Impressions: Defiance


Please pardon the lazy portmanteau, but Defiance has sapped me of a great deal of my creativity. I’m tired, friends. The new MMO — that’s desperately trying not to be an MMO — from Trion Worlds has toyed with me for the last two weeks, and I won’t pretend I’m not glad to be done with it.

But here’s the kicker: I really wanted to like the ugly bastard. It’s a grotty, confused construct that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, and it trips up all the bleeding time. Yet it genuinely tries to do away with a lot of MMO tropes. Tries and fails, admittedly. 

So, if you’ll just sit there and have a wee read, I’ll tell you about my journey through the hideous, terraformed facsimile of the San Francisco Bay area, and of my hard won battles and all the times where I got disconnected.  

Defiance (PC [Reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: Trion Worlds 
Publisher: Trion Worlds
Released: April 2, 2013
MSRP: $59.99 (No subscription)

Defiance is a strange beast. It has the typical framework of a modern MMO, with PvP, PvE, an open environment, loot drops, quests, and co-operative dungeons, but beyond that, it’s actually pretty atypical of the genre.

For one, it is in no way, shape, or form an RPG. Of course MMOs don’t need to be RPGs. If that was the case then MMORPG would not be a term, but let’s not kid ourselves here, when one hears that three letter acronym, they sort of expect it to also fall into the aforementioned role-playing category.

It’s actually a proper shooter, and what I mean by that is it’s not a title where one just clicks on an enemy, hits some keys on a hotbar, and then watches as their avatar shoots. It’s based on precision and skill, not ability rotations.

Defiance continues to eschew traditional MMO design by not really having levels, instead using a power rating. Increasing one’s power rating gives a player access to more advanced perks and ability levels and new content, but it does not make them more powerful or increase their hit points.

Instead of being given a slew of new abilities every time you “level up”, Ark Hunters — the only class in the game, which isn’t really a class at all — get one main ability, either a sprinting attack, overcharging of one’s gun, deploying a holographic decoy, or a cloak, and then a bunch of perks such as doing more damage when crouched or when above a target.

Frankly, none of these abilities are particularly interesting, and in the end, no matter which one you choose, your role will be defined more by the weapons you choose, which you can switch on the fly, not your ability to vanish or deploy a bunch of holograms.

Gear has been given a similar treatment, and while the large variety of guns increase in exoticness as one gets further through the game, their stats only change incrementally. That is not to say that there’s no reason to keep searching for better weapons. You will find guns of the same type that are clearly better than your older one, even if only by a small amount, but more importantly, it might have an additional effect, like incendiary rounds, or it might be an automatic variant of your old manual rifle.

Bizarre alien weaponry is a particular highlight. Within the first couple of hours of playing I found myself in possession of a truly disgusting pistol that spat out spores, covering foes in these horrible, flesh-toned bulbous pustules. After firing off a few rounds, they would actually hatch, with foul little creatures bursting out of them and attacking my enemy. Absolutely grotesque, and bloody wonderful. 

So, what we’re dealing with here is a game where skill, precision, and timing are far more important than gear and “levels,” which makes for a refreshing change of pace. Yet despite this commendably novel approach to a genre that’s becoming a bit tired, Defiance sticks to some MMO conventions that simply don’t make sense given its other features.

The quest-based gameplay, for one, is really quite awful. Defiance is an extremely linear title; so linear, in fact, that the entire game essentially follows one single, literal road. Almost every quest or, rather, mission, is right by the long and winding road that snakes its way down the San Francisco Bay area.

One doesn’t even need to hunt them down, as the moment you can participate in a mission, it’s right there on the map. And, if for some reason you didn’t notice it, as you drive down the road you’ll see a plethora of glowing blue lights which offer up these missions.  

To be fair, I might have been a bit too harsh by calling this a tired MMO convention. Too harsh on MMOs, that is. At least your average example of the genre bothers to create quest-givers or occasionally places a quest a wee bit off the beaten track to inspire exploration.

Not so in Defiance. You get your missions by radio (but only when you come across the blue light shows), usually from the same tiny number of mind-numbingly dull NPCs, and there is absolutely no impetus for exploration. Not that you’d really want to explore the amazingly bland world Trion has put together. For a planet apparently ravaged by alien terraforming, it’s remarkably bereft of interesting scenery. Trees, mountains, and the occasional weird rocky protrusions make up most of the uninspired landscape.  

The absence of strict levels or massive disparity in gear quality puts Defiance in a perfect position to send players out into the great unknown to explore the game-space at their own pace and make their own objectives, but instead it’s content to be almost like a theme-park ride, pulling Ark Hunters through a long and boring road to the next insipid objective.

Oh yes, the objectives. They amount to going into an area and killing things, going into an area and breaking things, or going into an area and clicking on a flashing object. Sometimes Defiance mixes the formula up by tasking players with doing all three of those things. Groundbreaking, to be sure. Occasionally you’ll be “gifted” with an obnoxious NPC companion to protect, which is a nice change.

The last thing I wanted to do was repeat any of these missions, especially when they all sort of bleed together into one colorless mess of being sent to perform brainless tasks, but repeat them I did. Defiance has a lot of bugs. A ridiculous number, really. But the most irritating for me was its insistence that I had not completed certain objectives even after I was informed that I most certainly had completed them. Logging out and in again would cause all mission progress to be lost, and I’d have to start it all over again, not even knowing if I could complete it. It’s just not worth it when the missions are so shallow.

A few missions do have a tangible effect on the world, which did at first delight me. The first time this happens is fairly early into the game, and after a challenging battle against a seemingly never-ending horde of angry mutants, the cavalry appeared (seconds too late to help) and took up residence in the liberated area.

I felt like I’d had a positive impact on the world, and I could come back at any time and see these soldiers going about their business in a complex that I had freed from the clutches of the mutant horde. Even though I knew countless other players would still be attempting to do the same mission, for me it would remain the same.

But there was no follow-through. The NPC troops remained perfectly still and completely silent, not providing me with new missions, shops, or even a bit of minor dialogue, and I’d never have a reason to visit the place again. My victory went back to being superficial. At least I got to shoot a bunch of stupid mutants in their deformed faces, I guess.

While we’re on the subject of stupid mutants, I’m reminded of another unfortunate genre convention that Defiance sticks to. Enemy AI, something nobody could accuse MMO developers of making particularly noteworthy, doesn’t exactly break the mold in Defiance. Normally, mentally subnormal foes wouldn’t be worth mentioning when discussing a new game in the genre, but it becomes a lot more unforgivable in a game of skill. 

The myriad of horrific mutants and bizarre creatures that make up Defiance‘s rogues gallery don’t work together, react to player tactics, or really do anything other than the same foolish attacks over and over again.

However, they are marginally less suicidal than the foes found in Defiance‘s peers. They can often be found hiding behind cover, and some employ shields that halt player attacks, forcing attackers to circle around them to find their weak spot. There’s certainly a nice variety, and most groups will be made up of multiple enemy types, keeping players on their feet as they dodge rockets, grenades, gunfire, and machete wielding maniacs. Mechanically speaking, they are more interesting to fight than your average MMO enemy, but they are just as stupid.

Long before this point in most of my reviews, I’d be discussing the story and setting of whatever game I was writing about on that given day. I can find a story in anything, I’ve even written FTL fan fiction (in my head), and that’s a game where the story amounts to being chased by bad dudes. But damn have I been struggling to figure out what to write about the premise of Defiance. The game rarely offers up much context, just expecting you to know what the hell is going on.

Thankfully, I recently watched the Syfy pilot of the TV show of the same name, and that’s a hell of a lot more informative than the game, even if it has almost nothing to do with its videogame cousin. Before last night, I didn’t even know what the fuck an Arkfall was, and it’s meant to be what my character has built his career around.

I won’t beat around the bush, because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve a build up. It’s the future and an alien race — actually eight alien races, really — arrived on Earth about 30 years ago and caused a big ruckus. There was a war, the aliens terraformed the planet, and now there’s a tenuous peace between most of the races, but the world is in a right old mess.

The aforementioned Arkfalls are large chunks of space detritus that fall to Earth and often contain lots of lovely goodies. Ark Hunters are basically salvagers and scavengers. Though hardly inspired, the show, or at least the pilot, was immensely watchable. There’s an interesting set up, a few characters that aren’t completely terrible, and it certainly has some potential. 

The problem with the show was that I really wished that the game was more like it. Desperately, in fact. The protagonist of the show is, much like all player characters in the game, an Ark Hunter. He’s basically a poor man’s Han Solo, if Han packed in the smuggling gig and got into salvage. He’s an ex-soldier, and certainly isn’t gun-shy, but his main concerns appear to be acting casual, making money, and exploring the husks of fallen alien vessels. 

Compare that to the Ark Hunters in the game, and you’ll soon find yourself wishing you hadn’t. You can pick a background and one of two races (Human and Irathi), with more coming in premium DLC (cue the appropriate booing and hissing), but neither have any real bearing in terms of the gameplay or the narrative. You are just a person with a gun who kills other people with guns. Sometimes you kill bugs.

Arkfalls are equally disappointing, but are at least more compelling that the standard story and side missions. The one Arkfall that takes place in the pilot is a huge alien vessel that plummets to Earth, surprisingly intact. It’s an actual location to be explored, and within it, the protagonist discovers an important alien artifact with immense power.

Back in videogame land, Arkfalls are usually chunks of rock. They fall from the sky, and then hundreds of players drive towards them en masse. These are big multiplayer events, with players “working together” to take out tough enemies, such horrible, monstrous Starship Trooper-inspired hellbugs or titanic rampaging mechs for pitiful rewards.

The Arkfall events are reminiscent of the Rift events from Trion Worlds’ previous MMO, Rift, but bigger and a lot less enjoyable. The first few times, I’ll happily admit that I was entertained. They were the first proper multiplayer experiences I had in the game, and I was happy to just be participating in an event with other people. They go on for too long, however, and the rewards, as I’ve already mentioned, are really meager. There’s also no real need for organization. Everybody just runs about shooting the crap out of anything that isn’t another player.

I’m certain folks would be more inclined to work together if the social features weren’t so horribly ineffective. The absence of a proper chatbar is a real problem, and the standard method of communication, voice chat, is hideously broken. Other players are just there. I see them, and sometimes — if we’re on the same mission — I’ll even fight by their side, but I never once got the sense of teamwork that I expect from an MMO. 

I just gave up even trying to be social, other than the couple of times I went on Skype and played with a chum. That Defiance utterly fails at one of the key aspects of the genre is a huge mark against it. I’ve played some pretty terrible MMOs and stuck around just because I found a group of people I enjoyed playing with. I play these games for their cooperative nature, and without that, I have few reasons to stick around. 

PvP is hampered by social issues and bugs, just as the PvE aspect is. Shadow War, the open-world PvP conflict mode, would have actually been a great deal of fun if I wasn’t continually being shafted by a constant stream of issues, from weird problems when respawning (like being stuck or having to run around sideways) to vehicles not working. I got a lot of disconnections too, and not just in PvP. This hasn’t been as prevalent in the last week as it was just after launch, thankfully, but it still happens enough so that it becomes a major pain in my already sensitive arse.

As I write this, I realize that Defiance has pissed me off more than I thought. I really wanted to get into it, and due to its uniqueness in a world of increasingly similar MMOs, I desperately wanted it to be something I could see myself playing long after I finished telling you lovely people all about it. But it isn’t a game I want to invest more time into.

I’m tired of fighting the obtuse menu system that clearly wasn’t design for PCs — I can’t image it was really designed for the PS3 either — and I’m sick of logging out and back in again because of a bug, and most of all, I’m not prepared to play a game that feels empty when I’m surrounded by dozens of other players. 

Every time I look at the map and see — if it isn’t broken and revealing nothing at all — yet another identical mission, or a stupid time trial race, I can’t help but wonder what else I could be doing with my time. I could be learning how to sculpt beautiful women, or improving my chess game, or I could simply be playing a videogame that doesn’t infuriate me. 

So I’m going to stop writing now. I probably have time to buy some clay before the shops close, and I think my creativity is starting to come back now that I know my journey through Defiance is finally at an end. 

Fraser Brown