Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? If that truly is the case, then SyFy and Trion Worlds' Defiance is very flattering.
From the moment you put in the game disc – and install content (which is recommended), and download a couple patches and then wait to install them… it only takes about 45 minutes – parallels to other science fiction stories come fast and furious. After choosing your character’s appearance, you sit in a military carrier with fellow troops and instantly think of Mass Effect. After crash-landing on Earth, you discover you’ve got an AI named Cortan-- um, EGO -- implanted in your noggin. Your EGO will guide you from mission to mission, ala Halo, and also grants you amazing biotic powers, bringing us back to Mass Effect again.
Just because Defiance borrows quite a bit to kickstart its own universe doesn’t mean that it’s bad. In fact, Defiance’s world and backstory are some of the strongest bits of Trion Worlds' MMO shooter. The game – and the SyFy TV show – take place on Earth in 2043. An alien race known as the Votan had tried to emigrate to our planet years earlier, and complications meant Votan debris rained down upon Earth, radically transforming it. The humans and the Votans tried to work together following the catastrophe, but the assassination of a Votan ambassador lead to years of conflict. As Defiance begins, the humans and Votans are now in the middle of a cease-fire, attempting to work together for the common good.
You play as an Ark Hunter, essentially scavenging the Earth for Votan debris, otherwise known as arkfall pieces. Your missions will revolve around picking up smaller fragments, or encountering boss-type enemies with groups of other players (I've been informed this is called PvE) for larger pieces. You'll begin with a pistol, shield and shotgun, and from there find that modifications and additional weaponry seem endless as you are rewarded for completing quest after quest.
While the game takes place in the Bay Area – a future version of a terraformed San Francisco – SyFy’s show takes place in a future St Louis. The TV show hasn’t aired yet – Australians can look forward to that treat next week – but it’s been confirmed that the game and the TV show will affect each other in a way that’s yet to really be explained. In theory, it could work both ways – I've already had to download patches for the game, meaning it can be reworked on the fly, and TV shows obviously have to be written by someone. If the cross-media narrative can be pulled off, it will be a thing of wonder. If not, Defiance (the game) has enough of its own narrative to still be quite enjoyable.
Gameplay is very MMO-like, so be warned if you’re not a huge fan of the genre. As soon as I progressed through the game’s tutorial, I was thrown into variations of kill and fetch quests. Thankfully, the mechanics of the game are solid, as is the shooting – something that’s essential for an MMO shooter, obviously. I can appreciate the work Trion Worlds has put into the title.
On the flipside, it’s hard not to notice that the game’s a bit ugly, at least on the Xbox 360. Textures pop in very frequently and characters have a very angular look about them. At times, a bit of bandwidth-based lag makes character death animations hilariously awful. This combination of flawed attributes takes away from the narrative and essentially makes Defiance seem hollow. Take that with a grain of salt, however, as I find all MMOs to be similarly without depth.
The game’s multiplayer – or should I say PvP multiplayer – tries to make up for that shallowness. Shadow War pits players against one another in the main game world, assigning players with specific objectives in order to capture and hold arkfall pieces. The best bit about Defiance’s PvP is that I found a Shadow War match (of sorts) simply by stumbling upon it, and with very little transition at that.
On the whole, Defiance has more going for it than not. Fans of the genre will find it quite competent, and fans of science fiction will most likely get a kick out of it; if you’re not sold, the SyFy TV show is sure to provide a boost if necessary when it goes to air. At the very least, Defiance is a grand cross-media experiment that’s definitely worth a look, plus a decent MMO that you can play from the comfort of your console.
(Don't forget that the SyFy show premieres in Australia on 18 April!)