Going boldy where no TV network/games developer partnership has gone before…
According to Trion Worlds themselves, the game that they get asked about the most isn’t the uber-popular RIFT or the MMORTS End of Nations it is in fact the curious MMO partnership with the Syfy channel known as Defiance. A game which has been rather mysterious since it was first announced in June of last year, with a partnership which wasn’t entirely clear until we got a chance to play the shooter MMO for ourselves last week.
The hook is this; Defiance the TV show and Defiance the game will be two different entities tying into the same sci-fi universe where a near-future Earth has been visited and irreversibly colonised by numerous alien races, both intelligent and not-so intelligent. So rather than just having blue people running around with strange ears and furrowed brows, there’s also red insectoid aliens and giant plant life populating what used to be exclusively our planet. As settings go it’s probably best to describe it as what would happen if somehow the mass relays in Mass Effect stopped working and alien races were marooned on our world, can you imagine?
This accidental invasion has been caused by vehicles dubbed ‘Arcs’ being shot out of the sky by an unknown faction causing our world to be irreversibly terriformed with the game’s setting of San Francisco boasting green fields, canyons, crazy bandit humans and giant thorn-like alien plants whereas the show is set around the town of Defiance which used to be known as San Diego. The reason we’re pointing that out so fervently is that even though events from the show will tie into the game, you’ll rarely deal with the same characters or even the same narrative. It’s best to think of this relationship in terms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its TV spin-off Angel. There will be occasional crossovers, but if you commit to enjoying one but not the other you won’t be missing out too much.
Now that we’ve gotten that transmedia craziness out of the way, let’s talk about the game. Defiance is a one-time fee MMO which is coming to both consoles and PC around April next year with gameplay which takes the principles of a third-person open-world combat game and ports them into an online-all-the-time mould. The result is a strange yet accessible combat-laden experience which has co-operative play at its core. Anyone who is on the same server shard as you is able to join your side in a persistent world which features a twenty to thirty hour narrative with main story missions, side missions, point-to-point race events and procedurally generated events to keep you entertained. It’s what you’d imagine the Red Faction: Guerilla MMO would play like, with a giant world to explore, and multiple beasties and humans to kill; all built from the ground-up for co-operative online play.
One of the many missions we played featured the silent customisable protagonist dealing with a sneaky double-dealing alien runt tasking us to invade a nearby bandit base looking for sought-after arc technology. We followed the marker on our mini-map and on arrival we saw at least a dozen other players all on the same mission, tasked with the same objective – kill enemies, interact with several key points around the base and search for some special artefacts. As we’d been unceremoniously dropped into the alpha build, not knowing Adam we had no idea of the story context for our thievery, but the fact that we were joined by dozens of other human players somehow made this otherwise dull mission actually really fun.
As bandits flew out of doors spread strategically around the base our growing collective of random players instinctively spread out into an appropriate formation cutting enemies down with an array of different rifles, pistols, rocket launchers and glowing alien weaponry. These moments just feel enjoyable and were replicated time and time again both in story missions and multi-stage battles which featured an array of red alien insects dubbed ‘Hellbugs’ bursting out of the ground. Taking these fellas out involved either shooting their fleshy parts as they formed on mass, whereas the big bosses were only vulnerable in glowing areas of their body or when they went through an appropriate animations. None of these gameplay elements are new by any means, but the ability to have lots and lots of players with you while taking enemies down adds a relevance and importance to events which if you tackled them alone would quickly feel routine.
Even the story missions with all their cutscenes and occasionally lengthy dialogue didn’t really sell us on the validity of this new sci-fi universe. Perhaps that’s what the show is for, to add credibility to the game’s snappy shooting, but the plot on its own seemed quite forgettable. Obviously we didn’t start the campaign from the beginning so our confusion may be down to that, but between the evidently insane bandit factions, a thoroughly untrustworthy scientist named Von Bach and Dark Matter-infused super soldiers really we just didn’t care about the plot as we were too busy blowing things up and farting around with other players either taking part in point-to-point buggy races or just ramping off giant mountains at what felt like 100mph, to care.
To traverse the giant open-world players can call in a Halo-esque Quad at any time or select quick travel spawn points, and there’s the option to unlock more vehicles for spawning at a whim at the higher levels. Yes in the grand MMO tradition there is experience and perks to determine which specialisation your particular soldier chooses, but loot isn’t level gated and as we found out in competitive multiplayer even a low level player can take down an experienced veteran if they’re armed with a more situation appropriate weapon – don’t bring a pistol to a rocket fight.
At any time while in the world, players can enrol in a selection of different competitive multiplayer match-types. The first we sampled was called Battleground, which involved taking as many as twelve players into an instanced map for dedicated six versus six team deathmatch, with the first squad to rack up fifty kills judged the victor. The second match type, Shadow Run, was infinitely more interesting and involved two teams fighting to control over capture points which increased in number as more players joined the game. After starting with just two points, the battlefield ballooned to cater for five as thirty players or more joined in the fight with projectiles flying all over the place. Also this particular match-type takes place in the open-world so meandering NPC enemies can suddenly decide to join in the fight at the most inopportune time, but if anything that just adds to the high-octane silliness this mode provides. The inherent unpredictability of this mode means that any e-sport interest is probably out, but those looking for the mass unpredictability a kin GTA IV or Battlefield 3 will have a blast in the Shadow Run mode.
The thing is Defiance is undoubtedly a very complex game with all combat equations being managed server side, a detailed perk menu for each player to lose themselves in, lots of loot to scoop up from dead enemies and a deep weapon customisation system, but Trion Worlds have affectively buried that complexity deep within the game so that it doesn’t initially put you, or more appropriately casual players, off. There’s undoubtedly a great deal of intelligence behind that design and in truth that’s probably what we were most impressed with. Defiance is a fully fledged MMO which bridges PC complexity with console approachability and in raw shooter terms it’s already looking very tight.
There are a few micro-transaction options included to speed up progression like XP boosts, money accumulators and luck and favour modifiers to purchase for a small cash fee, but again these options are buried in the menus so deep that you won’t find them unless you’re deliberately tinkering with that stuff.
Once the TV show kicks off next April, there will be supplemental DLC packs for the game which will offer events and missions which tie-in with events from the show, but again we suspect that stuff is optional. It’ll be very interesting to see how Trion Worlds separate the community when it comes to the hardcore fans who really buy into the show including the expansion content, and we suspect the considerable number of player who won’t go for the new series from the folks that brought you Battlestar Galactica, but then that’s the danger whenever you build a game with TV show or movie in mind.
After spending a few hours with Defiance we definitely get a grasp of what Trion Worlds have been working on over the past couple of years and the results are definitely encouraging. The game’s multiplayer open-world setting harks back to the old maxim which drove traditional MMO development; ‘more players equals more fun’. This new offering certainly makes the most of that maxim with tight third-person combat and a setting which is nothing if not intriguing.
The relationship with the Syfy channel also dials up the potential impact of Defiance exponentially as if both TV and game entities serve each other well and feed into one another than this may be the first of many cross-media partnerships. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing we’ll leave up to you, but we’ll be watching how Defiance evolves very closely. Just be sure to bring some popcorn…
Defiance is set to launch for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 during April 2013.
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