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Two Hours With Defiance

Not quite ready to say 'SighFy' yet

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Defiance describes itself as an “online open-world shooter”, but it can’t pull the wool over my eyes – I know it’s really an MMO. Look at it, pretending to be something new and different even while thousands of players sprint around chasing experience points and killing infinite, infinitely respawning monsters. You can’t fool me, Defiance! I defy your description of yourself. I DEFY IT.

Defiance also a tie-in to a new sci-fi serial on the Syphilis channel, but as the trailers suggest it’s a sort of grey pantomime I currently have no intention of watching it. Perhaps an hour* with the game, which as far as I can ascertain is designed to be standalone as well as tie-in, would change my mind?

* I had planned on just an hour, in keeping with a series of features we used to run about games we didn’t quite have time for, but given that a good 15-20 minutes of that hour involved simply sitting through NPC exposition, I opted to give the game proper a little longer. Even so, just like An Hour With pieces, this isn’t a review. It’s impressions which solely reflect that hour/two hours.

Initially there are two cutscenes involving a text-scroll about aliens invading San Francisco ages ago, then talking between people I didn’t even catch the names of, let alone care about, then we’re into character creation. There’s a choice of two races, both in manparts and ladyparts flavours, and the only obvious difference being that one species has big foreheads. The other one is human, because obviously. There seem to be four classes to choose from, named Veteran, Outlaw, Survivalist and Machinist, but the game fails to describe how they’re actually different. All four of them are described as being hunters. Maybe that means it’s actually classless, but they do have different clothes and guns, so I rather doubt it.

I have no idea what I’m choosing, what kind of experience it means and why I might prefer it, so I pick the one with the shotgun because Doom II remains the best time I’ve ever had in terms of shooting monsters. I also make myself a big-foreheaded woman, because in real life I’m a man with a normal-sized forehead. I’m then asked to customise my character’s appearance, but no matter how many times I scroll through the ‘bone structure’ option, I can’t see any difference. No Depp-esque cheekbones for me, then. The only faintly distinctive change I can seem to make is to add a bunch of piercings, so I fill my boatrace with metal and leave it at that. OK, my forehead, my face full of crap and I are ready for action!

Oh, more talking.
And some more.
I don’t know who any of these people are. They seem very interested in me though. I think the ones with the more impressively-rendered faces are people from the TV show?
Nice textures though. Look at this man’s angry face, that’s not bad for an MMO.

Someone tells someone off, a thing happens and then I’m playing at last, and standing in what I presume are the post-invasion ruins of San Francisco. I wonder if I can find that nice hotel I stayed in in Japantown a few years ago?

I’m still not allowed to do anything, of course. A character who isn’t called Cortana but is Cortana wants to exposit at me some more, then tell me how to move and that sort of thing. Like everyone else so far (and after), she keeps calling me ‘Ark Hunter’, but every single time it happens I think someone’s saying ‘a cunt, huh?’ to me and feel briefly outraged.

Anyway Cortana eventually has me shoot a Mutant Soldier. Turns out a Mutant Soldier is not only an incredibly boring name for a game baddie – it’s also an incredibly boring character model. Oh gosh, a dude in a helmet with a bit of wrinkly face, what unspeakable horror. But, y’know, he’s a mutant so I suppose that means he has to die.

I carry on running where I’m told and pressing E on things I’m told to press E on, and soon enough I’ve been talked through a set of core abilities and asked to choose one. I pick invisibility, because The Invisible Shotgunner strikes me as pleasantly absurd/terrifying. Invisibility seems more forgiving than in, say, World of Warcraft – as long as no-one else can see me when I shotgun one of their mates in the back, I’ll slip back into stealth until the (recharging) energy meter runs out. Seems pretty well set up for insane guerrilla shotgun assassinations, so I’m happy with that. I’m not happy with the UI, which is a barrage of tiny, counter-intuitive, same-coloured icons which require far too many mouseclicks to achieve anything in, but maybe there are a bunch of keyboard shortcuts I need to learn.

Eventually I manage to figure out that pressing Escape, then holding down space, then clicking on the spanner icon from the pop-up radial menu gets me to settings, wherein I can breathe a sigh of relief and turn off the awful music. It’s terrible, insipid, watery boom-beep-thump electronic stuff, like listening to techno in a lift, or the sort of thing you’d hear in the background during a scene about hacking in a film from the early 90s.

Meanwhile I’ve moved out of the brown and grey starting area and into something that’s actually rather eye-catching. For some reason San Futurisco has giant mushrooms everywhere, in addition to ruined bridges and shattered towerblocks, giving it the overall appearance of a collision between Morrowind and STALKER. I quite like taking in the view, and hopping across the tops of mushrooms just because. The Boring Mutant-shooting seems a shame, really, and it doesn’t help that firing any gun at them feels like throwing gravel at a window. There’s a sense of weightlessness, a certain intangibility to everything. I can even jump/fall from any height without taking damage, which is usually something I enjoy, but here it just adds to that distracting sense that this is a world of papercraft.

Supposedly this is open world, but with little idea of what I’m doing or why, I opt to follow the mission objectives for now. This primarily involves running an awfully long way, shooting some Papercraft Mutant Soldiers, pressing E to Use on something, then running an awfully long way back to where I was. But hey, I get some cash and a few new guns out of it, so it was worthwhile. I’m no longer The Invisible Shotgunner because I got a sniper rifle and a submachine gun which had green names. Green Means Good: that much I know.

I run back somewhere, and someone else greets me with “A cunt, huh?” I try to shoot him, but as we all well know you can’t shoot friendly characters in MMOs. This might look a bit like Fallout 3, but it’s much more like Tabula Rasa with proper shooting.

Well, I say ‘proper shooting’ but the reality is that the camera makes a sad mess of things. Rather than true third-person, it feels a lot like a first-person perspective with a character model stuck to the front of the screen, with the result being both a slightly jerky viewport and a maddening discrepancy between what you appear to be firing at and what you’re really firing at. Time and I again I was crouched behind a crate or wall, lining up what would clearly be a textbook headshot, only for the bullet to ping off the crate or wall. From a first-person perspective, more than like the edge of that crate of wall would have obscured my view; from the game’s quasi-third it was nowhere to be seen. I pretty much gave up on trying to use cover from thereon in.

More running, more pop-pop-pop, more press E to use, more semi-lovely scenery and then, wonderfully, the reward of a quadbike all of my own.

That was quick. I am well pleased about this. I can summon it up any time I like by pressing V, it appears to be indestructible (or at least, like everything else in the game, made of card) and I no longer need to go on tedious kilometre-long jogs. Also, I can run people over in it, which would be as satisfying as that sounds if only the sensation was a bit more meatier than riding a bicycle through a slight breeze.

To cap off my (initial) time with the game, I found a free-for-all open world mission where a half-dozen other players, in both human and Big Foreheadian, were endlessly shooting a giant beehive with a million hitpoints. The beehive kept on spawning giant knobbly insects, eventually escalating to what I presume were Boss giant knobbly insects, but mostly we just kept on firing at a big, static beehive for about ten minutes until it went pop. Do they do that in the TV show?

I return to base to take on a mission about going to a place, shooting some Mutant Soldiers and pressing E to Use on some things. An NPC addresses me as “a cunt, huh?” I log off.

Would/will I continue to play Defiance were I to have the time? Despite all the snark here, maybe. Primarily because I don’t yet have anything like the measure of it, but also because it seems fairly well suited for dropping in, hopping on a quadbike and speeding off across a passably spectacular landscape to shoot some dudes for ten minutes before logging off. It seems, so far, very geared towards solo play, with casual co-operation when you feel like it. Apart from that initial 20 minutes of vomited exposition misery, it’s refreshingly determined not to waste my time. Here’s invisibility, here’s a vehicle, here are bunch of guns, baddies over there, there, there and there, go do that thing you do. It also seems to be subscription-free, though there is a season pass for DLC. Not convinced I’d want to pay for that based on my very short experiences so far – it’s quite pretty and once you’re past the intro it goes from 0 to 60 pretty much instantly, but it does feel overwhelming lightweight.

Anyone been playing it for longer? What can I expect down the line?

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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