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Massively's Defiance launch week diary: Day one

Jef Reahard

I'm an ark hunter, or so they tell me. They being the ruggedly handsome NPCs on display in Defiance's opening cutscene. There's a gruff military man, a captain I think, and some balding suit with trendy eyewear named Von Bach.

There's a bunch of frenzied activity on board the stratocarrier New Freedom, and I pass by a familiar roughneck and a red-haired alien girl that I've seen before in Defiance's ubiquitous television commercials. I'm a human male because I'm one of those weirdos who plays to real-world type in video games. I've got corn-rows here, though, blonde ones, and a face that only a mother could love. Much like my real face, I didn't have a lot of say in the matter because Defiance's character customization is rather bare bones. There's Human or Irathient, male or female. After that there's a choice of four origins: Veteran, Survivalist, Outlaw, and Machinist.

I have a hard time with this because if the earth really were on the edge of sci-fi post-apocalyptic alien invasion extinction, I would no doubt be some sort of grizzled Survivalist/Outlaw/Machinist hybrid. Though this isn't a class-based game from what I hear, for now I have to choose.

It's Survivalist.

Defiance - I know those two
Oh, wait a minute, I spoke too soon. The next panel has a few more character customization choices, things like bone structure, noses, mouths, and skin color. Still nothing to write home about, so hopefully I'll run across some sort of additional visual customization once I get to gameplay proper.

Before I go much deeper, know that you're reading the first entry in a sort of Defiance first impressions miniseries. These aren't really reviews because everyone knows you can't review an MMO, especially on launch day, amirite? Think of these as a sort of launch-week Defiance diary, then, authored by yours truly. Your play experience can and probably should vary.

Anyhow, I've abandoned my usual tactic of doing a bunch of research prior to jumping into a new game. I don't know a damn thing about Defiance other than it's a sci-fi shooter, it's made by Trion, and it's the companion piece to a pretty slick-sounding new TV show.

The sci-fi post-apoc premise certainly hits my sweet spot, and I'm intrigued when various menu screens and cutscenes almost inadvertently dole out little nuggets of lore. There was something called the Battle of Defiance, apparently in San Francisco, and it involved the unlikely cooperation of human and alien enemies in direct disregard of orders from their superior officers. It was a watershed moment, but regardless, this is clearly a world on the brink, and to be quite honest with you I bought into it almost immediately.

Defiance - Cortana? Is that you?
The balding suit -- Von Bach, I think his name was -- tries to tell me something about my EGO implants, but the gruff captain yells at me to strap in. I do so, between the two TV stars, and we're promptly awash in the red glow and ear-splitting yowl of an alarm system predicting our imminent demise. There's fire and something about an escape pod, and then I'm stumbling out of it and talking to a fetching alieness called Cass and having visions of a ghost-white Cortana girl who says she's my aforementioned EGO (environmental guardian online -- more on this later).

I've crash-landed into the middle of Defiance's tutorial, and in typical Trion fashion it's gorgeous and it runs well. I'm playing the PC version with the default settings, for what it's worth. The ship wreckage around me smokes and burns, fire wisps blow away in the breeze and electrical live wires crackle as I listen to this EGO girl and goof with the controls. W, A, S, and D do what they always do, and Defiance sports a third-person camera that seems to be locked at a fixed distance behind my corn-rowed avatar.

The in-world UI is very minimalist, which is fine because it affords me a better view of the gorgeous environments. It's got everything you'd expect from a shooter, though, including a health bar that automatically regenerates if you're not being hit.

So now EGO Cortana girl tells me I'm looking for some shields. I find them in a box that I open by holding down the E key. Double-clicking on them in my inventory equips them and now I'm looking for a second weapon. The pistol in my hand isn't good enough apparently, even though it makes quick work of the mutant rifleman mob to my left. He falls after two headshots, which is a pleasing departure from the spam-specials-for-10-minutes yawn-fest that is typical MMO combat.

Defiance - Cass
EGO girl directs me to a rifle lying in the ship wreckage and helpfully marked on my map. It has a nifty scope bound to my right mouse button, and this leads to a few more satisfying quick-kills on various mobs in the area. There's no auto-targeting, of course, and I need a steady aim, this being a shooter and all. The newbie mobs help me out by being pretty stupid. I'd probably duck and/or run away if I heard a bolt-action round go whizzing past my head, but these guys just keep walking until my aim straightens out. A couple of them roll to the side, but they're still dumb as a box of rocks and quite dead.

Anyway, it's time to calibrate my alien implant EGO thingy-do. I'm given a selection of powers -- blur, decoy, overcharge, and cloak -- and am instructed in their use (which basically amounts to toggling them with the 1 button). My F key melees, while R reloads my guns and the mouse wheel or the 2 and 3 buttons switch between them. At the close of this mini-tutorial, I'm prompted to select and equip a single one of these EGO powers. It's a tough choice. I really like decoy and the hologram that distracts mobs and makes them think I'm running in the open when I'm actually drawing a bead on the back of their skulls from nearby cover. But no, being the sneaky little Survivalist that I am, I go with cloak.

After a brief firefight, the tutorial is apparently over and I load into the game world proper. I know this because there are about 50 other ark hunters clustered around the EGO girl who now sports an exclamation point over her head. Someone discovers how to claim his pre-order items, and in a few moments there are a dozen Mad Max-style Dodge Challengers and grungy ATVs doing donuts on the road just beyond the load-in area. One of them is, of course, driven by a bloke named MadMax. There's no collision detection, so the cars, ATVs, and ark hunter bodies roiling around one another make for an amusing scene but not a particularly deadly one.

Defiance - EGO screen
I get a few more popups from EGO girl, and I tool around in the menus learning a bit about upgrading my powers and claiming my various pre-order items. I've been accumulating some XP by going through the tutorial motions, and I spend my first upgrade on a perk called sucker punch that purports to do more damage if I attack from behind.

It's here that I realize that Defiance has a lot of menus. This may initially turn some people off, especially those who figured on logging in and blasting away with familiar and simplistic shooter controls and conventions. While you can certainly do that, there seems to be a bit of RPG in this MMO shooter, and even though I don't know what everything does just yet, I dig the complexity and the in-character presentation of your EGO screens, inventory, skill panes, and the like.

There's so much information, in fact, that Trion has included a menu for the menus, which takes the form of a Mass Effect-style wheel that comes up when you hold down the spacebar. You can then select sub menus with the mouse pointer (character, social, goals, settings, and more) and delve into your standard MMO-like UI elements and management screens. You'll also need to hold down the space bar to find the exit-the-game button, and that's not the most intuitive thing in the world.

So I should probably do a few of the missions and explore this place, yeah? I wonder if M opens the map? Sure does, and wow, this seems like a pretty big area. I wonder if it's all open-world? I haven't encountered any loading screens since the tutorial and I've been running around snapping screen shots and capping hellbugs for a good long while. Say, that's a pretty vista right there, oh shi.... OK. Well, apparently there's no fall damage in this game.

There is a nifty day/night cycle, though. That's a nice touch that you don't see too often anymore. And speaking of night, I have to work in a few hours, so we should probably pick this up again tomorrow.

defiance launch handson 8
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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