Defiance PC Review
We're now well into the free-to-play era of MMORPGs, but it seems like many developers out there are still toying with the best ways to offer top-level production values without resorting to the subscription model that has shown to serve so many great games so poorly. Trion Worlds delivered a solid MMORPG in 2011's Rift, a game that was guilty of a few missteps but also first truly opened us up to the possibility of having fun in an MMORPG without having to be a slave to our quest logs. ArenaNet took that even further with Guild Wars 2, a game that hardly even had a quest log at all, relying on area-based and dynamic events almost exclusively.
For Trion Worlds' next game, though, they did decide to use Rift's hybrid mix of traditional quests and dynamic events again, but they spiced things up in different ways. Most importantly, they decided to make it an aim-based third person shooter. The result is Defiance, a post-apocalyptic science fiction MMO that includes many of the design philosophies behind Rift - namely, the combination of quest-based storyline with large dynamic events - along with a TV deal that will mix in plot points from a weekly TV show on the Syfy channel alongside events in the game and have them intertwine. (My gut tells me the two won't intertwine terribly well, but that's not really what I'm here to talk about in this review.)
Defiance will cost you fifty to sixty bucks depending on where you buy it, and there's no monthly subscription required in order to play. Trion has included a real-money shop, but mostly the items that seem to be offered only give random chances at loot (through the wildly varying yields of lockboxes) along with cosmetic and convenience stuff. Leveling up feels fast and exciting, and that's at least partially because the action is reminiscent of games like Borderlands - it's got randomized guns with similar elemental and status effects, shield and grenade mods, and a headshot-equals-critical-hit system that seems to be turning into the norm for how to do critical hits in FPS-meets-RPG combat mechanics. They've also got the option for buying new gun parts and adding them to your existing weapons, as well as for disassembling guns you don't want and using the parts to re-craft new stuff.
I reference past games a lot in this review, but I want to point out that when you play Defiance, it doesn't come off as terribly derivative or like a wanna-be that's just trying to glom onto the success of other games. Defiance does perfectly well on its own merits, but I will say that it takes a while for this game to get going. The character creation has few options, and your choice of four main powers to start is a difficult choice to make so early on, even though the game gives you the chance to preview all four before you pick. You don't get to pick a class with a fun or really unique set of powers; instead, you just choose one of four origin stories, one of four base powers, and as you level up, you'll add new talents that improve your character slightly. The tactical options available to the player at the start are pretty narrow, and while many other games pour on the charm through memorable characters and great visuals in their first few hours while teaching the player the basics, Defiance lacks any of that. With wooden voice acting, bad cutscenes, and an unfocused plot, I found the main story missions to be some of the most dull parts of this game.
So what, if anything, could redeem a game whose main draw kind of sucks, you might ask? Stick with this game and you'll find that the guns improve immensely, the level design and freedom of movement give the player a fun set of tactical options, and you'll get caught up in bigger, more impressive dynamic events called Arkfalls that involve many players - all of whom get XP and item rewards for contributing. Those doing the most damage to the large Hellbug, robot, mutant, and other boss monsters get the best rewards, but pretty much everyone gets something that makes it worth hopping off your ATV to jump into these big fights.
Unfortunately, it seems like the rewards offered in the story missions and other dungeon-like, linear crawls make these things an inevitable requirement from a character-growth standpoint, but they often wind up being the worst parts of Defiance, especially in comparison to other, more story-focused games. In these cases, playing together with friends is probably the best cure for boredom or annoyance, and Defiance will at the very least force you to make tough decisions about your weapon and gear loadouts, all while challenging you with decent gunfight mechanics.
When you're out and about in the world and just moving between areas - and some of this will be done while chasing down quest objectives - you'll find that the freedom Defiance gives you probably feels better than it has any right to. You have the ability to summon an ATV or car in nearly any outdoor area and drive it almost immediately, and can get plenty of kills simply by running over enemies. When on foot, there's a dodge-roll you can use as much as you want. I find it to be in a rather awkward place - the ALT key, by default - but it can easily be rebound to a thumb button on your mouse or another key. This dodge maneuver is vital to keep mobile in firefights where you can get surrounded or where a large boss can charge players or hit them with big, sweeping attacks. Now, neither of these things are really that unique in an MMO, but that feeling of free movement is not something that every game of this type gets right. (There's even full gamepad support, which is kind of rare for an MMO, but I just can't recommend it on general principle for an aim-based PC game.)
Visually, Defiance isn't much to get excited about on PC, and while I've got no idea how the console versions look, the fact that this game got a simultaneous release on three platforms gives me some insight as to why it's probably a little underwhelming to look at on PC. The interface is also caught in the middle, too, with a setup that looks like it's been adapted from consoles while trying to accommodate a mouse and keyboard, doing none of this very well at all. Probably my biggest frustration with the interface, though, is that nearly every screen you bring up is a full-screen set of boxes and buttons, and in a game that's always online and can't be paused, this can be a problem when you're standing anywhere but in a safe encampment. I do hope that in the future, Trion can rework the interface to be more like other MMOs, with semi-transparent, possibly configurable windows being used so that I can spend time working on my character and still see threats incoming before I start getting killed by them.
Trion's also got a rather strange social and chat system. The default interface actually shows basically no chat at all, only popping it up in a tiny sliver of area when you enter one of the game's many overbearing menu systems. This is strange behavior for an MMO, as the developers seem to be trying to discourage casual chatting by default, while still also trying to leave in those features for those who want to form parties or create clans (guilds). Usually games will either jump into the social phenomenon fully or refuse to engage entirely, and Trion went right in the middle with Defiance, making the game a basically un-social experience unless you go in and ask for it. The more I think about it, the more that I kind of like this, especially with how immaturity and troll-like behavior can sometimes derail the fun in many games. Still, it's easy to see this as a failure of the game's interface or a huge oversight that's a symptom of what many will likely call a terrible PC port - after all, neither of the console versions have text chat either, I'm sure. I don't know if any of this is truly because of the console versions, but it's possible that Trion saw an opportunity to do an experiment, to leave off chat unless you specifically go in and turn it on. Considering that you'll almost surely still be fighting alongside other players naturally simply by the way the game's Arkfall events are structured, my question is this: is it really necessary for every MMO to have public chat turned on by default?
While I've done a lot of complaining about Defiance in this review so far, I've found it to also be strangely addictive - and yeah, it helps that the amazing composer Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead) put together a very interesting wubwubs-meets-live-orchestra score that you can preview over on Spotify. I find myself happy about this game's successes and not so upset about its faults and moments of sheer inadequacy. Is it simply because this might just be the first cooperative-based MMO shooter that turns out to be a success, that isn't shut down after a few months due to players running from the game as fast as they can? The jury's still out on that, but I don't think that's the sole reason for me.
Defiance is neither pretty nor charming, but it's got a scrappy quality that can be very appealing, and its gunfights and reward systems do a great job of keeping you playing. And then, surprisingly, the game gets just that little bit better every time you get a new gun, fight a new enemy, discover a unique tactical option, or travel to the next zone. I won't speak much about the potential excitement of the simultaneous TV show tie-in, mostly because the show has yet to premiere on SyFy, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that playing the game makes me at least a little bit more interested in the show. Either way, Defiance gives off a bad first impression, but it still holds up well on its own with continued play.
Disclaimer: This review is based off of a final copy provided over Steam by the publisher.