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Games You Should Play if You Haven't: Binary Domain

I had been meaning to play this game for a while now, ever since I heard Nagoshi was working as the producer on the project. The idea of a Japanese, Gears of War style game with the Yakuza series' lineage behind it was awfully steep to deliver on, but Sega somehow managed to create a hybrid of modern, Western shooter design and old-school, Sega style arcade gameplay, and one of the best Japanese games I've played in a while. Binary Domain is a shining beacon in a Japanese industry that's been playing catch up for too long now.

This certainly wouldn't be the first time a Japanese studio has taken on cover based, third person shooting, but these Japanese takes on the formula have a habit of failing because they tend to be tedious, wave based shooters, punctuated by broken scripted sequences and lame boss battles. Binary Domain successfully avoids those transgressions for the most part with vehicle sections that, shockingly, don't completely suck; awesome, set-piece boss battles; a great variety of enemy encounters and frequent but short cutscenes for added variety.

That variety makes for a really frantic pacing. Since the game pretty much never sticks you with doing one thing for too long, it has this real sense of fluidity and never really gets bogged down in the tedium of never ending enemy waves. The designers obviously had a real good sense for how long to make any given enemy encounter. Boss battles never over-stay their welcome, with the exception of the final boss. They are fairly long though nonetheless. They pitch them so they're just long enough that you are starting to realize how long they're becoming and by that time, you're almost done. It's just enough to leave you feeling exhausted by the end of the encounter, but not exasperated or frustrated.

That pacing is where the game's arcade roots really shine through. Whereas most shooters use things like turret sequences and boss battles as punctuation to a whole level's worth of shooting dudes behind cover, Binary Domain uses the regular shooting as punctuation to crazy, set-piece boss battles and vehicle sections that, by themselves, don't really do anything you haven't seen before. What was great about those older, 3d Sega arcade games like Daytona or House of the Dead or Planet Harriers even was the window dressing. It was the crazy stuff flying in front of the screen and crazy perspective and camera tricks that made them so exciting, and Binary Domain has that in spades. It uses those subtle camera tricks and scripted events to really bolster up the vehicle sections and boss battles alike.

The shooting itself is really tight as well. The game plays well enough as a cover-based shooter, but playing rush-down seems a lot more viable than in your typical Gears clone, which gives it an added sense of variety and speed. The unique qualities of the robots makes shooting their legs out from beneath them work just as well as or better than stopping and popping, especially once you have your gun upgraded. The various weapons all tear the robots up very nicely and in different ways too, so there really is no weapon you could be using that isn't fun to shoot and doesn't feel really powerful.

And a lot of that is due to the amount of time and effort they put into making the robots procedurally fall to pieces as you're shooting them. If you shoot a robot with the shotgun, pieces of metal will explode around them. If you shot at their legs, they will likely have disintegrated underneath them from one shot. The pistol takes out whole sections of armor at a time, leaving you room to watch them brokenly stumbling over themselves as they dynamically adapt to whatever limbs they've lost. The bosses present another challenge entirely, as the main goal with bosses is to take out their glowing weak points, known as drive cores in this game. You might have to knock some armor off of them to expose them. Some have limbs you can shoot out to immobilize them. The simple balancing act of maneuvering yourself and shooting out those drive cores is almost always perfectly pitched and frantically paced.

The game trips up in some spots though, since it tries so many things. It mainly failed in the vehicle shooting sections where the camera float makes accurately hitting the flying robots practically impossible. All the other issues I had with it were control-based. The PC version has some real problems in that area. A lot of it has to do with weirdness is in the frame-rate. It's mostly fine, but some small places cause it to freak out unexpectedly. Add to that the fact that all the settings you actually need to mess with are only changeable in the config tool, and it seems pretty clear that the PC was not the lead SKU for Binary Domain, which is a real shame, considering most of the problems are pretty amateur mistakes for such a big publisher like Sega.

Now, some to-do has been made about there being some sort of French robot in the game or something. I think it's safe to say that one of the story's biggest strengths is in its characters. Our main character, Dan, isn't exactly the most dynamic personality seen in a game ever, though I do have to admire their constant insistence on doing a goofy, dramatic pull-in on his face almost every time they transition from a cutscene into a battle sequence. Your partner, Big Bo, is a revelation though. He injects an amazing sense of camp into the proceedings with his goofy dialogue and horn-dog demeanor.

Laura Bailey and Troy Baker are there as well, filling out their quota of starring together in at least forty percent of every video game that comes out in the U.S. ever. They did a great job with the accents; I almost didn't recognize Troy at first as Charlie, the ex-MI6 agent. To round the cast out, we have Rachel, part of the British team, and a robot named Cain who wears a scarf around his neck and speaks with a French accent because French robots speak French and speak English with French accents in this nightmare vision of the future.

The acting is all of high quality, but most of the characters' faces are kinda ugly looking. Strangely enough, most of the minor and recurring characters have perfectly attractive looking faces, but no so for the members of your crew. Everything outside of that is a cut above though. The environment design and robot design all feel very cohesive and original. It's rare to see robot designs that don't seem derivative in this day and age and even rarer still to find boss designs that don't seem derivative as well, but the whole of Binary Domain's world feels gorgeously realized, almost perfectly rendered and completely original.

To avoid getting too awfully specific with the plot points, there is a romance sub-plot that really starts heating up toward the end that really just seemed way too cheesy and tacked-on to me. Also, the final boss battle really throws that Japanese curve-ball at you hard. It's one of those situations where that person who was on your side suddenly turns into the main bad guy because that would be so totally dramatic if that happened. It just comes across as cheap, mostly because they make such a big deal about it once it does come up. Between those two things, the ending is a bit of a wash. There are a couple different endings though, depending on the loyalty levels of your team mates, which is kinda cool.

At the end of the day, Binary Domain might not be the best game ever made, but I believe the way the game takes its arcade sensibilities and fashions them onto the framework of a modern shooter should be something to aspire to for all Japanese developers. Too many have fumbled at making even remotely decent games on this generation of consoles, and perhaps Binary Domain can provide the Japanese industry with a reference point on how to make a successful and fun game in this day and age that doesn't poorly ape innovations made in the West but also doesn't remain complacent in out-dated Japanese design either. I can only hope that this game is a sign of even better things yet to come.

-Kris Osborn
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About stubblemanone of us since 8:53 PM on 05.04.2012

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