What noise does a falling tree make if there is no-one to hear it?
Defiance is the brand-new MMO from Trion Worlds and the Syfy Channel. It ties into a TV series of the same name which will begin on April 16th and will feature the same world-narrative as the game and feature many crossover characters and events. This is an early review, based on twenty hours of gameplay trying out each and every feature of the game. That being said, there are still a few bugs and problems which I’m confident will be addressed in future patches, so this, like all our articles, may be a working piece. What we mean by this is that if the facts change, so will this article. The purpose of this review is to give people who are sitting on the fence an idea of how the game is right now and whether we think it’s worth your hard-earned cash, the game is currently £34.99 on Steam with no subscription.
Defiance opens with a very simple choice at the moment. North America or Europe? Although being based in Europe, we chose the North American server as that’s where people we know will be playing; I’m pleased to say that there have been no lag/server problems with playing from a different continent and the lack of individual servers have made organises groups a tiny bit easier. As far as I can tell once you get on to a continent server you are then assigned different phases, and that’s how the game manages server load. Joining another player’s phase is easy and takes around twenty seconds so there’s little chance of getting abandoned on a lonely shard somewhere in the ether.
Character creation is much as you’d expect from any MMORPG. There’s two races to choose from at the moment, one Human and one that looks a lot like a human with budget Scifi makeup on, and some crazy hair. I would say the biggest issue I’ve had with this game so far is the other race, the Irathient, which I think makes me a racist. Or a specist. They look like cheap knock-off aliens, and they use informal slang horrifically, peppering their phrases with ‘dude’ and made-up swearwords. Firefly could get away with it thanks to the campy tone, but it really feels forced in the dialogue. The fact that I care at all shows that Trion have done a decent job with the dialogue to begin with, but I feel the tie-in show is going to suffer if they insist on having the aliens talk like early 90s hipsters. There are better aliens around but prepare to be irritated by your Irathient companion at the beginning of the game.
Once you’ve dealt with all the usual appearance customisations, you get to pick a kind of ‘class’. Really all it affects is a little bit of dialogue in the game, and the clothes you start with. It’s a nice idea that who you were before doesn’t really define anything about you in game, and it means you never feel the need to reroll your character because you made a mistake.
Once you get into the game, you run through a brief tutorial, making sure you know how to run and shoot and interact with things, and you get to choose your first EGO power, after trying all four of them out. The way levelling up works in Defiance is that for each level you gain you get an extra EGO point, which you can spend on perks, one of four abilities (you can get all four, but you can only equip one at a time) or upgrading those perks and abilities. The Abilities are all distinct and lend themselves to different playing styles, with a cloak for sneaking, a ‘blur’ which makes you run fast and adds to melee strength, an overload which increases weapon damage from 10-30% and a decoy which serves as a surprisingly powerful distraction. You get one of these abilities right near the start so you immediately get to feel like a badass, and this is crucial to the game so far, everything Trion does is about empowerment.
You rarely have any downtime while playing, and I think I’ve never spent more than five minutes without something fun to do. The game pushes you from firefight to firefight with the map littered with tiny random events for you to take part in. Instances don’t require people to save up ‘mana’ or anything like that, you can just sprint from encounter to encounter, running and jumping through the environment, filling enemies with bullets which you can completely resupply at the generously provided ammo caches that litter the world. You can fast travel around the map at no cost and with no cooldown, and you can join up with other players almost instantly. Driving around, a friend and me found battle after battle after battle to get involved with, helping other players and it never got boring. New players can join in with veterans straight away, paying no heed to ‘levels’ or ‘gear’.
Although you do gain levels, they don’t affect you, and as far as I can tell you can’t even see what level you are. Instead you get power points, and these provides some thresholds which must be passed to have access to matchmaking for certain instances, as well as limiting which upgrades you can get. The number quickly rises into three digits and can be increased by levelling or completing ‘pursuits’ which are like mini challenges or achievements. There are no stats on clothes, they are all cosmetic, and really there are few stats at all. Your weapons, grenades and shield all have different stats like in Borderlands and this is where you’ll see progression. As a starting player, you’ll begin with some very weak guns, but if you find or get given a more powerful weapon, it’s yours, no limits on who can use what. While you can’t start matchmaking into a higher instance, if a friend brings you in, that’s fine, and you’ll still be useful to the group as there’s no level limits on who can damage what. Levels don’t really matter in this game, we had four players with power levels ranging from 70-490 running through an instance, and everyone felt on about a level.
The grouping options are fantastic for a just-launched game, with clans already working and groups easy to set up with a context menu brought up by pressing ‘ctrl’. From here you can select nearby players, friends or clan members, and invite you to your group. You can even teleport straight to them, anywhere in the world, with no cooldown or cost. Trion have evidently tried to make everything as streamlined and fast as possible, and it works.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing chat is pretty broken right now, so you really need some external voice chat (the in-game voice chat is often distorted and glitchy) and the world can seem like quite a quiet place, with no global chat and area chat only working for some people.
There’s also a massive issue with the menus. As they are (and I’m hoping they’ll be the first thing to be reworked) they are horrible and unintuitive. Once you know where things are, you can just use keyboard shortcuts to get around, but there’s so many little oddities about them (such as selections moving after you buy things and some buttons requiring double clicks and others single clicks) that it’s easy to get infuriated. There’s not even an easy way to quit out of the game, you have to press escape or any other menu key, hold space and go to the settings page (not the picture of the man going towards a door, the universal sign for exit, that’s the matchmaking menu) and go to the account tab on that menu, before finding ‘quit game’.
You can use an Xbox 360 controller with the game, and it works well although obviously limits you when it comes to chat and keyboard shortcuts. It does however make driving a lot easier and the shooting mechanics transfer well, particularly for people like me who find it easier to aim with a controller. You have to enable to controller from within the menu to make sure the button prompts change, but once you’ve done that it’s fairly simple to use.
Within an hour of starting the game, you’ll have a variety of guns to choose from which can all be modded, a vehicle or two which can be used at any time (other than instances) and a map full of different activities to explore. Want to do some missions? Go ahead, follow the story or do some side missions, they’re both fairly similar but the shooting mechanics are solid (especially for an MMO) so it’s fun to go places and grab some items while killing hordes of mutants/bugs/raiders/robots. Want to find some collectables? there’s a bunch of audio logs dotted around the world with rewards for finding them all within an area. Want to do a time trial in a vehicle? There’s loads with fairly interesting tracks and online leaderboards that you can filter by friends. Want to take part in shooting challenges? Great, same leaderboards and some quirky little minigames based around shooting.
This really is a game of choices, and Trion are keen to cut out anything that could get in the way of you doing what you want. The only exception to this is possible PVP, which is easy to get in to, with either small team-based deathmatches or the larger objective based Shadow War which takes place in the game world, but it can seem daunting as certain combinations of weapons and powers are completely dominating at the moment (be wary of cloaks and grenade launchers). One shot kills are fairly common, turning it into a twitch shooter, but with dodging and solid team work it’s a lot of fun already, as long as you bring the right weapons to the party.
On top of the PVP and story missions and challenges and instances (which feature cut scenes and are timed fairly well to let you complete them in around 15-30 minutes, with boss fights with more mechanics than ‘I’m a big bullet sponge’ appearing from the second one onwards) and exploration objectives, there are also Arkfall events. These are random events, very similar to Rift’s ‘ahem’ rifts, where anyone can come take part and shoot the hell out of some enemies with a timer and/or objectives. They’re spectacular, with tens of players, sometimes more than a hundred converging on some of the bigger ones. The only issue is that they scale with the number of players in the area, so sometimes you can find yourself fighting a war of attrition with enemies taking forever to kill and your own individual contribution being effectively zero. The rewards for these are also rarely worth the time invested, so it’s more something to do for the sheer fun and spectacle of it (and when the final enemy dies and everyone drives off in their quads and cars it really is a spectacle, particularly if you all go in convoy to the next one).
The weapons you gather are all distinctive and have some of the flair that made Borderlands so much fun. I’ve seen grenade-firing shotguns, weapons that infect the enemy with tiny headcrabs that then jump out upon the victim’s death and go to harass others, and some kind of healing beam that jumps to other players as well as healing you, while being able to leech health and shields from enemies. All of these can be used in PVP should you wish, and all of them can be modified, with the modifications actually appearing prominently on the in-game model.
The graphics engine is holding up well and although the game isn’t the prettiest, it deals with a huge number of players and sometimes the lighting effects and postprocessing make for a really nice scene or environment, particularly at sunrise/sunset or during a meteor shower.
For an MMO launch, I’m blown away by Defiance. The chat bug is the only really irritating one I’ve come across, and within the space of two and a bit days I’ve put in more time than I have with many other games. It’s infinitely more fun with a group, but it’s so easy to find other people to play with there’s really no excuse. The only thing I’m concerned about is the lasting power of the game. It all depends on the success of the TV show, although the developers have explicitly stated that the game will carry on regardless of the TV show’s fate. But at the moment there are no server problems because I don’t think there are that many people playing. The world feels full and alive, so there’s no issue there but it’s still early days. If you can get a decent community together then I can recommend this game without hesitation, it’s a hell of a lot of fun and there’s tonnes to do. If you’re by yourself then by all means go for it, you’ll enjoy it, but try to find a steady clan as soon as you can, it’ll make the game so much better.
The only things counting against the game so far is the hammy dialogue (mostly provided by Cass, your irritating sidekick) and the obnoxious menus. If you can look past these flaws you’ll find something new and different for the MMO market, and a whole lot of shooting-based adventure.