Ever since hearing about Defiance at L.A.'s Electronic Entertainment Expo, most of us have wondered how developer Trion Worlds will make it work. In making its unique MMO-shooter, Trion's taken on both the leviathan-sized task of creating a new massively multiplayer online game, and the challenge of developing a game in conjunction with a television series. To a marketing department, it's a dream come true—for a development team, more like a nightmare. After getting a good long look at the game this week though at Trion's San Francisco press event, I'm happy to report that Defiance is falling on the “dream” side of the spectrum, and is highly likely to fulfill its multi-media promise.
Arriving at the event, I expected to hunker down in front of a monitor and dig into the game. What a cool surprise it was then, when Trion announced that first we were going to watch the Defiance TV pilot! At this writing I can't reveal any details about the show but directing producer Michael Nankin gave it a clever introduction and watching it really helped set the tone. Post-pilot, we trooped back to the game stations (all three platforms were represented: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC) and I settled in to play on PC which I could see right away was the best choice from a visual standpoint. On PC, the game looks fantastic.
Now, most of us when hearing “MMO” think of fantasy or sci-fi turn-based games but Defiance is bent on being a massively multiplayer online shooter. I asked Creative Lead Bill Trost about about Trion's choice to realize twitch gaming on such a massive scale and he said:
“The reason why I've been excited about Defiance for so long is I like first person shooters, third person open world games and the communities that MMOs have. When Trion San Diego first decided to make Defiance, we asked ourselves, 'What does MMO mean to us?' and the answer was, 'a fun game in an online world where you can meet other people.' I feel like Defiance is really going to deliver on that and in a way that we haven't really had before. I mean, I can play this game on my big TV while sitting in my living room. That aspect is really exciting.”
(That is exciting, however, less so is the fact that Bill said the servers are not cross-platform, so Xbox gamers will be unable to play with PS3 or PC players.)
Anyway, the game began with an intro cutscene, then threw me into character creation. Defiance emphasizes the “MMO” aspect of MMORPG and de-emphasizes the role-playing side of things, as character creation is quite plain. While many games in the genre try to include as many customization options as possible, Defiance goes a simpler route, offering two genders and only two races: human and Irathient. (Irathient's a humanoid alien race with slightly lion-like facial features.) That made choosing easy and after browsing through the four archetype choices—Veteran, Survivalist, Outlaw and Machinist—I settled on a fierce-looking, female Irathient Outlaw. These choices don't really affect anything, and really only serve to give you a starting look and a little back-story on where you came from.
Jumping in, I was told that my character was a professional ark hunter (a cross between a mercenary and a garbage collector) in the pay of powerful arms dealer Karl Von Bach, an industrialist and leader of one the game's main factions. Von Bach's plan was to fly me and my cohorts to the former Bay Area and do some lucrative salvage; seconds into the clip though, everything went pear-shaped. Skipping ahead, (no spoilers here!) I met up with another Irathient ark hunter named Cass Ducar and started to learn about my EGO.
In Defiance, the EGO isn't that part of the brain that makes some people an insufferable party guest; it's an implant that augments your skills. EGO stands for Environmental Guardian Online and it's the mechanism by which ark hunters use their four main powers: Blur, Cloak, Decoy and Overcharge. The game's tutorial incorporated some slick cinematic storytelling while walking me through the whole EGO thing, as well as teaching me to use the rest of the game's systems. Storytelling seems to be a big deal in Defiance. From what I saw in the hours I had with the game, it has an unusual number of dramatic moments that make it feel more like a single player action game than an MMO. What's cool is that in addition to offering what feels like a well-crafted single-player experience, it also creates a multi-player experience that's remarkably painless.
In the way of Trion's fantasy MMO Rift, missions and events can be completed by multiple players without the arrangement of formal groups. That makes it easy to take a mission, and if you come across other people doing the same mission, to jump in and join the action. Once the objective's completed and you've got your reward, you can hop in your vehicle and go your separate ways without any awkward excuse-making or wordless (and rude) “so-and-so has left the party” deals.
Oh, and speaking of hopping into your vehicle, minutes into the game you're given your own all-terrain vehicle called an A-Tex Growler Pro. This is good because the game version of Defiance is set in and around post-apocalyptic San Francisco, which means lots of rubble and lots of hills. My sturdy little three-wheeler could be called up at any time and appeared to be trade-able for a good number of other vehicles further into the game. It was good fun zooming around what used to be Mt. Tam state park, fighting mutants, rescuing allies and sabotaging raider camps.
Along with zipping over the detritus of civilization, I also enjoyed the game's weapon system which looks simple, but isn't. In Defiance your gear isn't complicated. It consists of a primary and secondary weapon, grenades, a shield, your main EGO power and its related perks and your clothing, which has no stats at all and is completely aesthetic. What will separate the amateurs from the competitors I predict, is the crafting system which allows you to break down almost anything for materials and then craft it into high-end weapons upgrades.
Near the end of the event, we got some Shadow War PvP going were treated to a rousing (and for me, humbling) game of capture the flag. I say humbling because evidently, while I'd spent my time staring at skill trees and listening to intel, my adversaries had crafted or found some far superior weaponry. I didn't stand a chance. I was blown repeatedly away by heavily-armed enemies skilled at using shrubs for cover. Still, the pace of the match was dynamic, the Mt. Tam map provided some interesting cover options and despite there being some confusion upon entering the game, (I accepted when prompted to enter the match but wasn't immediately teleported there until I accepted again. Needless to say, the first five minutes of the match I spent trying to figure out where the match was.) the match was a lot of fun. (Editor's Note: The Shadow War takes place in the open world, but doesn't affect the other folks running around doing their business. Think of this sort of PVP in Defiance as a queued PVP public event.)
After hours playing, I really only managed to scratch the surface of Defiance (I didn't, for instance, have time to try crafting, challenges or any of the 1-4 player instances). Still, what I did see feels very solid. The graphics are grim but beautiful, the combat's fast-moving, the weapons are fun to use, the interesting EGO skills promise some unusual character builds and the storytelling is right up there with Syfy's best TV series. Trion's taking a big risk linking its shooter-MMO to an untested TV series but I have a feeling that risk is about to pay off.