example, I play as a Hunter, and one subclass that I could specialize in is the Blade Dancer. This subclass is fast, but lacks the resilience of the standard Hunter build. However, when the Blade Dancer uses her special move, she becomes a melee genius, hacking through enemy after enemy during the time that the ability is active.

Predictability, however, still reigns supreme within these different classes and subclasses. There are only six sub/classes that you can compete against. That means that if you can identify the class you’re fighting against, you can figure out what abilities they might unleash on you (however, it is worth mentioning that Destiny’s homogenous visual style doesn’t lend to easy class parsing at the outset).

For the most part, combat plays out in the same way that it did in Bungie’s previous franchise, the Halo series. Jumping is a little floaty. You can stealth around the map by crouching. A close-range shotgun will destroy any enemy who gets too close. You carry two weapons at once. The only interesting thing about this, or the only thing that actually differentiates this from the basic skeleton of that former franchise, is the introduction of single-player weapons into the PVP environment.

In past iterations of the Halo style of multiplayer, everyone was using the same weapons to achieve the same goals. In Destiny, there are a finite number of weapon types with an incredibly large set of traits that they can possess. For example, everyone on your team might have a shotgun, a Special Weapon with its own ammo type distinct from a player’s Primary Weapon. However, Player A might have a shotgun that excels at medium range. Player B’s shotgun might be specialized for less recoil. Player C’s is decked out for fast reload and high attack power. This phenomenon continues on down the line for all players and all of their weapons.

What this means in actual play is that you have very little information about what an enemy player is doing at any given time. It becomes difficult to avoid “the shotgun player” or “the sniper” when each player has the opportunity to expand their play style in a way that makes it competitive with all other play styles. Historically, if you could figure out how to make the default sniper rifle work for you, then you could excel with that weapon, ending up on the high, thin edge of the bell curve. Destiny’s customization means that me, a person who is awful with the standard sniper rifle, can shorten the scope zoom, reduce the recoil, and increase the reload speed. This means that I end up feeling really cool as a player, but my ability to deal with other players and their play styles becomes severely limited, and I end up playing reactively more than proactively. I spend as much time trying to figure out which enemy has which weapon as I do actively pursuing objectives. It weighs on me.

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Playing reactively can be incredibly fun as long as you have the opportunity to react. An enemy with a fusion rifle (which has a charge time) might be attacking me from around a column. There’s no way that I can win that firefight with a semi-automatic scout rifle because the fusion rifle’s shot is always going to do more damage faster to me than my rifle can. I can dash around the opposite side, switch to a shotgun, and hop over his laser beam. It feels amazing.

However, it doesn’t work out that way more than half the time, and the reason for that is the Super Ability. Super Abilities are devastating attacks that automatically kill other players as soon as they are hit by it. The default classes, and the ones that I have seen the most often, are both incredibly effective and incredibly easy to use. The Warlock shoots a purple ball that explodes into an area attack on impact. The Titan performs a ground pound that kills everyone in a small area. The Hunter has a “golden gun” with three bullets, which means that you can shoot and kill up to three targets.

These are controlled by a special attack meter that slowly charges and can be boosted by pickups, kills, assists and generally most of the actions that can be performed in The Crucible. When I dash around that column to attack the fusion rifle player, there’s a good chance that I can get hit with an automatic death since there is so little reaction time available to a player, even if they know that the Super Ability is coming.

This is a fundamental problem in the structure of a multiplayer map. The design of everything about The Crucible depends on reactive play, but the Super Ability system gives every player a set of abilities that are incredibly difficult to react to. The best that you can try to do is run away, but in the case of the Warlock especially, running away is very difficult.

Every PVP match becomes a game of waiting to get your Super Ability. With smart usage of those abilities, one single player can clear out a point in Control or kill half the enemy team in Clash. The Super Ability, in the hands of a capable player, becomes a rubber band that pulls a team from behind (or solidifies a victory) in a very cheap feeling way.

The problem of Super Abilities is compounded by the relatively silent nature of The Crucible. From what I have seen while playing, there is no “public chat.” A positive of that is that people aren’t screaming racial slurs at one another constantly. A negative is that there is very little public coordination of Super Abilities, choices in weapon customization, subclass options, or even load-out decisions. More than once I have spent a Super Ability just in time to see a Titan ground pound the group of enemies I was about to shoot. Covered in a gold hue, I wander around and shoot nothing while waiting for my enemies to respawn.

I think that the tension between rewarding, reactive play and hard limits to that reactive play is less of a problem with The Crucible uniquely and more a ploblem with Destiny’s confusing design choices, the same choices that have been remarked on in dozens of reviews. It feels very difficult to diagnose where the Super Ability came from, but understanding that is key to figuring out exactly why it does or does not work in The Crucible from a design perspective. If Bungie followed their “multiplayer design first” method that they deployed in the Halo franchise, then the problems don’t make much sense. On the other hand, if Super Abilities were implemented as a single player solution to help solve difficult boss encounters and control large groups of enemies, then their necessary inclusion (and imbalanced implementation) in The Crucible begins to make sense.

Overall, I enjoy my time in The Crucible, but I can’t marathon a couple hours of matches like I do in the Call of Duty games. Frustration begins to build. Warlocks bomb me from space. I get shotgunned and melee’d like the old days. It all starts feeling too familiar and yet not very fun. I always quit a couple matches in.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.

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