Steps forward, leaps back.
For as cumbersome and time-consuming as they are to review, I have a simple, primary question to answer when assessing MMOs: If you strip away the social trappings, is it a good game? Defiance really should have been, and it certainly tries to be, but it simply isn't. And it's a real shame too, because it had a good chance to boost both the shooter and MMO genres up over the wall of tropes they've both been stuck behind for years.
Purely on a conceptual level, Defiance had a shot at greatness by merit of the fact that it was attempting to do something that's never been done before. Not only was it making a full-blooded, multi-platform MMORPG out of a third-person shooter, but it was also linking it directly with the events of a weekly television show of the same name. Had it executed any part of this plan well, it likely would have found an audience somewhere, but as it stands, I can't see who Defiance appeals to.
At the crux of the matter is the shooter gameplay, which despite being bog-standard, fails to be cohesive or enjoyable. The AI is the biggest culprit here, displaying a level of stupidity that regularly defied my ever-lowering expectations. I'm not one of those AI snobs who lament enemies in a shooter running straight at you to die either. I actually don't mind that, and if the mobs in Defiance were competently able to make a beeline towards me, begging for sweet release, it would've been a vast improvement.
But here, enemies will often spawn and slowly shuffle right into you without so much as a shot fired. Others will stand around pointing their gun right at you without firing as you strafe circles around them. I've even found dudes standing with their backs to me completely unaware of my presence as six of their buddies standing right next to them lace into me. There's no critique necessary here—that's simply unacceptable. Issues like this existed in the alpha, but I never would have expected them to make it into a final retail product. It's the sort of thing you ignore because obviously they'll fix it, right? Right?!
The end result is combat that feels completely toothless and tiresome. Forget advanced tactics—your foes can't even remember they're supposed to be killing you half the time. Not only does it mean that gunning them down feels hollow and unsatisfying, but it also means the game has to resort to cheap tricks in order to pose any sort of threat to the player; namely, monster closets that mysteriously start spawning waves of enemies from directions you just cleared moments ago. You wouldn't forgive such glaring design issues for a single-player shooter, so I see no reason to give Defiance a pass simply because it has an MMO layer to deal with too.
The thing is, the MMO part is actually handled fairly well, and even does some things that other entries in the field could learn from. MMOs today almost always pigeonhole the player into questing in order to level up—an over-reaction to the days when you needed to spend hours killing the same gnolls in the same fields for hours on end to earn any significant amount of XP. Being at the mercy of the ebb and flow of accepting, pursuing, and handing in quests can feel awfully restrictive, but Defiance makes some tweaks to the formula to make it more organic.
Quests aren't mainly tied to individuals, but rather to where the quest takes place. So you don't go somewhere to get a quest, then go to where the quest dictates, and then return to where you received the quest. Instead you just see it on your map, go there, and get to business. When you're done, you get your rewards and you move on with your life. And there's stuff to do scattered liberally in all directions, so no matter where you go to explore, you'll run into something eventually. There are still story-related quests that require you to go talk to person X, and then go somewhere else to do thing Y, but for the most part, you spend your time in Defiance exploring and playing, not reading and backtracking.
Another nice touch is that there are different mission types that cover a variety of gameplay elements. There are rampages, where you do nothing but shoot lots of dudes with a specially provided weapon, checkpoint races, PvP areas, and big public quests too. This would be great if the driving and combat were any good, but as mentioned above, the AI causes most of it to fall apart. Still, I think it's a terrific idea to give players options and to deliver them in such a freeform way.
Sadly, there's also a fair share of more typical side missions and these don't offer much in the way of variety besides “go to these objects and interact with them while killing stuff.” It's a staple of the genre, so I can't fault Trion just for using it. The problem is, once again, that since the combat isn't any fun, so is walking from point A to point B while engaging in said combat.
It doesn't help that some of these missions completely fail to contextualize your actions in any meaningful way. I mean, you could accuse Halo 4 of being nothing but a series of missions that boil down to “go here and flip these switches” too, but through the graces of good combat and strong plot rationale, it still works. Defiance doesn't have any of that, though. In fact, one such mission actually began with my faux-Cortana cohort telling me simply, “We need to find some intel.” That's it. No why, or about whom, or for what. Three waypoints pop up on my map, and I go to all three retrieving said intel without a single enemy in sight. After snagging the third, I'm heartily congratulated on a job well-done. Uh, thanks?
Perhaps the most disappointing bit, however, is the lack of meaningful interface with the television show. The show's pilot, for any faults some may point out, at least had an appealing frontier vibe and presented a group of aliens, the Votan, who were as diverse in their looks as the human race (something most science-fiction TV fails to do). I don't know if it's the muddy, substandard visuals on the console versions, or just a matter of time and money, but none of that essence is captured in-game, nor is there any evidence of the events in one impacting the other. It may yet be early to expect to see that kind of crossover content, but compared to the world the show presents, the game seems lifeless and dull. MMO worlds should beg to be seen and explored, but Defiance's never beckoned me back once I had logged out.
It doesn't hurt to give a low score to games that have no effort put into them, but it breaks a reviewer's heart to do so fora game where you can see the hard work and potential. Defiance is full of good ideas and a bevy of solid MMORPG systems, but it's all buried under a messy-looking, shoddily designed shooter that you'd never enjoy on its own merits. I applaud Trion for attempting something so ambitious; I really do. But ambition is no substitute for solid core mechanics. If it were, Defiance would indeed be a rare jewel, rather than the chintzy rhinestone it turned out to be.