There was a moment, about halfway through my first afternoon playing through Destiny — the new sci-fi shooter from Bungie, the developers that most famously invented Halo and could forever rest on those laurels if they wanted to — that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in a game.
I’d just unlocked a Shrike, a mix between those speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi and the Ghost vehicles in Halo, and was cruising towards a new mission. I was blazing through the junked landscape of Old Russia, all rusted cars and dust-brown cragged roads, with Peter Dinklage’s voice in my head. (Not a hard thing to achieve, as he’s the voice of your AI guide through the world — and he’s not as dispassionate as pervious reports made it seem.)
So I’m just riding my trusty iron hover-steed when two other players on Shrikes slide into frame, all three of us heading towards the same destination. When we got there, we dismounted and proceeded to shoot the living daylights out of the aliens — the Fallen, they’re called, or is it the Hive? — who were barring our entry to the not-so-abandoned factory we needed to plunder.
None of us chose anything in the menu, an option for cooperative multiplayer, the game just did it. We helped each other blow some shit up, then went our separate ways.
If you’ve played enough first-person shooters, you’ve seen pretty much every iteration of gameplay mechanics. Ever since that first Doom, we’ve been staring down the barrel — hunting for ammo, praying for health drops, looking for cover, trying not to get shot, waiting to respawn. Halo made shooters elegant. It only gave you two slots for weapons, making you choose which guns you were going to take into battle — and the wrong choice could leave you trapped in a sewer with a sniper rifle, or on an open plain with a shotgun. It wrapped that same perspective in a dazzling sci-fi space opera, complete with Gregorian echoes and energy swords.
Then Halo 2 turned multiplayer into an artform and let you kill your friends over and over and over. Bungie was always refining the experience, always pushing the story — because if you don’t care about the character you’re playing, the thrills, no matter how shiny, will always be surface. (That was my biggest complaint with last year’s Titanfall: I’m a campaign guy and a game that’s just a series of multiplayer maps is gonna fall flat with me, no matter the tech wonders.)
I’ve only just started playing Destiny, so I don’t know where the story is going, but it’s got a promising start: You begin the game as a Guardian — a protector of the last free city on Earth — who’s been dead for a good long while. Resurrected, you begin to piece yourself and your life back together. Find a gun. Find a ship. Get back to the City, which thrives in the shadow of The Traveler — a giant orb which arrived hundreds of years ago and kicked off humanity’s exploration of the stars. Then came the Collapse, which found mankind hunted by alien threats and on the brink of extinction. Enter…you.
It’s a beautiful game, befitting its next-gen status. But that’s not enough anymore. Almost everything on a PS4 or Xbox One is beautiful. The weapons feel balanced: nothing is off-the-charts unfair. Customization feels deep and wide. At first blush, the combat is fluid but conventional — not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you have, as I said before, played enough first-person shooters, there are certain things you want and this game has them.
This is a game that needs to be lived with for a while, played through to the end and more, to render a complete verdict. But Destiny feels like a project that was crafted with both care and urgency. Bungie (and Activision, the publisher) needs this to be great…and it feels like they held nothing back.
One last thing. When I started the character customization, the default was — at least for me — a Black, female human. I don’t know if that’s randomized for every new character build or not, but still. Given the very recent calls to action to welcome women into the gaming experience, both behind the scenes and behind the controller… Bravo, Bungie. Bravo.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com — follow him at @marcbernardin