Defiance Review

Lee Abrahams

No doubt a few of you, like me, think of THAT South Park episode when you think of MMORPG titles. Games that seem to sap hours upon hours of your time for very little in the way of rewards at the end of it. After all, when a game can theoretically go on forever, there can be little in the way of a satisfying denouement. Of course the beauty of such a game is taking part in a vibrant world filled with your friends and a few rivals, people you can quest with, level up with and generally wreak havoc with. Such entries into the console market have been few and far between and have been arguably unsuccessful.

So here we have Defiance, a game that cannily hopes to marry the long term adventuring of a traditional MMORPG with a whole lot of shooting that seems to be rather popular on consoles these days. Considering the success of shooter-style RPG’s such as Borderlands and Fallout, surely it’s a chance to print money? Only things are never quite that easy. So let's free up 10GB of hard drive space and prepare to do some Ark hunting.

Tying itself into a TV show gives Defiance a unique angle to exploit. Characters from the show turn up in the game itself to provide you with backup and missions, plus unique episodic content crops up allowing you a peek into the backstory of the show. It’s a clever two way transmedia street but one that feels undermined thanks to the heavy handed dialogue and clichéd roster of people. Arrogant scientists, unyielding lawmakers, snooty politicians and glib ark hunters; it’s like a who’s what of lazy script writing. None of which would matter if they had anything interesting to say, as shows like Firefly show that clever dialogue can carry a cliché. Instead they trot out rote comments and dreary one-liners. It’s hardly a good advertisement for the show.

The game looks nothing like this.

The game is not exactly a looker either, with constant frame-rate issues, screen tearing and woeful textures. However, there is obviously a lot going on in the game so perfection is hardly to be expected, but when you look at the screens on this review they really aren’t indicative of just how shoddy the game looks a lot of the time. Despite having such a large world to roam around in, the environments never really show a massive amount of variety with the same crumbling buildings showing up in every corner and each group of enemies having pretty much five variants to blast in the face. The voice acting and sound effects are fairly amateurish too and don’t seem to marry well with the coordinated TV show and the length of development.

Still no one comes to an MMO title looking for a spectacular story, instead choosing to feast upon a wealth of exploration and options. To start with you can choose your race, face and starting class, all of which is rendered irrelevant within minutes when you realise that none of the options actually matter beyond the superficial. It doesn’t really have an impact what race, gender or class you choose, the only difference will be your starting outfit and weapon. Seeing as you can pick up new duds and weaponry within minutes the whole set up seems pointless. Throw in the fact that every player will have the same skill tree to go at and you have to wonder why a few more unique options weren’t on offer. Surely it would have been no hardship to offer each race and character a few options that would make them stand out from the crowd?

Still with a face and background to your liking you can strap in and head on down for some adventure. As you first crash land into the Bay area, the whole world seems to be within your reach and after a few tutorial missions to get the lay of the land, and an all important ride, you are left to roam free. However, therein lies the problem as Trion seems to expect newcomers to have the same knowledge of an MMO as serious PC veterans would. The tutorials teach gamers how to shoot stuff and open boxes, key skills that I’m fairly sure most gamers would have down pat by now. What they don’t teach you is how the clan/group system works, how to use multiple loadouts, how to assign and upgrade perks, how to mod or breakdown weapons, how contracts work, how to access multiplayer maps or delve into co-op missions. In fact the list of things that are never explained far outweighs the list of things that are.

Navigating through the menus can be a confusing process, and it takes a fair share of trial and error to master every aspect of the game. All of that could have been avoided with a more thorough tutorial, or at least the option of one. Instead players are expected to fend for themselves and it makes those first few hours a more frustrating process than it should be. It doesn’t help that the in-game map has absolutely no place names on it at all, something which you hope will be added in future. It makes going back to places to complete Contracts and other tasks a bit of a drag.

No seriously, it’s nothing like this.

Still despite the lack of help on offer the game is easy to pick and play as long as you know how a third-person shooter works (you do know how they work, right?). Grab a gun and mow down some foes, whether they are hellbugs, mutants, 99ers or Dark Matter troops. Shooting doesn’t feel as tight as it should do though and the erratic AI doesn’t help matters by basically running in straight lines towards you until you gun them down, or die trying. You can duck behind cover but occasionally bullets and explosions will blast right through it for no reason, or enemies will just run around behind you regardless. If that sounds like strategic thinking, it’s really not, the AI just constantly tries to take the shortest path towards you regardless of the cost.

Certainly the game offers up a plethora of tasks to occupy your time, with main missions progressing your movement through the Bay area, while sidequests pop up to provide you with the chance to earn extra XP, scrap and resources. Along the way you can also take part in challenges in terms of Races, Hot Shot shooting missions and Rampage bloodfests, completion of which earns you medals and rewards, as well as a spot on the leaderboards. There are also time-sensitive story missions that tie into the show. All of which is great, or would be, if there was a little more variety on show. Instead missions generally devolve into killing everything in sight or pressing X to search a few spots and then returning to hand in for a reward. Even when things seem to be getting interesting, like solving a murder, it always feels like you're going through the motions. For a game that expects you to invest hundreds of hours, a few more interesting diversions wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even the massive random events, like Arkfalls, never quite capture the imagination as they devolve into hour long slugfests where you and forty other people pump round after round into waves of foes until the eventually crumble. Fun at first, but soon familiarity seems to breed contempt.

Of course, to traverse the bay area you’ll need a ride and you can tool around in a variety of buggies and cars. Well, I say a variety, but they are basically all identical in terms of stats with only a range of colour scenes to differentiate them. Driving can be described as loose at best, with every bump providing the hilarious chance to be sent ten feet in the air or come to a grinding halt. Thankfully your vehicles also seem able to go up almost vertical cliffs or drive horizontally along walls. It makes it easy to get around but pretty much shatters any sense of realism. Not to mention that your car all too often gets stuck in scenery of will simply refuse to move at all for some random reason, although that can be solved by repeatedly summoning it a few times. Plus, I have to say that running over foes never really gets old.

Everything you do helps to boost your EGO rating as well, which is the games way of measuring your progress. You can boost this stat by leveling up traditionally with XP or by completing various pursuits scattered around the world area. These involve discovering new locations, turning up lost data recorders as well as the more standard killing and driving style challenges. Completing whole sections give you even bigger EGO boosts, and you can use the skill points you earn along the way to invest in one of four key powers as well as an array of more minor abilities. In truth some of the abilities seem rather useless and the game also has a habit of unequipping your assigned skills without telling you, but at least you aren’t spoilt for choice. You can also earn reputation with various factions by completing rather dull contracts which pretty much consist of killing specific enemies in locations that are hinted at rather than pointed out, leading to an hour-long drive around the map to find the exact spot where the kills will count. Hardly fun times.

Of course the real meat and drink of the game comes in terms of co-op, or at least you would think so. You can hop into specific co-op maps via the menus that dump you and a posse into a choice of hour-long story segments that help to, kind of, flesh out some of the characters. You can also team up with friends to tackle the main story and side quests too, though here is where things tend to fall down. So much of the game can be done solo, thanks to enemies scaling to the group (or lack of it), that often it feels like you are playing a giant single-player game that other people happen to be running around in. Sure they can help you out every now and again, but unless you make a concerted effort to team with people from the get go then it can be a lonely experience. In that regard you are hardly helped by a grouping system that is hidden away in the menus and chat support that is barely functional at best, with messages often failing to make it to the intended recipient.

I mean – this could actually be a different game.

Alternatively you can jump into some PvP action, with regular deathmatch and capture & hold arenas plus the more grandiose Shadow War games. Sadly most matches tend to be dominated by players abusing the cloak powers, with either explosive weapons or the tried and tested shotgun, and the only way to beat them seems to be by joining them. Thankfully the scope and frenetic nature of Shadow Wars makes for a compelling experience regardless, if only the queue to get into a match wasn’t so lengthy. The matchmaking system does leave something to be desired, as if you choose to join a game you are put in a queue with the caveat that once it starts you will be pulled out of whatever activity you were previously doing. So if you're engaged in a story mission you will lose your progress, or if you are fighting off an Arkfall you will be unceremoniously yanked from the struggle. It means if you want to enjoy PvP you have to pretty much be prepared to sit around and wait for games to start rather than risk wasting your time elsewhere.

In truth Defiance has plenty going for it, with a large game world, plenty of players to team up with and hours of random, if mindless, tasks to keep you occupied. The main problem is that the rewards for your endeavours never seem to be that great. Arkfalls give you XP, but only the top few players get loot, whereas most mission-related rewards are throwaway trash. You can buy lootbox items for a better chance of rewards but they cost you in terms of rare keycodes or real life money, and when you realise that the weapon system is poorly implemented it never seems worth it.

The problem is that legendary weapons often have the exact same base stats as their common equivalent, so going out of your way to get them is not really worth the effort. Sure they may have a couple of extra bonus perks like 0.15% melee damage and so on, but when the perks are so insignificant you may as well roll with the cheaper equivalent. You can also mod weapons but the system is never fully explained and it comes down to trial and error in determining what is the best fit for your chosen skill set. In games like Borderlands and Fallout finding a rare gun was to be celebrated as they could often turn the tide of battle. Here they feel extraneous and when big foes take ten to twenty minutes of pummeling, regardless of your equipment, when you are in a group then you could be carrying a peashooter and still do the same damage output.

This is where the game falls down. It's not got the imagination of smaller scale success stories like the aforementioned titles, and the massive scope leaves the game chugging along at times while ensuring that no tasks can ever be too detailed or engrossing. Despite all of that, fans will find themselves plugging away for hours to perfect their skill set up and see everything Defiance has to offer. It’s just a shame that most of what the game has to offer can be seen so quickly with the rest just being an endless repetition of the same few missions and endeavours. Once you hit the endgame then the motivation to continue with the small stuff will dry up, as the rewards feel insignificant.

There is always going to be something moreish about boosting your EGO rating, completing side quests and taking down mighty foes, and I’ll certainly still be playing Defiance for a while to come, but this is not going to be the console MMORPG to kickstart a trend. Unfortunately, the list of issues is too long to simply be justified by saying “oh, but it’s an MMORPG” and while it’s nice that Trion Worlds offers updates on its site, most console players aren’t in the habit of constantly checking in with developers personally in order to be kept in the loop. By the time the patches and fixes roll out, some players will have moved on already. By all means Defiance is a decent start but one that never quite lives up to its promise.

Pretty shocking voice work and rubbish sound effects. You would have thought this would be better considering it's tied to a TV show.

You can give the game some leeway based on the scope and breadth of the game, but you can’t ignore the terrible frame-rate issues, screen tearing and ugly textures.

Fun, if predictable, shooting and driving that becomes mired in repetition after far too short a time for an MMO.

A single-player game that just happens to have other players in it, at least if you don’t decide early on to tag along with some friends for the whole ride. Plus, a distinct lack of tutorials and guidance leave many things unexplained and unwelcoming to newcomers.

A decent list that encourages you to try out as many activities as you can without being too demanding. Though you can expect a major time sink to get the full 1k, but what else were you expecting?

Defiance is a mixture of one genre that is amazingly popular on consoles and one that isn’t, but perhaps should be. But the marriage is one that never quite seems to work as the shooting aspects feel far too underwhelming while the questing and side missions are too bland to keep you hooked. With weapons just being very slight variations on each other you never feel obliged to forage for loot, so the gloss soon comes off. Sure you can enjoy hanging out with friends but even that side of the game feels like it has been abandoned on the 360 rather than properly integrated. Defiance may have you wasting away the hours, but this is not going to be the game to draw in new fans to the genre.

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