The cat is out of the bag. After years of silence, Bungie has finally begun to open up about its long-awaited (and occasionally leaked) successor to Halo. The new franchise, known simply as Destiny, is the product of a publishing partnership with Activision that will span 10 years and multiple sequels. It's both hugely ambitious and noticeably Bungie, seeking to break new ground with the type of technology and social experiences a console game can offer while bearing the familiar stylistic trademarks that the studio has refined over the years.
So what is Destiny? It's a lot of things. It's a new sci-fi universe where humans are once again up against an alien threat seeking to rid them from existence. It's an open first-person shooter with a commerce system allowing you to buy a ship and travel to other planets. It's…you know what, why don't I just run down the full list?
Destiny is social
Like Halo, Destiny will feature a story campaign that allows multiple players to get together and fend off alien scum as a group. But unlike Halo, Destiny's approach to social interaction is far more focused on happenstance and serendipity. While you can still buddy up with players from your friends list, your journey through Destiny's various locales (both on Earth and other planets in our solar system) will be populated by total strangers brought together by chance. Well, chance and some robust networking architecture.
Destiny's co-op is intended to be very seamless in the way it has players running into each other out of the blue.
Destiny is constantly talking to its servers to see if there are other people out there playing the same mission or simply navigating the same geography as you. When it finds a good match, it combines each of these players into a single shared experience. Bungie insists there's no co-op lobby, no "waiting for player to join" pop-up, none of that--it's intended to be very seamless in the way it has players running into each other out of the blue. Bungie wants you to feel like these are "chance encounters" where you can forge a lasting alliance, or just go your separate ways once you've collected your loot after a successful mission (more on that in a bit).
On top of this, you've also got dedicated social hubs that allow you to interact with other players outside of combat. This includes things like trading goods, gambling, or just taking a break from the game's optional "activities" that draw you away from these safe havens with the promise of adventure and loot. It's a lot like an MMO in certain respects. Which brings us to the next point…
Destiny is not an MMO
At least, that's Bungie's insistence. While the overall structure of social hubs, dynamic environments, and optional missions promising adventure and wealth sounds a lot like an MMO, Bungie is quick to argue that this is something different. "These are living, open worlds with evolving stories, changing time of day…and every one is full of players," says engineering lead Chris Butcher. "Destiny is an always online experience, but it's not an MMO."
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Bungie wants to make an online shooter that borrows certain ideas from the MMO genre without requiring the usual sort of legwork and coordination found in assembling guilds and raids. Take this quote from project director Jason Jones, for example: "Destiny knows you're tired, impatient, and distracted. [Players] don't want to work hard. They don't want to read. They don't want to go to the Internet to figure out our bullshit."
And there's also no MMO subscription fee. So that helps.
Destiny is dark
Destiny bears some similarities to the Halo universe, in that it's focused on human beings dealing with a hostile alien threat. But the world of Destiny feels somehow darker. Humanity is in far worse shape this time around, holed up in the one remaining city on Earth as they fight to avoid extinction. The rest of the planet lies in ruins, with nature reclaiming what the alien invaders haven't. You play as one of the "Guardians" of this last remaining city, venturing out to salvage these devastated remains whether they're on Earth or distant locales like the jungles of Venus or the lost human civilizations of Mars.
Looking at the concept art for Destiny, it's clear that Bungie is aiming for a more ominous style of sci-fi this time around. From derelict ships floating through space to the imposing design of alien cities (see the Citadel concept art above), everything feels slightly more threatening than Bungie's previous efforts. Combine this with a new graphics engine that employs real-time lighting to further emphasize the contrast between light and shadow, and you can see how things might get a little spooky in places.
Destiny is not bleak
Yet for all this, Bungie used the words "hope" and "hopeful" more times than I can count while describing this new universe. Here's how story lead Joe Staten sees it: "At its core, Destiny is a hopeful world. It's a place worth spending time in. It's a place worth fighting for."
Combining this sense of hope with such a dire setting is a tough balancing act. But looking back, this was something Bungie was able to do well with Halo. Those games were filled with dangerous but ruggedly beautiful environments that inspired an odd sense of inspiration to save these places from destruction. As long as Bungie continues its habit of building those starkly beautiful worlds with their majestic skies and fleshed-out histories, I'm inclined to believe this is a balancing act Bungie can pull off.
Destiny is a current-gen game
At this point, the only two platforms Bungie and Activision have confirmed for Destiny are Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Is it coming to PC? No comment. Is it coming to next-gen systems? No comment.
We'll have to wait and see whether Bungie has been able to work its magic on Sony and Microsoft's aging hardware.
So how does it look? Well, that's tough to say. Bungie's introduction to Destiny was much more of a high-level run through the game's creative vision than a tour through full-on combat or gameplay. As such, the only in-engine stuff I saw was a brief walk through one of the game's environments intended to show off the new real-time lighting engine. The lighting effects were undoubtedly impressive, with that greater contrast between light and shadows I mentioned before, as well as a full day-night cycle that should make for some interesting changes in mood when the sun drops below the horizon. But this tour was free of any other characters besides the player, so I can't really say how well the game holds up during intense action scenes.
In other words, we'll have to wait and see whether Bungie has been able to work its magic on Sony and Microsoft's aging hardware. They did point out that this new engine is built to be highly scalable for more powerful hardware, though. Take that how you will.
Destiny is not just a piece of 360 and PS3 software
In some ways, Destiny is more a platform than a game. In addition to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 software, you'll have access to your Destiny character through mobile apps and Bungie.net's community portal. Details on how these services connect with your game are vague right now--all we can tell now is that you can get game invites pushed to your mobile phone--but Bungie is eager to claim that Destiny is the sort of social, connected experience that you'll want to have access to on the go. Here's hoping these services add a more meaningful contribution to your game than simply another Call of Duty Elite or Halo Waypoint.
Destiny is more than a first-person shooter
This is where things get interesting. As in previous Bungie games, there'll be both a traditional competitive multiplayer mode and a "highly crafted" story campaign. But as I've touched on a few times now, that story campaign will be a far more open experience than anything the studio has done with Halo. Players venture from hub cities out to optional missions and activities on forgotten parts of Earth as well as remote planets. You might get there in a rinky-dink spaceship you bought by cashing in on the odd bounty, or in a highly customized interstellar luxury yacht you purchased after consistently dominating in competitive multiplayer. (Yes, there seems to be a shared currency between the various modes.)
Destiny's story campaign will be a far more open experience than anything Bungie has done with Halo.
Once you're out on those missions, you might team up with a bunch of other players you run into out of the blue, or just tip your proverbial hat as you all cross paths. One of the missions Bungie described was a raid on a "Cabal exclusion zone" on Mars, an intimidating red fortress manned by hulking alien beasts called War Rhinos. If successful, your raid will net you not only a valuable piece of ancient machine intelligence to help humanity's dire cause, but also some rare loot to pocket for yourself. This includes new armor and equipment that changes both your appearance and attributes, as well as rare weapons. In typical Bungie fashion, these rare weapons bear names ranging from the serious, like The Fate of All Fools, to the silly, like Super Good Advice.
Destiny is not set in stone
As if building a game that blends epic sci-fi first-person shooters with role-playing games weren't enough, Bungie is also promising dynamic worlds that are constantly changing over time. "We want every night to be a new experience," says Jason Jones. "Our goal is that every time a player sits down to play Destiny, they have a different experience from the last time. [This] led us to create emergent activities, rare activities, time-limited activities. So you get distracted from doing the thing you wanted to doing something you didn't expect."
Destiny is very much a Bungie game
Part of Destiny seems very alien. After all, when a developer spends a decade making games set in the same universe, it's bound to feel strange once that same studio ventures off toward the wild frontier of original IP. And yet, Destiny is also the sort of game you couldn't mistake for any other studio. There's just something about that combination of exotic sci-fi landscapes, Marty O'Donnell's sweeping orchestral score, and a social-first approach to first-person shooter action that immediately screams Bungie.
There are still a lot of things we don't know about Destiny--and in fact, those things definitely outnumber the details we do know at this point. How many players can be grouped together at once? What does the game look like in a full-on firefight? What's the deal with those time-traveling robots? Oh, did I mention that Destiny has time-traveling robots? Because it does.
But for all the unknowns, Destiny still feels very much like the product of Bungie. More specifically, it feels like Bungie taking what they've done well over the years and moving in a new direction, with new technology, toward something well beyond Halo. I know I can't wait to see what else Destiny is.