Destiny: the online shooter levels up

Why Bungie’s FPS/MMO hybrid is more than just a Halo-beater

It’s all about the numbers. No, not the reported $500m Activision has invested in Bungie’s sprawling space opera, but that addictive RPG loop of levelling and loot. Marry that constant feeling of self-improvement to some of the tightest shooting mechanics in the business and you have an FPS-MMO hybrid that is – at least if the beta is anything to go by - dangerously compelling.

It’s been described as Halo meets World of Warcraft, and while that’s a reductive analysis, it’s not too far off the mark. Yet there’s more than a hint of Mass Effect in the sci-fi universe Bungie has built, and Borderlands – another shooter that traded in ever-increasing numbers. It might not be able to compete with Gearbox’s game in terms of the quantity of its hardware, but it’s ahead on quality, with each weapon looking and feeling distinctive.

At first, its structure may seem unusual to some, particularly those less versed in the MMO genre. Story missions still have something of the pacing of a Halo level, and while you’ll find other online players joining you during the early stages of a mission, they’ll be phased out as you approach their climactic moments. The gunplay, meanwhile, is extremely familiar. It’s every bit as solid and responsive as Halo, while you’ll quickly find equivalents to just about every type of enemy you encountered as Master Chief. The relatively weak Dregs are Destiny’s Grunts, Vandals are a lot like Jackals, while the fearsome Captains are akin to teleporting Elites. Then there the Hive, a less irritating version of Halo’s Flood. These have a tendency to sprint at you in groups, forcing panicky retreats as you hurriedly switch to your shotgun to clear some room – or a melee kill or two should any of them get too close.

“Explore the Tower hub, and you’ll get to gaze at some of the most gorgeous skyboxes you’ll ever see.”

If it feels right, it looks even better. Destiny’s world is at once futuristic yet thoroughly lived-in: sleek machinery pockmarked by visible wear and tear; future-tech structures scarred by rust and weather damage. There’s very little evidence that this is a cross-gen production. Sure, we’ll see better looking eighth-generation games in the next few years, but already this is shiny, smooth and filled with characterful detail. Take your time to explore the Tower hub, and you’ll get to witness some stunning sights and perhaps the most gorgeous skyboxes you’ll ever see. If you’re fortunate enough to be playing on PS4, you’ll likely wear out your console’s share button as you snap screenshot after screenshot.

Before all that, however, you’ll have to select a class. Titans are powerful frontline soldiers, more heavily armoured than the rest; Hunters are lithe, agile and deadly with a sniper rifle; Warlocks are essentially futuristic mages, with strong recovery abilities. Each class has its own upgrade tree, and you can further specialise as you level up by adopting a new subclass. There are plenty of ways to personalise your avatar, too, with three playable races (Human, the exotic blue/grey-skinned Awoken and the humanoid machines of the Exo) to choose from and myriad colour and design options for each. A brisk tutorial mission sees you brought back to life by the Peter Dinklage-voiced Ghost – a small, floating AI drone – before equipping you with a primary and secondary weapon and asking you to shoot some aliens en route to a ship that is your initial means of transport between missions.

Once you hit Level 4, you can call upon the Sparrow, a nippy little vehicle that allows you to quickly zip between areas of interest.

It’s an efficient introduction that quickly allows you to get to grips with Destiny’s world, before loosening its grip a little to allow you to explore the Tower, a central hub populated by other players. There are stores to buy gear from, and merchants who will trade any materials you’ve picked up for Glimmer, the game’s currency. Once you’re past level five you’ll unlock The Crucible, which hosts the player-versus-player content. As tempting as it is to upgrade quickly and get back into orbit to tackle your next mission, it’s hard not to want to spend a bit longer in such a bustling place. You can interact with other players, saluting them or dancing next to them, or you can simply sit down and take a load off for a few minutes, watching the ships coming in and going out again.

Alternatively, you can accept bounty missions to tackle in Destiny’s open world element. While roaming the world, you’ll see enemies randomly spawn in groups, with other players assisting you in taking them down. You can also activate beacons to prompt additional side quests – most of which involve heading to a marker and taking down the enemies you find there – for additional rewards. Or you can simply climb aboard your hover bike and get to know the world a little better without the risk of being ambushed by a group of enemies.

"Even in beta form, this is an immaculately assembled piece of entertainment."

The undoubted highlight of Explore mode, however, is its timed events. You’ll be pottering around aimlessly and suddenly you’ll hear some ominous music, your Ghost will warn you of incoming trouble, and you’ll witness the arrival of a swarm of foes, usually accompanied by a large vehicle of some kind. Instantly, strangers will congregate in one place, teaming up for a joint assault on these colossal foes, and reviving any of their new comrades who fall in battle. With quick respawns keeping you in the thick of the action, these impromptu set-pieces provide a thrilling jolt of adrenaline.

Bungie’s artists seem to draw from a much broader colour palette than most shooters.

Few games have found quite such an effective way to combine the best of solo and multiplayer gameplay in one seamless package. A few questions remain about PvP balancing, and Bungie will need to provide fresh injections of content to keep its player base happy, but even in beta form, this is an immaculately assembled piece of entertainment, with more polish than many finished games. Destiny is, then, an MMO for people who don’t like MMOs and for people who do: it has the immediacy a good shooter needs, and the long game that its RPG trappings demand. Four years into Activision’s ten-year deal with Bungie, that hefty investment is already looking like a bargain.