Despite Bungie’s long history of game development, which includes the Mac classic Marathon, the studio will forever be associated with Halo, the franchise that launched the original Xbox into the stratosphere, and spun off to become a juggernaut unto itself. So it’s hard to write about them without feeling the need to reference Master Chief every few paragraphs.
However, it has been nearly three years since Bungie and Activision announced that they had signed a ten-year contract to develop and publish games together, while Microsoft handed the reins to 343 Industries for anything Halo-related. Today, Bungie has peeled back the tarp covering their brand-new game Destiny, and after several leaks last year, has now given us one of the first official looks at the game.
Like the Halo franchise, Destiny is a game that is set far in mankind’s future, although much further along than that series ever went. From the game’s fact sheet:
In Destiny you create your own legend as you and your friends venture out into the solar system to reclaim the treasures and secrets lost after the collapse of humanity’s Golden Age. Over the course of your adventures you become more powerful, able to wield rare and exotic weapons, gear, and powers.
In Destiny you are a Guardian of the last city on Earth, able to wield incredible power. Explore the ancient ruins of our solar system, from the red dunes of Mars to the lush jungles of Venus. Defeat Earth’s enemies. Discover all that we have lost. Become legend.
That’s the boilerplate for the story, which was further related to us as the aftermath of a large-scale war against mankind. Just when we were pushed to the edge of annihilation, a mysterious savior known as the Traveler managed to keep doom at bay. The Traveler’s ship, an enormous sphere, now hangs low in Earth-orbit like a second moon, and mankind has built their last safe city beneath it. Humans are slowly beginning to return to other parts of the planet, but they are not alone. Strange alien creatures teem throughout mankind’s old haunts, and they continually probe the city, trying to find a weakness in order to wipe them out once and for all.
Keeping that from happening is where you step in. Throughout Destiny, you play as a Guardian, one of the sentinels who keep watch over the city and are able to wield some of the Traveler’s technology and power, which story lead Joseph Staten likened to magic. On using one of the Warlock’s abilities: “It’s like hitting someone in the face with a piece of the sun.” Which admittedly sounds dramatic, although we didn’t actually witness any of this just yet. Guardians will break down into different classes, three of which were revealed to us: Titan, Hunter and Warlock.
Players will determine their own look and feel, with multiple levels of customization and gear available to them. They will also have their own space located in the Guardian home, a Tower in the Last City, which is fairly sizable. Each Guardian will have their own ship that they can use to travel around the Solar System in, and while we weren’t shown any actual space combat, remember that Bungie itself ventured down that path in Halo: Reach with some outer space combat sequences. We did see some concept art that featured a new ship that a fellow Guardian (and player) had purchased. Staten’s story described it to us as a, “Black, sleek Scout class, straight out of the Dead Orbit foundries.” And it didn’t look anything like a simple transport.
This underscores the fact that the game doesn’t just take place on Earth. You’ll use these ships to visit other planets and locations, such as the Dust Palace on Mars, derelict fleets floating in the rings of Saturn, the Shattered Coast of Venus, the Ocean of Storms on the Moon complete with an area called the Hellmouth and more. They have apparently culled all of the science fiction book covers from the past four decades, turning many of them into concepts you’ll encounter in the game: time-traveling robots, space zombies, spider pirates, mile-long tomb ships and so on. Art director Christopher Barrett calls this “Mythic science fiction,” and goes on to explain that Destiny has more concept art than “all of our previous games put together.” So, expect a table-crushing art book to come out sometime in the future.
For the most part, Destiny is a first-person shooter game, and will use the core mechanics that have been honed by Bungie over many years. While the power abilities were not shown off to us, it seems like they will work similar to other FPS games where you get amped abilities: BioShock, Borderlands and even Bungie’s own Halo 3, which added single-use equipment, and later incorporated those into armor abilities in Halo: Reach. Like Borderlands, Destiny will contain “lots of guns,” according to Barrett. He mentioned pistols, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, shotguns and more, with names like Thorn, Pocket Infinity, Super-Good Advice and The Fate of All Fools.
Staten told us part of the story from his character that has been playing out during his time in the game. He’s been playing as a Warlock, and frequently goes out on adventures with his buddy Jason, who plays a Titan. He starts out in the Overwatch District, a social area where other Guardians gamble for better gear or gaze out over the Twilight Gap, in search of his partner, where he sees that new ship mentioned above, earned by scoring big in competitive multiplayer. Staten’s own ship is more utilitarian, but he has been getting gear by going after every bounty he can get from The Queen of the Reef. Together, he and Jason head to Mars, and the bones of an ancient human city now known as the Dust Palace.
Together, they’re searching for a mythical piece of Charlemagne, a piece of tech created by the ancient civilization on Mars. But the problem is that the Cabal, a group of massive aliens, are protecting the area with their “War Rhinos”: enormous, armored brutes. Just when they are about to get overrun, another player using the Hunter class roars up on a speeder biker, jumps in with them and helps turn the tide. Together, they make a fireteam of three, and work their way into the structure. When they reach their destination, each of them gets an exotic weapon, with Staten finding a rare hand cannon that “glows like starlight when I prime its magazine.” Then the Hunter bids them farewell, and fades back into the game. That’s a lot of names and places thrown at us from a world we don’t know at all, but on surface value, it sounds badass.
So that’s the foundation for the game, or at least for the first foray into a series about this new world, which Bungie is referring to as “books,” with each successive game or “book” representing new story arcs. But the gameplay therein is where things really get interesting. Bungie and Activision have made a huge investment in back-end server technology in order to get a key piece of this puzzle right: Destiny is an always-on, persistent sandbox world, filled with other players. You can ignore these other players, or join forces with them, seamlessly slipping in and out of co-op, as there is no traditional single player campaign. That story example above is how the game will play out on a massive basis.
The best way to explain what they are attempting to do is to compare the co-op experience to Journey, the recent award-winning hit from Sony and thatgamestudio. In Journey, you can seamlessly come across other players in the game, and you can choose whether or not you want to work with them, or ignore them. It’s actually beautifully done, and without a pop-up box asking if you want to join them, something you’ll encounter often in a game like World of Warcraft. That Journey model is exactly what Bungie is shooting for: a game experience that won’t contain player lobbies, loading areas, obtrusive on-screen GUI and other game mechanics that can take you out of the moment.
With the ability to choose a class, find tiered loot, outfit your character in a unique fashion, party up and raid, Destiny sounds like an MMO FPS, ground that has already been tread in games like Borderlands (albeit with only four simultaneous players) but it has never before been attempted on a scale like this. In fact, the sheer size of the universe they are building led Bungie to design a new piece of technology, which they call GROGNOK THE WORLD CREATOR, in order to build large spaces more quickly. Technical art director Ryan Ellis calls it a “nexus of art and world design,” and a brief demonstration showed it in use through the sped-up creation of an entire base on the Moon, complete with real-time lighting that changes over the course of a day.
Despite the MMO traits, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg says that Destiny doesn’t belong to a genre, calling it “the first shared shooter,” and going as far as to explain that Activision has “absolutely no plans to charge a subscription fee for Destiny.” Of course, you’ll still have to pay for the game, and there was no mention of possible in-game purchases. There will undoubtedly be something along those lines in the works as Destiny spreads throughout the gamesphere, because development on this level, and maintaining an active hand in the back-end server architecture, requires a serious outlay of cash. There is also some iPhone integration planned with the game, something that is teased in the video above, which is meant to go beyond checking your stats: something else that will require a lot of money to execute.
Our time at Bungie only amounted to an extremely brief glimpse of this upcoming title, consisting mainly of talking heads and concept art. We only had a very short look at some in-engine gameplay, which just consisted of a bit of walking around. But the graphics and lightning were breathtaking. But it’s one thing to have story tidbits blasted at you, and another thing to experience the game. There’s no denying that it sounds extremely exciting, but we’ve all been promised experiences in games, movies, books and more that didn’t live up to the hype. Only time will tell if this ambitious project will succeed. Do we want it to? Hell yes, we do.
The only naysay we’ll throw in here is that yes, it is reminiscent of Halo. Hirshberg says that this game is ambitious in scope, innovative and creative in approach, elevated in tone, and is the kind of "ass-kicking trek through the universe that only Bungie could create.” Extrapolating from that, you’ll notice the look and feel of Halo that was Bungie’s bread and butter for years has become DNA that has in turn seeped deep into this game. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but on some level it feels like Bungie is thinking “We did that so good, let’s just play it safe and do it all over again.”
With the Traveler’s sphere hanging over the city in Destiny, you think about the massive Halo rings hovering throughout that universe, which also contains an eons-spanning story with the Forerunners, and so on. At the end of the day, both games are science fiction shooters, and while Bungie can explain that they are different as night and day, there is some commonality there. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. Borrowing from your own colossal previous creations means you have a lot to build on, and you know what you’re doing. Still, if Steven Spielberg had only made movies about sharks and aliens the rest of his life, wouldn’t we have tired of his films? Or maybe they would have become more awesome and epic over the years.
So now that we’ve told you what we do know, here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know when it will come out, or what systems it will run on. Last year, Bungie’s contract with Activision was unsealed as part of the ongoing Call of Duty court case between Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella. The Los Angeles Times obtained a copy, which outlined the initial plans for Destiny to launch in 2013 only on the Xbox 360 and the next Xbox (which is expected to be announced later this year), and then appear on other platforms. There’s a plan to release a game every other year, totaling four games and starting in 2013, with expansion packs released every other year starting in 2014.
When asked about this, Hirshberg said that they don’t have any announcements about a date, and suggested that they are waiting for announcements from console manufacturers, namely Sony and Microsoft, about their next-gen systems before confirming what Destiny will be playable on. With Sony poised to announce their next PlayStation on February 20, and Microsoft widely expected to announce the next Xbox, possibly at this year’s E3, there should be more news about this soon. Interestingly, several of the Bungie execs referenced that leaked contract, but no one denied its accuracy. So while it seems doubtful that the game will be released this year, given the small sliver we were shown, it is possible that it could be released as a timed Xbox exclusive at the end of the year, which would certainly help launch a brand-new console.
Destiny project director and Bungie co-founder Jason Jones said, “Destiny is going to be the best shooter you’ve ever played.” We certainly wouldn’t mind if that turned out to be true.