Maybe it's the deliciously satisfying procedural damage. Perhaps it could be the themes and motifs pulled from a hundred and one of my favourite works of science fiction; from films such as The Terminator, Dark City and Blade Runner, to the writings of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Or, it could just be that Binary Domain manages to surprise and thrill me pleasantly in a way that Gears of War and its army of other clones never quite managed. Whatever the reason, I find myself pulled more towards Nagoshi's shooter than that of Bleszinski.
The scene is set in a futuristic Tokyo, where robots are commonplace. But someone has been defying international law and constructing Hollow Children - robots that not only look and think like humans, but believe they are human as well. Cue the entrance of an international task force, of which you, Dan Marshall, are a key part, to investigate the strange goings-on.
Binary Domain makes no attempts to hide its rather obvious inspirations, but instead draws upon a wealth of science fiction to deliver a third-person shooter that manages to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining. It might leave some cold, those who welcome the thrills and spills of 'realistic' modern warfare will find no "Oscar mikes" or Marines shouting "HOO-AH!" here. But for any sci-fi fan, there's likely to be something of interest here, particularly when it comes to the endgame.
Not that Binary Domain is technically better than its obvious genetic relative. The third-person shooter genre is forever indebted to Epic's epic series, and it is clear that this game borrows many of its mechanics from a Western template for such action games, coming out as a weightier title than Platinum's Vanquish (both positive and negative in certain ways), but more fluid than typically American shooters.
But Binary Domain is something of a game of seeming contradictions. In attempting to marry together Eastern and Western approaches, to provide a game to appeal to all-comers, SEGA have created a shooter that has perhaps more in common with the run-and-gun title of yesteryear than the cover shooters of today.
On Normal, certainly, the game's pacing presses you to never stay in one place for too long. Sure, there are times when ducking behind a crate is necessary, but the responsive roll to evade, the generous aiming while on the fly, and the fact that snapping into cover is not quite a seamless as the same mechanic that adorns some of Binary Domain's peers, these all encourage you to mix your approach up a bit.
Of course, part of the reason you'll end up charging headlong into a small horde of assault robots, is to blow their limbs off. It's the same thrill we got with Soldier of Fortune, only better. The procedural damage in this game is glorious, instantly bringing Ace Combat: Assault Horizon's tagline of "make metal bleed" to life. It's as if John Woo and Alex Proyas sat down and thrashed out a visual style together, with the clean, futuristic appeal of I, Robot combined with enemy character modelling that responds to every single bullet that you fire. Sparks fly with each hit, clouds of metal shards and black smoke fill the air as your guns strip away at the armour of the mechanical foes before you.
Shoot off a robot's head (brilliantly, it will take a couple of shots to do so), and the decapitated drone will stumble around and turn on its friends. Aim for the trigger fingers and you'll be able to knock weapons from the hands of your enemies, although they'll scrabble around almost immediately, looking for new armaments. Take out their legs and they crumple to the floor, more often than not using their arms to drag themselves, often speedily, towards you, provoking instant flashbacks to the final showdown between Arnie's T-800, and Linda Hamilton's terrified Sarah Connor.
The stock enemies you'll face offer little we haven't seen before in terms of function, but their form and their numbers more than make up for this. It's fitting that, in a game where artificial intelligence is the central topic, the enemy AI is utterly superb, if erring sometimes on the overly-aggressive side. But then, they are expendable. More challenging are the likes of the Shinobis - vicious, blade-limbed robo-ninjas. Not to mention the myriad of gargantuan bosses you'll face.
It's here that Binary Domain deals its finest hand, inviting you to blow away chunks of armour on the various, giant mechanical beasts that the game throws your way, in order to better reveal points of weakness: power source, neural nets, and drive engines. There were one or two that went on a little bit, teetering dangerously close to tedium, but most of the time it's splendid stuff.
The fast-paced gunplay is very slick indeed, but the game stumbles slightly when that adrenaline stops in the face of heavy gunfire. The context sensitive 'A' button (or 'X' if you're playing on PS3) could be sharper. Snapping to cover often feels a little loose, and there were a number of times when all I wanted to do was slide behind a wall, or climb a ladder to safety, and Dan would just merrily roll around instead. It's not game-breaking at all, but it is a mild irritant on one of two occasions, breaking the immersion just a tad.
Of course, it's clear that immersion has been a key consideration of development. The voice recognition implementation is very interesting indeed. You can bark simple orders (the game gives you a list of recognisable phrases), hand out pats on the back, swear at your comrades should you wish, or even declare your undying love for them. It works fairly well - erratic with a standard Xbox 360 headset, far better with a Turtle Beach piece of kit - and is fairly amusing at first, but it does seem a little superfluous at times.
The idea is that by suggesting strategies, or responding to those of your squad, you develop Trust with your various companions. Low Trust means they're more likely to disobey; high Trust means they'll do whatever you want. But it's a little imprecise, the orders you can give are limited, and it would perhaps have been nice to have a little waypoint marker, to help better position your squadmates. Furthermore, using the Xbox 360 headset, the recognition software managed to pick up things when I wasn't even talking, and Big Bo was less than impressed when I called him an idiot without even opening my mouth. It's a great idea in theory, but a little patchy in practice, and this isn't an RPG. The conversation options don't really add a huge amount to the game, they don't really change how the game pans out, and the engagement factor is dubious at best, particularly when the game misquotes you and you end up losing Trust. It's a promising system, to be sure, but it needs developing, the next touchstone being Mass Effect 3.
It's the discrepancies that make the lack of co-op almost unforgivable. This is a game that is crying out for campaign co-op, and yet it's nowhere to be found. The rest of the multiplayer action is rather obviously tacked on, with no originality whatsoever, and only deathmatch, flag capturing, and a horde mode called Invasion to speak of. It's fun enough - shooting robots with your mates would be - but it sorely underlines the lack of arguably the most obvious component in a squad-based shooter.
Then again, Binary Domain isn't really about the multiplayer - to the point where you almost wish SEGA had ditched it completely and spent more time making everything as perfect as possible in the campaign. For the singleplayer, sci-fi loving, shooter fan this is an utter treat, with some excellent pacing throughout the 8-10 hour runtime. Perhaps most surprisingly, when it came to the end game, I found that I cared. I was hooked on the ideas, on the pivotal characters, I'd engaged. Somewhere between shooting the kneecaps off of a massive robot-gorilla, and having characters debate the ethics of killing robots that think they're human, I fell in love with Binary Domain. It's not a classic by any means, but for matching brains with brawn, East with West, robots with an incredibly human story, it's certainly worth your time.
- Fantastic set-pieces and enemy design, particularly the bosses
- Tight gunplay compliments an excellent story
- Tries to innovate in terms of voice commands and interaction...
- ...but doesn't always succeed
- Conversations can sometimes feel a little superfluous
- Context-sensitive buttons could be sharper
The Short Version: Like the best mad scientists, Binary Domain is incredibly entertaining, stuffed with smart ideas, and occasionally gets things wrong. But the very fact that it tries to innovate in such a relatively lazy genre is worthy of applause. With some incredible boss battles, slick gunplay, and a cracking story, Binary Domain throws off the clone tag and becomes something far better: a fine example of how two styles of development can complement one another.