Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Defiance (Trion Worlds/Human Head Studios, 2013)

Back when I was playing through Borderlands 2, I often found myself imagining how the game might fare as an MMO. It had all the standard elements of an MMO, the quest system, the skill tree, the random loot drops, it just needed a server that could host more than a handful of players at a time. After a while I started thinking that I can't be the only person with this idea, so I went online and read about an online game that many were comparing to the Borderlands series, Defiance.

The bold idea with Defiance was to create an online game and a TV show that function as companions to each other in order to establish a more cohesive world. I have to admit that I've never actually seen the show. Syfy inked an exclusive deal with Amazon Instant Video which means it's not on Netflix, Hulu, or even Syfy On-Demand, and since it's not on any of those, Amazon doesn't put it on the Prime service, so you have to actually purchase or rent the episodes to watch them. Since I don't feel like paying for a show I could have DVR'ed for free as a Syfy subscriber, and I'm too lazy to torrent it, I simply haven't seen it yet. Does this effect my enjoyment of the game, or the game's overall success? Maybe, but I'll just have to assume that smarter minds than mine made this decision for a reason, and just leave it at that.

While Defiance fans (and I'm sure its creators as well) prefer to avoid Borderlands comparisons, that's how I found it, and so that's what I'm going to compare it to. There are a lot of similarities right from the start. Instead of Vault Hunters you get Ark Hunters. Instead of Bandits, there's Raiders. It's a fast action game with lots of shooting both at human enemies and giant alien beasts that pop out of the ground and drop loot when destroyed. There's armored vehicles to zip around the varied terrain, and enclosed high tech industrial and slum areas to stealthily duck and cover your way through while killing all the baddies.

So it's just like Borderlands then right? Well, no actually. For starters, it uses a 3rd person camera rather than a first person view, giving the action more of a Mass Effect feel. The graphics are more realistic rather than cell shaded, and the action takes place not on a distant alien landscape, but on the ruins of the San Fransisco Bay Area after an attacking alien race's attempt at terraforming. The storytelling is more serious as well, but more on that later.

To me, Defiance's biggest accomplishment is how well it combines being an action shooter and an MMO at the same time. Visiting shops, leveling up your character, following quest chains, and of course, interacting with other players all put you solidly in an MMO experience. Even the vehicle system mimics the mounts found in most fantasy MMOs. There's a lot more soloing in Defiance than in most MMOs I've played. Players tend to more often approach it as a single player game that just happens to have other players around. It plays great as a single player experience, but it's nice sometimes when you're in trouble and a random stranger starts sniping from a distance to help you out. I did a couple missions in a group, but the game was balanced to work fine either way.

The point where you'll interact with other players the most is in the Arkfall events. These show up as red areas on your map of varying sizes. Arkfalls consist of several strong enemies, or one enormous enemy, or more often both. These are the spontaneous moments where you'll battle alongside your fellow players against the alien onslaught while sharing in the resulting loot drops. These can be a lot of fun, but after a while I found myself mostly skipping them along with the other pop-up style missions.

Since a lot of Defiance involves speeding down the road on a 4 wheeler, random events tend to pop up near, or in the middle of the road to give you more to do on your way to your next mission objective. There are NPCs in need of rescue, alien specimen that need scanning, factories on the verge of meltdown, and plenty of roadblocks by just about every variety of enemy faction in the game. These are fun, especially when other players join in, and a great way to grind XP on the go, but after a while they got repetitive, and I often found myself simply going around the roadblocks and moving on.

One of the reasons so many distractions are needed while running around is that in contrast to the overflowing quest logs of similar games, Defiance only allows you to hold one mission at a time. Following the GTA method, once you pick up a mission, all other missions become unavailable and aren't displayed on your map. It's a shame because several of the fetch quest or collection quest missions would have been more fun to keep running on the side, and make progress on while following the more story based missions, rather than focussing on just that task and nothing else.

Speaking of story based missions, Defiance puts a major focus on providing enjoyable story telling, as would be expected being tied so closely with the television series. There's no tongue-in-cheek comic relief or pop culture references. The story stays on point as a serious drama delivered by some surprisingly well done cinematic cut scenes. The characters are interesting, and the voice acting fits perfectly. The problem is that the dialog itself is at some times terrible, as if the writers were purposely trying to squeeze in as many cliches as would possibly fit. Hopefully this isn't also the case for the show! Still, considering how many MMOs still rely on text blocks to advance the plot, they get points for effort.

The game has some problem however. One of my biggest complaints early on was that while games like Borderlands allow you to quickly switch between four guns from your inventory, Defiance only allows for two. It does have three separate Loadout slots which can have a completely different armor setup as well as a different two weapons, but there's no quick way to switch Loadouts without going into a menu. And since it's an MMO, the bad guys don't pause when you open a menu. Plus, don't forget to update all three Loadouts each time you get a new armor upgrade!

One of the most addicting aspects of most random loot drop games is that you're constantly getting new and better weapons and equipment. Even non loot drop RPGs allow you to purchase better items. Unfortunately, this is not the case with defiance. Even though I already paid money to purchase the game, it looks like I didn't actually buy the whole thing since every single worthwhile item that can be purchased requires a combination of not only in game currency, but real money as well. I understand the need for microtransactions when trying to maintain game servers and all of that, but when I finished the 60+ hour game using the same guns I had 5 hours in, something is wrong! Why even have an in game currency at all if every single item costs real money?

Another problem with an online game is that it can change under you at any time. The most obvious example of this to me while playing Defiance was with the grenade system. When I first started playing, the grenades recharged. You'd throw a grenade, then fight for a bit, and after a while, you had a new grenade that could be thrown. This was pretty unique, but I got use to it. Then it became part of my play style. I developed tactics around it. I started to rely on it. Then, I logged in one day and it was changed. The new method involved collecting grenades of different types as dropped items. You could hold up to five of any type, and whatever type you had equipped is what you would throw. If you ran out of that type of grenade, you simply couldn't throw grenades again until you got more, or went into your settings menu and equipped a different type of grenade that you were carrying. Oh, and remember Loadouts? You better to remember to equip the new grenade type on each of the three Loadouts. Oh yeah, and since it's an MMO you're still getting shot at the whole time you're digging through menus. They may have changed the grenade mechanics again since then, but after a few days I just stopped using grenades completely, so I don't know.

So, what was my overall impression with Defiance? I went in expecting an MMO experience that felt like a Borderlands game. Did I get that? I actually did. Did I like it as much as I liked either of the Borderlands games? No, sadly I didn't. Did I still have a lot of fun playing Defiance and get completely addicted to its gameplay? Yes, I most certainly did! As many complaints as I have about it, Defiance is a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. Would I recommend the game to others? Well, last week I would have absolutely said yes, but Bungie just launched Destiny, so maybe wait and see how that is first?

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