The setting is different, the enemies are different, the grand, operatic story is different, and you'll spend more time looking down the sights, but Bungie's Destiny feels every bit like a Halo game. Having never touched Destiny before, I slipped into the effortless momentum of its gunplay without a hitch, which is probably the highest compliment I could give it.
I can't speak to Destiny's much-touted social elements, its massively multiplayer leanings or the quality of its narrative – Bungie made it clear that those things will have to wait for E3 in June – but Halo's trademark "30 seconds of fun" is definitely in evidence.
Players take on the role of a "Guardian," a defender of humanity in a distant future, where aliens roam the Solar System and mankind is on the edge of extinction. After choosing one of three classes – I prefer the roguish Hunter – I dove into a "Strike" mission with two other players, including Bungie COO Pete Parsons. Strike missions are designed for quick, cooperative multiplayer, rewarding players with a hefty boss fight and the promise of acquiring better gear. Said gear ranges from various pieces of armor – helmets, breastplates, the usual – to scads of guns and the materials needed to upgrade it all. If you saw the word "gear" and instantly thought "loot," you're not far off. Destiny shares a great deal with other action-filled hoarding simulators like Diablo and, more directly, Borderlands, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Guardians carry three weapons. Two of these are your main weapons, including traditional fare like assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles, and more unusual guns like the pulse rifle, which releases a burst of energy after holding the trigger. The third slot is reserved for heavy weapons. You might be tempted to just pick a rocket launcher and be done with it – I was – but I wound up gravitating toward a big, belt-fed machine gun. Heavy weapons are great for getting you out of a jam or dealing damage to Destiny's more imposing enemies, and I felt like the machine gun offered more flexibility. Grenades, meanwhile, aren't in limited supply, but are rather a part of your character build.
Once boots hit the ground, Bungie fans will enter much more familiar territory: shooting aliens. Again, the moment-to-moment action feels very much like a Halo game. Movement is a bit slower than something like Call of Duty or Titanfall (though Destiny's Guardians do have a jump-boosting jet pack). Destiny ditches Halo's traditional weapon "zooming" for the now ubiquitous "iron sights" aiming seen in many first-person shooters. Aiming is breezy, and I was landing head shots with magnums and sniper rifles in no time.
Enemies in Destiny aren't direct analogues of Halo's Grunts, Elites and Jackals, but I noticed similar relationships. Most of the four-armed Fallen I encountered, for example, were easily dispatched with a head shot, while others had energy shields that had to be dissipated before I could take them out. Smaller enemies pose little threat individually but can be dangerous in packs. In another nod to Halo, Destiny's different alien factions – there are four that we know of – are no friendlier with each other than they are with humanity. In one area of our mission, Fallen forces were duking it out with the skeletal Hive race (somewhat reminiscent of Mass Effect's Husks). Whether you decide to enter the fray or let them take each other out is up to you.
Where Destiny really departs from Halo, and where its RPG trappings begin to show, is in its use of grenades and character abilities. Guardians each get one type of grenade, a basic ability and a "super," all of which operate on cooldown timers, making them feel like the spells and buffs of an MMO. I experimented with two grenade types. The first created a long-lasting column of purple energy, damaging anything that entered its field. The second was more traditional, quickly exploding after hitting the ground. Basic class abilities seem centered on melee attacks. The Warlock, for example, can deliver a blast of energy to any enemy within reach, while my Hunter plunged a big, nasty knife into would-be attackers.
As you might expect, super abilities are very powerful but take a long time to charge. Your particular super ability is determined by whatever "focus" you have equipped. One focus might create a protective shield for your teammates, while another allows you to hurl a huge sphere of energy that explodes on impact. I enjoyed the latter, but my favorite was the Edgewalker focus, which essentially turned my Hunter into the ultimate ninja, pulling the camera out to a third-person perspective and letting me slice enemies with reckless abandon. It was messy – and fun.
But what about the rest? The loot system and the promise of an ambitious social experience? It was hard to get a feel for Destiny's loot system in my brief time with the game, but the comparison to Borderlands works at a base level. Enemies will drop a variety of weapons and armor, each with different affinities and specs. You'll also find mysterious "engrams," which can only be identified within the Tower, Destiny's social hub, where players congregate between missions.
One potentially interesting twist on the usual loot grind: Each weapon and piece of equipment has its own individually tracked experience. In other words, your gear levels up as you use it. So, even if you find a powerful new machine gun, it might not be an improvement over your level 10 magnum – at least not yet.
The final piece of the puzzle, one that Bungie has yet to fully reveal, is the overall social experience and how that ties into Destiny's campaign. As Parsons explained to me, players are free to tackle the campaign alone or with two friends. Every mode is played with groups of threes, incidentally – even adversarial multiplayer – as Bungie feels it offers the best balance for the three available classes. Each mission contains both private and public spaces, meaning some areas are dedicated solely to your three-man team, while other areas will be filled with additional players.
Private spaces allow Bungie to create scenarios designed specifically for a player's team, and ensure that you're never waiting for a boss to respawn because a different group of players just killed it. Public spaces, meanwhile, allow for larger events that can be shared among several groups of players, like joining together to take down one massive enemy (I wasn't able to join any public events during my play session, unfortunately).
The broader social elements remain a mystery for now – Bungie is promising more info at E3 this June – but the gameplay, at least, shows plenty of promise. If Bungie can successfully layer an addictive loot system and an engaging universe over Destiny's already solid mechanics, we should all be in for a good time this September.