Destiny is layered in successive waves of updates and systems. How does it feel to go in with no expectations?
Destiny has really changed since launch in September 2014. Each of the two DLC packs and one major expansion have brought new systems and content, and to a lesser degree so have the various updates and re-balances of the intervening months. For those of us playing along the evolution wasn't always pretty, resulting in confusion and the obsolescence of hard-won gear and skills.
With The Taken King, Bungie had the chance to re-launch, bringing the shared-worlds shooter out of an extended and painful childhood and into a state where it could serve as a platform for ongoing entertainment rather than cruelly reinventing itself every few months. We're already seeing that happen with events like the Festival of Lights over Halloween.
Now that Destiny is a brand new product - what's it actually like?
So now that Destiny is a brand new product - what's it actually like? I decided to replay the whole thing, starting with a fresh toon and playing the game right through from go to woe with no shortcuts, to find out.
But I'm no longer capable of assessing Destiny objectively - if I ever was. My appreciation for the end-game makes me forgiving of early hiccups. My deeper knowledge of the lore prevents me assessing the story as presented in-game. And I just can't recapture that feeling of exploration and new discoveries when I've seen it all before.
Enter the Kinderguardian. I would bring a friend with me on this journey - a Destiny newb, with no idea what they're doing. I would observe their reactions and add them to my own.
Aislinn - Ash - is an old friend of mine from the Internet. We met through a mutual friend when I was 16, or something, and dialling up via a 56k modem to random chat rooms. I think we've only seen each other's meat faces like, three times? Once was at my wedding, though. We kind of grew up together.
Anyway, she likes games, I like games, and we've never played together somehow. She knows her way around a control pad and MMOs both, has a house bristling with consoles, and tells good jokes. An ideal candidate for my little experiment.
As I ought to have expected, our first attempt at playing Destiny was derailed three times - even though we'd planned for the million year Taken King download (why doesn't this come on the disc, Bungie? It is a bit weird that I own a disc labelled "Destiny" and another labelled "Destiny: The Taken King" and the difference between the two seems to be absolutely bugger all in terms of saving me download time).
This was all very frustrating. But also a pretty typical 2015 gaming experience, unfortunately.
First, we couldn't seem to get our schedules lined up, thanks to my apparent inability to answer messages in a timely fashion. As anybody who's ever organised a Destiny raid knows, this is pretty common; if you get going within 45 minutes of your announced start time, it's considered a major achievement.
Second, the PSN threw a fit over the fact that Ash's young man had installed a trial version of Destiny sometime in the distant past. Getting the console to understand that there was a disc in the tray, and that Ash had every right to play the game on that disc online, was a - well, it was a trial. Is that why they don't just call it a demo?
Third, Ash couldn't get her headset to function properly, even though it works just fine with her PC and Xbox One. Bless the PS4, for I love it above all other consoles at present, but its compatibility with peripherals leaves something to be desired.
This was all very frustrating. But also a pretty typical 2015 gaming experience, unfortunately.
When we finally sorted all this out, I was prepared to talk Ash through the character creation process, discussing the merits of the various classes (supers, jumping skills) and races (dances, cosmetics). As it happened, she already had a character, having elected to log in with the toon her young man had made for the trial version - an Exo Hunter. She had even made it through the tutorial mission, which must be played solo, and was ready to kick off with me.
I quickly rolled up a Titan (I've never had one) and joined her in the Tower for a brief tour. After completing the opening tutorial mission in Destiny 1.0, which is what we'll call the experience before the major update that changed everything ahead of The Taken King, you followed a series of green objective markers which took you around the main features of the Tower appropriate to your level - important NPC vendors and quest givers, in other words.
Not much has changed there, but it's all so much ... busier. There are terminals everywhere. Everyone is selling something that doesn't make sense yet. Eris Morn lurks inexplicably between the plaza and the Vanguard (even though at that point in the game's story, she should be locked up in the tunnels beneath the Temple of Crota; lack of logical narrative persistence is one of the problems with shared-worlds games, I guess. Plus hardly anybody realises you let Eris out of there when you wake the Hive during the story campaign).
It’s all so much … busier. There are terminals everywhere. Everyone is selling something that doesn’t make sense yet.
My Kinderguardian was distracted by the arrival of her dinner and ongoing headset problems, but even I could see that the Tower has become significantly less friendly to newcomers. Before the two DLC packs dropped, the Destiny 1.0 learning curve was beautifully simple. Until you hit level 20 and the Light system turned things shit-shaped, you could wander right through the game without ever hitting any point of confusion or difficulty, even if you were one of the huge proportion of gamers seemingly incapable of noticing and interpreting menu cues and notifications. The hardest thing you ever had to do was check whether the number on your new gun was bigger than the number on your old gun, and the things you weren't allowed to have kept themselves hidden away, arriving gradually as required.
Although it's now a bit of a mess, I don't know how Bungie might have resolved this besides locking vendors and terminals until you need them, but then how would you ensure players ever notice them at all - let alone understand them? - without shoving even more ponderous tutorial quests into a not especially elegant log system?
In any case, it was quite a relief to get out of there. I am one of nature's lecturers and was tempted to explain every little thing then and there, which not only would have resulted in Ash switching her console off at the wall, but would also ruin my plan to observe her gradual discovery of the game systems. I resolved to be a kind of Ask Jeeves, responding to questions she asked, rather than constantly chiming in. I mostly managed to stick to this. Mostly.
The problem is that there's something about Destiny that just makes you want to explain it, to handhold, and to guide newbs to end-game as efficiently as possible. ("Why are these guys all dancing with me," Ash asked. "Because you're a newb, darling, and we all love newbs. Let me chase them off with my big scary grimoire score.")
Maybe it’s because we all feel a bit apologetic about the learning curve – or at least, the learning curve we remember? It might be Stockholm Syndrome.
Maybe it's because we all feel a bit apologetic about the learning curve - or at least, the learning curve we remember? We want to save you the trouble of Googling "what the actual fuck is Light, seriously Bungie, come on" and "why can't I upgrade my gun". We want to rush you past all those rough spots, help you avoid the pitfalls, so you can love Destiny the way we do. We don't want you on our forums, in our comment sections, complaining about how bad the game we love is. It might be Stockholm Syndrome; certainly veterans who throw the control pad down in disgust when they finally complete their Exotic collections tend to become some of the most vocal detractors.
Well before that point, though, there's just the joy of shooting space faces, and poking around in an environment which holds so many delightful surprises - until you know the maps back to front, of course. "Do you wanna go in this cave?" "What the hell is that!" "See this hole in the fence - reckon it goes anywhere?" "Wha- you did that to me deliberately!" "Are you going down that tunnel?" "No. I know that tone."
Somehow, it felt kind of hollow. When I played Destiny for the first time, I played alone or with a similarly-minded friend also on their first run. We peered into every corner and shared the experience of having our faces melted off by something we didn't even have a name for yet. For Ash, who seemed happy just to trot along between objectives, my prodding and hinting disarmed the surprises before they arrived.
This is my fault, obviously, but it's also a difference in play style. I have shot so many faces at this point that the shooting itself is secondary to me; for me, Destiny is the act of working together with a team to pull off extraordinary acts, and the delight in adding one more to the tally of my adventures, inscribed in my inventory in runes of purple and gold. For Ash, the undeniably superb nature of Bungie's shooting mechanics is still the primary attraction. Where I would jog past a non-essential encounter with respawning foes, she'd want to shoot them.
Still, that bit where you first meet the Hive remains excellent - and hilarious.
Disaster struck on Ash and my second or third session.
We had reached the dizzying heights of level eight, and were nearly ready to move onto the moon. But first, there was the matter of a few Patrols to complete, in order to clear an item from the quest log; although the new quest system is more freeform, it definitely encourages you to tour all available activities.
It was while we were pottering around in The Divide collecting some sort of whatsits for someone or other (most Patrol missions are still only very loosely grounded in the game's fiction) that I noticed something a bit odd on my screen.
"Ash," I said. "Ash! You're level 25."
"What," said Ash.
"You're level 25," I repeated, keeping a gentle lid on the disquiet bubbling in my heart.
"No I'm not," she said. "Oh. Yes I am. How did... how did that happen?"
"Did you by any chance use an item in your inventory called Spark of Light?"
"No!" she said. But this was a lie.
"Yes you did. You did! I even remember you saying the words 'spark of light' thoughtfully to yourself while we were standing around in the tower."
"Oh no, I did too," she admitted. "Err. What does that mean?"
Once I'd explained about the booster included with The Taken King, Ash was quite apologetic. After some debate we decided that she'd start again, playing on her own until she hit the same point, and we'd resume - probably sometime in the distant future, after I'd smashed through Assassin's Creed Syndicate and Fallout 4.
This had the upshot of giving Ash the chance to create her own character, and to get some experience playing the game without my expert assistance; after so many hours of playing Destiny, my instincts to grenade and headshot everything as soon as I enter a room is difficult to tamp down in order to give my Kinderguardian a chance to get a shot on the enemies.
I don't know if she's sold on it, to be honest, but we're playing again this week. I'll keep you informed.