Reviewing a massively multiplayer game is difficult. An MMO always has more content, balancing, and fixes added in after launch, and most of them typically have a few features missing or incomplete. Defiance is no exception. In some ways, it’s a prime example of a game released before it’s had time to be properly completed, but far enough along in development that they’ve ironed out the glaring issues. There’s nothing specifically wrong with it, but it’s nowhere near as completed as it could be. It’s merely “competent”.
Thankfully, Trion Worlds did not release a broken game with Defiance, just one that hadn’t yet fully matured. All of the systems work and there are no game-breaking flaws as are present with so many other MMO launches. It’s simply that what is there is not as fleshed out as one would hope for such an ambitious project.
What this title does differently right out of the gate, though, is hook you with an interesting premise. Defiance is a tie-in game to a SyFy channel original show of the same name which takes place in a destroyed and terraformed St. Louis, Missouri. The game, however, is set in the similarly destroyed and terraformed bay area surrounding the coastal city of San Francisco, California.
A catastrophe involving crashed alien ships has caused Earth to be transformed into something nearly unrecognizable. In this post-apocalypse, the few humans and aliens band together to attempt to survive while salvaging useful alien ‘arktech’ from wrecked ships and try to forge a living with what remains. If you’re already starting to feel lost from that lack of exposition, then don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Since this is a television tie-in game, Trion seems content to let most of the actual backstory be told in the show.
A short slideshow gives the very basic gist of just what the hell’s going on and then a few cutscenes later you’re dropped into the world. You’ll likely pick up bits and pieces along the way, but most of the game’s setting and characters are completely unexplained without heading to the Wikipedia entry.
Those familiar with the Bay Area in our real world may notice some dissimilarities with the Bay Area in Defiance as Trion has taken some major liberties in constructing this open-world playground. Notably, the city of San Francisco is now a desolated island and the beautiful rolling hills of Marin County and the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge are now have been replaced with fields of brown dust and a towering heap of twisted metal respectively.
If you were sick of modern games featuring desaturated colors and various shades of grey, be prepared to be disappointed by Defiance. While there are some interesting graphical perks like pretty explosions and reasonably high-quality character and enemy models, the overall graphical fidelity of Defiance leaves much to be desired. Expect to see multitudes of destroyed buildings and streets nearly everywhere you go, all complete with muddy textures and low-quality models.
A poor draw distance and disappearing NPC models from long range puts the final nail in what could have been a great looking game. The design seems to be there in fits and starts, but the actual look of the world is just a step above an eyesore. Thankfully, the game does scale very well to older hardware, although given that this title wouldn’t be graphically out of place 6 years ago, this isn’t necessarily a surprise.
Though the locales may be drab, the way you get around them is certainly not. Early in the game you’re given access to a personal vehicle, with new rides available for purchase later on. They’re fast, agile, and very fun to drive. The handling of some of the larger vehicles leaves a bit to be desired, but their faster speed or sturdier shields can make up for a lot of lost maneuverability from the off-road quad bikes.
Menu navigation is a big problem in the PC version of Defiance. Unlike in most MMOs, any active menu will fill the entire screen and the screens themselves are a chore to navigate. It absolutely reeks of a concession for the console versions that translated poorly to PC, as does most of the interface in the game. To go from menu to menu (from Character Loadout to Settings, for example), you must hit ESC, hold the spacebar, and then click the option you want from a popup radial menu. It’s obtrusive and unnecessary, but on a slight positive note, the menus do look very slick. It’s also worth noting that there are almost no graphical settings to speak of. A simply “Quality” selector and a few other bits and bobs amounts to the entirety of graphical customization.
Through my many hours of playing through the early days of Defiance, one thing has become very clear to me: this game is basically Borderlands The MMO. Combat, items, weapon design and function, and game mechanics and skill trees are all hugely reminiscent of Borderlands and Borderlands 2. It’s almost as if Trion took the ideas from Gearbox’s franchise and stuck them into a destroyed world with Guild Wars 2‘s questing system. It’s not uncommon given their history for Trion Worlds to “borrow ideas” from other MMOs, but Defiance proves different enough from the many games it derives from that never once does it feel like you’re playing a two-bit knockoff of another title.
The quests and storyline of Defiance is hit and miss. Public quests in the style of Guild Wars 2 or Warhammer Online are present here but in a very limited capacity. They generally amount to running to an objective and holding the ‘Use’ key to complete it or defending an outpost for a set amount of time. The repeating side missions provide little challenge, little reward, and very little fun. Said optional missions are just a unnecessary distraction, however, as the real meat of the questing comes from the Story and Episode missions.
Story Missions lead you through the main campaign of Defiance in a rather impressive cinematic quest chain. The character models and voice acting in these missions are leaps and bounds above the quality of the rest of the game and you’ll actually feel compelled to go through them instead of just going through the motions and clicking “Complete”. Interesting characters and engaging story arcs are the silver lining in what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill game.
Perhaps the best example of the storytelling that Defiance has to offer are the Episode Missions. Episode Missions are, as their title implies, missions that are tied to the actual Defiance television program. Your avatar joins the main characters Nolan and Irisa on various missions to help them escape from the Bay Area to head to their eventual destination of Antarctica. In what capacity they actually influence the show remains to be seen, but what is for certain is that they provide some of the most interesting story and character-driven content in the game.
Nolan and Irisa along with the various side characters inject a fantastic narrative into the interesting setting of Defiance along with providing a bit more detail on the backstory of the world. The presentation of the Episode Missions is cinematic in every sense. Dynamic camera angles, appropriate musical cues, and well-animated characters all contribute to a sense of high production value, none of which I was expecting in an MMO.
These missions, especially the cutscenes, feel like the natural progression of what The Old Republic was trying to accomplish with their cinematic presentation, but Defiance has the advantage of well-done animations and characters that actually show emotion. Don’t expect to be making any moral choices here, though; the storylines of Defiance are on a very strict rail and you’re just along for the ride. This is really not a complaint so much as a general statement, as I wouldn’t really expect to be able to personally influence the major characters from the tie-in TV show.
Perhaps the most exciting multiplayer portions of Defiance are the arkfalls. These randomly-generated, sprawling encounters have multiple phases that encourage players to converge in a smaller area of the map to cooperate toward a single goal. Smaller objectives build into larger ones, eventually setting all of the potentially 100+ man strong force against a single boss encounter. They are long enough to feel substantial, reward you for contributing, are difficult without being frustrating, and give you real, tangible encouragement to actually give it your best to complete them.
The skill tree in Defiance is an exercise in frustration and poor design. The EGO Grid, as it’s called, works very similarly to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X or the Passive Abilities in Path of Exile. There are four active abilities to pick from such as a temporary speed increase or damage boost, but the abilities are so short-lived that they do little to influence your style of play. In addition, the perks, or passive abilities, that can be acquired through additional skill points are boring and underwhelming, such as small percentage bonuses to specific types of damage.
Worse yet, the perks that surround each of the four starting points are catered specifically to a single playstyle. Want to use the Cloak ability to sneak behind enemies? That’s great as long as you’re using a sniper rifle, as every perk surrounding Cloak deals almost exclusively in dealing extra damage with headshots. The same is true with the Overcharge damage boost — nearly every perk surrounding it is activated with explosives, something a machine gunner would never use. This unfortunate shoehorning of playstyles can ruin attractive skill choices and frustrate players looking to play the way they see fit.
The gunplay in Defiance won’t light the world on fire, but for what the game is (an MMO) it does it reasonably well. Taking cover from fire, controlling recoil, and aiming precisely are all important skills to master in Defiance, as is choosing the correct loadout. In what I consider a supremely foolish move, Trion has restricted the number of weapons per loadout to two. Yes, in a game with an overabundance of interesting and unique weapon choices, you are expected to use precisely two of them in any given encounter. Changing the loadouts can be done in combat, but you must open the menu screen and manually switch them, though there is no penalty in doing so.
The guns themselves perhaps steal the show in Defiance far more than any story mission. I alluded to Borderlands earlier and not for no reason. Randomized weapon effects and visual variety is one of the major highlights in the game. From sniper rifles that shoot dark energy to double-barreled shotguns that fire grenades instead of shells, the number of interesting and wacky weapons that you can find in Defiance is staggering. Very rarely if ever will you find a weapon that’s the same as another. Adding to this is the ability to attach mods to your weapons that have actual visual distinctions. The minor bonuses the mods confer make their practical use underwhelming, but the customizable style and flair they add to the weapons still gives a big reason to use them.
Sadly, levelling up through Defiance’s 5000 EGO Rankings, or levels as they’re more commonly known, is less exciting than it sounds. Yes, there are thousands of levels, but there is very little sense of progression from level 1. Every weapon you acquire will do a set amount of damage based on its type. The very first sniper rifle you get in the game will still be competitive with the Level 400 rifle you obtain later. The main difference between them will be visuals and the variety of stat distribution. It doesn’t help that many weapon and grenade types feel worthless or redundant, as well.
This lack of progression, more than anything, is what will hold Defiance back from becoming a great game. Within the first two to three hours of Defiance, you’ve seen and done almost everything there is to do. After the story missions are finished and you’ve gotten your fill of arkfalls, there remains very little enticing you to return to the game.
Weapon collecting is only viable for so long as the weapons themselves never upgrade in stats. The random events are only fun for the first few times, and then you’re tired of them. The lack of things to do is something that plagues new MMOs, but in this sense Defiance is one of the absolute worst offenders of the genre.
The longevity of the game is entirely dependent on new updates and DLC, which Trion is no doubt hard at work on. You’ll have to fork over some extra for the good stuff, though — a $40 season pass is available to get all the additional content, and one can only hope they are expansion-sized to justify that price tag. Trion does have a good track record for delivering post-launch content, though, so it may yet save the title in the future.
If nothing else, what the Defiance game has encouraged me to do is check out the “Defiance” TV show to learn more about the characters and world. I suppose in that sense, mission accomplished to the marketing team behind Trion and SyFy. The biggest crime here is that a fantastic setting and interesting characters are held back by a merely competent and utterly forgettable game. The most that can be said about Defiance as a whole is that it exists, and merely existing in the MMO space is a death knell for any new franchise.
New content and a tie-in show may reinvigorate this game that has such huge potential, but for now we are given a not broken, yet incomplete video game. An MMO is defined by its launch and the short time after, but it may very well be that anything that is added down the line will be too little too late for Defiance.