Developer: Yakuza Studio / Publisher: SEGA / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes]
I was prepared for Binary Domain to be one of those games — the “so bad they’re good” kind. I expected to love the hell out of it in the same way I love the Transporter movies. Imagine my surprise when this game turned out to be legitimately great. It has enjoyable characters, a thought-provoking plot, and most importantly, it’s really fun to play.
In Binary Domain’s campaign, you shoot many robots. That’s notable because Binary Domain’s robots are incredibly fun to shoot. Each bullet causes them to twist and turn in recoil, and sends clouds of metal debris shattering from their frames. Gleaming metal and glowing power unit objects will poke through protective exoskeleton as robots are shredded under gunfire, which makes the stupid lil’ guys an absolute joy to destroy over the campaign’s eight hour length. With other games focusing on overwrought metagames and leveling mechanics, it’s so refreshing to play a game that’s built on a single, thoroughly enjoyable action.
A few other trappings layer on Binary Domain’s shooting, the most novel of which is the voice command system. If you’re wearing a headset, you can speak a dictionary of around 100 words to tell your AI-controlled teammates what to do. As you might guess, this system is a neat diversion but not functional enough to be considered an important part of the game. Still, being able to tell my bro-partner in arms that I love him, and have him react with confusion and revulsion was a video game first for me. I’d swapped back to controller commands within an hour though.
Binary’s other back-of-the-box bullet point is the trust system, in which your NPC partners will gain or lose trust in you depending on how you act. For instance, if you walk away from a character while they’re talking to you or peg them with friendly fire, their trust will drop. Conversely, kill a bunch of robots and be a genuine badass, and they’ll shower you with praise. Like the voice commands, this ends up being more of an interesting novelty than game-defining feature, though some plot points in the story hinge on trust level, which gives it more gravity.
Other interludes in the campaign include exploratory areas where you can talk to NPCs and one-off action segments like firefights with giant tank robots from the back of a speeding van. The conversational downtime during the exploration segments work extremely well in breaking up the action, and the action sequences break up the cover-based shooting perfectly. Based on those traits alone, Binary Domain provides an excellent single player experience.
But there’s a whole dimension to Binary Domain aside from being an enjoyable shooter. The writing, characters, and plot of the campaign are a cut above most games these days. You play as a member of a “Rust Crew” — they’re international policing groups designed to investigate and prevent violations of the New Geneva Convention specifying that robot construction cannot imitate or supplant human life. When robots pop up doing just that, American agents Dan Marshall (the main protagonist) and Roy Boateng are dispatched to Japan to investigate the most likely robotics corporation to have invented that technology.
During the course of your investigation, you’ll meet up with an amusing multinational cast of characters including a snide wise-cracking Brit and a French robot that wears a scarf and speaks with an overblown accent for some reason. That should tip you off that this game doesn’t take itself super seriously. In fact, it strikes a great balance between realizing that it’s a stupid game about shooting murderous robots and giving you just enough substance to roll with the setting. The game’s plot even introduces some new ideas about the blurry line between life and robotics. While the main punch of the story is really out there in sci-fi terms, it does manage to provide a refreshing newness — which is an element the notable sci fi games Deux Ex: Human Revolution and Syndicate failed to do. I was blindsided by the game’s charm and characters, and I hope to see them again in a sequel.
While Binary Domain’s single player campaign is the most inventive and enjoyable I’ve played in recent memory, the multiplayer is merely feature complete. The game includes the standard competitive multiplayer modes like deathmatch, survival, CTF, and point control, along with the now-mandatory co-op survival mode which pits you and three other players against waves of oncoming enemies.
They’ve checked off every item on the multiplayer feature list, but there’s a severe lack of content. You only get four maps to play on shared between all the game’s modes. The maps are laid out well and encourage players to use different strategies, but there’s no escaping map fatigue after a handful of matches. Additionally, while the game does have the standard loadout / leveling setup, you don’t get to visually customize your fighter, and levels only earn you stat-altering perks that will increase your health, decrease reload time, etc.
Earning new guns is done differently, and that touches on a unique element in Binary Domain’s multiplayer. Rather than unlock weapons via in-game experience and levels, you have to buy them between rounds with points you accumulate during a match. It adds a dash of Counter-Strike to Gears of War’s M.O., introducing a subtle metagame behind matches where players have to bank up points to buy the big guns. It adds a little meat to Binary Domain’s online mode, but not enough to consider it substantial.
Binary Domain’s visuals are equally as surprising as its campaign. This game looks damn good, and it constantly surprised me with little touches that really brought the game to life. Surprising quality is packed in the game’s presentation, from the obvious animation of the main character as he fluidly rolls around, to the subtle touches of environment design.
The first area that really impressed me was walking in Japan’s lower slum area — I turned the camera to look toward the upper layer (where all the well-to-do live), and saw a massive network of columns and pipes holding the city aloft. The sense of scale was awesome, and really helps the game develop a visual identity. My second favorite moment comes back to shooting robots — I blew off the gun-arm of one robot, only to watch him impassively reach down with his remaining limb, pick his gun back up, and keep shooting at me. It was a “Jesus that was awesome!” moment, of which there are several.
If you enjoy action games with quirk and charm, I can’t recommend Binary Domain enough. It has all the hallmarks of an unpolished gem — except it’s actually polished. Compared against the obvious Gears of War titan, it pales in online offerings, but I’d still recommend it without hesitation. If year-long multiplayer isn’t a must-have for you, get Binary Domain and blow the shit out of some robots.