Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Binary Domain

Binary Domain is a perfect example of the old adage, 'never judge a book by its cover'. The game, which features cover art depicting a chisel-jawed hero carrying a wounded soldier on his back while a legion of red-eyed robot warriors blast away at him – as he returns fire with a chunky pistol - instantly said 'budget title', to me. And yes, BD feels like a budget title – but what it does, it does well.

Set in the near future, BD's world sees humanity on the brink. Global warming has led to rising sea levels, and humanity has built anew atop the flooded ruins of the old – and to do so, they created sophisticated robots. A lot of sophisticated robots.

Some time after, a new Geneva Convention was signed, setting out rules for the existence of these creations – and outlawing robots which appear human – so-called 'Hollow Children'. Unfortunately, somebody has been creating these Children anyway, and seeding the human population with them for purposes unknown. What's more unnerving is that these Children aren't aware that they're synthetic – and that asks a question of what exactly 'human' is.

Responding to this threat, a peacekeeping group – the International Robotics Technology Association – sends in one of their 'Rust Crews' to investigate a rogue Japanese technology corporation – and that's where the player comes in.

Stepping into the shoes of all-American hero Dan Marshall, the gamer is dropped (literally) into the heart of the action, as he and stereotypically massive black heavy gunner 'Bo' infiltrate Japan's now-insular nation, and attempt to rally the disparate elements of the Rust Crews deployed to the country.

Beforelong Dan's team, consisting of a group of screamingly horrible stereotypes – smarmy Englishman, prissy French robot, aloof female Chinese sniper et al – find themselves fighting off waves of robots, crazed killers, massive bosses and all kinds of horrors. Thankfully the plot, on a whole, is pretty good.

Now, while the game itself is a pretty polished third-person shooter, the real meat is in the 'trust' system. Like the incredibly awful game adaptation of The Thing, your squad works better depending on how much they like you – and you get them to like you by talking to them. Yes, Binary Domain uses voice control – an addition that usually goes horribly wrong when it's installed in most computer games.

Thankfully, in Binary Domain it's pretty reliable – most of the time. A quick press of the shoulder buttons opens the voice control menu, and a bark of “Charge!” will send your two selected team members sprinting forwards. Likewise, “Cover me” will bring them in to support you, and shouting “Awesome!” after they've bought down a massive robotic menace makes their trust in you rise.

Likewise, calling them “Idiot”, or swearing at them (the game recognises a number of rather blue words) makes their trust in you drop, making them less likely to follow your orders – and affecting the dialogue in the in-game cutscenes. It's a good system that works well for Binary Domain, although it's not without its faults.

If you slur your words or speak with a thick accent, don't be surprised is the game says the wrong thing – often at the wrong time - or sometimes just says things without you saying anything at all. Take, for example, me congratulating demolitions specialist Rachel on bringing down a shock-trooper robot with her shotgun:

“F#ck.” (No! I said 'well done'!)
“Oh, that's OK Dan.”
“I love you.” (I said 'Awesome'!)
“Well, sorry Dan, but...”

It may not be intended to be hilarious, but it certainly comes out that way.

The gameplay itself is pretty well crafted. Dan can slide from cover to cover, Gears-style, and the robot enemies are pleasingly fun to demolish. Each of the enemies is coated in armour that flecks off as you pound at it with your weaponry, and running up to smash one in the face with your rifle butt is a meaty, enjoyable expression of destruction.

Your team's AI is generally good enough to follow your commands and not get in the way too often. And they can hold their own in the game's many, many firefights. The boss battles are also pretty good fun, pitting you up against your opponent's huge variety of robotic minions - and pulling your team together in the process.

While Dan and his team only carry one main weapon – which can be upgraded at Japan's many convenient ammunition stalls - a huge number of nanomachine add-ons, weapons and grenades are available to be used, making each of the varied environments you have to battle through a challenge.

Coming in at a good length of 8+ hours, the campaign is a good blast, despite its flaws and a few irritating levels. Outside of the campaign, the game offers co-op and competitive multiplayer, but the lag I experienced on the servers is pretty chronic and the gameplay is nothing special, so I'd probably stick to the decent singleplayer campaign.

Graphically, the game isn't bad looking. The lighting is good, the animation is smart and the way the robots splinter looks great. The voice acting is also very enjoyable – the game is full of snappy one-liners, despite the horrific national stereotyping of the Rust Crew – and the guns sound meaty and accurate. Sure, the instantaneous romance that springs up between Dan and a teammate is laughable (get a high enough trust level and you're in, pal...), but the game as a whole is an enjoyable shooter, if a little frayed around the edges.

The score, however, consists of the same musical string played over and over and over between the boss battles, which is lazy, and drove me a little nuts.

Reviewed on Xbox 360

Check out Andy Hemphill's blog after the jump.