TRION and the Syfy channel had a vision. Imagine a TV show that would run in tandem with a game, where each would influence the other in terms of content and story. A great idea; but there are problems.
Let’s get the story out the way as quickly as possible. It can get confusing if you dig too deep, mainly because when you start playing Defiance it’s so poorly told.
It’s the future, a bunch of alien races are looking for a planet to settle on after the destruction of their own. They arrive in Earth’s orbit and seek permission to join the wonderful human race. This is not an invasion but more a “Heeeellooo! Can we land please?” request. The humans humm and haw for a while, the alien’s ambassador gets assassinated, war breaks out, and there’s a pretty major disaster when alien technology crashes to earth and mutates Earth’s wildlife and landscape. Luckily, aliens and humans end up as buddies and attempt to live together in peace and harmony on the newly mutated planet.
This is where the player drops into the game, although none of the above is really explained well at all. If you happen to have no access to the SyFy channel (like, I don’t know, most of the UK) it’s going to be even more difficult to watch the show and follow events on the TV.
Defiance is not an MMO in the traditional sense but it does share MMOesque features. Thankfully there are no dwarves or elves, which is a huge plus point for the game with so many damn identikit fantasy MMOs around these days. Rather, this is an online third person FPS with quests, missions and challenges which all take place in the San Francisco area, unlike the TV show which is set in St Louis.
Starting out in true MMO style the game follows a familiar pattern of go to A, B, then C, shoot some crap then get to the main town to talk to an NPC. Get another quest then go to A, B, then C etc. This changes slighty when a main story quest pops up and there’s a cutscene featuring a main character from the TV show. The quests are also made slightly less tedious by the fact that you get to ride around on a 4×4 right from the get-go. This brings a freedom to explore and the ability to take on some of the mini challenge missions dotted around the map which include everything from shooting chickens to racing against the clock.
Where Defiance begins to stray from traditional MMOs is in character creation and development. The “class” you choose really makes very little difference, and there’s also only one special skill per character. There is a passive skill tree in which you unlock more passive skills as you level, but it’s a quite a cut-down system. However, this is not necessarily to the game’s detriment, as the bulk of the title is about weapons and combat.
The game launched a couple of weeks before the TV show and the show’s main characters Irissa and Nolan appear in the game’s early story missions. When the TV Show started on the SyFy channel these characters left the game area (San Francisco) and moved onto the TV show. These folks can’t be on the TV show and in the game at the same time as that would ruin all continuity, although I doubt players of the game would really care that much if this system was a little more flexible.
The quests that relate to the characters in the TV show are actually the more interesting and challenging ones. The problem is, there aren’t enough of them. The TV show is now five episodes in (at the time of writing,) and there’s not much of a cross-over going on. It’s taken over a month to add some of the TV show story content into the game, so hopefully there’ll be an increase in this cross-over content as the TV show continues.
Defiance’s main redeeming feature is the actual combat. TRION has created some great third person shooter mechanics that work incredibly well, but the issue is the lack of variety in mission types where you actually get to unleash these mechanics and shoot stuff. Kill some mutants, collect something or take on a larger boss. It gets dull and familiar quite quickly.
There are some interesting weapons with features such as bouncing electric grenades, sticky grenades, rocket launchers, snipers and the like. In fact, finding a new weapon and experimenting with it is one of the more interesting parts of the game. Weapons also get better with upgrades, but there is a sticking point when it comes to enhancing your weapons. Not with the upgrades themselves, but with the game’s interface.
Now I have to get this off my chest finally because it’s been really pissing me off since the game launched. The interface is absolutely appalling. It’s probably one of the most ill-conceived UI systems I have seen in a game for a long time.
Changing weapons, enhancing weapons, adding the passive skill points, it’s all such a damn chore. Half the time you simply can’t be arsed to struggle through the menus. In fact, I’ve given up trying to modify weapons. I was afraid I’d slit my wrists if I persevered with the terrible system.
I can see why it’s designed the way it is. This game is also on the PS3 and 360, so PC gamers are crippled by ridiculous menus and radial wheels for some of the options. That’s the practical explanation, but there’s simply to excuse for the crap interface on the PC. The part of the development team responsible for menus need a stiff talking, and a new project to come up with a more PC-friendly UI.
Interface aside, Defiance also suffers from a weird, confusing grouping system. If you party with someone and they are already on a story mission, which you may have not done yourself, you can group but you can’t join their “instance.” Surely the whole point of grouping is that you can play with your buddies no matter where you are? Parties are also split when you hit a major mission that may progress the story. Perhaps they couldn’t be bothered to balance the boss fights for more than one person on these key missions, but it’s damn annoying.
There are some special co-op missions which unlock as you progress, but that’s not quite the same as playing through the main story missions with your friends. It’s almost as if TRION are not quite sure what the game is meant to achieve when it comes to being online and multiplayer. At times, it can feel more like a single player game that’s being played on a server that’s void of life.
TRION learned with RIFT that if you drop in random event locations where players can work together to battle a common enemy they can be a good diversion from the standard quest lines. In Defiance these are called Arkfalls and they spawn randomly around the map. These events spew out Hellbugs and, more recently, a super big Hellbug. These are quite fun for a while, but like the rifts in RIFT, they slowly just become part of the landscape and become less appealing. On the plus side they do boost your cash and there’s the odd decent item to pick up.
Defiance also features a PvP mode called Shadow War where two teams fight for control of the map, and there’s even a team deathmatch mode for good measure. Both of these are reasonable diversions from the rest of the game when there’s a lack of new content, but it may not be enough to keep you playing.
I have held off with this review for a few weeks to give the TV show and the game time to settle and sync with each other. It seems the waiting was a little futile for a couple of reasons. The TV show is pretty damn terrible with its low budget effects, soap opera style story lines and generic characters taken from the “How to create sci-fi characters and stories 101” book. Yes, the TV show is quite poor, even though it has already been granted a second series.
After watching the cringe-inducing post show analysis videos from TRION where everything in the TV show is “Awesome!”, it almost feels like they are trying too hard to make Defiance something that is currently not; an exciting cross-media entertainment experience.
The good news is that the game is better than the TV show, the story has been slightly more interesting from the start, and at least if you play the game you actually get some solid third-person shooting action.