Defiance is a fun game to play, but there’s never really a good reason to play it. A third-person shooter by way of the MMORPG, the game drops you in an open world alongside thousands of other players and presents an overwhelming menu of quests and events to pursue. These involve lots of shooting and their aftermath boasts an astronomical death toll. But what’s the point?
Many games answer this question with loot--think Gearbox Software's Borderlands, one of Defiance’s most obvious influences. Plot progression or character upgrades are equally valid. Defiance will offer you all three of those things in exchange for your time and effort, but none of them ever feel satisfying enough to compel you forward with much enthusiasm.
The game shares its name, setting, and characters with a new television show on the SyFy Network. The two works are attempting to provide different looks into the same world, and they are said to eventually influence each other (how, exactly, remains to be seen). It’s important to note that while the show takes place in the ruins of St. Louis, the game takes place in and around San Francisco. You will see some overlapping characters and plot points, but the two stories are intertwined, not one and the same. All this is interesting, but does little to impact the game right now.
Defiance is set on a dusty, post-apocalyptic Earth, shared by humans and their alien worldmates, the Votan, who arrived as refugees years before the game begins. For a while, the Votan tried to live with the Earthfolk peacefully--they were just looking for a new home--but it soon devolved into war. As you enter the story, this war is over and a tense peacetime has begun. Visually, this universe is realized with proficiency: textures are crisp, vistas are pretty enough, characters move like humans do. But it’s all uninspired, with almost nothing that jumps out and grabs your attention or distinguishes itself as anything above played-out sci-fi fare.
Your character, which you can customize at the beginning of the game, supposedly makes his or her living by looting the wreckage of the ships that Votan settlers initially rode to Earth. In reality, you’ll spend your time undertaking an endless parade of quests that mostly involve killing enemies and picking things up--regardless of if you’re doing a main mission, side mission, or one of the limited-time episodic missions that tie into each week’s broadcast. Many quests come with barely any explanation of what you’re doing story-wise, making for a lean experience. You can always get in and out with your loot and experience points quickly, but the downside is that most missions feel skimpy and sterile.
Episodic and many main missions are bookended by fully voiced cutscenes featuring characters from the show. Considering the show itself seems to be well crafted, one would think these cutscenes would stand out. But instead, they’re wooden and awkward, with deadpan, robotic voice-acting doing nothing to sell the cliched and desperately-trying-to-be-edgy dialogue. And a reckless disregard for proper exposition ensures you’ll spend most of your beginning time with the game being very, very confused.
Much of your time will be spent navigating the game’s cumbersome, laggy menus to optimize your gear and manage your abilities. There aren’t as many guns as you’d expect, but they feel different enough to keep things interesting. Modifications are available to help you customize your gear, and various different cosmetic outfits are also on hand, though most of them are very bland. Your character, too, is customizable through an open leveling system that allows you to pick new abilities with each level. Unfortunately, many of these abilities are underwhelming passive traits that don’t do much to vary the gameplay. These features put Defiance on the edge of an addicting, stat-obsessed experience, but the poorly implemented menu system and slower-than-you-expect influx of new items makes for mundanity, not pleasurable compulsion.
What Defiance does very well, though, is give you plenty of things to do, all clearly outlined on your map and easy to reach. From missions to racing mini-games to bizarre rabbit shooting competitions, there’s no shortage of activities--just a severe need for motivation to do them.
One highlight is the arkfall system, which sees big hunks of spaceships fall to the Earth randomly throughout the game’s environs. These are hectic affairs, with tons of players, enemies, and hulking boss monsters. They’re also very fun, and a bastion of player interaction in a game that is often solo-oriented. Also giving you the opportunity to play with others is the PvP system, which matches you up with other players for deathmatches and point-capture games. These are fun distractions, and seeing how your character stacks up against others is interesting but--surprise--you're not given much of a reason to participate.
Luckily, in both PvE and PvP, the shooting mechanics are weighty and satisfying. You move at a decidedly moderate speed, reload slowly, and most guns have small clip sizes. These considerations help the battles feel taut and lend them a sweaty-palms kind of joy. Most enemies take quite a while to kill unless you’re going for the headshot--and hitting one is challenging enough to feel rewarding when you connect. Battles are filled with little moments--Quick, reload before the enemy does! Dodge that projectile! Here’s your chance for a grenade!--that keep them interesting and tense. Adding to the fun, killing enemies rapidly or effectively nets experience bonuses. Also, look out for the hilariously floaty (but still rather enjoyable) jumping physics.
The game places an emphasis on vehicles, and you can summon yours almost whenever you want. From ATV to dune buggy to Dodge Challenger (seriously), these are fun to drive, if maybe a little too fast and difficult to control for the environments they traverse. Time trial races strewn across the world make for a fun distraction, and trailblazing through the California wilderness between missions is often more enjoyable than the missions themselves.
It’s also worth noting Defiance’s death mechanic, which fails to elicit much from the player. You periodically get the ability to revive exactly where you died, but generally you’ll need to "extract," which pulls you just a little bit farther out. Even so, you will rarely revive anywhere that's not in eyeshot of where you just were. In other words, you can always just respawn--and the experience and gold penalty to do so is negligible. It’s too forgiving, and a significant part of what makes Defiance an oftentimes flat and emotionless experience.
As with many newly released MMOs, bugs are not uncommon in Defiance. Things hang in the air. Weapons and other objects sometimes take longer than they should to load. It’s easy to get stuck in an odd spot. Sporadic server downtimes have plagued the launch, but aside from them, most of the game’s technical issues are annoyances, not deal-breakers.
This is a whole new IP, tied into a promising TV show, trying to bring an exciting, novel kind of gameplay to a mass audience. It’s a game you want to see succeed, and a game you want to want to play. One can hope that coming patches will add more to the game and give players something to look forward to. Until then? Well, if you’re patient, there’s plenty here to kill--time included.
This review was conducted using the PS3 version of the game.