Gaming for Grown Ups
10th March 2012 15:56:00
Posted by Edd Harwood

Binary Domain

Microsoft Xbox 360 Review

The Digital Fix tear apart, piece by piece, Sega's latest release: Binary Domain
“Help” I scream, as I lay prostrate on the floor, body riddled with lead. “Ok, I’m holding” replies my incredibly disingenuous ally, as he meekly hides behind cover spraying bullets wildly wide of our incoming enemies. I can hear the scrapes of their metallic feet as they step ever closer. I peer out from my hiding place and see their glowing red eyes gleaming out of the thick fog of war. They are almost on me. “No, Help me!” I yell again, intonating each syllable in a last ditch effort to have my words finally understood. “Ok, I’m holding”. As my life force slips away from me and with the robots bearing down on my position, I finally give up. Let go.

Yanking the microphone from its cosy slot in the controller, I throw it angrily at the nearest wall leaving a small dirty mark on the wallpaper, forever reminding me of Binary Domain and yet another failed foray into voice recognition in gaming. The voice recognition, as it turns out, is a fairly accurate analogy for the game as a whole. Filled with potentially interesting ideas and clever nuances yet never quite succeeding on virtually all fronts.

Binary Domain is another third-person action-shooter game, following very closely to the successful path hewn out of the gaming landscape by the Gears of War franchise. Set in the near, but still heavily science fiction, future, the world has been ravaged by catastrophes related to global warming. The sea level has risen and flooded most of the world’s cities. Yet out of the rubble rise new empires built by armies of subservient robots. The great civilisations are reborn by machines, their shining modern cities towering above the old sunken slums. However, fearful no doubt of the prophesied matrixian revolution the world’s superpowers sign an agreement to limit the capabilities of their machines, the most relevant of these being the outlawing of human looking robots being developed.

A multinational team is formed to enforce these terms and it is here that we find our hero of the hour, American Dan Marshall - part of a covert squad sent to investigate claims that a Japanese corporation are illegally developing human lookalike robots called ‘hollow children’. The term 'covert' is used particularly loosely here. Make no mistake, there is no chance of stealth being employed, a point your team mates wilfully mock you about.
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Some of the settings are particularly interesting snapshots into the future

The setting is one of the most interesting aspects of the game. With obvious nods towards the fathers of modern science fiction such as Isaac Asimov and Phillip K Dick, and combining it with the insanity of Japanese design it manages to forge a rather novel environment. The game begins in the slums of the old flooded cities, where the poor are forced to suffer, and as you progress you enter the the modern shining towers of the rebuilt city of Tokyo. It represents a clever dichotomy of the distribution of wealth in the future and perhaps if it were intelligently inclined attempting to draw parallels to reality.

Unfortunately intelligence is the one defining characteristic in Binary Domain that seems to be rather scarce. The plot meanders along at such a dull and mundane pace that one could easily forget why they are ploughing through wave after wave of artificially unintelligent robots. Admittedly the plot does take some clever and unpredictable twists and turns at the very end, yet it takes a good eight hours of campaigning to even reach a slight curve. Then it finishes shortly after. The whole experience feels like a short story stretched far too thinly across the fairly large surface of the game.

This dearth of intellect filters down into your team as well. Throughout the single player campaign you will escorted by a couple of followers, whom you can select from your slightly larger team, in much the same fashion as found in Mass Effect. Much like Mass Effect each member has a trust rating which rises if you perform heroic actions or respond to their questions in a manner they approve. Much like Mass Effect you can upgrade their weapons (but cannot change them), adjust their skill settings using a rather primitive module system and order them around. And much like Mass Effect they are almost completely useless.

This is perhaps a problem with all games in which you are entrusted to command a team. The designers clearly do not want them killing all enemies before you even have a chance to engage, but far too often they are completely impotent, unable to kill even the weakest of enemies and leaving it to the player to clear the area. It makes a mockery of the point of having a team in the first place, and only breeds a sense of anger and hatred towards them.
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Here is your team, together for one rare moment

The hatred burns ever higher as you realise that each is a cardboard cut-out of stereotyping, almost to the point that it is so racially divisive it falls into the realm of satire. Perhaps this was developer Yakuza Studio's point. The black guy (for want of another description) is a huge hulking mass who goes around spouting words like ‘bro’ and ‘right on’. A surreal French robot who prances around shouting ‘Mais Oui’ and may as well be wearing garlic around his neck. Surprisingly, the British actually get off lightly, lacking a mention of a tea at any point. The whole experience is so bizarre it feels like you are staring back at the eighties.

The voice recognition mentioned earlier does nothing to help either. Not only does it take a huge amount of calibration to get it to work in the first place but even when it succeeds, your choice of words are so limited it becomes rather mundane and pointless anyway. Often throughout the game your team will pose you questions, ranging from tactics to why, again, did you pick only women to join you. Unfortunately because the developers clearly wanted to utilise the voice recognition technology your responses are limited to a choice of single word responses, most of which barely seem to make sense in the context. For example, in response to the probing question about my choice of feminine followers (which the game amusingly picked up on), my choices were ‘Shit’, or ‘Yes’. Neither of which made much sense, nor did they represent my actual desire to state simply they were the least annoying stereotypes and lacking of horrible accents in the team.

At any point you can tear the microphone off and use the buttons to answer questions and command your team and this tends to be less frustrating, if a little archaic. The main issue with these responses is that it seems to make no real difference to the game. You can swear blue-murder or plough bullets into your team mates until they despise you, but all that really affects is how cocky they are during battles. In the cut-scenes everyone will be amicable again, or even stranger you might find yourself making out with a team mate whom appears to hate you in game. The whole idea of trust and companionship is effectively rendered mute since the story will force you to follow it no matter what.
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The French robot, minus the beret

If you have made it this far into this review you may believe that Binary Domain has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Strangely you would be wrong. Binary Domain is actually surprisingly compelling and enjoyable despite the huge expanse of problems already laid out, and this is almost entirely down to the action. More precisely one original mechanic that pulls the game out from the quagmire of mediocrity into something almost pleasurable.

While the action itself is standard fare for the genre: run around, dive behind chest high walls, fire blindly, roll around on the floor to the next chest high wall - Gears of War fans will immediately feel at home - what really raises the game above the pile of Gears clones that line the shelves are the enemies.

The standard foes that your team will face are ripped almost directly from the film I, Robot - human shaped autonomatrons. What the models lack in originality however they make up for in highly-entertaining-detachable-parts. Concentrate your bullets on one of these machine's arms, for example, and it will rip off rendering the robot unable to return fire, at which point it will charge towards you in an attempt to kick you into submission. Blow off their legs and they collapse leaving only their arms to drag their metallic body around. Best of all, remove their heads, with an extremely satisfying ‘ping’, and they lose all sense of coordination, running around blazing bullets at their former allies.

This simple mechanic adds to the action immensely and surprisingly, despite the extreme repetition of fighting similar enemies throughout the campaign, never really grows old. Perhaps it is because it makes the fights feel more tactical, more thoughtful. The game even rewards you for such skilful aiming, dispensing you with extra money for upgrades and item purchases the more limbs you remove from an enemy.

The bosses, often gargantuan in stature and animalistic,on the other hand are slightly more hit-and-miss. Some, such as the monstrous Spider, spraying bullets everywhere and launching rockets like loose change being flung into a well, are thrilling. Diving constantly for cover, and collecting ammunition to return fire, smashing off armour and snapping off its legs, makes your heart rate race and leaves you in a sweaty, exhausted yet satisfying trance. Meanwhile other set-pieces like the massive Tsar Runner fall completely flat. Considering this is a fight between what is basically a transforming motorcycle larger than a block of flats and you stuck in a small van with just a machine gun, it ends up being exceptionally dull, seemingly lasting forever with very little variation.
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You would not want to find him lurking in the dark crannies of your room

One quick mention needs to be said for the multiplayer, which suitably is how it should be described. Quick and barely mentionable. Seemingly made as an afterthought, it offers very little in terms of originality and worse it even goes as far as to strip back the efforts made in making the single player enjoyable. There are two modes available: versus and invasion (basically just the horde mode of Gears of War reheated). Strangely despite being a team based shooter, there is no cooperative campaign.

The versus is bundled with the standard fare for games made this century: Deathmatch and Objectives modes such as capture the flag. Each player can choose a class, which essentially defines which gun you start with and then you go about the daily grind. It is enjoyable for a few moments, but barely memorable and I predict the servers will be empty ghost towns within a matter of months.

The invasion mode fares little better. For some unknown reason the robots that bare down upon your team's defences have lost that pure spark of genius that made the single player enjoyable. Their AI seems downgraded, but worse they no longer snap into pieces making the battles far less entertaining or tactical. All in all it is just another strange design choice that drags Binary Domain back down into simple mediocrity.

And that brings the review full circle. The voice recognition, like the plot, like the the bosses, like the multiplayer, are all suitable analogies for the game as a whole. Sometimes effective, sometimes enjoyable, but far too often frustrating and mindless. The whole game feels like it could have been brilliant if only a little more thought had been put into it. For fans of the third-person action genre it is worth playing, purely to experience the joy of pinging robots' heads off and the plot does, I assure you, become interesting at the end. But even this does little to pull this game above being decidedly average.
Details and Specifications
Review Platform: Microsoft Xbox 360

Publisher: Sega

Developer: Yakuza Studio

UK Release Date: 2012-02-24
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