Defiance is the B movie of massively multiplayer games: rickety and unrefined, yet a good time all the same.

The Good

  • Exciting arkfalls capture the sense of a population fighting for riches
  • The lure of interesting new weapons is irresistible
  • Well-paced co-op missions
  • Great scaling and progression have you exploring the world early on.

The Bad

  • Depressing array of bugs intrude on almost every aspect of play
  • The shooting lacks a sense of power
  • Wonderless world and story
  • Unbalanced difficulty in story missions.

Defiance is a difficult game to wrap your head around. That’s not because it’s all that complicated, but rather because it’s just so much fun, even though none of the elements are done particularly well. Defiance is a massively multiplayer shooter in which every aspect is merely decent at best, yet it somehow pieces the jagged elements together into an entertaining picture as you pursue one challenge after another across its postapocalyptic landscape. What a shame that the trek is interrupted not just by the squishy kinds of bugs that you like to kill with guns and grenades, but the technical kinds of bugs that have you cursing and rolling your eyes.

Some people come together for the sake of love. Others come together for the sake of shooting hulking mutants.

  • Comment on this video
  • Watch this video in High Def

Look beyond the hitches and the glitches, and you discover a game with a scrappy attitude and a tight handle on what a massively multiplayer world needs to keep you coming back in spite of the frustrations. What is this world? Well, it’s Earth, as it happens–more specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area. An alien war has ended, and an uncertain peace between exhausted factions remains. The decrepit remnants of an annihilated fleet of spaceships orbit the planet, occasionally plummeting to the land beneath, and drawing in treasure hunters eager to scour the remaining debris for valuable commodities. Terrestrial and extraterrestrial plant life have merged, causing bizarre purple flowers to grow from the gnarled branches that corkscrew above crumbling highways and rusting copied-and-pasted factories.

You shouldn’t come to Defiance to be immersed in the world, which looks too monotone to be all that compelling. Ruinous environments can have their own kind of disastrous beauty, but this vision of Earth lacks the tense atmosphere and visual variety of gaming’s best ravaged lands. You might become invested in this world in spite of its mundane looks, however, depending on your level of interest in the SyFy television show of the same name. Story-based missions feature the vague likenesses of characters from the show, and future story missions are promised, but stiff facial animations and inconsistent voice acting–not to mention a lot of cheesy (in the bad way) dialogue–make it hard to whip up any excitement over the narrative in spite of an abundance of cutscenes.

Massively multiplayer online games have trod in alien territory before, though while sci-fi games like Tabula Rasa and Anarchy Online involved guns, they weren’t shooters. And unlike PlanetSide and its sequel, which focused purely on player-versus-player combat, Defiance embraces many elements of traditional online role-playing games. You move from mission to mission, clearing meadows of giant hellbug swarms, freeing captured prisoners from their bonds, collecting data from computer terminals, and the like. You perform most of these tasks in the open world, though key missions might send you into instanced areas. If you’ve played any MMOG before, you’ll be familiar with the basic structure.

These robots have clearly never heard of Asimov's three laws.

These robots have clearly never heard of Asimov’s three laws.

How you interact with your enemies in Defiance, however, is different from in a typical online RPG. This is a shooter, so you can ignore what other games have taught you about ability hotbars, and concentrate on aiming at your target and pulling the trigger. That isn’t to say you don’t have special skills to mess with or that there is no character progression. You initially choose one of four powers so that you can run really fast, go invisible, create a ghostly decoy, or enhance weapon damage. From there, the power grid expands, allowing you to earn and improve lots of passive perks, though you can equip only as many perks as your loadout allows, and eventually you can unlock the other powers to play around with.

These skills are called EGO powers, named after the Environmental Guardian Online artificial intelligence fused with your body. This AI is Defiance’s version of Halo’s Cortana, though EGO makes a far more annoying companion than Cortana, what with the sharp treble of her voice and the repetitious line readings that don’t necessarily make sense in every context. (Do hellbugs really call in reinforcements, as if they have tiny radios strapped to their heads?) But you’ll be glad of the abilities she grants you, which aren’t very thrilling to activate or watch, but are nonetheless useful in battle. Need to shake off a flame-spewing munchkin? Distract him with your decoy, and shoot the fuel supply strapped to his back. In over your head? Turn invisible and make a quick getaway.

It isn’t the powers that make for rewarding progression in Defiance, however; it’s the weapons. There is a cornucopia of choices, and once you get a taste of each gun type, you’ll be pleased that your inventory is constantly filling with so many deadly possibilities. Simple pistols and machine guns are soon upgraded with modifications you purchase and earn, or are replaced with similar weapons infused with effects like fire and poison. Launchers come in all sorts of varieties. You might be able to lock on to your target, or perhaps your payload explodes in midair and spews fire onto your enemies beneath. Infectors cause bugs to spawn within your victims and eat away at their flesh; biomagnetic guns allow you to siphon health from foes and grant it to friends.

In the world of Defiance, night brings no rest.

In the world of Defiance, night brings no rest.

And so your drive to continue playing is fueled by the ever-present possibility of a new gun, a new variant, or a modification that enhances the bond to your current weapon of choice. That bond is then broken when a shiny new toy makes the old, newly obsolete weapon a relic of the past, though weapons remain surprisingly effective for some time. In fact, the gap in weapon effectiveness that you usually feel in a persistent-world game as you level up isn’t so pronounced in Defiance, due in part to how well enemies scale based on how many players are in the vicinity.

The gentle progression curve allows developer Trion Worlds to take you on a tour of its world without dividing it into territories that cater to players of specific levels. Reaching one end of the county doesn’t mean having to fight your way to some arbitrary level limit, which makes Defiance feel more freeing than other online worlds, even though it doesn’t cover the exhaustive amounts of real estate other games do. That isn’t to say that Defiance doesn’t feel appropriately large, or doesn’t give you a lot to do; the world map is dotted with orange waypoints that lure you to vehicular speed challenges and side missions, and white waypoints that indicate vendors promising special guns for sale.

Defiance is the B movie of massively multiplayer games: rickety and unrefined, yet a good time all the same.

By Kevin VanOrd