"What is Destiny?"
For the longest time, this was the question on everyone's lips. Well, it was the question on some lips, anyway. The lips of people who liked Halo, for instance, and the lips of PlayStation owners who never got to play Halo, spent years telling anyone who would listen that it was overrated rubbish, and now suddenly think it was OK. It was a question on my lips too. Your lips may vary.
And now it's here and we're still bickering about what it is. So what makes it so difficult to just come out and call it an MMO?
I've been thinking about this a lot over the last week as I've explored the solar system, but the thought has often slipped into the background because I've been too busy just playing the game and enjoying it. And to be honest, this fact caught me off guard, because Destiny doesn't seem like the sort of game I would enjoy.
Take the storytelling. Or actually, could you put some in? After 20 hours playing it, I think Destiny has a lot of great party tricks, but it seems widely accepted that storytelling is not one of them. The opening hours, in particular, provide scant clue as to what's going on and blow every opportunity to correct this. Soporific mission briefings are read out over load screens (when most players will be too busy tweeting about the non-existent story to listen), while it's impossible to pay attention to The Speaker because he has a cricket box for a face. That line from the alpha - "That wizard came from the moon"? That was the best example of direct storytelling in the whole game. They cut it.
Story aside (which could well be Destiny's motto), I thought I was done with shooters anyway. I'm certainly no longer the eager young soldier of fortune forged on the mean streets of Counter-Strike, where every bullet meant something. I still tell stories about the first time I saw a resonance cascade scenario, but that was so long ago that there are probably people reading this who think Half-Life is just an internet meme. Starting off in Destiny, I certainly felt my usual "modern shooters are dull" confirmation bias tingling: assault rifles, grenades, bit of cover, dancing enemies, objective markers; boredom? It didn't even seem like a particularly varied example of the usual set-up.
My frontbrain belaboured this analysis for many hours. Days even. "I mean," it would interject as I swaddled my wriggling son at three in the morning, "Swarm Princes aside, the bosses are all the same - a big dude supported by lots of respawning little dudes. And you spend so much time fighting enemies while your Ghost scans things that it's faintly insulting." It doesn't sound much less tedious written down. Writing things down also looks unfavourably on a universe built exclusively around old and unoriginal concepts, like the supposedly amazing way the robotic Vex are all part of one hive mind, an idea so old that it was already geriatric by the time BioWare ripped it off for the Geth in Mass Effect.
These things all ring true even now, as I stand before you a proud level 22 Titan, contemplating another go round the Strike playlists in search of legendary drops, agonising over whether to watch the Vault of Glass Raid streams on Twitch or hold off in case I somehow make it there myself.
One of the reasons I find myself looking past Destiny's many flaws is just that playing the game is so pleasantly distracting. It's a cliché to say it comes down to Bungie's "30 seconds of fun", but that became cliché for a good reason. The bounding leap, the perfectly judged addition of the lift ability, the gentle auto-target on the rush-punch melee attack, and those brilliant weapons, juggled as you scavenge for appropriate ammo among the corpses. Destiny is another evolution of Halo's iconic formula, and for all the bristling at Bungie's 10-year plan for the series, it's a formula that is already 13 years old and going strong.
Certainly in the heat of battle, there's no room for contemplation - not when I'm bouncing down that hill on Venus trying to tank the Archon so another player can swat away the Shanks. I can't worry about those distant echoes of the Silent Cartographer ringing in my ears as I dodge Hobgoblin fire in the shadow of a Fallen Ketch. And even out on patrol, as I come over a dune on Mars and spot a few idling Legionaries out of the corner of my eye - OK, the objective marker is pointing in the other direction, but the magnetic attraction of yet another skirmish proves irresistible. All those red and yellow bars: I must reduce them.
But it's the quieter moments that really make Destiny, for me, and I think to some extent help define it.
As in Halo, even the most insignificant firefight has its own exquisite grammar and cadence, each melodic rush of an emptied clip and a rifle-butt combo punctuated by a brief retreat to reload and recharge your shields. Those pockets of downtime are crucial to the game's character. Zoom out a bit more and you have that brilliantly judged lull at the end of each mission, the countdown in the top-left of the screen as you wait to be transported back into orbit. It's not quite enough time to do anything productive with your character, but it's just enough to draw breath and let your mind wander. I like to think they spent ages working out how long to keep you there. The solution was as elegant as it is effective: after a final 30 seconds of fun, here's 30 seconds of quiet reflection.
I have very little experience of MMOs. I think I managed around 20 hours in Azeroth, which is the equivalent of "thinking about inserting the disc" for all other games, but chatting to Eurogamer's Christian Donlan the other day, he made the point that the time you invest playing an MMO is often spent thinking about the future - the next level you're going to hit, the dungeons you're going to run when you do, the loot you need to fill out your character - because the things you're doing in the present, whether it's navigating somewhere, fighting mobs or organising yourself, aren't always that mechanically interesting.
Destiny isn't like that. It has many of the trappings of an MMO, but it flips things around. In Destiny you spend most of your time very much in the moment, enveloped by the glorious rhythm of Bungie combat, followed by little spells recharging, reflecting and retooling. It's even there at galactic scale in the time you spend in The Tower. The Tower lacks the character of great MMO social hubs, at least according to people who have spent virtual lifetimes walking their vaulted halls, but I don't mind that. The other players I see are all well and good, but they are background decoration while I run a few errands to cool my heels.
Perhaps the reason Destiny is hard to categorise as an MMO, then, is that you spend more time concentrating on what's right in front of you rather than what comes next? Perhaps MMO-hardened synapses just find that too alien. Or perhaps they, like me, find themselves too distracted by the simple, brilliant fun of bouncing into battle after battle, pounding enemies with grenades and Supers, then stealing inches of cover from right under their noses to rebuild my shields. It's something to contemplate, anyway, the next time you find yourself sucking air after a boss goes down, watching trash enemies evaporate, and staring into those increasingly familiar numbers.
29... 28... 27...
What is Destiny? Perhaps Destiny is a space opera written at maximum scale, but one whose real character lies in the smallest details.
Actually, hold that thought - it's time to go back in.