The distant future, the distant future
Binary Domain is a third-person cover shooter from Sega that heavily features robots. I’m almost tempted to leave this review there as that statement says everything you need to know about the game. It’s one that conforms to expectations rather than breaks them. Much has been learned from cover-based shooters that have gone before and as a result the game is well polished, but there’s always the feeling that you’re not really seeing anything new. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just makes it hard to get excited about the game.
The plot is an amalgamation of Blade Runner, Terminator, I, Robot and Resident Evil. It’s the future and rising sea levels created a global catastrophe. So many people died that robots were necessary to create a labour force capable or building new habitable cities. These robots were your run of the mill peaceful types. They wander around fairly silently, not really getting in your way. There had to be rules to govern the manufacture of these robots (mostly built by a single American company on a designed possibly stolen from a Japanese company) and the most important of these rules states that robots can never be made to pass for humans. Of course robots like this start appearing (dubbed ‘hollow children’) and frighteningly they don’t even know they’re robots. There’s a lot of interesting questions about what it means to be human, the nature of AI, suffering, racism, and intellectual property. Unfortunately most of the impact of all this is lost with some terrible voice acting and racial stereotypes.
You play as a member of a ‘Rust Crew’, a special forces team set up to deal with breaches of the robot rules. As the game goes on you join with other members from different countries and each of them becomes an embarrassing look at what the developers think of each nationality. The Americans are ‘too loud’ and brash, although ultimately heroic. The English are incredibly posh and by the books. The Asian woman is mysterious and seemingly capable in martial arts, and then the French man is crazy. The characters constantly come out with all kinds of terrible lines, and then occasionally you get a chance to respond. Using a controller you can pick a response or with a headset you can just say your response out loud. Your reply will affect how much they like you (other things effect this like friendly fire and skillful shots) and this in turn will affect how likely they are to follow your orders.
Unfortunately this is completely ruined by nonsensical translations. Anyone who has ever played a Japanese game will be used to the incongruities that plague Japanese-English game translations but when you’re asked what you think the team should do and your options are ‘Damn it’, ‘Yeah’, or ‘I like you’ it’s hard to forgive. The trust levels built up through the system affect the storyline, but they have limited impact on gameplay as squad members rarely do anything useful based on your commands anyway. Two of the commands (Cover me and Fire) do exactly the same thing, ‘Charge’ makes them run to their glorious deaths (they don’t seem to shoot while running forwards) and then ‘Group on Me’ at least serves the purpose of getting them through doorways. Don’t get me wrong, the AI isn’t a hindrance like it can be in some titles, it’s just ineffectual.
The storyline can branch á la Mass Effect with different characters living or dying based on your actions, but it’s hard to work out what you’ve actually done to cause this. I’ve certainly read about other peoples’ playthroughs and there are enough differences to make it interesting and somewhat personal. However interesting the plot could be sadly you’re likely to get bored of it and start drifting off. The games goes on too long (my Raptr account says I’ve only played it for five hours after completing it but it felt a lot longer) as you end up doing the same things over and over again. The cut scenes and conversations in the game are terribly paced, stretching out when the point was made five minutes ago. The game constantly teases some kind of progress but then you have to run through another seven identical corridors blasting robots to get to the next bit of story. This gets much worse as the game goes on with the final chapter almost a compendium of what people have disliked about action game levels in the last ten years.
Thankfully the gameplay is much better than the plot. The basics are all very familiar, you hide behind things and shoot at enemies with generic weapons like machine guns, sniper rifles and shotguns. As you shoot the enemies you can gain credits which will allow you to upgrade yourself, your weapons and your team-mates. I never noticed the difference until I have fully upgraded a weapon but it’s a nice little extra diversion. When you shoot the enemies, the magic happens. Different bits of enemies can be shot off and this affects the ways they attack you. One of my favourite N64 games was Pod Racing, and I loved how when you started crashing, you would see little bits come off the pod. This is similar with chunks of robot flying everywhere, and there’s numerous times when you’ll be faced with a solid wall of enemies, satisfying grinding down into scrap as you unload rounds into them. There’s a certain level of skill involved here too. If you shoot their legs, they’ll slow down, if you shoot their arms you can disarm them. If you manage to take their head off, they’ll turn on their friends. This mechanical amputation makes the repeated waves of enemies much more tolerable, and I enjoyed running low on ammo and starting to take headshots carefully to turn the robots on each other, saving me the hassle.
There aren’t many different enemy types, but those that are present are sufficiently varied to make you think carefully about how to dispatch them. Most common are the green humanoids that shamble along like zombies. Later in the game you face some even more zombie-esque enemies that creates one of the most effective sequences in the game. It’s a pity it’s so far in many people won’t stick with it for long enough. Spread out throughout the campaign are a number of bosses and these are proper old-school bosses. Each requires tactics based on a variation of ‘shoot the glowy bits’ but they’re spectacular and difficult enough to make it fun. One boss gave me no end of trouble, a giant spider that launches rockets in a wide area, but once I spent a few hours away from the game and came back I beat it first time. The fact that I wanted to come back and finish it should be testament to how Sega have got many things right with the game.
There’s a number of other distractions throughout the levels including jet ski driving, shooting from a van and firing mobile artillery. None of it is difficult but it breaks up the tedium just enough to move on to the next section. The satisfying shooting mechanics are present in all of these modes so at least it’s a little different from the usual spray and pray gameplay found in other titles.
The graphics are fairly standard for games of this type. It’s not as impressive as Gears of War 3, but it’s not as terrible as Matt Hazard. There’s some beautiful futuristic architecture and robot designs but they all border a little too much of things we’ve seen before. Many of the robots look like they’ve steeped out of Will Smith’s ‘I Robot’ and your uniforms look like an 80s version of the nanosuits from Crysis. The way the enemies disintegrate is much cooler, but it’s a shame that the rest of the environment rarely does the same. Occasionally a window will shatter but there’s not much interaction.
The sound is again competent, but rarely impressive. Everything sounds just like you’d probably expect it to, but the voice acting is atrocious and the music is entirely forgettable. It’s such a shame when games like this aren’t treated to an expert composer as it really could have set the scene but sadly we just get futuristic background music to shoot robots by.
Unfortunately we haven’t tested the multiplayer as every time I loaded it up it said ‘no games found’. Either it’s broken or everyone has already abandoned Binary Domain for something better.