Defiance Review: No Risk, No Reward

This would be excusable if Defiance was fun, but it’s not. It’s caught between two worlds: MMO and shooter.

There are three vitally important aspects to building a strong shooter, third-person or otherwise: accuracy (how easy it is to hit an enemy), lethality (how quickly enemies die), and quantity (how many enemies you fight). Players must feel like shooting an enemy is not too difficult, that enemies are not bullet sponges (or at least, not difficult-to-hit sponges), and that enemies appear in manageable chunks. If one of these elements is unbalanced — such as enemies being extremely tough — then the game has to swing around to accommodate it by altering another area — such as making enemies less common and making them easier to hit.

Furthermore, guns are the star of the show for shooters. They aren’t just pieces of equipment that give stats; guns are how the player interacts with the game world. They are an extension of the player’s will. That why Borderlands 2‘s gun design was better received than that of Borderlands. A new weapon in Borderlands 2 felt like a chance for something cool-looking and fundamentally different, whereas in Borderlands it was most likely a different color and one tiny difference. Defiance leans more towards the “slight improvement” model of Borderlands, and less towards the “big difference” model of Borderlands 2.

Defiance decides to forgo the standard shooter balance, and instead goes the typical MMO route of using enemies that can soak tons of damage. However, this is combined with FPS-style mechanics such constant enemy movement and large enemy quantities, which makes every battle an ammo dump of desperately trying to find the right target. It’s less problematic for the smaller weapons, like SMGs or shotguns, but it’s positively atrocious for sniper rifles. Trying to hit an elite enemy with a sniper rifle is near impossible, and even headshots won’t kill them in one hit. On top of this, new weapons aren’t much of an upgrade. The difference between an end-game and beginner weapon in Defiance is not nearly as big as in other MMOs such as World of Warcraft, potentially because Trion wanted players to be able to go anywhere without having to worry about their “power level.” While this is a noble concept, it hampers games structured on the traditional MMO model, as Defiance is.

You’ve got all that unimportant loot, so what do you do with it? Make loadouts! These function much like loadouts in a traditional shooter title, although your secondary weapon isn’t limited based on weapon class. You can carry two weapons, a shield, a grenade, an active ability, and a number of passive perks based on your character level. Since the loot doesn’t matter as much as it should, the fundamental fun of any game with lots of number-crunching — the crunching of damage numbers and the replacing of older equipment with “the new hotness” — is absent.

The one area that is self-evidently engaging is the skill system. Defiance uses a grid-like system of unlocks, with each character level granting you a single point to put into one of four active abilities or numerous passive abilities. However, skill points must be placed in existing abilities or abilities adjacent to those that have already been purchased. It gives a nice feeling of making your way across the grid towards a new active ability, and the feeling you get when you finally reach that new ability and your loadout options expand is the best in all of Defiance.

That’s not to say this system isn’t flawed. Passives are awkward, weak, or both, and it was hard to find skills that catered to my playstyle of stealth-based sniper. I eventually gave up and started slotting towards different actives, but found that the passives around them were just as strange. There are also only four active skills, and every class has access to them. Every player is, essentially, the same class, just on different paths on the grid. It’s interesting, but given that it’s entirely possible to unlock everything, there is a lack of uniqueness of the potential endgame. I haven’t personally unlocked everything, but I know it’s possible, as there is a specific Pursuit (Defiance’s cross between a quest and an achievement) for maxing out your skills.

One of the larger conceits behind Defiance is that player level isn’t the only measure of advancement; achievement points earned through Pursuits are also added to that total to determine worth. The end result is your EGO level, which determines what features you have access to and what weapons you can use. I would like this system, but Trion restricts the most important feature (adding mod slots to weapons) until you are past a certain EGO level. It’s extremely frustrating how the game drops mods for you and then doesn’t give you weapons with slots or the ability to make slots. I would be okay if it was a dungeon unlock or something, but linking core features to a player’s level is extremely annoying. Imagine if you couldn’t use the bank in World of Warcraft at level 1, and instead had to get to level 10 and earn a few achievements before you could access it. That’s Defiance.

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