- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2014

Developers of the ultra-successful Halo video-game franchise return with an epic saga challenging players to roam the galaxy to find their ultimate Destiny (Activision and Bungie, Rated Teen, reviewed on PlayStation 4, $59.99).

With action liberally mixing elements of the role-playing, first-person shooter and Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) genres, unassuming warriors find themselves 700 years in the future and caught in a post-apocalyptic, celestial conflict with humanity on the verge of extinction.

As a Guardian, the player protects the last city of Earth (old Russia) and a selection of nearby planets to keep the Darkness at bay while near a constantly battling hostile species.

The ever-expanding game stars a gorgeous futuristic universe loaded with detail and panoramic landscapes. It features near-endless, albeit sometimes monotonous, exploration and near-relentless firefights tied to over two dozen missions required to level up a Guardian to unlock more equipment, skills and worlds.

The not very original story, of the space opera variety, is a real helmet scratcher that often felt vague as I worked through missions. Fueled by the mumbo-jumbo mysticism of a “Star Wars” bundled with the weakest sci-fi elements of an early “Star Trek” movie, the mythos felt as if it were scripted by a preteen.

The most agonizing part of the action occurs at the game’s beginning, where a player must decide what avatar to take into battle.

Luckily, the choices are limited. He or she can assume the roll of a Hunter (a caped bounty hunter-type fighter with access to cool daggers), a Titan (a Space Marine that Halo’s Master Chief would be proud to fight alongside) or a Warlock (a sort of Jedi Knight).

It was tempting to be a Hunter, but I read somewhere that everyone else in the Destiny galaxy chose this class, so I decided for a more powerful and less flashy Titan.

As this super soldier, I use heavy weapons and an infinite supply of grenades. I can pound the earth to literally disintegrate foes and can just as easily punch an enemy to death up close as snipe him from a distance.

During my journey, I use a small spacecraft to travel from plant to planet (that looks a bit like a Naboo Starfighter) and eventually access on the ground what looks and reacts like, sorry “Star Wars” fans again, a speeder bike I might have found in the forest moon of Endor.

I also get help from a floating metal cube, always by my side, called a Ghost. The bot’s vocalizations sounds just like a too serious (or too bored) Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” fame (why, yes it is actually him). My companion offers guidance, tips and scans items for information throughout the often expansive and hostile terrain.

When I need more advice or stuff, I’ll hang out at the Tower, the headquarters of the Guardians, and use my meager credits (called Glimmer) to buy another weapon, new armor and vehicle upgrades. Other activities include signing up for a gladiator-type challenge, taking on a contracted sub missions, picking up my mail, storing items or taking a break to dance with a fellow Guardian.

Of course, almost every feature I have mentioned above has already existed in other popular role-playing, shooter-style games. The bubbling excitement comes in the beautiful new surroundings and flawless, as well as intuitive, combat mechanics and upgrade system honed from Bungie’s years of crafting Halo.

Developers claim that the wildly dynamic, open world environments will create a constantly evolving experience for the gamer and his pals. I can’t whole-heartedly vouch for that portion of the show, but I have stumbled upon multiple free-for-alls where I cooperatively banded together with players to destroy massive walkers and shut down enemy operations. Or, I watched from a distance (using my sniper scope) as fellow players dispatch hordes of feisty foes.

While on that topic of cooperation, the game beckons that a player finds others online to appreciate the fun. I suggest finding a core group of fairly intelligent folks to align with, as the hodgepodge of Guardians out there were not really worth the relationship.

Your pals will help considerably in areas called restricted Darkness zones where death means starting from the beginning of the area and not simply respawning where you died. A more standard player versus player event exists at the Crucible. I passed on the “Call of Duty” shenanigans at this time but really enjoyed the Strike missions.

These require more cooperation as bands of players attempt to terminate waves of hostiles in an area, concluding with a boss battle to round out the fun.

It’s worth noting for broadband challenged humans, the very nature of a MMO requires constant connectivity to the Internet. That aspect left me wanting. My connection to the servers was lost numerous times while in the middle of a heated battle. That shouldn’t be happening with the solid connection that I have.

The good news is missions can be bite-sized for the Guardian who has a real life. As little as 20 minutes within Destiny is enough to complete some minor missions, level up and check out for a later session.

For those fascinated by Destiny’s canon, a player finds Grimoire cards to slowly unlock an encyclopedia’s worth of minutia. The trading-card presentation, complete with flipping the cards for information, requires going to the Budgie website or downloading an app to a smartphone or tablet.

Despite a marketing campaign rivaling the second coming of a deity of your choice, Destiny still needs more innovation to propel itself from too many moments where the action quickly becomes a rather routine shooter.

I would also have helped to feel part of a much more dire blockbuster-style story rather than systematically trudging forward to level up my character, absolutely crucial to progressing in the game.

Of course, my grumpy opinion will quickly fall to the wayside as virtual warriors have already spent an estimated $325 million for the opportunity to take up humanity’s cause.

However, it really took some quality time gawking at some stellar terrain on the Moon, Venus and Mars (helped by the might of the PlayStation 4) to appreciate its elegant designs and not feel my only mission in life was to slaughter marauding menaces.

Those menaces also had a certain charm. The enemy variety reminded me of characters one might encounter in an expansion deck from the Magic the Gathering trading-card game.

Be it the insectoid Fallen or horrific Hive (undead, flaming acolytes and floating priests) or the robotic Vex and rhino-sized Cabal, the variety was impressive. 

Only time will tell if Bungie can build a truly innovative experience cemented with a constant supply of new mission packs and all the goodies required to keep a community of Guardians interested for years to come.

Presently, at about a dozen hours into Destiny, I’m optimistic but not yet completely sold. I’m finding myself as exited about revisiting “Borderlands,” “Far Cry” and “Mass Effect” or, dare I say, holding out until “Halo: The Master Chief Collection” arrives this fall for my chance to virtually exist in a fantasy universe.

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