Games of 2014: Destiny
Xur, you are being hunted.
Remember the loot cave? Of course you do. If you loved Destiny, it was your guilty pleasure. If you hated Destiny, it was your smoking gun. Everyone agreed that it laid bare the way Destiny is underpinned by a mixture of grinding and randomness. The difference is that those of us who loved the game simply enjoyed the novelty of tipping things in our favour, however briefly, before returning to our other satisfying routines.
Most of the time, that's what Destiny has been for me: a satisfying routine. I would head to the Tower, check on the latest bounties and then plan my day. If there was one for killing 10 Hive leaders and another for completing six patrol missions in the Cosmodrome, that was half an hour in Old Russia, boosting between mission beacons on my Sparrow and camping a spawn point where I knew I could find Hive Majors beneath the Steppes.
While I was on the surface, I would load up a timer website and chase public events, adding a few Vanguard Marks and making sure I got the daily bonus. After that, I'd head back to orbit and take on the daily heroic story mission, cranked up to the highest level to guarantee more ascendant materials. Then I would polish off the rest of the bounties if I had time, or else just head back to the Tower to cash things in, collect and decrypt.
It was rote and mechanical, but it was a simple pleasure for a ton of reasons. Just being there was one. Destiny may have had less of a story than "That's Not My Train", to pick at random from my son's reading list, but it had beautifully storied environments that I enjoyed revisiting. I loved the abandoned cargo planes in Old Russia's Mothyards, cast aside indifferently as mankind scrambled to the heavens using patchwork rockets like the one in Devils' Lair. And I could really lose myself on the Moon, with its perfect 1969 lighting, whether staring into the green soup of the Hellmouth or up at passing satellites.
Like most players, I spent more of my time grinding and farming than anything else and my characters (plural) were so close to the level cap that most everyday tasks posed no real challenge, but I enjoyed the rhythms of bouncing into the jaws of the enemy, shooting and popping grenades and then hoovering up engrams, minerals and experience points, which I used to upgrade the weapons and armour I looted and bought. What were you playing instead? When you remove the moments that meant the most to you, what did you really spend most of your time doing? GTA 5 was a driving game. Call of Duty was a shooting gallery. Destiny was a bouncing around and farming game. The rest is what we choose to make of it, but it's easier to extrapolate when the core is so touchable.
Destiny had those other moments too. For a lot of people they come in The Crucible, which was 'just' Halo multiplayer with a loot table (never mind "shared world shooter" - that sounds like the elevator pitch), while for people like me it was banding together with friends and putting the fruits of our grind to work in more competitive PVE settings. Heroic and Nightfall Strikes emphasised self-preservation, then the Vault of Glass Raid layered on strict co-operation. All that knowledge and muscle memory we accumulated ticking off bounties, beacons and shards gave us a platform to really compete. The way these hardcore activities would fit into what is otherwise a very casual whole - and in a way most people either didn't notice or didn't care - was one of Destiny's best tricks.
It wasn't a new trick - it may be the holy grail to have a game that follows you from device to device, penetrating every spare moment in your life, but MMOs have done this for years, sending you off fishing or hunting most of the time before asking you to choreograph a complicated dungeon run. But Destiny did it in a new style and setting that worked on a new audience. I found MMORPGs off-putting because the thing I do minute to minute - pointing and clicking and then hitting keys to activate abilities - wasn't mechanically satisfying to me, even though the theory of the rest of the game was immaculate. We shouldn't undersell Bungie's achievement in binding its famous FPS combat to an MMO spine so seamlessly.
All the same, I find myself talking about my Destiny love affair in the past tense. Bungie seemed to be improving things in successive patches and events, adjusting the economy to de-emphasise mat-farming and introducing higher-level PVP armour so people with incomplete Raid sets could finally hit level 30. But The Dark Below messed things up. Rather than revitalising Destiny's stagnating endgame - where the tedium of repeating content was building up like lactic acid in a cramping limb - this month's expansion alienated players instead. Suddenly our old gear was obsolete or its progress reset. The prospect of grinding the same gear again was too much.
Perhaps Bungie will resurrect Destiny by reversing some of those decisions or coming up with a better path forward in future, at which point I may return, but I won't regret the many hours I spent with the game either way. Becoming fanatically devoted to a game, and being able to glory in the intimate details of that obsession with your friends day after day, is a rare and special pleasure that we should savour, even if the comedown can be brutal. That's why I feel sad for people who dismissed the game. They weren't wrong about it, but they never saw yellow on the reward screen. They never felt the rush of excitement on Xursday morning. They never watched Atheon crumble into stardust after eight hours sweating over Oracles and Relics.
They missed out. Destiny had its flaws and now Bungie has arguably broken it. But for three months it was the biggest game in the world and we will always have those memories. I guess you could say, for want of a better phrase, that Destiny has finally become legend.