On paper, Defiance is a peculiar game. An MMO on consoles; one that favours lead and burning rubber over swords and sorcery, third-person shooting over strategic role-playing. Set against the backdrop of a SyFy TV show of the same name – a collaboration that hopes to engross you in more mediums than one. On the screen, however, familiarity lies at the heart of the experience, with a sprinkling of ambition tying it all together. Speed and instant gratification are often the name of the game, removing the monotonous slog that accompanies many MMOs by giving you plenty of things to shoot and blow up.
Less than ten minutes into this future version of a terraformed Earth, you’re given an ATV to cruise across the San Francisco Bay Area in rip roaring fashion. Defiance’s map is open to everyone from the off, removing any restrictions and allowing you to go where you please – an experience enhanced by excellent scaling. The rolling hills and destroyed highways provide ample opportunities to hurl your ATV into the air before you eventually unlock bikes and cars to improve upon each vehicular journey. It removes the intrinsic slowness and grind of other MMOs, granting a sense of freedom that ties into the quest design and how you approach them.
As well as a main story thread to follow, Defiance is littered with side quests as much as any other MMO. You can activate these by driving to the requisite point on the map, interacting with a quest marker before being given a repetitious line of dialogue and a waypoint for where the action is located. Often times, however, you’ll uncover the location of this action as you’re casually driving around, able to jump right in without ever activating the quest yourself. If other players are already engaged in the quest you’ll find yourself teaming up, working together with complete strangers to complete a common goal – everyone receiving experience and their own loot. It’s a seamless transition from simply travelling the landscape to a cooperative experience. It puts you in a flow that sucks up hours, traversing the map and jumping from quest to quest without a singular goal.
There’s plenty of variety to be found from each quest, though they mostly tend to follow the MMO template having you gather items or kill a specific number of enemies. It can get monotonous but they’re short and uncomplicated enough to avoid any robust grievances or frustrations. Story quests tend to be more expansive but their design is very much the same; it’s the dynamic Arkfall events where some of Defiance’s best moments occur.
These events pop up across vast areas on the map as space debris falls from the sky, enticing players from all over with various treasures to be looted. There are numerous types of Arkfalls; some have you fighting mutants, others hellbugs, but they all feature large scale battles and key objectives to destroy. It’s about working together with a hefty crowd of players, tackling gargantuan enemies, dodging projectile attacks and focusing fire as a team. The framerate struggles to handle the manic action on show but it doesn’t limit its appeal. Once your objective is complete everyone hops in their vehicle of choice as your makeshift convoy zooms across the landscape to the next one – a sight to behold. Arkfalls repeat more often than you would like, eventually succumbing to repetition if you play too many, but their dynamism keeps that sprightly flow, maintaining a mechanics loop of driving, shooting, and looting.
Unlike other MMOs, Defiance never has you striving for anything more than what you’re doing at that very moment. Its basic structure is derivative of Borderlands but that blueprint fits the genre. Rather than a traditional leveling system Defiance is driven by loot progression. Its plethora of weapons are what increases your ability to kill, featuring a dozen variants on assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and beyond, each able to be modded and equipped with elemental ammo types deeper into the game. The more you use a specific weapon type the better it becomes, unlocking additional bonuses with enjoyable results.
Defiance’s convoluted leveling system (dubbed EGO (Environmental Guardian Online) rating) grants you one special ability – ranging from damage buffs and a cloaking system to a deployable decoy and a rush attack – and a multitude of passive abilities, all serving your effectiveness with firearms. You can choose to upgrade and maximise your special ability or branch out and unlock the others by fitting different loadouts, building your character with a particular playstyle in mind. Character creation, on the other hand, doesn’t go very far, and armour sets are extremely limited. There’s a severe lack of personality with a sampling of thirty players looking almost identical – while the odd scarcity of female characters does little to alleviate this.
Its world doesn’t fare much better either. The apocalyptic setting is suitably bleak but artistically stilted. It’s fun to drive around but you won’t find yourself deviating from your current quest to explore the sights and sounds, and its narrative never gives you any reason to anyway. To establish any new sci-fi world there are certain expectations for information and lore that Defiance simply fails to deliver. You would be better served indulging in its transmedia approach since the first five minutes of the TV show reveal more about this world’s history than the game ever does, and its writing and acting isn’t quite as atrocious.
Time-limited Episode Missions take the tie-in further, introducing new content each week to coincide with new episodes of the TV show. It will certainly be interesting to see how Trion Worlds develops these quests as the game moves forward considering the time difference between each medium and the change in location (events in the game occur before the show, while one takes place in San Francisco and the other in St. Louis). It’s difficult to envision the collaboration being that drastic, but for those still invested in the world, new content each week is certainly something to look forward to.
Shooting is competent if unspectacular. The lack of a cover system keeps you engaged and on your toes, while a handy evasive roll deters enemies who like to charge. Headshots pop and turning on damage numbers allows you to introduce your own visual satisfaction, but you never quite feel as powerful as there is potential to be. Unbalanced quest design contributes to this, throwing waves upon waves of enemies at you, flanked by rockets that knock you on your feet and automated turrets that keep you there. Dying is inconsequential, inferring a minimal fine before placing you right back into the thick of the action, but it doesn’t make the frequent damage loops any less exasperating.
Enemy AI also leans on the terrible side. It might not be surprising for an MMO to feature less than intelligent enemies, but their inconsistencies are glaringly obvious when paired with a third-person shooter. They’ll wander around unaware of your presence despite the fact you just killed their buddies right in front of them. Those yielding RPGs have a tendency to shoot the cover they’re standing behind, while others prefer to stare at walls rather than whatever is happening behind them. When it works the variety of enemy types with different behaviours and weapons can be engaging and enjoyable, but it’s too capricious.
If you want you can jump into some PvP matches, providing you can navigate Defiance’s cumbersome menus. If you can, team deathmatch is available on two maps, foregoing any restrictions and allowing those at a higher level to kill everyone else with their substantially better weaponry. It isn’t very fun. Shadow Wars, on the other hand, increases the scale and tasks two teams with capturing zones, much like Battlefield. You’ll find additional vehicles to use and there’s some fun to glean from its large scale warfare. There’s an odd dissonance to an MMO separating what is ostensibly its multiplayer component, but it’s intrusive and makes sense.
Bugs and technical issues are unfortunately less intrusive, forcing their way into almost every facet of Defiance’s execution. Menu’s often take an age to load, frequently restricting your input once they finally do. Enemies may fail to spawn, or clip behind walls, while other objects spawn directly in front of you when you’re partaking in one of the many driving challenges, eliminating your record breaking time. Even the world feels empty due to technical limitations. You’ll notice fellow players on the mini-map but they’re nowhere to be seen, taking seconds to load into the game world. You can pass hundreds of players without ever actually seeing them; the in-game chat hidden beneath more menus, rendering the Bay Area a lonely place indeed.
Defiance remains at its best when you can interact with other people, be it thirty players during an Arkfall event, or with two or three as you find yourselves seamlessly coming together during a side quest. It has ambitions of shaking up the monotonous MMO formula, speeding up progression with freedom and dynamically handling the way you interact with quests. Those elements work with aplomb, but they’re disrupted by a litany of glitches and enemies that aren’t particularly fun to fight, embroiled in an undefined world. To their credit, Trion Worlds’ support has been admirable so far, and there’s hope for growth, but in its current state Defiance strikes a precarious balancing act between fleeting enjoyment and impeding flaws.