Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox (reviewed on PS3)
Demo Available: No
Developer: Trion Worlds
Genre: Action/Shooter/MMO Adventure/Sci-Fi
Who’s It For: Fans of big guns, bigger monsters, and gameplay that begins and ends with pointing one at the other.
Available Now, $59.99 USD
My husband and I have been watching SyFy’s newest original series, the apocalyptic science fiction show Defiance, and it surprised us both by exceeding expectations in a big way. I mean… it’s good. Campy, but good, in that satisfying way only giddily exuberant science-fiction shows can be. There’s monsters, mutants, sassy aliens, and Lucius Malfoy. It’s basically the perfect hour of pure entertainment television. So when we realised there was a tie-in game we could nab from GameFly, well, it was an obvious choice.
At the start of Defiance, you’ll create your character to be booted out into the dangerous, unfriendly world. You were hired by the world’s most unpleasant manchild, a “scientist” (there are no skeptical air quotes big enough) named Von Bach, who loses a valuable piece of technology after the ship you were on crash lands. Naturally, it’s up to you to go and get it back from the forces fighting over it. Somewhere in between facing down endless hordes of mutants with a shotgun. And racing across the Hellbug-infested wasteland for high scores. And ramping your dune buggy off a cliff, flying straight at the face of a monstrous acid-spewing bug taking on fifty other players while screaming like a banshee at the same time. But yeah I’ll get right on tracking down your doo-dad and getting shot up while incompetent NPC AI yells for my help so I can watch another cutscene of you being a repulsive human being.
Typically, gameplay just consists of tooling around on your vehicle looking for something that needs shooting, and then shooting it a lot more than is strictly necessary. There are random encounter popups everywhere, or you can view your map and toddle on off to the myriad of permanent missions. Your biggest asset is your EGO, which here refers to a computer and AI implanted in your head that gives you a lot of nifty abilities as well as direction only three-quarters as annoying as Navi. “Shut up, EGO,” I sigh as she merrily informs me, for the fifth time in a row, that “We made that look easy!” Usually delivered on a delay a good thirty seconds or so after I’ve completed and driven away from whatever it was I just exploded/picked up/ran over.
In order to really review the game, however, you have to talk about what it is, and what it isn’t. What it is, is an MMO shooter with RPG elements, not an “action RPG” in the traditionally accepted definition of the terms. Your sole involvement in the game is shooting things. You can’t talk to NPCs, you can’t participate in cutscenes, you can’t decide what your character says… largely because they literally never say anything at all. You’ll drive around, and you’ll shoot things, and you’ll get stronger so you can shoot other things. That’s it. If that’s fine with you, well, carry on my wayward son, but if you want or were hoping for a more, say, Fallout-sy gameplay experience, you might find this a bit too shallow.
As an MMO shooter, however, Defiance is actually very good. Repetitive! But good. Featuring massive, large-scale battles and challenging combat that will force you to both think strategically and on your feet, Defiance is the sort of game that can keep action fans busy for a long time. The map is enormous, and there’s always something going on. There are oodles of side missions, daily and weekly contracts to complete to boost your standing with different merchants, new batches of missions released with and related to new episodes, racing, high-score ranking rampages, and of course, Arkfalls, where you and other players team up to destroy massive bosses for treasure raining down from the sky… literally. They’re spectacular to behold, and the more challenging structure to dealing with the bosses themselves on top of all the other enemies swarming the field provides a welcome break. If you don’t find seeing thirty players sent flying twenty feet into the air by a giant robot with an angry rap face hilarious, you’re dead inside.
The other draw is, naturally, the tie-in aspect with the TV show, which is… well, there. Sort of. After every new episode, you’ll get a new side-mission (sometimes a chain of them) in the game that ties in with events. Unfortunately, while some of these are well produced and feature lengthy cutscenes and story, like Ryn’s arc with the Hellbugs or the most recent Plague, a lot of them feel sort of… phoned in, consisting simply of going to an area, shooting ALL the things, and listening to a data recorder. Right now it feels like the action between the game and the show are happening on either sides of the galaxy instead of the country, and somewhere in the middle where story, setting, and pew-pew-pew intersect could lie true greatness.
The main problem with the story missions is that apart from cutscenes and some special maps, they’re virtually identical to the rest of the game. Very nice cutscenes, mind you, well acted as well as designed, but completly uninteractive. And that’s when the fatigue of repetition can start to set in. Mission structure begins to get wearily predictable. “I SURE HOPE THERE’S NO AMBUSH WAITING FOR ME UP THERE.” I announce loudly as EGO directs me to yet another deceptively quiet area where my objective is surrounded by a lot of chest-high walls and an ammo box, and my husband and I laugh merrily, but with a bit of mingled frustration. You know exactly what’s going to happen, because regardless of what the mission description says, especially if it’s a side mission, it just boils down to killing things. Kill things long enough to save a thing, or kill things long enough to get things. That’s it. No curveballs, no surprises, no decisions… just more and more staged encounters after while the game dumps experience and treasure on you. Not particularly satisfying if what you’re after is more story, or choice, or even any of that great world building a game tied to a TV show should be offering.
What Defiance gets very right, however, is player interaction. By which I mean there isn’t any, sort of, or at least none that isn’t beneficial to you. Unlike other MMOs where you might squeal in rage to see another player galloping up to steal your kill on a rare monster or steal that rare item drop, in Defiance, you’re almost always glad to see other players because largely, they’re always on your side and can do little but help you out. You get all your own item drops and experience points, so nobody is fighting for loot, and it takes a community to take down some of the big bosses. Players can also resurrect you when you fall, and hop into quests you may be undertaking simply by virtue of being in the area, lending a hand against the game’s frequently daunting odds. I often found myself forming impromptu and immediate alliances with players who showed up simply to help me, or vice versa, and it’s a rare game that makes you happy to see someone coming.
At the moment, however, Defiance’s biggest issue, hands down, is stability. Get used to seeing that crash screen a lot, because as of this writing, you can still hear the game groaning to handle you. Within ten minutes of play, you’ll start to notice your menus being slow to come up. And then your HUD will be even slower to display coming out of them. You might even be frozen in place as this happens, but continue to take damage. And then, suddenly, you get that screen above. Get used to it, because if you play with any frequency for any stretch of time, you’re going to see it a lot. You’ll be booted to the main screen and have to log back in, and it could happen at any time. Mostly it’s an annoyance, but sometimes it can be a potential dealbreaker. I spent upwards of twenty minutes working a major Arkfall only to have the above screen happen to me a split second before I would have gotten my rewards, and the end result was a big fat zero for my time and efforts. Had that been my first experience with the game, I might have shut it off then and there.
It’s easy for the more sanctimonious among us to quickly cry “first world problems” at complaints like that, but here’s the thing. You have the right to expect that the product you pay for be able to perform well when you want to use it. That’s all. That’s the bottom line. And I don’t say that to imply that Trion isn’t working hard to address these concerns, because they are. But at the same time, with this being such a common issue across platforms and PS3 in particular, it seems like stability should be the number one focus before asking us for any more money for DLC.
And largely… they are focused on bug-squashing over anything else. It’s taking a while, largely due to the distressing and somewhat depressing layoffs within the studio, but it’s happening. And though the game is still annoyingly buggy and one-note, it’s also pretty addictive. The thrill of the massive player cooperation in the huge boss battles is exhilarating as the field swarms with enemies, the world is enormous and teeming with sidequests and other time-wasters, and somewhere in here lies a simple but also simply fun multiplayer shooter that seems tailor made for lazy afternoons or an evening to unwind. As the first season of the TV show winds down to a close, one has to wonder what the game is going to do in the “off” season, which is potentially a make in break scenario where keeping and generating players is concerned. Defiance has a lot to offer fans of multiplayer shooters, being challenging and engaging without also being too overcomplicated to scare away newcomers, and while it may not fulfill its crossover potential the way you might hope, it’s unexpectedly entertaining and backed by a team of clearly devoted developers doing all they can to meet player feedback and constantly improve the experience.