Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Despite some shockingly under-developed ideas and gameplay mechanics, Binary Domain proves to be a fun ride.

There's no doubt that within the past 10 years or so, the shooter genre (on consoles) has exploded into the mainstream. Last generation had its star in the Halo series, while this generation saw Halo take a step back (sales-wise) to Call of Duty and its yearly installments. But another thing that happened was the growth of the third person shooter, with games like Gears of War and Mass Effect also finding major success. Developing shooters however has never exactly been Japan's thing, so it's always interesting to see their take on the genre; in Binary Domain's case, the team who created the Yakuza series (not to mention Super Monkey Ball) tries their hand at a third person shooter, and while failing to stand out like the Japan-developed third person shooter Vanquish did a couple years ago, the results manage to be a lot of fun.

Binary Domain's setup's one that opens itself up to many possibilities; robots are something that we haven't seen too much of in video games lately, and Japanese manga and anime have typically done some pretty crazy stuff with the subject matter. Binary Domain though takes very safe approach, with a story that does its best to imitate that of a Hollywood action movie and not a whole lot more. Essentially, beings known as the Hollow Children (robots disguised as humans who do not know they're robots) have been uncovered in the US, with one going as far as to infiltrate the headquarters of a major robotics corporation. A "rust crew" is sent into Japan to secretly infiltrate Tokyo and the Amada Corporation, where, it's believed, the robot came from. This crew is made up of a multi-national group of characters, each one more unbelievably stereotypical than the last. Upon arrival in Japan they set off on their mission, one which takes them from the slums of the Lower City to the slick hallways of the Amada Corporation itself.

The story here is simply serviceable; cutscenes have the cinematic flair you'd expect from a Japanese game, and they'll keep you playing from one level to the next. The final act's sunk quite a bit by some cliches and a cheesy romance, and it's a shame that the story doesn't go anywhere more interesting (or delve any deeper) than it does, but it's not bad, all in all. The English voice acting and translation's pretty average; not great but a lot better than I thought it was going to be given SEGA's history of hit-or-miss dub jobs.

Binary Domain has a few different things going on as far as gameplay's concerned. At its core this is a polished third person cover shooter. You and your teammates (sometimes chosen by you) take cover and fire at approaching robots, all of whom have limbs that can be targeted and blown off. There's actually a lot of satisfaction in doing this, as robots deconstruct before your eyes in the wake of your gunfire, going out with an explosion that's more than satisfying. Same goes for a melee attack, which is more effective the heavier the weapon used and certainly better than the one featured recently in Mass Effect 3. In fact, Binary Domain's shooting as a whole I found to be more fun than that of Bioware's space epic. Your character here is much more agile (he can actually roll backwards) and this game's far fewer with the "one hit kill" enemies. I also have to give major praise to Binary Domain's use of boss battles; you'll face off against some truly fun robotic bosses here, and if there's one thing that defines a good Japanese game, it's the larger-than-life boss battles contained in it.

A heavy emphasis is placed on your team. Your health regenerates like in most modern games, however, if you lose your remaining HP before this happens, you'll find yourself on the ground, where death awaits if you fail to either inject yourself with a Health Pack or call one of your teammates over to use one of theirs. The heavy focus on team work brings to light both Binary Domain's strengths and its weaknesses, but this aspect of it proves to actually be rather cool, and it's a great balance between the two different schools of health replenishment.

Binary Domain also introduces some light RPG elements into the mix, giving you the opportunity to upgrade your characters' primary weapons. Vending machines are perfectly placed throughout the levels, and with the money collected from defeating robots along the way, you can level your guns up, purchase ammo, buy health packs, and even acquire some items that increase various stats, such as defense. Several on-rails set pieces, machines to operate, small non-combat areas to explore, and even the rare instances of interactive cutscenes do their best to shake things up and prevent the game from feeling too redundant, and for the most part it works.

Binary Domain is a fun and well-paced game, and as long as you're not expecting something truly unique, you'll have fun with its tried and true, but nevertheless very polished, shooting mechanics.

It's strange then to see this strong central gameplay surrounded by new ideas that feel so rushed and under-developed. The biggest one, and it's the one that would have made this game stand out, is the team system. Throughout missions you'll encounter dialogue segments between you and your team, where they'll ask you a question or make a statement. You're then given a selection of responses to pick from, and depending on how you answer, the character who's addressing you will either gain or lose respect for you. Teammates who respect you are far more likely to follow your orders, so it's in your best interest to react appropriately to the given situation.

The first problem with this system though is how terribly the dialogue trees function. While other games with dialogue trees, such as the Mass Effect series, feature answers unique to each situation, Binary Domain instead provides you with a generic series of choices, oftentimes with many (or all of them) laughably disconnected from the questions asked. Rather than try to explain why, I'll just let you read two of them yourself:

"_____ was the only contact we could use. So don't go blaming this on me."

Your choices for a response are:
A: "Ok."
B: "Cool."
C: "Alright."

Now...which one is the correct choice? In this scenario, you simply don't know, as they all essentially mean the same thing, yet one or two of them will drag down the character's respect for you.

Here's another one:

"Without you I could have died in this filth."
A: "Damnit!"
B: "God Damn!"
C: "No Problem."

It of course doesn't take a degree in robotics to figure out the correct answer to that one, so you likely won't lose respect points there unless you accidentally hit the wrong button, but it's still a prime example of a promising idea being implemented in such a lazy way.

More understandably, teammates will lose respect for you if you shoot them in combat, which makes sense, though this too proves to be an annoyance when they run directly into your line of fire.

The fact is, you'll have a lot more fun with Binary Domain if you forget about the team mechanics entirely. On the standard difficulty you'll almost never have to give commands to your teammates anyway, and it's a far better alternative to having to deal with broken dialogue trees and the behavior of your not-so-smart teammates.

Verdict: Binary Domain's a tough one to rate. The central gameplay mechanics, while not particularly new, are solid and manage to be a lot of fun. The leveling up system's simple and easy to use, the story has some cool moments and fun settings, and the boss battles can be pretty awesome. On the other hand, it's impossible to ignore that the team dynamics, which should have been the heart of the game, are so half-assed and basically broken. It's hard not to lose interest in the neverending series of gray corridors that make up the game's final missions, and it's hard not to wish the story went somewhere far cooler than it ultimately does.

Is Binary Domain a game worth playing? If you're looking for a fun third person shooter, I'd say it's worth a shot. Though to me this doesn't feel much like a SEGA game, SEGA fans and fans of Toshihiro Nagoshi's work will likely have a lot of fun seeing him trying out something new. It's important to set your expectations accordingly, but if you do, you should enjoy this cool little futuristic shooter.

Presentation: Not too much in the way of load times, lots of story, fun cutscenes, some very generic character designs. The emphasis on teamwork is a fun idea, though it should have been implemented better.

Graphics: At times it looks great, at others it looks like an Xbox game given the "HD remake" treatment. It runs very well, though, with no slowdown that I noticed.

Gameplay: Great shooting and comparatively agile controls make the core gameplay far more enjoyable than the clunky Mass Effect 3. Checkpoints are for the most part well-placed and the enemies are fun to take out. Great boss battles. Utterly broken dialogue tree system, the teamwork feels almost like an afterthought.

Sound: Voice acting won't win any awards but it's actually not terrible. The music, though, I found myself forgetting even as it was playing.

Replay Value: Game's around 8 hours, so the standard length for the genre. There's a multiplayer mode (online only) and the ability to replay chapters. There are also other difficulty settings and (supposedly) story changes depending on certain choices you make. Not bad, but not a ton here to keep coming back to.

Overall: 7.5/10

(Note: This review is of the Xbox 360 version. My scoring is done on a .5 scale)

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