Defiance has contradiction built into its bones. A game that is also a TV show. A console shooter that is also an MMORPG. It's a game of rare ambition, eager to be all things at once. A game that would be a giant leap forwards, if only it could tie its shoelaces first.
Defiance has problems. Played in the first few days after launch, it was a roulette wheel of sudden disconnections, intrusive downtime and near-constant server lag. To its credit, developer Trion Worlds has pulled out all the stops to get the game functional and only a week later it's already much more stable. But it's not fixed.
This remains a game suffering death by a thousand bugs. Players, enemies and scenery pop in and out of existence. The frame-rate hops up and down like a kangaroo on Red Bull. Sometimes your head or your gun disappears for 10 seconds after a cut-scene. Chat functions are all over the place. Sometimes a mission will require you to drive a vehicle, except the vehicle won't move. Sometimes the mission prompt simply doesn't appear, or it does appear and nothing happens. Inevitably you play it in a state of paranoia, waiting for the next calamity and hoping it won't be one that requires you to quit out and start over.
So why do I find myself unable to really put the boot in? For all its many, many flaws, I quite like Defiance. I've gone back to it to check some detail or other, and found myself playing through five more missions rather than the one I'd planned. There's something here, enough brief glimpses of the game Defiance wants to be, visible through the scruffy mess it actually is, to make me cheer it on.
You start by creating your Arkhunter, one of a hardy breed of scavengers scraping a living from salvage in a future Earth changed beyond recognition by the arrival of aliens. Ruined by years of war, and only now enjoying a brittle peace, this is the place where you'll find your own story that can run alongside Syfy's TV show.
That story probably won't be all that original or different to everybody else's though. Defiance is a third-person shooter more than an RPG, and Trion has chosen the narrowest of parameters for players to work within. There are only two playable races, neither of which offer any advantage or point of difference, and no class types. The closest you come to specialising is in choosing one of four EGO powers - special combat abilities made possible by the AI you carry in your head. These powers let you use a cloaking device, set up a decoy, move really fast or deal extra damage. All are handy in a pinch, but none distinguish you from other players the way a mage is distinct from a thief.
There's certainly no shortage of mission types to sample. A hefty story campaign will keep you busy for the first few days at least, sending you all over the map and acting as an introductory tour around the Defiance universe. The dialogue is wretched, the plot little more than a series of characters who send you on trivial errands on the trail of an alien energy MacGuffin, but there's structure enough here to make the game worth a look as a middling third-person shooter if nothing else.
Combat mechanics are serviceable, but only by the standards of an MMO, because when it's judged by the standards of any purebred shooter, Defiance crumbles quickly. Both enemy and friendly AI is poor and the lack of a cover option means later missions are a trial of patience, but once you've found a couple of weapons that pack the right sort of punch, it's not without its base appeal. Away from the story, you can undertake side missions, time-trial races and weapon-specific survival challenges. There are also ambient events that crop up as you travel around, generally centred around rescuing civilians or exterminating enemies.
Almost all fall foul of Defiance's thin design corridor, however. It quickly becomes clear that the vast majority of the things you're asked to do involve going to a waypoint, shooting everything, then maybe pressing or holding down a button to activate some machine or other. Once the campaign is completed, and faced with an endless array of such menial jobs, it's easy to lose interest.
Arkfalls are supposed to inject a little uncertainty into the game, but these randomly generated events don't vary the recipe enough. Marked with unmissable red icons on the map, Arkfalls find players swarming together to take down a larger threat. It's a nice idea, but one without much lasting appeal. Spending 20 minutes chipping away at the health of some giant maggot, or working to destroy a crystal, or trying to bring down an alien machine, is a poor use of the player's time, and the XP and loot benefits don't justify the grind required to earn them. These battles tank the game's flimsy frame-rate, too, and the sight of dozens of near-identical characters flickering around does little to bolster the game's epic ambition.
Ironically, the game is at its strongest on the standalone co-op maps, unlocked as you level up. With just four players to worry about, and a linear structure that keeps surprises to a minimum, it's here that things are at their most stable and structured.
Elsewhere, there are some passable competitive modes as well, with standard deathmatches on a handful of separate maps and Shadow War, a sort of ad hoc capture-point mode that takes place on the main game map. Neither is particularly brilliant when considered against dedicated shooters, but it's hard to begrudge their inclusion. The matchmaking system is also handled well, sorting out matches and filling lobbies in the background while you carry on playing the main game, then returning you to your last mission checkpoint after the match ends.
Defiance is certainly a game with lots to do, but those things aren't terribly varied and nor does it give you much incentive to keep doing them. The grind is a part of the MMO genome, but it needs a vibrant world and the opportunity to stamp your personality on that world in order to work, and it's here that Defiance's biggest weakness lies. Every avatar ends up as a beige or green-clad soldier, and while one player might favour a shotgun over a rocket launcher, there's no real way to use your character to say, "Hey, here I am! This is me!" That's such a key element of the MMO appeal that it's hard to believe Trion missed it. For all its multitude of map markers, Defiance is a game you play but never really exist inside of.
And yet, and yet, there's still that nagging feeling that this is a game that could - and should - overcome its weaknesses. There's a pull to the game that is hard to deny, due no doubt to Trion's skill at handling flow. You can seamlessly go from one mission type to another, explore a bit, dip into a side mission, go off chasing an Arkfall while waiting for a Shadow War match to start, and it's fun. Not spectacular, and certainly not polished, but entertaining enough to warrant a second look. Considering how clunky the game engine is, that's rather amazing.
If only it were better at presenting its best side, but once you get past the basic tutorials, Defiance is hilariously bad at explaining itself. You'll start receiving weapon mods almost immediately, but the game never explains that you can't actually use them until you hit a certain level. The same is true of Contracts, ongoing "kill X number of Y" challenges for various corporations that become available when you hit EGO level 250. Miss the brief text notification and you'd never know they were there. Even if you do see the notification, you'll still have to scour the muddled menus yourself to actually locate them.
But there I go again, picking out the negatives. It's hard not to. One moment it's a bad game, the next it's not bad, and sometimes it's pretty good. Frustratingly scrappy yet strangely charming, Defiance can be all three of these things, often at the same time. It's not a game that can be recommended without serious caveats, but it's also a game worth playing for what it attempts if not what it actually does.
There's certainly a worthwhile game in here, teasingly close to the surface. Maybe in 12 months' time the TV show will be a big hit and the game will have been patched and updated into the experience it was clearly meant to be. If that's the case, it'll be a hard-earned and well-deserved victory. For now, proceed with caution.