Defiance is a big, bold, ambitious, and ultimately fractured game. After a launch that could optimistically be described as “bumpy,” the online game continues to stabilize. That doesn’t justify some of the other problems inherent to Defiance, but it does make grading it a bit tricky. When it works, Defiance is a fun and addictive MMO with solid gameplay and content for months. When it doesn’t, it’s maddening.
Before we dig into what makes Defiance tick, let’s get a few qualifiers out of the way.
First, this review is specifically for the console version, and there’s a very good reason for that. The game is also available on PC, but it’s among the first of its kind on consoles. It isn’t the first console MMO, but it is the best. There is something incredible about sitting on the couch and firing up your Xbox 360 or PS3, then then dropping into a world already teeming with other gamers. Playing a mission and finding yourself nearly overrun, then suddenly getting rescued by a passing band of fellow players is memorable. That’s when it all works, of course.
Second, there are some games that defy the conventional scoring system; they excel in one area, but crumble in others. This is one of them. For that reason, we humbly ask you to take the score at the bottom of the review with a grain of salt, or more importantly, in context with the written review. It’s fair and consistent with our other scores, but it requires some explanation.
Play the game, watch the show (or don’t)
There has been a huge amount of attention given to Defiance’s connection to the companion TV show (See our Defiance TV show review). The show is set in a ruined St. Louis, while the game is set in the Bay Area; there are characters that will cross over between the two, and there will be some other references that expand the universes. It’s a gimmick. A very cool gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless.
Even if the show ends up being the coolest thing since cheese (sorry lactose intolerant people, but cheese is awesome), it won’t make the game better or worse. The crossover effect will benefit the TV show almost entirely. No one is going to become a hardcore gamer just because they like the TV show, but gamers will probably check out the show. And make no mistake, Defiance is a game for gamers.
The setting is a radically terraformed Earth. Three decades after the failed immigration of seven alien species known collectively as the Votans, falling debris from the alien ships has caused the Earth to become a different place. The surviving species of aliens and humans have been forced to work together, creating a brave new world on the bones of the old.
The story puts you in the role of an Ark Hunter, one of many that have come to the Bay Area to seek their fortune by salvaging the debris, which strikes more often in the Bay than anywhere else. As you integrate into the ad hoc society, you’ll be hired to work for various factions, but your end goal is to stop a technologically advanced faction looking to continue the terraforming.
Defiance’s story is not particularly compelling, but that should come as no surprise to MMO fans. The game is about far more than the story, and the narrative is generally used as an excuse to set up gameplay and make sense of the new and alien world. The objectives are varied, but they usually come down to “see enemies, kill enemies, hit a switch.” The story missions are actually a very, very small portion of the game’s playable content.
The majority of Defiance is built around everything else. Randomly occurring Ark hunts will be one of the most common side missions, and these show off what Defiance is all about when it is working properly. An Arkfall generally begins with a smaller side mission. These change randomly, but the idea is always that you fight off enemies while trying to destroy the newly landed crystal. After you complete one, you then go to another, then another, until you reach the main Arkfall event. You can start as soon as an Arkfall lands, or you can join in progress; it doesn’t matter, but there is an overall time limit.
Main events will vary between a handful of different types as well, but they put you and 50 or more people up against a giant boss-like monster. The methods change a bit, but it always comes down to shooting a monster in sensitive spots until it is destroyed. Once it is, you’ll receive experience, credits, and the odd item.
These random events are fun to jump into, but a bit more variety would be nice. This may change through updates and expansions though. That said, the first few times you ride from spot to spot with an entire herd of other gamers, engaging in an Arkfall from start to finish is one of the most impressive moments you’ll find in console gaming.
PC gamers will be somewhat familiar with this experience if they play MMO games, but for consoles it is a revolution – hence the console-specific review.
Shooting by the numbers
The gameplay is traditional third-person with an RPG flair. Mass Effect fans will be right at home. And like any RPG shooter, the gameplay will be determined by numbers. The more powerful your weapon, the higher its damage count and the more people around the tougher the enemies. This math-based combat is addictive. It’s also a bit dated.
While shooter fans will find a familiar game, they will also discover Defiance is missing things that we’ve come to take for granted in third-person shooters, and no amount of patches will change that. There is no cover system, for example, nor will you find any surprises like destructible environments. The environments are generally on the bland side as well.
The AI is really bad as well, both friendly and enemy. Enemies will occasionally walk right by you, while friendly AI will ignore you completely when not busy getting killed. And then there is the AI dialog. Play for three hours or so, and you will have heard every random line. Then imagine hearing those same repeated lines 50 time, 100 time, 1,000 times. Thankfully the RPG elements help make up for this, and even though it isn’t a huge difference to shoot an enemy with a pistol versus a rocket launcher, it is always fun to try.
Options, options, options
Along with the story missions and Arkfalls, there are a lot of side missions and quests – hundreds of them. Some are scripted missions, others are random events that trigger as you pass by them. There are also other game modes entirely, like co-op missions for four people, competitive head-to-head matchups, and one mode called Shadow Falls, which is a 64 versus 64 domination-conquest match.
As you play you will migrate between servers. You can play a mission and be in the same location as your friends, but in different “phases.” So two people can play the same path, with the same loadouts, but have different experiences. Joining groups and clans will help alleviate this, so the social aspect is important to learn and integrate.
Players will also have contracts that are mini-objectives – things like killing a pre-determined number of enemies in a particular area, or travel a certain distance by car. These change often, so there is always something to do in the two massive land masses you can explore.
Different goals give you different rewards, and these rewards are all used for different things. You may earn script (aka credits), or you may earn reputation points that ally you with certain factions. You’ll have to learn to navigate the menus quickly to take full advantage of everything. The UI is a bit clunky, but it’s a matter of having so many things to sort through that it takes a fair amount of time to learn. It can be slightly counter-intuitive at time, but it’s easy enough to learn by repetition.
The RPG elements are so deep that when you log in, you’ll constantly see people just standing there comatose – they’re checking their menus. The more you play the more options you’ll have: more inventory slots, more outfits, more abilities that you can upgrade, and so on. There are also a lot of items to sort through – a lot. The guns take after Borderlands, so expect no two guns to be identical, even if the differences are in minor stat bumps.
It really is the options that set this game apart. The gameplay is fun, albeit a touch simple, and there are still glitches that go beyond server problems, but there are so many things to do that it is incredible. The matchmaking is easy to figure out as well, so you can jump in and out of various game modes at any time with friends or alone. You can spend hours and hours just wandering around and trying to see all the options. Seriously, you can spend hours just going through menus.
And boom goes the dynamite
From the start, the console versions of Defiance – especially the Xbox 360 version – have had difficulties connecting to Trion’s servers. The game requires an online connection to do anything, even sort through your menus, so this has been something of an issue. On the bright side, when this problem is occurring, you won’t find any other issues with the game (the music in the menus is good, at least). Mission objectives that aren’t there, technical glitches that you won’t realize are glitches until you restart, and unresponsive controls all plague the game as well.
Even once the servers are completely stable, there is the ever present specter of lag, as well as slowdown when too much happens on screen at once. Add in the constant threat of being randomly kicked off, and you have a dicey online debut. These things happen though, and if you play enough online games you’re probably already used to it. But other, more alarming issues stem from disappearing items.
Our own Adam Rosenberg had repeated problems on this front. He found and used items, only to have them randomly disappear from his inventory for no logical reason. As this didn’t happen to me, naturally I decided to taunt him mercilessly. He managed to contact Trion’s customer support, who told him his items should be in his inventory. He correctly pointed out that they weren’t hence the call in the first place. The response was that he should have the items. The transcript read like a Laurel and Hardy skit. To its credit, Trion did escalate the call to someone who could act, and they worked with Adam to talk him off the ledge.
Frustrating as it was for Adam to lose items he had earned in the game, the game’s reliance on microtransactions raises the stakes even higher. People who spend hard cash on in-game items could literally see their purchases disappear into thin air. Whether you like microtransactions or not (you don’t need to buy them to progress, so it’s a non-issue in terms of the review), Trion will need to fix this in a hurry before it tarnishes its reputation by letting items purchased with real money disappear. It’s the worst-case scenario for digital purchases.
Launch problems are common, but one way to make it sting less is for developers to be open and forthright about them. To its credit, Trion has been very honest about the issues and continues to update its progress. Defiance is already miles ahead of where it was last week. In contrast, Sim City stumbled over similar issues just a month ago, but EA instead responded by issuing press releases that grudgingly conceded that there have been a few problems, but insisted it was working to make it the most awesome thing ever that will blow your damn mind.
You have to give credit to Trion for its ambition, and many of the technical issues should continue to improve. There are even a few things you can do to make the game run more smoothly, like installing the full 5GB package, and being prepared for often lengthy patches.
Putting the technical flaws aside, the game is insanely addictive. PC fans will find it familiar, but console fans are going to be introduced to a huge leap in the possibilities of console gaming. It’s a shame that it’s coming towards the end of this generation’s life span, but it bodes well for the next gen. Besides, there is still plenty of juice left for Defiance to squeeze. The game is expecting several updates in content, including more integration with the TV show, and you can be sure that DLC is already on the way.
That brings me back to the problem with the score. If you take the game as it is right now, glitches, bugs, and Rosenberg-unfriendly items included, then it would receive a lower score than it deserves. When it works, Defiance is an impressive game that you can – and will – play for a long, long time. If the TV show can keep the fires burning, and the additional content coming can keep things fresh, the game could live long beyond the consoles it is on.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by the publisher)