A Brave New World
Well, this is a brave new idea if ever there was one. Defiance is an open-world third-person shooter which ties into a TV show. Nothing so brave or new about that, admittedly. But get this: it's an online game, and events in the TV show will be reflected in live updates to the game world. There's even a suggestion that what players get up to while the TV show is off the air might even affect the plotting of the next season of Defiance on TV. Now that got your attention, didn't it?
Due in April - both in game stores and on TV - Defiance is a collaboration between Trion Worlds and the SyFy TV network. SyFy makes popular sci-fi series like Stargate: Atlantis and the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. Trion is less of a known quantity, but it's an ambitious company with some cool technology, and its first release - a massively multiplayer RPG for PC called Rift - was a pretty decent stab at a World of Warcraft-alike.
There's another aspect of Defiance that makes it noteworthy, too. This is that rare beast, a massively multiplayer game that's launching on consoles as well as PC. While the run-and-gun gameplay will feel familiar to fans of Borderlands, Gears of War or Just Cause, all of it takes place in a persistent world populated by hundreds of other players and punctuated with spontaneous live events. At first glance, Defiance looks like any other sci-fi shooter, but in reality it's anything but.
The setting of Defiance is a future Earth that has been terraformed and partially colonised by alien races. These races were pursued here by another, hostile alien civilisation which has the planet under attack - and a terrible accident when they arrived changed the face of Earth forever.
So it's a sort of Wild West, frontier set-up, with various immigrant civilisations (including humans) rubbing shoulders and jostling for power even as they resist invasion from evil space bugs. The TV show takes place in the reborn city of St Louis, while the game occupies the San Francisco bay area - far enough apart that they can follow separate plot threads, but close enough so that, for example, a character from one area can plausibly show up in the other.
Although the overall concept is pretty radical, Defiance feels comfortably familiar to play. It's got a mission-based structure that sends you scurrying around the hilly world map on a quad bike (which you can conveniently summon out of thin air whenever you need it). The action is standard third-person shooter fare, with cover being relatively important but not central to the whole thing.
As you might expect from a massively multiplayer game, Defiance does have some character customisation and advancement, but this isn't a deep RPG and the emphasis is still on the moment-to-moment action. It's probably closest in spirit to Borderlands: there are different classes, but they're mostly defined by a single signature ability and can all use any weapon, or switch between combat roles. As you level up you do unlock new perks an options, but the biggest influence on your character's development is the new weapons and equipment that you're constantly looting from enemies. New guns keep coming, they can be upgraded, and you can save five different loadouts to suit your mood.
One For All
The cool thing about Defiance is that you don't need to choose to play the game with a party of friends, as you do in Borderlands. When you arrive at your mission destination, you might find other players already there and playing the mission, which cycles through several phases. You can simply muck in - the mission scales to match the number of players present, and everyone gets rewarded at the end. It's simple, fun, and it works.
Outside of the story missions, you also get short, solo-friendly side-missions, quad bike races and Horde style survival modes dotted around the map. There are also dynamic "Arkfall" events that happen at random locations and gather larger and larger crowds of players as they move between phases, with giant boss battling thrown in. These are brilliant fun to get involved in. Similarly, there's a very large-scale player-versus-player mode called Shadow War which happens in the open world and can have up to 100 players battling over objectives.
If you're after a more organised multiplayer experience, you can also play a team deathmatch mode on separate maps - or if co-op is more your thing, there are the four-player Pursuits, which are basically like MMO dungeons, with more focused and challenging gameplay than the story missions offer.
With subscription MMOs falling out of fashion fast, the last big question mark is how we'll pay for it. Trion says the game will be sold like a regular boxed game, but will follow a "hybrid business model" to fund the online service and regular content updates that will arrive every two months or so.
Based on a day's play, Defiance still needs some work with some bugs to iron out, but it's a very complete package with plenty of fun ways to play. It's not an exceptional game in its gameplay or looks, but as an online world, it does stand out from most of its shooter rivals - especially on consoles. And that's not even accounting for the link with the TV show. This is one to watch with interest, if nothing else.