Binary Domain Review
Developer: Yakuza Studio
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Binary Domain has trouble deciding if it wants to be Terminator or Blade Runner or some kind of perverse buddy-cop movie. There's a background story to this near-future dystopia that has global warming flooding much of the world's cities and arable land. Faced with a massive death toll, humanity has retreated to elevated cities supported by robot labor, while the poorest scrounge the abandoned cities for work and sustenance. Two robotics corporations appear to have more political clout than the world's governments, with one maintaining a near-monopoly over the world's labor force. Suddenly, Hollow Children are popping up – robots that have been masquerading as humans, often for decades, completely unaware of their artificial nature.
Set against this threat is an elite, multi-national Rust Crew. This group of combat specialists divides into small strike teams and sets out to infiltrate Japan and put a stop to Amada Corporation, a Japanese robotics company that appears to have violated the Geneva Code by creating these Hollow Children. The Rust Crew must eliminate the threat and capture Amada himself, facing hordes of military robots along the way.
The plot of Binary Domain invites the kind of quiet, contemplative examination of the nature of humanity that immediately evokes Blade Runner. What makes someone human, and how can you be certain that even your closest comrades (or you) aren't part of some sort of robotic long-con. Binary Domain approaches these concepts ham-fistedly, and mostly in cut-scenes before jumping into long shooting sequences in which a small group of Rust Crew operatives blast endless hordes of robots and advanced military hardware. At these moments, Binary Domain feels far more like it was ripped from a Terminator plot, with an army of bipedal military units controlled by SkyNet marching inexorably toward a small, holdout group of humans.
All the while, Binary Domain also wants to explore the interpersonal relationships between the members of the Rust Crews. I enjoyed both the philosophical and the soulless military takes on robotics, but found the relationship portion of Binary Domain fell flat due to mediocre writing, inconsistent accents (I'm talking about you, robotic French Foreign Legionnaire) and terrible AI. Binary Domain's big gimmick is voice recognition, but we'll get to that in a second. Your relationship with the other Rust Crew personnel can go up or down depending on your actions, bravery and dialog. Not surprisingly, they like you less if you shoot them. Unfortunately, several of the squad members are scripted to rush forward (no matter how much you shout at them to stop), and will happily run right in front of you, even if you are firing automatic weapons at an oncoming line of armed robots. Since I couldn't avoid shooting them, several squad members were never going to like me. I kept expecting they'd call me a "loose cannon," demand my gun and badge, and kick me off the Rust Crew.
The conversation gimmick should have been pretty cool. Not only can you verbally order your allies around, but the game intends for you to actually respond verbally to the dialog. Usually, this is a simple, "yes," "no," or "OK," but occasionally ranges into something more complicated. When it works, it's clever. When I found myself repeatedly shouting the same command into the microphone (like "Regroup" to get my ally to stop jumping in front of my mini-gun), only to have it rejected, it's just frustrating.
I had a lot of problems with ambient noise. No matter how much I tweaked the noise setting, the game kept registering the game's own noises as if I were shouting "Fuck," while my companions told me to chill out. As much as I liked the idea of playing a futuristic special operations peace-keeper with coprolalia, it didn't improve the game experience. Binary Domain touts its "consequence system." The system is supposed to make your allies trust or distrust you based on your actions and dialog. As far as I can tell, it worked, since my teammates seemed to think I was an incompetent lackwit and a bit of a scaredy-cat, mostly since I was constantly (and unintentionally) screaming "Fuck!" at renegade Japanese robots.
Depressingly, the game got much better (and my allies liked me far better) once I disconnected the microphone and just used button presses to control my own speech. The conversation system is particularly frustrating, because every dialog has right and wrong options. There's no room for expressing your own personality or reacting naturally, only reacting as you think the writer wants you to react for each character. My cursing and (mis-)use of the microphone cost me friends, and while that only cost me a few achievements, it's still irritating.
When in combat, Binary Domain is a frantic, cover-based shooter with brutal robotic foes and even more deadly bosses. The combat is easily the highlight of the game, although not so spectacular that it offers something that can't be found in other games. If anything is unique, it's that individual robots take damage piecemeal, and can survive a lost leg, hopping around or dragging themselves in an attempt to bludgeon you to death. Take out the head, and enemy robots will often fire haphazardly, sometimes taking out other robotic foes. It's entertaining enough, but interrupted far too often by quick-time events.
I often felt like I was just getting into the flow of a good battle when I'd have to press a button flashing on the screen to perform a dramatic action. As in other games, when it works, it can feel like an action movie. When it doesn't work, I felt foolish and the action had to go back to the last checkpoint, killing the flow. This was particularly frustrating in an early swimming sequence, when it felt like the controls were unresponsive but it turned out just to be a quick-time event-style trigger. This pacing was also irritating when I had to replay a late-game bridge moment several times, entirely screwing up the pacing of the final act. In the same spirit, there are also several scenes in which you can only walk very slowly while dialog plays out. Once I understood the convention, it was merely annoying, but the first few times, I thought there was something wrong with the game.
There's a minor character advancement system, in so far as you can upgrade your main weapon and unlock some minor health and armor improvements, but this doesn't have much impact other than making it fairly easy to take down non-boss enemies by the end of the game. Currency for improvements is earned by killing foes, and enemies are easy enough to farm in the late game that there's virtually unlimited upgrades.
Despite the ever-encroaching army of bipedal, Terminator-like robots, the most dramatic sequences involve Binary Domain's many boss battles. Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of boss fights, but the battles in Binary Domain are typically done well. It's the usual business of figuring out the enemy's attacks and then striking at weak points, but the fights are varied and interesting. The exceptions, again, involve quick-time events. For some of the bosses, only scripted events can deal a damaging blow, so I wasted untold ammunition unloading at a gorilla-like robot (among others) only to learn that I just had to wait and press a single button at the right moment. That is anticlimactic, rather than action-movie-esque.
Binary Domain is satisfying and entertaining enough to keep you occupied for a good weekend of play, but isn't going to transform your experience of third-person shooters any more than it will make you contemplate the metaphysics of humanity beyond wondering which target the game will designate for you next. The single-player campaign offers plenty of action, although the multiplayer offerings seem more soulless than the Hollow Children you'll execute in the story mode.