by Tyler Edwards, October 28, 2013
Over the past weeks, I've become something of a fan of the new post-apocalyptic sci-fi TV series Defiance, but the season has now ended, leaving me without my weekly Defiance fix.
Proving they understand the importance of timing in marketing, Trion Worlds has started offering a seventy two hour free trial of the MMO tie-in for Defiance to tempt in people like me who are hungry for more of the series. I decided to take the bait and see if Defiance the MMO could fill the gap left by Defiance the television series.
Defiance is something of a new media experiment. It is both a television series and a massively multiplayer shooter. Both the game and the show are set in the same universe and at the same time, but they also have distinct storylines with only minimal crossover.
Set in the not too distant future, Defiance takes place after the arrival of an alliance of alien races collectively known as the Votans. Having lost their home star system, the Votans sought to colonize Earth, but negotiations for a peaceful resolution with humanity failed, resulting in a devastating conflict known as the Pale Wars.
The Pale Wars culminated in the catastrophic destruction of the Votan Ark fleet, causing alien terraforming technology to rain down on the Earth. This radically altered Earth's biosphere, creating a world that is alien and hostile to humans and Votans alike. Humanity and the aliens were forced to band together to survive this new frontier.
While the TV series focuses on the titular city-state of Defiance, the MMO takes place in the ruins of the San Francisco Bay Area. Players take on the role of “Ark hunters,” mercenaries who travel the world chasing the valuable Votan technology that regularly rains down from the ruined Ark fleet in events known as Arkfalls.
Like Trion's other MMO, Rift, Defiance offers a mixture of traditional MMO content - missions, dungeons, and instanced PvP - and dynamic world events, most notably the Arkfalls themselves. There are also little mini games, like vehicle time trials, scattered around the world.
Defiance eschews the traditional tab target combat system of most MMOs and instead offers skill based shooter gameplay. I admit I'm not much of a shooter fan, so this might not be the most accurate comparison, but I found the third person shooter combat of Defiance greatly reminiscent of the Mass Effect series.
Right out of the gate, Defiance disappointed me with its options for playable races. Only humans and the savage aliens known as Irathients are currently playable. As a fan of the character Datak Tarr from the television series, I'd had my heart set on playing as one of the aristocratic Castithans. I want to be a yakuza space Elf, darn it.
Considering how much the idea of different species working together is a key part of Defiance's story, I'm baffled they didn't work harder to include at least a majority of the Votan races. Heck, I would have settled for playing one of the technologically brilliant Indogenes or the apelike Sensoth.
Playable Castithans are going to be added in a future paid DLC, but it still seems like something that should have been in since launch, and it still leaves the other Votan species out in the cold.
And unfortunately, my experience with the game didn't improve much from there.
If I had to describe the gameplay of Defiance in a word, it would be “thin.” The mechanics are sound and functional, but they're so basic as to suck a lot of the fun out of things. It's possible that things might get more complicated at higher levels, but pretty much all of the content I played could be defeated by the same strategy: Circle strafe around the enemy and shoot it until it stops moving.
Its RPG aspects are underwhelming, as well. There are no classes and only four active abilities, only one of which can be slotted at a time. The only real form of customization is a grid of fairly bland passive bonuses. I'm not much of a stickler for deep build customization, but even I was a bit put off by the fact that everyone in Defiance is essentially playing the same character with only superficial differences.
The missions are also incredibly generic. With a handful of exceptions, nearly all of them are just standard kill and collect fare, and these are made even more tedious by a lack of mob variety or environmental diversity. At times, it felt as if the entire game consisted of shooting mutants in dingy ruins.
Aesthetically, the game is underwhelming. The graphics are quite bland, lacking in both technical quality and style. Admittedly, games like The Secret World have spoiled me when it comes to graphics, but surely they could have done better. The music is quite good, composed by the fantastic Bear McCreary of Battlestar Galactica and Walking Dead fame, but there isn't enough variety to the tracks.
Story and other highlights:
With all that being said, Defiance isn't entirely without its charms. By far the most enjoyable aspects of the game are the missions that tie in to the story of the show. These often feature characters from the series, most notably Joshua Nolan and his adopted alien daughter Irisa, voiced by the same actors who play them on the show.
They did an excellent job of bringing these characters to life within the game. Even subtle details like Irisa's pensive body language are captured brilliantly by the in game models. As a fan of the show, I had many a nerdgasm over taking on Arkfalls and mutants alongside Nolan and Irisa.
The story content in Defiance is overall much better than I expected, even when the TV characters aren't involved. I'm not going to hold Defiance up as a paragon of deep MMO storytelling, but the characters all have a lot of personality and are quite endearing. I grew particularly fond of a foul mouthed Irathient Ark hunter who accompanied me through my journeys.
The voice acting is good, and the dialogue is quite snappy. Lots of amusing one liners and jabs.
Unfortunately, the story makes up such a small part of the game's total content that it's unable to save Defiance from its own monotony. Most of your time is still spent just driving around and shooting mutants.
It's also distracting that the game version of Defiance is so much more “high tech” than the show. Who knew the Earth Republic had giant flying battleships? It makes it hard to connect the world of the game to the world of the show when familiar characters aren't popping up.
There are a few other redeeming qualities. Defiance offers a dizzying variety of guns and weapons to satisfy all imaginable tastes. I was particularly fond of the Votan cold fire weapons.
The co-op dungeons were surprisingly fun, as well. I can't put my finger on what exactly was fun about them - they were, again, incredibly simple compared to what most MMOs offer - but there was just something wonderfully chaotic about charging into hordes of Hellbugs, guns blazing, with a squad of allies. And there's a nice balance of difficulty; fights are hard enough that you can't sleepwalk through them, but easy enough to not be terribly stressful.
I almost feel like Guild Wars 2 could take some lessons from Defiance on how to make enjoyable group content without the traditional trinity of group roles.
Defiance's business model deserves some credit for being pretty painless. There's no subscription fee once you buy the game, and while I didn't delve too deeply into its cash shop, it seemed to mostly be harmless cosmetic items. The only mild irritant was the relatively small inventory space allowed for those who haven't bought extra slots.
Is it worth it?
Defiance isn't an awful game. I've played much worse. It certainly wasn't anywhere near as painful as slogging through the free version of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
But I'm struggling to figure out who the target audience for this game is. It's too much an MMO to be a good shooter and too much a shooter to be a good MMO. The connections to the TV series are too tenuous to really offer much to fans of the show, and if you're not a fan of the show, it's just another post-apocalyptic setting.
I suppose if you really love both shooters and MMOs, or if you're such a rabid fan of the show you'll take any Defiance fix you can get, it might be worthwhile. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.