Firefly by way of World of Warcraft: how Defiance is bridging games and television
Disclosure: Trion paid for air travel and a two-night hotel stay. Defiance is too many things. It's an MMO third-person shooter game by Trion Worlds coming out for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, a sci-fi/western hybrid TV show from SyFy, and the name of a town in that TV show.
It's also crazy ambitious, blending the best elements of third-person shooters, MMOs, RPGs, while at the same time crossing between mediums; players will be able to see the impact from the TV show on the game world, and vice versa.
Raiders of the Alien Ark
You play an Ark Hunter, a freelance soldier who makes a living taking up mercenary contracts and salvaging the wreckage of alien ships, called Arks.
Not much was shared about the game's in-universe lore, but it would seem that these Arks are, at least in concept, very similar to the story of Noah's Ark: they carry various species, as well as pieces of that species' culture, including weapons and technology. Most of the Arks are abandoned or in ruins, and floating in orbit around Earth. Beyond that, they're a mystery.
The game's early hours don't explain where they come from, why they're in the state they are – beyond multiple references to something called “The Pale Wars” – or why they exist. After all, an Ark is something you build to escape a cataclysmic event, right? Of course, you could spoil it for yourself by reading wikis and the like, but the slow drip of information is done well, so I'd suggest against it.
Besides, whatever the story behind the Arks, Trion and SyFy have done an excellent job making the puzzle pieces fit together. They've crafted a very intriguing world with Defiance, and I'm excited to learn more about it. Thankfully, there's the Defiance TV show for the game to tie into.The Defiance game and SyFy TV show will overlap in some areas, and characters from the show will sometimes make an appearance within the game. If the people in Defiance - the town - are shown to be in dire straits, players in the Defiance game will be given a set of missions where they search for and send supplies to the town, making them feel as though they've contributed and influenced the world.
This is, however, something of an illusion; the episodes are already written and produced, so even if players were to band together and refuse to complete any of the show-related quests, the story would continue as though they had. Still, there are some instances in which the crossover will feel more pronounced. Trion and SyFy plan to have a contest during season two in which a player's avatar will be cast into the show, for example.
We'll dive more into the show, including thoughts on the pilot, and how SyFy and Trion came together on the project Monday. The good news is, even if you don't care about the show, Defiance is plenty fun on its own.
MMORPGTPS is too big an acronym
At the beginning of the game, your ship comes under attack, and your escape pod crashes. You're separated from the scientist mastermind who hired you to escort him as he studied Ark tech, and much of the game's early missions revolve around you trying to find your way back, before getting caught up in something much more grand.
You have what's called an “EGO” implant to help you along the way. Your EGO is a soft-spoken AI companion, who offers mission advice, as well as various tutorials. She's basically Cortana, but with a voice and personality that calls to mind Angel from Borderlands. I half-expected her to start talking about a “funny little robot” at any moment.
It's not just the gentle, feminine AI that will remind you of Gearbox's FPS/RPG hybrid. Enemies drop various guns, shields, and grenades as loot, and though they don't get as stat-crazy as Borderlands, they do support elemental add-ons which can deal extra damage via things like fire and acid. It even has a bright, colorful, stylized aesthetic, which is a welcome break from the brown and gray apocalypses we're used to. Defiance mixes the third-person shooter game play with MMORPG structure in a similar way as Borderlands merged its respective genres, and for the most part, it works quite well. I played on PC, but found the controls better-suited to an Xbox 360 controller as opposed to a mouse and keyboard.
Defiance doesn't rely on a complicated array of buttons and bars, like many MMORPGs. When using a gamepad, you use left analog to move, right to aim, left trigger to zoom in, right trigger to fire. Left bumper activates your special ability, right bumper tosses a grenade, and up on the d-pad calls in your vehicle. In other words, Defiance is a shooter first, and it feels built like one.
The RPG elements come in the way your character progresses. You won't choose a class at character creation, because the game doesn't function based on classes. Instead, you'll choose your race and gender (the build I had only allowed for two races, but there are many more in the Defiance universe) as well as an Origin and Archetype.
Origin of a badass' EGO
Origins give your character a starting outfit and a bit of background, but they don't fundamentally change how you play. You can be a Soldier, Machinist, Outlaw, or Survivalist. I went with a female Outlaw, because hotpants and spiked collars abounded, and that's a combo I just couldn't refuse.
Archetypes are simply preset arrangements of visual features, which you can further customize with the usual options: eye color, hair style, nose shape, etc. No matter what Origin you pick, you're given freedom to control how you want your character to perform on the battlefield by picking an EGO Skill.
There are four EGO Skills in the game: Cloak, Blur, Decoy, and Overcharge. Cloak makes you go invisible, Blur grants a boost to sprinting speed and melee damage, Overcharge increases your damage and auto-reloads your weapon, and Decoy sends out a copy of yourself to distract enemies. I worried about the limitation of only having one EGO Skill active at a time, and the fact there are only four had me concerned my lovely alien in hotpants and chains might not be such a special snowflake when stacked against the rest of the Defiance playerbase. However, unlocking an EGO Skill also unlocks the Perks which surround it, and these can further enhance and customize your EGO Skill.
Let's say I chose Cloak, because I did. From there, I can take Longshot, which increases the chances for elemental effects to go off on hit, Ambush, which grants bonus damage when attacking an enemy not in combat, and Sucker Punch, which grants bonus damage when attacking from behind. I went with the latter, since I typically play rogue-class characters in more traditional RPGs.
The Perks and EGO Skills are all laid out on the same progression map, so once you've leveled up enough, you can mix and match, finding new synergies to work with. Just because Ambush seems designed to work with Cloak doesn't mean it's off-limits to someone with Overcharge or Blur.
The one area Defiance struggled game play-wise was its cover system; specifically, its lack of one. There's no way to stick to cover or lean over or around obstacles, you just have the option of crouch or no crouch. When I was pinned down against overwhelming odds, I wanted to take little potshots at my foes without exposing much of myself, but ended up shooting the wall in front of me instead.
This led to several retries and a bit of frustration – the game shouldn't be pressured to fit a Gears of War-shaped mold, but the environments are full of chest-high walls, and you're going to want them to provide more than they can offer.
Defiance is filled with bugs, and not just the kind that want to eat you for dinner. While under siege from snipers positioned high on a far-off ridge, one soldier repeatedly took cover, stood up, took cover, stood up, on and on, endlessly. I thought it was another journalist “tea-bagging” at first glance, until I could get close enough to realize it was an NPC.
A similar bug occurred when I rescued two pinned-down operatives, and one of the men began pacing back and forth, covering the same six feet of ground, like a nervous father waiting to hear about his child being born.
Another mission forced me to fend off attackers. My EGO piped up to warn me of incoming mutants, asking in a frantic voice how the enemy was able to procure helicopters. I looked around. Uh… what helicopters? Suddenly, the sky became a clown car, and mutants of all shapes came leaping forth; the helicopter was invisible.
There were other issues I bumped into, but you get the idea. Most of these bugs are harmless, and not what I would call game-breakers. The satisfying controls and (mostly) smooth combat more than made up for them. There was, however, one instance which concerned me.
Defiance has public events, much like Trion's other MMO, Rift. These are called Arkfalls, so named for the alien Arks which, well, fall from the sky. As I mentioned earlier, Ark Hunters often search for and track falling Arks so that they can claim the wreckage and salvage, thus making themselves a nice profit. Sometimes, however, an Ark's contents are of a more dangerous variety, and players must band together to take down a particularly tough boss monster.
Imagine an enormous insect, probably about 30 to 40-feet tall, that spits acid, and can only be damaged by shooting specific weak points which cause it to erupt from its carapace, exposing the tender, vulnerable creature within. Now imagine it's invisible. Remember the helicopters? Same issue, but now it's much less cute, and much more frustrating.But despite these occasional hiccups, Defiance surprised me. A game that does a good job of merging traditional RPG elements like loot, leveling up, and a skill tree with an action-heavy genre like a third-person shooter is the exception, not the norm. Defiance's systems don't feel like a copy of anything else, though it clearly borrows from the likes of Borderlands and Trion's own Rift.
This is much more than a video game using a SyFy show as a promotional gimmick; it's not always perfect, but it's fun, and I look forward to seeing more. Defiance - the game - releases April 2, and the show premieres April 15.