Defiance Review

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 Both the Xbox 360 and PC versions were played for this review.

When Trion Worlds showed its massively multiplayer third-person shooter at E3, it made the gaming community very excited. Not only was Defiance supposed to revolutionize a long-stagnant genre with huge maps and a completely real-time shooting system; it was also launching at the same time as a SyFy TV show that was supposed to affect the game, and vice-versa. It sounded like an extremely ambitious project at the time, and although most of the game’s promises were met, they don’t look nearly as good as fans have hoped.

Defiance—the game—takes place in the Bay area of California. After the player, known as an “Ark Hunter”, crashes in a ship alongside scientist Karl Von Bach, it’s up to him or her to rescue Von Bach from groups of angry mutants and locate mysterious pieces of technology known as “Arktech”. The game throws the player into the action almost immediately, with no real tutorial to speak of.  The only choices that take place beforehand are the creation of a character, the picking of a special ability, and the selection of one of four character archetypes. Unlike most MMOs, these archetypes don’t set the player’s stats down a certain path; they basically just give players different starting weapons and different backstories a la Mass Effect.

While Defiance’s story is competent at giving reasons for players to move from mission to mission, it does absolutely nothing more than that. The story-driven cutscenes don’t enhance the tension or excitement, and the “episodic missions”—those that tie more directly into the TV series—feel too separated from the rest of the story. The writing is also dreadful, with cringe-worthy lines from almost every character. Some alien characters have a habit of using a certain alien “swear word” that feels like it got old in the writing room after the third time the team said it.

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Although it may be disappointing that the game’s story doesn’t live up to expectations, its gameplay does fare better. Controls are almost identical to what players might expect from any other third-person shooter, though Defiance doesn’t feature a cover system. Players have access to a great number of weapons, including assault rifles, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, detonators, shotguns, and several others, and almost all of these can be modified to better suit particular play styles. Switching between different weapons on the fly can make for some of the best moments in the entire game, as some weapons—such as a massive detonator that spreads explosives through the sky—can quickly take out several enemies and turn the tide of a battle.  Hit detection is fairly solid, but early sections of the game are far too difficult for beginning players. Luckily, the punishment for death is extremely light, simply taking away a small amount of money in exchange for a respawn at the nearest “extraction point”.

Defiance also differs from other MMOs in that it doesn’t feature a traditional leveling system. The player’s “EGO rating” keeps track of progression and adds small amounts of health, but leveling up doesn’t increase the damage of weapons or the durability of players. Instead, players are given the opportunity to spend points on certain skills and perks, which can help to tailor the experience to specific strengths or weaknesses in the player’s skillset. This design decision does help the game to feel different than titles like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars, but it also takes away the addictive nature that makes MMOs so successful; there just isn’t that desire to keep coming back if players aren’t getting more powerful.

Though the world of Defiance is absolutely massive, getting around it is extremely entertaining due to the inclusion of vehicles for players to spawn in at almost any time. Ranging from small ATVs to large, slow cars, these allow for quick escapes from certain death and acrobatic tricks as players move across the map. Racing other players and trying to do spins in mid-air can be much more entertaining than the missions that are at the destination point for players. Still, it is disappointing to see so much of the game’s world not currently being used.

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By far the best aspect of Defiance is its dynamic co-op system. Instead of having to enter instanced areas for missions, most of these are tackled in the same space that other players are occupying. This means that if two players run up to complete the same objective, their goals merge and they can work together to easily accomplish it. Because of the focus on multiple players, this aspect of the game is entirely dependent on its user base staying consistent, but there are currently quite a few players on the Xbox servers.

In addition to these small missions, the game features “arkfalls”—large-scale encounters that can see as many as 50 players working together at once. Frame rates during these battles can drop quite a bit, but there’s no denying that taking down huge bugs with the help of so many other random players is a blast. The satisfaction of seeing so many people working together is great, but the arkfalls are fairly repetitive; there are only a few different varieties of these, and they repeat fairly often, so the desire to go back and keep doing them could go down over time.

Unlike the open-world play that makes up a large portion of the game and its contents, Defiance also offers a small lobby-based multiplayer experience similar to that of the Call of Duty series. Lobby sizes for the matches vary depending on which map players will be playing on, and game modes include team-based multiplayer elimination and a king of the hill style game mode in which players capture and hold points of interest on the map.   Players can unlock apparel and armor for use within the multiplayer worlds, and they can complete in both daily and long standing challenges that offer cash rewards and experience.

Defiance also includes a four-player, cinematic, objective based mode that is unlocked as the player’s level continues to rise.  All of the missions feature dungeon-style surroundings and battles that resemble what one may experience in raids in other popular MMOs like World of Warcraft, Rift, and Dungeons and Dragons Online. The scale of the boss battles in this mode is extremely impressive.  Fighting enormous creatures with the ability to take players out in no more than a couple of hits definitely has the appeal of challenge to a lot of players, but at the same time, it’s adventurous and intense in such a way that will keep them coming back for more.  Similar to the arkfalls, the co-op missions reward players with vast amounts of cash and experience, as well as rare and unusual weapons.

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Defiance’s presentation, in almost every aspect, is its biggest failure. The game’s menus were obviously designed for a PC (this is an MMO, after all), but very little effort seems to be put into making the interface work for console players. Cutscenes are also hideous, looking like something from the beginning of the generation, and there’s quite a bit of screen tearing during them. Audio fares slightly better, as the horrible voice acting is offset by cool weapon sound effects and music that fits the game’s setting perfectly.

Open-world games have a tendency to be buggy, and Defiance is no exception. In addition to an unstable release across all platforms (the Xbox had the worst issues), the game featured quite a few bugs that weren’t patched by launch day. Issues like characters not holding guns or having no sight, bad pop-in, inconsistent ammo, and crashes have all plagued the title over the first few weeks. Recently, a huge patch was also released to alleviate issues like damage modifications, but earlier issues still persist. However, Trion Worlds has done its best to calm the fears of players, and the developer is currently releasing blog posts to show how the fixes and changes are coming along. The team even gave away some apology gifts to early adopters.

Of course, Defiance is also a TV show, and although fans had hoped for an amazing adventure being told on two fronts at the same time, if the first episode is anything to go by, they might want to keep those expectations in check. It feels extremely derivative, with very little to help it break away from the pack, and one point actually felt like a science-fiction take on Game of Thrones; it was one of the worst parts of the entire episode. Still, the acting by most of the cast is solid, and Grant Bowler does a surprisingly good job of portraying the main character, Joshua Nolan. Early trailers made him look like the standard “everyman” that is seen far too often in these types of stories, but he adds a nice level of humor to the character that make him the main attraction of the show.

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When the TV series tries to go for sensitive dialogue scenes or large-scale battles, it’s extremely hard to suspend disbelief, but one section of the first episode has Nolan playing detective; this is easily the best part of the episode, as the suspense and intrigue actually feels genuine. However, as the show also takes place in St. Louis, not the Bay area, it’s going to be difficult for the writers to add many crossover opportunities.

Defiance doesn’t come close to meeting the somewhat unrealistically high expectations that some had set for it, but besides the presentation, it doesn’t mess anything up too badly. Still, with that to go by, it’s safe to say that this probably isn’t worth most gamers’ time. Some may be able to find something beautiful under a rough exterior, but when that rough exterior is almost always getting in the way, it’s hard not to notice it.

6.5

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