Defiance preview: enter the badlands

By Matthew Rorie, Mar 08, 2013 7:30am PST

If it takes ambition to make an open-world game like Defiance, it takes a certain level of craziness to develop both a television show and a massively multiplayer game at the same time, especially when that game is targeting all major platforms. Even more so if you intend for them to premiere within weeks of each other. It's a credit to both SyFy and Trion Worlds that they appear to be on the verge of pulling off the launch of their respective parts of this multimedia experiment, both of which were on hand at a press event this week in San Francisco.

To get the background out of the way, the Defiance universe takes place in the year 2046, decades after a fleet of Votan ships entered Earth's orbit, with the aliens apparently thinking that our planet was ripe with emigration potential. After a lengthy period of negotiations, all of the ships in orbit were mysteriously destroyed, raining destruction on the Earth. The world was scarred and terraformed by the technology in the ships, and humanity and the Votan started a devastating war.

Everything was looking pretty dire until the Battle of Defiance, where soldiers on both sides decided to disobey their orders, reject the endless internecine warfare, and find a way to live together. The damage was done, though, and the world is divided between relatively peaceful settlements and Mad Max-ish badlands populated with bandits and drifters, who spend their time hunting down and scavenging the ruins of alien ships that still crash to the planet's surface periodically.

It's a decent premise for a sci-fi universe, so it's a bit of a shame that the video game portion of Defiance doesn't suffer from an excess of ambition. For example, the panoply of alien species in the television show (which takes place in St. Louis) apparently don't like the ocean, as there are only two playable races in the game (set in San Francisco). There are four classes to choose from, but there's no telling from the character creation screen or the in-game menus how they differ from one another, except for the weapons that you start with. Each class winds up choosing from the same suite of special powers (cloaking, extra shooting damage, faster run speed and beefier melee attacks, and so on), making the distinctions between them even harder to discern. Presumably they diverge in specialization further along in the game than the first few hours that were available to us, but at the outset there's not much to distinguish them.

After character creation, you're plopped down in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and tasked with cleaning up the mess that's resulted from the crash of a massive airship. The actual gameplay draws a lot of inspiration from Borderlands: you get critical hits from headshots, you can upgrade your personal shields and grenade attachments, and there are a number of "pursuits" that earn you currency for almost every task that you take on, meaning that you'll be fed a constant stream of popups detailing milestones like your first melee kill or killing three enemies with a single grenade.

If the gameplay is familiar, then at least it's also fun. Shooting feels good, and the enemies are well balanced against your offensive skills, forcing you to switch between weapons based on range and the number and type of foes that you're facing. You get a vehicle early on, allowing you to roam the wastes and hunt down side quests and challenges (or just run down mutants that wander into the street). Enemies spawn at a decent range, too, so a good sniper rifle at your side will let you pick apart your foes from a distance while they attempt to close in on you. This works especially well in the Shadow War multiplayer, a simple command-point based PvP mode: it's relatively easy to find an elevated position above one of the control points and pick off clueless enemies as they attempt to capture it.

The UI and control scheme do seem to have been designed with a console controller in mind, and although the UI is at least functional, it's also a bit obfuscated. Despite a lot of poking around, I was never actually able to find an option to boot me back to the main menu, eventually leading me to simply alt-F4 the game and restart it when I wanted to make a new character. Menus are awkwardly nested within one another for no apparent reason; my attempt to open up the system settings menu led me to hit F1 to open my character screen, scrolling through all the available tabs there, and sitting befuddled for a moment until I noticed that hitting the spacebar reveals a whole different set of sub-menus with a radial UI.

More telling, the default control scheme for keyboards is pretty wonky. Normal WASD commands move your character, but sprinting is bound to CTRL and combat rolling is bound to left ALT. Hitting the roll command in the heat of combat requires dexterity enough without the added degree of difficulty arising from the way that both X and C are bound to quick chat and matchmaking menus that completely override your character movement. More than once I wound up getting killed by a pack of mutants when I attempted to roll behind cover, only to find myself paralyzed and defenseless until I realized that I had opened up the matchmaking menu by mistake. A bit of judicious remapping would seem to be required if you want to get the most out of Defiance's combat on a PC.

Defiance's big selling point comes in the form of Arkfalls, which are effectively a variant on the rifts in Trion's previous MMO Rift. At random intervals, an alien ship will crash to Earth, allowing you and your fellow ark hunters to track it down and attempt to salvage the wreckage. These Arkfalls are either smallish events, capable of being handled by one or two players, or massively large affairs with tons of alien creatures spawning at the same time, in which case you better bring a few dozen players along. The enemies here are effectively bullet sponges, requiring you to hit their weak spots to deal any real damage to them, but the scope is sufficiently grandiose to provide some of the thrills that might be experienced during, say, one of Guild Wars 2's larger world events.

It's impossible to judge a massively multiplayer game based on the first few hours of gameplay, of course, but at the moment, Defiance feels like it might have a difficult time distinguishing itself from the PvP experience of Planetside 2 on one side and the tighter co-op and single-player experience of Borderlands 2 on the other. Only time will tell if Defiance manages to execute on the strength of its premise, and we'll be curiously exploring its endgame to see how things shape up when it launches for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on April 2nd.

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