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Defiance TV pilot review

Syfy's tie-in with the new online game is a bold move, but is the show itself playing it too safe?

Editor's note: Our review of Defiance, the game, released last week, is currently underway; as with all massively multiplayer games, we only review from public servers after launch, and take our time. In the meantime, here's a look at the first episode of the TV show that ties in with it, due to hit screens next week.

There have been lots of claims made on behalf of Defiance, the "transmedia" collaboration between online game developer Trion Worlds and TV's Syfy channel. This, apparently, will not only be the game to bring massively multiplayer gaming to consoles, but a crossover breakthrough for both games and television, bringing the two media together in an event that will change everything.

That, appropriately enough, is how Defiance the TV show begins as well. At the start of the feature-length pilot episode, we see a young boy gazing up in awe as a vast alien spaceship breaks through the clouds over Earth. Two worlds are being brought together and change is inevitable.

Flash forward 33 years and we see just how radical that change has been. Now enjoying an uneasy truce with humanity following a bitter conflict known as the Pale Wars, the aliens - six races known collectively as Votans - have terraformed our planet to better suit their needs, leading to unusual foliage sprouting from the ruins of once proud American cities and bizarre creatures prowling our forests.

We've also been left with dozens of dead spaceships circling in orbit, their inhabitants dead in their cryo-chambers or mutated beyond recognition. Every now and then, one of these ships crashes to earth, bringing with it valuable salvage opportunities.

Oh, the irony. We finally get a game with a character called Nolan, and the ubiquitous Mr. North is nowhere to be seen.

It's while racing to one such "Arkfall" event that we meet our hero, Nolan, and his adopted alien daughter-slash-sidekick Irisa. He's a charming rogue, very much in the Han Solo mould. She's a hardened warrior, as quick with her distrust as she is with a blade. Together they bicker and sing along to a country and western song before venturing into the just-crashed ark in search of booty.

Suffice to say that as Nolan and Irisa prepare to leave with their loot - an apparently powerful energy source - they're attacked by alien bandits and forced to flee. This leads them straight into the arms of the people of Defiance, a multicultural township built on the ruins of St Louis, Missouri.

It's here that the show slows down a little and starts to fill us in on how this world - one that we'll be playing in as well as watching - will work. There's a Game of Thrones-style power struggle between Rafe McCawley, a human mine owner, and Datak Tarr, an aristocratic refugee of the Castithan species. Further intrigue is revealed when we discover that McCawley's daughter and Tarr's son are involved in a Twilight-esque pan-species love affair. There's a murder mystery, sabotage and a pitched battle against the Volge, a mechanical army deployed during the Pale Wars to exterminate humans but now devoted to killing everything organic.

It's a lot to take in, and like most TV shows making their debut, Defiance stretches itself rather thin in trying to win you over. And by "you" I mean "sci-fi fans", as the show feels like a compilation of elements from a dozen other shows, movies and games. Series creator Rockne S. O'Bannon recycles the basic plot of his racial allegory Alien Nation, as well as drawing on the wacky alien menageries of Farscape, one of his other shows. His fellow producers are alumni of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, so Defiance's pedigree is as solid as it is derivative.

The show feels like a compilation of elements from a dozen other shows, movies and games... Defiance's pedigree is as solid as it is derivative

This isn't Syfy's first foray into gaming. The channel produced a live action Red Faction TV movie in 2011.

The dense plotting also leaves very little room for explanation, and it's only thanks to Wikipedia that I've been able to piece together the details of the various alien races and the history behind the characters. Take the Wookiee-esque Sensoth, who can be seen wandering around doing nothing much, and the scientifically inclined Indogene, whose technological abilities are central to the climax of the pilot yet utterly unexplained. Come the ending, the stage has been set for the show's main characters, but a lot of the background detail needed to sell the game is still absent.

The cast, at least, are fun to watch. Kiwi actor Grant Bowler is broadly charming as Nolan, even if the character feels lost in the shadow of Han Solo and Firefly's Mal Reynolds. The character of Irisa feels similarly contrived, clearly designed with the cosplay crowd in mind, but London-born Stephanie Leonidas manages to project some soul through the subtle prosthetics and contact lenses.

The special effects, meanwhile, tend to reveal Syfy's limited budget. There's a car chase that looks more like a video game than the actual video game, while some of the alien make-up has an endearingly old-school look, heightened by the old Star Trek approach of having aliens look like humans with slightly different-shaped heads. When it tries to go epic in the final scenes, the effect is less Lord of the Rings and more well-meaning fan film.

It's a strange brew then, and one that makes it hard to see where game and show can cross over. For one thing, it's clear the show is going to be very much character-driven and focussed on the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of Defiance. We meet Nolan and Irisa briefly in the opening cut-scene of the game, but other than that cameo, the events of the game take place in what was once San Francisco, over two thousand miles from the small town of the title. The game is expected to react to key events in the show, so it will be interesting to see how they bridge that distance.

A glimpse of our heroes' previous lives as wandering, loot-gathering rogues is a good place to allow players to take over

Datak Tarr, played with slimy snootiness by Tony Curran, feels like the show's breakout character.

More specifically, does the show suggest a world suitable for a game? On this point the concept is much stronger, although the setting is so generic that it feels like it could be the setting for pretty much any game. Certainly, the distinct races, each with its own special trait or ability, feel like a perfect fit for an MMO - even if the game initially won't let you play as them all. If the game doesn't allow players to stomp around as a Sensoth or genetically engineered "Bioman", it'll be missing a trick.

Perhaps the best hope that Trion and Syfy might pull this off can be glimpsed in that opening scene, as Nolan and Irisa race to an Arkfall. As described in Oli's hands-on preview, these events will also play a large part in the game, and that glimpse of our heroes' previous lives as wandering, loot-gathering rogues is a good place to allow players to take over and find their own adventures in Defiance's world. If the game can build on that aspect, and resist the urge to become a predictable slog through sci-fi clichés, it could be a lot of fun.

On this evidence, Defiance feels a little too dependent on those clichés - both gaming and televisual - to have the sort of impact needed to sell the crossover. If the TV show was coming out of the gate with a more distinctive personality then it would be much easier to get excited for its interactive counterpart. Maybe it's inevitable that they'd play it safe for such a risky endeavour, but if it can't lure people in with a more compelling sense of place and a story that feels like it deserves a whole world to tell, that cautious approach may yet prove to be the downfall of the whole enterprise.

Defiance, the show, debuts on Syfy on 16th April in Europe (15th April in the USA). Defiance, the game, is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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