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EGM Review:
Defiance

By
Posted on April 10, 2013 AT 09:00am

Not quite ready for prime time

One of the hardest parts of reviewing a game is separating the conceptual, big-picture stuff from the practical details. How much do you reward innovation and ambition? At what point do you leave the realm of “good but flawed” and cross over into “bad but promising”? Is a great idea still great if the execution is undeniably sloppy?

No game embodies that dilemma better than Defiance, which aims to blend the massive scope of World of Warcraft with the postapocalyptic open world of Fallout and the gunplay and driving of Borderlands. It’s the first serious venture into the brave new world of transmedia, aiming to deliver a cohesive, dynamic universe across a game and SyFy television show. Better yet, it’s a fully featured MMO/shooter hybrid on consoles. From a purely conceptual standpoint, Defiance is one of the most impressive undertakings the industry has ever seen.

From a purely practical standpoint, though? It’s kind of a mess.

Defiance is a game that too often fails to deliver on the most fundamental promise of the medium: When you press a button, something should happen. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to get off of my quad bike, only to have the game ignore my request. Then I’ll get into a car that just won’t drive, no matter how long I sit there holding down the accelerator. Then my gun won’t shoot. Then my character will refuse to move at normal speeds, opting instead to jerk around in one inch increments towards the general direction I’m pointing the thumbstick.

Some of these oddities can be probably chalked up to the server problems that have plagued the game—especially the Xbox 360 version—since launch. In the first few days, I spent nearly as much time trying to maintain a stable connection to the game as I did actually playing it. Whenever I managed to get in during peak hours, there was usually a five-second lag between when I fired bullets and when they actually hit my target.

Thankfully, most of the major hiccups seem to have been ironed out with patches and server updates over the course of the past week. It’s been several days since I last felt Defiance was totally unplayable (or anywhere close to it, really). It’s a testament to both developer Trion Worlds and the game’s built-in, Microsoft-free patching system that they’ve come so far in such a short time, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t still have a long way to go.

The servers still seem to strain under the heavy player load in the afternoons and early evenings, which can lead to spurts of lag when enemies periodically jog off into the sky before rubber-banding back to earth. On several occasions, quests glitched out in such a way that I was unable to progress, forcing me to wait hours before the problem would resolve itself. When I played through the final story mission, for instance, an NPC refused to open a door no matter how many times I restarted the mission or logged out of the servers. I was eventually able to get past it by entering into a different instanced mission, quitting, and retrying one last time, but that’s not really the sort of thing anyone should be expected to do in a completely functional game.

I’ve also encountered cutscenes that played twice back-to-back, countdown timers that start off at -1 billion minutes, and a weird audio glitch that crops up during loading screens and sounds exactly like someone taking a machete to Alvin and the Chipmunks. Hardly deal breakers, yes, but they’re obvious and frequent enough that they never should have made it into the finished product.

Then there are the problems that might not be fixable. For starters, the UI is far too convoluted, with a radial menu that leads to tabbed menus that lead to an assortment of wildly different interfaces. Getting to any specific section is a bit of a chore, and it’s obvious Trion doesn’t have much experience making a complex interface work fluidly with a controller.

Defiance also appears to be asking too much from the Xbox 360′s aging hardware. Even with its relatively dated visuals, the game struggles to keep a consistent framerate, and when the action gets particularly intense, it can drop into the teens. Get a dozen other players onscreen at once, all firing their guns at baddies, and you’re looking at single digits. I’m rarely one to complain about graphical shortcomings, but when things really start to chug, there’s a noticeable impact on gameplay.

So, Defiance is certainly rough around the edges, but that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely lost cause. There’s a lot about the game that works surprisingly well, especially when it comes to the core mechanics. Shooting, unquestionably the most important part of the game, feels incredibly solid, with just the right amount of weight and a superbly tuned auto-aim. The weapon selection is decent as well. There are the old standbys—assault rifles, SMGs, snipers, explosive launchers—as well as more novel creations, like a gun that infects your enemies with alien parasites.

I’m also a fan of the way the game handles character progression—at least for the most part. Rather than being locked into a single class, everyone has access to the same skill grid. You start off by picking one of four main powers—Cloak, Decoy, Overcharge, and Blur. The first two work exactly how you’d expect, allowing you to hide yourself or create a doppelganger for a brief interval. Overcharge allows you to deal increased damage with every shot, while Blur grants you increased speed and a chance to dodge.

In between these powers on the skill grid are dozens of perks that offer passive boosts to your character or powers. As you level up, you earn unlock points to spend on upgrading your current perks or purchasing new ones that are located on squares adjacent to those you already own. While you earn new slots at regular intervals, you’ll always have far more perks than you can actually equip, forcing you to experiment with different combinations and find the one that works best for your playstyle. If you’re not happy with the way you’ve built out your character, you’re free to respec at any time by shelling out a bit of your in-game cash.

Weapon proficiencies are handled by an entirely separate system, and that’s where my one major gripe comes in. The basic principle is solid: deal damage with a specific type of weapon and you’ll level it up, gradually earning bonuses to things like reload speed and accuracy. Trouble is, the game also places a limit on how much you can contribute to your weapon level with any one gun. Once you’ve reached that cap—and it doesn’t take long—you need to swap to a different gun if you want to keep earning those bonuses. That’d be perfectly fine if you were constantly finding new and better guns, but valuable loot drops are so sporadic that you’re frequently forced to switch to a weaker gun to keep making progress. If I find a super-powerful, ultra-rare weapon, I’m going to want to use it until the next best thing comes along. There’s absolutely no reason I should be cajoled into downgrading myself a half-hour later.

Of course, even the best mechanics in the world won’t save an MMO if there’s not a wealth of content to keep you interested. Thankfully, this is one area where Defiance does a commendable job, with enough on the disc to keep you busy for dozens—if not hundreds—of hours, and more promised down the road in the form of free updates and paid DLC.

Broadly speaking, Defiance is structured like any modern open-world single-player game, with a series of story missions that branch off into shorter side missions and standalone diversions scattered throughout the map. Given the TV show tie-in, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the game places an emphasis on delivering a single narrative arc, but it’s an interesting approach for an MMO.

With little fanfare or explanation, you’re thrust into a post-apocalyptic version of the San Francisco Bay Area, the byproduct of alien terraforming technology run amok. You team up with some some locals to search for the Ark Core, an alien artifact that mostly exists as a MacGuffin. You meet the bad guy, you assemble your team, you march into the city proper and save the day. It’s all pretty run of the mill sci-fi fare, and the writing is hit or miss throughout. The universe itself is marginally interesting, as are some of the alien races that make up the (now friendly) Votan collective, but the game seems more interested with telling its story then delving into what life is like on this transformed version of Earth, and that’s a real shame.

The missions themselves are also something of a mixed bag. Without relying on big scripted moments or one-off gameplay mechanics there’s only so much variety you squeeze from a standard third-person shooter. Defiance does its best to shake things up, but you’re usually stuck with some combination of driving to a location, killing a bunch of bad guys, protecting NPCs, and collecting/activating/destroying whatever objects have been scattered throughout the area. If you don’t have a stomach for repetition, things can get old real fast—though the wide variety of enemy types does help keep things marginally interesting as the game progresses.

There’s also an added element of unpredictability thanks to the fact that very few missions are instanced. Nearly everything takes place in the same open-world that’s populated by hundreds of other players, which leads to some interesting emergent co-op moments. If another player is currently undertaking the same mission and you both show up at the same time, you’re automatically working together to complete it, and the enemies’ health is dynamically adjusted to compensate. (In fact, the objectives will even pop up for passers-by even if they’re not on that mission, though they won’t receive any experience for helping out.) There’s something decidedly cool about meeting up with strangers, forming a close-knit group, then going your separate ways once the task at hand is finished.

Of course, if you prefer your co-op to be a little more structured, you can always form a group with your friends and head off questing together. Unfortunately, the same rules still apply when it comes to earning XP from missions—if they’re not at that exact point in the story, they won’t reap any rewards for completing it. Frankly, that seems like a fairly glaring oversight in this day and age, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it quickly addressed in a future patch.

There are, however, 7 dedicated co-op instances that can be accessed from the menu and replayed an indefinite number of times to earn XP and loot. While most of them feature characters from the main story, they’re essentially standalone vignettes that don’t tie into the plot. Since each map has been designed from the ground up to facilitate a single experience, the gameplay feels decidedly different—and, in some ways, considerably better—than the other missions in the game. By replacing the open-world arenas with more linear, corridor-based levels, there’s a much better sense of pacing and variety, and a few even mix in vehicular combat segments. (Think Halo‘s Warthog.) I’m not exactly sure how they’ll hold up after you’ve played them a few dozen times, but they’re definitely a great change of pace from the main game content.

Rounding out the PVE content are dynamic events and challenges. Dynamic events are exactly what they sound like: randomized encounters that pop up as you’re travelling throughout the world. These are usually simple variations on the same theme—kill all the enemies in a given location—but you’ll periodically stumble upon larger, more complex variants known as Arkfalls.

Most Arkfalls are multi-stage battles that task you with some larger objective—destroying a crystal with a ton of HP or taking down a boss creature, for example. They’re billed as high-risk, high-reward, but in practice, that really just means two things: There’s a time limit, and you get bonus XP and a randomized loot drop if you can finish fast enough. Whenever an Arkfall appears, an icon will pop up on the minimap of anyone in the vicinity to encourage as many people as possible to participate.

Oddly enough, though, they’re far more fun when almost no one shows up to the party. Since enemy health scales upward based on how many people are nearby, having a ton of people pile on means that your individual bullets do almost nothing to take down a tough foe’s health bar. Once you get into the realm of 50+ allies, attacking an enemy is about as exciting and effective as shooting a Super Soaker at a brick wall. Plus, with that much action onscreen, the framerate usually dips so low that it feels more like you’re watching a PowerPoint presentation about Defiance than actually playing it.

Challenges, on the other hand, are purely solo affairs. There are three different variants—Rampage, Hotshot, and Time Trial—all of which are pretty much exactly what their names imply. Both Rampage and Hotshot are arcade-style shooting events that award you points for every kill and a combo multiplier for every enemy you take out in quick succession. Get a high enough score, and you’ll earn a gold, silver, or bronze medal, complete with a fair bit of experience and cash. The only real difference between the two is the level of finesse required—Hotshot challenges emphasize accuracy and force you to make every bullet counts, while Rampage challenges are all about using ridiculously powerful superweapons to mow down huge groups of enemies before the timer runs out. They are, by far, the most fun I had playing Defiance. Trying over and over again to nab that gold—and earning XP every time I came close—was quite possibly the most pleasant grinding experience I’ve ever had in an MMO.

The Time Trials, which see you racing through checkpoints on your trusty quad bike, would be just as enjoyable, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re plagued by frequent bugs. Sometimes checkpoints wouldn’t register until several seconds after I’d passed through them, and, in one particularly frustrating instance, I had a dynamic encounter repeatedly spawn directly in the middle of the course, forcing me to weave around trucks and barricades every single time I passed through.

So what’s there to do after you’ve finished off all every mission and challenge in the game? Not terribly much. You can’t replay any of the story or side missions, but you’re free to grind challenges, co-op missions, and dynamic events to your hearts’ content. There’s also a long list of goals that you can accomplish—things like killing a certain number of enemies, finding all the data recorders hidden throughout the world, and—to earn bonus levels and special outfits.

In addition, you can wander around completing daily and weekly contracts for the game’s various factions to build up your reputation. If that sounds interesting, trust me, it isn’t. Most of the contracts consist of killing X number of enemies in Y location, and the reputation you earn is nothing more than a secondary currency that you can use to buy weapons from the faction’s store. In the absence of any new content, things can get fairly tedious in the world of Defiance one you’ve done all there is to do.

In that respect, the game’s one saving grace is its PVP offering. Few games have quite as much indefinite replay value as multiplayer shooters, so it’s certainly for the best that Trion has included a few options that pit you against your fellow players. As with the rest of the game, however, the execution is far from perfect.

The good news is that multiplayer allows you to bring over your character from the main game completely intact. It’s cool to pit your build against everyone else’s, and the wide selection of perks, guns, and abilities means no two players will have the exact same playstyle.

The bad news is that there’s just not a whole lot to draw you in and keep you hooked. The more conventional of the two game modes, Team Deathmatch, only features three multiplayer maps, none of which are particularly memorable. And while the gunplay works great in the rest of the game, it just doesn’t feel right when there are actual humans on the receiving end of your bullets. Given the fact that the netcode was designed with an MMO and not a competitive shooter in mind, I imagine lag is the likely culprit, but the gunplay just isn’t as crisp or responsive as it needs to be to deliver a worthwhile deathmatch experience.

The other PVP game mode, Shadow War, is much more ambitious and, as a result, enjoyable. Rather than pitting two small teams against each other in a dedicated arena, Shadow War carves out a chunk of the open world map and brings dozens upon dozens of players into the fray. It’s essentially a variation on Battlefield‘s Conquest mode, with capture points spread across the region that can be held by your team to earn points. In truth, it’s not really any more polished than Team Deathmatch, but the scope of the battles makes for an entertaining spectacle, especially when you’ve got 64 players on each team.

Of course, there’s one major downside there: If you want to join a 128-man multiplayer match, you need to find 127 other interested parties. I’ve spent hours on end sitting in-game, waiting for the lobby to fill up so I could hop into a match. More often than not, I was forced to give up without playing a single round. To the game’s credit, you’re free to wander around the world doing missions, challenges, and whatever else you please while you wait, but that’s hardly any consolation. If I get the itch to play multiplayer, I want to scratch it as fast as possible, and I certainly don’t want to wait around if there’s a good chance I won’t ever find a match.

That’s really the story of Defiance—a great idea that falls apart in the implementation. It’s a deeply promising game that dies by a thousand small cuts and a handful of big ones. Still, Trion has built a solid foundation, and they’ve made it clear that they’re in this for the long haul, dedicated to growing and improving the game over time. And, you know, I genuinely hope they pull it off. Even now, amidst all of the technical problems, odd decisions, and gameplay inadequacies, I can see the potential for Defiance to become a good MMO, one that fully delivers on its ambitious concept and universe.

If that game ever gets here, let me know. I’d love to play it.

Developer: Trion Worlds • Publisher: Trion Worlds • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 4/2/2013
5.5
Defiance sports plenty of interesting ideas and solid gameplay mechanics, but it’s held back by some fairly serious technical issues and a general lack of polish.
The Good A competent third-person shooter with the grand scope and open world of an MMO.
The Bad Not enough mission variety, too many technical problems.
The Ugly The unholy marketing abomination that is the name “Syfy.”
Defiance is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was on Xbox 360.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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