Defiance Review: A world of trouble

In the world of video games, Defiance holds a unique position. Developed by Trion Worlds, it is the first game to be released in tandem with a television series of the same name. It is also one of the few MMO games available on PlayStation 3. To see an in-depth look at the Defiance television series on Syfy, check out PSU’s review of the pilot episode.

The world of Defiance is set 33 years into the future, when the world has been transformed into something unrecognizable and nearly uninhabitable. An alien incursion of ships from the Votanis system, located on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, brought about this change. The passengers of these ships were the survivors of various Votan races looking for a new place to call home. Earth was believed to be uninhabited and the most suitable planet to settle on. The Votans were quick to discover their folly: the Human race, which was clearly unsettled by the sight of alien invaders, took a defensive stance in preparation for the worst. The events of the landing and the years leading up to the present are shrouded in mystery (or, poorly explained), but it becomes apparent that horrific wars took place during the interim, now called “The Pale Wars.” These wars concluded as a result of “the defiant few,” the Human and Votan soldiers that refused to keep fighting. This became known as the “defiance,” the game’s namesake.

While set in the same story universe of a terraformed Earth, the game and show take place in two different locations. The central point of interest for the show is in future St. Louis, now known as the city of Defiance. The central point of interest for the game is in future San Francisco. All that remains of these historic cities are their respective iconic landmarks: the Gateway Arch and the Golden Gate Bridge. Your role in this remnant of an earthly world is that of an Ark Hunter. As the title implies, you make your living hunting for technology and mineral resources that have fallen from Arks, the various ships of the Votan fleet. As an Ark Hunter, you have been temporarily employed to do what you do best by the self-acclaimed genius and infamous smartass scientist Karl Von Bach. He believes that the Bay Area is home to some powerful alien technology that he can use to restore the Earth to its former glory, making him an undeniable hero.

Like Von Bach, all of the central figures are passably voiced and extremely one-dimensional. It felt as though I was playing a humorless Borderlands melodrama that took itself too seriously. If anything, your character’s role in the story seemed that of a spectator. Characters rarely seem to acknowledge your voiceless protagonists’ existence. Except for the occasional mention of “Ark Hunter,” they are too busy fighting amongst themselves or letting out cliché remarks. Your role in the story truly feels like nothing more than the time-honored tradition of the resource-gathering tool.

Beyond the narrative anchor of finding alien technology, the game’s narrative does little to earn your interest. For much of my time playing, I kept asking myself, ‘WHY am I playing?’ Although there’s a good amount of main story missions, I had no interest in them–every action felt meaningless, making me feel empty. Part of my disinterest in missions stems from the game having practically zero lore-building or any strong attempt at characterization. Even the world feels hollow and lifeless–there are no major settlements or small towns to explore, and no NPC interactions for missions. For an MMO, this is a crime. All that greets you in this world are holographic markers, unlimited enemies, and repetitive objectives.

The intellectually uninteresting setting falls flat visually as well. There are only two distinct areas in the game, and somewhat-compelling landscape design quickly feels like more of the same. I never felt the need to continue exploring areas and took every opportunity I could to fast travel between missions. Environmental and character visuals remind me of the original Mass Effect, with a low environmental draw distance to boot. By today’s standards, a game with this graphical quality falls well below the bar. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that Defiance is an MMO on home consoles and limitations not faced by primarily offline games are to be expected.

Character models are well-rendered and demonstrate good body animations, but facial animation is practically nonexistent. The mouth is all that is noticeably animated–and man, is it animated poorly. Honestly, I have seen original PlayStation games with better animation. For making characters feel relatable, this lack of attention to expression is crippling and only accentuates the mediocre voice acting. Another hindrance is the overuse of fake alien curse words like “shtako.” Characters only seem to know two or three alien curses and forcibly use them as if to meet a swearing quota. It’s not long into the game before viewing cutscenes almost becomes more of a chore than a reward.

Thankfully, Defiance is more than just a bland story with lifeless characters. It’s also a solid third-person shooter. While not as polished as its genre forebears, Defiance manages to hold its own. Its mechanics and action are comparable to Borderlands. Your character can equip a primary and secondary weapon, a type of grenade, and a shield. Depending on your progress, you are able to equip a vehicle that you can summon on demand to traverse the harsh landscape. Perks are also equippable through the use of your Environmental Guardian Online (EGO) implant. Leveling up your character by earning XP will grant you EGO points which you can use to purchase and equip various perks. Once the slots are unlocked, you are able to equip up to nine different perks. Your EGO is also able to level up and reflects your character’s overall level seen by other players. This level, referred to as an EGO rating, means absolutely nothing apart from ‘This person has been playing for awhile’ and that they might have unlocked a cool car to drive.

Strangely, your EGO rating improves sporadically depending on the types of missions you play. Some improve your EGO by one, others 50. There is no level cap as far as we know, but there IS a gold trophy for having an EGO rating of 2500. Yes, you read that right, 2500. Also, our characters statistics remain the same throughout the game, regardless of the amount of XP you’ve earned or your EGO rating. Trion Worlds argues this allows players at any level to play together on equal footing.

Things get even more complex when you find out Defiance features no less than five (!) forms of currency. Scrip buys guns and weapon mods from electronic vendors. Bits can be had for real-world money and spent on specialized character boosts. Ark Salvage–from enemy loot and quest rewards–can be used to buy Keycodes (which can also be built from Keycode Fragments) that, finally, yield Lock Boxes with "random items of at least uncommon rarity." It’s a complicated mess with no explanation at the game’s outset, and ultimately rather pointless: gear obtained during missions is typically better than anything you can purchase from vendors or find in Lock Boxes.

Thankfully, there’s a heap of content outside of the main story missions. Episode Missions follow the adventures of Nolan and Irisa, the main characters from the TV show. Yes, eagle-eyed reader, the TV show IS set near St. Louis. Nolan and Irisa ARE on the other side of the country. And, for whatever reason, you ARE able to inexplicably get them what they need. Maybe things will eventually make sense–every week, a new Episode Mission will be released alongside new episodes of the show.

Meanwhile, Side Missions serve little purpose beyond earning paltry amounts of Scrip and possibly getting a new piece of equipment. Some Side Missions are tied to various factions found in the game and completion of these missions puts you in their favor. Otherwise, they are uninteresting and lose whatever charm they had very quickly. Hotshot, Time Trial, and Rampage missions are additional quests that can be replayed as often as you like. Through these, you can earn XP, Scrip, and Ark Salvage while scoring leaderboard positions for bragging rights. But why would you subject yourself? All missions are severely repetitive, have scarce player interaction, and give little in the way of rewards for your efforts.

The first instance of feeling as though you are playing an MMO is when you run across an Arkfall. These events happen during the main game and appear randomly as giant red areas for players to congregate and fight waves of enemies before time runs out. These red areas may contain a single Arkfall, or several. Fighting in an Arkfall battle is one of the most satisfying parts of Defiance. Joining a group of forty other players to collectively kill some stuff is not something I’ve ever experienced on a console before.

As for structured multiplayer content, there are three options: Competitive maps, Co-operative maps, and Shadow Wars. As of this writing, there are only two Competitive maps available and both are your standard team deathmatch of 6v6 and 8v8. In Co-operate maps, the pastures are greener: seven four-player environments await, each with a unique objective and region to explore. These levels are well-balanced and require a good amount of strategy for successful completion. The final structured option is to join a Shadow War. Shadow Wars are massive command-and-conquer matches where teams of 64 players fight for control of several Arkfall locations. It’s a good time, but Defiance is region-specific, so North American players are bound to North American servers, European players to European servers, and so on.

The menu interfaces that hold Defiance together and the map that allows you to navigate it do their jobs fairly well, but, like much of the game, lack tutorials. In the world map’s case, this isn’t a big deal, but Defiance has nearly as many menus as Borderlands 2 has guns. A minor tutorial that forces the player to explore and understand these menus would have clarified many questions and made my Defiance life much easier. One of the treasures buried in the pile of menus is the ability to give feedback or report bugs directly to Trion Worlds, which I’m sure has been vigorously used by many players. Defiance is riddled with bugs and server issues too numerous to mention. While not necessarily game-breaking, they are certainly noticeable and diminish the game’s experience. While reviewing Defiance, I was kicked from the server back to the game start-up menu half a dozen times. Another half-dozen loading screen freezes forced me to restart the game entirely. Trion Worlds has labeled these issues as teething problems. Hopefully, Defiance grows out of them soon.

Defiance is not just a spin-off game of a show–it is a completely independent game that can stand on its own. It’s a solid shooter and one of the only MMOs available on the PlayStation 3. Unfortunately, its successes as a game are quickly overshadowed by its narrative and technical flaws. The world is forgettable and characters are left undeveloped. The lore of this universe is also handled poorly, which leaves you unsatisfied and uninterested in returning. Missions quickly become repetitive and many features of the game go unexplained or totally unnecessary. Finally, Defiance suffers from a wide array of technical issues that further hurt the experience. Trion Worlds promises that Defiance will continue to evolve and improve. I hope so: beneath the muck is a game that deserves better.




The Final Word

The successes of Defiance are quickly overshadowed by its flaws. Trion Worlds promises that Defiance will continue to evolve and improve. I hope so: beneath the muck is a game that deserves better.