Defiance: The Pre-Launch Preview

Gareth Harmer delivers his final preview opinion of Trion's shooter MMO

This moment has been a long time coming. After clocking into the beta weekends and playing alongside thousands of other Ark Hunters, I’m finally able to share my opinion of Defiance with you. With Trion’s shooter MMO due to launch on April 2, it’s certainly been an interesting journey to get to this point. Bear in mind though, this is a preview based on the final beta - the actual launch version may be different.

Set in a bleak and desolate future, Defiance attempts to show the consequences of large-scale alien immigration. Ark spaceships appeared in Earth orbit, laden with thousands of Votans, all looking to escape their own dying system and find a new place to call home.

Instead of being welcoming hosts we rolled out the big guns, going to war against those on the surface and destroying the remaining ships in orbit. As Arkfall debris plummeted to earth, unknown terraforming technology kicked in, radically reshaping much of the planet. The result is a world that appears vaguely familiar yet uniquely alien, with much of civilization lying in tattered fragments, and the tensions of unresolved conflicts bubbling beneath the surface.

In a break from convention, Trion decided to develop Defiance for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It’s an understandable decision, with a huge number of console gamers providing a tempting target. But it also resulted in a series of compromises, from a narrower graphical spectrum to an interface that heavily favors control pad gamers. For PC gamers, this won’t translate into more players on-line, as each platform is isolated at the behest of Microsoft and Sony. The result begs the question: is the decision worth it?

Creating the Ark Hunter

Defiance opens aboard the Earth Republic Forces Stratocarrier New Freedom, en route to a ravaged and reshaped San Francisco. As the in-game cut-scene played out, the soft glow from computer monitors and dark, metallic interior reminded me of claustrophobic shooter classic Doom 3. But while the gloomy interior is quickly swapped for an open, alien landscape, that feeling of playing a dated game was somewhat harder to shake.

Before making a crater of your own in the soil of San Francisco, Defiance asks you to choose some details for your character. MMO veterans are likely to find the choices limited, with only two races (Human and Irathient) available in beta (we’re told more will be available at launch). Finishing the look is a collection of controls, covering everything from skin color to cheekbone structure.

In Defiance you take on the role of an Ark Hunter, an employee of Von Bach Industries that’s charged with hunting down and recovering alien technology. You might have a peculiar background – origin choices include war veteran, survivalist, machinist and outlaw – but beyond starting clothing and weapons, it makes very little difference. Your main job is to shoot things in whatever way you prefer.

What matters more is how you choose to define your EGO. Rather than being a chance to specify your level of pig-headed arrogance, the Environmental Guardian Online provides four key abilities, supplemented with a number of Perks, all arranged in a grid. You start filling this grid by picking one ability – Overcharge weapons, Clone yourself to distract enemies, Cloak yourself to sneak around, or become a Blur and move at high speed. As your EGO becomes more powerful, Perks can be added, which can provide bonuses when performing particular attacks or actions. A starting character has two Perk slots available, with more opening up as you grow in power.

The big problem with the EGO system is that there’s no enforced specialization. It’s not clear if you can learn everything on the EGO grid, but the ability to re-specialize means that it’s possible to play any role. All you need is a suitable gear set, and you can swap from silent assassin to a machine-gunning Rambo. The only reason you’d bring friends to a fight is if you need more guns.

Aiming High, Shooting Low

If there’s one thing you can rely on in Defiance, it’s that a steady stream of weapons and equipment will land at your feet. There’s a shooter for everyone, including pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, machine guns and sniper rifles. As you progress through the concrete ruins of a settlement once known as Tranquility, alien beam weapons and parasite injectors will also come your way. You can equip both a primary and secondary, which you can switch between with a flick of the scroll wheel. Any that fail to excite you can be torn apart for precious resources.

It’s also possible to tune your favorite death-cannon with a mixture of modifications. The barrel, stock, magazine and scope can all be swapped out to provide particular features, all running from the same basic ammunition. Some modifications are provided as rewards, while many can be purchased from one of the many vendors spread across the map. They’re worth tracking down, as they can turn a good gun into something that makes you grin every time you fire it.

Most missions will feature an assault on a building, mine, factory or stronghold, each populated with the local nasties. Whether it’s mutated former soldiers that think the war’s still on, or crazed raiders looking to make a fast bit of scrip, there’s no shortage of corpses waiting to be made. Deciding on how to approach the objective of freeing civilians or activating equipment is up to you, but by and large your tactics won’t change much.

While it’s possible to do the usual fire-cover-regenerate cycle used in other shooters, your Ark Hunter carries a portable shield generator that can also take damage. Ducking out of combat for a few seconds will give your shield time to recharge, allowing you to keep laying down the pain once you’ve found a good spot of cover. Each shield has a trade-off, with some having a faster recharge while others soak more damage, so it’s good to find one that matches your own style of play.

Once again though, there’s a big disappointment. The gunplay itself feels slightly flat, partly as a result of the enforced ‘over-shoulder’ third person perspective. Even that, I could probably live with, if it wasn’t for the terrible sounds. There’s a squelching like you’re flicking rubber bands into a barrel of semi-congealed lard whenever you score a hit, making machine-gunning sound slightly gross. Although your early opponents are crazed mutants and freakish hellbugs, the cartoonish soundscape seems completely out of place. 

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