Reviews

Defiance

August 1, 2013, Author: Trent Pyro

I can’t be sure, but the idea of a video-game and a TV show being able to influence each other is pretty original. The possibility of your actions in one form of entertainment changing the course of another  more accepted form of entertainment is exciting and is what lends Defiance much of its hype. Developed in tandem, the TV series and the game paint a picture of a world ravaged by war and accidental terraforming. While the show has characters and dialogue and stuff, the game takes the form of probably the first functional, easy-to-use console MMO.

That said, it does rely on you being into your schlocky sci-fi, and if you want to get the full experience you not only have to be into third-person shooters but MMORPGs as well. Have Trion Worlds and SyFy put too much faith in the community with this one? I think yes.

Note: During this review any time I mention ‘Defiance’ I’m referring to the game. If I reference the TV show I’ll make it clear.

Welcome to the New Earth
I’m not going to lay out the entire plot of Defiance for you for two reasons. Firstly, it’s very long and I haven’t managed to finish it yet and secondly, it’s constantly evolving. With each episode of the show broadcast comes a new Episode quest-line for you to enjoy, so by the time you read this there will likely be many more hours of content I haven’t mentioned.

In a nutshell, though, you are an Ark Hunter looking for fame and fortune. Ark Hunters are folk who clamour over the treasure contained in Arkfalls, giant pieces of a destroyed alien mothership that regularly make planetfall and spawn spectacular and terrifying beasties. You quickly meet a chipper Irathient (read: sort of Klingon) girl called Cass who introduces you to the world and the Von Bach corporation; both your company paymasters and your reason for being there.

Chipper is probably pushing it a bit...

Chipper is probably pushing it a bit…

It quickly becomes clear that although the plot is intriguing, it is muddied by the limitations of an MMO framework. It’s tough to strike the right balance between personal journey and universal goal and Trion Worlds don’t seem to have managed it. There were a few occasions when I felt like I was not only a central character but also part of a larger force but these moments were rare and usually associated with the Arkfall events.

Although they are canon, Arkfalls have no story to them. Every few minutes a big, red circle appears on the map and everyone flocks to it to take part in a joint killing effort. It’s during these events that you genuinely feel like you’re seeing the MMO framework operating successfully, as everyone uses the powers they’ve upgraded and the weapons they’ve claimed to work together towards a common goal. As soon as it’s over, though, everyone scatters and you’re back to being on your own.

I think a great MMO doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyed alongside your fellow players, but when the story is specifically written as if you are part of a group, it can feel very lonely at times.

Missions, whether main quests or small tasks, invariably take the form of typical raids, fetch-quests and collection tasks. While I understand it’s difficult to create interesting quests that can be played by a dynamic community automatically and organically, I was expecting at least something innovative. Instead we get the same old MMO staples which when played alone can seem altogether pointless.

Rinse and repeat
Defiance is basically a 3rd-person Borderlands MMO. Sorry, I had to say it. Everything, from the near-identical controls; the upgrade system; the vehicles, feels like it’s been bled from Gearbox’s successful franchise and co-opted into the Defiance lore.

The bulk of the game is combat. You can equip two weapons at a time, as well as a grenade type and a shield, as well as setting up a bunch of loadouts. While these could certainly be easier to switch between, it’s nice to be able to hop from sniper to gunner to tank depending on the situation and without too much hassle.

Firefights themselves come in two almost-polarized forms; easy and enjoyable or rock-hard and tedious. Usually dependant on your level, how open the mission is and whether there’s anyone else with you, you regularly seem to go from impossibly hard mission to cake walk in a matter of minutes. Although the game apparently scales conflicts to match the number of players involved and anyone in the vicinity will be counted without having to party up, solitary combat can be some of the most challenging on offer. Usually I would say this is a good thing but the fact it’s also generally average strips most of the fun away.

You rarely have the bad guys this outnumbered.

You rarely have the bad guys this outnumbered.

It’s fine for a game to be hard but you have to enjoy failing. Defiance‘s combat is that level of samey that borders on apathetic. You pump round after round into the same enemies and get very little feedback for your efforts, save the ridiculous death-dives. Large ‘brute’ enemies are even worse, the health bar floating above their heads the only indication of how close they are to dropping. Your shield is regularly hammered to nothing in a matter of seconds, while even the most basic enemies can soak up entire clips without breaking a sweat. The upgrade system doesn’t help much either.

Based around four abilities with branching perks to be unlocked as you level, it seems to be going for a mix between Borderlands-esque special abilities and a traditional MMORPG skill system. It generally sits uncomfortably in-between. While each power is useful, they feel like an afterthought; simply the first few cool-sounding powers the writers could think of. Blur is a speed-boost, letting you dart about like a nutter and at the later stages reduce the damage you take. Cloak does what it says on the tin, allowing you brief invisibility and bonuses to damage if you can make good use of it. Decoy sends out a holographic you to confuse enemies, letting you make your escape or find a better position. Its later levels even allow you to swap places with it. Overcharge makes your weapons glow a neat haze of red and makes them do more damage.

My descriptions may sound underwhelming but they’re the most pragmatic I could come up with. All four powers are flawed in some way and tragically these flaws often only become clear at in the later levels. Blur is always useful but you often move so fast you end up in a shitty place when it wears off. Cloak is neat but only seems to be useful for escaping overwhelming firefights and even then as soon as you fire off a few rounds the enemy knows where you are again. Decoy’s high-level ability is hilariously poor, most of the time basically teleporting you right into harms way. The idea that you’d want to take the place of your blatant distraction is insane. Finally, Overcharge never really seems to evolve much past helping you do more damage, although the instant reload is useful.

My beef is not with the powers themselves but with how underdeveloped they are. When you have an MMO with five classes and thirty abilities for each, it’s okay to have one-hit moves and short-term buffs. When you have no classes and just four main abilities, they need to be either awesome or very adaptable; two qualities that I could never honestly apply to Defiance‘s attempt.

Leveling is odd too. Instead of having a simple, understandable level numbering system, Trion have instead gone with a baffling ‘EGO rating’ system. You start at 10, then seem to randomly acquire higher numbers as you play. I tried to work out the system and I think it has something to do with XP and how you choose to upgrade your powers but I never could figure it out.

Getting around is neat with summonable vehicles for everyone. While the first one is free, new models and types have to be bought with hard-earned scrip. They serve little purpose other than to jet you around the vast landscape.

Unfortunately this doesn't feel as cool as it looks...

Unfortunately this doesn’t feel as cool as it looks…

Commerce is often the key to any good MMO and Defiance manages some semblance of success in this area. Although everything is always very expensive, this prevents everyone from owning the best gear and makes you work for your rewards. It can feel a little sickening, though, when the real-money shop comes into play.

As with any MMO, you can use cash to buy special in-game currency that can be spent on exclusive gear. Considering most games that use this microtransaction system are free-to-play and actively try to avoid the ‘pay-to-win’ stigma, Defiance brashly makes you pay £40 for the game and then more money if you want the cool stuff. The fastest cars and most brutal weapons are available after just hours of play if you have the money to pay for them, or Dad’s credit card handy. I won’t go on about it but I have to say it’s pretty galling when you buy a new truck with hours of hard-earned script only to see a player with half your EGO rating jetting off in a vehicle twice as good because he has the cash to throw at the game and you don’t.

Overall, Defiance is not as brilliant in practice as it is in concept. The average and often overly-tough combat makes the rarely inspiring missions feel chore-like. Of course, this is an MMO we’re talking about and playing with others is a necessary thing to get the right experience.

It’s a shame, then, that while the automatic grouping system is effective and clever, the more traditional ways of playing together are fundamentally broken. While it’s easy to form and maintain guilds, simply partying is made needlessly fussy by a broken instance system. While attempting to group with only one friend we had a myriad of phasing issues right from the start. Although it may have stemmed from the fact we were playing missions he had already completed, many other MMOs have found simple remedies to this common challenge and it’s not really a valid excuse any more.

We found it incredibly difficult to actually play together. We phased to each others instances numerous times in attempts to synch our supposedly juxtaposed experiences and only found that made things worse. Enemies would regularly vanish entirely for one of us, while the other would not be able to see his fellow teammate. At one point, a mission phase randomly switched halfway through to a version from my friends continuity, instantly rendering the mission broken as the game thought we’d already done it. After hours of trying and many failed attempts, we simply stuck together and made use of the auto-grouping structure.

Defiance also offers two kinds of instanced multiplayer that fall more in line with the expected shooter experience. Co-op missions take the form of enclosed mini-quests and are immense fun. While the matchmaking leaves something to be desired (I was regularly teamed with players ten-times my rating), if you manage to get into a team of similarly leveled players the feeling of co-operation is awesome. These closed narratives are often more compelling than those of the regular missions and raise some questions about Trion’s ability to tell long-term stories.

The co-op maps are brilliant...

The co-op maps are brilliant…

Competitive games use maps inspired by the game’s varied locations and are generally unremarkable. Fervent fans of shooting people in the face may find enjoyment bringing their custom character into a versus environment but I found nothing special to keep me around past the first few deathmatches.

Taking the trophy for most exciting group mode is almost certainly the Arkfall. As I mentioned before, these global events draw in players from far and wide and are incredibly enjoyable. The common issue of being overwhelmed disappears as sometimes hundreds of other gamers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you, pushing back the enemy. The large foe in the centre of the conflict takes a different form dependent on your location, ranging from a basic glowy rock to a fantastic, Terminator-like, flying, cloaking, shit-scary robot boss. The swarms of smaller foes spat out around the main enemy escalate as the event progresses and the sense of tense and panicked battle is palpable. The only shame is that most of the main missions never approach this level of cohesion, excitement or quality.

The future is brown
Defiance doesn’t look amazing. Textures are basic and often muddy, the engine regularly struggling to cope with the volume of information an MMO structure creates. The draw distance can often be hilariously poor, with fenceposts and walls appearing a split-second before you crash into them. While Trion seem to have mostly fix the common problem of lag, they appear to have done so by making the game run like a geriatric PS2 adventure title.

Design-wise it’s a mixed experience. Defiance‘s Earth is supposed to be a crudely terraformed wasteland so I expected lots of alien plantlife and fauna, however the amount of brown on show is incredible. While each massive map has its own look and design, within that it’s hard to differentiate one demolished hospital from another.

Enemies fit basic types at first with only the smallest of creativity, branching out eventually into some inventive machines and vicious alien warriors. When you’re wiping them out in repetitive, respawning droves I suppose it’s hard to care too much.

The latter areas do improve somewhat, with a later map being about the closest we’re going to get to a decent Terminator game until someone takes the logical step of creating a slick, 3rd-person shooter set in the future war depicted in the first film.

Why do we have to wait until one of the final locations for enemies this cool?

Why do we have to wait until one of the final locations for enemies this cool?

Fut, fut, fut, fut…
While the main theme and elements of the score are shared with the TV series, most of the music in Defiance is relatively standard. Sweeping strings mixed with the occasional techno hit allude to a typical modern sci-fi drama.

The various enemies in the game have their own distinct sounds but their generally basic design prevents them from being unique in the field of either sci-fi or video-games. There’s not much here in the way of a Mass Effect Reaper or a Left 4 Dead Hunter.

Guns generally sound weak and as you’d expect with the notable exception of the more alien tech. Even grenades fail to excite, although considering the amount of rounds you’ll be losing in your time with the game it’s doubtful any quality of gunshot sound would fail to become tiring after a while.

Not quite defiant enough
So the big question is whether Defiance has broken the mold and succeeded in being the first functioning, genuinely good console MMO. The answer is dependant on how you look at it. If you were expecting the next step in console multiplayer; a truly living world packed with other players for you to interact with, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. While Defiance manages the technological challenges of that model relatively well considering its novelty, it fails to conjure either a world you want to spend endless hours in or a community spirit that keeps you revisiting.

If you were simply looking for a new shooter experience that was a change from the usual TDM, XP, level up repetition and you’ve got precious little experience of MMOs, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Defiance. Its technical shortcomings and generally banal design will probably prevent it from becoming your most played game ever, but it’s got enough going for it to occupy your time until you realise the next set of missions are the same as the last set of missions, but with different cut-scenes.

The chief necessity of any MMO is to convince its players to continue returning to its world on a regular basis. A single-player game like, say, Arkham City doesn’t give a damn how often you play it. It’s not even bothered if you complete it once and chuck it in the bin. An MMO is like a time vampire; it needs your hours to justify its existence. If you leave it for a week the world moves on and you’re a week behind. It won’t wait for you, so you can’t afford to ignore it if you want to retain whatever experience you’re enjoying from it.

Defiance fails in this most basic requirement because it fails to inspire. It’s proved that it’s
not enough to take a basic, 3rd person, Borderlands-style template and bolt it to a standard MMO model. Playing Defiance makes you realise, if it was ever unknown, how much work goes into creating a great MMO and how utterly tedious they can be if that work is not done. It’s no surprise the majority of Defiance‘s world is populated by the sort of players you normally see haunting the CoD lobbies and pwning n00bs. The game offers only a little more than a constant wave of enemies broken up by occasional cut-scenes and doesn’t really require you to pay attention to any of them.

I would say that by the time you read this review, the world of Defiance will have moved on almost as much as the TV series it shares its name with. Buying it now will open you up to a world of lagging behind and tailgating. The ship has sailed, the train has left the station. You can always catch a late arrival though, if the destination is something that interests you.

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