Sunday, March 29

Destiny Review (PS4): The cold, dark loneliness of space

I made the big mistake of playing the Destiny beta. I maxed out three characters, of each race, trialling each of the classes. For twenty hours, I grinded through the first few missions on Earth. I had fun at the time, but I was concerned that the lack of a coherent narrative and Peter Dinklage's failed attempts at humour would make for a dry final product.

First contact
I think it a mistake because that was about 15 hours that counted for nought when I logged in at launch. Worse still, playing through the, for lack of a better word, "campaign" is a genuine bore. Your first 15 hours of Destiny proper are mind-numbing. You're held back from the best game I've played in recent memory. You box with kid gloves and gain nothing, *nothing*, until you reach the end game.

Sure you can fight other players in the Crucible, take bounties (quests) for player versus enemy AI (PvE) and player versus player (PvP) modes, and even play co-op, but it feels like there's nothing at stake. If I could start a new Destiny character at level 20, I would.

I can't though, and I didn't bother to start again until I found some relatively-high level gear for the Titan class. That's because the arbitrary nature of progression in the end game can be sidestepped to an extent; and just as well too, because it took about two full days' worth of play to get to the point where a second character didn't seem like a colossal waste of time.

Scenery changes, but the action remains largely the same: travel to an area, interact with an object, defeat waves of enemies. Repeat. Every planet also has at least one Strike mission which matches you with two other players to partake in the same cycle with witnesses. Without the mad loot game that characterises the end game, these routs pose little in the way of excitement.

My second run through the campaign was an afterthought. When I was done playing the actual game (with my level 31 Warlock), I'd load up my second character and play through as much as I could bear. The low level game, again, is tedious and unrewarding. It still looks pretty, but the beautiful rehearsed dance of high level play always felt like it was too far off.

Destiny's planets are hollow and fenced off, and it's hard to understand why when you first start your journey. The threadbare story provides no motivation to push through. Even after reading a great many Grimoire cards (earned for hitting specific milestones, and accessible via developer, Bungie's website or the companion app), I'm none the wiser as to what is actually supposed to be happening in this intergalactic adventure. In hindsight, it doesn't matter, but it doesn't make the first leg of your travels any easier to endure.

If Destiny up to level 20 was all you got, I'd consign it to history as another high-profile developer fuck up. A Timesplitters-cum-Haze from the people who brought you Halo and Marathon. Thankfully, it gets a lot better. It blossoms into one of the most refined experiences I've had since repeated playthroughs of Final Fantasy VII on the PSone.

You are now watching the throne.

It gets better with time
"Time heals all wounds. You get better at anything with practice. It all just takes a little time." - That's 5 actual days worth of time playing Destiny talking there.

When you first hit level 20, you should notice that some of your equipped armour has a stat called 'Light'. Accumulating Light is how you progress in Destiny's end game. At first, it feels like a relentlessly cruel and random process. Actually, it always feels like that. Random Number Generator Geezus (RNGeezus) is a brutal deity, and I pray to her almost daily.

My initiation to the end game started with Daily Heroic story missions. These are the same PvE missions I'd already beaten, but now with modifiers that allow the action to escalate into something that is actually compelling.

I can still remember my first. A mission from Mars (the last of the four planets you'll visit in the campaign). Even played at the lowest (Heroic) difficulty level, it was unconscionably brutal. I was lulled into a false sense of security, ploughing through the enemies that dotted the way to the final encounter at a reasonable clip. Then the big boss man showed up. I died so many times, and so much faster than I was used to. It took hours for me to formulate a strategy to actually finish the fight. Instead of holding a position and taking cover when required, I was now required to move. To run. When I got swamped, I knew it was no longer an option to shoot my way out. I would cower. I would emerge when it was safe to shoot, to breathe. After two hours, I emerged victorious.

The rewards were meagre, and they continued to be for weeks. I was submerged in a sea of useless blue and green (rare and uncommon items respectively). For almost too long (my guess: 20 hours) I stayed at level 24.

Even though my progress was stalled across a few weeks, I returned nightly to play Daily Heroics and hope for better. I also started partaking in Strike playlists so I could burn through more PvE bounties and earn more opportunities to pray to RNGeezus. With the right team, Strikes are great fun; even when played in radio silence.

When the stakes are higher, and your opponents are more durable (and aggressive), shooting waves of aliens is infinitely more entertaining.

Heartbreak no longer guaranteed
Funnily enough, because it took so long for me to get a decent internet connection when I first moved to Melbourne, I didn't play Destiny for the time that RNGeezus was considered evil. Rare and Legendary Engrams (items that need to be taken to an NPC to be converted to gear) could yield utterly useless uncommon equipment. Now the colour reveals the bare minimum rarity of the item you'll receive (just don't always expect it to be for the class you're using). I can't imagine the heartbreak of purple turning to green.


I progressed, but not solely through the grace of RNGeezus. I completed enough matches (PvP and/or PvE) to earn currencies to be used at specific vendors, where I could buy legendary gear. Also, some of my engrams (read: a LOT of them) were converted into a currency which is only good with a vendor that only works weekends. Xur sold me the Starfire Protocol, an exotic (read: highest grade of rarity) piece of armour that finally compelled me to change to the second Warlock sub-class, the Sunsinger. I now began to explore my character, and that is when things got very interesting.

Sub-class specific abilities can be switched at will. The progression table is a fluid thing: nothing is permanent. I've now found a mix of abilities and gear that can be devastating in PvP, and entirely functional for Daily Heroic play. That being said, I'm still shy of the level cap, and that won't change without luck (or me spending hours at a time completing raids multiple times).

The Dance
Now properly equipped, Destiny is the most time effective game on the market. I know exactly how much time I need to invest to get what I want out of it.

Do I need upgrade materials for my gear? Daily Heroic for 15 minutes.
Do I want to farm for gear and not feel like the only intelligent life in the galaxy? Strike playlists or the Crucible for 20 minutes, or for as long as I'm willing to play.
Do I want to hit the level cap? Hours in the Vault of Glass, or competing in the Iron Banner (level advantage-enabled PvP).

The choice is mine. I can engage in the well-rehearsed dance of PvE, or yield to the chaos of competitive multiplayer.

It also feels distinct from other first person looters, like Borderlands, in that there is no aimless wondering in Destiny's end game. Yes, you are beholden to a random number generator if you go farming for loot, but I always feel like I can get what I need from a Destiny play session. I could play missions and Strikes at low difficulty levels, but why would I? That meaningless swim through fodder is kept to a minimum, and it's a big reason why I keep coming back.

Cheat codes
Do you remember sharing cheat codes with your friends back in school? Maybe asking them how to beat a certain boss fight, or how to beat a puzzle in an adventure game? As Brendan Keogh aptly pointed out, that's kind of what it's like to play a raid in Destiny.

The co-op missions (2 are available right now) can be played with up to 6 players, and they require a lot more than shooting. They require specific knowledge, and involve anything from jumping puzzles, to battling new and exclusive enemy types. I've made 2 attempts on the Vault of Glass, and each time I've been guided by contemporaries to achieve great things. I've been shown secret loot chests, and how to hide from Gorgons. I don't have the 3 hours needed to make it to the end, but it was still well worth the time.

Different people also have different approaches to the kind of tense combat situations you find in a Destiny raid, and it's fascinating to witness and take part in this violent logic. When taking on the Templar, the first group of players I ran with wanted to split into 2 squads and manage its deadly entourage. We never managed to succeed. The second group was led by a rowdy, undeniably brave teen who ordered:

"Oi, you fucks stay here and just fucken slam the cunt when I bring down his shield."

O captain, my captain.

Sadly, you can only play raids with "friends". There are forums where you can assemble a ragtag group of Guardians, but if you hang around in the Tower long enough or perform well in a strike, odds are you'll be invited by randoms to friend up and tag along for a run.

Weekly Nightfall strikes are also barred to friends, or otherwise arranged groups of players. Weekly Heroics, thankfully, have now been opened up to matchmaking, so there's now more avenues to earn higher level gear. They're by no means as satisfying as raids, but it's great to see more game types available to more casual players (that may sound ridiculous, but based on my reading, I'm pretty sure I'd fail to be considered a hardcore player).

So exotic
The final component of Destiny's end game is the Exotic Bounty, awarded when you complete the same standard PvE and PvP enough times (don't ask me how many, I was just excited to get one every couple of weeks). These multi stage quests are, in certain cases, ridiculous in what they ask of players. My first required me to, at one point, maintain a kill/death ratio above 1.0 for a number of matches. Later I needed to complete a Weekly Heroic or Nightfall, and this was before matchmaking was an option.

The best that I've completed (which, suitably, awards one of the less-favoured weapons) involves playing standard match types for extended periods. 25 strikes, 10000 points in the Crucible: stuff I'd normally do over the course of a week's play. Sure I needed to turn in some stages on the weekend, but apart from that, the only requirement is for me to play a game that I love. Easy.

Another castle
In December, The Dark Below offered up another raid, a higher level cap, new story missions, and by extension, more Daily and Weekly Heroics. There appeared to be some quirks at launch, particularly for those who got exotic gear before the expansion launched. Again, because of internet woes, I was forced into a sabbatical, so I managed to avoid any woes.

The expansion (again, need a better word) campaign, like that in the base game, took time to reach its potential. Later missions are gated behind some woeful search-and-destroy quests, and even require weekend work. The resulting Heroic Dailies are a worthwhile addition to the rotation though, so it was worth the pain.

Again, my first is a prominent memory. With the raised level cap, there's only one difficulty setting, and Dark Below Daily Heroics are damn near insurmountable for any characters below level 30 (the level cap for the base game). I was level 29 when I first tried to rescue Rasputin with Heroic modifiers enabled. For hours I ran up against a wall of high level Hive enemies. Finally, I managed to make it to the last stage of the wave based encounter, only to be tracked down and butchered when trying to hide and recover health. I gave up.

A week later. The same mission, one level higher. The difference was unbelievable. I triumphed with a single attempt.

That lingering itch
Destiny, for me, is the gift that keeps on giving. My golden shotgun, sliding from kill to cover. My grenades that burn with the brightness of a star, that track and stick to targets. My 20 minutes a day that result in everything I need. My beautiful desert patrol on a hoverbike, boosting and flipping from mission to mission. My triumphs over that which I previously thought impossible.

Destiny is exercise. It's a vanity project. It asks for a lot up front, but delivers well after you've paid up. 

Sunday, March 15

Double Dragon Neon Review (PS3): Hair Metal

"Why can't games just be fun anymore?" - Redundant Internet Dickhead.

This is near enough the quote I've read in numerous comments and forum posts across the web. Before GamerGate, before the Hitman: Absolution trailer, people (usually identifying as "gamers") have sought to trivialise gross sexism by pointing out that the transgression has occurred in a medium known for the frivolity of scoreboards, acrobatic plumbers, and any other number of tropes that are difficult to take seriously.

I start with this acknowledgement because apart from seriously questionable costume choices and historical sexism, Double Dragon Neon is a thoroughly enjoyable sidescrolling beat-'em up. If you can swallow the recycled damsel in distress pretext for the ensuing two and a half hours, and some super sexualised women combatants, you'll have fun.

The combat system uses the best parts of side scrolling brawlers and fighting games like Street Fighter Alpha 3. Traditional kicks and punches can be mixed up to wind opponents where you can then launch, juggle and throw. You can follow up with attacks on downed opponents, and even set up group attacks if you've managed to stun two enemies simultaneously. Rounding out the arsenal is super moves (which drain an energy bar), running attacks, and the ability to roll and duck to set up "Gleam": a status which grants a boost to your attack. The wealth of offensive options means that the action never gets stale.

Boss fights also allow for variation. Most involve pattern recognition so you can beat on big people and/or monsters without taking damage. One even incorporates platforming into the mix, and the result is stellar. There's a sense of humour to some of the enemy designs that's better executed here than in your average brawler.

The learning curve is almost flat until you reach the final boss fight. I was caught unawares by one of the few enemies that could juggle me. The amount of damage they could deal was also significantly greater than any foe I previously encountered, so I had to wrestle frustration and the urge to destroy my controller.

Messing around with tapes was how I overcame the final fight. Equipping different tapes allows you to experiment with super moves and fighting styles, which in turn determine the amount of health you have, and your ability to take and deal damage. I'd played the entire game with "Training Wheels" on, but switching to an attack-heavy style meant I spent less time avoiding deadly attacks.

Double Dragon Neon is, on one hand, charming with its relatively-deep fighting system and its overt, eighties-flavoured sense of humour. This charm is then periodically dispelled by scantily-clad women begging "Punish me!" as they expire. There's a line between nostalgia and sexism that is carelessly walked here, but in the end, it's very easy to recommend provided you know what you'll find.