Destiny: The Taken King

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Much adulation has been heaped upon Destiny since the debut of the 2.0 patch and the release of the Taken King expansion.  The changes both bring to the game as it existed in its first year are universally agreed upon as positive. However, the extent to which such improvements mend the broken state of the game have been greatly exaggerated.  

Destiny is a Skinner Box.  With the Taken King, the food pellets it feeds to the rats trapped within taste just a little bit better, and the electroshocks it dispenses are a bit less frequent and at lower voltage, but it still exists for the purpose of engineering addiction.

Destiny is an abusive lover, one whose behavior results from deep-seeded character flaws and is fueled by illicit substances. The Taken King is that same ex crawling back into one’s life, claiming she’s changed; sure she’s quit smoking and gotten a makeover, but her alcoholism and drug use continue unabated, leaving her every bit as irrational, jealous, manic, and withdrawn as before.

Destiny is Alexei Nikolaevich, born hemophiliac and experiencing an open wound that continue to bleed.  The Taken King is the tsesarevich bandaged up by Rasputin, but still suffering from a dangerous and inevitably fatal genetic disease with no cure in sight.  

Such metaphors emphasize the fundamental, fatal flaws with Destiny, and in that they are accurate, but it bears mentioning the reasons why so many rodents scurried headlong into Skinner’s lab, why so many men were seduced by such a succubus.

Most obviously, Destiny is as gorgeous a console game as has yet to be made.  With regards to the technical graphics it bears no evidence of having been designed to run on last generation platforms in addition to the current Xbox One and PlayStation 4, nor does it suffer from production on the game having invariably started before final specifications for each console having been disclosed.  The textures are detailed, the polygon count high, the frame rate smooth, and the resolution crisp.  It is, at this very superficial level, flawless.

More important, however, is its visual design.  Despite drawing inspiration from a wide swath of sources (most notably Star Wars and Bungie’s previous games such as Halo and Marathon, but also including other classic science fiction, fantasy, and westerns as well as real world cultures), Destiny translates such perfectly into the games medium and maintains a cohesive visual design all of its own.  Details and effects which would have been wasted upon a Stormtrooper’s armor elevate the most artful items in Destiny to objects of desire.  There is incentive to simply linger in the character tab of the menu, apart from any gameplay, and watch the disco-inspired lights upon the faceplate of An Insurmountable Skullfort strobe back and forth.  Titans take obvious cues from Master Chief just as Warlocks do from Jedi, but it’s to Bungie’s credit that no Spartan or Force-user has ever looked half as cool as the average Guardian.

Beyond the armor and weapons, the other area of excellence in the game’s visual design is in its environments.  Each major area of the game has a highly distinctive and evocative terrain and color palette that captures the essence of that planet as it exists in the popular imagination while adding flairs unique to Destiny.  The Moon and Mars are prime examples, each of which on purely aesthetic grounds surpass depictions of the same locations in the otherwise superior Mass Effect series.  Even Venus, whose lush jungles bear little resemblance to the molten hellscape of the actual locale, nevertheless bears some ineffable quality which is quintessentially Venusian.  Of particular note are the exquisitely rendered skyboxes, which like the exotic armor pieces merit a pause from the gameplay for a few quite moments of artistic appreciation, like a museum exhibit constantly overhead.  

After the visuals the is the near equally impressive audio design.  What little dialogue exists is voiced by immediately recognizable icons such as Lance Reddick (Lost, Fringe) and Malcolm Reynolds Nathan Fillion (Firefly), alongside industry powerhouses such as Nolan North (Persona 4 Golden Advanced Warfare).  The score comes from legendary composer Marty O’Donnell, whose prior work on the Halo franchise has already secured him a place in the pantheon of orchestral conductors alongside the likes of Wagner and Williams.  

Mechanically the game is absolutely superlative, at least in terms of the gunplay, which is the heart and soul of any shooter. Each class of weapon is wholly unique from any other, and even individual items within a class will sometimes distinguish themselves, not merely with regards to the metrics or perks enumerated in the weapon’s description, but in terms of how it feels to actually fire and reload.  

Precision shots result from the perfect combination of player skill and computer assist, and the explosive damage a final headshot causes remains a satisfying reward even after the hundredth, thousandth, or ten thousandth time. Those numbers are no exaggeration for dedicated Destiny players, many of who put far more hours into this game than a completionist would in a 200+ hour role playing game such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3.  Despite significantly less content than those games, the core action of shooting feels so rewarding in itself that such repetition rarely feels repetitive; the combat nearly always achieves the impossibly delicate balance between relaxing and engaging.

The final point of praise is the universe and lore.  While virtually none of this is presented in the game itself, it exists only because of the game and only to serve the players.  The descriptions presented through the Grimoire cards of the Traveler, the Darkness, and more are, like the works of Catherynne M. Valente, among the most beautifully science fiction prose in recent years.  One of the most significant failings of Star Wars was its botched attempt to integrate eastern and western thought into the teachings of the Jedi; all those quotes which sound so profound out of the wizened mouths of Yoda and Obi-Wan become incoherent nonsense through any attempt to systematize them into a working philosophical system.  Destiny deftly avoids such, not through logically valid argumentation but by preserving a sense of mystery even as it doles out possible answers.  Instead of saying exactly what the Nine are, the lore offers a number of speculations, creating intrigue instead of disappointment.  There are no midichlorians running through the blood of Guardians.  

Of course, lore and story are different beasts altogether, and it is the latter that Destiny botches utterly.  Furthermore, the much vaunted improvements The Taken King makes in this department amount to nothing more than a few supporting characters being infused with slightly more personality during the brief cutscenes between the expansion’s handful of story missions and a smattering of banter on the comms during said missions themselves.  While the actual points of the plot are easy enough to follow, that doesn’t make the plot itself in any way coherent.

The biggest problem is this: Oryx, the eponymous antagonist of The Taken King, has no motivation for the revenge he seeks; his son, Crota, is still alive, at least for the vast majority of players (85-90% according to different sources) who never touched the raid at the end of The Dark Below.  Such an apparently integral chapter of the story is locked behind numerous walls (six-person multiplayer co-op only, no matchmaking, and an insane difficulty spike), and instead of fixing the raid to allow the rest of the Destiny player base to experience this chapter so that Oryx’s vendetta makes sense in the context of their individual playthroughs, Bungie instead decided to destroy any semblance of narrative immersion.  

Not that the story of the Guardian has even been an immersive experience.  The protagonist of Destiny is less than a cypher, with even less distinctive personality or character development than Master Chief.  The last Spartan IV at least had a name (John-117); despite being the “tip of the spear,” the allegedly legendary soldier who single-handedly captured Skolas and killed Oryx, the Vanguards don’t even bother to learn the protagonist’s name, referring to him exclusively as “Guardian,” his job title.  It has the offensive tone of an antebellum plantation owner degradingly calling a slave “boy.” Such a master-slave relationship is an accurate descriptor of both the Vanguards to the Guardian as well as Bungie to the players.

But at least the Vanguard talk to Guardian; throughout the entirety of The Taken King he never utters a single word. Perhaps he lost his vocal cords in one of the raids, though only a few elite players would know if that’s the case.  That Bungie had no interest in fleshing out the protagonist should have been evident from the anemic character creation screen.  No wonder the Cayde-6 and Zavala don’t know what to call him; Bungie never asks the player for the name of the character.  

In a shooter this comes hardly as a surprise, but Destiny was marketed from the beginning as a role-playing game as well. Unfortunately, Bungie ignored all of the most meaningful additions to the genre that western RPGs have integrated over the years, such as meaningful choices which impact the story, instead pulling only the most archaic aspect of Japanese RPGs, the endless grind.  In that respect it has little more depth than the emerging “clicker” genre, appealing to man’s psychological obsession with numbers getting bigger, even as nothing else changes.

Nor do any of the companion characters compare to those found in role playing games, western or Japanese.  Bungie’s assertion was that Destiny would be a game around which friendships would be formed.  But that has always been true of the genre.  Garrus Vakarian, Varric Tethras, Yosuke Hanamura, Dandelion the Bard… I count every one of them among my best friends.  RandomGamerTag and OtherHumanPlayer… not so much.  When they do talk at all they never say anything of substance that adds to the lore or the story.  In fact, their presence only ever detracts from the experience of the game; when they’re not needed they steal away kills, and because the developers assumes their presence Bungie artificially spikes the difficulty in places (public events, strikes, boss battles, etc.) making it next to impossible to complete the game on one’s own (and factoring in the raid, completely impossible).

Herein lies the first of two egregious and unpardonable sins which Destiny commits, not in execution but at the fundamental level of conceptual design: it is so self-assured in its belief that gaming ought to be a social experience that it is punitive against player that prefer to play the game alone.  It fails to even conceive of the possibility that for a large percentage of player to whom Destiny appeals (for all the reasons enumerated earlier in this review), cooperative play is not some preferable playtype which is difficult to coordinate due to work schedules and social obligations, but rather the presence of other players actually decreases the level of enjoyment to be had.  For such players, solo play is not a relic of the bygone era before constant online connectivity, but rather the zenith of the video game experience, their very raison d’être.  That such a fact is utterly lost on creative director Luke Smith is evident from numerous interviews.

The other unpardonable sin is Destiny’s use of real world time to hamper player progress and artificially inflate game length.  Bungie seems so insecure about the product they’ve created and its ability to retain players on the quality of its content that they lock away significant portions of the game for which the player already paid, doling such out with just enough frequency to incentivise players to log-in on a regular basis.  Case in point: advertising prior to the game’s release showed special attention to an exotic fusion rifle named the Sleeper Simulant.  Dedicated players searched endlessly for weeks on end in hopes of attaining the weapon.  It was not until October 7th, nearly a full month after the release of The Taken King, that the gun became available through means of a limited time quest.  After the quest expired those players who had the misfortune of not completing it were informed that it would appear again periodically, a veiled threat to not neglect the second job they’ve taken working for Bungie as a unpaid intern.

Another example is the quest for an exotic sword.  Having completed farming a ridiculous amount of crafting materials with which to forge the sword (materials which dropped according to a random number generator, another frequent though lesser trespass of Destiny’s) one Thursday, a message popped up that the sword would be forged on the next arms day (Wednesday).  Similar implementations have presented themselves in other games.  Super Mario Maker withheld new items until the next day.  The solution is to accelerating progress is to set the internal clock on the Wii U forward.  The Witcher 3 has a non-player character that promises to pay Geralt more if he comes back in a week.  By pausing the game and hitting the meditate button, that week can pass by in seconds.  

There is no workaround to this wait.  Bungie presumes the the player’s time belongs to this game and this game only.  It abhors the notion of a player completing all of the content that the developers have created and moving on to the next game, so it withholds their own property from them; the game that they paid anywhere from $60 – $120 for has parts which no amount of skill or persistence will allow them to access unless Bungie deigns it.  This is insane.  This is not games as a service, it is games as a disservice.

Such is not limited to two measly weapons by any means.  It thoroughly pervades the entire design of the game.  Xur peddles his wares on Fridays and Saturdays only; a player that finds himself busy one weekend may find the window shut on a piece of armor essential to his build, with no guarantee of acquisition unless he is diligent in the future to boot up Destiny each and every week, if not more often.  

A final example of this is insignificant yet telling.  Several weeks prior to the launch of The Taken King a cosmetic item was revealed, a stylish banner displaying a player’s gamertag, awarded only to those who had completed an extensive set of objectives.  Hard as that undertaking was, the problem lay not in its difficulty but in the limited window for it acquisition; following the roll-out of the expansion, it has become impossible to ever again earn this banner.  Someone new to the game could rise to become the best Destiny player in the world, but nothing he does will ever get him this item; not a physical item in limited supply, but a digital item, the code for which exists on the harddrive of every Destiny player.  This misguided reasoning for this ties back to the social focus (read: solo-player neglect) which Bungie has envisioned for the game; the use of this banner to communicate to others that the player possessing it has played the game since the year it was released outweighs the desire of the solo player who merely finds it aesthetically pleasing.  

Intertwining the game with real world time has another significant problem as well.  Popular as it is now, years from now players will move on to other games and eventually the servers will shut down.  When that day comes, if the game will be playable in any state it will have to be one which removes the time walls which currently plague it.  This is not a challenge unique to Destiny; every massive multiplayer or online only game has faced the same question of preservation, but even as scholars and critics become more vocal in raising the issue, Bungie steamrolled forth in crafting a brand new product with all the same flaws.  

The Taken King was released days after Super Mario Maker, a love letter to the Mario franchise marking the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It gives players al the tools they need to perfectly recreate that seminal work stage by stage, pixel for pixel.  And yet, if one were so inclined, a player could plug in his NES, insert the Super Mario Bros. cartage, and still play the original game.  Thirty years from now, will those who love Destiny be able to do likewise?  Does Bungie even care?

Despite the ignorance of Robert Ebert, games are art. Like Calvin each winter, however, Bungie has decided to carve grandiose sculptures of snow, doomed to melt with the coming of Spring.  The patrons of the interactive arts (i.e. the players), however, deserve more for their money.  They deserve a work of artistic merit built to stand the test of time; they deserve art which, to quote my favorite archaeologist, “belongs in a museum!”

Destiny is a great game.  It is a game that is absolutely worth playing.  It is for every fan of shooters, every fan of fantasy, every fan of science fiction, every lover of video games at all.  It is precisely because it is a great game that it myriad of flaws are all the more egregious and unfortunate.  That these flaws were ever proposed at the design meetings at Bungie is ridiculous.  That they made it into the final product is absurd.  But that the gaming press and fan communities are not only willing to overlook these flaws but shower The Taken King with laud and praise for it insignificant improvements is incomprehensible, inconceivable, unimaginable.  

As mentioned, one of the genuinely great aspects of Destiny is its lore, full of mystery and open to interpretation.  No one even knows exactly what the Darkness is.  Here’s a fan theory: maybe it’s Bungie.  If that’s the case, push back the Darkness, Guardian; Become Legend.

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