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Defiance is Borderlands: The MMO without the humor (review)

Video game publisher Trion Worlds is taking a big risk on Defiance. It’s a transmedia experiment — a collaborative effort between Trion and the Syfy channel to produce a massively multiplayer online game alongside a television series. The publisher has reportedly spent more than $70 million developing the game, and it claims the MMO will continue even if the show is canceled. But players might not want to stick around that long.

While Defiance has its fun moments and features a ton of content, it also feels unfinished, paying no more than lip service to the TV show while saddling players with bland graphics, an unintuitive user interface, and performance issues.

What you’ll like

The combat is fast-paced and satisfying

Right now, Defiance is the closest thing we have to a Borderlands MMO. Its gameplay will feel instantly familiar to anyone who’s played Gearbox Software’s popular shooter on consoles or PC. It takes place in a not-so-distant postapocalyptic future where, after years of terraforming and war, enterprising souls called Ark Hunters scour the San Francisco area for valuable alien technology. As one of these hired guns, you’ll spend most of your time cruising the game world on ATVs, shooting at assorted mutants, bugs, and cyborgs and collecting loot. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s satisfying and a welcome break from traditional fantasy role-playing MMOs like World of Warcraft.

Defiance further differentiates itself from other titles in the genre by ditching character classes and skill rotations in favor of four unique combat abilities: Cloak, Blur, Decoy, and Overcharge. Surrounding each ability are passive perks used to further flesh out your character. With them, you can turn your Ark Hunter into a powerful sniper, a “rogue” who can sneak behind enemies to deal extra damage, a close-range brawler, or a combat medic who distracts enemies with a decoy while reviving teammates. Eventually, you’ll be able to branch out and choose perks situated near other abilities, giving that combat medic some much needed damage boosts near the Cloak skill, for example. Perks can be reset at any time for a little Scrip (in-game currency) while multiple loadouts let you store your favorite builds.

Defiance

Player vs. player options are limited but adequate. There’s the usual 6-vs.-6 and 8-vs.-8 deathmatches, along with a larger 64-vs.-64 point capture mode called Shadow War. These competitive matches take advantage of the game’s solid shooter mechanics to create an experience that is as fun and fast-paced as a round of Call of Duty or Halo. It’s just a shame there are no more modes available right now (where’s capture the flag, Trion?).

Dynamic events are chaotic fun

Like Trion Worlds’ other MMO, Rift, Defiance features dynamic events. These events, called “Arkfalls,” appear randomly on the map and usually include multiple stages of enemies culminating in some sort of boss fight. When dozens of players congregate in these areas, Arkfalls become a chaotic, enjoyable mess filled with bullets and explosions. They’re also the best way to collect Key Codes, which unlock boxes filled with randomly generated rewards.

The spirit of cooperation shared during Arkfalls extends to Defiance’s story and co-op missions as well. The main story missions take place in the open game world, and you’ll often receive unexpected help from other players working on the same objectives. If they’ve already started the mission, you still get credit, eliminating the need to “camp” an area to achieve your goal. The four-player co-op missions are Defiance’s version of instanced dungeons. They’re short, largely unscripted affairs that I felt could use a bit more storytelling to make them more compelling.

What you won’t like

The graphics are ‘meh’

Defiance is a multiplatform game, and it’s clear some concessions were made while developing it for consoles, especially in the graphics department. PC players might feel like they got the short end of the stick when they see its lackluster textures and short draw distances obscured by fog. Facial animations are stiff; it’s as if everyone in the game was recently given a free Botox injection. On the plus side, it has some nice lens flare from time to time, and lower graphics means more accessibility for people with less-than-stellar PCs.

The user interface also suffers from Defiance’s multiplatform development. Although you can play with a keyboard and mouse, it was clearly designed with controllers in mind. Navigating menus is a chore. Even the simple act of logging out requires three or four button presses. First you press Start (or Escape) to bring up one menu, and then you hold the Left Trigger (Space Bar) to bring up a menu wheel. Then you press X to log out and hit “Yes” to confirm. It’s as irritating as it sounds. Defiance also seems to lack some features that PC users expect, like an easy way to hide the U.I. while taking screenshots.

Character generation is lacking compared to other titles in the MMO genre. You encounter a few alien races during your travels, but you can only choose one of two for your character: human or slightly less human. Defiance calls them “Irathient,” but really they just look like Vincent from Beauty and the Beast cosplaying as a Mad Max extra. People who love customizing every little detail of their character’s appearance might be disappointed with the game’s shallow options.

It feels unfinished

Trion and Syfy made a lot of noise over how their game and TV show will cross with each other, but so far that connection seems nebulous. About a handful of so-called Episode Missions featuring the show’s main characters, Nolan and Irisa, explain what they were up to before they arrive in St. Louis, where the show is based. And that’s pretty much it. Without having seen the pilot episode, it’s hard to say if other ties exist in the game. But for now, Defiance’s transmedia experiment feels shallow and gimmicky.

Defiance

Arkfalls are a great idea but fall victim to repetitiveness. Fighting off a hellbug invasion sounds great at first, but after you’ve done that same event numerous times, it quickly grows stale. For a game that offers so many missions and challenges, it’s a shame it doesn’t offer more variety in its dynamic events, which are one of its defining features.

Traditional MMO fans looking for any sort of “endgame” are going to be disappointed. There doesn’t seem to be any raids or heroic dungeons. Like Borderlands, you’re expect to finish the main story missions, then wait for Trion to release new content. Luckily, there’s no subscription required, so you won’t feel like you’re wasting your money while you wait for DLC.

Then there are the technical issues. Every MMO suffers from them during launch, and Defiance is no exception. The servers are mostly stable, in my experience, but I’ve encountered noticeable lag. There’s a perceptible delay when switching between weapons or interacting with objects. Enemies take a second or two to drop dead once their health is depleted. These issues mostly disappear while playing instanced co-op and PvP, so hopefully it’s something Trion can work on in the future.

Conclusion

To its credit, Trion Worlds is handling Defiance’s launch problems well. The company has kept players updated with a constant stream of blog posts on the official website, poking fun at itself along the way. It released a large patch to fix bugs and improve server and client stability. It’s also working to improve the game’s terrible voice chat. (Seriously, it’s bad. Use a third-party program like Skype to communicate with your buddies. You’ll thank me later.)

Despite my complaints, I want to stress that I’m having a good time playing Defiance. None of its issues are game-breaking; Trion will most likely fix many of them over time. While its story and graphics are uninspired, its sci-fi setting and skill-based combat are a refreshing change from its pointy-eared, min-maxing, level-grinding brethren. But you might want to wait for a price drop before giving it a chance.

Score: 65/100

Defiance launched on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on April 2, 2013. Trion Worlds provided GamesBeat with a PC version of Defiance for the purpose of this review.


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