Thursday, November 12, 2015

Binary Domain review - A brave attempt to innovate in a tired genre

Binary Domain is a third-person shooter from the team behind the Yakuza series. Its big gimmick is that you can use a headset to issue commands or talk to characters. This would be cool, if only the AI wasn't so disastrously thick, and the speech recognition so hit and miss.

Either they hear your commands and refuse to follow them, or they think you've said something completely different. Whenever we shout "Regroup!" in our loudest, clearest voice, Big Bo thinks we're saying his name. "Wassup, man?" he replies as enemies overwhelm and kill him.

Honestly, it's easier to use the controller. Then the game actually becomes fun, because you don't have to worry about your dimwitted companions ignoring or mishearing you. You just press a button and choose from a selection of pre-set commands, and they respond instantly. When you choose to play without a headset connected, the game protests that you won't have as much tactical control, which is a lie. Ignore it, don't bother with the voice control at all, and just enjoy the game for what it is: a dumb, enjoyable, super-simplistic cover shooter.


You play as Dan Marshall, a member of an elite group of soldiers whose job is to hunt Hollow Children: machines that look and act like humans, but who don't actually know they're robots.
As you might expect from the writers behind the Yakuza series, the story is compelling and well told - even though the dialogue of the main characters is made up entirely of terrible action movie one-liners. It's never a masterpiece of narrative, but it's better than most shooters.

What's really clever is how interactive it is. Occasionally characters will stop and ask you a question. Depending on how you respond - which you can do by either pressing a button or speaking into your headset - their opinion of you will change. The more they like you, the more receptive to your orders they'll be. If you've pissed them off, they'll ignore you. It makes you feel like you're actually taking part in the story, rather than just watching it play out in cut-scenes.

In an early level, Dan and Big Bo team up with Faye, a beautiful Chinese agent. As you move through the level, Bo comments on her 'great ass', and asks you what you think. If you join in with the blokey cat-calling, his opinion of you will rise, but Faye's will drop - and vice versa. Later, a fifteen year-old girl flirts with Dan and asks him if he'll be her boyfriend. If you say yes, you'll get negative points from your entire squad. The game has a keen sense of humour.

It isn't just dialogue that affects your squad; your actions do too. During combat, your performance is monitored by your team mates. If it takes you longer than it should to get through a group of enemies, they'll shout at you and you'll get negative points from them. "That was terrible!" they'll shout - though if you kick ass, they'll love you: "You really are the best!"

You'll also lose points if you screw something up. In one level, you have to sever a power cable and time it so that it swings into a giant robot and fries it. Mess it up, and your squad will be furious. It's an interesting, dynamic way of incorporating choice and consequence into the game, although none of your mistakes, or victories, feel like they have any far-reaching effects; they're confined to the situation you're in at that precise moment.

Still, you can't fault the developers for trying something new in a stale genre. Even though Binary Domain is a clear attempt to appeal to Western audiences, it's still distinctly a Japanese game. The setting, a futuristic vision of Tokyo, is lovingly detailed and faithful to the real location - just as the streets of Tokyo are in the Yakuza games. The enemy designs - especially the giant, screen-filling boss mechs - are pure anime, and are more than a little reminiscent of Sega's Vanquish. This is no coincidence, as both games share the same producer, Jun Yoshino.


But let's talk about the game at a more basic level. As a shooter, it's perfectly good - not great, not excellent, just good. The weapons have a satisfying kick, the cover system is responsive, and enemies are brutally tactical, flanking you at every opportunity. It just doesn't have anything that makes it stand out from the crowd, and it lacks the technical prowess and polish of something like Gears of War. But you have to give Nagoshi and co credit: they've never made a game like this before, and they've done a better job than some established Western developers.

Well, in most cases. There are some set-pieces that drove us to pad-hurling frustration because of the dense companion AI. About halfway through the game you find yourself fighting a huge, flying mech. You have to destroy its engines with a homing missile launcher, but every time you lock on, it sends out dozens of tiny drones that block your shot. You might think that your two AI team mates would shoot them away for you. But they don't. They just stand there.

Innovation in third-person shooters is a rarity, which is why we can't help but admire Binary Domain despite its flaws. The voice control gimmick is largely terrible, but the interactive story and real-time consequences give the otherwise unremarkable combat a unique edge. Ultimately, the game's problem isn't ambition or ideas, it's idiotic AI and inconsistent, predictable level design.

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