Updated Wed, Apr 17, 2013 by Sardu
Defiance is a case study in why it’s never a good idea to impose an unwavering launch date on an MMOG, regardless of the state the game is in once that proposed launch day comes knocking. A rocky start can be the death knell of even the most meticulously crafted online gaming experience, and Defiance has seen more than its share of stability issues, bugs, and general gameplay wonkiness.
Many of these things have been addressed in a series of patches and hotfixes post-launch, and Trion Worlds has even gone so far as to extend an apology and free virtual items to players for the state of the launch client. But even if Defiance had launched rock solid in the performance department, the game has long suffered a Tabula Rasa style personality crisis of sorts that permeates nearly all aspects of gameplay.
Were the Defiance MMOG intended as a standalone experience that might not bode well for its longevity on the market. In this case, however, certain blanks have been purposefully left to be filled in by the near simultaneous launch of the SyFy Channel television series that shares the setting, timeline, and even certain key NPC interactions with the MMOG.
The successful airing of the first episode of the TV series will no doubt drive plenty of interest in the MMOG, but at the end of the day Trion Worlds still has a ways to go before Defiance the game is truly ready for mass market consumption.
Defiance has been rated M for Mature by the ESRB for the following:
Much like the prolific use of the word "frak" in Battlestar Galactica, you'll quickly pick up on cleverly disguised profanity like the word "shtako" in Defiance. Interestingly enough, however, we reached a point further along in the main storyline when the pretense was altogether dropped in favor of outright profanity and distasteful language. For us it stood out like a sore thumb, so felt deserving of a mention here as a caution to be aware of.
As is the grand tradition in the MMO space, Defiance attempts to cherry pick ideas from a broad spectrum of previous games across multiple genres to varying degrees of success. While technically an MMOG, Defiance plays more like a very elaborate single-player console shooter with multiplayer modes. Text chat is downplayed entirely in favor of voice chat, and any semblance of a truly social experience flies straight out the window as a result. The scant social tools and broken clan support only compound the issue.
The user interface in general is one of the game’s weakest points on PC. As is all too often the case with cross-platform games, the PC UI has fallen prey to playing second fiddle to its console counterparts. For example, something as simple as inventory management is an unnecessary exercise in frustration. Simple right-click contextual menus are nowhere to be seen, so even a basic action like breaking unwanted gear down into resources is a clunky series of mouse clicks buried in numerous menu screens. Again, this is what happens when you build for the optimal console experience first and any PC specific considerations are nowhere to be seen.
In terms of the third-person shooter gameplay, Defiance has a bit of funkiness when it comes to player perspective. For all intents and purposes, it helps to ignore that your character appears on screen entirely and simply focus on the targeting reticule, otherwise the skewed perspective doesn’t seem to synch up the way you’d expect it to.
The core shooter gameplay does tend to draw heavy inspiration from the Boarderlands series, as does the never ending stream of weapon, shield, and grenade upgrades. As a result, the game works best in the midst of utter chaos where you don’t have time to stop and analyze any of the particulars of combat. Likewise, the overall variety of weaponry encourages you to experiment with different loadouts rather than attempting to find and stick with one all-powerful setup.
Character progression is one of the less obvious systems in Defiance. Rather than gaining levels, you earn an Ego ranking based on a number of contributing factors such as ranking up a specific weapon type or vehicle. You do have an XP bar which grants Ego points that can be spent to unlock or advance a base skill or a number of Perks which can in turn be slotted into any of your loadouts.
Each time you fill the XP bar you earn one Ego point, with skill progression tethered to your overall Ego ranking, while perks can be unlocked and ranked up in a more nonlinear fashion. While the overall system tends to be a bit wonky, it does help you shape a more distinctive character or playstyle the further you progress.
For example, pairing sniper rifles with invisibility and damage bonuses based on your target’s relative position can be an extremely potent setup. At the same time that particular option has served me best in one of the Shadow War multiplayer mode; in general PvE things can quickly get a bit too chaotic to effectively stick to a shadowy sniper role. This is due in part to the fact that once you're spotted by enemy NPCs, they have the uncanny ability to hone in on your exact location at all times. And since there are high volumes of melee attackers, the sniper role can be particularly difficult to sustain if there are not other friendly players in the area.
Much of the chaos in Defiance comes in the form of the tried and true socket and plugs setup that has become progressively more prevalent over the past few years. To help give the open world of Defiance a sense of being a living, breathing world, events can kick off at a number of predetermined socket points across the map. Some of these will be smaller groupings of enemy spawns that single players can wipe out in a few minutes of intense shooting. This scales up to the massive Arkfall events which really are the best thing Defiance currently has going for it.
Arkfalls are the Defiance equivalent of the rift events in Trion’s RIFT. It’s almost a shame that major arkfall events don’t kick off with a higher frequency, because they are one of the few times that Defiance plays like a true MMOG. The rest of the time you’ll largely spend following the main story arc or embarking on a seemingly endless series of basic missions. The use of the dreaded phasing tech commonly splits players off from the rest of the world in many cases, so it can take a while to get a feel for when you can simply jump in and contribute to a mission that’s currently running, and when the character standing next to you is going to temporarily blink out of existence.
A series of activities, such as vehicle-based time trials do help break up some of the shooter gameplay a bit. Otherwise, Defiance does tend to get bogged down with too much sameness the longer you play. Within the first few hours of gameplay you’ll have experienced the majority of what the game has to offer, and the disparity of enemy or terrain types don’t necessarily help in that regard.
Interestingly enough though, if you stick with the game long enough it does begin to feel like more of a virtual world than the bread-crumbed theme park it sets out to be in the first hours of gameplay. If you enjoy fiddling with weapon types, skill loadouts, or racing around the countryside to participate in arkfall events, the game can ultimately be a fun enough experience. But the core storyline is stretched needlessly thin in an attempt to make it last much longer than it probably needs to.
The visual aspects of Defiance are easily one of the game's strongest points. Interestingly enough, certain aspects of the terraformed landscape even tend to feel more genuine in the MMO than they did in the pilot episode of the television series. This is good news for the game in the sense that you'll be spending a lot of time in a largely unchanging environment rather than getting the distinct visual separation between various zones that you would in more traditional MMOGs.
While I'd love to see a greater variety of enemy types introduced, those currently present are modeled well and provide instantly recognizable visual queues that assist in your adaptive approach to combat situations. It became standard practice for me to switch to a sniper loadout and scan a mission area prior to advancing so that I'd be able to equip the optimal loadout before the bullets started to fly.
Character models are rendered well enough, though you'll be stuck with all-or-nothing "outfits" rather than standard slotted gear to alter the cosmetic appearance of your character. As you advance through the game you'll begin seeing a bit more variety, but early on it's hard not to feel like a carbon copy of every other character in the area. This is readily apparent as masses of players converge on local arkfalls in the same exact vehicles, each looking like mirror images of one another.
As noted previously, the arkfall events are an awesome spectacle to behold. While mining facilities and outposts can feel a bit generic the more you're exposed to them, I still haven't tired of seeing the absolute chaos of a good arkfall. Even better is when one kicks off during the transition between day and night. Driving over a hillside towards an in-progress arkfall at night and seeing the sky light up with explosions and gunfire is perhaps one of the most memorable visual experiences I've had in MMOs in recent months.
Defiance holds the distinction of being one of the few MMOGs that I’ve had to turn off the music entirely in an attempt to retain a degree of sanity while playing. That’s not to say the music isn’t expertly crafted, or that I don’t enjoy it on certain levels. The central issue here is that it can continually loop in a maddening way.
The voice acting is also a bit of a mixed bag. The delivery of individual lines comes across well enough, but you get the distinct sense that the voice talent wasn’t given very clear direction on motivation more often than not. As a result, the flow of conversations in many instances doesn’t entirely work, so I found myself on more than one occasion picturing someone reading lines from a sheet of paper in a sound booth rather than voicing the role of a virtual character on screen.