One minute, you're standing on a spaceship, and the next, you're taking an escape pod down to the nearest planet. Seems like a pretty typical way to start your day, doesn't it? This is Defiance, and welcome to Earth as none of us know it.
Defiance is a new subscription-free MMO from Trion Worlds, a transmedia complement to SyFy's upcoming live-action TV show of the same name. The game launched just this Tuesday, and we're now in the fourth day of launch week. Seems like a good time to pause and share a few early impressions, and so far, Defiance has proven itself a mixed bag.
You play an Ark Hunter, a mercenary of sorts tasked with following some scientist (who may or may not be a pretty horrible human being) around, seeking Ark technology to further some deceptively benevolent goals.
See, as the story goes, the Votan Collective had to escape their star system pretty quickly. To do this, they build massive spaceships called "Arks" (See what they did there?), loaded the Arks up with refugees and the local wildlife, then got the hell out. Their exodus eventually leads them to Earth, where they ask for permission to land and co-exist with the natives. Well, Humans being what we are, we say "no," but the two sides start talking, while the Votan are forced to remain in orbit in their Arks. Their situation isn't exactly great, and mishaps leave several Arks as scrap, which sparks war between the two sides. Fast-forward about 30 years, and the Votan and Humans agree to stop that nonsense.
Problem is, the alien technology didn't have a great effect on Earth. Ark refuse continue crashing to Earth even at present time -- in events known as "Arkfalls" -- and mutating the natives. Indeed, mutated soldiers from both sides run rampant, and much of the wildlife has evolved into monsters.
You wouldn't know any of that just by playing a few hours. The introduction doesn't exactly explain the situation, and all you know going in is that war had happened between the humans and aliens at some point, but they've stopped fighting a long time ago.
As a player, you can choose to adventure as a Human or Irathient, a tribal race belonging to the Votan Collective. Now I've previously gone through the character creation process for both races, and if you saw those, then you already know that there isn't much physical variation between the two. Irathients do look slightly off, but they're still close to human in appearance.
Console or PC?
Defiance comes to us from the same people who made RIFT, which boasted one of the smoothest MMO launches I can remember in recent history, so I wound up expecting much the same from Defiance. Sadly, that wasn't the case, and the first two days of attempting to play on Xbox 360 were met mostly with freezing and server connection errors. Fortunately, Trion was quick on the case, but by then, I had moved on to the PC version and found it vastly less problematic despite how many more players I was actually seeing in-game.
The impression I got from the community, however, is that most Defiance players are on the 360, with PC coming in second. Which version is the definitive one, then?
Going into Defiance after a lengthy opening cutscene, you'll notice two things right off the bat: the game doesn't look so hot, and there's something oddly refreshing about being able to shoot a sniper rifle in an MMO. For a more experienced shooter fan, the gunplay in Trion's MMO can seem a bit cumbersome, but not enough to pose any real problems. The mechanics, while clunky, are also solid enough to be fun, even if they take some getting used to.
Now aside from my initial problems with the 360 version, Defiance does feel more suited to a console. The game functions well enough on PC, but it's incredibly consolized both in look and feel, from the controls to its UI design. Options for the PC version are somewhat limited, lacking in basic features like screenshot captures and a windowed full-screen mode. The interface is also an unfortunate mess, with counterintuitive menus and terrible chat functionality.
Some of these issues, such as the menus, aren't quite as glaringly obvious for controller users. After about half an hour on keyboard and mouse, I wound up hooking up a 360 controller and found the gameplay much smoother, due to smarter mapping.
The MMO market really needs more proper sci-fi content, or low fantasy stuff, at the very least. It's a risk, sure, but we are seeing more attempts in recent years to leave high fantasy for something new and refreshing. In that respect, I found my first several hours in Defiance incredibly fun. Roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland on my ATV with a sniper rifle over my shoulder isn't exactly something I get to do often in an MMO setting; it appealed to the Fallout fangirl in me.
Arkfalls, periodic world events akin to RIFT's... rifts, are a huge draw too, and seeing these large-scale occurences rarely gets old. At the moment, Defiance players have complained about balancing issues with Arkfall bosses, and Trion is trying to figure out how to balance all that, but that doesn't take away from the appeal. Sure, the bosses could be better scaled (or maybe we aren't seeing enough geared players yet), but these events are an excellent way of offering players the same feeling of taking down some epic raid boss without forcing them to group with a small army and wasting eight hours in an instance. I'm all for this sort of PVE content.
The absence of numerical levels is also a huge draw for me, and I wish more MMOs would look into alternate methods of progression. The Secret World probably did it best, but Defiance makes a decent attempt at trying a level-less, skill-based alternative. See, characters max out at 5000 EGO rating, but that's (thankfully) not a measure of concrete levels. Instead, gaining a higher EGO rating (by playing the game) yields skill points that can go toward unlocking your perks. So as you progress, you'll grow stronger by learning more abilities and finding better weapons, rather than boosting hard stats.
Pros and Cons
When I called Defiance a "mixed bag," I meant it. The game is a mix of positives and negatives, because for all its potential, Defiance has much room for improvement. Then again, that seems fairly typical for an MMO, right? Even subscription-free ones.
Some faults are greater than others, but I've still got my gripes, trivial as some of them may seem. They're worth sharing, at any rate, and I'll leave you to judge:
- Post-apocalyptic Earth setting is a lot of fun to explore.
- Sci-fi shooter or MMO? Why not both.
- Leveless progression system is refreshing.
- Decent lore, worth checking out.
- Arkfall events are so freaking epic.
- Game doesn't look too great, even on PC.
- Consolized feel results in watered-down features and functionality.
- UI, chat function, and menus are a pain to navigate at times.
- Product placement is obnoxious. Dodge vehicles everywhere!
Final verdict? Defiance is an MMO, so give it time to mature.