Introducing Destiny, “the world’s first shared-world shooter”

[Update: get all the Destiny concept art here.]

Destiny‘s name might be one of the worst-kept secrets in gaming, but the game itself – a persistent online sci-fi shooter with drop-in co-op and competitive multiplayer all sewn into one experience – is esconsed in a level of mystery I suspect can’t be blown away even after several hours in the game. It’s vast. It’s ambitious. It’s incredibly exciting… I don’t know what it is.

Destiny PS3 preview – MMOre than Halo on your PS3

I mean, I think I know what it is. But having just returned from Bungie’s headquarters in Bellevue, WA with a suitcase full of intangibles, I’m left to fill in the blanks between the undeniably impressive but evasive first demonstration of Destiny. It is a PS3 game, but it’s not slated for a 2013 release.

It’s all but certainly a next-gen title too, running on a new engine and designed with “ten years” of play in mind. It’s sandbox shooter with nods to Borderlands 2, Skyrim, Planetside, Halo and Journey, built on a scale we haven’t seen before in the games industry. The rest? Intangible.

Above Earth’s last liveable city, this gigantic sphere marks a last stand against a mysterious enemy.

Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, visibly excited at being able to talk about the game he’s been dodging questions about since pre-production began in 2009, describes it thusly to a theatre full of raised eyebrows at Bungie HQ:
“As we saw Destiny coming together, we realised that it belonged to a genre that we couldn’t quite pin down. That it brought different things together in a new way that seemed really fresh. It has elements of a first person shooter, something Bungie does as well as anybody on Earth.

It has elements of an open world sandbox, and it has element of a persistent world. And it brings them all together in a very fresh way. We realised that to refer to Destiny as any one of these pre-existing genres would almost be to under-sell it… I think what Bungie has created is the world’s first shared-world shooter.”

Co-founder Jason Jones brings the big words when describing the project, too: “This is Bungie’s next great shooter. A game where people build on characters, customise them all the time, we’re really trying to put the player’s experience first… And absolutely from the ground up, we’ve built this game as a co-operative social experience.”

Time-travelling aliens, ready to mess with your head more than the timeline of Looper.

The idea is, in simple terms, that you create your character and are let loose on the solar system. Some time in the future after humanity nearly got swiped out of the game by some unknown force, saved at the last second by the mysterious ‘traveller,’ whose giant silver sphere hangs above humanity’s last safe city. Traces of our once thriving civilization remain as vine-covered shards of former skyscrapers in old Chicago, enormous naval vessels quietly succumbing to some secret defeat in the desert.

We’re shown glimmers of crumbling Moon facilities, lost cities on Mars, surreal landscapes elsewhere in our solar system – all explorable. You’re left to your own devices, to create your own story against this formidable backdrop. Bungie explains that there’s an overall story arc to your experience in Destiny, but that there’s no clear primary and secondary missions, no real end. No fantasy trope is left out in this vision of the future solar system – space pirates, time-travelling robots, warlocks and zombies all exist in Bungie’s fantastically indulgent sci-fi fantasy.

A Huntress class on her ‘Pike’ transport, ready to drop in unannounced and become part of your story.

But this is the studio that made the Halo franchise – you know, that thing humanity’s spent 2,000,000,000 hours playing since 2004 – they’re not in the habit of just making stuff up as they go along. There are, Jones explains, 7 pillars that shape Destiny’s universe. Every design decision, ever line of code, has to relate back to these tenets:

“We have seven pillars, and these pillars are unchanged since 2009. First, we need to build a world that players want to be in.” That means a new riff on storied sci-fi staples, like the aforementioned melting pot of mythical mythology, and an atmosphere that’s “hopeful, yet mysterious.” Fallout 3′s world certainly stood out from the crowd for example, but after a while that relentlessly brown landscape weighed down like a backpack full of energy weapons.

Enemy bases like this Hellmouth look most likely to host set-pieces where the boundaries close in a little.