Reviews

Defiance (The Game) – Review

Defiance-Video-Game-cover

Platforms: Xbox 360, PC and Playstation 3
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Trion Worlds
Publisher: Trion Worlds
Singleplayer: No.
Multiplayer: Yes. 1-10,000+
PEGI:  18+

NOTES: This review was written based upon the 1.013 patch. 

Creating a hybrid between game and TV show where one can influence the other is a pretty daring enterprise, yet that’s exactly what Trion Worlds have attempted to do with Defiance, an MMO in game form and a sci-fi TV show on the SyFy network. But while the show is off to a good start with cheesy yet highly entertaining writing and amusing characters the game is facing  rockier going as it battles numerous problems to deliver a rare thing: a console MMO, one that also happens to be a third-person shooter rather than an RPG. What is the world coming to?

As someone who doesn’t really play MMOs, since I’m a console gamer and as we’ve covered they’re a rare breed on those, I entered Defiance with a degree of trepidition, unsure as to what to expect or even how exactly I should approach this review. As such you need to clearly understand that every word in this possibly confused and jumbled review is written from the perspective of someone who has only dabbled in the genre like a small child splashing around in the kiddie pool. Hopefully, though, that’ll prove to be a good thing, because since MMOs are rare on consoles there’s going to be a lot of people like me picking up Defiance that have never touched another example of the genre and are faintly confused by all the technical jargon getting tossed around the place.

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The game doesn’t waste much time in dumping you into a vast world filled with many activities to partake of, most of which follow a simple formula of going to place X, killing the things and then pressing X at 3 to 6 different boxes/panels etc. Truth be told it’s actually a fairly directionless game in many ways, one which leaves you free to wander around without any one factor really driving players forward, a fact which you’ll either cheerfully accept or utterly hate.  There is a thin plot underlining everything you do, but a mixture of weak writing, crappy characters and just a generally dull narrative mean that the plot doesn’t make you want to push onward, a theme which runs throughout the game. The first slip up the game makes is that it fails to capitalise on its connections to the TV show as fully as it could by not  really explaining anything about the premise and history of Defiance’s universe. You’re dumped on a version of Earth that has been terraformed where there’s now seven different alien races running around alongside humans and a load of dangerous wildlife attempting to murder you in the face, though to be fair most of the humanoids are also trying to murder you in your face. The show gives us with a fairly interesting and rich background that provides us with context for everything that is going, but the game doesn’t, simply chucking you in and hoping you’ll read some of the unlockable text in the Intel menu rather than actually taking the time to explain it to you and therefore draw you in. There’s bound to be quite a lot of people picking up Defiance the game that don’t even know about the show, and so really delving into the Defiance MMO would have been a great way to get them interested in the TV series as well. Hell, Trion could have even asked to have the first 15-minutes or so of the first episode put on to the game disc for us to watch.

Happily I did watch the show and so I was familiar with the basics of everything going on around me. That, however, didn’t stop the story from being a drag. You take on the role of an Ark-Hunter working for a man by the name of Von Bach who has in his possession a piece of dangerous piece of technology. Afer the ship you’re on crashes the tech is lost, and so your job is to get it back like the good little minion you are. And that’s it, the story doesn’t get any more complex than that. Worse still, it commits an ancient writing sin by simply having the goal constantly pulled just a little bit further away by string held by the writers: every time you get close to getting your mitts on the tech it’s dragged just out of reach again. This is repeated over and over and over, making for one drab storyline, especially when the best excuse the writers can come up with is a character simply saying that he never had it in the first place. The dialogue throughout is weak apart from a few funny lines, and the quality of acting is also pretty low. Strangely, mind you, there is a sort of perverse pleasure to be taken from Von Bach who is about the only decent character out of the bunch. Anyway, as a result of all of this the story-based missions don’t do anything to make you want to keep going.

You'd almost think it was a racing game! It's not, mind.

You’d almost think it was a racing game! It’s not, mind.

Neither do the game’s missions give you any real reason to continue playing, although nobody could complain that there isn’t enough of them of dotted around the place. From a purely bang for your buck perspective you’re getting a considerable amount of content in Defiance that will keep you going for a long time indeed. Progression through the main storyline missions – which are a generic bunch that use the exact formula I listed earlier of going to a place, shooting some things and then pressing X on some things – opens up various side-missions for you to tackle whenever you please, and each of these missions awards you with XP and some shiny loot.. These side missions should present ample opportunity for some interesting mission types outside of the bland lot we see in the storyline and cool rewards, or at least that’s what you might expect, but sadly they’re a fairly tedious bunch, falling firmly into the ‘grind’ category of mission style. A few brief lines of text and the same repeated voice-overs gives you some bloody poor context for what you’re doing, which you’ll likely skip straight past anyway, but essentially it always boils down to going to this place marked on your map and holding down X at various points, while killing some stuff, which is coincidentally almost the exactly same formula the storyline missions employ for most of their shenanigans. At first that’s fine, but after just a few of these missions you’ll begin to realise that nothing is going to change and a sense of monotony takes firm root, leaving you to simply mindlessly charge through them so that you can gain some XP and loot with which to balm your soul, but even that’s not enough, as it transpires.

Ah,  XP and loot. If anything can give a game a sense of progression to drive you through the gameplay then it’s XP and loot, right? yet sadly Defiance manages to get these a little wrong as well. At the start of the game you’re given a chance to pick from one of four pretty bland abilities that your character can use; Blur, which speeds you up; Cloak, which does what it says; Decoy, another obvious one, and Overcharge, which bumps up your damage output. Every enemy killed and mission or challenge completed awards you with XP, and when enough is earned you’ll be given the change to spend some of your earned points on Perks to bolster your character, but like the abilities themselves these perks are an uninspiring lot, and there effects on your virtual avatar are often barely noticeable and fail to change the combat in any meaningful way. Usually levelling up in a game (although you don’t technically level up in Defiance) is an exciting time – when the words pop up on-screen that I’ve gained another level  I’d usually get excited, but here I’d find myself completely ignoring it, amassing points to spend because the Perks weren’t interesting enough for me to bother with.

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As for loot Defiance does get some of the basics right: there’s a good variety of guns, shields and grenades on offer just waiting to tap into a gamer’s basic lust for new gear, all featuring color-coded rarity and able to be modified with a variety of parts. If everything else fails to propel players forward then surely the lust for loot, the all-consuming need for more stuff, should be the driving force behind you completing every damn quest and shooting every damn thing, right? Wrong, as it turns out. The main problem is that better loot comes along very rarely, and when it does its stats are barely any better than what you’ve already got equipped – At one point I wound up using the same set of weapons for about eight or ten hours because nothing better or more interesting turned up. In games like Borderlands 2 or even Darksiders 2 loot is the driving force behind the game because every time an enemy drops loot or you discover a chest it’s an exciting moment as you’re always hopeful that it will be something really cool or more powerful than what you’ve already got, and  better loot always comes at just the right time to keep you playing.   In Defiance, though, that’s just not the case; loot drops simply aren’t exciting. And so once again I come back to my theme of just what is actually driving you to play Defiance, because it’s not the loot, either.

However, by awarding you with loot that is only marginally better it does mean that Defiance is a pretty balanced game. For another player to have any major advantage over you in terms of equipment they’d need to be an obscene amount of levels higher than you, and even then I’m not entirely sure if it wold be a truly huge difference, so that means that new players can still be helpful and effective in battles alongside grizzled veterans who have dedicated their life to the game. Likewise in the game’s competitive modes (I’m getting there, just hold on a bit) it ensures that new players aren’t outgunned by long-time players simply because their gear is like something out of Star Trek in comparison to your puny little pistol that spits seeds at people. And that sort of leaves me feeling conflicted about the loot system: is maintaining a good balance like this worth sacrificing the deep satisfaction to be had from a great loot system that rewards you in a well-paced manner with better gear? It’s perhaps the single greatest question of our generation, even more so than that one about life, the universe and everything.

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Aside from your run of the mill side-missions there’s a couple of other activities you can take part in scattered around the vast land. Time Trials need little explaining and give you a chance to test your car/buggy/quad bike, which can, incidentally, be summoned at any time by tapping up on the D-pad, allowing you to get around pretty quickly, especially when used in conjunction with the fast travel system. But while the handling system and physics behind vehicles is solid enough for when you’re just getting from place to place and occasionally chucking yourself off of big cliffs, it doesn’t really have enough to it to make Time Trials very interesting. Other things you can do with your time include Rampage missions, which task you with killing enemies using specific weapons. Out of the basic side-missions these are perhaps some of the best for the simple reason that they at least provide some extra variety: one time you’ll be mowing down bad guys with a minigun, and the next you’ll be shooting chickens with a handgun. Sharpshooter challenge also bring some more fun to the table.

While you’re driving or running around the place there’s also random encounters to be found, ranging from a blockade on the road that needs to be cleared to rescuing some hostages or helping troops hold a position. They don’t break the standard gameplay mold of shooting everything in the face until it stops shooting back, but since they’re random events you encounter and don’t take too long to complete they’re considerably more fun than the missions you actually sign-up for. They also present a nice opportunity for players to come together, however briefly. Emotes and call-outs can be quickly selected from a menu accessed via D-Pad so that you can congratulate or otherwise taunt the players around you.

Ark-Falls: they look far more spectacular in screenshots than in the actual game.

Ark-Falls: they look far more spectacular in screenshots than in the actual game.

These little events take a backseat to their big brothers, though. These massive world events are named Ark-Falls and are one of the few moments when Defiance actually feels like an MMO: people from around the map will create conveys of vehicles as they all hurtle toward a major Ark-Fall event, each and ever one determined to score some big XP for their trouble. Minor Ark-Falls have you battling Hellbugs and other enemies in fairly small scale skirmishes, while major Ark-Falls are composed of several little ones and then a final big boss battle, and will usually attract a hell of a lot of players from around the world. They’re easily the single best thing in the entire game, which is why its a little sad that even these get boring fairly quickly. After just a few big Ark-Falls I had lost most of my enthusiasm for them, because they all feel pretty much the same: you go there and you hold down the trigger until the things are dead. There’s no teamwork required in these events. The players around you could be replaced by NPCs and it wouldn’t make any real difference – you and the AI would still just stand there and hold the trigger until things die..

That’s largely because Defiance doesn’t feel much like an MMO. Sure, there are a lot of other people roaming the map, but any interaction with them is largely just coincidence. On console the world is oddly quiet with nobody talking to each other, though that’s also partly the fault of the console fanbase, and the game doesn’t seem to make any effort to bring players together and form a genuine community other than in the co-op missions, which are a highlight of the game, even if they also follow the same mission structure as everything else in this game does. And so for most of the time it feels like you’re largely on your own, despite the fact that there are loads of other players running around the place. You can embark on storyline missions with other players, but only if you either communicate with them so that you both start it at the same time or if you just happen to run in to somebody while playing through it. Actually running in to other players doing the same mission as you is kind of cool and acts almost like a bonding moment as you and the other players battle your way to the objective, and so it would have been nice if Trion had included a way of searching for others doing the same mission as you. As I mentioned when talking about the Ark-Falls, you could honestly just replace all the other players with AI controlled characters and I wouldn’t even notice the difference. It’d be nice to see features introduced that bring players together, like missions that require true teamwork and perhaps trading areas where you can swap gear.

Co-op missions are a highlight. Also, there's an anger management joke in this screenshot.

Co-op missions are a highlight. Also, there’s an anger management joke in this screenshot.

Contracts and Pursuits are yet another way of earning XP and even some bonus rewards like new outfits for your character to wear, although far more outfits need to be made available to players so that we don’t all look-alike, especially since the game’s character creation tool at the beginning of the story is painfully lacking in options. Contracts are done for the various Factions within Defiance and earn you points upon completion with said Faction that can be used to purchase items from Faction specific vendors which tend to stock rarer items. Contracts come in both weekly and daily form, so there’s always new ones for you to complete, and are probably the only thing in this entire game that truly give you a decent sense of progression and drive. As for Pursuits they’re essentially a series of goals for you to complete ranging from basic exploration to killing certain enemies with certain guns. For completionists there’s bloody loads of these to complete, and more are being added all the time, so prepare to either eventually give up the game or your entire life.

Another thing which should also be covered is the claims of Defiance being a TV/MMO hybrid, the concept being that the TV show can actually influence the game and vice versa. At the time of writing the influence the shoe has had over the game has been minimal at best and is hardly even worth mentioning, usually just taking the form of some simple missions. Still, it’s a damn good idea and hopefully as the show continues (it has been picked up for a second season) we’ll see Trion really get to grips with it.

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But now we come to the core of the game: combat. The vast majority of your time in Defiance is going to be spent either shooting things or driving to a place where you will shoot things, and therefore the core mechanics of said shooting need to be impressive. Trion have made one absolutely correct decision, here: combat is entirely based on a player’s skill, rather than by stats – you won’t miss a shot because a combination of statistics and dice rolls made you, you’ll just miss it because you’re a lousy shot that should not allowed to hold a freaking spoon, let alone a gun Apart from that wise choice, though, the combat in Defiance is pretty standard third-person stuff but without any of the flair and polish of the big boys. Enemies are mostly brain-dead, so combat comes down sinking an entire clip of ammo into the bad guys, who can indeed soak up quite a bit of damage, and then repeating that process until they’re all dead, or you are. The only challenge comes from sheer numbers rather than intelligent foes. There’s also a dodge mechanic, but it’s a touch unresponsive and therefore cannot always be trusted to get you out of danger. Don’t take this the wrong way, mind you, because while combat in Defiance isn’t anything special it is pretty solid. Serviceable, would perhaps be the word – it does its job, but little more. There’s a degree of satisfaction to be had from it, though every battle feels pretty much like the last one. Still, as solid as it is the combat does also contribute to my overarching theme that there isn’t anything here driving you forward, making you want to keep playing. The combat just isn’t good enough for that.

Aside from simply blasting AI controlled foes into little pieces you can also test your virtual mettle against other plays in the game’s player vs player modes, of which there’s three to choose from. The two most basic simply put two-teams of six players against each other in small maps. In these smaller modes, though, against real opponents the core combat mechanics don’t hold up all that well. But is it fast and frantic, if nothing else, and therefore quite enjoyable when played in brief blasts in between completing missions and taking on Ark-Falls. Where things do get more interesting is in Shadow Wars, huge 32 vs 32 events that take place over large, open areas of the map where you must capture and hold objectives. Due to the scale and nature of this mode the  combat isn’t as noticeably unrefined and simple as it is in the smaller modes, and so this huge battles are a hell of a lot of fun, though do be warned at the moment those wielding a mix of shotgun and cloak seem to have the edge over everyone else. Even cooler is that while you’re in the middle of a Shadow War, perhaps making your way from a far on the edge of a cost up into the mountains to take a new point, there’s still other plays taking part in normal missions around you. At first it’s sort of distracting you might end up trying to unload a clip of ammo into someone who isn’t even in the Shadow War, but once you get used to it it’s nice to see other gamers just going about their business while you’re trying to fight for your life. Do also note that all the gear you’ve earned from missions and whatnot does carry over into PvP, so there’s no separation between the two.

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As for the world itself it’s a pretty dull place to inhabit. The game’s not exactly impressive on the graphical front, but that’s not much of a problem because I wouldn’t really expect a console MMO to be pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, it’s just that the art-style is pretty uninspiring stuff, and there’s not much reason to venture off the beaten path to check things out. It would have been nice if Trion had strewn some loot chests around the place or some cool landmarks to encourage you to explore the vast landscape, but as it stands venturing over the hill just reveals another drab hill which looks exactly the same as the last one. There’s just so much space, and yet so little done with it, which is also arguably the definition of what is between a politicians ears.

There’s also some other problems we need to tackle in this mish-mash of words before I attempt to sum everything up in one glorious example of awful wordsmithing. The first among these is that on console (I cannot comment on the PC version) the game struggles to cope when there’s a lot of players and enemies on-screen, which mostly occurs during Ark-Falls. The frame-rate will cough, splutter and nearly come to a grinding halt at times, making it pretty hard to play. It’s a serious problem that is in need if fixing, but whether or not it can be remains to be seen. The sound will also struggle during large events, with the sound effects for guns and more simply vanishing, leaving you in a strange world of semi-silence that’s punctuated by the occasional burst of gunfire or  a scream that comes out of nowhere. I also encountered a couple of small glitches and problems throughout the game, like areas not loading in properly or your HUD disappearing for a few minutes. The mist irritating was a weapon reload glitch in which my gun wouldn’t reload properly, sometimes having to run through animations quite a few times before it was successful. There was also previously a myriad of glitches in Defiance, but I’m pleased to say that during the course of this review they were largely ironed out by patches and updates.

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Speaking of patches and updates, that does bring us to a touchy subject of late: when it comes to MMOs, and even SimCity, there’s a group of people who seem to feel that a review should not be very harsh on the game’s problems and glitches at first, the reasoning being that all MMOs have rough starts and that these problems will be fixed in future updates and the like. It’s important, then, I feel, to set the record straight: my perspective is that a review is based upon the product that the reviewer has in his or her hands at the time of writing, and that no genre should be given any leeway in comparison to others when it comes to bugs or problems. Everyone goes raving mad should a bug exist in Call of Duty at launch, so why should any other game get different treatment? Bugs and problems should be mentioned in reviews. Furthermore, I do not believe any game should be judged on potential. I cannot in good conscience review a game based upon what it may, or more importantly may not be, a week or even several months down the line. Imagine if a reviewer ignored a major problem in the game, because “It’ll get fixed” and then that problem never does get fixed? That would be unacceptable. Therefore this review of Defiance is based upon the product as it stood at the time of writing, and includes any and all flaws and problems as I see them.

However, should I find Defiance has changed considerably down the line I certainly will consider writing a follow-up article, and include a link to it in this review, because an MMO is an ever-changing beast, and therefore certainly deserves to be kept an eye on. Furthermore, I will certainly concede that Defiance does have massive potential: with the right updates and content added this could easily jump in score up to a 3, or even to a 4.

So, let’s return to the topic at hand. The recurring theme is exactly what about this game actually makes you want to keep playing? Because, you see, despite everything I’ve said in this review Defiance is a strangely compelling game, and I can’t put my finger on why. It’s not due to the story, because that’s boring. It’s not due to the shooting, because that’s pretty simple. It’s not due to the missions, because those are repetitive. It’s not due to the loot, because it’s kind of dull. It’s not due to it being an MMO, because it doesn’t really feel like one most of the time. Despite this, though, I found myself wanting to keep playing the game, even though I couldn’t say I was actually having any fun while doing, or even enjoying myself. It’s just easy to fall into a routine of turning it on, doing a mission or two, taking part in an Ark-Fall, driving off a cliff and tackling an enemy group, all in a mindless sort of haze.

In many ways, then, Defiance can be compared to Borderlands. Borderlands had  considerably better loot and combat system’s, making it all round a vastly better game, though I hasten to add that while they’re similar they’re still very different games, but the two both share that strange compulsion that I cannot adequately describe, which is why I’m using this comparison, because many people out there have played Borderlands and will understand that odd desire to keep going. Borderlands, like Defiance, has a weak story, a fairly bland yet massive world and repetitive missions, and yet you still want to play it for hours on end, even though that many of individual elements aren’t that strong. So the conclusion that I must reach about Defiance is that like Borderlands it’s not until you put all those single elements together that the magical compulsion, which still can’t be explained, reveals itself.

So, would I recommend Defiance? That’s a question I’m struggling to answer: from a more personal perspective I do recommend picking it up because it’s a unique experience on the MMO starved consoles, but from a more critical standpoint I don’t view it as a very strong title, with mechanics that are serviceable but nothing more. There’s absolutely loads of potential here and space for vast amounts of growth, bringing me to the conclusion that unless you’re a major MMO fan looking for a new fix, or a console gamer who really wants to know what all of this MMO malarkey is, you should probably just hold off until the game’s dropped in price and it has had time to grow.

The Good:
+ It’s packing plenty of missions.
+ Shooting is solid.
+ Huge world. With people in it!
+ It’s an MMO on consoles! That’s almost as rare as a funny clown.

The Bad:
–  The story.
- Everything is just serviceable. Average. That’s it.
– Doesn’t feel an MMO at times.

The Verdict: 2.5/5 – Okay, bordering on good.
Defiance has massive potential and room to expand and grow, but as of right now everything about it is just average, with the occasional good or great moment. I look forward to seeing how it’s getting on down the line.

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