Destiny is receiving billing as one of biggest new titles of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game tradeshow this week. After years of hype, this sci-fi shooter is finally playable in its alpha-testing form. That could mean that the game is on track for its Sept. 9 release.
Activision believes that Bungie‘s new game is destined to be its next billion-dollar franchise. Chief exec Bobby Kotick said so in a recent call with analysts. Soon enough, gamers will be able to decide that for themselves. In the meantime, the few of us who have played it will have to decide whether the experience is truly unique. I got a good look at it over the past few days. It looks beautiful, and it plays well, but it isn’t quite as fun as some other shooter games on the market.
I would definitely agree that Destiny is in a category by itself. That’s important. Because for Destiny to work, it has to carve out a new niche in a well-worn first-person shooter genre. Call of Duty fans get their new game every year. You have to give them a reason if you want to pry them away to a new experience. Destiny is like a massively multiplayer online game universe, but it’s also one where you can get a narrated experience that you share with a couple of other players who are part of your “fire team.” The missions you go on can be endless and different every time.
Clearly, there’s a lot at stake with Destiny. Bungie, the studio who birthed the Halo franchise, has more than 500 people working on the game. That’s a lot more than your typical next-generation development team.
Activision Blizzard has been making bets on making only blockbuster games. It narrows its best to just a few games and makes sure that that these have enough marketing and development support to succeed. The key to success is picking the right teams and game concepts to get behind.
Activision has Call of Duty and Skylanders, while Blizzard has World of Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft (it’s too early to call Hearthstone, its new digital card game, a blockbuster). But Destiny represents a chance to create a new blockbuster franchise, as Bungie has committed to make Destiny games over 10 years. And over that decade, Kotick said that Activision would spend an estimated $500 million on marketing, development, and other costs. Meanwhile, Sony has made a big commitment to Destiny by signing a long-term partnership deal with Bungie and Activision to get some exclusive content for the multiplayer-centric first-person shooter. It’s not just Kotick who has a stake in this.
Kotick has said that preorders for Destiny show that it could be one of the biggest launches of all time. Kotick already has a few of those under his belt, so he’s not just blowing smoke. You can bet that a lot of gamers will agree, as some may buy anything with Bungie’s name on it. But there are also going to be who wonder what the big deal is. After all, a lot of sci-fi shooters are out on the market, including Bungie’s own Halo series, which has sold more than 50 million units is still being under development by Microsoft’s internal studio, 343 Industries.
Destiny’s combat will be familiar to fans of Halo. You get a nice choice of weapons like a shotgun or an assault rifle. You can toss a grenade with the left trigger and switch weapons with a button push. The shotgun works well on a pack of enemies that come charging at you, and the assault rifle is good for most other enemies. The enemies’ artificial intelligence was a bit predictable. The aliens would move out of the way if you put the cross-hairs on them. But they didn’t try hard to outmaneuver or surround me. I’ve seen better A.I. in other games.
I started the alpha test at level 4 and moved up a couple of notches after shooting a bunch of the bad guys, The Fallen, who have obliterated most life on Earth except for one haven. The graphics look pretty on the PS4. You can view the landscape for miles without finding a flaw in the imagery. The lighting and shadows are realistic. The desert-like landscape looked more like Mars than Earth. It has realistic effects like pools of water and deteriorated buildings. It has lots of brown, orange, and yellow, and dust. When you go into an unlit building, the dark corners are scary.
My solitary play on the PlayStation 4 shows that Destiny isn’t that much fun when you play it like a rogue single player. I ran into bosses, like a Wizard, that were really too hard to beat on my own. I went back to the Tower, the social hub of the game, to check whether I could buy a better gun. I wasn’t yet advanced enough to be able to buy a better weapon, but I saw a long list of things that I wanted to earn. The great thing is that you can pretty much go where you want to go in a kind of limited open world. It’s not a full open world, as you move from predefined sections with their own stories to other sections on the map.
Since playing as a lone wolf doesn’t work, you have to abide by Bungie’s suggestions and get into a “fire team,” or a small group of players who can move into a mission together. Once you attack the boss characters from multiple sides, you can take them down and feel invincible. That gives Destiny the flavor of an MMO, like World of Warcraft, where players go on raids together. The game sessions can be relatively short, and they’re triggered when the players enter an area of the map together. The only problem is that some players won’t go where you want them to go. So it may be best for you to play the game with a friend, rather than a stranger.
You can go on dedicated missions with your friends, but you can also just wander into public spaces, where you can battle boss characters or defend an attack by a swarm of minions. Last year, Bungie showed a demo at E3 where a bunch of Guardians took out a powerful spider tank. By itself, it was easily defeated. Everyone shared in the loot equally. And the game seamlessly returned to an ordinary cooperative mode.
From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t compare it to Call of Duty. The alpha gameplay runs at about 30 frames per second, if I had to guess. That seemed too slow to me. I’d prefer that it match the fast action of a Call of Duty game. It was definitely a lot slower than Titanfall on the Xbox One, which was the most recent shooter blockbuster.
So the question is whether Destiny can still sell a billion dollars worth based on the hype and the fans who aren’t as picky and really just want a new story or a new kind of experience. I’m a little worried that the gameplay isn’t yet best-in-class compared to either Halo or Call of Duty. But I’ll acknowledge that I haven’t seen much of the game at all. So I’ll keep an open mind. We’ll see how gamers respond to the demos this week at E3. If they’re really happy with it, then Activision has nothing to worry about.
I’m still waiting to see a really spectacular reason why Destiny is going to succeed. I hope that will happen, for Activision’s sake.