STAFF REVIEW of Defiance (Xbox 360)

Friday, April 12, 2013.
by Adam Dileva

Defiance Box art I’ve been reviewing games long enough now that I have a system for my note taking, collecting my thoughts, and then expressing them to the best of my ability in a cohesive manner. That’s generally not too challenging as most games have a beginning, end, and all the fun stuff in between that I need to describe. This becomes incredibly much more difficult when the game I have to write about doesn’t ‘really’ have an end, and the product you get to play day one can change drastically in a short time with a single patch as content is fixed, changed, removed, or added. This is the case with reviewing Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, as they are consistently changing and story flow and gameplay can vary drastically from the first few hours to the next hundred or so. That being said, this review is based on what I’ve played up to this point and the state of the game is in at the time of publish, but keep in mind Defiance WILL change and evolve in the future, as all MMO’s do over time.

Defiance is the latest MMO title to hit the market, but there are a few things that set it apart from the others in the very crowded genre. Firstly, Defiance is a third person shooter, and while that’s not unique in itself, to have a MMO based on it is; so I guess this classifies as a MMOTPS. This allows the MMO fundamentals to be mixed in with the mechanics of a shooter as well. If a Defiance was developed by a group that have never done an MMO before, I would probably have been a little more worried, as the scope of this game is quite large; luckily Trion, the makers of the PC MMO RIFT are the ones behind the gaming side of Defiance. If you’ve played RIFT you’ll no doubt catch many similarities but it’s very interesting to see a developer come so far from making a traditional MMORPG and transition to a MMOTPS. Much like RIFT, you’ll have traditional quests and the normal pallet of MMO mechanics, but they’ve also included the unique dynamic events once again to keep things interesting.

Sure Defiance may look like a typical sci-fi story and setting that has a post-apocalyptic backdrop, but what really makes Defiance unique is its ideas; namely being tied into the TV show with the same corresponding title, due to premier very shortly on the Syfy channel (Showcase for us Canadians) that will play alongside events in the game, with promises of some intertwining. Defiance will look and feel very rough around the edges when you begin, and even most likely give off a bad first impression, but keep with it and you’ll see how fun it is to play cooperatively with hundreds of other players simultaneously taking down an Arkfall invasion and consistently improving your Ark Hunter character that you create.

So what’s the backdrop of Defiance? An alien civilization invades Earth after their own home has been destroyed but only come to realize humanity calls this planet home afterwards. The aliens begin to terraform Earth’s landscape which sets the post-apocalyptic visual setting and clearly makes a hostile conflict between the two species. A character named Karl Von Bach claims to have a device called an Ark Core that claims is going to not only save the world, but make him famous and the worlds hero, though that’s before it’s lost and in the wrong hands. This is where you come in, as you need to track it down and save the day, and subsequently, Earth.

As I mentioned above, a large draw into Defiance is that there is going to be a TV tie-in show that looks almost like Battlestar Galactica mixed with Firefly. If you play the game you’ll recognize certain characters in the show, such as Joshua Nolan and Irisa, and vice versa, which I think brings a very unique dynamic, trying to break the medium barrier for fans. Hopefully in later episodes of the TV the Defiance game will get DLC and updates that will show more characters from the show. There are a lot of really cool ideas that could be done with this tie-in if done well, but that’s a lot of if’s and a lot of waiting and seeing what will be done. With a very distinct opportunity here, Trion and Syfy have a chance at making something very special if both sides are treated equal, so here’s to hoping it’s not going to simply be a gimmick that gets forgotten.

Usually with high profile MMO’s there’s an attached monthly subscription fee that tags along, simply as a cost to play a constantly evolving game. Defiance won’t have any of that as there is no subscription required; all you need is space on your Xbox 360 hard drive (10 GB) and an active Xbox Live Gold subscription. All of the game’s patches are done through the game and separate from Xbox Live itself. So how can Trion afford to offer an MMO without the monthly fees generally required? That’s where microtransactions come in; you can purchase in game currency, Bits, in exchange for real money (your Microsoft Points) to buy certain boosts and loot boxes for a chance at better items and weapons. Keep in mind that the exchange rate is currently overpriced for many items and there’s not really anything you truly NEED to purchase to make a massive difference in the game, maybe aside from the extra inventory spaces early in the game, but those can be earned in game without the need for purchase.

A big issue that free to play games suffer from that use real currency as an economy is that it has the risk of becoming pay to win, though luckily that’s not the case here, as you can purchase XP boosts and cosmetic items, but nothing massive that will make the playing field uneven for other players. While PC MMO players are going to be used to a less than perfect launch with many server crashes, bugs, downtime, and more, I don’t believe many console players will be. Most console players are going to buy the disc, put it in their 360, and want to play. Some might not understand why they need to download and patch the game for an hour or more before even starting the first time. The lack of a cohesive tutorial and even menu system is going to no doubt frustrate many players which is compounded by the fact that even something as simple as chatting is more of a hindrance than it is an asset. Even with my chatpad connected and asking the area chat for help on topics, the chat is barren for the most part, but more on that later. You will have to exorcise your patience when learning the ropes and figuring out nearly everything on your own; so bring your tolerance and don’t expect any hand holding of any kind. You’ll be thrown into the world of Defiance and left to figure out what to do on your own to much frustration and confusion.

As you finally patch the game for the first time and get to log in, you’ll be prompted to create your own Ark Hunter, though don’t expect much from the character creator, as there are so few options that almost everyone you come across will look very similar (aside from the visual clothing you earn and can purchase). While most MMO’s make you pick a class and force you into that role, instead in Defiance you pick one of four unique starting abilities (which I’ll explain later on) and as you level up (which is very different from the standard way as well) you’ll gain new talents and perks that will improve your character, albeit slightly, sometimes even unnoticeably.

As the core game of Defiance is a Third Person Shooter, it will play very much like Borderlands, with a slew of randomized guns of varying types and stats, left for you to choose what suits your play style best. While guns will be your main weapon, you’ll also have your base skill you chose at character creation in which your timer refreshes in time, a shield (not in the traditional sense), and grenades that also work on a refresh timer. As you adventure you’ll come across mods to equip in your guns, thus improving them as you level and fight tougher enemies. Every character also eventually gains access to summon a vehicle, be it a car, van, or ATV, that can be used at any time outdoors (which is the majority of the time).

MMO’s are generally meant to be played with other people. Sure you can solo and progress, but generally the bulk experience of these types of games are enjoyed better with friends and other players, as the risk versus rewards become much greater with bigger groups. To do this you need to coordinate with other players, which is generally done with the in game chat system (this is excluding outside voice programs of course), so if you’re in game solution to be social doesn’t work well or is too confusing to use, you’re going to have problems right off the bat. Sadly, Defiance suffers from this greatly. The menu systems and even figuring out HOW to chat, even with my chatpad equipped, took way more work that should have been explained to me from the beginning. The menu system itself is not only overbearing and confusing, but even when you kind of figure it out it doesn’t make any sense.

Because of this you’ll generally see no one talking in chat, but for more than that reason alone. Generally MMO’s have chat boxes that are static and will always show what the last few lines said were, so that you always have that social window open to other players. The problem with Defiance’s system is that the text fades away so quickly that unless you’re focusing on it, anything being typed will be missed, especially in the rare instances where more than one person is chatting.

I can’t figure out if this was a huge mistake on Trion’s part, or if they were trying to take away that reliance on traditional text to communicate. Sure you can simply use party chat with friends and never think twice, but for those times when you’re playing solo and want to make new friends or talk to someone that just helped you on a quest, it’s generally not worth the headache. Sure it’s a relief to not see the usually ill-fated chat that trolls usually dominate in these games, but for those times when you truly do want to communicate with others, you’re going to have a frustrating time simply even figuring out how to do so. Even if chatting was done simply, which isn’t the case at all, the way that it’s handed currently with it fading so quickly and only showing a few lines at a time, makes it near impossible to do so with much purpose.

In Defiance you play the role of an Ark Hunter, essentially an all-around specialist and bounty hunter who hunt for salvage and financial and personal gain. Backed by Von Bach Industries, you’ll have access to some of the most advanced technology that exists, namely in your EGO implant. EGO, the Environmental Guardian Online, is the latest in technology and will power your HUD and even pair you with a Cortana-like AI that will help you where possible and give you constant feedback and tips about your environment and situations. This advanced EGO implant makes even the most timid Ark Hunter a force to be reckoned with.

The EGO system is also how Defiance tracks your character’s progression as you become more proficient in time and experience. Forget the traditional leveling system with a level cap and numbers that equate skill and experience; instead, as your EGO level rises, you won’t always see your characters numbers become larger, making you more powerful. You won’t instantly do more damage with your guns or gain mass amounts of health simply because you leveled, but instead will have access to gaining more abilities and perks which will enhance your character ever so slightly; it can even greatly affect how you play. It’s more meant to help you tune your character to how you want to play rather than artificially adding larger numbers. This is where the choice of the four major skills comes into play as you create your character.

The first of the four main abilities is Blur. Blur allows you to seemingly become a blur, in or out of combat. While active you’ll gain bonuses to movement speed, defense and offence chances. You’ll be able to dodge shots and attacks much more frequently and even increase damage you inflict as well. The Cloak ability is exactly as it sounds; you can turn invisible for a short amount of time allowing you to setup a specific situation in battle, or flee when needed. Overcharge is an EGO power that basically permits you to go berserk for a short amount of time, allowing you to inflict much more damage from your weapon. The last EGO power, and the one I personally chose and use on my Ark Hunter, is Decoy. This allows you to send out a hologram of your character to where you desire, and doing so will distract the enemies that see it, allowing you to either setup a combat situation or flee when needed; you can even swap places with your Decoy and teleport to it if you desire. Leveling up this power lengthens the durability of your hologram, thus giving you a longer amount of time to setup what you intend to in battle.

As you raise your EGO level you can unlock other powers which will only take effect when equipped (and thus turned into a perk). Think of a skill tree, but it’s in a grid instead, allowing everyone to eventually have access to all of the powers and abilities (though you can only equip a certain amount of perks at a time, based on your EGO rating). If you want that really good skill that’s a few blocks away that will help your gameplay, you might have to spend a few EGO upgrade points just to obtain it. Skills can then be upgraded multiple times to boost their effectiveness as well. Made a mistake with a skill or it’s simply not working as you hoped (which is to be expected, as many doesn’t always seem to perform as well as you might think by their description), you have the ability to repsec at any time, providing you have enough in game currency, scrip. You’re going to level up enough to purchase many skills you don’t care about or want, but this encourages experimentation, as you can have multiple loadouts (as you progress in EGO levels) to find what works best for your play style. I’ve already taught you more here than the game ever tries to do.

As Defiance is a shooter, the main attraction is going to be its weapons. You’ll get to choose from SMG’s, Rocket Launchers, Sniper rifles, Shotguns, Pistols, Infectors, LMG’s, Assault Rifles, and even a Bio-Magnetic Gun that allows you to heal other players. Like the EGO system, weapons also have their own leveling system that’s a completely separate progression. While good in ideas, it’s a little flawed in execution for a few reasons. The basic idea is that if you do damage with a specific type of weapon, you’ll level it up, this making you more proficient with that type of weapon, earning you bonuses like reload speed, accuracy, damage, and more as you progress. The catch is that have a cap on how much each gun can be used towards the progression. Essentially you have a set amount of XP you can earn with each gun towards weapon progression with each individual gun.

If you max out your XP earning with your favorite or best gun, you’ll need to swap it out for another of the same class if you want to continue earning XP in weapon proficiency. That wouldn’t be a major deal if you were constantly finding new upgrades like in Borderlands, but it’s nothing like that in Defiance. You find upgrades so infrequently and rarely that you’re going to need to swap for a less powerful gun to continue your weapon progression. You essentially keep downgrading your weapon just to earn experience with it. Sure you could ignore the weapon progression, but you want to constantly be improving your weapons, and thus your characters, so it’s a viscous cycle you can’t escape.

Like any good MMO, you’ll have quests and tasks to undertake, you keep you interested and playing. Most quests aside from a few and the main story missions are going to all fall into the same ‘shoot everything dead then activate the object to win’ scheme. While the quest basis might be bland for the most part, the open nature of the world does make it a little more exciting. If I’m in an area working on a quest and someone else comes along in the same area, they can kill enemies and flip switches, etc, to help progress both of our quests. I’ve had times where I go to an area for quest and a mob of people were there, finishing my quest in literally seconds which was awesome considering we weren’t even grouped. The byproduct and downfall to this mechanic (and lack of a useful chat system) is that proper teamwork is generally not required if you’re playing with random people instead of friends in voice chat.

While there are main missions to keep the story progressing, there are numerous side missions and challenge that will keep you busy enough and to fill any desire of mission type you might feel like at the time. Challenges will vary from Time Trial, Hotshot, and Rampage modes. Time trial will have you on your vehicle of choice, driving through preset rings to try and earn a gold, silver, or bronze medal for your best time. Just like weapons, vehicles also ‘level’ which will gain you speed and handling bonuses as well the more you use them. Hotshot challenges gives you set weapon and amount of ammunition as you try and get the highest score possible. Rampage challenges are extremely entertaining and have you equipped with super powerful weapons trying to demolish all of the enemies before the timer reaches zero.

For those that want to take a break from the grind and regular missions, there are also co-op and competitive modes for you to opt into if you desire. These multiplayer modes simply bring your main character over, allowing you to put your characters build against other players. The basic PVP is done in Deathmatches and can be a fun way to test out a new loadout and perk selection against other actual players instead of the incompetent enemy AI. Sure the multiplayer portion isn’t perfect, and there are many tweaks that are needed to provide balance and fairness (I’m looking at you shotgun users in PVP) but this is something that Trion will hopefully fix in time, much like many other issues with the game.

Arkfalls are the most interesting events and portion of Defiance in all the hours I’ve sunk into the game so far. As a mentioned before, if you’ve played RIFT before, Arkfalls are essentially the Rifts that opened up around the game world where anyone in the vicinity can participate to take down the enemies and bosses. Arkfalls can vary in size, where a small team can take out the smaller ones without much problem in the set amount of time, but the larger ones will take a much larger force to take down. Spawning spontaneous boss fights will encourage impromptu cooperation with other players in the area if you hope on defeating these Arkfalls before the designated twenty minute timer ends. To a MMO newcomer, seeing a hundred players in the same area all shooting and running around, it is going to look like chaos, which it is in a way, but you all are working towards a goal. The problem with Arkfalls (and missions for that matter) is that the more players that are in the vicinity “helping”, the harder the enemies become and their health scales accordingly. So if you and a small group are killing an Arkfall on your own, you may do 100 damage per bullet for example, but if there are a hundred players there, the health of enemies are boosted so greatly that it feels like you’re using a water gun trying to kill the enemies. The other problem with Arkfall events as well is the massive framerate issues you’ll encounter once a good fifty-plus players all show up in the same area, and that’s not even including the massive lag spikes that come along with that.

On the 360, Defiance simply doesn’t look that pretty. Textures, models, and animations can be downright ugly; obviously a tradeoff for allowing such a large amount of players simultaneously on the screen at once. There is massive slowdown at overcrowded Arkfall events and even in the less dense areas, you’ll notice quite a lot of screen tearing that never seems to go away, even in cutscenes. It doesn’t help that the world itself simply looks bland from its art direction either. While the PC version looks much better in the visuals, it still definitely looks a little aged, though I’m not sure if that’s partly because maybe the consoles were the lead platform.

The biggest problem with Defiance is its design, especially the menu and UI layouts. The tutorial shows you how to shoot and move, but that’s about it, as you’re left on your own to figure out many of the intricate nuances and mechanics on your own if you don’t dig deep down into the menus. Even getting into specific menus itself is a chore that isn’t even explained either, so I fear many players won’t even ever figure many of these issues out on their own without help, though again, trying to ask for help with the useless chat system should be an interesting feat to overcome. Even the game box boasts Kinect support, though nowhere in the game does it actually tell you how to use them or access its features. After a dozen or so hours once I figured out the hidden menus within menus, I only then found out the Kinect voice commands.

There are many issues that need completely changing, fixing, or balancing, which I’m sure is going to come in time, but asking players to have this amount of patience that aren’t used to it on a console is going to be a challenge. Simple things like, why can’t I have more than one quest at a time so that I don’t have to keep coming back to the same area multiple times never are answered, though hopefully Trion will find a way to do so within game rather than having to rely on players figuring out that they need to go to the website and read the forums and such to figure these things out.

It might seem like I’m ragging on Defiance a little too much, and while it’s merited for the issues it has, it is doing some things right, which is why I keep logging in to play my Ark Hunter. As this is an MMO, it’s meant to be played for hundreds of hours, not just a handful, and because of that it seems like the beginning may be a little too slow for most peoples liking, though stick with it and trust me, it gets better (content wise). Players need to feel like they are being rewarded for sticking around and playing for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours, and these rewards do come too far and infrequent for the bulk of Defiance’s gameplay; yet something keeps drawing me in.

Then it just kind of hit me. Defiance really feels like a single player game that just also happens to populate the areas with other players (kind of like Test Drive Unlimited did). Also, you’re basically not working towards anything. Sure you’re gaining EGO levels, doing quests, and killing bad guys, but it’s not using the traditional MMO treadmill design that dangles that carrot constantly in front of you to continue you to play.

Defiance does a great job at a few things; oddly enough one of those things is letting you decide whatever you want to do at a given moment without actually directing you anywhere specific. Maybe you want to kill a few minutes doing Time Trials, or an Arkfall appears a few hundred meters from your questing area causing you to deter from your original plan. Maybe you scored a cool mod upgrade for completing that Arkfall, so you might want to PVP a little while to test it out. It takes some learning and time to get it figured out, but you don’t need to really have to have a plan of what you want to do before logging in like you do in most MMO’s.

I’m very interested to see how the show not only is, but how it ties in with the game itself. Hopefully it will help promote the game to bring in more players and vice versa, getting players to watch the show. It’s a very interesting concept and a first of its kind that has a lot of potential if done correctly and with care. While the game itself might not be a game changer at this very moment, we’ll see how the TV show tie-in works and what DLC is planned to coincide, hopefully with events that occur in the TV show. While the game had me feeling very apathetic towards it, something keeps me logging on and playing some missions and pursuits, so obviously they’ve done something right. Again, you have to keep in mind that as an MMO, the game WILL change over time, usually for the better, and my personal history with Trion’s last game was a positive one, so I trust that they are going to do the best job they can to make Defiance a game you want to buy and keep logging in to play while it’s constantly added to and improved. Just be patient with the game, take it for what it is, and hopefully the accompanying TV show tie-in will be something special for this first of its kind experience. Again, I have to rate the game based on what it is as present time and not its lofty and ambitious goals that I can see it striving towards further down the road; that being said, if you have patience and take Defiance at face value with the understanding that it will improve in time, you’ll find yourself strangely hooked like myself even with its many shortcomings.

Overall: 6.7 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 6.5 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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