If you think the illegal immigration issue is fraught with political turmoil in modern day America, imagine a world where things become infinitely more complicated, and the term “alien” takes on both its classic science fiction and immigration connotations at once. Such is the Earth of Trion Worlds’ and SyFy’s new joint venture, Defiance, a third person shooter massively multiplayer online game for PC, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360.
The universe of Defiance features an eclectic group of alien species, the Votan collective, who worked together in the final days of their own star system to send out Arks to a world suitable for terraforming – Earth. When they arrive, after thousands of years, humans have already industrialized and spread across the planet, making for an awkward situation, to say the least. After exchanging alien technology for a colony that a united Earth government sets up for these newcomers, conflict between disaffected factions erupts, leading to the Pale Wars. As those wars near their end, heroes on both sides of the conflict – alien and human – choose to work together in defiance of their orders, so that innocent lives in the San Francisco Bay area can be spared. This cooperation in the heat of war becomes known as the Battle of Defiance, and the city of St. Louis is eventually renamed Defiance in honor of that event and the “Defiant Few” who put their duty to preserve life before their duty to take it.
Now, on an Earth that has been accidentally terraformed by crashing alien Arks (sent to earth by an attack that destroyed many of them in orbit), our planet is no longer the Earth we once knew, but its altered surface is different than what the Votans expected as well. It is a new world, and we will either learn to live and work together for the greater good, or we will die together in conflicts born of our darker natures.
The Crossover Concept
Defiance is unusual in the entertainment industry in that it is not a game based on a show (or vice versa) but a collaboration between the two in a shared universe from the start. The Defiance television series on SyFy (U.S.) takes place in Defiance (St. Louis), while the game takes place in and around San Francisco. However, the two interact. Players who picked up the game prior to the pilot episode of the show could play several interlinked “Episode Missions,” in which they encountered series leads Joshua Nolan and adopted Irathient daughter Irisa Nyira, while on a job for the slimy alien Varus. By the end of that series of in-game missions, Nolan and Irisa were on their way to San Francisco with a particular object and a debt to Varus, both of which factor into the pilot episode. Now, in the week between each episode of the show airing on television, new Episode Missions emerge in the game, allowing players to interact with characters and situations that crossover between the two. It is an unusual approach to tying the two media together, and a major gamble for Trion Worlds investor – and SyFy owner – NBC.
The Defiance game is a hybrid of two genres, a third person shooter MMO. The gameplay is standard third person shooter fare (with interesting RPG elements but without a “sticky” cover system of any kind), but it is played in an always-on, online environment with other players, which brings MMO standards like groups, clans, PVP (player versus player), and PVE (player versus environment) areas into play.
You play as an Ark Hunter, an individual who makes a living by scouring the wreckage of fallen Votan Arks for valuable technology, making you a cross between a mercenary and a treasure hunter. As the story opens, your employer, Von Bach Industries, is working with the Earth Republic, and a starship crash leads to a frantic search for your boss and the alien technology he possesses that could alter the balance of power both regionally and worldwide. Along the way, players will encounter various human and alien characters, most of which are well characterized and at least decently portrayed through voice acting. (You will cringe at some of the first performances you encounter, but it does get better, especially once you meet members of the old Defiant Few.)
Now, as noted, you play as an Ark Hunter, which would suffice as the characterization for a shooter, but this is an MMO, which usually means character classes, races, and the like, which a player determines before the game begins. This is only somewhat true of Defiance. At the time of the game’s launch, a player could choose his or her starting gender, pick one of two races (human or Irathient), and pick one of four starting “origins” (classes): Veteran; Survivalist; Outlaw; or Machinist. However, aside from starting clothing and weapons, none of these choices actually affect anything beyond the character’s looks. Moreover, options for customizing the character’s facial features (skin tone, mouth shape, etc.) seem somewhat sparse compared to MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic.
What does make a significant difference early in your gameplay, however, is your choice of EGO Power. Ark Hunters have an EGO system (Environmental Guardian Online) built into their bodies, which give them different abilities. After a brief tutorial on each of the four major powers (Decoy, Cloak, Overcharge, and Blur), a player chooses one as their starting power, and the quest proper begins. As the game progresses and characters level up, EGO Points are earned, which can then be spent to purchase or upgrade existing EGO abilities, including those from the four primary powers that were not chosen early in the game.
As in many MMOs and open world games like the Assassin’s Creed series, Defiance’s landscape (which begins with Mount Tam, then continues into Marin, Sausalito, and finally the ravaged San Francisco) is filled with opportunities to undertake main story missions, side missions, vehicle time trails (more on vehicles in a moment), timed combat areas (“Rampages”), weapon combo challenges (“Hotshots”), Episode Missions that tie into the series, and more. Beyond these goals, players have “pursuits” and later “contracts” (after reaching an EGO rating of 250) that are approached as checklists of activities to complete. There is also a strong multiplayer component, both competitive and cooperative, as will be detailed below. There is certainly not a lack of things to do in Defiance, even after the main story missions are completed (which take about the same amount of time as a standard TPS like Gears of War or Uncharted).
The quantity of activities available does not speak to the variety of those activities, however. As in many shooters and MMOs, missions often amount to “kill all of the baddies, then go perform some action that mostly involves holding down a button uninterrupted for a certain number of seconds to revive an ally, activate a computer, or some other such act.” The scenarios are varied, as are the locations and, to an extent, enemy types, but someone focusing on side missions and even some main story missions will eventually feel as though they have been there before. Fortunately, the story is decent enough to keep us chugging along, though that is not always the case with side missions.
Gameplay is reminiscent of plenty of third person shooters. Your Ark Hunter can carry two weapons at a time, switching on the fly, and can enter a loadout screen to swap out weapons for those two loadout slots at any time. He can run, crouch, and roll dodge, though he cannot stick to cover and pop out to shoot. His life bar and shield (the latter of which varies, based on the shield that is equipped in the loadout screen) both regenerate after a predetermined period without damage.
The biggest control differences come with the EGO power, grenades, and vehicle use. Each of these is available on demand. Your EGO power, whichever it might be, is equipped like a weapon would be, along with other perks that you can earn through spending EGO Points. Once in play, you can activate the power to use it, and once it runs out, you simply wait through a cool down period before being able to use it again. The same goes for grenades. Rather than a finite supply of grenades that can then run out, you can toss a grenade at any time, but then there is a cool down period before being able to throw another. In a sense, grenades are infinite in quantity, limited only in frequency.
Vehicles work on a similar principle. Players have a loadout slot for a vehicle, which can be summoned at any time and abandoned after use to quickly vanish. The only significant limitation on vehicle use is that a vehicle that is destroyed by receiving too much damage will need to go through a short cool down phase before you can call upon a new one. Vehicles at present come in four main types (with a fifth truck available for Steam preorder customers). Those types include a small military rover, a four-wheeler, a dune buggy, and a Dodge Challenger. Each is available in various colors from different regular and hidden vendors within the game, or as rewards for completing pursuits. The driving itself is relatively simple, and vehicles have no weapons themselves (other than their bumpers when running over unfortunate enemies), but it can be a blast to zip along the terraformed landscape in a heavy Challenger or a nimble four-wheeler.
Challenges, time trials, side missions, and many story missions can be carried out by a single player or a group, with enemy strength scaling based on the number of players in the area. However, there are a few instances in the story missions, most notably certain encounters in the game’s bases (think dungeons in most MMOs), wherein the player must play alone or with only computer-controlled allies that are part of the game’s storyline.
Multiplayer (PVP, PVE, and Shadow War)
Multiplayer is, of course, the second M in “MMO,” and Defiance makes use of three major forms of multiplayer, outside of the normal groupings that can happen on purpose or on the fly during various missions. These three options are: competitive; cooperative; and Shadow War.
Competitive multiplayer (PVP) is essentially a team deathmatch mode to 50 wins, across a current total of three battlefields. (What, no other modes? No zone capture/defense? That is a separate mode in Defiance.) At present, PVP is unbalanced by the Cloak EGO ability and shotguns, both of which are wildly overpowered.
Cooperative play (PVE) currently takes place in a selection of seven maps, which are slowly unlocked as a player progresses through the story and in EGO ranking (XP). These tend to be locations reused from within the main story’s missions (particularly the “dungeons”), and may be completed by groups of up to four players. Rewards are heavier in these than in many other missions, and this is where the group aspect truly shines. Well, mostly. The biggest issue currently holding back cooperative missions, which are quite fun in general, is a relatively lackluster integration of microphone use and other methods of in-game communication. This is especially lacking on the Playstation 3 version of the game, due to the obvious drawback that the PS3, unlike the Xbox 360 and many PCs, was not originally sold with a packed-in microphone. After numerous cooperative matches, I believe that I have personally heard perhaps two fellow players actually using microphones to talk to each other during co-op missions, and I myself have not done so either. If you are a player who relies on such communication, bear in mind that you might be alone in using a microphone for a while.
The biggest multiplayer draw is the so-called Shadow War. This is a massive experience when it all comes together – two teams playing a game of capture and hold across a large landscape, using their full arsenals in battle. When I say massive, I do mean massive. When at its maximum, the Shadow War consists of 128 players, 64 per team. When it works, it is great fun and plenty chaotic. On the other hand, entering a Shadow War can be difficult. Depending upon your platform (PC, PS3, or Xbox 360), one might find the number of participants lower than the maximum due to how one has to queue up for a match. Amid regular play, a player opens a quick match menu, selects Shadow War from its options, and chooses to enter a match. At that point, you are in line, but rather than going into a lobby of some kind, you keep playing the regular game. Once enough players are ready for a match, it notifies you, and you simply tap a menu item to enter the Shadow War match. Due to the necessary numbers (I’ve seen no less than 20 on each team in a match), this queuing process can literally take hours before a match begins after your desire to enter one is made known to the system. It is a study in exhilaration, preceded by frustration; worth the time, but not as “on demand” as it seems. (Not to add insult to injury, but as cool as such a giant match can be, shotguns and Cloak are also overpowered in this mode.)
I should note that the overpowered shotguns should be getting tweaked in the near future via a patch. Nothing, as of yet, is being directed at the Cloak ability in terms of multiplayer balance, as far as I can determine.
Dollars and Bits
Two other items bear noting in some detail with regard to Defiance, both of which revolve around the very thing an Ark Hunter pursues: cold, hard cash.
First, there are multiple editions of the game available for purchase. The Standard Edition is available on all three platforms (Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC) for $59.99. Players wishing to purchase the game digitally can pick up the game via outlets like Steam for PC, or via Playstation Network. (It cannot at present be purchased digitally through the Xbox Live Marketplace.)
In the case of digital releases, you can upgrade (for about $40) to the Digital Deluxe Edition ($99.99). (On PC and PS3, the digital version is available as Standard Editions, the Digital Deluxe Edition, or as the Standard Edition with a later purchase of a Deluxe Edition Upgrade add-on. On Xbox 360, the game itself must be purchased on a disc, but the Deluxe Edition Upgrade add-on is available for purchase digitally.) The Digital Deluxe Edition (or Upgrade) includes the Ark Infiltrator outfit and headgear for your character, the VBI Sentinel Shield, the Hydra Rocket Launcher, the Badlands Drifter title, 5 extra inventory slots, a unique vehicle color, and 30-day “boosts” for XP and Scrip (in-game currency).
The physical releases of the game also include two options beyond the Standard Edition. The Collector’s Edition ($99.99) comes in a special Collector’s Box with an art book, VBI “Contract,” “DEFI” stickers, two postcards, a Hellbug figurine/statue, the game’s soundtrack, and a bonus DVD (or Blu-Ray in the case of the PS3 version) with clips from the show and behind the scenes featurettes (mostly available online elsewhere for free). In-game, you receive the Ark Hunter Infiltrator outfit and headgear, Hydra Rocket Launcher, VBI Sentinel Shield, and Badlands Drifter title, along with the five extra inventory slots. While those digital items are the same as in the Digital Deluxe Edition, the Collector’s Edition adds in a lock box in the game (featuring random items), and lowers the XP and Scrip boosts to run for seven, rather than thirty, days.
An even larger edition, available exclusively through Gamestop if you are an American customer, is the Ultimate Edition ($149.99). It includes all of the materials from the Collector’s Edition, along with another title (Pale Wars Ronin), a physical messenger bag (which is actually pretty nice), and 1200 “bits” (about $15 in currency that you would usually have to purchase with real money to spend on game goods through microtransactions). The Ultimate Edition also includes the Season Pass for all five Season 1 downloadable content add-ons that will be released, along with an in-game Hellbug Combat Cap for your character to wear and yet another lock box. (The Season Pass can be purchased separately for all three platforms for about $40, and each DLC package will be sold on its own – without the cap or lock box – for about $10.)
Honestly, if you plan to get into the game and are at all tentative about it, you should go with the Standard Edition. The other editions are nice, especially the Ultimate Edition, if you are really interested in the game or already a fan of the show’s concept, but while the upgraded versions all contain great value, there is nothing missing in the Standard Edition that is at all a “game breaker.” Just bear in mind that DLC that is coming down the line will run you $50 for the first season if purchased bit by bit, so you might as well upgrade (or at least pick up the Season Pass to save $10 in the long run) if you have the cash on hand.
One should also note that preorder customers also received special weapons through different retailers (such as Gamestop’s Sporeshot weapon), none of which are game-winners, and all preorder customers received entry into a pre-launch Beta event, another exclusive outfit with headgear (Outlander), another title (Iron Demon), another lock box, a red Dodge Challenger vehicle (which can be found in other colors in the game via various means), and a 3-day XP boost.
Moreover, the game’s creators put out 150 different “Arkfall Codes” online in the weeks leading up to the game’s release, any 120 of which can be used on the Defiance website to gain 15 more bonus items for free that anyone can get. These include two extra titles, another lock box, extra weapon skill boosts, more inventory slots, early access to a four-wheeler vehicle, and the like.
Secondly, on the “cash” front, there is the issue of cost beyond the initial purchase. The good news is that Defiance is an MMO that you purchase once and then play as much as you like. There are no subscription fees whatsoever. Yes, you can purchase DLC later, but the creators have even said that while certain aspects of the DLC will be unavailable to those not purchasing DLC, much of the content will be available in a more limited form to everyone. It sounds like a great deal, and it certainly is one.
However, all is not so rosy. While many weapons, outfits, and the like can all be purchased with in-game currency at vendors or earned through missions, there are a few vehicle colors, character costumes, and “boosts” (XP, Scrip, Skill, Reputation, and Loot) that must be purchased with “bits,” which are in turn purchased with real money. (You can also buy lock boxes of different levels with bits, or purchase more inventory slots, but those can also be accessed through gameplay acquisitions or leveling up your character, respectively.)
Bits currently come in three packages: 400 bits for $5, 1800 bits for $20, or 5200 bits for $50. This is all meaningless, however, without looking at prices in the game’s store. At current rates, which are significantly higher than in the beta-tested version a week or so prior to launch, boosts for a player, group, or clan will cost 40 – 160 bits, depending upon type, and only run for 24 hours (including time you are not playing, though it is said that this will be changed to play time in the near future). Lock boxes will run you 120, 240, or 400 bits, depending on their tier, while extra inventory slots can be purchased at a rate of 120 bits per 5 inventory slots added. Vehicle colors (cosmetic only) begin at 320 bits and run as high as 960. Outfits (without headgear) run from 240 to 880 bits, while headgear begins at 120 bits and goes as high as 440 bits.
This has caused quite a bit of consternation in the community for the game, as it means that, for example, someone wanting the Mountain Tracker costume (both outfit and headgear) must spend 1320 bits, or nearly $15 for just one costume. (To be fair, the other “paired” costume parts, Badlands Crimelord, will run you only 680 bits, though that is still nearly $10 for one costume.) The costume prices in the store make Capcom’s costume packs for its many editions of Street Fighter IV look tame by comparison. Fortunately, there is nothing in the store that must be purchased in order to enjoy or succeed in the game. The majority is simply cosmetic, and the rest are simply shortcuts through character advancement.
A Rough Launch
The launch of Defiance was not without headaches. The Xbox 360 version in particular suffered from significant disconnection issues, while glitches here and there could be found on all three. The team from Trion Worlds has been working diligently in fixing those issues with minor patches, along with a major patch for April 15, 2013, followed by one a week or two later. As with any MMO, the first steps are rough going, but the game’s concept, fun factor, and interactivity with the television series make this a game that is definitely worth your time and, at the very least, a Standard Edition purchase.
If only the store inside the game wasn’t more overpriced than Starbucks . . . For that and a rough (but fairly well handled) launch, I can’t give Defiance an A, but it is certainly edging close to it, and I would expect it to reach that high mark as the first season of the series progresses.