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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 15, 2014 at 4:53 PM

Review: “Destiny” dazzles, but time for genre to evolve?

For lovers of sci-fi action video games, “Destiny” was worth the wait.

[do action=”brightcove-video” videoid=”3786494480001″/]

Players zoom though the solar system to battle aliens and each other on dazzlingly rendered versions of Earth, the moon and other planets.

It’s hard to turn away even during pause points, when you’re loading a new episode or waiting for servers to connect you to other players for an exhilarating round of “capture the flag” or another crazy battle dreamed up by the digital wizards at Bellevue game studio Bungie.

Flying to a cooperative mission on Mars. Screenshots taken on PlayStation 4.

Flying to a cooperative mission on Mars

Action unfolds on abandoned space stations, shipping terminals and other remnants of a galactic building boom gone bust, with stragglers fighting to save what’s left after a cataclysmic downturn.

The Cosmodrome, post sanctions?

The Cosmodrome, post sanctions?

The game has the polish, zing and epic feel of the “Halo” franchise that Bungie created for Microsoft before spinning itself out as an independent studio, partnering with mega publisher Activision and building for Sony’s PlayStation as well as the Xbox.

Landing on the moon to track down a lost comrade in one episode looks and feels like you’ve climbed over the rope at a space museum, entering the diorama to fulfill childhood fantasies about someday playing soldier up there in space.

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Flying over the Cascades?

Flying over the Cascades?

After several days and nights of blasting through the game on a PS4, I’m only part way through, but it’s clear that Bungie lived up to its reputation for quality, as well as financial performance. “Destiny” grossed $500 million on its release day Tuesday, validating Activision’s decision to invest $500 million on a new franchise that’s expected to continue for at least a decade through sequels and add-on material.

The game is likely to accelerate the $21 billion video-game industry’s rebound. Last week research group NPD reported that U.S. sales of game consoles jumped 200 percent in August as the lineup of new titles persuaded millions of people to finally pull the trigger on hardware that’s been on sale for nearly a year now.

This isn’t cheap entertainment. New consoles cost $400 or more, and “Destiny”and games like it cost $60. Plus, there’s the $50 to $60 per year to play online with others through game networks run by Microsoft and Sony. Players also will be pressed to upgrade with virtual add-ons.

Destiny_20140911110747

Yet the per-hour cost is less than going to a movie or attending a sporting event, and the core audience can afford it. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is now 31 and has been playing for 14 years, watching the medium progress to the level of “Destiny.”

“Destiny” also showcases the capability of today’s consoles to fill a big screen with breathtaking landscapes while orchestrating hyperkinetic battles between remote players.

The real art comes in making these games so exciting and fun you can’t put down the controller and withdraw from their realm, until long after everyone’s asleep. Your thumbs ache and the neighborhood’s dark except for the pulsing light from your TV.

So, yes, I think “Destiny” is worth $60 if you’re into these games.

But there are a few letdowns and places where I’m hoping the franchise will continue to evolve.

Being a hunter-gatherer-cheapskate kind of guy, I prefer games where you search and scavenge for things like weapons in the landscape. In “Destiny” you may earn such things through accomplishments in the game, but in general you’ve got to fly back to a headquarters/bazaar to cash in your chips and buy new gear.

This is unfortunately the direction of gaming in general. The industry is hooked on the big margins of selling virtual stuff, so even $60 titles are designed to enable follow-on sales.

The gathering place in “Destiny” is visually stunning, but I’m not sure players are going to hang out there as much as Bungie and Activision hope.

The "Tower" gathering place in "Destiny"

The “Tower” gathering place in “Destiny”

Like at most other social zones in console games, the awkwardness of the interactions brings you back into reality: Press a button to initiate contact, then wait for a virtual character to recite a line. You can also walk up to other players’ avatars and try to interact or add them as a comrade.

I felt creepy approaching strangers this way. When I tried to interact with random players they just walked away, quickly. The rendezvous area is also populated by meandering, nameless serfs; I could walk through them as if they were ghosts, which felt like a bug.

Destiny_20140911110915

I also felt a twinge of disappointment after the cinematic space-travel sequence that opens the game. It was feeling like something entirely new until a gun appeared and I began shooting at aliens and, eventually, other players.

The problem wasn’t that it felt a bit like “Halo,” which I like. But it made me wish there were more ways to play the game and experience the fiction and art without having to blast my way through each chapter. They are such spectacular productions, it’s a shame that they aren’t accessible to a broader audience beyond “first person shooter” fans.

Instead, these games remain a (big) niche product for fans who understand the mechanics and the controls, despite pronouncements about games like “Destiny,” “Halo” and “Call of Duty” outselling the biggest movies and books.

Don’t get me wrong — this kind of game is fun, and we’ve been playing them forever. Go back thousands of years and you’ll find kids pointing sticks at each other and pretend beasts. Even “Harry Potter” blasted the bad guys.

But I’d love to see game companies put their biggest bets on titles that weren’t centered on pointing and shooting as quickly and precisely as possible. Perhaps this will happen as new games are created for the virtual-reality headsets that are coming over the next few years.

In the meantime, the dominant console genre is starting to feel like a prosperous cul-de-sac lined with progressively more dazzling homes that are intimidating to outsiders, but without a clear way forward.

“Destiny” is relatively welcoming — the language is clean, it’s not gory, navigation is easy and the visuals alone are worth the price for people who are into these games. Everyone else will just wait for a movie version.

Flowers!

Flowers!

Comments | Topics: bungie, destiny, Microsoft

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