In "Destiny," yours is truly written in the stars: You will shoot a whole lot of things.
"Halo" creator Bungie succeeds at molding our solar system into luscious milieu for killing and exploding stuff in this first fruit of the studio's 10-year partnership with Activision, but it fails at disguising the enormously hyped online shooter as much more than that.
You'll shoot aliens on Venus, Mars, and everywhere in between — so, yeah, Earth and the Moon, too. You'll shoot more aliens, learning their Proper Names™ and nothing else. Then you'll shoot more aliens yet, and earn little to no reward for it all.
That, basically, is your "Destiny."
Of course, its architects being Bungie, all that shooting is almost inexhaustibly fun. From the seismic snap of its pistols to the hellfire hum of its assault rifles, "Destiny" finds the most staying power in its toys — and using them to massacre those aliens.
Again to Bungie's credit, your prey comes in a gallery of cool-looking and uniquely challenging forms. The Fallen are your basic ugly bipeds, while teleporting robots the Vex subvert shooter rules by being most vulnerable at their bellies, not their faces. Saving the best for last, the Mars-dwelling Cabal are a race of leaping bruisers whose pinheads never stop being satisfying to bull's-eye.
That's really all you do, though: Shoot those aliens. Story missions, which you can pick and choose in somewhat nonlinear fashion, task you with going somewhere, using your robot companion to get something, and killing a bunch of aliens all the while. No puzzles. No platforming. No deviations.
And almost no storytelling. The little narrative left in the game is related by that robot, Ghost, voiced by Peter Dinklage ("Game of Thrones," "Elf"). He resurrects you, a Guardian, to help revive the Traveler, an orb the size of a small moon that hovers above the last City on Earth, before the Darkness overtakes this last bastion of humanity. Yes, that's a lot of bland proper nouns, and no, there's not much more to "Destiny's" story.
That's because the bulk of this new universe of lore is filed away on Grimoire Cards you can unlock for viewing at bungie.net. So unless you're just dying to know what makes Phogoth so Untamed, for instance, all this background is basically removed from the game experience, leaving only Dinklage's leaden readings of leaden dialogue to guide you.
The story's mission structure doesn't invite much shooter mixology, either. Each planet consists of sprawling hub maps wallpapered with jaw-dropping vistas of terraforming on the ground and nebulae in the sky. "Destiny's" massively online genes manifest here as you meet other Guardians and, together, exterminate pockets of enemies, pursue daily challenges like high-value target takedowns, or dance. Yes, pressing right on the D-pad is a dedicated boogie button.
Whatever you shoot, though, you're generally doing it the same way: Guns-blazing from 0 to 10 yards away until you're low on life, at which point you hide until you're OK again, then repeat. Recharging shields on some lieutenant-type enemies are a rare variable, requiring more sustained firepower. And depending on your character's class, you have a different super move to deploy every couple minutes — but that's about it for strategic breadth.
Death on these battlefields means a quick respawn, but in mission finales, where the online strangers disappear, it means restarting at a checkpoint. This is the crux of the drama in the game's harrowing strikes, which team you with two other players to plow through small armies before gutting out 10-minute showdowns against heavily armored bosses.
Here, all three Guardians dying also means restarting, potentially scuttling several minutes of hard-fought progress. So when you do triumph, you'll damn sure be pressing that dance button — and loving every counted-down second of it.
An alternative term for such bosses is "bullet sponges," and it certainly applies to "Destiny's." Surviving long enough to dump a few thousand rounds of ammo into them is really the only way the battles source their tension. It's not by mastering their patterns or identifying their weaknesses — it's by brute-forcing them to death at a snail's pace. Given the fact you'll be killing them several times over, though, I guess attrition is the only way to give the challenge some longevity.
The wild card is "Destiny's" leveling system. Through the game's gorgeous and smoothly navigable interface, you can select story missions or strikes at different tiers of difficulty. The former are manageable as high as two levels above yours, while the latter pose a much stiffer threat, depending on your fireteam.
Oh, and about the leveling: Few game systems ask so much for so little. Once you hit "Destiny's" "soft" level cap of 20, you can only make the long crawl toward 30 by finding armor with more and more Light value. Unfortunately, that gear actually is as Rare, Legendary and Exotic as its classification says.
Good loot is dropped so randomly, and priced so highly by the City's vendors, that you can armor up a level only after several trips to and from the hub world, decoding Engrams (the game's fancy name for "What's in the box?"), acquiring and fulfilling bounties, and jumping and dancing impatiently all the way. You can do all that and still get nothing but the game's long loading intervals.
For instance, after repeating several strikes and a few free-roaming patrol missions, I've upgraded my armor such that I've reached level 24, but still have yet to get my hands on an assault rifle better than my current level-19 one. That's all from drops and rewards, too — like some sad teenage shop loiterer, I'm still not even close to actually buying anything decent at the City.
Luckily, your Guardian's gear level matters little when they enter "Destiny's" more reliably fun player-versus-player arena, the Crucible.
Bungie plies its shooter trade confidently here. It's a blast flattening squads with your character's super abilities in games of Control (zone capture), Clash (team deathmatch) and more on an itinerary of impressively sculpted maps, though I could do without the five-acre ones that encourage the game's dull driving. Your multiplayer progress is also integrated into the greater game by awarding you currency for guns and armor. But, again, it's sub-minimum wage that you're making.
For all these reasons, "Destiny" lives up to its name insofar as it emphasizes, more than any other game of its ilk, the irreducible reality of the shooter genre: You just shoot stuff.
That truth comes to unflattering light in the space between Bungie's maximalist ambitions to tell the Next Great Story™ and the absence of said story, its refusal to engage you strategically, its stubbornness about rewarding you. The feedback loop is stripped so bare, stretched so long — shoot stuff and like it! — that the basic, infinite routine of firing bullets at moving forms is all there is. I'll keep playing "Destiny," because that shooting is still a lot of fun — especially in the Crucible. But every time I return to the game, I remember more quickly how little else it offers.
Bungie will surely keep adding to the game: New strikes, new multiplayer maps, new raids (which, discouragingly, Bungie only allows you to tackle with PSN or Xbox Live friends). I'll probably even write about it again. The studio is truly playing the long game with "Destiny" — but I'm not sure I want to play, too.