Defiance is an ambitious cross-media experiment that aims to, ahem, defy expectations, and it gets awfully close to doing just that. A rich, expansive universe packed to the brim with lore creates a world that you'll want to explore and learn more about. However, questionable design choices, oodles of bugs, and frequent server issues look to undermine the game's positives, which is a real shame as the potential is clear to see.
The title takes place on a war torn Earth, ravaged by a conflict with alien refugees who arrived looking for a new home. The war has ended and a precarious peace has developed, while civilisation rebuilds on land that is alien to human and extraterrestrials alike. The semi-teraformed planet is now home to all manner of new plants and deadly creatures. The game makes great use of its sci-fi scenario to make the familiar feel unknown and hostile, as you explore the San Francisco Bay Area.
The lore also has plenty of depth. Multiple alien races now live side-by-side with mankind, and bring with them stories of galactic travel and grand technologies. It's a fascinating concept that successfully draws you in, and the hunger to discover more about this new world encourages you to keep playing.
As an Arkhunter, you're tasked with searching for valuable technology from the debris of ships that once orbited the planet. However, you'll be forced to deal with a wealth of bandits, raiders, and other reprobates in the process, all of whom are looking for the exact same thing. Sadly, poor dialogue and annoying characters detract from the underlying appeal of the story. The overarching plot is interesting, but your personal narrative never really feels like it's a part of it. Perhaps this is due to the franchise's transmedia approach, which is probably a little too ambitious for its own good.
From a strictly gameplay perspective, this isn't an MMO in the traditional sense. The game ditches the familiar grind of stat boosts and cool-down bars, opting for a third-person shooter mechanic instead. The action is fast-paced and frantic, with swift enemies dancing around the battlefield in a deadly tango. Cover is only temporarily useful as foes actively attempt to flank you, while other types employ explosives to force you to change position. It certainly gets the adrenaline pumping in a manner that's seldom seen in the genre. The title scales extremely well, too. You'll never run into creatures that completely overwhelm you, or antagonists that you've long outgrown.
Collecting loot is your primary concern, a fitting obsession for your Arkhunting profession. Although there's nowhere near the bazillion guns that Borderlands proclaims, Trion Worlds' alternative treads in its lofty footprints with lots of weapon variety. Shotguns, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, mini-guns, and energy weapons are all up for grabs, in addition to some more exotic firearms that spawn flesh-eating bugs. These can all be upgraded and customised with modifications that boost stats and augment additional effects, such as fire or radiation. The variety is absurd, though you'll still find yourself throwing away many weapons that have only miniscule improvements over the ones that you already own, and in the early stages, your inventory won't even be able to hold the ridiculous amount that you acquire. Fortunately, this will increase as you level up, as will your abilities.
You can choose one of four abilities to begin with: a cloak, an attack boost, a decoy, or a rush move. Whichever you opt for dictates where on the skill board that you start from, and as you level up, you're free to spread to wherever you like, complementing your primary move with many passive traits, or exploring all of the options for a mixed approach. Investigating these components is fun, but it doesn't necessarily make for a unique character, rather one that best suits your playstyle.
In addition to pack space and new skills, you'll also gain additional loadout slots when you level up, allowing you to experiment even further with different weapons and abilities. You can adapt to various situations with ease, and pick all manner of weapons to deal with different foes. It leads to a great sense of independence, and you'll quickly find that you can get on just fine in this online world on your own, which is particularly handy as the multiplayer aspects don't always work.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from a whole host of bugs and frustrations that threaten to derail your fun. Other players, objects, and enemies pop into the experience at random, while the chat function often fails to work at all. The music frequently gets stuck on loop, and ends up cancelling out other sounds. Meanwhile, your weapons are prone to vanishing from your hands, the framerate is all over the place, and general lag kicks in from time to time, with vehicles and characters becoming frozen in place, preventing you from turning in an objective properly. On other occasions, missions simply don't register as complete, or prompts for picking up critical items don't appear. The game's a mess, and while many of these hiccups may be resolved with future patches, we can only review the product in front of us. Even after multiple updates, the aforementioned problems are still present, and server disconnects are frustratingly prevalent.
However, when you do get lucky, the action is undeniably enjoyable. Although the game's story is weak, there's still plenty on offer to keep you occupied. Side missions span time trial races, contract kills, and fetch quests. There are also lots of combat objectives, as well as randomly activated emergency missions that appear as you're exploring, requiring you to save civilians or clear road blocks. And then there are the Arkfalls.
Arkfalls are much larger versions of the emergency missions, activated by fallen debris. They require a large number of players to complete, as you face an equally impressive number of enemies, with rounds culminating in monstrous boss fights. It's neat seeing so many players descend on a single location, and these occasions remind you that you're actually playing an MMO rather than a disconnected single player game.
In addition, you'll unlock a handful of co-operative missions as you progress throughout the story. These allow you to experience linear excursions with friends through drab interior stages, and are enjoyable in short bursts. Competitive options are also available, including Team Deathmatch and Shadow Wars, a Battlefield-esque capture point mode with dozens of players. This latter mode is particularly enjoyable, with AI enemies joining the action to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, the bugs from the main campaign persist, detracting from the fun.
Defiance never quite comes together as well as it should, but there's the nugget of a great idea here. While the action is merely serviceable at best, there's an appeal to the connected world that's undeniably entertaining. Unfortunately, your experience is likely to be handicapped by bugs, which get in the way of the title's ambition. Trion Worlds has said that it's committed to squashing these problems, but we'll have to wait to see if its efforts are successful. For now, though, we recommend exercising some caution.