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Wot I Think: Binary Domain

I, Bladerunner

Sega's third-person shooter, Binary Domain, presents itself as having more in common with Mass Effect than Gears Of War, but what does it achieve itself? I've played all the way through the voice-commanded robot apocalypse, and can tell you Wot I Think. Shout "MORE" to read on.

Binary Domain is a mess. From the opening moment of being greeted by a mouseless menu screen, the discovery that Enter is set for 'back', Esc does nothing, and the in-game controls are displayed for a 360 pad when none is plugged in, you know you're dealing with a port for which the word "cursory" would be too optimis - there would always be the possibility that someone might misunderstand and think it lets you use a cursor. I shall rant about this important first impression, then get on with describing the game.

While you can adjust the graphics options, etc, outside of the game, nothing is available once you're playing, including even keyboard controls. Having become completely stuck in one game menu, unable to get back, I was forced to just kill the game. Then I found something I've never seen in a game before. With the external options' control scheme set to keyboard (as it was before) I scrolled down to the bottom of the list of controls, and in a sliver of a dropdown menu was the choice of how I want the in-game instructions to be displayed! I know it will sound crazy, but when using keyboard controls, I was expecting neither the option, let alone that it would default to 360. Oh, and that back key I failed to guess at? It was F. (At other points in the game, F is used for select and jump over.)

It's important to stress that Microsoft make it extremely easy for developers to port to PC, and have an excellent system where if a game detects a 360 controller being used, will flip the in-game options to that, and if the keyboard is hit, flip them back accordingly. I've come to expect it as standard now. The failure for Binary Domain to do this, nor even just have a sodding in-game option, is bewildering, and completely unacceptable.

My face as I played.

The game, then. Well, if its first impression is bad, its second makes no effort to improve things. What amounts to an excruciatingly long tutorial sequence chews up well over an hour of running down straight corridors and unimaginatively shooting the waves of robots that come interminably toward you. For this is the future, 2080. The world flooded because of our fridges, and we needed labourers to rebuild, and they were robots. Two big companies formed to create them, one in Japan, one in the US, and rivalry, etc. You're part of a task force for Geneva, enforcing the New Geneva Convention that contains a clause that says no robots are to be developed that looked like humans. And wouldn't you know it - a human-looking robot from Japan's corp has infiltrated the US's. But he didn't even know he was a robot! What is this?!

Thing is, everything I've just told you, literally the pre-story to the game, isn't given to you until after that first laborious chapter is over. Meaning you're in a situation where you've no idea why you're doing anything, nor who anyone is, and feel like you've arrived at the beginning of a sequel. It's also a chapter in which your teammate, Bo, says lines as hideous as,

"Guess who's come to the party. Shame they brought guns instead of gifts."

And when stood in front of a control panel. "What the hell's that? Some kind of control panel?"

Those lines appear in the small pauses between his incessant barking, "Looks like we bit off more than we can chew!" A line he repeats for the entire game, at completely irrelevant moments. Like when you're about to win a fight. However, that's as nothing when compared to his and others' habit of issuing instructions for what to do just after you've done the thing. At one point, after I shot out all the robot enemies, Bo told me to direct their machine gun fire with my shield while he took them out. Er. So we walked awkwardly across the area where presumably this set piece should have taken place, until we reached the next cutscene. And that happens again and again. Just shabby.

It's after all this that you finally meet the rest of your starting crew: a grumpy English sergeant who doesn't have time for your nonsense, another Brit in the shape of a gruff demo specialist lady who mostly grunts at you, and a beautiful Asian warrior, whom you immediately start leering over in the most unpleasant way. Yes indeed, you're playing a sexist jack-ass. Which is all the more frustrating since most of the time you're supposed to choose what he says, through the magic of voice recognition.

If you don't have a microphone plugged in, instead the game will replace voiced prompts with keyboard presses, but in keeping with the awful porting these are madly awkward. So want to say YES or NO? Well, that's going to require TAB and F or SPACE. Those aren't comfortable choices on your left hand, while the right sits on the mouse, pointlessly, unable to click on the words in the way even half a rock would have thought to do. Do have a mic plugged in and then it's the pot-luck of its understanding you. And more confusingly, it's not active only when you hold down TAB (that only shows you available choices at that point) but all the time, meaning that when I shout, "YOU FUCKING IDIOT!" at Bo as he yet again runs into my line of fire and starts loudly complaining, he'll interrupt himself to say he doesn't understand.

While for much of the time it can distinguish a "No" from an "OK", at more crucial moments it will let you down. Get the life shot out of you and an offer of an assist from a teammate can be responded to with a "Help" or a "Nope". It's not too amusing when the game fails to understand which you've clearly said. Then there's the more peculiar behaviour where teammates imagine you've said something, and complain about it. I've isolated every damned sound, fiddled with the in-game settings, am now using headphones and a precise USB mic, and still in utter silence it imagines my demanding everyone attack. Which is of course far worse in conversations when you're choosing a side, etc.

The overall experience is an attempt to mimic much of Mass Effect, except where BioWare's series approaches cover shooting from the starting point of an RPG, Binary Domain begins as a cover shooter and tries to introduce some role-playing. The difference is significant, and the result feels like most other third-person action games with some terminal shops along the way. You can upgrade your and your teammates' weapons, skills, etc, but all through an interface that offers no useful feedback about how those changes are affecting you, thus not letting you know where anyone is falling short.

The cover shooting works fine, with no original twists. Then it rather spoils it by constantly frustrating your play. So taking on a big boss inevitably means constantly being dazed out of cover, bombarded by rockets that make you drop your weapon and stagger about, slowed from running anyway, and always feeling handicapped from being the action hero you're supposed to be. And that's as nothing compared to the game's constant need to take away your controls, or force you to walk at the most agonisingly slow pace.

These lead to the "social" sections, which are presumably another attempt to embrace a Mass Effect-style element (others include similar armour design and a squad from which you select two to accompany you). Here the third-person engine feels especially clumsy, and with massively limited conversation options (only very short phrases the game can understand can be used to respond, so usually your part in any chat comes down to agreeing or disagreeing), it's only ever perfunctory. Generally the far more interesting conversations happen during cutscenes, out of your control.

This is all with the possible exception of the ability to say "Love you" to absolutely everybody, as often as possible. This tends to be received with disgust by the ladies, and shock bordering on homophobia from the men. And all I want to do is share my platonic philia love. Oh, and special mention should go to when you're asked a double-negative. "You're not interested in fashion, are you?" Yes/no doesn't really help here.

Part of talking to your buddies is the trust system, which defines how likely they are to follow your orders. You can lose trust by being rude to them, or shooting them during fights (usually because they're running in an 'S' formation between you and the enemy), and gain it by being nice, I guess. Between telling everyone I loved them, I mostly just said "yeah" when they said stuff to me, and by the end of the game everyone trusted me with their PINs and childhood toys, making no discernable difference to the game I experienced.

Oh, the list of issues just goes on, interspersing the interminable sequences of shooting identical waves of robots and the tiresome bosses. Playing in a window doesn't contain your mouse, such that it constantly clicks on my other screen. This of course reaches its zenith of annoying when it then lets you click on its own close window X, without even a prompt to check if you're sure before it vanishes. And there's the product placement. Just look above. And this is one of so very many.

The story is being heralded in a few places. I can only assume this is by people who haven't heard of I Robot and Bladerunner, from which it steals liberally, along with any number of sci-fi tales that question the role of robots in society/ask what if robots looked like humans. And despite the arse-burningly slow trudging 'social' scenes, none of the story is ever conveyed during them - just random unnecessary snippets of info while characters yell at you for not having clicked on the next door yet. It's cutscenes and then yet another corridor of robots/vehicle chase scene with robots, ending in a boss fight.

And those waves of enemies are so peculiar. They just stay the same for the entire game, never getting appreciably any more difficult, while the characters act as though they are. Terror is voiced before another wave of the same enemies you know you can take out in a few seconds, predictions of doom and desperate cries of how we'll survive this one. Then you take them out in a few seconds.

What does it get right? Well, the scale of the game is impressive, and the detail of the city you're in realised beautifully. Clearly a lot of effort has gone into character mo-cap, and while there are horrendous exceptions, most of the voice acting is decent enough. It's just a shame they're all spouting a language entirely made out of cliché. Clichélish I call it. The game's overall story is at least important to it, if the result is hokum, and by golly it's going to tell it to you while not letting you be in control. Oh, and a couple of the boss fights are okay - it's shoot at the glowy bit, repeat three times, but it's fine. Others, however, are tedious repetition over multiple scenes that made me scream unrecognisable commands into the microphone. Robot destruction is pretty nice, breaking apart in dozens of different areas, letting you pop off heads, or remove legs, and so on... the first eighty-seven thousand times. After that it begins to be as dull as the rest of the combat.

But if there's one thing I will say in the game's favour, without any hesitation, is that it features a sequence where one of the NPCs has to go for a shit. I was won over for that scene at least. And to be fair, the narrative works out whichever teammates you choose to have with you, and that's a lot of work. Clearly story elements were effected by the trust level doodah, but in one play-through, and with such a detached sense from that trust being meaningful, it was impossible to enjoy how.

It's weird, for a Japanese game, that the Japanese are cast as the bad guys, somewhat offensively in places. A wacky French robot with a red scarf around its neck does rather define the level of cultural stereotyping that replaces actual characterisation. We're supposed to care about one girl because our guy snogs her, but since she says or does nothing interesting at any point, that wasn't enough to warrant my affections. And the buddy-buddy relationship between our guy and Bo is so ghastly that I'd be amazed at anyone who'd deliberately let him be on your team for any mission. Alone either is intensely annoying - together is miserable.

There's an awful lot more going on here than in the average third-person shooter, while it falls miles short of Mass Effect. But then I never required it to reach that. Of the six or so characters that accompany you, two are vaguely interesting. And the story, in the final hour (of about 12 or so) finally becomes something a bit more novel, at last introducing an idea of its own, rather than recycling everyone else's. But even this is bogged down in major decisions made in cutscenes (perhaps dictated by trust levels? I've no idea, and I'm buggered if I'm playing through it again to find out), and ultimately a really stupid and dull final moment.

But I hated playing it. I think I'd prefer if it had just been a dumb action game, because then I wouldn't have been infuriated by its incessant annoyances, mostly terrible script, and ludicrous flip-flopping "twists". And boy, if its voice recognition could have recognised the language I was screaming at it at its worst moments, I think it would have uninstalled itself.

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Binary Domain

PS3, Xbox 360, PC

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About the Author
John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org