There’s an old saying – “You can’t judge a game by its cover art”, or something to that effect. On first seeing the cover art for Binary Domain I dismissed it: Generic action-hero cliché in grey duds heroically rescues a fellow action-hero cliché? No thanks. It has a cool logo, but that’s the only good thing about the cover. Decent reviews and word of mouth led to me to pick it up, but should I have bothered?
Binary Domain takes place in 2080 – many of the world’s cities collapsed when global warming caused the seas to rise, and the only way to rebuild was to use robotic labour. You play as Sergeant Dan “the Survivor” Marshall, who is part of an elite group of soldiers whose main job is to crack down on Hollow Children – robots that are outwardly indistinguishable from humans, and are even programmed to believe they are human. So basically he’s a Blade Runner – but where that movie was heavily inspired by Film Noir, Binary Domain takes its cues from Gears of War.
The game seems to contradict itself by saying both that a) these Rust Crews are primarily to police the construction of Hollow Children, and b) that Hollow Children are these incredible things that no one has seen before and that only one person is capable of creating.
The way the game handles the storyline is completely schizophrenic. The cutscenes are generally well written and well-acted – indeed, the scene where a group of civilians realise a Hollow Child has been living amongst them is great – but the braggadocio-and-bullshit-ridden dialogue of the soldiers throughout the gameplay portions is just atrocious, complete with the racist caricature of a sidekick.
Worse still is the way the game tries to force you to interact with these terribly-written soldiers. Each one has a trust meter that can fill up or deplete depending on your actions and conversations. That’s fine, this is a mechanic we’ve seen in other games, the only problem is here it is completely broken. One second the sassy/angry Brit is praising me for something and the next second he’s chewing me out because I somehow disappointed him. But then, here’s the real kicker – I have to respond to him, and it goes a little something like this:
“What the hell Dan? Are you even trying out here?”
A – Yeah.
B – No.
C – Sorry.
Through the magic of Kinect – or just a simple microphone if you’re on PC – you’re supposed to respond by actually speaking. Sorry, but no. I can’t think of a more depressing way of reminding myself that I’m home alone playing through a B-grade science fiction movie than by verbalising at these awful characters. You can turn off voice input in the settings, but unfortunately it doesn’t completely remove these broken, awkward conversations, it just replaces voice with button pressing.
So there’s a rubbish Trust system in place that is controlled by unnecessary and annoying voice input, and on top of that we’re never told what effect it might actually have on the game. Might my brothers in arms abandon the mission, leaving me with no backup? Might they betray me at some point in the story? Or are they simply less effective in combat the lower their trust?
According to the devs this is supposed to “create human drama”, but all it does is make me wish I was playing Alpha Protocol. Dan Marshall even looks like an unbearded Michael Thorton, but in Alpha Protocol the conversation system works, and the effect that each answer might have on your game always apparent from backstory and context.
Visually Binary Domain is reminiscent of Vanquish – you’re fighting robots from a third-person perspective in a giant future city made up primarily of whites and greys – but the gameplay is too slow and staid to hold a candle Platinum’s work. The gameplay formula is just Binary Domain = Gears of War – Gore, but even then the experience isn’t as solid as Gears. The Gears of War guns all felt distinct and all had weight, and whilst the chainsword melee attack was visceral and brutal, melee in Binary Domain is clumsy and feels disconnected. The only original feature they added to the Gears formula is one they took directly from Dead Space – you can dismember the robots. Take out a robot’s head, ‘causing it to fight its comrades, shoot its arm so it has to pick up its gun with the other hand, or shoot out its legs to make it crawl towards you like some vicious, robotic baby.
There are also boss battles, but they’re uninteresting, take too long, and – in the case of the Spider – are poorly signposted. I’m told to shoot out the drive motor on each leg, and I’m told that you can spot them because they glow, but when I shoot at the bit that seems to be glowing most obviously I’m told not to waste my ammo shooting at the armour. The combat in Binary Domain rarely feels genuinely fun, but it’s in the boss battles that this is most strongly emphasized.
The Multiplayer is also Gears of War inspired, with both versus and Horde modes, though the Horde mode is seemingly balanced for 4 people and is thus completely impossible for 2. Your multiplayer mileage is going to come down to how many of your friends own the game, and whether or not you’re sick of all the other multiplayer games in your library, because there’s not really anything here to set it apart from any other shooter that came out in the past 5 years.
The visuals are poor-man’s Vanquish, the gameplay is poor-man’s Gears of War, the conversation system is poor-man’s Alpha Protocol and the storyline is poor-man’s Blade Runner. So, if this write-up hasn’t put you off entirely, my only advice is to make like a poor-man and only buy this when it’s super cheap.