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Bungie showed off gameplay for its long-awaited Destiny at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this week. We had a close look at the title, and this is our first impression. Destiny is a huge bet for Bungie, which moved off its best-selling Halo video game franchise, and for its publisher Activision Publishing, a division of Activision Blizzard. And 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.

So far, we’re not nearly as wowed as we wanted to be. While so many things about the game are impressive, from the graphics to the depth of customization to the unique multiplayer gameplay — we were left wanting more. During the first-hands on gameplay demo at Sony’s pre-E3 press conference, Bungie co-founders Joe Staten and Jason Jones walked out on stage to demo the title in a two-player cooperative session.

On the big-event screen and on the smaller screens where we saw it, the graphics are breathtaking. The demo opened with a view of a huge valley on Earth, where an alien attack has savaged the world, leaving it with a small number of heroes, known as Guardians, defending the last safe city from alien attack. The art work was impressive and first-rate, considering that Destiny is a massively multiplayer online release, which will have hundreds of hours of gameplay and many such environments. I can see why Bungie has 400 people working on the title.

Destiny will contain a shared, persistent online world, set in our solar system. Bungie has announced four playable races so far. The passage of time has made Earth strange, and nothing looks like it does in the present day.  The canyon in front of the players was full of awesome lighting and shadows. Weeds and bushes swayed in a gentle breeze. The trees feature graphic-rendering techniques like tessellation, so the details come to life. The surroundings are alive with audio effects. You can hear the footfalls. Shadows cast in real time, and that makes the world feel alive. The water looks realistic with accurate reflections and ripples. The landscape views are truly epic in scope, with big views of giant buildings and vistas.

The action

When the developers got to the action during the Sony press event, the Bungie co-founders bantered as they showed off Destiny’s features. They went on a mission together into a dark underground space. Staten was chattering a lot, and I couldn’t tell if that was actually the characters in the game talking. In fact, it might have been nice if it was. The lighting in the dungeon-like space was spectacular.

“I’m going to meet some friends, and we’re going to shoot some aliens in the face,” Staten said. “Because shooting aliens is relaxing.”

But the two characters were strangely silent as they went through the world in a section called Old Russia. One character was a male Warlock, while another was a female Hunter. The game will let you customize your character through your clothing, armor, and weapons. One gun was a level 200 weapon, suggesting a huge tech ladder for leveling up your arsenal. Some of the upgrades will completely change the way a weapon feels. That’s how players will express their personalities and abilities in the world over time.

A ghost, or an artificial intelligence character, spoke up and said, “We always visit such cheerful spaces.” That character is a lot like Cortana, the A.I. who always banters with Master Chief in the Halo series.

One of the characters dispatched enemies in a casual manner with a powerful “hand cannon.” It seemed like a very large six-shooter, and it could take hostiles out with a couple of shots. Rockets and machine guns also took part in the action.

Destiny 2

The players received a notification that they were entering a “public space” where other human players could join them. They arrived at an arena-like area surrounded by large industrial buildings.

A huge spacecraft, controlled by the Fallen race, came into view and dispatched multiple smaller spaceships known as drop ships. One of them arrived and unloaded a big armored tank known as a Devil Walker. The six-legged vehicle moved into battle alongside infantry. The Guardians then went into action, shifting from two-player cooperative mode into full-scale multiplayer combat in a seamless way. No loading screens or interface menus appeared. The battle just began. The Guardians began firing mercilessly. The controls allow players to fire infantry weapons, shoulder rockets, and much more powerful blasts with some kind of cool purple energy (the blast fires when you hit the PlayStation 4 controller’s left bumper and right bumper at the same time). The players had to use the power blasts to take out the spider tank’s legs. And once they did so, the upper chassis of the tank popped open, opening it up to a blast attack. In time, the Guardians took out the hulking vehicle in this way.

The players share in loot equally, and don’t have to rush to get it. As the battle ended, the game returned to cooperative mode.

The battle lasted a short time. It was like a classic boss encounter in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and it reminded me of the shooter Defiance. Only the graphics were far better in this post-apocalyptic title, and the fundamental shooting gameplay was more fun.

“Public space is where players converge,” said Pete Parsons, chief operating officer at Bungie, in an interview with GamesBeat. “No matter what their activity, they converge from all across the game. Some players might be moving through their more narrative-driven story-like experiences. Some might be going off to raids. Some might be going off to more familiar multiplayer-type activities. But all of them have this crossroads.”

The Guardians will have several classes, including Warlock (with some magic that comes from a moon-sized sphere that guards the last city), Hunter (stealth or sniper), Titan (heavily armored) and possibly others. Some of the enemies wear colorful red capes, looking like medieval knights or Roman legionaries armed with high-tech weapons. Some enemies look more like giant mechs. The Earthlings can hide behind the walls of the city or fight back against the enemies.

But can it be more fun than this?

This isn’t really what I wanted from Bungie’s first demo. I had hoped to see more of the story-based gameplay sequences since that is what was special about Halo. Halo wasn’t just a first-person shooter frag fest. It was a narrated experience, and the interaction of Cortana and Master Chief, the super soldier, made it fun. In this case, no single super soldier exists. Every player is a hero.

The framerate worked fine on a small screen, but it stuttered once on the big screen at Sony’s event. Bungie officials said the slowdown at the event was an aberration. Otherwise, they say the experience has been running just fine.

If this were just any game, I would say that the demo was impressive enough. But this is Bungie, and I expect it to wow me. I wanted to see more story. We hear that Destiny’s plot is similar to a series of interconnected novels with self-contained stories over the course of a decade.

What Bungie showed was a casual gathering among players who came together for five minutes, took out an enemy, and went their separate ways. The battle was too easy, given how powerful the players were when operating as a unit against non-player characters.

As it was, I was more impressed with the gameplay of Titanfall, a first-person sci-fi shooter from Respawn Entertainment. If Bungie publishes this MMO and it expects players to stick with it for a long time to come, it has to offer something better than its rivals.

This is one of the tough things about operating an MMO. The technology will eventually start lagging behind single-player games. And when that happens, the MMO has to have its hooks in its players, or it will lose them. I don’t see the hooks yet for Destiny. They might be there, but Bungie has to show them.

The company has plenty of time. The game debuts on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2014.

Destiny 3

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