Friday, August 17, 2012

Binary Domain review

The first thing I heard about Binary Domain was that squad members might refuse to take orders if they didn't trust you. I was mildly intrigued, but when I heard more about the story I started to get quite interested. The plot reminded me of some Anime movies I had seen (Vexille comes to mind), but I didn't feel that made it derivative, rather I was curious to see it's treatment of the subject matter.

Let me start by saying the story doesn't disappoint. It manages to function as both the driving force for the game, and as a great story in it's own right. It gives you excellent reasons for being where you are and doing what you're doing every step of the way without feeling either padded or too short. You're encouraged to care about your teammates opinions of you, and to care what happens to them. It has some unexpected twists, and some moments that genuinely keep you guessing. And what's more, the story is not black-and-white, raising some questions that aren't easily answered.

The characters are mostly very well developed, with excellent dialogue and voice acting and good facial animation really helping to bring them all to life. There's quite a large and varied cast, and by the end of it I was quite fond of every one of my unit members. This is actually core to the game itself, with your interaction with your teammates being one of the main gameplay mechanics.

You see, each of your companions has a different degree of trust in you. The more they trust you, the more likely they are to follow your orders in battle. You earn or lose their trust based on what you say to them, and on how well you do in combat. This not only encourages you to think about how you use them in a fight, it also means you pay more attention to what they say and what they expect of you, so you get to know them better than you otherwise might. It's an ambitious idea, and it did work for me in that I found myself quite invested in all the characters, but it does have some problems.

First of all, communication is achieved through a microphone and voice recognition. I understand the idea; to be able to actually talk to them and hear them reply, but in practice it doesn't quite work. You see, it's functionally impossible for the game to be able to recognise and deal with every sentence we might want to say (it's still a little early for that...), so it has to limit your speech options. Now, in a game like Mass Effect, those options will be displayed on screen for you to pick one. But it doesn't make sense here to show you a selection of sentences; apart from ruining the immersion you're going for by having people read something out rather than respond naturally, the player would most likely prefer to simply press a button to select an option rather than reading out a long sentence he's already read to himself. So instead the game gives you a limited set of accepted responses to use, things like "yes", "no", "dammit", "thanks", "I got it", and so on. The idea I believe is that initially you'll press the button that shows you your choices then speak one, but eventually you'll have an idea of what they are and so you'll just respond naturally.

But this limited selection is a problem. Your teammates dialogue is quite complex and varied, at least enough that answering everything with "OK", "Thanks" or "Dammit" doesn't feel natural. To me, the shortcomings of voice recognition here made it feel more like a barrier to communication rather than an aid. Without the compromises needed for voice recognition, the game might have been able to offer more detailed dialogue options, and would be able to vary the options more based on the situation.

However, I should clarify that I decided early on I didn't feel like talking into the microphone (maybe it was because I was checking my dialogue options all the time anyway, or maybe I felt silly talking at the wrong times when the game wasn't expecting it), so I turned it off and made manual dialogue selections. Perhaps if I had stuck with it I would have gotten used to the limited options and it would have felt more natural?

I imagine it would help a lot in combat anyway. I did not cooperate with my teammates very well, one reason being the limited number of voice commands I was initially presented with, but the other was obviously that I was usually too busy to open the dialogue selection - a problem I wouldn't have had if I had been using verbal commands. I regret that now, and I'm considering giving the game another try with voice recognition on, to see if I can figure out how to make the most of it in actual combat. I'm not sure how well it will work considering what I really want them to do is usually rather more complex than I expect them to understand, like "You go left I'll go right" or maybe "I'll keep it busy while you shoot it", or perhaps "Distract the giant gorilla robot while I reload the big gun! No, don't lead it towards me, go the other way! What the hell are you doing? God, why are you so useless!". Ah-hem. Actually, it's probably a good thing that they can't understand everything I say.

Despite this issue, I thought it a very interesting system that was well integrated into the game. I found myself trying to understand what each character was really like, what really made them tick, so I could select the best responses to endear myself to each of them. Then I realised I was so trying so hard to earn their approval that I was saying what I thought they wanted to hear rather than what I wanted to say, or what I thought my character should or would say. How many games can make you say that?

Actually I'm quite impressed by how much of a difference the trust mechanics made to how much I care about other characters in the game. I can't help but wonder what difference it would have made if the main character was a silent protagonist. As it is, his own personality and dialogue are an important part of the story, but in a different type of game would it have led to an even stronger connection with the characters? It's an intriguing idea.

The graphics are good, though not amazing. Generally environments are clear and detailed without being noisy, perfectly fitting to the futuristic setting while looking good and running at a solid framerate even with a decent number of enemies rushing forwards. In fact some larger enemies and set pieces look very impressive, and as I alluded to before the human characters look great, with plenty of personality and detail. Worth mentioning is that it's quite easy to spot enemies, even when they're behind cover (you can see my Rage review for the full rant, but suffice to say I find enemies tend to blend into the environment in many games these days, making them hard to spot).

The rest of the game is a standard, though well executed, third-person shooter. The weapons are nothing special, with the normal assortment of assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, shotguns, and missile launchers. Unusually there's a variety of each, which is a rather nice change. You can carry several weapons; specifically you always have a pistol, your own special assault rifle, and one other weapon, plus an occasional extra heavy weapon. Your teammates each have a specific weapon, such as a heavy machine gun or sniper rifle, which of course controls what they are best at and hence how you should use them on the battlefield. Your assault rifle has a special secondary 'burst' weapon, which comes in handy against bunched up groups of enemies or some of the larger models. Pistols are weak but have infinite ammo, which is a good thing as you don't want to get into a punch-up with a robot if you can avoid it. Other weapons work as you would expect, but some are more fun to use than others.

Overall firing the guns don't give you as much of a feeling of impact as in some games (coughAlanWakecough), but this is made up for by the enemies. Robots lose armour and body parts to sustained fire, jerking and sparking as you lay into them. What's more they try to continue to function despite the damage: blast a robot's gun arm off and they will run over to the fallen weapon and pick it up with their other hand. Knock them off their feet and they'll come crawling towards you, hanging on to your legs and leaving you vulnerable as you try to shoot them off. But blow their head off and they get confused and start attacking their friends, drawing their fire. You soon learn to recognise and enjoy the distinctive 'ping' of a robot's head flying off, as it's an effective tactic when your enemies are dug in.

I did have some trouble with the cover system and related context sensitive controls; occasionally I would sprint into the open when I was trying to snap to cover, and sometimes traversing complex terrain while in a hurry could be frustrating. It didn't affect me very often though; the truth is these issues are common to third person shooters, Binary Domain is no worse than most.

As is common in such games, you and your teammates can survive for a while after being downed, giving others time to get to you and heal you with a medikit. Binary Domain has a more involved system, however. When knocked down a teammate will ask if you need help or not, you can either accept their help or heal yourself. Likewise, when a teammate goes down another may ask if he should help them, you can of course chose to do it yourself. Medikits are limited (you can see how many each of your friends is carrying, but for some reason you can't swap them between people), so part of the issue is deciding how to keep the supply distributed. But the real advantage of the system is that it makes you more involved with your teammates during a battle. Do you rush over and help them yourself when they go down, or do you expect them to take care of themselves and not bother you while you're busy gunning down robots? Do you accept their help when you're wounded, or is it important to you to carry your own weight? It's all part of the connection you form with the characters.

You can upgrade both your own primary weapon and those of your teammates. There's also some enhancement modules you can buy to improve a character's health or let them carry an extra medikit or the like. Neither system is terribly deep, but together they do add something to the team-centric focus of the game. Do you spend your money on yourself or your teammates? How best to equip them? Will you display favouritism by spending more money on some characters than others? For example, one of my teammates annoyed me once by telling me off after a tough fight, so I removed all their enhancement modules as a way of exacting some small measure of personal revenge. I would have liked to see the enhancement system especially fleshed out a little, but the weapon upgrades certainly work well: even though I spent a lot on my teammates, near the end of the game my assault rifle had the power and ammo capacity of a heavy machine gun while being accurate, controllable, and still quick to reload.

Even in hard mode you can take a fair bit of fire without going down, and fortunately the screen only darkens and reddens at the edges and never the center (not while you're still standing anyway), which I am extremely grateful for - if you've read many of my reviews you probably know how much I hate the "one bullet and you're blind" nonsense that plagues modern shooters. This means that it's actually possible sometimes to walk towards enemies, laying down a barrage of fire, without dying. That's not to say it's too easy, only that you don't have to spend the whole game cowering behind cover; I found the game more dynamic and exciting than most cover-based shooters I've played. In fact I had more fun than I initially expected to, walking forwards laying down a stream of bullets and watching the robots in front of me getting blown apart bit by bit.

Worthy of mention are the game's boss battles and other set pieces, which strike an excellent balance of visual punch and player interaction. Some of those boss robots are immense, and unlike many games beating them isn't as simple as learning a couple of patterns and hitting them a couple of times in the right spot - these guys can take a hell of a lot of abuse and avoiding them isn't easy, which makes each fight a real battle.

The set pieces, cut scenes, and slower moments of gameplay do a good job of giving the characters personality and generally mixing things up and enhancing the feeling of adventure and danger. When I reached the end of the game I felt as if I had done more than just shoot through lots of robots, I felt as if I had been through a hell of an adventure, in fact I felt as if it was amazing that we had gotten so far. That's certainly not something I can say for every game I play.

I'm going to give it a 9/10. Yes, some of the squad mechanics didn't work so well for me, but I still had far more fun with it than most games I play these days, especially third person shooters.

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