Developer: Trion Worlds / Publisher: Trion Worlds / Played on: PC / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Drug Reference, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence]
Talking about Defiance is more difficult than you’d think. When the term “MMO” is thrown around, people tend to hear the silent “RPG” on the end. That term has become synonymous with the World of Warcraft template of grinding experience, leveling up, finding colored gear, and so on. While Defiance has those aspects in a manner of speaking, it uses them all so differently that you should expel that comparison from your mind. Defiance is not an RPG, but describing what it is will take some doing.
The best way I can think to illustrate Defiance’s unique character is to iterate through what it has in common with traditional MMOs and then explain what makes Defiance’s approach so unique. The easiest and most critical distinction is the game’s controls; Defiance plays like a normal third-person shooter. This is no Tabula Rasa trickery either — you shoot bullets at enemies which either hit or miss depending on your mechanical skill at aiming. There are no action bars of skills and no consumable items, just two guns, one active skill, and one recharging grenade.
This is critical because every feature in Defiance builds on the simple fact that shooting is fun. Whether it’s NPC enemies or other players, emptying clips and racking up kills is satisfying like no other MMO I’ve played.
Defiance also has gear and levels, but the game doesn’t have the same vertical progression of player ability as traditional MMORPGs. Even though some numbers get bigger, you don’t necessarily get more powerful. Take leveling for example; the most consequential decision for your character’s abilities happens in the first hour of the game. This is when you pick your character’s active skill from a group of four including cloaking, a flat damage buff, an enemy-confusing decoy, and a speed boost that amps up your melee damage. From then on, you can only unlock or upgrade passive skills that subtly change your character’s performance. Your health doesn’t go up and your guns don’t suddenly do more damage. Leveling just gives you the ability to tune your character toward your play style.
The same is true for gear. A purple gun you get after playing for ten hours will be marginally better than your starting gear, but not so much that it trivializes any of the game’s encounters. As with the skill and leveling system, it’s simply about finding the gear that works with your play style, whether you want to shotgun enemies in the face or snipe them from a distance.
We’ve covered the gameplay and progression mechanics, so what do you actually do in Defiance? That’s a little weird too. Yes, there are quests and a story involving a socially maladjusted doctor and his magical alien doohickey, but since there’s no level grind to speak of, quests aren’t the tent-pole activity they usually are in MMOs.
At least the quests themselves are structurally familiar. Most boil down to “shoot some guys, then touch a glowing thing for a bit.” Occasionally you will shoot some guys while someone else touches the glowing thing for a bit. The quest design isn’t profound, but I do love the quests’ wide-open nature. At any time, another player can walk up and help you out with the quest. Once complete, you both get credit for finishing it. It’s as simple as that.
Impromptu co-operation also occurs at the Arkfalls, which are spontaneous PvE boss fights that randomly drop around the game world. Once one begins, players converge to blast away waves of enemies, vying for scoreboard pride as well as a smattering of the game’s currencies. These fights are absurd, and running through a battlefield immolated from recurring explosions and gunfire is an incredible experience. I haven’t experienced the full-tilt chaos of these events in any other MMO, not to mention the spontaneous car meet-up that happens after as everyone summons their sweet whips to head off to their next adventure.
Player vs. player options are surprisingly solid as well, thanks to the mostly-level playing ground afforded by the previously described horizontal progression mechanics. These matches come in two flavors: simple 8v8 team deathmatch or massive 64v64 capture-and-hold matches. Both capitalize on the game’s solid shooting mechanics very well and put a lot of emphasis around characters that are specced out to a specific combat role. While Defiance’s PvP is not immune from the glut of brainless shotgun users that plague any multiplayer shooter, it’s still fun and engrossing.
That’s the short list of what you can do in Defiance, and beyond that the game doesn’t provide a guiding hand. This was very confusing for me as a new player. Sure, there’s this map full of activities, but what do I do? What am I working towards?
It took me a while to accept this idea, but in Defiance you’re not working toward anything. You just sort of do… whatever. An average play session for me goes like this: I log in and do a quest. When I turn it in, I notice there’s an Arkfall happening 200 meters away. I drive over there and blow up a ton of bugs or robot men or whatever. I get some grenades and shields from that, so I drive back to the vendor to sell off my items and buy a new scope mod for my gun. I feel like taking the newly-modded gun for a spin, so I queue up for a PvP session and play a few of those. Defiance is fantastic at presenting you a world packed with activity and choice; it just takes some time to understand that you don’t need to plan your activity in service of a higher goal.
Defiance isn’t so fantastic at, well, working. This game is busted in ways beyond typical MMO launch jank. In addition to more expected errors like server instability and disconnects, there are other features that should work in a launch retail product but don’t. Some are glaring, like the fact that clan chat just doesn’t work. Additionally, the voice chat quality is terrible. If you want to turn off voice chat and use another service like Skype or Mumble, you can, but that option disables all text chat too. They’re not separate, which means the game’s chat is a complete ghost town.
On top of bugs and broken features, the UI in the game is a terrible, cluttered mess. Inventory screens are a pain to navigate and they don’t visually convey information efficiently at all. For instance, if you’re shopping for a gun mod, you have to click on each one to see what type of gun the mod is for. Another frequent annoyance of mine: if you have a gun equipped in any of your loadout slots, you can’t sell it or drop it. Cleaning your inventory is a time-consuming headache involving checking tabs of equipment over and over. The interface has a long, long way to go before it’s a constructive part of the game experience.
Let me be clear; Defiance is a fun game, but it’s also a very broken game. To Trion’s credit, they’ve already fixed some major issues in the week since launch (for instance, voice chat is actually intelligible now). I have faith that Trion will eventually get this game on the level. Just bear in mind that Defiance is more an investment in a work-in-progress than a mature, feature-complete game.
Even still, it’s testament to Defiance’s unique and free-flowing nature that the game’s numerous bugs don’t actively deter me from the game. So what if I timed out of my PvP queue, I see a badass stunt ramp that is just begging for it. While Trion has to be held accountable for the severe problems at launch, the truth is that the game’s experience is strong enough to shine through them. Unless you need an artificial goal like a level cap to work towards in an MMO, Defiance offers some of the best fun you can have online.