Two Thursdays ago, we felt invincible.
Our 6-man fireteam blitzed through the Vault of Glass in an hour, successfully enacting the strategies honed over the last few weeks. Everyone knew their role and position in every challenge. More than that, we knew to stick together. We worked as one unit: spotting Oracles and broadcasting their location, looking after players blinded by status effects, and synchronising our attacks to take the bosses down as smoothly as possible.
It was frantic yet controlled; challenging without being overwhelming. It was some of the most fun on Xbox Live I’ve ever had, and a reminder of why I took the leap into multiplayer games.
Judging Destiny based on nights like that, it would be one of my favourite games of all time. It encompasses so many things I love in gaming; true co-operation and teamwork; challenging but just-about-achievable goals; customisable skills and weapons, and a great multiplayer mode all combine to make a compellingly playable and engaging experience.
However, Destiny also contains elements of gaming that I’m a lot less fond of. While some are just personal preference (for example, I’m not very experienced with massively open-world games, so prefer the more linear aspects of Destiny over the more open ones), some are illogical, overly complex at the expense of enjoyment, or immersion-breaking.
Destiny terms itself a “shared-world shooter”, a hybrid of an FPS and a PC MMORPG. This gives it many MMO-like features, such as random drops for loot and weapons, a reliance on upgrading equipment to gain levels rather than upgrades as a result for gaining levels, and a system of minor quests with multiple factions.
While these are good ideas and implemented well in a mechanical sense, there are some issues with the random aspect: the impenetrable logic of the drop system approaches being an AI itself.
For example, our rewards for the Vault of Glass. One member has nothing but bad luck, raiding five weeks in a row for no rewards, while two others have amazing luck, getting the rarest and strongest available rewards every week without fail.
The drop system, especially in the Vault of Glass, doesn’t feel random: It favours the people who already have the most, imbalancing the people with least.
Next, the events and reputation systems.
These are simple in theory: Do tasks set by a specific person in order to earn reputation with them, and use that earned reputation to unlock and buy their best items.
However, there are so many people to level up with (one vendor for each race, one for multiplayer, one for single-player, as well as different time-limited characters) that keeping track of which are important requires either a photographic memory or an Excel spreadsheet.
Also, for people who don’t play MMO’s, just keeping track of your materials and what they’re needed for could dual-classify Destiny as a resource management game: Farmville with Space Magic (TM), as it were.
Currently, I’m storing :
- 4 different base materials, one from each planet. These are used to upgrade specific pieces of armour.
- Two types of Ascendant (rare) upgrade materials, used for upgrading high-end weapons.
- Crucible Marks and Vanguard Marks, currencies used to buy weapons earned from multiplayer bounties or class-specific bounties respectively.
- Strange Coins and Motes of Light, two even-rarer currencies. These are used to buy one Exotic (highest-class) weapon, which rotates every week, from a vendor who only appears in a rotating location for 48 hours. (Yes, that does sound like a non-gamers parody of Dungeons and Dragons-style arcane rules).
While one of the highlights of Destiny is having fun in the raid, a bad raid night can be a frustrating experience… the pinnacle of this for us was the first time we tried the Vault of Glass. Four hours, three heated discussions and two replaced fireteam members later, we abandoned the Vault and surrendered to Atheon.
That wasn’t a good night, and tempers were short all around. There was no lasting damage, but the knowledge that we had temporarily chosen to sacrifice our alliance for performance was a sobering thought. Most of the raid nights since then have been much smoother, averaging an hour and a half. While the experience of those nights is better, the rewards often aren’t.
Its disappointing- potentially engagement-breaking- to realise you’ve spent the last few hours taking part in the most challenging thing in the world of Destiny, only to be rewarded armour dye and a gun you already got last week.
Its even worse if the team member stood next to you is given an Exotic weapon or raid-exclusive equipment. In those situations its easy to forget that loot is powered by an RNG. In the moment, it seems like a zero-sum game, that you didn’t get the best equipment because they did.
That mechanic embeds one of the unhealthiest elements of competitive play into what was otherwise the most strongly co-operative parts of any game. And Destiny is slightly worse for that.
The complaints I have here aren’t all of why I’m ambivalent about Destiny. Some of them even apply to Mass Effect 3, one of my favourite games of all-time. The main reason why I’m not enamoured with Destiny is more abstract than these specific complaints.
I simply don’t trust it.
Yes, I play it quite a bit; I think its clever and well-designed, and I enjoy some elements of it a lot.
But for some reason I struggle to see it as a genuine game; it stays as a collection of mechanics and psychological tactics wrapped in a cliched plot. Maybe being a psychology graduate means I have more experience in knowing what to look for, but to me the design choices in Destiny are so transparently marketing-based and psychologically engineered that without the social fabric of the raid tying us together it falls apart.
It’s a strange kind of dissonance, to spend so much time playing a game I logically have no reason to play…