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Defiance Review

Posted by Chad Habel On Tuesday 7 May 2013Comments Off

Available on 360, PS3 and PC l Published and developed by Trion Worlds l Classified MA15+ l Massively Multiplayer

REVIEW IN BRIEF > Defiance has generated a lot of hype. Arguably it is the first “true” experiment in transmedia. The game (developed by Trion Worlds) and the TV series (produced by the SyFy channel) have been collaboratively developed from the very beginning, and there are even suggestions that developments in the game world will crop up in future seasons of the show. Unfortunately, the game itself is less than spectacular. Although it suffers from a general lack of polish, the things it does do well (especially the MMO elements) are pretty compelling.

REVIEW IN FULL > Defiance has tried to steer clear of a generic post apocalyptic setting by positioning the game on Earth (specifically, the Bay area around San Francisco) in the not-too-distant future. A variety of alien species have now come to live on Earth, having spent some time in an alliance known at the Votan Collective in orbit around Earth. This was a migration, not an invasion, meaning that relations between humans and alien races take on the character of racial divisions. Some sort of cataclysm brought down the alien ships along with a raft of objects known as Ark Technology. This has attracted Ark Hunters seeking fame and fortune, as well as Hellbugs who erupt from underground burrows to attack those who seek to loot the Arkfalls.

…once you have built up your skills in one weapon type it becomes difficult to diversify. Starting over with a much weaker weapon class is a strong disincentive.

At its core, Defiance is a third person RPG shooter with heavy MMO elements. Upon starting a game, you select your character from human or an alien race and there are a limited range of appearance modifications possible. You are then given a brief tutorial and the option of selecting one of four powers, which range from cloaking to mobility to decoy to overpowered firearms. Already the core playstyles emerge, and it becomes clear that there will be options to snipe, tank, or sneak. Your character is endowed with an AI-driven Environmental Guardian Online (EGO) device which gives missions and monitors progress, only occasionally offering unwelcome and annoying advice.

Unfortunately, once you have chosen a power you are rather hemmed in by that early choice. A skill tree allows you to branch out, but only after heavy investment in moving towards a new power, and the RPG design strongly guides you towards consolidating your skills in a particular area. Similarly, once you have built up your skills in one weapon type it becomes difficult to diversify. Starting over with a much weaker weapon class is a strong disincentive. Fortunately the world is expansive enough, and the missions are diverse enough, that if you choose to branch out then it is quite possible.

In the large open world map you are given a stock vehicle that can be summoned at any time. Like walking and running, the vehicle controls are very floaty and loose. They are forgiving but not even as well-designed as a moderate arcade racer, and they take quite some getting used to. Combat is similarly disembodied. Weapons feel somewhat generic, producing only different damage and animations. Melee is particularly ghostly. There is no thudding impact or any sense of physical engagement at all, which really reduces the opportunities for any stealth playstyles. Unfortunately, then, the core gameplay is less than satisfying.

What Trion has done well is design emergent mission offerings in an MMO environment that is quite new for many console players. Simply driving around the world introduces you to mission instances: allies that have been taken hostage by raiders, Hellbugs that have just emerged from underground, or mutants who are attacking friendlies. This gives Defiance a spontaneity that is quite engaging. You can take up the mission or drive on by, depending on how you feel.

Defiance regularly requires large patches (it can take hours to play for the first time)

Even better, Defiance supports a persistent MMO interactivity whereby other players can just drop in and out of your world, even in main missions. This blurs the line between the game world and players in the real world, and often missions are almost impossible without this kind of teamwork. In large raid-type missions (mostly Arkfalls with many strong enemies) you will find yourself teaming up with literally dozens of other players to take down a massive enemy, which is a truly spectacular event to be a part of. It works very well even on console, and in these events bugs and glitches are surprisingly rare.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the rest of the game. Defiance regularly requires large patches (it can take hours to play for the first time) and depending on servers and connections, frustrating game-breaking glitches can appear. On occasion it is impossible to keep a safe (sniping) distance from enemies because they wink out of existence only to respawn as soon as that distance is closed by a couple of feet. These glitches make for a very uneven experience that is much less forgivable than the generally loose gameplay.

Defiance is a game that begs to be loved, and then makes it impossible. Unpolished gameplay and a range of bugs detract from a very promising and enjoyable MMO experience and instance-based mission structure. It remains to be seen how the game develops alongside its TV series counterpart, but commentators may be right in wondering whether either will last long enough to bear fruit. The general gameplay and multiplayer reveals the potential but also the current limitations in game design and technology. Defiance is almost certainly a harbinger of what is to come in titles like Destiny, but it also shows that we are not quite there yet.

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