LOS ANGELES--After you've birthed the classic Halo series, and breathed life into it for more than a decade, what do you do next? For Bungie, the answer is to embrace Destiny, the cooperative, sci-fi, open-world, "shared experience shooter" that the company demoed at E3. It's on the way for every major platform available: Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4. Bungie would neither confirm nor deny a future PC verison.
Whew! That's a lot of adjectives. Most are pretty straightforward, but what, exactly, does "shared experience shooter" mean?
At least the "shooter" part is easy to explain. As with Halo, much of your time in Destiny is spent shooting malevolent aliens in the face, though Destiny's gunplay is much faster and more responsive than Master Chief's plodding pace. And as with the Borderlands series, you'll be able to swap out and customize your weapons, as well as personalize your character in undefined ways.
[Get more background:Destiny: Bungie's next big thing]
So far, so good, but the most alluring part of Destiny lies in its "shared experience." While Bungie's paying a lot of lip service to creating personal experiences--personal stories--in Destiny's vast, far-flung locales, the fact remains that multiplayer is deeply intertwined in the Destiny experience. So deeply, in fact, that the game will not be playable whatsoever without an Internet connection--even if you're playing it on a console that doesn't absolutely require an Internet connection.
I spoke with longtime Bungie engineer Chris Butcher to get the lowdown on just how Destiny blurs the line behind online and offline.
Blurring the line between online and offline
"In the past, we had a great community outside the game," says Butcher. "Destiny brings that into the game."
Though antisocial types can run and gun around Destiny's world by themselves, Bungie designed the game to be played with friends. You'll have the option of allowing friends to seamlessly jump into your game at any time, literally dropping into your game from above via personal spaceship, to help you fight the alien Fallen beyond the massive in-game structure known as The Wall. Or, you know, not--Destiny's private zones can be truly private if you like.
That's not the case for Destiny's public areas. These in-game zones range from fairly small to utterly massive, according to Butcher, and in them you'll be seamlessly matched up with other players: friends, people you've played with before, and people whose network plays nice with yours are given preference. This happens behind the scenes--think of it as multiplayer matchmaking without the lobby.
Once you meet up with your legion of auto-matched brothers-at-arms in a public area, you'll have more to do than just admire each other's customized guns. Destiny generates "public events" for everyone to participate in on the fly. The E3 demo included a public event showing a massive dropship flying in overhead, knocking down faraway towers and dropping off a multitude of baddies, including a gigantic spider-looking enemy dubbed a Devil Walker. The game will notify you if one of these events is occurring nearby, Butcher says.
Bungie considers these public events part of the big allure of Destiny, a key part of creating your adventurer's personal story. Judging by the number of enemies on screen, it would be virtually impossible to clear a public event on your own--not that you'd have the option to even if you wanted to try.
When I asked Butcher if you could play Destiny on, say, a remote Canadian mountaintop or a nuclear submarine, he shook his head.
"The world is persistent," he says. Bungie has said the game will continue to evolve, similar to what you find in a massively multiplayer PC game. "I like to think of Destiny as a big, virtual playground. You wouldn't want to play on a big playground by yourself, without friends. It would just seem lonely."
Even so, Butcher stresses that you don't have to play nice with others if you don't want to. You can consciously avoid the public areas. You can choose to prevent your friends from jumping into your game. But you'll always need that Internet connection nonetheless.
If that makes you angry, fear not: You'll be able to take your aggression out on others. Butcher says "Competitive multiplayer is near and dear to our hearts," though he wouldn't detail Bungie's plans for player-vs.-player fragfests.
Not as novel as it would have been...
Even if gamers are willing to overlook Destiny's always-online requirement, the so-called "seamlessly multiplayer" twist on the shooting genre isn't quite as novel as it was a few years ago.
After wandering around E3 for a few days, it's obvious that this year has seen an explosion, pardon the pun, in persistently online games designed to dump other players on your lap at random. (See: Watch_Dogs, Need for Speed Rivals, The Crew, and the already-released SimCity.) The cloud connectivity of Microsoft and Sony's next-gen consoles has sparked a wave of nearly identical inspiration, it seems. While Destiny has been in development since before Halo: Reach was released in 2010, the sudden glut of seamlessly multiplayer games makes Destiny's killer feature a little less unique than it was at first blush.
Even so, I'm jazzed about Destiny. Was the demo mind-blowing? Nope. But while Bungie has kept many elements of the game carefully hidden away, Destiny looks to continue the company's tradition of fun, fast, and most of all cooperative gunslinging action, only with bigger worlds and a dash of RPG elements.
The game looks clean, full of breathtaking vistas and creative weaponry. Butcher repeatedly drove home the fact that Bungie is trying to make the game feel alive.
"We trying to tell a human story, a story of hope," he says. "Not militaristic, but full of exploration and hope and mystery."
No, Destiny doesn't look like it'll be quite as revolutionary in 2013 as it would have been in 2012, or as genre-defining as Halo was way back in 2001. Don't let that fool you, though--if Bungie follows through on the promise shown in the demo I saw today, its story of hope could still have a happy ending. Destiny already looks like it's an absolute blast to play.