Dan Marshall is definitely not the most memorable name for a hero. Though, in Toshihiro Nagoshi’s (the man behind Yakuza) eclectic vision of near-future Tokyo, he is a fitting protagonist. In terms of premise alone, Binary Domain isn’t exactly unique: it’s merely a third-person squad based shooter hiding beneath an amalgam of well-known science fiction inspirations – most notably I, Robot and Blade Runner. However, in terms of execution, Binary Domain feels entirely original, proving once again that Japanese design can enhance Western genres.
In many Japanese games conversations and relationships play an important role. In the West, these types of social interactions are generally restricted to RPGs. Getting to know your squad mates, and more importantly obtaining their trust, is an essential part of Binary Domain’s design. Like any squad-based TPS you can issue commands to your team, telling them to push forward or provide covering fire. What distinguishes it from the pack is the seemingly small difference that they won’t always comply with your orders.
In between firefights, or during one of the few bits of downtime, you can talk to your squad and establish a relationship – yes, even romantic. Saying the right or wrong thing to your teammates will either improve or degrade your reputation with them, which carries over to their performance in battle. Admittedly, it isn’t too difficult to read the personalities that comprise your “Rust Crew”. Most conversation choices tend to be clear once you’ve figured out the personalities, meaning you’d either need poor social skills or purposefully sabotage a relationship to illicit serious bad blood. But, despite the straightforward nature of the relationships, they succeed by adding a meaningful layer of camaraderie to the team, which pays off as the game’s plot twists towards its conclusion.
As a cover-based shooter Binary Domain feels solid. Throughout the entire campaign Dan carries a sidearm and an assault rifle, the latter of which can be upgraded via vending machines scattered across every chapter. Alternate weapons can be salvaged from the trail of dismembered ‘scrap heads’ left in the Rust Crew’s wake. Sniper rifles and shotguns tend to be the most efficient found weapons, considering Dan always carries an automatic weapon. The sniper rifles in particular are ideal for headshots, which destroys a robots’ AI, causing them to attack close by enemies. Shotguns are also hugely satisfying and effective, especially the automatic variant, since the spreads are large and the damage is heavy.
In addition to offering weapon upgrades, the vending machines are stocked with various supplies and character skills. While each squad mate has a pre-designated class, characters can be specialized via skills. Each character, including Dan, has a small six block grid that skills are equipped to. Some skills require as many as three blocks to equip, while some require only a single node, but mixing and matching is necessary to define the squad in the manner you desire. For example, if you find yourself dying often, you can make one of your teammates a more efficient field medic by equipping skills that allow him/her to revive teammates faster and carry additional med-packs.
Managing and choosing your team affects the game in a number of ways. When you choose your crew you’re committing the remaining squad members to the alternate team, which means your reputation with them will remain stagnant. But, Binary Domain never penalizes you for sticking with certain characters. Story moments may unfold a bit differently based on who’s in your party, but that is really part of the game’s appeal. If you like fist bumpin’ Dan’s longtime bro Big Bo, keep him for the entirety of the ride. And that is what really makes Binary Domain unique in the shooter world: the choices you make and the relationships you foster not only affect how you approach the game, but how the narrative is delivered to you.
In addition to the stellar campaign, Binary Domain does have an obligatory multiplayer component, boasting its own wave-based co-op survival mode and a slew of team-based competitive modes. Invasion, the co-op variant, can be downright boring thanks to the enormous, labyrinthine nature of the maps. When simply destroying ‘bots with 3 friends, Invasion can be mindless fun, but every single round (without fail) will come down to a few stragglers that need to be sniffed out – a process that can literally take several minutes, over and over.
In competitive modes, team spawn points are left out in the open, meaning spawn camping can be a regular nuisance. But, without a doubt, the real game breaking issue is weapon balance. Like Counter-Strike, players accrue money that can be spent in between respawns. Since the best players make the most money they get to buy the best weapons – namely the auto-shotgun. Once in the hands of someone who understands the limitations of Binary Domain, the auto-shotgun can be absolutely devastating. Now, imagine an entire team of well-funded auto-shotgun wielders, perpetually making the most credits.
Despite its obvious issues, Binary Domain’s multiplayer suite can be enjoyable. In many ways it feels antiquated when compared to modern Western shooters, but it certainly offers a different flavor of multiplayer. The slower pace and high-damage encourages standoffs in cover, rather than running and gunning. Smoke grenades and flash bangs are important tools (assuming you have the credits) , allowing players to act in a manner other than just pointing and shooting. In many ways, it evokes memories of Metal Gear Online, albeit a poor man’s version of such, minus Snake and minus the exciting books.
For shooter fans craving something with a little more substance, Binary Domain is definitely the ticket. Behind its hokey yet self-aware characters and stereotypical premise is a hugely intelligent shooter, one that packs just as much heart as it does brawn. In what might be one of Sega’s last major internal productions, it’s refreshing to grab a gun and make a few new friends.