Around a dozen hours into my time with Defiance, I realised that I was having fun. Not the kind of fun that warrants an unreserved recommendation, but I had acclimated to the vagaries of Trion’s sci-fi MMO shooter in such a way that I was getting something out of it. My early impressions, however, were not good. When I started playing, I scooted around on a quadbike and blasted mutants and noticed all of the game’s faults.
"Nothing really broke, but nothing ever felt fully finished, either."
I noticed the empty feeling of its combat, which suffers from the weightlessness that dogs many open-world third person games. I noticed the low draw distance and brutally truncated level of detail, which buries Defiance’s take on post-apocalyptic wilderness in beige fog. I noticed how nothing really broke, but nothing ever felt fully finished, either: enemies slid through walls, other players’ vehicles hung in mid air, cutscenes underwhelmed.
After a time, I got used to it. I moved on to a part of the game that was a marginally lighter shade of green, and I blasted raiders with weapons that - if not impactful - did the job faster. I learned the rhythm of dodge-rolling and crouching to reload my sub-machine gun, whose ability to fart out a clip in under a second turned Defiance into a floaty, three-dimensional game of whack-a-mole. Sometimes I’d toss a stun grenade back over my head and mop up a few foes at once, or plonk down a timed explosive in the middle of a skittering group of alien bugs and watch them pop. I’d level up and invest points and collect three different kinds of currency and spend them on lock boxes, which would grant me another set of randomly-generated weapons. I’d pick one and try it out and change the rhythm of combat for a while. I started having a pretty okay time, all things considered.
Trion have succeeded in making an MMO that feels like a shooter first and foremost, and that’s something. The game’s primary influence is Borderlands. While the majority of the early decisions you make about your character are cosmetic, you pick one signature ability that defines you. These powers - cloaking, a speed boost, a weapon buff, and a decoy - have a hefty cooldown and therefore work just like the equivalent class powers in Gearbox’s FPS. Most of your time will be spent shooting from the hip, but every now and then you’ll use your special power to clear a room.
As you gain experience you earn points to spend on perks - bonus damage while above or behind an enemy, shield regeneration on a critical hit, and so on. These buffs are slight and feel inconsequential: your choices are better expressed through weapon selection. You can equip two at any given time, and repeated use of a particular type improves your ability with it. Guns are randomly generated. This chiefly results in barely-perceptible variations in accuracy or recoil, but sometimes you’ll find a weapon with a random chance to dissolve an enemy in acid or set them on fire. Again, a little like Borderlands: but without that game's humour, and without its capacity for real surprise.
The presence of other players is chiefly felt in co-op challenges, which are instanced and designed for four people. They’re not particularly tough, and the majority of people I played with were content to burn through them in silence. It’s worth noting, though, that the game’s visuals markedly improve in these enclosed areas.
"The majority of people I played with were content to burn through in silence."
There’s also competitive team deathmatch on medium-sized maps and a 32-player capture point mode, Shadow War, that takes place in cordoned-off parts of the gameworld. Power level is equalised between players for competitive play, but you take in the equipment and abilities you otherwise possess: a balancing challenge that the game doesn’t seem particularly interested in solving. A mixture of bunny-hopping, cloaking and judicious grenade launcher use saw me to the top of most leaderboards.
Out in the open world, players congregate around ‘arkfalls’. These are semi-random events that work similarly to Rift’s, er, rifts. Players mob together to wipe out waves of bugs and whittle down the healthbar of a huge chunk of space debris in return for resources that are spent on more lockboxes.