Can Fun Overcome Mediocrity?
Trion Worlds’ Defiance is a game that fights with its players to be loved, when there are likely plenty of reasons to be frustrated and demoralized. You see, the core of the game is hectic, pulse-pounding, explosive, and fun. But for every one thing that Defiance does right, several other bits are broken or half-wrought. It’s clearly the sort of game that will grow in time, given enough support from its fans and the studio. The show on SyFy is doing well in the ratings, which gives this gamer hope that some of those revenue dollars will flow the game’s direction. Because I want to keep playing and loving Defiance while watching the show. But whether I will or not largely depends on how quickly Trion can fix some major issues, and how quickly they can add more layers to the game and its systems.
Defiance is an MMO shooter, based in the same universe as SyFy’s now certified “hit” TV show. Where the show takes place in St. Louis the game takes place in San Francisco. There’s no subscription, but you must buy the box to play the game. Once in, you can buy optional XP, money, and other boosts or vanity items to sweeten your experience. You play an Ark Hunter, a gun for hire, working your way through the world, uncovering its secrets and helping eccentric genius Von Bach recover Ark Tech to help save the world. Things get a bit deeper than that as you go, and the game’s storyline, while a mostly solo affair, is quite interesting. Though the show and game don’t mix much (yet), the shared universe, characters, races, and aesthetic go a long way to making a fan of one at home in the other.
Before you read this final scoring review, be sure to check out my Review in Progress diaries (One, Two, Three, and Four). They’ll give you a nice week-by-week snapshot of my ups and downs with Defiance. I’ve logged well over 30 hours with the game between diaper changes of my newborn, and seen a good deal of the content that Defiance has to offer. I played on the PC with a mouse and keyboard, and was provided a Digital Deluxe Edition by Trion’s PR folk. Now, let’s get to the pluses and negatives.
Aesthetics - 7
The Good: The visuals of Defiance get flack, and given the graphic-whore nature of shooters, I can see why. But to me, the game’s vistas, modeling, and effects look great. It’s no TERA or Guild Wars 2, and certainly no Planetside 2 in terms of MMO graphical beauty, but it has a charm and look all its own. I really think they nailed a lot of the outfits, the guns, effects, and the Hellbugs and other alien lifeforms are fantastic to look at and interact with. I absolutely love the Incubator weapon animation. Overall it’s a pretty game, despite muddy textures and awkward animations. See below.
The Bad: My main quibbles with Defiance’s looks are in its muddy textures and herky-jerky animations. Like I said in previous articles, the running and jumping animations of just about every humanoid creature in Defiance are terrible sights to behold. The death animations and physics make up for it, but for as much running and jumping as you do in the game it would be nice if the actual animation for both were believable. They just seem off somehow.
Then there’s the UI. It works, but it’s really obviously built from the ground up for the PS3 and Xbox users. It’s just clunky as can be. Chat doesn’t work well at all (voice or typed, but we’ll get to that later). And let’s not talk about the combat music. Most of the score for Defiance is actually well-done. It’s just the wub-wub you’ll quickly dive into the settings to turn off (if you can find the audio settings).
Gameplay - 8
The Good: This is where Defiance shines. Above everything else I can say negative about Trion’s sophomore effort, I can’t deny that it’s fun and even addictive. There’s something to be said for any MMO or shooter fan that Defiance’s mix of massively multiplayer plus gunplay, loot, and character progression all equal up to a pretty intoxicating bunch of “just one more mission/match/emergency/etc”.
The EGO system, explained several times on this site, is an interesting way to handle progression, and while it’s not immediately apparent in a world where new spells and skills dominate it’s also a very robust way to differentiate your character or Ark Hunter. It may not seem like it at first, but as you progress deeper into the 5000 EGO point cap (yes, 5000) you’ll realize just how different you can be from the next guy even if you all share the same four core skills. This is a shooter primarily, not an RPG, and so one can hardly fault the team for letting the guns do most of the talking. And there are a lot of guns. It’s not quite the breadth and scope of Borderlands, but Defiance gives you a lot of loot to tweak, adjust, add modifications to, and it’ll likely be some time before you figure out what works best for your playstyle. I’ve taken quite a liking to fully-auto Assault Rifles, SMGs, and a decent grenade lobber.
The best parts of Defiance’s overall gameplay are in the Open World. There’s something truly special about the Arkfall events, the roving army against Hellbug mentality it creates, and the way Shadow War PVP folds seamlessly into the open world (even if it’s optional). The instanced content isn’t “bad”, and in fact there’s a lot of fun to be had in the Co-Op missions which act as Defiance’s dungeons. But they’re not nearly as enticing as the massive open world mayhem which is Defiance at its finest.
There are your typical missions (of which you can only work on one at a time), and other challenges like vehicle speed-runs, “hot-shot” skill tests, and other such distractions, but the bulk of your time will likely be spent progressing the story and working on the random open world events that pop up. The only real reason to complete the time trials and other challenges is to complete “Pursuits” (Defiance’s achievement system) and earn some extra outfits and titles.
The Bad: One of my chief complaints against Defiance early on is that everyone is the same when they come out of the tutorial. You all wear the same thing, and have the same abilities. Like any good MMO, this changes after a few hours and time spent unlocking other gear, outfits, and gaining more weapons. But I still can’t shake the feeling that players should be able to choose the colors of their outfits. And if Trion ever made them something that cost a little real world money? They’d fund development for months.
No, the biggest complaint I can levy against Defiance is that while there certainly are a lot of things to do in the game... it all pretty much involves running and shooting. And what would I expect, right? It’s an online shooter. But there are no real downtime activities to do. Modifying weapons via the salvage matrix is a poor-man’s crafting but it's also an act of patience more than something worth spending time on. Maybe for many gamers, a world to run around and shoot stuff is all they’d need. But if you’re an MMO player who likes fluff along with their combat, you’re not going to find much of it in Defiance.
I also want to point out that the PVP, while fun, is also a mixed bag due to some serious cheating. Cheaters and aim-botters are an issue, as is the practice of bunny-hopping as a combat tactic. Trion says they’re actively on the tail of cheaters, and hopefully that’s true. But they should also likely patch in a diminishing return mechanic (maybe just a stamina bar?) for jumping in PVP situations. Then there’s the notion that the damage might be handled on the client side of things... yeah, it’s a thing. But without a fix, the PVP will wind up useless and frustrating forever, as opposed to the incredible fun it can be when it’s rolling on all cylinders.
And let’s not get me started on the terrible AI. They’re either superhuman shooters, or completely useless morons. There’s no in-between, and they seem to randomly switch between the two roles at random.
Despite its faults though, Defiance’s core gameplay is incredibly fun. It’s not hyper-realistic shooting, and it could use a real cover mechanic, but it’s addictive and still relatively novel in an MMO. Not to mention another game here, but if Tabula Rasa has Defiance’s combat, the game would probably still be alive. Warts and all. Yes, the main bulk of Defiance is fun. But there are other issues holding it back from being a great experience.
Social - 5
The Good: Right in line with the above bits on the open world content, the best parts of Defiance are the parts when you play alongside others. Co-Op is a blast, and comradery is easy to find in PVP and Shadow War. Massive roving armies for Arkfalls are always fun to be a part of and the game engine handles the numbers well.
The Bad: You can play Defiance with people around you at all times, and yet... you’ll feel alone. Except in the cases where you get into Co-Op missions and find nice chatty people to speak with over the improving VOIP, Defiance is a mostly silent world. Chat doesn’t work well, and even on the PC most people don’t use it. There’s little to zero reason to be in a Clan, and along with the above critiques, there’s no real reason outside of occasional Co-Op groups to socialize. Defiance is an MMO where the other people really just feel like AI companions with minds of their own.
Polish - 5
The Good: It’s come a really long way since beta. It’s mostly stable now, and I don’t really run into bugged missions, or have trouble queuing up for content these days. For the most part, the game works. But...
The Bad: The UI is clearly made for consoles, with the PC as an afterthought. The VOIP is still in terrible shape more often than not. The terrain clipping makes for some truly crazy accidental 180 degree vertical jumps on your ATV, and many other little things that all chip away at this score. And what can I say about disappearing items in people’s inventory? In a game that’s largely about what guns you have, a fault like this is pretty infuriating.
Longevity - 6
The Good: For a casual gamer, or someone who just plays an hour or two here or there, there’s enough content to last a good few months. And by then, we’ll likely start to see their first DLC plans which should include new missions, new races, and so forth. There’s a lot to do for a shooter fan, if you can get past the frustrating lack of polish. The Pursuits will definitely keep the completionists busy for a while. The Contract system (daily and weekly achievements) is a good way to mask a reputation gear grind as well. Seriously, they’re often fun to hunt down and some of the best items you can buy can be found on Reputation Vendors.
The Bad: With no real social interaction, and almost zero reason to begin a second character (why would you, when you can unlock everything on one and there are no alternate paths through content?), I’m afraid that most hardcore gamers will be through with Defiance’s content in a few weeks. In fact, I’m betting more than a few of you will come in here and tell me you’re done with the main content and just waiting for more. The DLC is going to be almost necessary for any fan to keep the love of the game alive.
Innovation - 7
The Good: There are, simply put, not many MMO shooters on the market. If you’re not much of a PVP guy, chances are you won’t find a home in Planetside 2. Defiance, alongside the perennially-in-beta Firefall, is the PVE gamer’s best hope for an MMO shooter until Destiny comes out. There are also a lot of interesting ideas at play with the open world content, the EGO system and sort of lateral progression it proposes. You’ll get stronger as you play, but you can still get your butt handed to you by a skilled player who just started the game. It’s a great way to make sure that skill is paramount, while still making players feel like they’re progressing their characters.
Plus, when was the last time you played an MMO that ran hand-in-hand with a show?
The Bad: The shooting and and regular instanced content is just “meh”. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The novelty of being in an MMO persistent world and shooting stuff will run out, and what you’re left with is a game that’s neither a great MMO nor a great shooter. It’s just OK at both.
Value - 8
The Good: The price of a box will get you an MMO that you don’t have to pay a subscription for. Much like Guild Wars 2, the “Buy-2-Play” model serves Defiance well. Given the game’s hop in and out gameplay, you won’t feel pressured to keep your sub active, and instead can wait out the DLC and decide if it’s something you feel like buying. For those who do want to spend a little extra, there is a cash shop. But the items within are nothing to get riled up over. Boosts to scrip (in-game currency), XP, and resources will help players advance faster, but in a game that’s entirely about skill you won’t be able to buy better aim. And since you can’t straight up buy some uber weapon to snipe people with, I see no faults in their cash shop. It’s mostly cosmetic or convenience items.
The Bad: The only real questionable purchase is the Lockbox. It’s something you can easily earn with in-game currency, but for those who have the cash they can buy a lockbox that gives a few weapons of random variety and quality out. I’d have a larger issue with this if it wasn’t so easy to come by all manner of weapons in the regular world or by earning enough scrip and resources to buy the lockbox without spending a real dime.
Here’s what to take away from this review: Defiance is a really fun game despite its numerous rough edges. But can that fun overcome its mediocrity? That would likely be up to each individual gamer. If you’re hankering for an online PvE-centric shooter that’s out of beta, Defiance may be for you. If you’re a mega-fan of the show and like to game, it’s also probably a no-brainer. But if you’re looking for a polished and complete experience to rival other MMOs on the market, you might be better off waiting to see if Trion can remedy the problems marring Defiance’s launch. If the blogs from the studio are any indication, Defiance could wind up being a diamond in the rough. But it’s going to take some time to get there, and hopefully it will before we all forget it exists.
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.
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