A Hard Look at Trion’s Gamble
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Trion’s Defiance has a lot riding on it. The combined reputations and bankrolls of the game developer and the SyFy Network are hinging on this ambitious experiment’s success. If one fails, it’s likely that the other will be fine. Say the show winds up a stinker, but the game’s a polished gem? The game will likely forge onward. The same could be said if the tables are turned. The success of each unique product is not necessarily mutually exclusive. But no doubt, the ultimate goal is to have this multi-platform world of Defiance dominate the hearts and minds of sci-fi nerds everywhere, and anything less than a rousing success of both products will be seen as a failure.
I can’t comment on the show, which airs its premiere on SyFy come April 15th, but I can give you some insight to how the PC version of the game is shaping up. I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Trion’s persistent world shooter (they’re trying to steer away from the term “MMO” lately, for reasons we’ll get to within), and over the months and updates, I’ve seen it make leaps and bounds. But is it both enough of a shooter to satisfy that audience, and enough of an MMO to satisfy folks like us? The truth is that it probably lies somewhere in between, and that will wind up being Defiance’s largest uphill battle.
We’ve previewed the game many times before, so by now you get a gist of how it all works and what it is. It’s part third-person shooter with a shield and regen health mechanic. It’s part MMO, all online and with persistent character development and optional DLC content packs down the road to continue building out features, story, and more. Got that? For now, we’re going to get down to basics and talk about what Defiance’s strengths and weaknesses are both as an MMO and as a shooter. For a nice overview of the game, if you’re in the dark, check out our video interview with Rob Hill last night below.
MMOFTW Live from 3/21 with Robert Hill of Trion Worlds.
THE MMO SIDE OF THINGS
The greatest strengths Defiance has as an MMO are in the mere fact that it’s an open world PVE-centric shooter with a classless progression system, top-notch cinematics and story, and really fun travel in the ATVs and cars available to players. I mean, let’s face it, an MMO that’s a shooter is still a novelty, and playing something akin to say Borderlands in an open world setting with hundreds or thousands of other players is fun. It’s also got fantastic visuals that look decent even on older machines. Crysis 3 it isn’t, but over the course of beta and alpha, Defiance’s ambience and atmosphere have come a long way.
The Arkfalls, Defiance’s answer to dynamic content are great displays of what happens when you put a big giant raid boss in the middle of a highly populated area and tell people to kill it. The open grouping system is a boon in these situations, like in GW2, because you can just join in the fun and earn rewards. Additionally, the crafting and modification of every weapon of the game really add to the ways in which min-max fans can tweak their builds. I also really like the match-made PVP for quick bouts of evenly-spread competitive action, which provide rewards and tokens to spend on items as well.
And oh, how many builds there are. For while there are only four main EGO Skills to use in the game (Blur, Decoy, Overcharge, and Cloak) each one can be altered and tweaked to a huge amount of different builds by spending your EGO points as you progress in the game. Add to this the many different mods and alternate damage types each gun has and the potential is pretty immense for customization even if initial character creation is lacking.
Additionally, there’s VOIP (voice over internet protocol) built into the game for groups, instanced content, and competitive multiplayer. It’s not the best quality just yet in beta (clarity is rough and there is often lag), but for PUGs with strangers in a game where typing is not an option at all, you’ll be glad to have it there. And also glad you can mute anyone you please.
The UI. Oh man, the UI. It’s worth noting that on the consoles it might not be such a big deal. But as a PC MMO gamer, you’re going to hate it. The shortcuts, once you get them down, help a lot but overall it’s clear as day that it was designed from the ground up for console players. There are few ways to customize it, and simple things such as equipping and sorting your items is a chore. It’s come a long way, but like DC Universe before it, it leaves something to be desired.
MMO gamers will also notice a distinct lack of character creation choices. You have two races, the human and the Irathient. The latter of which looks like a slightly more forehead-endowed human with a wide nose bridge. You will be one of four starting outfits (the rest are earned in game and bought in the store), and select from a few basic facial and hair settings and off you go. Early on, everyone will look identical to everyone, though you will see a lot more diversity as you play. Rob Hill also told us last night that DLC will be bringing other races potentially down the road, and of course loads more outfits to customize your looks.
One thing that concerns more more than character customization, especially when it's only an issue at creation, is that in Defiance there’s only really one path through the game’s content. And since you can essentially unlock every skill and item with one character, what incentive is there to replay the game’s content? It’s a problem that Rift had as well, and probably one of Defiance’s biggest issues.
There’s also, at least in beta and alpha, little reason to be in a guild/clan or socialize outside of competitive PVP and the Shadow War (a sort of open world PVP). We’ll see how that changes out of beta though, as things like purchasable Boosts, the epic Shadow War PVP, and so forth practically beg for players to get together and organize Shadow Wars are huge massive matches of capture and hold that grow larger and cover more of the game world when more players partake in them. They're elective, and sound pretty epic, but I didn't get a chance to partake before this article. That said, right now there don’t seem to be many perks to being in a group or clan outside of increasing the amount of people you can chat with and the potential for clan boosts to XP and so forth.
THE SHOOTER SIDE OF THINGS
One thing Defiance had to get right is the controls. And while I’m a mouse and KB player, I’ve dabbled with the Xbox 360 controller as well and I can attest to some tight aiming, responsive action, and incredibly satisfying guns to wield in Defiance. The only thing that’s lacking is a real cover mechanic... mentioned below in weaknesses as well. But the aiming is tight, the different guns have different spray patterns and kickback. It’s all really competent as far as shooters go, and any fan of these sorts of games will feel immediately at home with the controls.
I also like to classify Defiance as the PVE shooter-fan’s playground. It’s got PVP sure, but for gamers who like a big open world and lots of people to play with rather than against, Defiance is still a pretty rare breed. You can’t pick up say, Planetside 2, and hope to kills some AI-controlled badguys with a few hundred friends. For that sort of action, only Defiance really has the claim (at least until Firefall comes out of beta). It also has a more straightforward sort of questing and matchmaking system than Firefall. Lots of co-op missions for those who like small groups, and big open world objectives for the MMO player in all of us.
The UI. I’ll just keep mentioning it because I really hope that somehow Trion is able to change it for the PC or allow some mods. There’s also no real cover mechanic, something that’s really suspect in a modernday third-person shooter. You can crouch and dodge-roll, but you can’t hug corners, pop out, or any of that. You can’t lie prone either and snipe from a hill. These are the sorts of things that should be added. I’m also curious as to what would make a typical shooter fan play Defiance over their game of choice, other than the fact that it’s new. Hopefully the game and show connection, and massive PVE will be enough to keep people coming back between DLC updates.
Another woe? The character animations are suspect. I can’t think of a better way to put it. Ragdoll physics work well when enemies die, but running looks bad all the way across the board. It’s passable, don’t get me wrong. It just looks off in a way I can’t explain. I’d also like to know where falling damage is, and if it’s just turned off in beta and alpha. I’m hoping it is, because falling 40 feet should probably hurt me a little bit, or at least drop my shield.
Lastly, I have to mention the music. When things get hairy in some cases, the Skrillex meets Muzak wub-wub gets pumping and I immediately reach for the mute button. It’s bad, folks. Bring your own soundtrack to this one.
Defiance First Impressions with Ripper X
WAIT AND SEE
Here’s a list of “wait and see” things that I’ll look into once the game launches next month. How does vehicular combat work? How “different” does my character really feel as I progress? Will there be a lot of gear and item drops in the world, or will Trion hold off and make them something that’s part of the monetization? How much will the “Boosts” (bonuses to XP and so forth) in the cash shop help and will they be worth it? How fast will the DLC actually come to keep me engaged past the first batch of content?
Overall, I’m optimistic about Defiance leading into launch. They’ve backed away a bit from the “MMO shooter” moniker, perhaps because it could scare away your more casual shooter and console gamers. I had a lot of fun playing with Rob Lashley and Trion's folks last night. Seeing how the game works with a lot of players participating in open world content is impressive. But maybe their target isn’t you or I, though they’ll be glad to have us no doubt because the game is an MMO through and through. Rather I suspect they’re hoping to build an army of fans across the major consoles and the PC, fans who love the show, the world, and play the game to get closer to it all. Right now I’d call Defiance a good base of a game with a really promising future... Let’s just hope the show is as good as it looks and that people fall in love with the world. This alone would help keep Trion Worlds invested in the game for a long time to come and give its rough spots the time to mature that they need.
Stay tuned to MMORPG.com and FPSGuru.com for more coverage, and check back Monday for Rob Lashley’s own thoughts on the Defiance beta. Our review in progress will begin when we get into the launch phase. What are your thoughts on Defiance? Let us know in the comments.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.