This is part one of four parts to my analysis of Bungie’s Destiny.
I’ll also have a Part 2: covering player characters, story, weapons, and whether i’d buy it or not; Part 3: I spend my entire blogpost discussing how things have been named in Destiny; and Part 4: where I predict the future of Destiny’s story based on evidence that Destiny is a symbolic retelling of the story from Bungie’s Pathways into Darkness, but from the point of view of the monsters.
So, before Destiny was released, before it was in Beta, I wrote an article about my initial reactions to a “making of” presentation given by the lead art designer and lead writer. You can read it here. Basically, I said that I was excited about the game, clearly a lot of work went into it, but that the end product looked really boring and derivative. It seemed like something weird must have happened between the initial conception and the actual execution that seemed to take the really amazing ideas and watered them down into a bland final product.
Someone named Analyze commented on that blog post, and asked what I thought about the game now that it was out.
So, Analyze, here you go. Just for you, my thoughts on Destiny now that it’s out and I’ve actually played it. It’s long and there’s quite a bit of nitpicking and microanalysis (and this is just part one). Brace yourself.
For anyone who wants to know what I think without reading too much.
Tactile design: the game is so much fun to control, it feels amazing.
Visual design: my eyes bleed from the beauty.
Sound design: it’s pretty good; love the Vex death warbles.
Enemy deaths: so rewarding, so fun, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted.
Level design: Vex have the best and most unique level design; everywhere else it’s the same hallways and rooms.
Architecture: I like the Vex and Hive the best; Fallen, Cabal, and human all look the same; also, everyone has castle merlons on their walkways (check the pics).
AI and Enemy Behavior: the same boring, unintelligent AI is recycled among different races; the Vex and Cabal barely have any AI, the Fallen seem to have the most developed AI, and the Hive seem to have the most diverse AI among their units, although that’s not really saying much.
Enemy visual design: Fallen is most developed, other races are boring and look alike, and the Cabal are a blatant rip off of Warhammer’s Space Marines (check the pic, they look identical).
Spaceships: Love the Fallen and Hive dropships, Cabal look like Pelicans from Halo, and the players’ ships look “meh”.
I don’t know what else to call this, even though it doesn’t have to do with physical touch, it does have to do with the way the game FEELS.
And, oh my god, the game feels AMAZING. Physically, the game plays great. It’s fluid, responsive, and leaves me feeling in complete control.
I think one of the epitomes of the game’s “tactile” design is the Sparrow, the little hover bike you can summon and drive.
First, it feels fun and fluid to drive the Sparrow. Secondly it gives you a massive feeling of freedom and agency: you can summon it from nowhere and almost at any time, there’s no penalty for crashing it, and you can zip past bad guys without having to fight them. They should have called it the Player Agency.
Thirdly, the design in its control and responsiveness is exquisite. When you’re driving the Sparrow, try using the boost, and don’t let up. Don’t ease up on the boost, don’t slow down, not even when taking turns. The fascinating thing is that you’ll constantly feel like you’re about to lose control… but you never do.
I am blown away by this gameplay design. I mean, imagine how much designing, testing, and iterating they had to go through to get that feeling just right. Imagine how much effort they had to put in to perfectly ride the line between “feels like I’ll lose control” and “damn, I’ve lost control and the game’s flow is broken”.
Whoever designed the Sparrow, whatever individual or team of individuals did this, needs to be given a gigantic award. Seriously.
The feeling of freedom and agency you get with the Sparrow extends to other methods of movement as well.
Sliding, running, and jumping/flying all combine into a fluid system of movement that creates a tactile experience that’s just fun. Evading enemies feels fun. Navigating rooms feels empowering, and with the ability to fly/doublejump/jetpack, you feel completely free and never encumbered or trapped (or at least I never felt that way).
And that feeling of empowerment also exists in the core of the game, the combat. Aiming, shooting, using melee, grenades, and supers, all of that just feels so good. I can’t find the words to explain how satisfying it feels, so let me try to use a metaphor.
In some fantasy fiction there’s this trope where a sword is so well crafted, and with such high quality metal, that it feels like an extension of one’s own arm. It doesn’t feel like an inanimate object at all. That’s what Destiny feels like. It doesn’t feel like I’m controlling a game, it feels like the game is an extension of my own will. Bungie must have sold their souls to the Devil to achieve this tactile design, and the price was worth it.
On a slight side note: there is no difference in tactile design on different planets. No difference in gravity, or physics, and for that, Bungie, I say, “Thank you so much.” If the physics were different on different planets, that would have been cool and realistic, but also would have made the game terrible and frustrating as players would have to relearn how to play the game on every planet. Good call.
The visual design is excellent. Things look great. Things look fantastic.
The skyboxes and distant landscapes/cityscapes look amazing. The terrain, vegetation, and water, look amazing. The textures and lighting, look amazing. And each planet has it’s own feel to it. If you see a picture from Destiny, whether it’s an interior or exterior, you can almost certainly tell which planet it’s from just from how things look.
Simple things, like the weird chemical pools on Venus, with their crusted mineral deposits, not only look really fantastic, but they also distinguish the planet from all other locations.
And everything is just dripping with atmosphere. Atmosphere is just pouring out of every pore in Destiny. I’m not surprised that all the characters can breath on all the planets because there is so much atmosphere everywhere.
Point is, I could stare at Destiny all day.
Even the sound design is good. Things sound great, especially the aliens dying. I’ll talk more about this later, but I’ll just say that killing a Vex is one of the most satisfying sounds I’ve heard in any game.
Some sounds seem perfectly constructed, perfectly designed, for what they represent or what kind of information they give the player. It’s not as good as the visual design, I think, but it’s still better than most games.
The enemies are adequate. They get the job done. They exist to be killed, and, oh man, is it fun to kill them.
I don’t think I’ve played a game in a long time where it feels this satisfying to kill the enemies. The visual response, the animation, and the sound, it all creates this visceral reaction of pleasure. When I killed my first Cabal (my favorite death animation), I broke into a big grin because it was so enjoyable to watch.
Everyone, except maybe the Hive, have something wonderful about their deaths. The Fallen have there souls fly out of their mouths with a beam of light and a whispery hiss. The Cabal clutch at their collars as geysers of black oil and white steam burst from their helmets and spray around like a hose. The Vex either leave an electric blue cloud, or they spew white viscous liquid everywhere, and then they make that sound.
I don’t even know how to describe the sound of a Vex dying, but it’s perfect. It sounds digital, helpless, and completely satisfying. Let me repeat one part of that statement: when the Vex die, they sound helpless; they sound exactly like a sentient robotic being would sound like when it dies. I have no idea how Bungie’s sound team did it, but that’s just amazing.
LEVEL DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE:
The level design isn’t broken, that’s the best I can say about it. And the architecture is a mixed bag: some is very good and some is just repetitive.
Visually, the Vex and the Hive have the most interesting architecture.
All Vex architecture is cubes. Normally I would make fun of this, but it actually works in this situation. The designers managed to use the simple, cubist style to create interesting playspaces. The hyper geometric style fits really well with idea of the Vex being robots, and the designers made all Vex architecture out of stone, which is a nice, unexpected juxtaposition against the metal of the Vex themselves.
The Hive also have some interesting architecture. Sure, they have stupid stuff, like chains and meat hooks hanging from the ceiling that serve no in-world purpose, and they do have level design reminiscent of other factions, but there’s some good stuff too. Their architecture is almost exclusively black, but light and color are used to create some dramatic effects in specific locations. They also have an interesting mix between geometric and organic structures that works well.
There’s a familiar, medieval feeling to some of their architecture while it also manages to feel alien and otherworldly. It feels very deliberate and it looks good.
However, the Cabal, the Fallen, and human architecture are all pretty much the same, with some minor differences. On Mars, you fight the Cabal in both human buildings and Cabal buildings, and you can’t really tell the difference.
I guess Bungie’s designers might have done this repetitive architecture to create consistent playspaces, or maybe they needed this repetition because their AI is so repetitive (which I’ll talk about in a little bit), but I think the designers were just slacking.
Most levels are very linear and you’re just being funneled down a tube. Sometimes you have arenas where you get to form your own combat experience. Usually, though, the level design is very straightforward and doesn’t create opportunities for alternate play styles or tactical innovation.
Mostly it’s just tunnels or open spaces, with rocks or boxes to create cover, and some elevated area like a walkway or balcony.
Speaking of which, throughout Destiny there is this repeated bit of architecture whenever you have an elevated area. It’s basically like merlons on medieval castle battlements.
Every single species in Destiny’s galaxy has these merlons incorporated into their architecture. I understand the reasoning. You don’t want the player to constantly be out in the open, so you want to create some cover for them. And it’s not a sin in level design to have the same structure across different alien factions. But, for some reason, as soon as I noticed these merlons it just started making the world of Destiny seem very “copy-pasted” and lazily designed.
I know it’s not a big deal, but Bungie, you could have very easily come up with some structure a little bit more unique to the various locations and factions. Grotesque totems, pedestals of black fire, scrolling shields of energy (like the Hydra shields but vertical), waterfalls of coolant or oil, or any sort of weird, inexplicably alien “stuff”. It could all serve the same gameplay purpose as merlons, but would look more unique than a brick or a board.
Overall, I think the Vex areas have the best level design and flow. And I think this is a result of their cubist architecture. It’s as if the simplicity of Vex architecture helped the level designers focus on creating a really interesting playspace rather than on making an interesting visual tableau. What do you think, my audience? Is this just my imagination?
Here’s another example of how unimaginative the Cabal are in their visual design.
When you fight the Cabal on Mars, their alarm system sounds like an Earth alarm, and the lights are these red rotating lights which are exactly like the ones we use here, right now, on Earth, in real buildings or on emergency vehicles.
Come on! These are supposed to be aliens! You couldn’t come up with a more imaginative alarm system? Here, I’ll design one:
Instead of red rotating lights, how about a vertical light design. You have a vertical strip of lights, and when the alarm goes off, the light goes up the strip, briefly lingers at the top, and then it repeats. Up, up, up, UP… repeat. Kind of like a flare, but on a stationary light fixture on a wall. It could be any color you want. Since Mars has such a red color palette, maybe the alarm lights should be something contrasting, like green or blue. I just came up with that, just now, in ten seconds, and it shows more imagination than rotating ambulance lights, but still gets across the same idea.
ENEMY BEHAVIOR AND AI:
Alright, here we get to a crucial part of the game. And this is where my raving positivity really mellows out.
Setting aside the amazing deaths of the enemies, their AI behavior ranges from mediocre to adequate to just okay.
Most of the difficulty in Destiny has to do with number crunching. It’s about DPS vs. Hitpoints, not tactics vs. intelligence. Which is disappointing.
One issue is that a lot of the enemy behavior gets reused among different races. The Cabal, the Hive, and the Fallen all have units that act the same, including when they lean out from cover to fire some shots and then hide again, kind of like whack-a-moles. Then, there’s some Fallen (Captains usually) who have the same teleportation ability as the Vex, and they even telegraph it the same way. Maybe there’s a narrative reason behind that, but it still looks like Bungie is recycling the same mechanic.
Then, the actual tactics of many enemies are simplistic and boring, and their behavior feels like placeholder behavior for a game still in testing.
The Vex are the worst because they just walk slowly at the player in a relatively straight line. That’s all they do and, like I just mentioned, it feels like placeholder AI used to test out the engine. (Even the monsters in Doom had more interesting behavior than this.) Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Minotaurs all behave this way. The only difference is that the Hobgoblins activate a shield the first time they’re hit, and the Minotaurs have better number crunching which results in shields and a stronger attack. The Hydras float in one spot and have a shield that rotates around their body, and that’s it, they don’t DO anything. The Harpies are the most unique of the Vex units simply because they dodge side to side when in combat. Way to go Harpies, you’re so clever. Moving SIDEWAYS instead of forwards, who would have thought of that? No one but you, that’s who.
Then there’s the Cabal, who either walk slowly at the player or they stand still. Some of them use a jetpack, but it seems random. I once saw a Cabal Legionary stand completely still as he shot at me, then he jetpacked a hundred feet into the air, only to land five feet in front of where he was JUST standing. I didn’t have to alter my behavior or change my tactics, I just kept firing in the same direction. The Cabal with the shields don’t create more challenging gameplay either, they’re just more annoying to fight. The Cabal also have those Psions which act a little different than other Cabal, and by “a little different” I mean they act like the Fallen.
The Fallen seem to have the most developed AI, which isn’t saying much. They’re the most mobile, they move around a lot at a variety of different speeds. However, they don’t really do anything interesting with their mobility like flank the player, scatter, regroup, or assist each other.
The Hive actually seem to have the greatest diversity in unit behavior. They have the hyper-aggressive melee Thrall, the mobile Acolytes that take cover like Fallen, the Knights which walk like the Vex and prefer attacking from a distance and rarely seek cover (because they have shields like Vex Hobgoblins), and the Wizards which are kind of like floating Knights in terms of behavior except they flee to cover sometimes.
But, for the most part, the AI among the different species and units is essentially the same. I don’t feel like I’m using different tactics when fighting different enemies. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe that’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely a boring thing.
Luckily for Destiny, the AI design is overshadowed by the tactile design. The basic gameplay (moving, shooting, etc.) is so satisfying, and seeing the alien deaths is so rewarding, that the boring nature of the enemy AI is almost unnoticeable when you’re playing.
But still, when you stop and think about it, you’ll notice the identical, cookie cutter behavior, and you notice that some of the enemies are literally just standing still. When you notice this, you can’t help but feel that maybe the enemy behavior isn’t finished yet. Like this is only the skeleton of what the AI was supposed to be. Keep in mind, the Fallen, the Hive Acolytes, and the Cabal Psions, all have the exact same behavior including their tactic of leaning out from cover. It feels like it’s been copy-pasted.
You can’t get headshots on Vex. Their weak point is their glowing stomach. I like this because it is a subversion typical game design. I just wish there were more things like this, more enemy behavior that subverted our expectations as an audience. Not only would this make for a more interesting game, but it would underscore that these are supposed to be alien life forms that are different from human life.
ENEMY VISUAL DESIGN:
The quality of the enemy visual design is all over the place.
The Fallen visual design is pretty decent. It’s not the greatest, but it’s good enough to be “good”. Their armor and helmets are relatively detailed, and it’s relatively easy to distinguish their different units based on body shape and helmet style, although there isn’t much variety. So, they look pretty good.
Except, of course, the Servitors which are just spheres.
Seriously? Come on! Not only is making a sphere an incredibly lazy character design, but it doesn’t even fit with the Fallen’s visual tone and motif. The Servitors stand out like sore thumbs. Why? There’s probably some narrative reason why the Servitors look, 1) like the Traveler, and 2) like they don’t belong among the Fallen, but that’s no excuse for lazy and overly simplistic visual presentation.
Speaking of boring and lazy character design: the Vex infantry. They’re just humanoid robots. The Goblins have some interesting fan shaped head gear, so that’s okay. Then the Hobgoblins have a set of horns, and they have a tail, which is weird for a robot to have so I like it.
But then the Minotaurs have no distinguishing features. They’re just mannequins. It’s like Bungie’s visual artists were like,
“Okay, we’ve got these robots and they all look boring. We need to give them something visually distinct. What can we add to these Goblins?”
“How about we put half a circle on their heads?”
“Genius! I could kiss you on the mouth! How about the Hobgoblins?”
“We just turn the half circle upside down and it’s like they have horns!”
“Oh my god! You’re like the Jesus of good ideas!”
“And then we can give them tails so they look more like the Devil!”
“I have no idea why you think that makes sense, but I’m giving you a raise! What about the Minotaur?”
“Come on. Something, anything… We put a pyramid on their head?”
“How about if we make them look like the dudes from the Star Wars prequels.”
Here’s some ideas for Bungie’s visual artists: an elongated neck; rhinoceros horns; tusks of some sort; a mohawk; hands for feet; feet for hands. Literally any additional physical features would have improved the Minotaurs “look”. Were the artists not able to implement any idea other than “bland”?
Also, if you have two enemies, and one is called the Minotaur and other one is called something else, why would you give the horns and tail to the one NOT called the Minotaur?
Anyway, the Hive.
Among the Hive there’s clear visual distinctiveness between the Thrall and the other Hive, so that’s good. But, the Acolytes and Knights almost look identical.
Their general shape/silhuette looks very similar. That’s bad. Not only that, but the visual design of the Hive tends to be really ugly and boring. Just look at the Knight’s armor. It’s all one color, all one texture, and it doesn’t have any real character or distinctiveness. It’s like it’s a placeholder armor model, or like it’s an armor model that never got textured properly. It looks boring.
The Hive Ogres have an interesting backstory. Using magic and torture, a regular Hive unit is altered, mutated, and grown into a savage, intelligent, angry warrior. That’s kind of cool, except the final product is just a big guy.
He’s just a big dude with warts for a face. Like, I want to get excited about it all, but it’s just so boring.
Then there’s the Cabal, who have my favorite death animation, but whose visual design is boring and stolen. The Cabal are Space Marines from Warhammer, plain and simple. Giving them shields only makes them look MORE like the space marines from Warhammer. So, needless to say, very boring visual presentation that’s actually stolen directly from other franchises.
How has Games Workshop not sued Bungie yet?
So, most of the aliens look pretty generic or boring, but you almost never notice that in-game. The quality of the general visual design and the vibrant atmosphere totally overshadow the individual alien design. It’s hard to notice how boring most of the aliens look when the areas you fight in are so gorgeous.
I think maybe that’s part of why Bungie didn’t put as much effort into the enemy visual design.
Why waste the effort on making interesting enemy design if the player is barely going to notice any of it in the actual game?
Take this example: In the Vault of Glass raid, you end up doing some time traveling and you see Vex from the past and Vex from the future. If you look at their close up images in the grimoire cards, you’ll see that the vex from the different time periods have distinct designs and head ornamentation. It looks cool, but when you’re actually playing the Vault of Glass it’s almost impossible to tell that the Vex you’re fighting look different from the regular Vex you fight everywhere else.
I’d think that if I was Bungie, I’d want to design the enemies in such a way that you can very quickly tell the difference between them. But, I guess they just decided not to.
You see the ships in loading screens. But you can’t do anything with them. You can’t make them spin or boost, even just as a cosmetic effect. All you can do is look at them, which is lame because they’re not that interesting. Human spaceships just look okay.
The visual presentation of the alien dropships, however, is excellent (with the exception of the Cabal).
The Hive have these black teleporting Tombships, and they look like what a tombship would look like. They’re simple, sleek sarcophagi, which makes them feel mysterious and oppressive. And, the visual presentation of their arrival is one of the best I’ve seen. When you’re in an underground cavern, you don’t expect ships to come flying by. That’s why when a wreath of smoke appears in the cave and a Hive Tombship slides out of nothingness, it is a really impressive sight.
Even the way they drop off their troops is interesting. A red light moves up and down the bottom of the ship and troops appear underneath it. In my mind, this red light reminds me of a zipper on a black body bag, opening it up to spill out the corpses. I don’t know if that was the intent with the visuals, but that’s what I got from it.
And the Fallen ships. Man, do I love the visual design of these things. They’re bizarrely shaped, with their bulbous fore, sleek aft, and all those spindles and spines sticking out at weird angles. They genuinely look like they’re from another world.
And the way the Fallen come out of them, by climbing out on these poles, is unique, looks visually interesting, and gives an atmospheric sense these aliens’ culture/backstory.
It’s great. Even the larger Ketch ships of the Fallen look interesting because of their asymmetry. Way to go Fallen.
Notice, how once again, the Fallen seem like they’ve had the most work put into their design.
I already mentioned how the Cabal’s architecture (even their alarm lights) are way too human, and make them look unimaginative. Well, same goes for their dropships, which look like human dropships that could of appeared in in Halo. It’s your basic hover plane with doors in a horizontal row from which the soldiers jump out of.
Here’s the thing. Making this vehicle look alien and unique requires only one small change. Turn it ninety degrees so that it’s vertical instead of horizontal.
Suddenly this tall, vertical ship looks really interesting and something that could have been designed by an alien mind. And here’s the thing. A vertical ship design seems to be what the Cabal were originally going to have:
That’s a concept board that Bungie made in the initial design of their alien races. You can see that the Hive (green) were originally going to have the soul ripping death animation that later went to the Fallen. You can also see that the Cabal (grey) have a lot of height/verticality to the design of their buildings and vehicles. Those things in their sky are probably vertical ships, and they look imposing and imperial. But, for some reason, Bungie changed the Cabal ship design to be something boring and unoriginal and from Halo.
To be continued in Part 2: weapons, player characters, story, and why can’t we pick up alien weapons, it’s 2015