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Defiance is the MMO equivalent of a popcorn movie


Defiance is a curious beast. One part television show and one part video game, it is as much an experiment in building a brand as it is an MMO. The game half of Defiance, developed by Trion Worlds, is a third-person action shooter with dynamic events, a persistent open world, and dozens of nasty enemy types. The television half is, well, a television show that takes place in the same universe (and occasionally, with the same characters).

It has been almost two months since Defiance (the game) first hit digital shelves. In that time, it has amassed over one million registered players. The only real question, of course, is how long those players will stick around once the novelty of the "TV/game hybrid" thing wears off. In other words, beyond the concept and the experiment, is Defiance really a game worth playing?

Gallery: Defiance Demo Gallery | 15 Photos

Telling the tale

If you've never seen Defiance-the-show or played Defiance-the-game, here's a primer on the overarching narrative: Once upon a time in the future of Earth, an alien race known as the Votans showed up on the planet in search of a new home. Humans, who generally consider Earth a "No Vacancy" type place, disagreed with the Votans' plan to take up residency on their shiny blue globe. War was declared and everything got super messed up.

Defiance ATV
The war between the Votans and humans was so devastating that Earth became a pretty terrible place to live. Existing animals and plants were replaced by new animals and plants of a rougher, uglier, and meaner variety. Faced with the choice between starving to death in order to continue a war no one was winning or joining hands and hugging it out in the bold new future, the Votans and humans laid down their arms and started working together.

That's where you come in. You're an elite "Ark Hunter," and your job to explore the bombed-out ruins of the San Francisco Bay Area in search of valuable alien tech (and scrip, the game's main form of currency). Along the way, you'll find mutants, monsters, and humans all bent on ending your trip with a well-placed bullet, rocket, or machete -- and it's up to you to keep yourself and your friends alive.

Flexibility of class

One of Defiance's strongest features is that it is designed explicitly with accessibility in mind. It's clear that Trion wanted to build something that offered casual and new MMO players (perhaps sent this way by the television show) with a rewarding, easy-to-learn experience. This accessibility does come with a certain lack of depth for hardcore players but serves the purpose it seems intended to serve.

Defiance Combat
The first big example of Defiance's core design philosophy comes in the form of your class selection. The game offers four starting classes, all of which fit into common shooter archetypes: There's the Veteran (your basic soldier), the Outlaw (your basic mercenary), the Machinist (your basic engineer) and the Survivalist (your basic recon). Each class has its own specific starting weapon (the Survivalist, for example, begins with a sniper rifle) and outfit, but class selection has no bearing on the weapons you can use in-game and the skills you can acquire as you level.

As you kill monsters and complete missions, you earn EGO Points. Collect enough Ego Points and you'll earn a new perk on the EGO grid, a collection of abilities and enhancements to your existing skillset. My Survivalist character, for instance, has EGO perks that allow her to temporarily cloak herself from view and give her damage bonuses when attacking while crouched or from elevated ground. All character classes have access to all perks and skills on the EGO grid, allowing you to build your character however you see fit.

"The end result is a character that begins in a similar place as every other character in the game but ends up becoming a creature of your own design."

There's also customization in terms of the guns you use to best your foes. The more you use a specific weapon type, the better your character will get with it. Weapon skills in Defiance are similar to weapon skills in other MMOs except that leveling different weapon types unlocks bonus enhancements for those weapons along the way. Additionally, Defiance has a wide collection of weapon modifications that give your guns special bonuses when applied. Guns, shields, mods, grenades, and other gear are acquired in the traditional MMO ways: looting and questing.

The end result is a character that begins in a similar place as every other character in the game but ends up becoming a creature of your own design. Your individual playstyle is what controls how the character grows and evolves. If you do the majority of your killing from afar and through a scope, your character will learn abilities that enhance his sniping. If you're in the middle of the fray brandishing an assault rifle, your skills will evolve to match. The game's entire arsenal is at your disposal.

Defiance Players
Having a common starting point is both a good and a bad thing for Defiance. It simplifies your choices and gives everyone an equal playing field but also creates an environment in which everyone is pretty much the same with different flecks of paint here and there. There's no clear borderline between the classes, which in turn means there's no clear group design for succeeding or failing an encounter. Your particular set of skills may be different from that of another player, but this only affects "how" you do the things you do and not whether you can do them.

Dynamic, fluid content

Defiance drops you into a rapidly moving world and immediately gives you the tools you need to participate in the struggles that define it. There are a few basic quests to help you learn your way around (and to give you your first vehicle for traveling the map and running over enemies), but after that you are free to go wherever you want and do whatever you please. You can do the main story quests or not. You can do side quests or not. You can participate in a PvP Shadow War or boost your ATV or Dodge Challenger (seriously) into one of the game's racing minigames. It's all up to you.

Defiance Major Arkfall
Defiance, like RIFT (Trion's MMORPG hit, which incidentally goes free-to-play next month), offers a lot in the way of dynamic content. There's always something happening around you, and merely driving through certain areas will spawn opportunities for you to get kills and earn some scrip. Additionally, Arkfalls, Defiance's version of rifts, offer a series of escalating challenges that end with dozens of players fighting extremely tough bad guys for a massive group reward and the chance at a little bit of gear. The upside is that it is easy to jump into the game and find something to do, while the downside is that the "something" you find is almost always "shoot bad guys with guns."

"In building a game that is so universally accessible, Trion has also created a title that has no lasting depth."

Arkfalls, while exciting, don't require much in terms of planning or teamwork. You and a bunch of other Defiance players simply point and click on monsters until the monsters stop spawning. If you die, you just respawn and leap back into the fray. There's no sense of risk, but there's definitely an exciting feeling of chaotic joy as you and an army of players pack a massive hellbug or collection of elite mutants with bullets. Major Arkfalls, which can best be described as "a bunch of Arkfalls happening in rapid succession and culminating in a massive boss battle," are even more fun but don't do much to test the wits.

Overall, there's a lot to love about Defiance. It's a serviceable third-person shooter (with minor issues), a serviceable sci-fi MMO (with minor issues) and a serviceable provider of fast-paced combat (with minor issues) without a queue or the need to build a party. It looks nice for a game that was clearly built with consoles in mind, and everything it does is executed with enthusiasm by the steady hand of an experienced team. The only problem is that in building a game that is so universally accessible, Trion has also created a title that, for the moment, has no lasting depth.

Put simply, Defiance is as good as a game can be without any standout features or unique selling points. It provides simple, well-prepared fun on demand but nothing that really earns your everlasting affection and loyalty. This is especially true if you don't care about the television show that helps to give the game world its meaning. It's a solid game made by solid people, but maybe not quite solid enough to solicit a $59.99 entry fee from those who are not already sold on the core concept. (The game is on sale this weekend on Steam, but the promo might be over by the time you read this.)

Defiance is the MMO version of a popcorn movie: Mindless entertainment to fill a few vacant hours. And in this role it performs quite well.

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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