Thursday, July 16, 2015

Game Review - Defiance (Xbox 360, 2013)

In my mind, there are two major features that give good MMORPGs the addictive qualities that keep players paying monthly subscriptions.  One is the satisfaction of developing a character and upgrading his or her gear.  That occasional ding of a level up gives a sense of progression that you simply can't get in the real world.  The other is challenging content, with areas that require precise skill management and coordinated teamwork.  In a sense, these obstacles allow players to continue that progression despite hitting the game's level cap.

Defiance is a now free-to-play MMORPG that does the first of these very well.  The leveling mechanics and the ways low-level characters can interact with other players are perhaps the best I have ever seen, but the result is an endgame that isn't terribly exciting.

The basic premise is interesting but doesn't get fleshed out in any meaningful way.  You take on the role of an "ark hunter," someone who tracks down extraterrestrial scrap in the war-torn wasteland of the San Francisco Bay area.

In Defiance's universe, you are effectively a gun for hire, employed by a powerful businessman to further his economic interests.  Unsurprisingly, the main story gets you involved in some local politics, and you learn a little bit about the war that scorched the Earth, but none of it is very compelling.  I didn't feel that any of the characters were developed enough for me to care about their fate, and I never learned enough history to get excited about any of the major events.

Of course, you typically don't play an MMORPG for its detailed and intriguing storyline; you play it for the multitude of random fetch quests, right?

If fetch quests are your personal brand of masochism, then you're in for a treat with Defiance.  There are tons of sidequests along the way, but nearly all of them amount to "go to this area and pick stuff up."  There are a few where you might do something cool, like raiding a fortified base, but most are frankly dumb.

That said, the map is surprisingly dynamic.  There are constantly cooperative events occurring that can challenge a dozen or more players.  These random events range from minor skirmishes to claim some salvage to big boss battles to defensive missions fighting waves of enemies.  Interestingly, some of the more complex sidequests are actually repeatable - if you return to that fortified base, you'll be able to complete the objectives again and earn more rewards.

In each of these cases, the rewards are based on your performance.  Dealing more damage and defeating more enemies will yield higher quality loot and more experience points at the end of one of these events.  The result is one of the typical MMORPG cycles - the better your gear, the easier it is to obtain higher quality gear.

With these events occurring all over the map, it's important that the game remain balanced for new and experienced players alike.  Defiance's solution is a great one: the "threat level" in an area is determined by the number of players nearby and their levels.  Increasing the threat level increases the power and resilience of enemies, allowing high-level characters to be challenged by enemies in the introductory area.

To keep low-level characters from getting overwhelmed, they get power buffs to match the current threat level.  Those buffs aren't nearly as strong as using higher level gear, but it's enough that your new character can still meaningfully contribute in battles while adventuring with high-level friends.  This feature ultimately means that all of the game's content is available from the very start.

The most appealing aspect of this system?  You can always play with your friends, even if they have spent 300 hours developing their characters and you're just starting.

Sadly, this system is not without its flaws, and there are two big ones that stick out.  First, having access to all the game's content means that there's not much that you're working towards aside from a bigger, badder character.  Sure, there are queues for some cooperative maps that you can't access until you reach a sufficiently high level, but that's of minor interest compared to everything else in the game.

Second, the threat level mechanics can be used to your detriment in frustrating ways.  Since the game checks nearby players, it's possible for somebody to bump up the threat level just by passing by.  Your enemies will get stronger accordingly, and you may find yourself facing significantly stronger opposition by yourself if that other player doesn't join in.

While the MMORPG elements of Defiance are great, the underlying gameplay is a little mundane.

At its core, Defiance is just a coop third-person shooter.  You'll run around and shoot enemies, all while seeing the battlefield from an over-the-shoulder camera.  There is a good diversity of weapons to use, including genre staples, like shotguns and assault rifles, and a few oddballs, like infectors, which spawn friendly parasites when defeating an enemy.

This shooter base is supplemented with RPG elements, including both a skill grid and gradually more powerful gear in accordance with your character level.  In a lot of ways, the game functions in a Borderlands-esque fashion - you get an active skill and various passive ones to enhance your capabilities, and the loot you'll acquire will generally scale with your character level.

The active skills are easily the most interesting aspect of this system, in part because there are no character classes.  Instead, you start the game by choosing one of the four possible active skills after a brief tutorial allowing you to sample each of them.  Then, as you earn enough skill points later in the game, you're able to unlock the other three skills.  Only one active skill is allowed at a time, but the ability to change them on the fly or for different missions is definitely a huge plus.

The passive skills are a lot less interesting, as most of them confer very minor benefits.  Sure, increasing health by 10% may be fairly significant, but many of those skills only change things by 1-3%.  It seems like there's a lot of customization options in the skill grid, but in reality, most of those skills seem inconsequential.

Weapon levels are also a pretty nice feature, adding incentive to keep finding new loot.  Fortunately, there is a bit of a failsafe in place so that you're never stuck with underpowered guns if you don't find a new one worth using.  By using Arkforge (which comes primarily at the end of big world events or coop missions), you can change a weapon's level rating (and therefore its stats).  This works both ways, letting lower-level characters use gear they bought from their higher-level friends, and allowing players to keep using the same guns throughout the entire game.

All in all, the basic gameplay is effective if unexciting.

With one notable exception: competitive multiplayer is completely broken.  The problem lies in the fact that the level scaling that comes from adventuring with higher-level characters doesn't affect every aspect of your character.  In competitive multiplayer, that means that someone about 1000 levels above you may be able to kill you in one shot while you won't be able to penetrate their shields even by unloading an entire clip.  Similarly, a player 1000 levels above them can do the same.

I tried the competitive multiplayer at various points throughout developing my character to level 4000+, and I was almost always disappointed with the result.  Early on, I got crushed by everyone, earning impressive kill-to-death ratios on the order of 0/15.  Eventually, I got to a point where I was able to one-shot some of my opponents, but then others would one-shot me.

And that is still the case now, even after investing well over 200 hours in the game.

The few competitive matches that have been truly enjoyable are the ones where every player is at roughly the same level.  Those are truly enjoyable matches, but they are a startlingly small fraction of the multiplayer games I played.

With all the pros and cons I've discussed to this point, it would be easy to say that Defiance is a reasonably well-balanced and entertaining player vs. environment game but a terrible player vs. player game and call it a day.  Unfortunately, there is one other huge flaw that knocks a few more points of the game's rating.

Defiance has this frustrating tendency to boot players from the server with a "critical failure" message.  It happens a lot, it happens to everybody, and it happens seemingly at random.  Some days are worse than others, but losing 45 minutes of progress on a big coop mission or PvP match because the game randomly returned you to the login screen gets pretty frustrating.  And again, it happens a lot.

So with that in mind, if you're willing to put up with terrible server issues, you'll find a reasonably fun MMORPG experience, so long as you're not looking for deep and competitive PvP.  If that's not your thing, though, I can only recommend that you stay away.

My rating: 5/10 - ok.

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