It’s not very often that a genuine surprise comes along in videogames these days.
If a title has a unique enough look or a big name developer attached to it, it rarely needs much exposure outside of the exciteable internet community in order to sell fairly well. But what about a game that, on paper at least, sounds bland? What about a game that, even from screenshots and trailers, looks a bit… well, plain? Let’s be honest, you probably took one look at the cover, read the synopsis and wondered what on earth Binary Domain could actually offer that you haven’t seen a billion times before.
I’ll admit I was the same. I even had a brief go of it at Eurogamer Expo last year, subsequently plonking it into the ‘boring cover-to-cover shooter’ section of my watch list. Now, having had the pleasure of playing the whole thing, I can safely admit that I was totally wrong.
Coming from Toshihiro Nagoshi, who has bonkers Sega franchises Super Monkey Ball and Yakuza notched into his bedpost, Binary Domain stars American dude-bro muscle-head Dan Marshall, an elite soldier in the far flung future of 2080. Robots are a part of everyday life now, but their manufacture is governed by a strict set of rules called the New Geneva Convention. When ‘Hollow Children’ – robots built to be indistinguishable from human beings – start to appear, it becomes clear somebody has broken the rules. As part of a special ops unit known as a ‘Rust Crew’, Marshall is tasked with infiltrating future Tokyo to seek out Yohji Amada, the man believed to be responsible.
Needless to say, you’ll be shooting a lot of robots in this game, so it’s pretty important that Binary Domain nails that part. Essentially, it’s a copy and paste of Gears of War’s cover to cover shooting (tap a to stick to cover, right bumper to reload, hold A to ‘roadie run’ etc.,) although this is by no means a criticism. Gears is so successful partly because of it’s finely tuned controls, and you can hardly blame Binary Domain for taking cues from it’s peers. Pumping the ’scrap-heads’ full of more metal causes them to bust apart satisfyingly, and it’s possible to target specific parts of their forms for a tactical advantage. Attacking the legs obviously hinders them quite significantly, and shooting off their heads causes them to attack their comrades.
Speaking of which, getting kills earns you a whole bunch of credits – the currency used to buy ammo and medkits from the various vendors dotted around the levels, as well as upgrading both you and your squads weaponry. I’m certainly someone who appreciates a good levelling up system in a game, but here it seems more born out of conformity than necessity. For starters, you can only upgrade your main weapon -an assault rifle – so at a certain point in the game it becomes pointless to use anything else. I’d have appreciated something a little more in-depth than just an arbitrary ‘firepower’ and ‘capacity’ stat screens; I can’t help but think that the ability to buy different ammo types, or add scopes to the guns would have perhaps increased the diversity in the gun play.
For the most part the actual ’shooting’ feels solid, it’s the bits when you’re not holding down the trigger that the game loses some steam. Binary Domain has several infuriating ‘Press the button when the cursor is in highlighted area’ Quick Time Events during some of the more exciting moments, which adds nothing aside from the overwhelming urge to punch someone really hard in the face. There’s a section later in the game involving a collapsing bridge that highlighted, to me at least, the issue games face when using Quick Time Events. I must have watched Marshall fall to his death at least 30 times in the space of about ten minutes, which interrupts all the tension and urgency built up in the rest of the scene.
Binary Domain supposedly boasts advanced A.I, but to me it seemed no different than every other game I’ve ever played. Most enemies will walk directly towards you, soaking up bullets until the explode, while your team-mates are just as blunderingly oafish and suicidal as they are in any other team based title. They wander unaware directly into your line of sight, then give you grief for shooting them just like any other game, and they’ll stand under a giant robots descending fist with gleeful ignorance just like any other game.
Of course, the ‘advanced AI’ could be referring to the voice-input squad commands, but I seriously doubt that. If you have some kind of rare disease that makes you love having an otherwise lovely experience ruined by half-assed, barely functional gimmicks, then by all means give the voice commands a go – otherwise I advise you steer clear. At first it’s kind of cool that you can tell your big black partner that you ‘Love him’ just to see his disgusted reaction, but after a while the constant cries of ‘were you talking to me?’ ‘what did you just say?’ ’save it until after the fight!’ every time I farted or breathed too heavily got right on my tits. There is an option to balance the microphone to exclude the majority of background noise, but I couldn’t seem to find an agreeable level and ended up giving up on the thing entirely.
Luckily, Binary Domain’s achievements span far further than that of it’s gameplay, and it emerges as one of the most well-written and genuinely compelling stories I’ve ever seen in a game. A rather blistering pace is set right from the start, and basically the action refuses to let up throughout the whole campaign. Yes, it has a five hour campaign, but it more than makes up for it by packing a whole hell of a lot into such a short space of time, and you won’t feel at all cheated by the end. Every cutscene is beautifully presented, and the camera does some neat little tricks with perspective and angles during dialogue and action sequences – something rarely experimented with in this form of media. Even if you aren’t impressed by the twisty-turny plot and impressive character development, you’ll at least be pleased with the way it’s presented to you.
The characters, who at first seem like enormously insulting stereotypes (well, the British woman is kind of insulting – she looks like she was carved out of shit with an ugly stick), are actually incredibly well-rounded and interesting. Dialogue is excellent and actually pretty funny in places, and the voice cast do a fine job of giving each member of your squad a bit of personality. Characters like Shindo, who has very poor voice-work, is more than accounted for by characters like Cain and Fei, who are genuinely a delight to listen to every time they speak. If I could level one criticism at Binary Domain in the sound department, it would be that there wasn’t enough dialogue recorded for use during missions. Hearing the same one or two lines every time you get downed or impress them prods you ever so gently to the very precipice of despair and fury as the hours roll by, although it never quite tips you over the edge.
Although Binary Domain shamelessly panders to it’s western audience (not least by having Chad Everyman and Black Dynamite save the day in the name of the gosh-darn Yoo Ess Ay), it still has that distinct Eastern heritage that oozes gloriously through the cracks – from the dramatic crash zooms at the end of cut-scenes, to the absurd enemy design, it’s like eating a delicious Japanese rice pudding with a thin film of dried-up Americanism on top. It’s almost a shame that this game has been overlooked by so many, because out of all the games I’ve played in the last year or so, this is the one I’m super excited about seeing a sequel for.