"Ambitious" seems too small and simple a word to describe Defiance. Its mission is outlandish, its scope unprecedented. Not only does Trion Worlds plan to deliver an enormous cross-platform MMO that connects thousands of simultaneous players, with the depth of an RPG and the tight mechanics of a big-budget third person shooter, but the events of the game will feed back into a simultaneously broadcast television show spanning multiple seasons. Two forms of entertainment will conspire to create a single universe, driven by players and actors alike, on PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and the Syfy Channel.
"Ambitious" isn't the word. "Insane" might be closer to the mark.
We've yet to find out whether the trans-media connection will deliver, but after spending an entire day playing the game, it's clear that Trion are doing their damndest to deliver cooperative action gameplay on a truly unprecedented scale.
Defiance takes place on a near-future Earth, a few years after an alien ark ship crash-landed and changed the face of the planet. Though billions lost their lives in the impact event and ensuing contact war, the world is starting to get back on track, with the Earth's ravaged ecosystem being overrun with the plants and animals transported from the alien homeworld. Forced to coexist, the human and extraterrestrials are cohabiting on the new frontier, scraping together a living and frequently bickering over emergent new resources.
It's a uniquely colourful take on global apocalypse; turning the ruined grey cities and blighted wastelands into a vibrant new world teeming with alien flora and fauna. While the TV show will be set in the St. Louis area, the events of the game unfold in what used to be known as San Francisco, where a new generation of mercenaries, bounty hunters and guns for hire are taking up arms to make a name for themselves and plenty of spending money to boot.
Which is where you come in.
As an Ark Hunter (think mercenary soldier), players begin by creating their character. After choosing a cosmetic appearance and race, which will reportedly confer various gameplay benefits in the final build, a familiar choice of classes presents itself, boasting a selection of different recharging abilities, backstories and weapon proficiencies. The Machinist, for example, can summon a holographic decoy, whereas the survivalist can turn himself invisible for a time. All classes can grow to become skilled with any weapon, but choosing an ability that complements your favourite play style will pay dividends in the early game.
Defiance may be set up like an MMORPG, featuring an enormous open world, hundreds of simultaneous players, different builds, skills and loot, but gameplay is focused on tight and action-packed third person shooting. It's familiar fare, featuring dodge rolls, headshots and melee attacks in real time. Various vehicles such as quad bikes and four-person jeeps can be unlocked and instantly summoned, allowing you to explore the expansive world and run over some of the smaller critters. Unlike competing MMOs, it will be instantly accessible to the vast majority of players who can get involved without butting their heads against arcane new mechanics. Trion Worlds plans to ensure that the netcode is fully optimised at launch (and use a "few tricks") to ensure that latency issues don't rob you of your well-deserved kill shots.
Once loosed into the San Francisco area, freshly transformed into colourful grasslands peppered with wild alien plants and voracious extraterrestrial predators, a quick look of the map screen illustrates the sheer amount of content and variety on offer. An array of scripted storyline missions will feature characters from the television series and affect its outcome (more on that later), while optional events abound. Numerous subquests, such as saving NPCs from voracious Hellbugs or insane miner clans, can be activated by setting a waypoint or just stumbling across them accidentally. Instanced rampage missions give players a massive gun, respawning enemies and a score limit to beat within a certain time. Races encourage groups of Ark Hunters to compete in cross-country rallies while under fire from the more dangerous elements of nature and society. A selection of raid missions provide masses of enemies and enormous cyborg bosses to kill for masses of money and loot. Crucially, there looks to always be something new and exciting to do... and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Trion are obsessed with the idea of creating a "living world" to explore. As you explore the San Francisco area, you'll run into all manner of bizarre and dangerous creatures alongside randomly-appearing mini missions that take a few minutes to complete (or can be ignored at leisure). When on my way to a story mission location, I happened across a deserted truck that turned out to be a gang ambush. Later, an abandoned weapon shipment yielded a massive laser minigun and an enormous swarm of chitinous horrors to destroy. Even more impressively, an colossal raid boss randomly decided to spawn near a mission area, throwing me into pitched battle alongside a dozen fellow players and granting me a huge stash of powerful guns. Defiance's "living world" feels enormous, dynamic and expansive even at this early stage, brought to live with liberal splashes of primary colours.
And throughout, players will working together - not fighting each other. The majority of side missions don't appear to be instanced, meaning that you can instantly make a detour to help out fellow Ark Hunters and receive a cut of the loot. Once you've met some likeminded allies, a simple and slick social menu allows you to chat to nearby players, add them to your friends list or instantly form a party on the fly, adding a profound sense of community to the experience. Small circles will eventually grow into massive clans as the weeks roll by. Boasting the visceral gameplay of an action-heavy shooter and the social aspects of sweeping MMOs, Defiance is set to offer a perfect sweet spot for a massive audience.
An innovative arsenal of weapons helps to make Defiance stand out from other shooters, since Trion have both human and alien technology to play around with. Traditional boomsticks like shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles and rocket launchers rub shoulders with quirky extraterrestrial gadgets like lightning projectors and infector spores that pepper targets with viral parasites; turning them into putrescent hosts for disgusting Headcrab-esque spawn. Much like Borderlands, guns will be randomly generated and locked to specific levels, with players able to improve their mastery with specific types by using them repeatedly.
Speaking of Borderlands, anyone who's played Gearbox's cooperative shooter - which may well have been a key inspiration behind Defiance's basic setup - will already be au fait with the character progression system. Earning experience will grant players skill points to spend in a massive grid of passive buffs that provides scope for hundreds of different builds and specialisations, not to mention access to bigger and better weapons. The four main class skills lie at each corner, meaning that it's theoretically possible to create some incredibly versatile builds. By combining visceral real-time combat with persistent levelling, Trion obviously hopes that Defiance will enjoy a similar success.
In fact, if you imagine a massively multiplayer third-person version of Borderlands 2 backed up by a television show, you might be somewhere close to what Trion Worlds are trying to achieve. Except that you need to think bigger.
Slick PvP functionality is aptly provided by Shadow Wars, a selection of team-based multiplayer gametypes that you can easily join by visiting flashpoint locations. Upon being automatically assigned a team, you'll instantly take your team into the fray and find out how your build stacks up with other Ark Hunters. Neutral players passing through can watch the conflict without fear of taking damage, ensuring that their own adventures aren't compromised by the competitive action taking place directly in the game world rather than an isolated arena.
Defiance will deploy on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 next April, and is currently capable of seamless cross-platform play between all three. However, bitter rivals Microsoft and Sony aren't willing to work together to set up the massive infrastructure required to support a cross-platform MMO, meaning that PS3 and Xbox 360 players almost certainly won't be able to fight together at launch. PC players will have a notable advantage when it comes to sniping and precision aiming (thanks to the accuracy afforded by a mouse and keyboard), so it will be interesting to see how Trion approaches the problem over the coming months.
The first season of the Syfy TV series will be used to further flesh out the universe, with the action centred around the shanty town of Defiance that sprung up in the ruins of St. Louis. Main characters Jeb Nolan and Irisa will appear throughout the game's storyline, and characters will canonically move between the two settings. Once the player base is up and running, more open-ended quests will be added to the game and player actions will define key moments in the show during later seasons.
"Things will happen in the game that will then happen in the television show," explained Trion Senior Producer Robert Hill when I asked for an example of how the two will interact. "The game launches two weeks before the TV show and the two main characters, Nolan and Irisa, go on missions with players and the object that players help them find is pivotal to solving a problem that happens in the pilot."
"We have another situation where there's a problem with the show and the only solution is in San Francisco. Players will solve it and in a few days the show will air with that resolution."
Considering the scope and scale of the project, countless questions still remain. Will the television series actually be well-produced and worth watching? Will the servers be ready for launch? Can Defiance manage to attract enough players to guarantee several seasons, and remain relevant over several years? Will Trion Worlds realise their unbridled ambitions?
We'll find out in April, but for now, we suspect that the answer might be a resounding 'yes.'
Stay tuned for our extensive interview with senior producer Robert Hill, which will go live at 3PM.