On the surface, Binary Domain might look like just another cover-based shooter. But, just as Platinum managed to inject a certain amount of Japanese stylings into a Western action model with last year's Vanquish, so too have directors Toshihiro Nagoshi (he of Yakuza fame) and Daisuke Sato taken what looks initially to be another title treading on Gears of War's toes and turned it into a fusion of sorts, with some interesting subject matter, an Eastern setting, a fully customisable squad system and voice control integration. We nabbed a look at a preview build back in LA last week and were pleasantly surprised by what we saw.
Binary Domain's plot is a mish-mash of all of your favourite sci-fi movies and books, so don't go in expecting too much by way of futuristic originality here, but what's there is interesting enough. The year is 2080 and, for some time now, robots have been pretty commonplace, generally used for menial tasks. The United States and Japan have further developed into technological superpowers, an international law decreeing that whilst artificial intelligence is welcome, the creation of robots in the likeness of Mankind is strictly forbidden. Of course, there's an incident (isn't there always?!), and it's discovered that a Japanese organisation has been manufacturing humanoid robots and the proverbial hits the fan.
Into this mess strides Dan Marshall, heading up a crack team of international soldiers, sent into Japan to infiltrate Tokyo, some a spot of recon, find out what the hell is going on and, if possible, put a stop to it. This squad-based dynamic is what sits at the heart of Binary Domain. In game you'll find things largely as you would in Epic's Lancer-toting franchise. Close, over-the-shoulder 3rd person action? Check. Four-way weapon menu? You bet. Snapping into sticky cover and giving basic orders to your team-mates? Naturally. But SEGA ring the changes before we even step out onto the battlefield.
For starters, this being an international venture, you get to choose you own team - picking from a roster to complete your three person party. On offer for this particular mission, a level set in and around the Shibuya Station and surrounding slums, there were four trigger happy partners to from which to choose: Big Bo, an American heavy gunner; Faye, a Chinese recon specialist armed with a sniper rifle; Charlie, a stealthy specs ops warrior from the UK; and, finally, fellow Brit Rachael, a demolitions expert. The idea is that each character has their preferred weapon loadout and combat style, and they come armed with a number of predetermined skill sets, all of which are fully customisable, with more presets to fiddle with unlockable as the main campaign progress.
Step out into the field, and the choice in teammates begins to matter thanks to the Trust system incorporated into the game. More in depth than BioWare's frenemy chart in Dragon Age II, each of your potential squadmates have a fluctuating Trust level that changes depending on your actions in game. In the middle of a firefight, as we saw in the demo, Charlie might call out over the gunfire and suggest you lock down the left flank while he takes the right. Agreeing to this, and carrying out your duties successfully will raise the Trust level. Failing to carry out these mini objectives or refusing outright might well cause the level to dip. Again, decisions you take and conversation choices you make will impact on your squadmates, bringing a slight RPG-esque hue to proceedings that we found very interesting indeed.
The results of the Trust system are far from cosmetic, at least according to SEGA. As well as affecting the way in which your squadmates will talk to you and the stuff they'll say, in the field and also during cinematic cutscenes, Trust will also determine the lengths to which they'll follow your orders. We witnessed basic commands being given via voice recognition, shouts of 'cover me', 'fire', and 'advance' all worked rather well. The order to 'regroup', however, bricked the voice command software, and that was that part done with. It was noted that although there are command prompts available for command, you will neither be restricted to those specific words, nor will it be a feature only available in combat. You can strike up exchanges just by saying a character's name and they'll quip and banter in response.
One of the more impressive aspects to the demo, though, was the enemy AI. These aren't just dumb drones, the robots we saw moved intelligently and adapted to their surroundings and the damage they took. A procedural damage system allows you to literally rip chunks out of them and blast off limbs but, in true Terminator style, removing an arm will do little to deter an attack. Knock the blaster out their hands, they'll pick it up. Take out a robot's legs and it'll start crawling towards you. Blast off a robot's head and it's circuits will fuses, shambling about like a deranged zombie cyborg.
The last part of the demo saw Marshall and company take on a massive cyborg arachnid. There are six chapters to the game, and apparently there'll be two or three boss battles per chapter. Your HQ and squadmates bombard you with advice, suggesting that after removing the Arachni's armour on its underprotected limbs, you can blast away at the drive engines. Sure enough, as Marshall peppers the spider with rockets - making use of the conveniently strewn explosive ammo - bits of its armour begin to fall off and disintegrate and glowing power units are revealed. Taking out its legs doesn't make it any more docile, though, far from it. Instead, the Arachni just props itself up against a skyscraper and begins spamming you with lasers of its own.
Binary Domain has some interesting concepts going for it and it handles the basics pretty well, but it's a case of determining how deep those concepts run and how well implemented they'll be in the final version that will determine whether or not this is destined to stand out above the pack. For the moment it looks promising indeed and will certainly serve to help get one's own back on machines for anyone who saw The Terminator at far too early an age, but we'll have to wait until February 2012 for a definitive verdict.