Hands-On Impressions: Defiance

When people hear “Trion Worlds “, they probably think about the fairly successful MMORPG, Rift. When people hear “SyFy Channel”, they probably think terrible TV-movies with offensive special effects and giant crocodiles ravaging urban cities a la Godzilla, minus all the stuff that made Godzilla cool. Of course, they might also think about Battlestar Galactica, the channel’s claim to fame. Regardless, when people think about Trion Worlds and SyFy together, they may think: huh? Well, that should change, as these two companies are teaming up for the upcoming massively multiplayer online game, Defiance.

Defiance is a third-person shooter in the vein of Red Faction or Gears of War and is set in a war-torn, future Earth where an alien race has immigrated to the United States, causing widespread panic and an aggressive response. Due to this, battles have been waged on US turf, turning cities like San Francisco, — the game’s primary backdrop — into warzones. With this narrative in place, Defiance is an MMO unlike most, in that it takes its story and characters very seriously. Before even being able to jump into actual gameplay, players will sit through a rather lengthy opening scene that introduces characters and dialogue galore. This concept would make sense, however, seeing as the game’s defining feature is its interconnectivity with the upcoming television show on SyFy Channel under the same name.

That’s right, what happens in Defiance’s game world impacts what happens in the TV show, and vice-versa. This multimedia excursion is unlike any other ever attempted in the history of TV or games, thus the partnership of SyFy and Trion is wanting to fully express their excitement in the game which is clearly shown by the lovingly crafted cutscenes and plot points. What’s fascinating, though probably shouldn’t be given the breadth of this inter-media experiment, is the fact that the characters and stories here are actually really interesting. Within the first hour, I already cared about some of the personalities I had met — it’s rare for that kind of connection to take place in a world as open as that of an MMO.

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Defiance, however, isn’t just about its tale. In actuality, while the story is front and center often, the gameplay is more so. After all, this is a title that is meant to be played and not watched, therefore players can expect a lot of diverse action of which to be a part. Defiance’s sprawling open-world is where players are allowed to do as they please. Take on solo missions? That can happen. Cooperative assaults? There are those, too. What about PVP? Well, there’s an abundance of that as well. Before diving into all this, the game starts off by giving players a somewhat long tutorial where they learn about basic commands, but also the game’s unique abilities system and skill tree — a staple in the MMO genre and one that greatly benefits the depth of Trion’s baby.

When players first learn the ropes, they’ll be given an option to begin specializing in one of four sets of skills. These skills range from basic stealth to increased attack power, and so on. Once players have chosen a skill, they can then use it in combat, and upon earning enough experience points to level up, they can then choose a skill from a group of new ones unlocked by putting points in that initial skill, or they can choose to learn one of the three others they didn’t take in the first place. Each set of abilities is roughly laid out in the typical MMO tree fashion, but it’s all far more flexible and less constricting. Nevertheless, this will certainly feel very fresh for those folks playing on consoles, where games and gameplay choices of this ilk are not aplenty. Veterans of the massively multiplayer stratosphere on PC, however, will either feel right at home with the options, or frustrated at the formulaic design approach.

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The best part about Defiance thus far is its large playground in which to do battle. Players will run around the open world and shoot bugs and creatures to their hearts content in a liberal fashion, or take on quests that award experience points as well as items for the completion of specific objectives. From the missions we played, objectives felt fairly diverse; some saw us arming a bomb and then defending the device from waves of aliens, while others had us assaulting compounds where the baddies were gathering in exorbitant amounts. These missions can be done solo, but there’s also the option to head into a cooperative mission by the click of a single button that puts players right into a matchmaking queue. From there, they are placed into missions with similar leveled folks and tasked with fighting raid-like boss battles. We were surprised at how quick and well-executed the matchmaking system was, rarely dropping us into a battle for which we were underequipped.

The same can be said about the game’s PVP modes. With one key press, players are off to a competitive map that can range from team deathmatch to some sort of objective-based model. Although, Defiance tries to be even more seamless than just allowing players to experience the PVP goodness through a series of menu prompts and being whisked away to a separate part of the game world to do their warring. In actuality, all PVP matches occupy the same, persistent world as the other solo content, therefore folks may just be plowing along on some quests on their lonesome and then run into a large scale competitive battle in which they suddenly get caught up.

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Whether players are enjoying the solo or multiplayer content, though, they will invariably be engaging in the art of blowing things up. This aspect was something of a mixed bag in that the aiming doesn’t feel all that tight. On PlayStation 3, or even on PC playing with a gamepad, the shooting felt squirrely and hard to manage at times. With a mouse and a keyboard this issue was significantly diminished, but folks looking to play on consoles may need some time to get acclimated to the controls. Fortunately, all abilities and attacks are mapped out very well, making the switch between methods of assault quite breezy.

So while the game excels at providing all different kinds of play as well as customization through skills and looted equipment, it takes on a somewhat underwhelming aesthetic. Having played both PC and PS3 versions of the game, we can confidently say the same looks worlds better on PC. On PlayStation 3, players will be stuck with some low-res textures, hard edges, occasional pop-in and questionable environmental detailing. On PC these issues weren’t nearly as noticeable, however, given the giant nature of the game world, it’s understandable that corners had to be cut in order to allow scores of people to populate the same world at the same time. What may not be as easy to overlook is the framerate, which was inconsistent at best. Such constant drops in framerate in a game that requires accuracy and precision is certainly a woeful thing with which to wrestle, and it’s out sincerest hope that this gets ironed out by the time the game goes live. (After all, this is beta, and there are bound to be unpolished aspects.) It should be noted that these framerate hiccups were not present in the PC version of the game. Nevertheless, the sound design, on the other hand, was top notch, with heart pounding themes and ambient noises during the low-key moments of exploration.

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Whether this third-person shooter succeeds or not will depend on players’ willingness to accept its somewhat typical art design and setting, and put up with its technical limitations – at least on consoles. The PC counterpart felt far more refined, but we worry that a game like this won’t find its popularity on PCs due to the overwhelming number of MMOs out there that are also free-to-play. Thus, if the console iteration then is not as sophisticated, it could mean that Defiance struggles to find a dedicated audience. Even still, the game is a fairly unique take on the MMO shooter genre, and is doing things that not many other games of its kind are doing. With its emphasis on story, customization options and gameplay variety, it could turn out to be a hit, or at least a cult-favorite. If the bugs can be sorted out in this beta, then Trion and SyFy could have a wonderful product that bridges the gap between TV and games. Be on the lookout for Defiance when it releases on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on April 2, and then tune in to the show on SyFy when it debuts April 15.