Destiny, as a Cruel Game:

The game designs its wide narrative strokes well. A massive white sphere called The Traveler arrived on Earth some hundreds of years ago, bringing with it great technological advancements and setting mankind on course to a new golden age. Humans explored and colonized the rest of the solar system before The Traveler’s nemesis; a vague power called The Darkness, arrived and destroyed most of civilization in a catastrophic war known as The Fall. The player is a nameless Guardian although awakes at some point after The Fall and is tasked with setting out from Earth and re-explore the ruins of civilization and fights back against The Darkness in order to save The Traveler. Trope-laden though that may be, it’s not a half-bad setup for a sci-fi story. The fine musical score props up otherwise goofy cut scenes, while the phenomenal art direction lends the wreckage on each of the game’s four major planets an outsized, mournful beauty. Enemies are given discordant fantasy names, and the whole thing eventually begins to make a kind of sense. These strange robots are called hobgoblins, those beastly automatons are Minotaur. There is no reason why they’re named this way and why there is a region on the Moon called “The Anchor of Light” or part of old Russia is known as “The Moth yards.”

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Critic Cameron Kunzelman calls the storytelling approach “the evocation effect.” As you navigate these spaces, you don’t spend too much time wondering why things are called what they are, why things look the way they do. In Destiny they’re convincing a lot. For the entire technical and artistic prowess Bungie brought to bear on Destiny, they appear to have been unable to employ a person or persons capable of writing a coherent story or believable dialogue. For those who care, a great deal more back story is revealed via unlock able “grimoire cards” that can only be viewed in a browser on Bungie’s website. Destiny is a real cruel game, and that is largely due to the way it hands out all the rewards. You may never have experienced a role-playing game this parsimonious with material rewards for players, and feedback loop often hops the lane-divider from tight-fisted to perverse. For the first fifteen or so hours, players will follow a traditional sort of role-playing game progression. You need to shoot bad guys, complete all the nasty missions, get XP, level up, and get new powers. But once the player hits level 20, he or she must begin to obtain and upgrade rare armor in order to earn further levels. Bungie has audaciously placed the game’s first six-player raid beyond a level 26 requirement, meaning that any player who wants to experience the game’s most exciting and challenging content must first agree to earn six levels’ worth of extremely rare gear and upgrade materials. If the raid is the carrot that provides much of the motivation for grinding through all those extra hours of repetitive combat, the loot system is all stick.

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