Videogames make no secret of their infatuation with TV and film. But Defiance is the first attempt to create a fiction that exists across TV and videogame media simultaneously, and the promise made by production company Syfy and developer Trion Worlds is that players’ actions will affect the direction of the series further down the line.
The TV show, then, revolves around wisecracking former soldier Joshua Nolan and his aggressive but loving adopted alien charge, Irisa. They are inhabitants of a near-future Earth, and survive by salvaging the hulks of the ships that brought the Votan species to the planet. Soon the pair find themselves appointed sheriffs of Defiance, formerly St Louis, in a sci-fi Western that, while clichéd, is rich in lore and reasonably well written.
Trion Worlds’ thirdperson shooter MMOG take on events is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and begins in the days leading up to the first series. It echoes the show’s setup, in as far as you’re an Ark Hunter working with a feisty alien female called Cass, but only taps a fraction of the available lore and isn’t well written at all.
Still, the MMOG mechanics are serviceable and, to Trion’s credit, their integration is often convincing. The sheer scale of the ongoing struggle is lent weight by the presence of other players, and the resultant pockets of conflict peppering the expansive game world mean you’re regularly presented with the option to aid fellow survivors as you travel to your next objective. But that sense of scale is sabotaged by the draw distance, with Trion shrouding the land in thick fog. Unbelievably, your scope’s range can even exceed the draw distance’s boundaries; our sniper-class character was often rendered impotent by the absence of character models in a distant exchange of bullets. The upshot is that you only have to see small portions of the bland environs.
A bigger problem still is the absence of a motivation to work with other players. Objectives are usually thinly disguised fetch quests or encounters where you must defend a character, usually Cass, against waves of enemies. “Thanks babe,” she’ll cheerfully intone each time you save her from being bludgeoned to death. But while other players might lend a hand in the course of completing their own mission checklist, it all too often feels like there are hundreds of singleplayer games on one server rather than a united war effort.
Arkfall events – timed PvE raids triggered when pieces of the ships in orbit fall to the ground – at least provide a sense of camaraderie, but descend into monotony as you battle wave after wave of enemies and chip away at the wreckage’s hefty health bar. The major arkfalls are certainly striking, with fire raining from a darkened sky as laser beams and explosions light the world around you, but you’ll soon start to avoid them.
Of all the things you’d expect Defiance to get right, script writing would be top of the list. Instead, we’re treated to some of the worst in-game dialogue in recent memory delivered by a cast of detestable characters. “Your anger isn’t intimidating,” counters scientist Von Bach when Cass challenges him. “Frankly, it’s sexy. Where did you find this saucy vixen?” Cass, no doubt offended by the shoddy delivery of this line, responds with the memorable: “I’m going to hit you in the face.”
Presumably, this dialogue was approved by Defiance’s brand guardians who, for whatever reason, simply have different standards when it comes to the interactive version of their world. That leaves Nolan and Irisa as the only two enjoyable characters here, and they show up throughout in special Episode missions. These provide the game’s most entertaining and engaging moments as they chart the events that lead the pair to the town of Defiance. But, outside of the cutscenes, even they behave with the same NPC AI stupidity that plagues everyone else, often staying in place to deliver their lines while being bombarded by enemy fire.
Much has been made of the game’s broad range of ordnance, and there are all manner of upgrades to spice up your vanilla shotgun or SMG as well as a litany of bizarre alien tech. In practice, however, guns feel weak and poorly differentiated; combat feels stodgy as a result, with even low-level enemies soaking up bullets if you miss that all-important headshot.
Your loadout is augmented by EGO powers, bestowed by an alien implant that communicates through a suspiciously Cortana-like AI. Cloak gives you a temporary shield, Decoy distracts enemies with a hologram, Overcharge makes your shots more potent, and Blur provides both a boost of speed and greater melee strength. You can only choose one power to start with and must expand out across a grid of smaller upgrades that are relevant to your specialisation to gain others, a task that will take hours of play. And navigating that grid, or any of the menus for that matter, is cumbersome. The interface has clearly been designed for a controller, but however you play the UI feels messy and over-engineered.
It’s a problem in direct contrast to the simplicity elsewhere. Defiance is far more accessible than most MMOGs, but that lack of depth directly contributes to fatigue setting in early. The post-apocalyptic setting, weapon customisation and even vehicle design are evocative of Borderlands, but Trion’s weapon tree is a poor imitation of Gearbox’s hook. Outside of those Episode missions, progress soon feels like a grind for higher numbers simply for higher numbers’ sake.
It’s early on in the game’s life, of course, and we’ve yet to see to what extent it will interact with the series in future. But at present, the tie-in feels more like themed bonus content in a generic shooter rather than an attempt to build a coherent world.