Defiance is one of these MMOs you can’t play right away. You put the disc in your console — that’s right, I said console, though it’s also available for PC — and wham, here’s an update, here’s another update, and if you’re lucky, half an hour later you’re maybe rolling past the title sequence. So I’m grateful that Defiance, by Trion Worlds, the folks who made Rift, only required a 22MB update on my PS3 and about 10 minutes of install time to the hard drive.
Wait, scratch that — there’s a patch screen after install? Okay, correction: Make that at least 10 — no wait, 15 — additional minutes to download what the game calls “patch notes” (translation: a progress bar). My Internet connection pulls stuff at about 1.2MB/sec on a good day (it’s doing that here), but your mileage may vary. While I’m waiting for — oh look, another update! — all this to finish, let’s talk about the game and why it exists in the first place.
My last encounter with something related to Rockne S. O’Bannon was Farscape, a show I loved to the bittersweet end. When SyFy (nee SciFi) infamously cancelled it prematurely, sci-fi writer Caitlin R. Kiernan wrote “Worlds Glimpsed, Worlds Lost: Why Farscape Should Be Saved,” I was right there with her, cheering along. I actually called NBC to protest. I never do that.
And so, speaking as a guy who has no time for MMOs, Defiance would have missed my interest threshold by miles — most stuff with ties to SyFy does these days — but for the O’Bannon connection. Defiance is a multi-platform MMO that’s also an upcoming SyFy TV show, and for once that might turn out to mean more than “gratuitous tie-in.” I stress the “may,” because what I’d been reading about the game in the lead-up — that what happens in the game world could influence the TV show, debuting April 15 — well, let’s just say the overview that came with my press copy of the MMO seems to back away from the notion that the two platforms are interlinked.
“The game and TV show work as entirely separate media and have been designed to exist independently,” writes game director Nathan Richardson. “[That's] a main reason they are set in different places.” In other words, if you’re playing the one hoping to influence the other, don’t. But who plays games to crowd-manipulate TV scripts? All I want to know, and what I assume you want to know, is whether Defiance is a decent MMO, or just another mediocre tie-in trotted out to hype SyFy’s fledgling franchise — another glorified advertorial, if you will.
So the preliminary patching finishes at about the 30 minute mark — will we ever have MMOs that arrive fully-formed and perfectly balanced? Never mind. After watching still shots of industrial factories and Red Faction-style caves with strange, alien flora (we’re on Earth, mind you) and broken-down neighborhoods, I arrive at the character creation screen where I can play as human or alien, pick an origin story (veteran, survivalist, outlaw, machinist — these dictate your starting story and outfit) and an “archetype,” which just seems to change my cheekbone structure. The game doesn’t employ professions — we’re all “ark hunters,” which I gather means we’re basically scavenging for stuff (so yes, another game trying to fold an MMO cliche into its fiction).
A few minutes in, I notice something that feels very O’Bannon-ish: aliens that say “bitch” like they grew up watching Real Housewives, but use “shtako” for the four-letter English-language curse word that starts with “s.” From “frelling” to “fracking” to this. Someday TV might grow up and talk like the rest of us. In the meantime, I wonder what Defiance‘s f-word equivalent is. “Skruggin”?
And then I’m off…to shoot stuff from the game’s over-the-shoulder view. If you’ve played most contemporary shooters, you’ll be familiar with the controls, and you feel nicely connected to the world: no weird lagging or enemies shooting through cover — at least not during my playtime.
At the outset you’re targeting mutant humans with rifles and eventually cleavers as well as these little crab things that sneak up, then jump past you when they attack. It’s all pretty uninteresting, frankly, but I’m just getting started, and the skill system looks promising, with its Final Fantasy X sphere grid-style abilities. I’ve chosen “cloak,” which unlocks adjacent, multi-upgradeable bonuses that incrementally improve your damage output with interesting tactical wrinkles like “deal more damage when crouched” or “deal more critical damage to enemies moving towards you.” (Though, caveat, it also looks like leveling by a thousand micro-perks, the danger being that you never feel the upgrades.)
Of course, this being a pay-once ($60), subscription fee-free MMO, Trion snuck freemium features in, meaning that yes, you can pay real money to unlock abilities more quickly. I haven’t played long enough to say whether the default allotments feel generous enough, but I’m seeing complaints from others that loot drops aren’t frequent enough.
The economy looks somewhat complex with its “scrip” and “bits” and “keycodes” and “key fragments” and “ark salvage.” I’m picking up lots of ark salvage, the game’s way of referring to alien technology, which I gather — not from the game, which has yet to explain itself — rained down on Earth some years ago and rejiggered the ecosystem. If you want the game’s missing story, see here.
You’ll also bump into some of the TV show characters, because of course you will, even if the missions involving them feel contrived, as they pretty much have to be, setting you up to feel like a Key Player in the show’s mythology without actually making you part of anything.
That said, everything seems to work properly, which I find noteworthy considering it’s an MMO that launched simultaneously on three discrete platforms (there’s no interconnection, alas — everyone’s in their own little Defiance-verse). The maps are huge and elaborate, I’m enjoying the side challenges (even if they’re predictable, e.g. “race through a bunch of circles”), I don’t mind the interface (it’s clean for a console MMO) and the pacing’s about right (all the stuff I’ve done has been nearby, and for longer travel, you’re never more than a button press away from your vehicle, which magically “teleports” to you like the horses in Assassin’s Creed).
The most intriguing piece so far is probably what Trion calls “Shadow War,” which brings PvP to you, playing out dynamically in PvE space, but only involving you if you opt in. I haven’t yet, but it’s kind of cool to watch dozens of players hash out some competitive scenario or other as you’re going about your business, giving the world a volatile, lived-in feel. It’s a little like Guild Wars 2‘s dynamic event system, except with PvP folded into the world instead of clipped off and dropped on the other side of a portal. (And hey: a game that got me to use the phrase “Guild Wars 2″ un-ironically in the last paragraph.)