Review: Defiance

Defiance

Creating a new IP for a TV show or video game is a tough job in and of itself. Creating a new IP that is both a full scale science fiction TV show AND a full scale massively multiplayer online third-person shooter sharing the same universe, connecting plot points together and making them feel relevant, now that’s a truly daunting task. SyFy seems to have learned from past mistakes and has gone all in with their most recent futuristic post apocalyptic western, Defiance, which has been turned into a companion video game for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 by Trion Worlds. If you haven’t played the game or watched the show, the question you may be asking yourself, are they any good?

First off I will admit that I haven’t watched every episode of Defiance. I don’t have cable TV and so trying to keep up with a new series that I initially had no real connection with made going back to watching previous episodes feel a bit like a chore (at first). Then there is the fact that not every episode is available all the time, a practice performed by way too many content providers in my opinion. (I’ll gladly sit through a legit web streamed TV show and its commercials even six months after the original airing, but more often than not a show is gone just a few weeks after being aired.)

Defiance the TV show is about how Humans and Votans (a common name for all of the aliens species in the show and game–Irathian, Castithan, Indogen and Liberata just to name a few) work through their differences after sabotage caused the Votan fleet to blow up in Earth’s orbit which caused terraforming devices to rain down and forever alter the planet as we know it. Of course many Votan have the same wants and needs as human and simply want to get by, while others go out of their way to make money or power and thus provide plenty of intrigue and conflict. Nolan and his adopted Irathian daughter, Irisa, are ark hunters traveling across the US in search of fallen debris from the Votan fleet in hopes of making enough scrip to retire to Antarctica. As with any adventure, the end goal is never as easy to achieve and by the end of the first episode, Nolan becomes the Lawkeeper of Defiance (what was formerly St. Louis), facing challenges from all sorts of Human and Votan conflicts.

Conversely, Defiance the video game is not set in Defiance the city, but rather a decimated San Fransisco where players pick between Irathian or Human (male or female) avatars to play out the story of an ark hunter working for a Human who is seeking to find a power core which could potentially reverse the ill effects of the terraforming that has dramatically changed the landscape of Earth. While the story is mostly passable, the action is what keeps me coming back for more–even if it is incredibly straightforward and repetitive.

By that I mean pretty much any quest will lead your character to a point on the map which will then require either turrets or power generators to be disabled, which will then spawn waves of enemies to gun down. Once the equipment is disabled, either NPCs need to be freed, or data needs to be uploaded two or three times in various nearby locations, which of course spawns more waves of enemies. Each step further into the quest brings more difficult waves which can be very fun (as long as you have enough ammo) or incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, the way Defiance handles death limits some of the problems. Upon death, there is an option to revive on the spot (this revival has a cool down) or respawn typically a short distance away from wherever the action for the quest is taking place. Each time a respawn occurs scrip, the in-game currency, is spent to pay for the revival.

Now the biggest issue I have with the game is what I just described. When someone groups up with you and they aren’t at the same point where the quest can be earned, they simply are along for the ride for earning XP, meaning they will later have to replay the quest on their own. Now that’s not to say that replaying a mission is a bad thing, but the above scenario is how pretty much every single mission plays out, just in different locations throughout the San Francisco area. Repetition. Repetition.  Repetition.

My other issue is the fact that if you attempt to play missions solo, there is a good chance that the death/respawn loop will drain you of large chunks of scrip. I ran into a problem with a main story quest that required me to disable generators and then free miners trapped in various storage lockers, and once they were released an enemy Foreman appeared on a hill overlooking the operation. I spent well over half of my 25k scrip trying to revive and defeat the foreman. Some quick math: 12,000 divided by 180 scrip lost per respawn equals 66.667 attempts. WTF?!? OK, so maybe I should’ve canceled the mission and started over (which I eventually did). But part of the reason I didn’t is because typically some random player will stumble across a battle and help out. Didn’t happen that time. It was also clear that as soon as I took down the foreman the mission would be over and I would be able to continue with the main story progression. I really didn’t want to replay a very repetitive mission a second time.

Instances like this unfortunately were something I found fairly routinely while playing through the game. Defiance is fun to solo (most of the time), but clearly isn’t very well balanced for a single player versus playing in a group. As I mentioned above, where it loses steam is when the group isn’t all at the same level or quest. There are also co-op missions which basically replay solo missions with the intention of grouping players together to complete specific goals. Of course playing in groups means not always playing with friends (if they haven’t met certain prerequisites, finished certain story missions yet, or not enough EGO points have been earned–more on that in a minute).

What I have found to also be fun yet frustrating is the fact that the game is designed for play on both consoles and PC, yet the UI on the PC doesn’t seem to deal well with the fact that a 360 controller can be used for most of the input. It is a blast to play an MMO on the PC using the 360 controller and perform 90% of the functions without issue. It’s the last 10% that just doesn’t click right–and I wonder how it even works on PS3 or 360 at all. Chat functionality works on several levels: Group, Clan, Area, and Team. But switching between any of those four while using a game controller is almost impossible. Pressing Start to load up the Character screen allows navigation without much trouble, except if you want to switch to Social or the in-game Store, the steps required to do so double the effort. Pressing Select brings up the map, but then you must use the mouse to right click on an area to set a way-point because no amount of button mashing can set a way point. These little things add up to take some of the fun away from the overall experience. The UI is just plain bad.

From a gameplay perspective, the game is solid fun.  Whichever ark hunter avatar you pick can begin as one of four classes: Veterna, Survivalist, Outlaw and Machinist. Where the specialization kicks in, is how EGO points are spent. Think of EGO like Cortana from Halo, a disembodied voice that offers tips on how to approach each mission while offering to hack computers. EGO points then give bonuses to whatever selections are chosen. I have been playing an Irathian Sniper because I love the option for dropping into stealth mode in case I get over run by enemies. But playing Defiance with one particular specialty doesn’t mean your character is limited to that quadrant of EGO options. EGO points are earned by performing mission quests as well as completing a huge list of Pursuits. The more EGO points earned, the more invested a character can get with perks. These Pursuit challenges range from completing tasks, like exploring all points on a map in a given area, to killing X number of enemies during any particular type of Arkfall, to modifying weapons (or leveling up skill with weapons). Defiance has a lot of open-world choice to accommodate a wide variety of play styles.

To even further accommodate varying play styles, Defiance has an in-game store that allows for purchasing of cosmetic items as well as game-enhancing perks (increased bonus for XP earned or scrip collected etc). These perks are valid for a short time, depending on how much real world money someone wants to spend. Similarly the game world has various factions that offer timed missions called Contracts which can be completed to earn faction points to buy specialty gear.

Let’s get back to the idea of how Defiance the game ties into Defiance the show. The show is set in St. Louis while the game is in San Francisco. Nolan and Irisa are ark hunters like the characters played in game, which means from time to time special episode missions are available tying the two stories a bit closer together. As I mentioned above, I don’t have cable so I didn’t have a chance to watch every episode. Along that line I didn’t have a chance to play every episode mission as it was available during the week’s corresponding show. Fortunately now that the show has gone on hiatus Trion has put episode missions back into the game in a “re-run” fashion which adds a nice variety to the same rinse and repeat missions that pepper non-episode missions.

When missions and faction quests grow tiresome, there is another great activity within the game: Hunting arkfalls. Now in the show, arkfalls are supposed to be chunks of Votan ships that have fallen out of orbit and break up and potentially offer big payouts for lucky ark hunters. In the game, arkfalls are chaotic shoot ’em up affairs that feel a bit out of sorts from what the show describes. Arkfalls are easily found on the map by a red ark symbol (and periodically major arkfalls occur in a region where 4-6 symbols all appear). As with many of the main and side quest missions, arkfall events feel very repetitive after taking part in a couple of them. What differentiates arkfalls from the rest of the typical missions is the fact that there are potentially 40-60 (or more?) players all descending on one location at once, killing hell beasts or mutants that spawn. Seeing that many players on screen at once without a drop in frame rate is a feat in and of itself. Seeing the pseudo coordination among that many people all gunning to take down the arkfall is yet another marvel. Do wild riches drop from each arkfall? Kinda. Is participating in an arkfall dumb fun? You bet.

Dumb fun just about sums up the entire experience. Defiance could easily be dismissed as a gimmick attempting to bring a TV show and a video game together, but even with the flaws that I’ve described, I can’t help but find myself drawn back to the game every few days just to shoot stuff and see if Trion has added something else new to do. Obviously Defiance is a game best played with a group of friends, but if you don’t know anyone on your friend list who owns the game there are plenty of guilds/clans in the world to aid in finding groups, making it very easy to jump in and meet new people while having a blast shooting shtako. Defiance doesn’t “wow” by any stretch, but does offer a lot of content (especially now that the standard edition entry point is down to just $9.99 on PC and $19.99 on console) and is a lot more fun and addicting than it probably should be.

[Note: Since this review initially published the game has adopted a free-to-play model.]

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Non-subscription MMO that costs the initial purchase with optional in-game “for pay” items
+ Addictive, simple gameplay that probably shouldn’t be as fun as it is
+ Skills and weapons aren’t necessarily tied to a class
+ Huge open world that can be explored at any time
+ Episode missions really help tie the TV show to the game

Cons:
– Mission structure is very repetitive
– Some missions played solo are not well balanced
– UI on PC doesn’t work perfectly when using a gamepad
– EGO chatter can be overly annoying at times

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Trion Worlds
Developer: Trion Worlds
Release Date: 4/2/2013
Genre: MMORPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: Massively multiplayer
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.