Review: Binary Domain (15) / Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio / Publisher: SEGA / Platforms: PS3, 360 / Release Date: Out Now
The current trend of Japanese game developers aping western design shows no signs of fading and Binary Domain is, perhaps, the most palatable offering yet for Westerners weaned on a diet of gung-ho cover shooters. But, with this third-person tactical shooter coming from the guys behind Japan’s famed Yakuza series, it doesn’t take long for the Eastern flavours to rise to the surface and, boy, does it taste good.
The game takes place in Tokyo in the year 2080. Sea levels have risen, leaving a rotten underbelly of shanty towns, crumbling architecture and forgotten citizens struggling to make a life for themselves. Towering above this neglected city is a gleaming, newly built Neo Tokyo, teaming with the affluent, rich and powerful and a society that has become dependent on robots in much the same way we’re dependent on Smart Phones and Twitter accounts. But Amada, one of the world’s leading robotics industries, has begun secret production of flesh covered robots that are indistinguishable from humans. So indistinguishable in fact, that these ‘Hollow Children’ have no idea they aren’t human. As Sergeant Dan Marshall, former army grunt turned International Robotics Technology Association covert operative, it’s up to you and your IRTA ‘Rust Crew’ - stereotypes from all four corners of the globe, including a hulking black man, Big Bo, who favours use of the words ‘a’ight’ and ‘bro’ as punctuation to almost every sentence and ‘Charlie’, the British Commander who would be undoubtedly played by Sean Bean if a movie version was ever green lit - to fight your way to the corporation’s headquarters and discover who is responsible for these ‘abominations’.
This is a game that desperately wants to innovate and, for the most part, it’s successful. On the surface it’s merely another linear, point A to point B cover-shooter, but there are three gameplay elements that set it apart. Firstly, the combat is immensely satisfying and it’s all down to the fact that the only thing you’ll be shooting at throughout the entire campaign is robots. Sounds boring? Not in the slightest and, unlike the human or alien bullet sponges that occupy most shooters these days, Binary Domain's enemies can be picked apart piece by piece. There’s a huge technical advantage to taking out the legs of a lesser, pistol wielding robot and letting it slowly crawl in your direction, allowing you to concentrate on some of the bigger threats on the battlefield. Similarly, a nicely placed headshot doesn’t mean that robot is instantly dealt with, it will simply become confused and start firing at its own team giving you some much needed breathing space as you watch this poor sap do your job for you. It makes for an entertaining diversion as you toy with the possibilities and the outstanding enemy AI. Yes, it’s extremely reminiscent of the Gears franchise, but what third-person shooter isn’t these days? Binary Domain puts its own destructive spin on the concept and that’s enough to make it stand out.
The second innovation is the much vaunted Trust and Consequence system that, although ambitious in theory, is only half realised in the game itself. Your interactions during gameplay and certain scenes with your squad mates have a direct influence on how they’ll treat you on the battlefield and this is the part that works exceptionally well. Making smart decisions in the heat of battle, obeying commands and keeping your squad out of danger will cause their trust level to rise, making things run smoothly during gunfights. However, refusing their requests or just continually making everyone rush into dangerous situations will leave them cold to your orders, often outright ignoring you when you try to suggest certain tactics even when it’s actually the right move. But this system only has bearing within the confines of the gameplay and the story surrounding it will continue along its linear path regardless of how you fared on the playing field. This isn’t a deal breaker as such, but it is a little jarring to unload a full three clips into my best bud and treat him like dirt for an entire sequence only for the story to kick back in and have him act like nothing happened. It works brilliantly in practice but the developers really should have gone the whole nine yards and blended the concept into the cut-scenes.
This leads us onto the voice recognition. Attach a mic and you’ll be able to physically shout commands to your AI squad. This has been attempted before, most recently in Tom Clancy’s Endwar and, when it works, it really does an effective job of drawing you further into the game. Using just a controller only gives you a choice of four available commands yet, by switching on your headset, you open up a more robust list of over seventy recognised phrases ranging from the standard "Fire!’’ or "Charge!’’ to more useful tactics such as "Fall back’’ and "I’m in trouble’’. Your teammates will even react if you drop the F-bomb. During my two playthroughs it did fail me a good handful of times which caused me to resort to the button inputs but, spend a few minutes calibrating the voice settings and, in a quiet room free of ambient noise, you’ll find it works extremely well (to be clear, this was tested on the PS3 version with a Bluetooth headset and my non-descript Manchester accent. Players with strong regional accents may have a different, more frustrating experience). If you don’t feel comfortable shouting at your television for hours at a time the button prompts do a fine job, it’s just not as fun.
In keeping with the western feel of the game the developers drafted in British writer Antony Johnston (graphic novelist and co-writer on the Dead Space franchise) to rewrite their script. There are heavy themes of life, emotion and what it means to be human but they don’t weigh down the game and, despite a few one-note characters and the occasional predictable story beat the game has an engaging tale to tell. The leads are enjoyable to watch, there are some genuinely surprising twists and turns towards the end and the whole thing moves at a breakneck pace, rarely pausing for breath as you fight and chase from one set-piece to the next. It’s this element of the gameplay that really shines through and it feels like the writer and developers were working in tandem during production. One minute you’re fending off waves of enemies as your teammate rigs up a makeshift bomb to blow a door, the next your hanging out the side of a truck in an insane highway chase. Boss fights, in particular, are a standout and each confrontation differs wildly. One mid-game behemoth winds up being an action packed, multi-stage affair, starting in a tram station ticket office and ending in an underground warehouse teaming with enemies, resistance fighters and conveniently placed fuel canisters. Put simply, you’re never bored over the 10-12 hours it will take you to finish the campaign.
Yet, amidst all this gung-ho bravado and muscular gunplay, the Japanese roots start to reveal themselves, usually through humorous means. There are vending machines dotted around the landscape which will tend to all your supplies and upgrade needs (they also feature a micro roulette game that will spit out a useful item should you hit ‘win’). How do you pay for these goods? The game rewards you for taking your sweet time picking apart enemies and, if you’re saving up for that particularly gnarly looking shotgun, a short while spent taking out a few robots kneecaps and arms should do the trick. There’s even a decoy grenade which invariably emits a holographic image of a pole dancer to ‘distract’ enemies. Why would a nuts and bolts robot be interested in the sexy moves of a fleshy female? Who cares? It was one of my favourite weapons.
There are, however, some minor quibbles dragging what could have been an awesome shooter to merely a very, very good one. Friendly AI can be a little hit-and-miss at times, from walking in your line of site and then having the gall to be annoyed that you shot them, to plain and simply doing nothing despite my screams of ‘CHARGE!’ multiple times. I know they heard me as they responded positively, yet they remained behind cover and refused to fire a single shot. Fine, I’ll do it myself. The upgrade system is limited to you and your squad’s primary weapons, effectively making the assault rifle your weapon of choice whether you like it or not. There’s also a small RPG element tucked away in the pause menu but it’s almost insignificant, although giving you and your teammates the ability to carry extra grenades and medikits does prove quite useful, especially on the harder difficulties. Finally, due to the tactical nature of the game, certain orders aimed at your squad will inevitably lead to repetition in dialogue. It can be overlooked, but hearing "I’m on it!" for the fifteenth time during one gunfight really does start to grate.
There were some shouts in the gaming community of ‘missed opportunity’ when it was revealed that the game didn’t support online co-op for the main campaign. This is simply because it would be almost impossible to implement due to the fact that you are required to select who comes with you before the start of each mission. This, though, ends up being the factor that will give the single player game a bit of life past the initial playthrough. I cursed the fact I didn’t select Cain, the trusty French combat robot (and contender for my favourite character of the year) for one segment due to the fact he would have been able to withstand poisonous gas and having Chinese operative Faye on hand would have been a bonus during an early mission due to her skills with the sniper rifle.
The actual multiplayer component of the disc could be the developer’s biggest misstep. It’s not good, it’s not bad it’s just... there. It could be due to the games occasionally clunky control system but the game doesn’t lend itself very well to competitive online play. There are a healthy number of modes to select from but only four maps and it’s nothing you haven’t played before. There is a co-operative horde mode but again, it’s not engaging enough to stick it out for 50 waves of increasingly frustrating enemies. A four player co-operative chapter not unlike Uncharted’s Adventure mode would have been a perfect fit for a game like this and it’s a shame more time wasn’t spent on the online portion of the game.
Binary Domain is all about the single-player campaign. A thought provoking yet occasionally tongue-in-cheek story, genuinely thrilling action, likable characters, superior combat and some brave new additions to a genre that is starting to go stale make it a worthwhile addition to your library. Like a ‘Hollow Child’ itself, it may appear normal on the outside, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find something you weren’t expecting. Just remember to stick around after the end credits.