Review in Progress: Defiance

Kevin VanOrd shares his thoughts on the PC version of the entertaining and problematic Defiance in advance of the full review.

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Defiance is an ambitious project: a multiplatform, massively-multiplayer shooter tied to an original television show soon to air on the SyFy network. I haven't seen the show yet--the premier episode doesn't air until April 15--but I've recently spent some time with series star Grant Bowler. Well, not really; I've hung out with the electronic version of his Defiance character, Joshua Nolan, and a week after I started playing, I thought I would share with you some early impressions in advance of the Defiance's full review. Please note that I have only played the PC version as of this writing, so these impressions only relate to that particular platform, and not to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases.

Defiance is Big

Defiance covers a lot of real estate, and it gives you a lot to do within it. You earn an ATV early on, and can spend the game's primary currency--scrip--to purchase more, though you need a license to operate the more interesting vehicles. And so you drive from mission, alone or with friends, shooting up the bizarre mutants, hellbugs, and raiders that populate the San Francisco Bay Area's post-apocalyptic landscape. I felt immediately at home, and not just because I live in San Francisco, but because Defiance takes on elements we're intimately familiar with from other games. The dusty landscape and mission-riddled map brought to mind Red Faction: Guerrilla. The large public events recall developer Trion Worlds' own Rift. And the setting might alternately remind you of Rage, Fallout, or even the now-defunct vehicular MMO Auto Assault.

You may also be reminded of Borderlands, and not just because you shoot a lot of wildlife and raiders in a hostile world. Rather, it's more because there are so many different kinds of guns, and so many different variants of them. As you progress, you earn more powerful weapons as quest rewards, and in turn, you can equip those weapons with attachments that affect their performance. I find myself experimenting with any number of combinations; currently, I'm sporting a light machine gun with a scope that lets me load up mutants from a good distance away, and a launcher that fires ordnance that, in turn, splits into multiple smaller rockets that rain down from above.

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Defiance is Troubled

No massively multiplayer game is without its launch foibles, though a number of games, including Rift, have proven that we must no longer accept buggy launches as a matter of course. Defiance is hardly unplayable, though it has suffered more than enough downtime since its release in the name of server maintenance. I've experienced a few game-altering bugs here and there, such as weapons gone missing, and any number of lesser glitches: pop-ups reminding me over and over again that I have unlocked the same co-op map, that same co-op map bugging out and requiring a restart, my vehicle spawning on top of unreachable surfaces, and the such. The technical hitches are apparent right off the bat, but Defiance's flaws stretch beyond them. Defiance just isn't very good at any one thing, so each element has a "but" attached to it.

There are huge numbers of weapons--but haphazard AI (both of the friendly and unfriendly sort) and dinky sound effects keep the shooting from feeling anything more than functional. There are a lot of story scenes--but the awkward character models and unfocused storytelling keep them from drawing you in. There are four special abilities, called EGO Powers, and a number of passive perks to equip--but they don't make you feel particularly powerful or heroic; at least, not at this stage. The interface, in the meanwhile, is an unintuitive jumble that hides typical MMO features in places you would least suspect them. (It might take you a few minutes just to figure out how to log out.)

None of these elements are enormous hindrances in and of themselves, but there are enough of them to make Defiance feel clumsy. There's always something weird to stumble on. Maybe it's an annoying difficulty spike when you suddenly face a bunch of turrets and rocketmen, all while your moronic AI companions crawl about on the ground indefinitely, waiting to be revived. Maybe it's the sudden spawning of an obstacle in front of you, messing up an otherwise perfect vehicular speed run. Even compared to other massively multiplayer games, there are a lot of such foibles to get accustomed to.

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Defiance is Fun

Games are more than their individual features, however, and in spite of how awkward many of Defiance's pieces are, they come together to create highly entertaining moments that keep me invested. Many of these moments come in the form of arkfalls. You see, in this version of near-future Earth, the remnants of an alien fleet orbit the planet in a belt of debris. Occasionally, an enormous chunk falls to the ground, and players in the vicinity converge, hoping to loot any valuables that it might contain. The problem is that the local wildlife and vicious humanoids also appear, so you must fight for your right to purloin. They function much like rifts in Rift, appearing in the landscape and drawing in nearby players looking for good treasure and a good fight.

And they are very good fights. The most dramatic arkfalls I have experienced have had me and my fellow ark hunters firing at menacing masses of bugs that swarm the ground and lob projectiles from the air. Such arkfalls might culminate with a battle against the grossest boss bug of all, which, when defeated, causes the remaining artifact to explode in a brilliant flash of light and leave behind its special secrets. Usually in the form of a cool gun and a load of scrip.

Even beyond arkfalls, however, there are moments of satisfaction. The combination of easily identified missions and unplanned excursions makes for a comforting flow. I might be following the map's breadcrumb trail of missions, only to stumble upon a group of hunters facing off against a giant deformed hulker. How can I resist the call of taking down such a beast? But if I prefer, I can focus on side missions, which are quickly accomplished, and keep the rewards coming even when I'd rather ignore a fallen NPC's call for help. The map pulls me forward, but the surprises keep me on my toes. It's a good mix of the unpredictable and the comfortable.

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I am not ready yet to fully evaluate Defiance. I need some more time with it, and of course, in that time, many of the game's problems might be diminished, and many features might be improved. At this point, though, I recommend caution, for as much as I like this game, I like it more for what it clearly wants to be--and might one day be--than for what it currently is. Yet I can't deny its appeal, and by next week, I should be able to offer a more definitive dissection of Defiance's successes and failures. In the meanwhile, if you have any of your own thoughts on your time with Defiance in advance of our review, I invite you to share them in the comments below!

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