Developer: Trion Worlds
Publisher: Namco Bandai
When Jon got the chance to get hands-on with the upcoming MMO shooter last year, the words “ambitious” and “insane” were used to describe the overall project, and in fairness I had similar feelings when I was there for its unveiling to the press at Gamescom a few years back. Labelled as a “Trans-media project,” Defiance is the first online game that will coexist with a television show, broadcast by SyFy. While both entities will take place in different locations, the aim is for the stories and characters to interject between each medium and, perhaps more importantly, have players influence the path of the story, as well as being affected by it.
The Sci-fi enthusiast in me adores the idea whole heartedly, but the success of the project ultimately comes down to two things – the entertainment value of the television show, and the gameplay of the MMO portion being fun. Right now it’s still early days as to whether the show has the legs to survive (we’ll get to reviewing it in Part 2) but for now the game finds itself in a very precarious situation of being best described in a single word – odd. Despite the fact there is a fair bit wrong with Trion's new game, it still manages to find a way of being fun, so it’s my job to sift through it to see if the pros can outweigh the cons, and determine if Defiance is worth your time and money.
So what is Defiance all about? A collective of alien races known as the Voltan are forced to flee their solar system before it is destroyed. Building Arkships, they begin their 5000 year journey to a planet capable of sustaining their population… but that planet turns out to be Earth. Shocked to learn that their salvation is already colonised by us pesky Humans, the Voltans are initially granted some land in Brazil, but an assassination of a Voltan diplomat starts a conflict known as the Pale Wars. It is during this conflict that the Arkships are mysteriously destroyed, raining debris upon the planet that terraforms the Earth, destroying cities and moving continents. The threat of extinction is a real one for humanity until the Battle of Defiance, where both sides of the conflict put down their arms and help the wounded. This moment convinces both sides that the only way to survive on this now alien and dangerous planet is to work together, and while previous grudges and misconceptions still exist, there is at least some hope for the humans and Voltans, now unified under the rule of the Earth Republic.
And that’s your burst of lore that sets you up for the game, as players assume the role of an Ark Hunter - a well-armed mercenary-meets-scavenger whose primary source of income is to chase after Arkfalls. These falling pieces of debris from the destroyed fleet of Arkships summon horrific creatures when they hit the planet, but they also contain Arktech, and that’s where the payday is.
Upon entering Defiance, the player is provided with a character creation suite that initially comes across as limited, with the choice of a male or female human or Irathient (so a normal looking person or a hench-looking one) being the only options at launch (others will be available in the future, but only as DLC.) The choice of Origin has no bearing on anything other than the costume that is initially worn and what weapons are given during the tutorial, as all characters ultimately have the same abilities and weapons available to them once they get in-game. While this comes across as a little underwhelming initially, once players get beyond this first screen the usual face manipulation options are available to inject a sense of uniqueness into the avatar. While the options on offer are not poor by any means, it isn’t exactly the most robust creation suite the genre has seen in recent years.
Once in-game, a tutorial sequence guides players through the gameplay mechanics and user interface in a well-presented fashion, eventually leading to sampling and choice of the main ability for their character, of which there are four – Decoy (self-explanatory), Overcharge (increased damage), Cloak (again, self-explanatory) and Blur (fast movement & melee damage.) While you can argue that each one requires a different approach to fighting enemies, it ultimately ends up being a different tool for the same job of slaying foes, with no support abilities to mix things up. Again, you can argue that this allows for easy balance tweaking for Trion, but it does mean that (with the exception of one particular weapon) all you will be doing in Defiance is shooting, and not much else, which for a game that carries an MMO label is disappointing.
Once players jump into the game world proper, the main storyline that leads players across the Bay area unlocks activities and side missions as it is progressed, ensuring that there is enough to do on the map without overwhelming the player. Completing these rewards the player with XP, which in turn works towards their EGO rating, a numeral designation that allows the purchase of perks(the nearest to an RPG element the game has) as it gets higher. These perks can be purchased and upgraded on the EGO grid, and allows players to effectively unlock everything regardless of which main ability they chose in the tutorial. The sense of freedom in this respect is welcome, but while it does add a feeling of individuality to a character with perks such as increased critical damage while crouched, faster recharge time on abilities, or greater damage when elevated above an enemy, I can’t help but feel that much like with the main four abilities there isn’t enough variation to truly set players apart.
In terms of controls mechanics, Defiance comes across as a standard third person shooter regardless of whether you choose to utilise a mouse & keyboard or a gamepad, and while it manages to work adequately and is easily accessible it fails to excel or innovate in any way. That said, latency being a non-issue (at least with the PC version is a relief in terms of the game being a stable experience, and alleviates scrutiny on the controls (just about.) There is one aspect of the controls that I found incredibly fun though, and that is the driving. Whether it’s the quad-bike runners, a dune buggy, or a shamelessly advertised Dodge Challenger, the mechanics for putting pedal to the metal, while highly unrealistic, end up being enjoyable. Performing ridiculous jumps, as well as crashing into enemies caused many a chuckle from me, and the Cerberus multi-person attack vehicle used in PvP and co-op is delightful to use when the opportunity arises.
The rather colourful post-apocalyptic world filled with greenery is a refreshing change to others we’ve seen in recent games. The sense of familiarity mixed with that of alien originality provides a large explorable area that, when driving around, always has something to do thanks to the placement of enemies to clear out or NPCs to rescue. There is a rather large downside to this though – a feeling of repetition. Everything can be surmised to killing all enemies and activating a device or NPC, and while (for the most part) these tasks are perfectly bite-sized for quick engagements, I found myself getting bored of them rather quickly, actively avoiding them in favour of story and side missions. It doesn’t help that the initial area of Mount Tam doesn’t have the most inspired enemies to fight either, with hellbugs and mutants providing rather cheap cannon fodder, and ultimately makes the initial first few hours feel more of a grind than anything else, which is a huge shame as enemies, locations and objectives begin to feel a little more inspired the deeper into the world you go.
It’s a shame then that regardless of the enemy types, be it the overused Raiders or the much-more-interesting Scrapper robots, that the AI is only just fit for purpose. Enemies will spawn from easily identifiable locations, often just running at you in a straight line, and in the case of melee-based mobs they will occasionally stop and start side-stepping just as they reach you for no apparent reason. I did find that some enemies used cover to avoid my weapons, and on occasion I felt like I was being flanked and even flushed out of position with grenades, but more often than not I was mowing down foes with ease. The only exception was when the game decided to spawn an overwhelming amount of enemies upon me, making certain engagements feel cheap.
And don’t even get me started on the Mutant Grenadiers, the absolute swines that they are.
In addition to shooting up the Bay area and earning XP, looting guns is the main course of action in Defiance. Various types, from pistols and shotguns, to snipers and machine guns, come in a variety of flavours thanks to a variety of designs and the various elemental effects they might include. Enemies will occasionally drop loot that might be useful, but the main source of the good stuff comes from Lock Boxes which can be purchased either through the microtransaction store or by using a mixture in-game currency (those that have played Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer or used a golden key in Borderlands 2 will find the experience familiar.) There is a slight issue with this though - the pricing for either acquirement method is overpriced, and ultimately ends up being a waste thanks to the randomised nature of what is inside. More often than not, you will be given something you don’t need, and when you consider that the amount of time needed to earn enough to buy them, it comes across as cheap way to keep players grinding away for another chance at something useful. If anything, it makes wanting to spend real money on them (even the top tier ones) feel like a waste, and the only way to fix it is if Trion reduce the price or increase the chance for relevant loot.
The term “jack of all trades, master of none” seems incredibly relevant to Defiance, and this is because when you take the game apart and analyse its components individually, all you see are mechanics that while not bad, are not exactly good either. Even from a graphical standpoint, the game does not demonstrate the refinement of other online games, but we’ve seen a lot, lot worse, and the art direction is generally fairly pleasing. At least when the weapons start firing the game engine does a decent job of providing a visually engaging experience, and while animations are generally quite stiff, it isn't to the point that they distract from the action. Meanwhile, the voice-acting for the cutscenes and audio cues are some of the most inconsistent I’ve heard. Grant Bowler, who does a good job as main character Josh Nolan on the TV Show, somewhat phones in his lines at the start of the game, and it doesn’t help that his character has a constant smirk on his face thanks to an absolute lack of facial animations beyond mouth movement. That said, considering the size of the game area, and the amount of players that can be onscreen during an Arkfall event, the game manages to hold up well in a visual sense. Again, it’s not bad, but it’s not exactly inspiring stuff.
But then there are the buggy aspects that are still in the game even after the first major patch. Battle music loops that continue to play non-stop, interactive objectives that turn out to be not-so-interactive until you move away for a moment, to name a few. They are issues that, while not game-breaking, are just downright annoying and do not help with the perception that the game is anything beyond an average one. But here’s the thing – somehow, when you put all these average aspects together, even with the bugs Defiance manages to reach a feeling of fun and addictiveness, enticing players with a “one more event or mission” mentality. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it creates a compulsive need within me to constantly play like some MMOs have in the past, but Defiance has managed to draw me in for what should have been 30 minutes, only for me to discover that two hours have passed. The storyline is enjoyable if you don’t take it too seriously, but with its mostly run-of-the-mill plot and uninspired cast (with the exception of Karl Von Bach, who is awesome) its forgettable events won’t have you clambering to experience it all again, which for an online game is rather problematic.
This is why I used the word ‘odd’ at the start of the review – I find myself having fun, and I enjoy jumping in-game an causing havoc with Dealspwn’s very own Jon Lester, but whether it will have the lasting appeal to bring me back a month or two down the line remains to be seen.
Summary So Far: At the moment, Defiance comes across as an exciting proposition with average components, but the end result is an odd mix of frustration and easily enjoyable fun. As long as the lasting appeal continues beyond the honeymoon period, Trion might be onto a slow burner with their latest online title, but for now we’ll have to wait and see if that ends up being the case.
Be sure to stay tuned for part 2 of our review, where we'll be analysing the missions, Arkfalls, and social aspects of Defiance.