When Toshihiro Nagoshi saw Blade Runner, the replicant threat of its fiction must have hit home. In Binary Domain – his upcoming third-person shooter under the SEGA flag – you lead an international strike force into the heart of Tokyo to arrest the high-profile trespasser of a law prohibiting research into “hollow children” – robots impeccably human in appearance. Whereas Rick Deckard sought to stem the replicant population, Dan Marshall and his rust crew seek to prevent it.
To do that, of course, you’ll also have to kill robots of plainly seen artifice. But Binary Domain has more to it than shredding robots fresh off the assembly line with the guns of 2080 CE. Story seems to matter, and sometimes the game’s dramatic flair comes together nicely. Consider the plight of the hollow children themselves, androids who believe themselves to be as fully human as their entourage, and go through serious crises once they’ve realized their exceptionalism. Evidence is often undeniable.
How well and how widely the hollow children factor into the plot is something that can only be judged from the final product. What’s safe to say is that it’s a cool concept, matched by cut-scenes of awesome pace, solid voice acting, and emotive facial animations. A standout feature to usher it all along is voice recognition. Players will speak to NPCs, shouting orders in combat and socializing between battles and in towns. This might seem like a gimmick – and indeed sometimes it fails to register properly – but really it offers a brave alternative to the now dime-a-dozen “Mass Effect chat wheel.” Teammates give you different responses (and their loyalties evolve) depending on your own. A third, hidden option is to play the silent type (some might end up calling this the “my headset is broken” type), or worse, to walk away from tabled questions.
Bread. Butter. Combat. In Binary Domain, it’s serious fun, but doesn’t really break away from the pack. The weight of your characters, their interaction with cover, and the D-pad weapons access all feel calqued on the Gears of War series. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. Do you like Gears of War?
Epic’s influence only goes as far as feel and mechanics. Fiction and aesthetics are their own. Oh, and the enemies. Nagoshi spoke about his avoidance of human-to-human killing, a design tenet he’s stuck to in past games. That’s part of why robots (derogatorily known as “scrap-heads”) fit the bill so well. You’ll be fighting nothing but! Fortunately they come in a range of firepower, behavior, appearance…
Some of them drop in via flying drones, others play the waiting game behind riot shields. More originally: snipers latch onto improvised vantage points (yeah, on walls) before opening fire. In terms of design, it has to be said that they come off a little uninspired, all panels and joints. That said, these glorified electronics break beautifully. Thanks to a proprietary game engine, what you shoot is what breaks. As a consequence, kills and shots vary [<-- click for dope hip-hop] on the visual level.
Unlike the foes of many shooters, it’s the legs on these green (basic) bots that are particularly fragile. One quick burst below the belt reduces them to a dedicated, still kill-hungry crawl. Headshots still go rewarded, as headless drones turn on their metal brethren.
Mechanically, Binary Domain exhibits a few causes for worry. Crosshair movement is a little short of smooth, making it tough at times to narrow down on the intended enemy. Multiplayer game modes – fun if not polished – made this blemish more apparent, and another besides: holding the left trigger to pop out of cover sometimes keeps you facing the wall.
Binary Domain has a few strings to its bow: engaging fiction, voice commands, light RPG elements, and robots that snap, crackle, and pop. Hopefully – by release day on Valentine’s Day, 2012 – SEGA will have applied that extra layer of varnish to make its new IP something special, and a good start to the young year.