8 Things Bungie’s Destiny Does Very Well

7 minute read

Destiny is an imperfect game, we know that much now. But it’s still a pretty good one as console shooters go.

Bungie’s quasi-multiplayer sci-fi romp catches more balls than it fumbles, and whatever else you want to say about its hackneyed story or over-easy enemies or worshipful replication of Halo gameplay fundamentals, I keep coming back to play a little more.

It’s like Diablo 3 in that regard: deceptively simplistic and repetitive on your first pass, but borderline compulsive once you’ve reached its much trickier upper echelons and you’re grinding for ever more precious post-20 levels and gear.

Last week I published a list of Destiny grievances, some serious, others superficial. I’ve still only dabbled with Destiny‘s multiplayer modes (the Vanguard, the Crucible and skirmish modes), which now looks to be a third piece.

In the meantime, as counterpoint to that earlier cons list, here’s everything I like about the game so far.

Its elegantly minimalist interface

Destiny is heads-up-display light, tucking all you need to know into just two tiny screen corners and employing a color and transparency scheme that’s never in your way when fighting or just admiring the views. Thank gaming’s migration to high definition displays, allowing Bungie to stick weapon ammo counts, a few item/ability recharge icons and a special ability bar into fractional screen space without the displays ever feeling cramped or visually obscure.

Everything else in the game follows that minimalist aesthetic: the paper doll character interface distilled to a handful of cursor-over choices; the smart condensation of secondary informational screens into online, character equipment and inventory views; and the way you don’t miss a summonable area map overlay because the navigation beacons–rolled out at just the right distance intervals–keep you directionally grounded.

It’s a shooter’s shooter

PC snobs like to throw console shooters under the bus, griping (with some justification) about gamepad speed-accuracy inadequacies when compared to the preciseness of poking your ballistic proboscis around competitive multiplayer maps using keyboard-and-mouse controls. Which is why even the Halo-aloof begrudgingly give plaudits to the game for what it managed to do: a minor miracle of a gamepad-beholden shooter that for the first time felt credibly PC-like.

Destiny‘s controls are better still: like Halo‘s taken off the shelf, disassembled, oiled and polished, then reassembled with over decade’s worth of tinkering. Every maneuver feels effortless, whether you’re finessing a triple jump to land on some nearly-out-of-reach precipice or lining up a pinpoint headshot on a strafing enemy (while strafing yourself).

I may be conflating some of that with the detail-distance and clarity-related resolution upticks on the PS4 and Xbox One versions, but whatever the case, Destiny‘s controls feel like the finest yet to grace a console shooter.

Getting around is a snap

Hold a button to jump into orbit from anywhere; launch from orbit down to a planet or moon in a matter of seconds; hold another button to instantly summon a speeder-bike from the ether. Destiny‘s solar system-hopping system is a confederacy of shortcuts, all the tedious stuff snipped away.

Load times between missions are almost unmentionable, and each level takes at most a minute or two to zip through. Whatever you’ve been tasked to do, wherever you are or want to go, you’re rarely more than a moment or two away, which helps prevent the game bogging down in MMO-like distance slogs from one point to another.

The tip-of-the-hat to Guild Wars 2

One of Guild Wars 2‘s triumphs involves its takes on dynamic events, player-triggered challenges that make you feel like you’re part of something grander than a Pony Express simulation jammed into an otherworldly zoo–something that, however fleetingly, has a lasting impact on the world around you.

Destiny‘s “public events” aren’t as cleverly story-integrated, nor do they have lasting effects, but they’re still a blast, crashing to life with all the screen-darkening gravitas of Gandalf getting huffy at the Council of Elrond in the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The way it handles online people-juggling

Destiny‘s levels are lightly populated: a handful of players coexisting at any given moment in a particular instance. The reason that’s so is because Destiny‘s locales presently amount to a handful of levels (and none of those all that big). Letting dozens or hundreds or thousands of people coexist would have been a disaster, players tripping over players to farm spawn points or swarm merchants in the Tower or take out big bads.

Destiny isn’t World of Warcraft or Everquest. It’s not meant to be an experience wherein throngs of people with floaty head-names overwhelm the game’s playgrounds and hub-like shopping corridors with their blinged-out avatars, jumping and juking and generally turning the experience into Romper Room. It’s meant to feel a little empty. That, given how fast you’re rolling through the content (see the next point), is an upside in my book.

With so few bodies to worry about juggling in all these overlapping instances, Bungie’s thus able to drop players into or out of other players’ experiences without you noticing their arrival or disappearance.

The way it speeds your journey from zero to hero

Anyone who’s played World of Warcraft will tell you the same: the real game starts at level 60, or 70, or 80, or whatever the level cap is these days. Except World of Warcraft can take forever to get anywhere near those lofty climes.

Destiny‘s missions, by comparison, are easy to a fault and liberal about their loot and experience point handouts. You’ll hit the base level cap (20) after playing steadily for a day or two, at most.

That’s surely by design. Bungie wants you playing the game it built around the experience we’re meant to be having after we’ve hit level 20. I have yet to personally confirm that any of the post-20 content’s worthwhile, but considering how full the first 20 levels were, I’m grateful Bungie made none of it feel like a slog getting to that point.

Strikes are glorious events

Bungie’s enemy A.I. is tragically dim-bulb in the story missions at whatever difficulty setting, but Strikes–three-player cooperative side activities that involve working through cascading enemies on the way to battle an enemy big bad–manage to almost make up for that deficiency.

They do so by quite simply throwing everything at you and your compadres simultaneously (if you can’t outflank ’em, overwhelm ’em), turning Strike grand finales into crazed bloodbaths where you’re fending off waves of enemies that eventually become waves of every sort of enemy while simultaneously working to take down the boss-thingy as it lobs one-shot kills in your besieged direction.

It’s beautiful even as beautiful games go

As the camera panned back over cloud-filled valleys, the rusting hulks of cars, rustling conifers and a snow-caked junkyard at the game’s outset, I was struck by how visually impressive the game wasn’t. Oh, it’s pretty enough, but that preliminary glimpse of future post-apocalyptic planet Earth looked too boringly like any other sci-fi outing.

But then you go crawling around inside, and the game starts to strut its stuff, your tiny polyhedral companion flitting between elaborate gleaming pipework and flipping on lights that dish out more lens flare than a Dean Cundey flick.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com