'Destiny' preview: I can see your 'Halo'

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It’s been nearly four years since Bungie’s final Halo game hit shelves. Halo: Reach was an oddly somber blockbuster prequel that didn’t even feature series protagonist Master Chief, so it seems like maybe Bungie was already tired of Chief after Halo 3. After parting ways with Microsoft, Bungie inked a 10-year deal with Call of Duty publisher Activision to create brand-new, reportedly very expensive worlds. After churning out five Halo titles in nine years, the studio understandably wanted to try something different — which makes it all the more curious that its forthcoming Destiny feels so similar to Halo.

I’ve been playing the Destiny first-look alpha on PS4 for almost a week, and my first impression was, “Wow, this sure seems very Halo.” Beautiful futuristic sci-fi setting? Check. Haunting, dynamic musical score? Yep. Floating AI companion who gives you your next objectives. Yes, but this time it’s voiced by Tyrion Lannister himself, Peter Dinklage. It’s not just the aesthetics that recall Bungie’s previous hit, but the central gameplay loop will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever stepped into Chief’s boots (i.e. almost everyone who has played games in the last decade).

As soon as I encountered my first group of enemies, I fell into my old Halo patterns, lobbing grenades to scatter them, picking off a few with headshots, and then going in for a melee kill to clean things up. Where Bungie is mixing things up is the addition of MMORPG-like elements atop their tried-and-true Halo formula. As you pepper enemies with gunfire, tiny numbers appear, showing you how much damage you’re dealing, and they drop loot (weapons, items, money) that you can pick up to customize your Guardian.

You can heavily customize your character — choosing a class (Titan, Hunter, or Warlock), sex, and race (Human, Awoken, or Exo) — to create characters who wouldn’t look out of place in Mass Effect’s gleaming cities. Although the game is played from a first-person perspective (kinda rendering your painstaking character creation a little useless the majority of the time you’re playing), the camera switches to a third-person perspective when you travel to The Tower, the main social hub where you can take a break and purchase new weapons and gear and upgrade your ship.

A cool addition is the ability to summon a Return of the Jedi-like speeder bike at any time, which makes it easy to quickly explore the expansive environments. As I made my way to a beacon, I had my first Journey moment: I saw another player engaged with a group of enemies. It wasn’t someone on my friends list, just someone else playing the game. Curiosity piqued, I joined in the fray and helped him out. Neither of us had on headsets, so we weren’t talking, but we ended up following each other around for over an hour, exploring the world, eventually meeting up with other players, and all of us taking on new objectives together. This interaction with other players is Destiny’s coolest feature, and I’m curious to see how it plays out once millions of people are playing.

The problem with the alpha right now is that none of the objectives were particularly interesting, and they all pretty much amounted to “Go kill those aliens over there.” The Fallen (the alien bad guys) aren’t very memorable and don’t seem terribly distinctive, lacking the strong personalities that Halo’s Covenant possessed. (Who didn’t love the adorably cowardly Grunts who would flee combat if you came on super strong?) Granted, this alpha is a small sample of what the full game will deliver when it launches Sept. 9, but I hope there’s a larger variety of objectives and that they’re more innovative than what’s on offer here. If not, it’ll still be a pretty good game — assuming you like Halo.

PS4 owners who want to check out the Destiny first-look alpha for themselves can register here, as it opens up to more players starting Thursday and runs through the weekend. Look for me (PSN ID: airlinem), and let’s shoot some aliens together.

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