Joshua Garrity is surprised by SEGA’s Nagoshi-produced robot shooter.
On its surface Binary Domain doesn’t seem to be a particular interesting game. It’s a cover-based third person shooter, very much in the same vain as Gears of War, developed by Toshihiro Nagoshi’s team over at SEGA. Cover-based third person shooters aren’t exactly an under-populated genre, and it doesn’t help that Japanese developers have an uneven track record when tackling ‘Western style’ games. Despite that, I think Binary Domain manages to be a great example of the genre, while still retaining its unique Japanese flavour.
Binary Domain is set in 2080, where mass global flooding has lead to the rise of a huge robotic work force to help rebuild and maintain the world’s major cities. Fears that robotic technology was developing too fast lead to the creation of the New Geneva Convention. This banned the creation of Robots that looked externally identical to human beings, and possessed complex human emotion. It is discovered that many robots that look identical to human beings, and even believe they are human, are currently living among us. It is believed that the Amada Corporation based in Japan is the only company in the world with the resources and technical know how to create these “hollow children”. And so a global task force, which includes our protagonist Dan Marshall, are dispatched to Japan to investigate.
I have to say, that I was quite surprised how engaging and interesting Binary Domain’s plot ended up being. I mean, you aren’t going to mistake the story for the best video games have to offer. And the concept of machines becoming more and more indistinguishable from living creatures has been explored in other media, and to greater affect. But seeing as most action heavy third person shooters don’t excel at story at all, I appreciated the extra effort. There are even some plot twists I didn’t see coming.
I’ll be honest; almost all the characters in your elite global task force are action movie stereotypes. For example, Charles Gregory is a no-nonsense British officer, and Big Bo is a big tough, but comical black guy. Sound familiar? They should do. But due to some fairly good voice work, and decent dialogue, these characters started to grow on me. But I’d be amiss not to mention Cain, who stands out from the rest of the cast and is one of the more fun and ridiculous video game characters of recent memory. Cain is a super-suave French battle droid, and is exactly as cool as that sounds. He has some of the funniest lines in the game, and also manages to be the most badass member of your team.
One of the more unique aspects of the game is how you communicate and interact with your squad mates. Much like other squad based shooters, you can give orders to take cover, or charge. But more interestingly, how much the characters trust you affects their willingness to take orders. Things like friendly fire will lower their level of trust, where as killing a lot of enemies will increase their trust. At times characters will engage in light banter with you or each other, and you can choose how to respond. And this will also affect how much they trust you. The problem is, pissing off your team mates has no positive effects, so picking negative dialogue options is pointless. Instead I defaulted to the option that would please everyone. So in the end, the choice might as well not be there. I like the idea, but it could have been handled better.
The game also has optional microphone support that lets you give orders and communicate with your squad via voice command. It’s an interesting idea, but I found it to be more trouble than it was worth. Shouting “regroup” 5 times into a microphone before my team mates responded was irritating enough, that I turned the feature off and just used the buttons on the controller instead.
Where Binary Domain does excel is its combat. Now, it doesn’t really do any thing different from most other third person shooters as far as combat is concerned. It just feels really good. Shooting feels precise, the weapons all have a satisfying kick to them, and your character moves quickly and smoothly. The enemies are really fun and interesting to fight as well. All your opponents are robots, and the developers have really committed to the idea that these are machines you are fighting, not living things. Shooting different areas of their bodies have different effects. Blast off their legs, and they’ll resort to crawling along the floor to try and kill you. Shoot their head off, and they get confused, and start killing their own team. Plus, chipping away at their armour piece by piece, removing their metal plates to expose weaker joints and circuits is really visually satisfying. Binary Domain also throws in quite a few set pieces and boss battles for good measure. None of these scenarios were particularly challenging, but were a lot of fun and had a great sense of scale.
On the presentation front, Binary Domain can look really good. All the robots in the game look and animate really nicely. They look like they could actually be fully functional machines, due to a lot of detail given to their metal plates, joints and circuits. And the environments can be really impressive at times too. However, human faces look a little weird at times, especially during close-ups in cut scenes. You get used to it, and it won’t pull you out of the experience, but it is a slight annoyance.
Binary Domain does have its share of flaws, and a lot of its more unique ideas don’t really amount to much. Yet when it comes down to the basic fundamentals of what makes a third person shooter worth while this game really shines. And all that is wrapped up in a sense of style and characterisation you don’t get from most third person shooters. I wouldn’t compare Binary Domain to the best games in the genre, like Vanquish for example, but it is a lot of fun – and certainly has a lot more personality than many other games on the market.