MMOs are a dime a dozen these days it seems. While many a WoW clone has risen and been cast aside, the challengers have moved on to a different means of attack, such as licensing big franchises like Star Wars or going free to play. Fewer still have actually decided to actually change things up from the gameplay end. For those who remember the ill-fated Tabula Rasa, a sci fi third person shooter isn’t completely virgin territory for the genre. But Defiance’s increased focus on the action elements and borrowing from a formula that’s worked on a less massively online level at least gives it a chance to catch on with a console audience that hasn’t necessarily been catered to yet. Oh yeah, and it also has the gimmick of being associated with a SyFy television series, with the promise of “transmedia” crossovers between the two, so there’s a still a gimmick. It’s still a bit early for a final verdict, but the various things Trion Worlds tries to pull off at once make for a game with noteworthy potential but mostly unremarkable execution. Time will tell whether it is looked upon as fondly as their first MMO, Rift.
Defiance weaves a tale of what could potentially happen if alien refugees arrived at Earth to escape an apocalyptic collision between two stars in their own system, only to find their new home already inhabited by humans. While both sides try to find some measure of coexistence at first, eventually all hell breaks loose, ultimately culminating in an explosion on the aliens’ giant ark ship, which in turn unleashes all sorts of terraforming technology onto our planet, radically changing the geology and our flora and fauna for the worse. The TV show delves into this in more detail than the game unfortunately, leaving those only playing the game at a bit of a loss as far as the universe they inhabit goes. Another difference between the game and its source material is the location: the TV show takes place in the titular town of Defiance, in the ruins of St. Louis with the Gateway Arch overhead; while the game takes place in a future San Francisco. You as the player are what’s called an “Ark Hunter” working for Von Bach Industries. Ark Hunters specialize in scavenging the various alien “arkfalls” for alien technology. Par for the course with most shooters these days, something goes horribly wrong at the very beginning and you are left to piece everything back together after a crash landing. Most of the story is told through in-game cutscenes in a manner similar to Guild Wars 2 or The Old Republic, though the voice acting is mostly limited to a handful of characters, particularly your partner Cass, an Irathient (humanoid type alien) and fellow ark hunter who serves to push the plot along mostly.
The game starts with a couple of mostly cosmetic and inconsequential decisions which are a bit disappointing. You can choose either the human or irathient races, with the only difference between the two found in their eyes, forehead, and nose. You can customize your appearance a bit but I didn’t get the sense that I truly made a unique character the way I’ve been able to in Guild Wars 2. After that you can choose an origin, which really makes no difference except for what outfit and weapons you start with. There are no class limitations. What differentiates your abilities is how you spend your skill (or EGO) points as you level up. There are four major abilities to start with: Blur (increases your run speed), Cloak (which allows you to turn invisible before you strike), Decoy (hologram draws aggro to it and away from you), and Overcharge (increases damage). These abilities of course have a time limit and can only be used sparingly, and the same goes for your grenades. From there various perks connected to your ability are unlocked as well, like increased cooldown time, damage reflect, faster reload, etc.
Once your character is configured and you’ve gone through the various tutorials, you encounter what can basically be described as a Borderlands clone that takes itself seriously. Combat is real time and depends on your aiming skills. Head shots produce critical damage and enemies drop cash, ammo, weapons, and shields on a regular basis, which means you’ll be comparing items in your inventory constantly looking for an upgrade. Just like Borderlands you have pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, SMGs, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles to choose from, though there are also light machine guns and semi-automatic sniper rifles as separate categories. Yes, some of these weapons even have elemental effects like fire. One minor tweak is the ability to modify and salvage your guns, though only some of them have the slots to do that. The core of the game is to go through the main story quests, but there are also various side quests and points/speed challenges which allow you to make money and gain XP as well. The nice part of it is that being an MMO, it’s pretty easy to get help clearing an area just by coming across people doing the same mission. Unfortunately this also can make soloing some things a pain, as the game seems to be balanced towards group play, with enemies spawning right on top of you in sometimes absurd numbers. On the plus side, the penalty for death isn’t too harsh (just a bit of money and a teleport to somewhere nearby), and the first time you’re downed you can even self revive. Of course another big feature, and probably the only somewhat original part of the game is the random “arkfall” events, which are kind of Defiance’s take on the “rift” events in Trion’s previous game, Rift. These feature prominently on your map as big red areas. They are time limited, and as a result everyone flocks to them as soon as they appear. You’ll certainly want to as well as that’s where some of the best loot can drop. It’s basically a giant free for all as hordes of hellbugs spawn and need to be cleared out before a final boss appears and is defated. The whole scene is quite hectic but fairly rewarding if you stick through it.
Besides that, there’s also several matchmaking modes that take in you into instances much like dungeons you’d find in a normal MMO. These co-op maps unlock after you complete a certain number of missions. The ones I played were decently laid out, though I found the support from my teammates lacking as they basically refused to revive me at one point (presumably because of level difference, this despite me leading in kills and damage in the end, which leads me to conclude that the community right now isn’t terribly social or cooperative). The only PvP modes are found in the matchmaking system as well, with both a straight up competitive deathmatch mode and a larger team PvP mode called Shadow Wars, which involves holding control points much like you’ve experience in other shooters. I didn’t find any of the PvP particularly appealing as it breaks you out of the MMO experience altogether and doesn’t seem to have much place in the universe. It felt like a bit of a throw in for those who just have to kill each other to have fun, but it pales in comparison to a real shooter.
You can tell that Defiance was primarily targeted towards consoles when you look at the visuals of the PC version. The game runs fantastically smooth on highest settings, but the trade off is a lack of detail in the environment and enemies, giving it the distinct feel of last gen. Besides your character and Cass, everyone else looks stilted and low res. The same goes for the voice acting. While you can tell some attention was put into your companion, the rest of the work suffers, though part of it is the writing not giving the actors much to work with beyond cliches. This game sadly is yet another example of dynamic music gone horribly wrong, by the way. Every time you enter battle the same short sequence loops again and again, and the worst part is it changes too fast, playing victory music as soon as you kill the last enemy you aggroed, and then picking up not a second later the moment you come across another one. Ugh.
Taking all of the above into consideration, it’s hard to complain too much about how the game actually plays as the basic mechanics are correct, but it really is just Borderlands without the charm. The enemies aren’t too intelligent. Death comes from being overwhelmed rather than making any particular mistakes in my experience. I will give credit to the universe for being interesting enough that I want to see where it goes, but it feels like the story is constrained by the game’s limits and will likely unfold better on TV (if the show lasts anyhow). Speaking of which, it’s too early to say how the tie-in will play out. Right now there is a contest where the highest scoring player in various events will have a chance to be the first to appear on the show, but that’s nothing that will affect the plot. Supposedly that magic is supposed to start in the second season. Hopefully by then the game will be more fleshed out and have more of a community surrounding it. As it is right now, it’s hard to recommend Defiance, but at least there is no monthly fee to pay while you wait to see how things turn out. If I could give the game a grade it would be incomplete, not because it’s horrible, but because it needs more work and time to grow. Perhaps you console gamers who are starved for an MMO will appreciate it more than PC veterans like me.