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Hands-on with the pre-launch Defiance demo


Defiance: It's a game, it's an MMO, it's an FPS, it's a TV show! Before attending this past week's Defiance pre-launch event in San Francisco, I was aware of only one place on earth where all of those elements have seemingly been mashed-up before in quite this order: South Korea. And even there, the TV portion was more in a standard game show format. It's a risky combination in the West.

Thus it was with trepidation and a hefty dose of skepticism that I attended the TV show pilot's screening, which itself was followed by some intense cooperative PvP gaming on the mainstream platform of my choice. The folks at Trion Worlds set up an impressive demo area, with PS3 and XBox systems trailing behind the PC platforms.

Gallery: Defiance Demo Gallery | 15 Photos

I had seen some Defiance beta screenshots earlier in the year that display "OK" quality, but fortunately, the game on the demo platforms was vastly superior, offering much more vivid colors and engaging terrain with straightforward standard navigation, vehicle, and equipment management controls. Performance was certainly snappy on the consoles and PCs, though unfortunately there is no cross-platform play option (each platform is siloed). The interface was intuitive with standard movement and hoovering up loot, plus the usual FPS on-screen elements, such as directional radar, hostile/friendlies location, and HUD overlay for objectives. Vehicle operation is still a little clunky. I got to drive the ATV, which is a delight to play with in PvP as it can be used as a weapon. Beware rivers and lakes as it doesn't float (but you can swim).

The FPS part of the game is basic enough that any experienced WASD button-masher or console aficionado will be up to speed in no time. The tutorial is very effective at guiding the new player without boring him. I am also happy to say that the standard quest-giving entities are not the usual (and sometimes hard-to-find) NPCs with green question marks over their heads. Instead, they appear as large, golden, holographic monoliths that you interact with. Other mission arcs are provided following various cutscenes. Supplies and mission objectives are identified by pulsing in-game artifacts. It's all pretty standard but still entertaining.

Character creation is also relatively standard. You can select gender and play as either Human or one of the Votan alien races. At launch, there will be no guild system, corporation management, or global marketplace. Starting equipment can be quickly upgraded or enhanced after some introductory training, beginner missions, or accumulation of the in-game currency (called scrip). There will naturally be the console/Steam-style achievement system for tracking your completion of in-game tricks such as creative ATV maneuvers or a large chain of kills.

Handson with the prelaunch Defiance demo
I talked with Chris Arretche, the design development manager at Trion Worlds, to ask about what metrics Trion will use to determine whether or not Defiance is a success. The key measure of success, he explained, will be whether and how players push the game's boundaries beyond what the developers intended. If players can quickly respond to enable cool, out-of-the box, gameplay-contributing content, then that will be hugely rewarding for the developers.

Where Defiance really begins to break out of the standard MMOFPS box is in its the unique but regular event called an Arkfall. Essentially, an Arkfall occurs when abandoned or wrecked advanced tech alien space junk re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. This will show up as an alert to all players, telling them there will be a sizable quantity of rare loot crashing somewhere in the vicinity. Arkfalls vary in difficulty, mobs encountered, and loot.

Naturally, when an Arkfall alert appears, there will be a frenzied rush of players converging toward the crash-site to grab a share of that loot, and that's where things get interesting. In a PvE environment, we'll see cooperative elements, but I can only imagine that in a PvP scenario, an Arkfall means a fight for looting rights. Right now, small cooperative teams of four are expected for most group PvE questing and exploration, but there's a great deal of focus on ensuring a great single-player experience too. For the large-scale, PvP battles the environment will support up to 128 (64v64) concurrent players in an event called a Shadow War.

The Defiance TV show's tie-in with plot and mission choreography is probably its most unique feature. Obviously characters, equipment, and buildings won't be eliminated in the show and then turn up in the game. MMO players will know that the clever part is that elements of the show will be based on activity in the game, but even at this event, no one's giving specifics yet. The game will see a bundle of additional DLC packs for release over the season, but in the absence of details, we can only presume they'll coincide with major plot elements in the show.

Handson with the prelaunch Defiance demo
I also had opportunity to chat with Elizabeth Tobey, Trion's director of community relations, who told me about the studio's goal of creating and sustaining community buzz to keep Defiance viable long-term. Expect social media engagement and product placement from sponsoring companies (like Dodge cars and Axe deodorant).

So what if Defiance lasts only a single season on TV -- what happens to the game? Tobey suggested that the community could help the game or the show stand-alone if need be, although of course the goal is perfect synergy.

Defiance's marketing model is pretty straightforward; there's no subscription, so you'll just buy the box or download the game from Steam, along with any optional DLC packs that become available. The standard edition box is $59.99 for all platforms, with pre-order incentives (like special armor or spore guns) depending on where you pre-order. The additional DLC content is $9.99 for each of the five that are planned or $39.99 for a "season pass" that includes all of the DLC. There are also deluxe and collector's editions that come with additional unique pre-order special in-game items. We'll likely see additional in-game purchases and other micro-transaction opportunities as the game progresses.

I must admit, my skepticism has been significantly reduced; this really could be a ground-breaking multi-genre game/show with some great opportunities for both Syfy and Trion Worlds. But as for success? I think the game's true measure of success will be found in whether other studios copy the brave new media world being born here.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

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