This MMO should be applauded for its ambitious ideas, but the execution falters
It is easy to fall in love with Defiance’s premise of a Massive Multiplayer Online Shooter wrapped in a SyFy original series. It is ambitious and creative, but it also handicaps the game in many ways. The epic, science-fiction American wasteland spends so much time trying to appeal to everyone that it doesn’t spend enough time trying to focus on being a great game. It is difficult enough to time the release of such a large scale, always-online title with the premiere of a TV show, but it makes it even more difficult when that same game attempts to be playable across the three different consoles. With all the focus spent on trying to be accessible, Defiance fails to create the depth needed for the type of game they are trying to make.
Defiance is set in a world where humans coexist with an alien species called Voltans. It is very poorly explained in the game, but Voltans are not one alien species, they are a general term for several alien species that joined together 5,000 years ago to flee their star system. Upon arrival, the humans and the Voltans warred with each other in what was called the Pale Wars, but put aside their conflict at the battle of Defiance, where they united to save lives from a terraforming event gone wrong. It was during this time that Arkfall happened, crashing Voltan ships with hypersleep crews into Earth.
It sounds cool, right? Unfortunately, the game doesn’t go anywhere with the concept. Having watched the series premiere on the SyFy network, the world is riddled with tension between all the different species, but none of that conflict is present in the game. In fact, the entire lore of Defiance is poorly presented in the game. Players can read extensive backlogs to learn about the history behind the world, or watch the show, but there is almost nothing in the game’s playtime to educate its audience on what is going on.
Defiance tells the story of an Ark Hunter - that’s you - who is enlisted by Karl Von Bach to search the Bay Area for artefacts. After the Earth Republic cruiser you’re aboard crashes, you start off on a search to find the missing Von Bach and journey through the San Francisco wasteland. Along the way you will run missions for the local towns, law enforcement, businesses, and the Earth Republic forces. There are also side quests, some of which have their own stories. Most notably there are Episodic Quests that are the tie-in to the TV show, these will update every 1-2 weeks.
It is difficult for MMOs to have an involved narrative. So often they are simply experiences in the world that the players can partake in. Defiance does not break the mold here; while its narrative is a little more involved than the standard MMO and delivered with some appreciated cutscenes, it remains bland and altogether pretty uninteresting. The characters are all fairly generic, from the hoity-toity scientist, to the gruff law keeper. The plot of Defiance hits the right science-fiction notes with secret alien technology and highly advanced foes, but it spends so much time with well established clichés that it never surprises you or draws you in.
Defiance begins, like all MMOs, with a character creator, where the options provided are respectable enough. There are two races, both of which offer either gender, and four different “Origins”, which are character classes ranging from Outlaw to Machinist. You can customize the look of your character a decent amount, although as I ran around the barren remains of San Francisco I found numerous characters that looked just like me. Clothing and outfits are earned as players progress through the game, which leaves players with slim pickings. Players then pick one of four special EGO abilities, and as you progress you gain passive bonuses based on the EGO ability selected. The character creator could have used a bit more variety, but that is a problem with Defiance on the whole.
Where Defiance succeeds and draws you in is the gameplay. For a title that is running across the three different platforms and is always online, Defiance’s shooting feels smooth and accurate. The driving is responsive, easy to do, and provides a nice bit of adrenaline as an escape vehicle. Large encounters are not uncommon in Defiance with the player battling dozens of enemies at a time. Blasting your way through these large scale conflicts, only to hop on your 4-wheeler and gun it to safety, is where Defiance is actually a lot of fun.
Defiance’s other strength is the fluidity of its missions. Driving from point to point, grabbing a mission, and completing it only takes a couple of minutes. Rarely does the game ever bog you down with a slow grind. Part of this is due to the generic nature of the side missions, all of which are travel to a certain points, hold the action button, then return to collect your reward, but it plays into the low barrier of entry and casual nature of Defiance. That being said, the storyline missions are often more involved, creative, and fun. The best part about these larger missions in Defiance is that players can join you at any time. At times I would find myself pinned down, unable to get to my last objective, then out of nowhere another player would arrive, help me clear the enemies, and finish the mission. This natural cooperative play is a real strength of Defiance and while I was playing I felt there was the perfect amount of players. The world did not feel swamped, still maintaining an isolated feeling most of the time, but it was still fairly common to run into one other player during large scale missions.