ZAM's initial verdict on the ambitious multimedia crossover MMO
Defiance has garnered a lot of attention due to its ambitious attempt to blend two forms of media in a seamless narrative. Monday night the television series premiered on the SyFy channel and it would seem the fates of both the game and the series are inescapably intertwined.
The series can be discussed in detail elsewhere, but after playing Defiance since launch, I find the game a frustratingly mixed experience for a variety of reasons.
Visually, areas of the game can be interesting in isolation. Collapsed highways form unlikely rally points for small outposts. The devastation of the area adds atmosphere and context to the situation; which shows good storytelling in the environmental design.
Yet these points of interest can be lost when much of the landscape becomes background noise; a constant swathe of scrub covered hills, similarly designed shacks and ruins, with sporadic texture quality. Those faceless tenements aren’t helped by the homogenous design of the mobs, be it the packs of mutants or the skittering alien bugs.
The larger variety of hellbugs can be imposing and cool but the bog standard variety just doesn’t raise a sense of fear at all. Think of the kind of terror that the face-huggers from the Alien franchise could instill in comparison, to get a sense of how underwhelming they are.
To be fair, they are basically the alien version of your 10 rats to kill, but it still seems like a missed opportunity to begin your adventures on a much-changed Earth faced with scampering creatures that just don’t invoke any sense of dread or personality.
Also, from a storytelling standpoint, the clarity of the overall arc is lacking. The different alien races aren’t clearly defined by the game itself and why the aliens came to Earth, how their ships were destroyed and the related structures of coexistence, interdependence and enmity are vague. Mystery is a specific narrative device that has to be nurtured and structured with intent. It can’t be created by simply refusing to supply information.
There are a variety of aliens that make up the Votans, why they were not available at launch as well as the humans and Irathient is confusing, as it would have added a nice variety of silhouettes to give some extra visual flavor to the character models. With seven different species among the Votans (though the Volge would be unlikely player characters) having those races and their back stories available to players would seem an obvious area to flesh out in the future.
Staying in the realm of story, players have been told that the storyline featuring Nolan and Irisa (the two main characters of the show) in Defiance the game will directly impact on the first episode. Which is true to an extent, but the initial series of Episode quests don’t really make you feel part of the combined media experiment because the characters are not exactly compelling.
There are some fun moments, including Irisa’s penchant for using knives as a way to clear out any snipers when you are attempting to escape from a cauldron of enemies. But the story ends with you being duped by the duo so they can make off with the key to obtain the MacGuffin that sits at the heart of the first episode of the television series.
I’m sure the intent was to leave you with a wry smile at the antics of Nolan’s Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds style of golden hearted skullduggery. However, I wasn’t engrossed by the events and your contribution to the story of the first episode was tertiary at best.
Hopefully, as the series continues and the game switches into a post-launch development cycle, the stories can become more aligned and absorbing. If they do, Trion has a real hook to have players completing their episodic quests before the show each week.
I found the main quest line difficult to negotiate mainly due to bugs where events would not complete or I would not get credit for them at times. Growing pains can often happen for MMOs and Trion is working diligently to fix those bugs, but it didn’t help with the growing sense that I wasn’t being drawn into the world’s story.
Though there is a lot of content in the game, its repetitious nature undermines its breadth as I eventually found myself driving past it all on my quad bike until I became almost oblivious to the side quests.
Most of the quests revolve around entering a base and clicking on a few static items (often shutting down generators for gun turrets) in between mowing down waves of mutants or hellbugs. None of them were overly taxing, usually because the simplistic enemy AI can be counted upon with unwavering predictability.