Ever since Resident Evil made it permissible, if not outright fashionable, to get a critical pass for a weak narrative as long as gameplay was sufficiently entertaining, we’ve been knee deep in stories that use all their innovation and technical fidelity to aim squarely between the eyes of “good enough.” Titles like Vanquish, Battlefield 3, and the latter-day Killzones are the most recent example of games that put all their bullets in the programmer’s clip, and none in the writer’s. Ultimately, games like these end up using storytelling as a way to enable rather than celebrate their technical prowess. It doesn’t matter how world-weary, battle-hardened, or fauxhawk’d a cosmic/military/resistance fighter looks: if his strength as a character has all the integrity of a deflating balloon, then a large chunk of the audience will check out for the multiplayer and never look back.
This brings to light the largest problem of the great game/lousy story dynamic: most games are just keeping up appearances when it comes to getting their contextual foot in the door (and it’s worth noting that this dynamic absolutely isn’t true of everything, however common). The illusion of originality seems itself to be paramount; certain games will do whatever it takes to escape the stamp of derivation and plagiarism, short of actually striking out on their own.
And then there’s Binary Domain. Make no mistake, this game has absolutely no hope of hiding its myriad well-worn influences from both science-fiction, third-person action games, and the traditional ways in which Japanese developers portray other cultures. There isn’t a single line of code in this work that hasn’t been seen before, and yet– AND YET –it’s all presented with such confidence and sincerity that it manages to transcend what came before it and stand on its own as an undeniably ripping yarn.
Binary Domain is a third-person shooter, heavy on the cover elements and squad interaction. It falls in lock-step with the designs popularized by Gears of War, down to nearly identical control schemes. Fortunately however, its imitation bears an uncanny resemblance to the chest-high-wall vaulting antics of Delta Squad; the controls are sharp and responsive, combat feels great, and the friendly AI can hold its own in heated moments. Mechanically, Binary Domain is damn near perfect.
What pushes the action forward is no less derivative, but no less well-crafted either. Players assume the mantle of Sgt. Dan Marshall, who is 1/5th of a secret government Special Ops team known as a “Rust Crew.” In Binary Domain’s not-too-distant future, robots have come to occupy the role of ubiquitous servants to society. Massive robotics companies now dominate the economic landscape, operating under the so-called “New Geneva Convention,” which has laid forth the rules of robotic integration in both peaceable and hostile roles. Chief among these rules is Clause 21, which mandates that no robot can be made to look indistinguishable from humans. When colluding world powers catch wind of one corporation’s insidious dismissal of this rule, and sense that conflict with robotic assets may be in the cards, they deploy Sgt. Marshall’s unique Rust Crew to drop behind enemy lines, chase down the responsible conspirators, and prevent global man-versus-robot war from breaking out.
In science-fiction, there might not be a more venerable scenario than “man vs. machine,” and Binary Domain jumps into its possibilities with wanton disregard for what its audience might assume at first blush. Anyone remotely familiar with third-person shooters and “Terminator,” “I, Robot,” or even “The Matrix” won’t be bowled over with Binary’s themes, but the game recognizes this and leaves none of its assets lacking in presentation and reliability.
At it’s core, Binary Domain is about killing robots. Cover is taken, orders are given, and many, many bullets are fired. This gameplay loop doesn’t change much over the course of the six or seven hour campaign, but it’s been beveled to a razor’s edge and will impress even the most discerning fans of the genre. It’s an important achievement, because if this level of technical skill wasn’t on display there’s no doubt that Binary Domain wouldn’t stand much of a chance of leading its audience into its endearing narrative and exasperating-yet-offbeat characters. The gameplay and combat situations are more than entertaining enough to give the story its proper due, making for a very well-rounded time.
However, Binary Domain does have one principally unique feature: its approach to squad interaction. Whereas other action games like Brothers In Arms, Rainbow Six, and Mass Effect take a more granular stance on tactical fighting, allowing players to designate specific enemies and destinations for their subordinates and so forth, Domain charges players with managing their relationships with their teammates in addition to giving out broad orders. The friendly AI is, by and large, very effective on its own, and can be ordered to regroup, provide cover, charge the enemy, or draw their fire– but there’s a catch. Sgt. Marshall’s squad will only listen to him if he’s on their good side. If players demonstrate a friendly attitude in conversations, and are careful to not shoot their teammates, then they can expect to have their orders followed to the letter. If not, well, it’s every soldier for themselves.
The system is admittedly a bit shallow, and similar to those found in Star Wars: Republic Commando, and the Saint’s Row series, but it works as intended (save for a few stupid moments when the friendly AI moves into the player’s sights), and isn’t so intrusive as to become a distraction. Whether or not the game is better for it is something of a wash, but it makes a great dovetail with the character back-and-forth displayed outside of battle.
Binary Domain’s visuals are exceptional. Bar none, this is one of the best looking games on today’s hardware. Granted, taken in screenshots, it’s not so impressive, but the animation of each character, the expressions on their faces, and the wide range of robotic aggressors and allies is definitely batting in the pro leagues. It’s not uncommon to greet new enemies with total inaction, so as to take in all the intricacies and behavioral flourishes of their animation. The “suicide-spider” and “Diddy Kong” bots are particular standouts.
Particle effects and bullet physics are similarly enthralling. Since combat is against exclusively robotic foes, Yakuza Team went all-out in depicting the lead-on-metal carnage. Bullets don’t simply put enemies down, they devastate them like marionettes in a hurricane. Enemies are procedurally mauled by gunfire depending on where they’re hit, making kills feel surgical and immensely satisfying. It adds another small layer to combat by allowing players to take out enemies’ legs– and mobility, arms– and weapons, or heads– and allegiance to their fellow robots. This effectively means that skilled shots can turn enemies against one another and sit back to enjoy the show. More importantly though, Binary Domain’s depiction of combat feels heavier and more consequential due to its detailed robotic destruction. It’s no stretch to say that it feels more violent than a lot of other shooters out there.
As established, Binary Domain plays great, but raises every red-flag on the “story-as-an-excuse-rather-than-a-motivator” scale. A lot of those flags stay flying, but only as regards the tone, which is begrudgingly endearing. In general, the story and characters of Binary Domain are its most surprisingly strong assets, despite how silly they can be. This is the kind of game that’ll make players blush, slap their foreheads, and hastily turn to explain to onlookers why they still like it- even if there’s no one there. However, much like last year’s Bulletstorm, Binary Domain wants people to think it’s much dumber than it actually is, perhaps by design.
Much of this is due to localization. Anyone familiar with the way Japanese developers portray Western characters will be right at home with the unintentional goofiness and the undeniably stereotypical character beats. There’s the American protagonist who is perpetually wry, despite his total lack of cleverness; the British characters who are there to play off the American’s misplaced jocundity with constant sarcasm, and the female Chinese sniper who represents the earth-shatteringly bizarre idea that women can fulfill combat roles (because what’s a Japanese game without a wee bit o’ misogyny?).
Despite their completely predictable nature, however, each of these characters grows on the player over the course of the story. Binary Domain’s writing constantly surprises by saying dumb things in smart ways, and in turn, smart things in dumb ways. When it’s not culling laughs from things like the Rust Crew’s strangely blasé attitude towards chain-of-command, it’s surprisingly emotional and intense. The plot heavily features characters who turn out to be robots that have violated Clause 21 and didn’t know it. Watching those characters- referred to as “Hollow Children” -break down and come to grips with who they are is very effective and makes the final stretch of the game distinctly unsettling. What initially appears to be just another “Blade Runner” ripoff turns into something very engaging, with protagonists that can’t help but be loved and authentically sympathetic villains. While the game would be fun even without this level of plot evolution, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.
This is one of the rarest kinds of action games. On the surface, it seems like a churlish cash grab, no matter the pedigree of its inspirational sources. By the end of things however, Binary Domain’s hallmarks don’t feel like cliches so much as tropes that were rightfully its to claim all along. While it’s short, and likely won’t spend much time in consoles after it’s been completed, there’s no question that it should be given its chance to accept players into its charms. Fans of third-person shooters and Japanese game design will find themselves especially satisfied.