Note that this is the first part of an ongoing look at Defiance. Each week we’ll be monitoring the progress of both the game and TV series in tandem.
Massively Multiplayer Online games are a big thing; massive even, if you’ll forgive the pun. It seems as though not a day goes by in which we don’t hear of either an MMO announcement, expansion, or shutdown; you just can’t get away from them.
Even if you aren’t fully acquainted with the genre, you’ve still probably heard about how it’s beginning to stagnate while simultaneously hearing that “the next big thing” is waiting just around the corner. There’s no real answer to the current issues facing the genre, but if there’s one thing you need to know about MMOs it’s that they’re here to stay and will start to appear more frequently on consoles. You could say, then, that Trion Worlds’ Defiance is a taste of what the future holds, albeit a bittersweet one.
Developed by the same studio that created 2011 MMORPG RIFT, Defiance shuns magic, swords and planar dimensions for something a little more futuristic. Players are thrust into the well-trodden boots of an Ark Hunter, scouring a post-apocalyptic Earth for priceless alien technology while trying to stay alive.
The planet’s downfall started with the arrival of the Votan some decades from now, a united alliance of displaced races brought together after a catastrophic accident. Low on resources and desperate for aid, they arrive on Earth, unaware that the planet was inhabited.
To cut a long story short, the humans and Votan are unable to establish lasting peace. Tensions began to rise and eventually culminated in the explosion of the Ark fleet, a network of Votan ships orbiting Earth. From the wreckage fell unstable terraforming technology that completely changed the planet, populating the surface with a whole host of murderous mutants.
Hired by Von Bach Industries, as an Ark Hunter you have been brought to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of precious Arktech. This doesn’t make you a sci-fi Indiana Jones, however. Oh no. For the most part players will be exploring the world and interacting with its inhabitants. A straightforward story of pillaging alien debris would simply be too monotonous, so instead Trion has crafted a tale that tries to cram in everything you need to know about the Defiance universe.
Unfortunately, the execution isn’t quite there. Although it’s easy to see what Defiance is trying to achieve, it goes about it in such a ham-fisted way that players won’t necessarily want to care about the game’s fiction. Defiance’s circuit of lead characters aren’t strong or likeable enough to serve as a conduit for a narrative which has the potential to be electrifying. Instead, they stand in as glorified quest-givers, helping to prod players down a narrow path which takes some time to actually lead anywhere.
Though some players will no doubt be able to overlook these shortcomings, others won’t. After all, presenting an intriguing narrative is a device commonly used in MMOs to mask otherwise repetitive quest designs, so its absence in Defiance is particularly damaging.
Falling under the “action-MMORPG” umbrella, Defiance has the feel of a slightly undercooked third person shooter propelled into a vast open world populated by hundreds of other players. While questing, crafting and world design clearly take cues from other massively multiplayer online games gameplay, the game also mimics what you’d expect from, say, Uncharted or Gears of War, but is nowhere near as refined.
Weapon feedback often feels flat and sometimes enemies – in true MMO fashion – will stutter or freeze as you fill them with holes. Still, the need to replenish ammunition, roll out of the way of attacks, and sprint – as well as other familiar actions – certainly sets Defiance apart from the genre’s mainstays.
No matter what you do in Defiance, it all adds towards your EGO rating. Unlike traditional experience bars that “Ding” after every few hours or so of grinding, EGO rewards players for a variety of actions. These include training your weapons and vehicles, as well as killing enemies, completing quests and hunting down a spread of achievement-like Pursuits.
It definitely shakes up the formula a bit, while also allowing for a bit of player freedom. For instance, if you have no interest in the game’s stockpile of sidequests, you can focus on group missions or straight-up kill-farming to pick up the slack. With that said, Defiance has tuned its pursuits in order to try and get players to explore everything.
As your EGO rating starts to build, you’ll be able to kit out your Ark Hunter with a variety of perks, while also upgrading one of the game’s four core abilities. Perhaps one of the game’s first major disappointments, these powers allow players to overcharge their weapons, turn invisible, create decoy or accelerate in speed. Sounds fun right? Unfortunately, their impact on gameplay is limited, equating to a wafer-thin class system that barely helps to discern between two characters.
Weapons are a much better means of differentiation, however. As expected, snipers will hang back and push for headshots, whereas shotgunners will get up close and personal with the enemy.
These roles are given more diversity with the availability of unique weapon classes such as the Infector and BMG. The former shoots needles into a single enemy and will deal damage over time, while the BMG shoots with one trigger press and heals with the other. Heavy duty weapons such as grenade launchers, detonators, and RPGs also help to flesh out the game’s arsenal.
Overall, the gameplay is fairly strong for an MMO, particularly when you consider that the genre has mostly been about rapid mouse clicks and spamming hotkeys since its conception. What does hold it back however is the barrage of bugs that continue to plague Defiance.
Though the number has been cut dramatically since launch, a few noticeable issues still persist. Experience with these bugs will no doubt vary from player to player, but for us they mainly manifested in missing waypoints, defunct button presses, and the occasional error screen.
One bug in particular effectively bars players from completing the game’s race challenges (which we’ll discuss next week), with checkpoints either vanishing or not triggering as you pass through. With these time trials making up a sizeable part of Defiance’s Pursuit log, their broken state is hard to forgive.
It’s easy to call Defiance out on its shortcomings, but to say the game is lacking in ambition would be a bare-faced lie. This is the first “proper” MMOFPS we’ve had on gaming consoles and, to set the stakes even higher, Trion is banking on the popularity of SyFy’s tie-in television series as well. What will ultimately determine the success of Defiance is its continual growth and refinement, traces of which we’ve already encountered within just a few weeks of launch.
Be sure to tune in next week where we look at group instances, Arkfalls, and vehicles.