Last week, I spent some time over at the Trion Worlds offices getting a better idea of what’s going on with Defiance. I got to see the first couple episodes of the TV show as well, but I can’t tell you about that quite yet.
Defiance is a cross-narrative experiment, which takes the form of a multi-platform, massive-multi-player, third-person shooter on one side, and a serialized television show on the other. Trion Worlds is responsible for the video game, while the Syfy Channel is responsible for the show.
I went into my discussions with the developers assuming that one side of the project was likely informing the other very heavily, but after chatting with them for a while, it’s pretty clear that the two teams have been working in close concert. This isn’t a game based on a show, nor is it a show based on a game; it’s genuinely the show/game cross-media narrative that they claim it is, and it’s taken a lot of work to get it there. The teams started working together on the project six years ago. Television and video game development cycles are typically very different, so both sides have had to modify the way they usually work in order to keep the project on track, and a lot of typically very stringent methods had to be made flexible.
The long process took Trion and Syfy from a vague idea that they’d like to work on something together to a fully realized game and television show, set in a world with a deep and compelling lore. What started as a straight-up Western turned into a dystopian sci-fi drama (with Western elements). The TV show is like a cross between Gunsmoke and Star Trek. The game is a bit more complicated, taking elements from all over the spectrum to create an experience that works for many types of players.
The core of all the gameplay modes is the gunplay. Unlike many MMOs, the combat is skill-based. Aiming at the enemies is a necessity with any weapon, and skill-shots are rewarded. Hitting an enemy in the head or back, or while flatfooted, all give bonuses, which can be further improved with advancement through the stealth segment of the development tree. The character development is one of the more interesting elements in the game. Players do not choose a class, and their race has as much effect on their skill potential as their gender does. Instead, each character enters the skill grid at a particular major power (basically: stealth, speed, attack boost, and defense boost), and expands from there across the rest of the grid, even over to one or more of the other powers eventually, and the skills associated with it. Think of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, except it only contains skills and bonuses (not stat improvements) and they can all be taken multiple times.
There are several categories of weapon, and they drop with randomized stats across variable rarities. The item generation reminds me strongly of Borderlands, though it tacks on a rare feature in that the weapons themselves can earn XP and level-up, rewarding characters who stick with one weapon for a long time. Ammo is limited, and often becomes a concern during combat, especially with some of the more ammo-intensive weapons, or ones with low storage capacities. Players never have to fight for the resource; however, as any ammo crate will refill everyone’s supply of ammo for both equipped weapons (characters are limited to a primary and a side-arm). Having to leave a fight to find such a crate, however, can be a hassle. As far as other drops, everything is dropped only for each character. No one can even see other character’s drops, and the decision to share dropped loot, or even tell the other players about it, is up to each player.
Beyond that base gameplay, the game itself is broken into four distinct experiences, Open World, Cooperative, Competitive, and the Shadow War.
The bulk of the gameplay takes place in the non-instanced open-world environment. The players receive quests from NPCs and have to go complete them. From what I saw, most are pretty straightforward, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was some variety Not every quest was simply a mission to retrieve a certain number of a particular item or to kill a particular creature. I played through what you might call the first chapter of the game, and only once was asked to ‘go kill so many of these types of guy and come back’ Other quests ranged from check-point running to escort missions, and rarely felt like busy-work.
Of course, there are other players in this world, and they can have an effect on your game. There is no direct combat in these areas, and nothing can be stolen from you, if you don’t count kill-stealing, but if the region is crowded it can make the game a bit too easy. I was only playing with about 50 people active on the server at the time I was trying the open-world mechanics, and even with that small number, it affected some of my quests negatively
For example: at one point, I was asked to go and turn on a generator on the other side of a mutant-infested parking structure. My first quest objective was to arrive at the structure, so I got into my little buggy (vehicles function much like the mounts you’re familiar with in other games), and drove over there. As soon as I arrived, my quest objective changed to point me toward the generator switch. I started walking toward it, and then I heard gunfire. Another group of players was already at the switch, all of the monsters between us already dispatched. In a moment, the task was completed. My own quest objective returned me to base-camp. The quest was over for me, and I hadn’t done anything for it.
I can only imagine that, in the early areas of the game, especially near the launch date, this will happen to players quite a bit.
Even right from the first moments (which is nice) players can team up and work together through the challenges in groups of up to four characters. In the open world quests, teaming up does very little, however. It puts the other players on your map, and it enables in-game voice communication (another nice feature), but otherwise all of you are still playing through separately, just as if you were not on a team. Rewards are still your own, quests are still your own. The monsters get more difficult with more players fighting them, but that happens whether the players are on your team or not.
At any point in the game, however, players can go into the matchmaking menu, and choose to enter a co-op mission. If they are already in a team, then they will join their team in the mission, if they are not, then they will be matched with other players waiting to play co-op. These missions are instanced, and completely insulated from the rest of the game world. Characters travel to them by menu, rather than over land, and they have no geographic connection to the rest of the world. The one I got the chance to play was a linear quest in which my team was tasked with going to various points on an island base to set explosives. The enemies were tough, and we had to work together to defeat them. We were never surprised by finding other players already doing what we were doing, but, otherwise, it worked much like the open world.
I’m not sure how many of these co-operative missions are planned for the final game (and no one there was able/willing to tell me), but I can see this as being the most fun part of the game for me. At some points it was tedious, as it was a bit too difficult for the characters we brought into it, but with the right friends, it would be a lot of fun.
Another section of the matchmaking menu will allow players to join competitive matches, which take the form of team-based objective oriented contests. Which contest players get into depends on what region of the map they are in when they join the queue for the game, and then they are randomly shuffled onto teams unless they already have a group. The matches seem to accommodate about 30 total players, and from what I saw, there are two match types: king-of-the-hill (sometimes with multiple capture points) and straight-up team deathmatch. There may be more match types that I didn’t get to see.
The balance seems to be a bit off in this mode, as players are able to bring their skills and weapons from the open world, and there is no obvious balancing mechanic. One of the devs I talked with assured me that the game balances these matches, but as he was not on the team which worked on that section of the game, he was unable to describe how it worked, or even whether it was done by altering the characters’ abilities, or just by loading the teams evenly. As it was, the players with higher levels seemed to come out on top most of the time.
For my own part, I was getting my head sniped off fairly regularly, but had not yet found a sniper rifle in the open world, so could not try to snipe back.
This mode might be more fun for regular players, or for those further along in the character progression.
The Shadow War
The WvW content in Defiance is called the Shadow War. It works very much like the regular competitive matches except you are always teamed with players from your own server (shard) against players from another server. The arenas seem to be bigger, and the player counts higher, but that might not always be true. It wasn’t clear to me just what we were fighting for, however, as there was no territory map or bonus acquisition which was apparent. This may change for the final release.
The game is an interesting take on the MMO shooter genre, and may be the best implementation of it to date. For my own tastes, the co-op stuff was fun, but everything else fell a bit flat. I’m surely not the target audience for this game, however, and MMO fans will have a lot of fresh stuff to chew through here. Combined with the compelling television narrative, I can see a lot of potential for the game. Of course, with no monthly fee, it’s also sitting at the right price-point for MMO players who want a high-quality game, but aren’t willing to pay every month. Once you buy the game, there seems little need to spend more money. There is an in-game transaction system for purchasing bonuses and costumes and such, but from what I saw, it’s not a P2W situation, so rest those fears.
Defiance, the game, is out today. Defiance, the show, will premiere with a double-length episode on April 15 on Syfy.