I have a feeling this sub genre is going to be quite prevalent in the upcoming console generation. The makers of Rift seem to be putting in an early bid. This action MMORPG from Trion features a sci-fi narrative thread stacked with an abundance of gun battles, exploration, and mode variety. This isn't a sterling example of AMMORPGs. But it's solid enough to function, and is a blast to play.
In the not-too distant future of 2023, Earth is brought under siege by a group of aliens that would become known as the Votans. Earth Military Coalition (EMC) forces take up battle against the seven race alien pact. Flash forward to 2046, we have a very different home planet. It is now scarred by the events of decades past. It's war torn, violent, and even lawless in some areas. With normal society in shambles, the "who's who" in this new Earth are those that can scavenge for and find alien technology from moon-size Votan ships known as Arks. A cataclysmic event destroyed the vehicles, and the pieces formed the Ark belt, circling the planet as a synthetic orbital ring. Periodically, Earth's gravity will pull the shrapnel down and send it plummeting towards the surface. When an "Arkfall" occurs, the race is on to secure the valuable tech that can be salvaged after a crash landing.
You find yourself aboard the EMC New Freedom, a frigate en route to the Bay Area of (what's left of) San Francisco, as an Ark Hunter hired by Dr. Karl Von Bach. The doctor possesses a rare Arkfall remnant called an Ark core. He believes with other "key" portions from the belt, he can reverse the harmful scorching of Earth, a byproduct of the invasion. Your task will be to gather up crucial tech and data that will enable Von Bach to become "Earth's savior" by any means necessary. But of course such well laid plans can't go untarnished. New Freedom crash lands into the Mount Tam area, with you as one of the lucky survivors. Local Irathient Hunter Cass Ducar unhinges your escape pod and offers a short briefing on where you are and how to stay alive. This launches you head first into the world of Defiance, where self preservation is priority number 1, and finding Dr. Von Bach (dead or alive) is a close second.
I apologize if that felt "scatter brained." I was attempting to give a relatively efficient synopsis without delving too deep into the story. Bottom line is you're in a futuristic, alien evaded Earth and tasked with shooting a lot of the "new inhabitants" to attain what can start to make things right again. And as any good MMO, this begins with creating a character. The Species/Gender choice range from male or female, and human or Votan type Irathient. The classes (called "Origin") available are: Veteran (ex-military personnel), Survivalist (regular members of society turned Hunter), Outlaw, and Machinist. It's worth mentioning that outside of appearance options, none of the Origins have unique abilities or weapon choices. Those will all depend on the way you intend to play Defiance. And if I'm honest, the character customization options are limited, so don't expect to spend 45 minutes meticulously tweaking things to create a "one of a kind" look.
The third pillar of this initial step is choosing your Environmental Guardian Online (EGO) power. EGO will be a congruent theme throughout this review. I'll definitely mention it a few times, as this ties a lot of things together. One might say it "wears many hats." So be prepared to run across that acronym more than once. Immediately, we're concerned with the four possible "add ons" to playable characters. Decoy sends out a hologram image to distract enemy combatants. Overcharge offers a short "damage boost" to weapons and enables auto reload. Blur increases movement speed by 50% when active and muscles up melee swings. The last one (the one I went with) is Cloak. As the title suggests, it creates temporary and complete invisibility. To go along with these Powers are unlockable and upgradeable Perks. These are more straight forward percentage "pluses" to different aspects, like: more payload by weapons when crouched, damaged dealt recharges EGO Power meter, better chance for melee'd enemies to drop gear, ect. The ones that most closely surround your selected Power become unlocked first, and the higher your overall level the more you can "equip" at once.
Weapon selection is also very important to consider after choosing Power and Perks. There are only a few choices offered right off the bat, but most of the "main" missions gift you a new arm upon completion. There are several weapon types in Defiance, but the guns within one class really don't "feel" much different from each other. Luckily, the EGO menu features a handy comparison tool, where the stats (damage, magazine size, reload time, ect.) for any two guns are listed on-screen. Grenade selection enjoys quite a bit of diversity. Standard EMC "frags" function as you would expect, but some are modified to act as flash bangs or even incendiaries. The non-human 'nades might not seem as powerful, but can set up some cool engagement strats. One I utilized was using a type that created a sort of sticky "sludge" which slowed down NPCs wandering through the radius. This made it easy when it came time to dispatch a bunch of baddies at one time. Armor is the last key element of combat. I wasn't expecting too much variety with this item, but I was quickly surprised by the variations. Some have high HP and can take quite a bit of punishment. Others don't "hold" as long, but recharge much quicker. I armed the former with my "sniper" loadout, not worried about normal fodder but concerned by long range missile launcher shots. The latter sort came in handy with the assault rifle/shotgun class, as a couple of effective "dodge rolls" got me back to full strength. One thing I will mention is that as you start completing objectives, you can "loot" the aforementioned items. Many you will not need. Don't pass up on them, though. There are several Merchant locations on the map, and most of the things you'll run across can be sold for additional Scrip (in-game currency). And if the Merch won't take it, and it's using up a valuable slot in the Inventory, just slide over to the Salvage Matrix in the EGO menu to "breakdown" the item for Resources (another "cash" that are traded for the right to open Lock Boxes, which hold items).
Action MMO is the genre on tap for Defiance, and the missions fit the billing. Pulling up the EGO map reveals the vast landscape, and highlights selectable tasks. The "Main Mission" thread is presented by a large, yellow exclamation mark, so it's hard to overlook. Pitting you against the nastiest foes Earth has to offer unravels story lines about the Battle of Defiance and where everyone fits into the equation. You'll be investigating New Freedom remnants, planting comm beacons, powering on generators, and so forth, all while trading shots with those that want to stand in the way of a completed job. Former EMC members that have been mutated serve as the early antagonists, and have their strength in numbers. Many of them wield an rifle or shotgun of some sort, so accurate shots dispatch them pretty easily. However, those plans can quickly turn sour when crazed, hard charging Cleavers are thrown into the mix. These grotesque pests sprint and leap at you with size-able stabbing devices, and a pack of them are a nightmare. And just for fun, a fearsome, and much bigger chain gun mutatnt will spawn, whose intention is to overwhelm and bury you in a barrage of lead. Luckily, you remember this is an MMO, and that help is (usually) a few meters away. The Bay Area is open for anyone "logged in" to share in any firefight that is happening. While they may not be completing the same mission objective as you at the time, they can still engage the evil forces. This game is at it's absolute best when a dozen or so PSNers take up arms and kick off full scale chaos. And, most often, that occurs with the next important mode.
Remember those Ark ships we talked about earlier, and how the pieces sometimes fall out of orbit? Well, that phenomenon is a key part of this title's online world. At any given time, there are two or three Arkfall events happening simultaneously. These appear randomly and are time sensitive. A red spire or red circle with multiple spires is the identification to look for on the map. Pressing up on the D-pad spawns your vehicle. You are given a basic ATV after the first couple of Main Missions, but better options can be purchased for heafty Scrip sums. Step on the gas and race to get in on the action of battling for your fair share of the Ark's bounty. If all the technology can be "excavated" (shooting the space junk repeatedly until the HP meter is depleted) then everyone involved gets a share of Scrip, as well as tons of ammo and loot opportunities. Trouble is, this won't be a comfortable affair. Ark hunters aren't the only peeps attracted to the crash landings. Most of the time, Hellbugs are your source of opposition. The creepy critters come in many shapes and sizes. The Skittering act as small "grunts" that are there to be an annoyance while the larger, and more dangerous Warriors, Archers, Monarchs, and boss level Matrons deliver crushing attacks. So far, this has been the most "populus" of events in Defiance. Because of the big sums that are had in one session, try-hards and newbies alike get into the fray. I love taking part in these. It's a great amount of fun, and keeps the action cranked to 11. As people begin to climb rank, the admins might turn up the heat in terms of Arkfall enemy difficulty. But right now, a good sense of positioning and decent accuracy will get you through with minimal problems.
Another key choice is "Episode Mission." In case you aren't privy to the reason why this project is garnering a fair amount of curiosity, allow me to fill you in. Trion is working in conjunction with cable TV channel SyFy. They are launching a series this month on Monday nights with the same title that promises to "bridge gaps" between the two outlets. How this will work and evolve throughout the season remains to be seen. In the immediate are prelude missions that introduce us to primary protagonist Jeb Nolan and Irathient daughter Irisa. In the game, you three are commissioned by a north side "shot caller" to find and retrieve a very valuable gem in exchange for 90,000 Scrip a piece. This particular set had us battling the Raiders. A group of extra-terrestrial nomads that look fit for a night at the Thunderdome. While not as numerous as mutant EMC or Hellbugs, they proved to be much better shots and seemed tougher to put down. Again, it'll be interesting to see if the "tie in" is simply "do generic objective A, B, and C" with some random character every week, or if completing the Episode jobs will actually give deeper insight into the show's narrative. I'm hopeful for the more "in depth" design.
Additionally, Defiance serves up distractions by the bushels. Side missions work similar to "Main" ones in the way the two are "structured." Difference is the Side types are usually much shorter and don't have multiple tiers to them. Time Trials set up a race against the clock with your best vehicle passing through gates to reach the end. A good time will earn 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place earnings. Hotshot events give you a decent weapon and disable your Power and Perks. Enemies repeatedly generate, and the first time your shields and health are depleted, it's over. So finding an effective way to chain kills together is essential to scoring within payout territory. Rampage works very similar. You are given a much better weapon, but have to face MANY more forces and the area you can stay in is quite restricted. Not much in the way of strategy here, but accuracy is a must. The game also has random tasks to complete that aren't listed on the map at all. It kind of reminded me of Red Dead Redemption in that regard. I'd just be blistering down the tattered road, and all the sudden the HUD flashes downed EMC dudes that need a helping hand, or a farm being invaded by Raiders needs clearing out. These can be tough, particularly the ones that are in open space. But they offer a great way to earn extra Scrip and experience points on your way to a more lengthy endeavor.
Gameplay is where you can start to see real problems with the title, but I feel some of the criticism should be subdued to a point, because of the genre we're dealing with. Basic movement feels fine. I never felt like walking, running, jumping, swimming, or even driving had that caustic, uncanny edge that are indicative of some RPG-esque games. To be fair, though, in this day and age with development, these are issues that shouldn't be brought into question in the first place. So I'm offering a check mark as opposed to a "boost." The real crux to GP is combat. Action RPG = shooter heavy elements apply. Here, brings me to the biggest personal dilemma I have with Defiance. From a pure objectivity standpoint, it's not great. The gun exchanges back and forth are really "first level", as in there isn't a ton of depth within the firefights. As I said in the weapons section, they all pretty much function in the same ways per class. Blindfolded, I could tell the difference between a Battle Rifle, DMR, Covie Carbine, ect. from the Halo franchise based on pure sound alone. The only hint I would have between, say, two assault rifles is if they feature fully auto, or burst calibration. And even then I couldn't tell you with certainty which ones they are exactly. A cover system is also missing, so the awkward "crouch behind a wall, peek out and shoot two-step" of gaming yesteryear is utilized when outgunned. Which, more often than not, will be your predicament. I guess the best way to describe it is to say it's rather generic. Nothing revolutionary. May even be a bit archaic for some.
But I'm not ready to call the Defiance GP a complete wash, either. The comparison I made in the previous paragraph to one of the great Sci-fi FPS series would be incredibly unfair for ALL the mechanics. MMOs classically do not have the advanced gameplay structures found in less expansive titles. At some point, concessions have to be made within development to come up with something feasible. Maybe we'll see machines capable of triple-A shooter design in RPG based experiences this fall/holiday. In April 2013, that can't be demanded. While playing, I never felt hindered in gun exchanges. To be fair, I didn't even think not having a cover system was all that bad. The battles are so fast paced because of pretty good enemy AI that will use numbers to flush you out and create angles for their long range compadres, that you'll be backing up and dodge rolling too much to be shouldered behind a wall for too long anyway. And many skirmishes occur in areas with very little objects that could be used for cover anyway. So why spend resources to develop something that wouldn't be very beneficial in the grand scheme? I always had a blast playing the game. The different weapon types have distinct advantages/disadvantages that must be weighed when the shootin' commences. Grenades are a bit puny, but serviceable. And I didn't think I was cheated by a poor accuracy algorithm. When I missed, it was my fault. That's so important for consistency sake, and I'm relieved this isn't an issue. My only real annoyance was not having enough fellow Ark hunters around during missions to even the odds. But to lob that frustration at the gameplay mechanics would be misguided.
Outside of the main attraction, A handful of dedicated Matchmaking options are packaged. The Co-op Missions team up four PSN hunters on multi-objective ordeals. One such is Liberate the Lost. In this engagement, Mutant EMC are kidnapping New Freedom survivors for their own twisted intentions. The quartet of Hunters must infiltrate the Delta Bunker East facility and escape with the survivors in tow. This was another showcase event illustrating how well it goes when people team up to tackle a mission. Organized teamwork, reaching checkpoints, and accomplishing the goal really had the engine firing on all cylinders. Defiance also has an adversarial side. The Competition playlist offers PvP TDM on a few maps of the 6-on-6 or 8-on-8 variety. And while the vehicle is not at the player's disposal, the other aspects to the layout are. The matches work well and I didn't run into an abundance of lag. The problem is that you'd best have some darn good and deadly weapons in the inventory. Normal rifles and shotguns won't cut it. When you start getting "tubed" for a few fights in a row, you'll share in my sentiment. The last of these is Shadow War. This takes the Arkfall concept, and draws a line in the sand dividing up two teams of 64 each. The objective is to "control" falls within a certain space. Seconds equal points, and when one team reaches the limit, they win. Admittedly, the area is kind of large. So I didn't get that intense/epic feeling I was hoping for. When everyone spreads out, the firefights become small scale. But with some tweaking, this could be a nice draw to spice things up.
Easily, the section that gets the deepest point deduction is presentation. Again, it's not exactly fair to judge this on the level of a beauty pageant like Crysis 3, but it still has flaws. The hillsides, water, buildings, anything that could be considered a major "backdrop" aspect is quite uninspired. Decent colors come through, but it all just has a flat, dull after taste. And don't expect overly destructible environments or any of that next level stuff. I'm inclined to say, though, that the character models are pretty good. Humans, Irathient, Mutants, and Radiers are easily identifiable and feature their own unique-ness. This carries over into the acceptable cutscenes. Voice acting could be better, but I don't see it as a detraction, either. And similarly, the animations pass based on the MMO bell curve. The worst part of the audio/visual mix is going from one section to the next. True, there aren't any "loading" instances, but major objects will often not render, or even appear, as quickly as they should. One time early in my play test, I was shifting through on my ATV. I approach a bridge, and suddenly I stop as if I hit something. In my head I was thinking "oh, I haven't unlocked this portion of the map yet." But after a few seconds, a huge truck appeared that was blocking a portion of the road. It wasn't an "invisible barrier" that held me back, I had an auto accident. The sound of the game is impressive in short spurts, but just okay in a broad sense. The clattering of bullets and the plethora of explosions in the heat of battle can really heighten up emotions. But when there aren't any notable "racket makers" within the area, it can almost be eerily silent. And in relation to the "loading lag" for objects, a strange thing happens with communications. From time to time, when an NPC is about to tell me something, the sub-titles will show up on screen, but I won't hear the according audio for several seconds. Not sure what causes this, but just another "loose end" that could have been tightened up, I feel.