The Average Gamer

Hands On with Defiance

Games are converging with other media more frequently than ever, with many of the biggest releases produce tie-in novels, comics, short films and more. Commonly known as “transmedia projects”, the SyFy channel and Trion Worlds (Rift) are taking the concept one step further. They’re simultaneously building a TV show and a game world to launch April 2013.

Defiance is set in a future North America. A group of alien species called the Votan have crashed on Earth and their technology has started terraforming the land. The TV show is primarily in St Louis, while the game’s action takes place in San Francisco.

“The thing is,” said Trion Worlds’ Senior Producer Rob Hill, “Television has different needs to the type of game we’re making, the massive online game. TV shows need to be fairly small and intimate so that they can tell specific dramas within a smaller group of characters. We have to make gigantic worlds so we have a ton of characters and can tell a ton of different stories. We build the universe together to make sure that both are as good as they can be.”

The game comes out two weeks before the TV show launches in the US, (European dates are still being confirmed) and in some of those early story missions, you’ll venture with two of the main TV show characters, Nolan and Irisa. You’ll help them kill stuff, they’ll help you find stuff and eventually they’ll leave San Francisco in their post-apocalyptic jeep, with the show opening as they pull up in St Louis.

Later in the season another character (no spoilers) will leave the show and appear in the game for some weeks. He’ll then return to the show with a fresh outlook on things. Players won’t have to watch the show and viewers won’t have to play the game, but if you do both, you’ll understand exactly what happened to cause this character’s transformation. Whether that change is for the better or worse, I couldn’t possibly say.

Rather bravely, Trion Worlds will be making these events time-specific to tie in with the show. If you weren’t playing during that window, you won’t meet the character. It seems like the perfect way to encourage television piracy to me, but being an MMO, the game’s team has no such concerns and they’re considering replaying the time-limited content between the show’s seasons. “The whole idea is,” Hill said, “we want people to experience it as it happens. If we leave it open all the time then it loses a lot of impact.”

The collaboration goes far beyond just swapping a few characters in and out. Hill is in constant contact with the SyFy team. “We’re working with the writers’ room, working with the production staff, making sure they can actually build for the show from a week to week basis.

“In some cases, our art designer would do a quick sketch of a vehicle, and they’d look at it and go ‘It probably works in the game but that’s gonna fall on our actors. We don’t want that sort of thing to happen.’

“We had some aliens that had four arms, or we had aliens that had helmets because they had to survive in the Earth environment. They came back and went ‘We can’t do four arms every week. And we don’t like aliens that have helmets because they can’t show expression.'” The changes go both ways – the aliens in question started as generic video game bad guys but will now show much more nuance. Or so I’ve been told.

I played a few hours of the game myself and I am impressed. It’s basically Borderlands with more people and a darker colour palette. This is no bad thing. You play the typical mercenary for hire, known as an Ark Hunter for some reason that wasn’t explained to me. Two races were available at the preview; Humans and Irithiants, a Voltan species. The differences are purely cosmetic as the game doesn’t rely on traditional RPG stats. Following the trends in shooters, you use weapons and gain experience with your chosen type for every kill.

There’s a good range to choose from as well – handguns, shotguns, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, BMGs, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and one uniquely disgusting weapon I picked up: infection guns. These are nasty things with a short range and low clip size but some fun features.

You launch spores through the air and any enemies they hit swell up with balloon-sizes pustules on their bodies. Kill them before the swelling goes down and new knee-high bugs will swarm from their corpses to infect nearby enemies. How they can tell the difference between friend and foe, I have no idea but I really want to see these weapons in the TV show. Or perhaps I don’t. I’m sure it would be horrifying.

The quests I found were a mix of your typical “Go investigate this waypoint and kill all the things” to “Help me take back the mine by killing all the things” and the large maps are easily crossed with the help of vehicle spawns that are only slightly limited by time.

In a manner similar to Guild Wars 2, the location-specific quests will scale according to the number of people nearby, so you could find yourself in a relatively simple battle when suddenly an extra 5 enemies appear as another player wanders into the base.

This proved somewhat problematic in the preview, as journalists would be called away for interviews, leaving their characters idle in key areas. This appeared to have the knock-on effect of inflating the numbers, so missions that would have been challenging became nigh-impossible. When the game launches, players will presumably be less inclined to leave the characters in unsafe areas but I hope this is checked so that a battle’s balance remains even when non-participants are in the area.

As well as taking missions from NPCs, you’ll also come across plenty on the road. Rather like the omnipresent skags of Borderlands, our section of San Francisco was infested with hellbugs – horrible little spidery things that leapt at your head like oversized head crabs from Half Life.

I soon learned to avoid one particular stretch of highway as a monster known as The Monarch spawned there. This hellbug the size of a bus would camp on a narrow stretch of road, virtually guaranteeing a head-on collision with your vehicle that left me frantically running away from the giant enemy crab on foot while my vehicle cool-down ticked away. It was impressive the first time, with rolling charge attacks and a daunting attack that sprays a wall of glowing green goop through the air. The fifth time? Just tedious.

This was a demo build, of course, so I suspect many creatures were on a faster respawn than they will be the final game. I certainly hope so.

The human-sized monsters were better and even seemed quite intelligent for a bunch of self-modified maniacal cyborgs. Known as the 99-ers, these used to be a human colony of miners who started to modify their bodies with alien technology to mine more efficiently. As is so often the case, the implants destroyed their minds, leaving them with just the vestigial need to occupy the mining bases.

In battle, I encountered 4 types of 99-er. The most common was a horrible short monster with a flamethrower who would run right up and set me on fire – the best way to deal with these was to shoot out their tanks or shoot them in the face to stop them running.

The most annoying would stand a long way back and fire grenades with bothersome accuracy. Even at short range, he was so heavily armoured that he had no qualms against grenading me at point blank range. And in between, are the normal ones – shotgunners, machine gunners and so on.

Playing in small groups showed off the aggro system here. Showing its MMO influences, Defiance makes it easy to work with your team, flanking enemies while they’re distracted by a rocket launcher or a sniper on the roof.

Based on what I’ve seen, the Defiance game is a great online shooter with solid PvE. The Shadow War control point modes held on the same maps will provide plenty of action for PvP fans and just like the PvE missions, these will scale up according to the number of players who join in. If the TV show is as much fun as the game, Syfy and Trion Worlds can be very proud of what they’ve built together.

Defiance will be available on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. Get more info from the official Defiance website.