From zero to hero…
Third person shooters may be two a penny, but it’s a genre that many eastern developers stay well away from and, given how many titles already exist and how high the bar is set, it’s hard to really blame them. Yet barely a year after Platinum Games’ Vanquish, SEGA are once again backing a Japanese development team to do something new with the genre, this time in the guise of Yakuza Studio’s Binary Domain.
Game: Binary Domain
Developer: Yakuza Studio
Binary Domain’s plot hinges on some of sci-fi’s favourite themes – robotics, artificial intelligence, and the moral dilemmas that come hand-in-hand with these. Set in 2080, humanity has become reliant on their electronic brethren; aside from the usual array of robo-butlers and security guards, rising tides have led to the building of new cities held aloft by huge support pillars that often require risky and complicated maintenance work – ideal work for the expendable. However, the relationship progresses beyond master and slave into the uncomfortable with the appearance of ‘Hollow Children’ – robots that look, feel, think and act just like humans, and who are just as convinced of their humanity as those that gaze upon them. Confirming this as a direct contradiction of a landmark Geneva treaty, a international military initiative assembles a ‘Rust Crew’ to covertly enter Japan and apprehend Yoji Amada, the reclusive old man believed to be the origin of these sacrilegious droids.
Fans of writers such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick will find all of this familiar territory, and the blurred lines between man and machine make for all kinds of second guessing as to what directions the plot will take. As expected, it finds it hard to completely avoid clichés, but the story-telling is still one that deserves some recognition; largely down to not only the setting and respectably mature writing, but also the cast and the way they play off one other. With your team being made of specialists from a variety of nations, all thrown together at a moment’s notice, the banter and camaraderie is there, but is tenuous and a little too forced to ever be infallible. Your character, Dan, is an American known as ‘the survivor’, and bears all of the brash and ballsy hallmarks of someone who’d self-apply such a moniker, which sits at quite an opposing position of your supposed leader Charlie; a British soldier with a very particular sense of duty, and a stiff upper lip – although this isn’t to say there’s nothing but cringe-inducing stereotypes at play though. Aside from your own team’s fragile allegiance there’s also other complications – a police chief intent on throwing his all at you, a mob boss whose help you reluctantly need, and then the mysterious Amada himself – brought together, it all spins a story you’ll definitely want to see through to its completion.
Although not flexing any particularly noteworthy technical muscles, Binary Domain manages to look solid whilst still moving around at the kind of speed that the game’s action thrives on. The same can be said of cut-scenes too, which are handled by the same engine, and offer smooth and slick transitions into the action to avoid ever dropping the pace. The covert nature of your mission may lend itself on occasion to some rather dark and dank locations, there’s still enough variation in the game’s overall look to avoid any of these areas ever getting too stale, and it does well to show that the game is miles from the muddy, bland palettes often associated with some shooters. Break away from the grimier parts though, and Sega’s blue sky aesthetic starts to peek out from behind the clouds – whilst it’s often being levelled around you, the Tokyo setting of the game looks great and does a solid job of feeling like a living, breathing city.
Distinctive in their own ways they may be, however your partners in arms all largely fit to a fairly common build of armoured soldiers with big guns – enemy designs are similarly stock replicas too, and stick to fairly simplistic robot troops for the most part. Whilst they do all move and react well, the enemy threat is typically more from their numbers marching forwards rather than by the game’s attempt to create any menacing single-instance foes that stand out. Boss creatures are the obvious exception to this, and all of these are quite stunning creations that enjoy a real sense of scale without compromising the level of intricacy on the finer details. The way in which all of these can be chipped away at piece by piece is plenty satisfying, and even when missing legs and arms, the glowing red eyes of your foes are particularly more than a little remeniscent of the iconic Terminator series.
Sound plays an important role within the game, with the recommended setup seeing you play with a headset on at all times, allowing for a more hands-on steering of dialogue paths in quieter moments, and snappy voice commands to be issued mid-battle. With a pool of roughly 40 commands to use, it’s a pleasant relief to report that most work first, and every subsequent time – although those that don’t however will inevitably frustrate in a far grander style. As an example, we had trouble getting the game to differentiate between “Help!” and “Hold!”, leading to some hilarious consequences when being asked if we’d appreciate a medi-kit upon being gunned to the floor.
Away from the voice activation, the sound in-game is far less patchy. Although typically keeping quiet moments as just that, the music keeps closely in-line with the fast-paced nature of the game where needed, often giving an upbeat yet discrete mix of beats and riffs to help things tick along nicely. Voice acting is pleasant enough too, and any criticism of this factor of the game is likely to be closer linked to any grudges harboured against the characters themselves as opposed to their vocal performance.
Strip away the layers and Binary Domain is a fairly straightforward but solid cover-based squad shooter. Whilst it’s certainly not even close to the frenetic pace of the previously-mentioned Vanquish, it’s no sloth either, and any attempts to enjoy the hidden comforts of an upturned bin or park bench for too long will see you quickly out-flanked and showered in bullets. At the core, shooting in itself is responsive and fun – along with the added style bonus, headshots turn many foes on their own, giving you a brief moment to line up the next headshot to carry on the domino effect. Taking other limbs works well too, and although loss of a lower body is unlikely to stop many of your pursuers, the racking up of additional credits for these efforts makes it a necessity for development. There’s not a huge range of weapons, but most bases are covered, and those on offer do their jobs well enough to keep you from wanting much more.
Sitting on top of these core mechanics are a few slightly more RPG-inspired ideas too. Credits can be used to upgrade yours and your comrades’ weapons, but also to purchase nano-machines – stat-boosting items that must be fitted to each characters limited ‘grid’ setup to reap their benefits. Your interactions with your squad are important too – as well as buttering them up when chatting to them, your performance in battle largely determines how much they trust you, and in turn, how likely they are to listen to your orders. Agree with their ideas or kill a series of enemies in quick succession for example, and they’ll be much more receptive to your rallying call for a charge, as opposed to staying safe at the back and doing their own thing; there are plot ramifications that hold on this same logic too, but these are few and far between.
As is expected there are some slightly more adhoc sections tied to particular plot goings-on – typically involving a vehicle and/or pointing a gun outside of it – and whilst these are mostly short they’re surprisingly well implemented too, at least not to the extent that they detract from the rest of the game.
With the end in sight before reaching double-digit hours, it’s not a particularly lengthy game, but nor is it a short one, or more importantly, one that doesn’t feel like it’s had time to reach the height of its potential. Collecting data reports, maxing out relationships and finding all of the nano-machines are your main incentives to re-visit the campaign again, and it’s certainly a worthwhile proposal even if the unveiling of the plot’s finer points is lost on a repeat trip.
Multiplayer is present, and although the more dedicated gamer may find some limited mileage in here, this section of the game is sadly a little short on the ideas front. There’s a decent range of modes available but all are largely derivative of game types you’ve seen elsewhere – Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch, Horde, Onslaught etc – and if anything the breadth of types is spreading thin an online contingent that is likely not too thick to begin with. Taking its warning from the lessons learnt in the campaign, there’s no AI to flesh out teams either, leaving the overall multiplayer vibe to be a rather lonely afterthought.
Coming in expecting the same level of visual polish seen elsewhere in the genre is a sure-fire way to put a dampener on your expectations, but in terms of what’s new, Binary Domain is a real breath of fresh air. Not all of them work as well as they should, but the ideas that’ve been brought on board do a good job in diversifying the experience, and give the mechanics underneath the room to shine. The boss battles are actually fun, the plot is interesting, and there are some wonderful environments and set pieces to see along the way.
In a word 01000001011101110110010101110011011011110110110101100101, or to you mere humans; awesome.