“Let the Good Times Roll!”
Set in 2080, in a world where robotics have become so advanced that they are used to do pretty much everything, one man has taken this to the next level. Some robots are programmed to believe they are human, which conflicts with a clause in the New Geneva Convention. And it’s up to Dan Marshall and his Rust Crew to put a stop to these “Hollow Children” and their creators.
If that synopsis doesn’t intrigue you into playing Binary Domain, I don’t know what will. We at BNBGAMING have been following the game’s progress eagerly since we played it at Eurogaer in September last year. Now it’s finally here, and I have to say, despite the massive build-up and the anticipation behind Sega’s new squad-based shooter, it has still left me very much surprised.
I’ll admit that what first drew me to Binary Domain was its gameplay – the squad control is simple, familiar, and it just works. From a game that labels itself as a squad-based shooter, that’s really all I should expect. And yet it goes beyond what I could have hoped for. It feels responsive, it’s intelligent, and whether you’re using a headset to issue orders or just navigating through the communication menu via the controller, it puts you right in the heart of the action, with full control. That is more than I could have wished for from Binary Domain. It works better than I dared hope.
But as I continue to learn more about the game, I have come to realise that, as explosive and dynamic as the gameplay is, it’s not the real reason I continue to play. The thing that grips me is the wonderful, deep and absorbing story that is stretched before my feet. It’s a masterpiece; something I wouldn’t normally say about a shooter, much less about the story behind a shooter.
As much as I’d love to dive right in and spend hours talking about the narrative that drives Binary Domain, I must cover all the bases. So I will begin with what will probably matter the most to people who have yet to play the game: how it works.
I’ve already covered the simplicity and straightforward style of Binary Domain‘s tactical control. Whether you’re using a headset or your controller, commanding your squad feels easy. Obviously, being a tactical squad-based shooter, this is the point that most stands out about Binary Domain‘s gameplay. But despite being marketed in this genre, there are many aspects that work in a way that is unfamiliar to shooters.
Apart from the overriding feeling of, “This is definitely a shooter – I’m running around with a gun,” the game makes use of other notable elements from RPGs and adventure games. Binary Domain allows players to, by using an in-game shop that appears frequently throughout the various levels or chapters, purchase ammo and the like, but also upgrade their squad’s statistics. This, due to the primary genre of the game, does not go as deep as many RPG games, but it is still a welcome addition that adds further control to the experience. The game also allows players to select exactly who is in their squad, something that will be familiar to players of the Mass Effect series. You can effectively split the larger team into two groups for missions, and when interacting with your partner or partners (which happens a lot, whether for the sake of taking down an enemy or just simple chit-chat), you can select from a range of answers, some nice, some nasty. This will in turn customize the way your squad behaves towards you, in a kind of Fable-esque karma system.
This addition, or what Sega calls the “Consequence System”, while providing a challenge in the sense that it punishes bad behaviour with unruly and rebellious squad-mates, seems like it could have been more. Going back to the similarities to Mass Effect and Fable, the Consequence System doesn’t reward both extremes – if you’re a nice guy, you’re given help, but if you’re not, well, you’re not. I feel that the addition of conflicting consequences could have made a world of difference. If you’re rude to your squad-mates, they fear you, and this in turn allows you to ask different things of them. However, as it is, the Consequence System feels a bit unpolished and hollow. Considering how Sega proudly touted this mechanic during development, it’s disappointing to see it executed in such a rudimentary way.
What really stands out in Binary Domain is its design. The world that designer Hiroyuki Sakamoto has crafted is nothing short of spectacular, from Binary Domain‘s level structure to just the way it feels. It’s a barrage on the senses from the moment you start playing – there is nothing that hasn’t been covered.
A design choice of note is the sound. Every single noise has been carefully selected and engineered. This is evident from the game’s early tip: as sounds grow louder, often caused by varying environments, so will the voices of your squad-mates. As a result, your voice will in turn get louder as you’re screaming down the microphone to group for an assault on the enemy. It feels realistic, like you’re in the thick of the human vs. robot battle. It may not sound like much out of context, but it really adds depth to the gameplay, and creates that sense of involvement that all players will be striving for.
Binary Domain‘s real design victory is in the levels. The story is split into a number of chapters, each taking place over a range of settings. Each location is very different from the previous one – in the space of half an hour, players find themselves in a whole series of environments, and despite the similar objectives throughout the game (kill that, run away from this, and so on), the locations bring the missions to life. It requires, more often than not, players to adapt their styles and tactics – Binary Domain really is a tactical shooter. It took me a while to learn through trial and error that it’s not enough to get close and blast my gun in a robot’s face. It takes a combination of assessing the situation, giving and receiving orders from the Rust Crew, and then acting on them.
The wide range of level design has another great advantage. I previously mentioned Binary Domain feeling as though it has been slightly influenced by adventure games; this shows in the levels. Apart from each level providing a different experience tactically, they also provide a different experience in style. While most of the levels are designed as a series of corridors or areas in which you have to shoot your way through, there’s a nice range of well-placed variations, which require you to once again use your head. From shooting out the back of a moving car and avoiding rockets, to escaping a sewage facility on jet-skis, to frequent and devilishly hard boss battles, every chapter provides players with something new, and it feels good to be surprised by what you’ll have to do next.
Overall, Sakamoto has designed a fully immersive world that will absorb players. Aesthetically, it holds nothing back, but what really stands out is its arrangement, the way the chapters are designed, and the way the levels are set out. Binary Domain keeps players on their toes, and it’s impossible to get bored when the environments change up so frequently. It encourages tactical gameplay rather than aggressive mind-numbing idiocy, and that is a refreshing thing to find in any shooter.
A Friend Indeed
Despite the almost flawless gameplay, Binary Domain also has a lot to offer in terms of story, perhaps even more than it gives through its design. From the synopsis, it may sound like just another attempt at futuristic play-styles with a mediocre excuse to start shooting things. But the game is actually dripping with emotion and depth, and that’s something that is incredibly rare in a shooter.
The reason I believe Binary Domain is able to evoke such a strong response from me is its characters. We begin the game being introduced to Dan, our protagonist, and Big Bo, his friend and partner. The game surprisingly opens with them sharing a bit of banter, and although it’s not remarkably funny, it shows a softer side to these men of steel straight off the mark. From the moment I groaned at Big Bo’s first attempt at humour, I knew that these were two characters I would become very invested in as the game progressed. Apart from a decent control system and fun gameplay, character development is something I long for in a squad-based shooter. Binary Domain has it in spades.
Similarly to my attitude towards the gameplay, I didn’t expect too much from Binary Domain‘s story. It looked like it was powerful to an extent, from the many trailers that Sega have released, but I still wondered – could it entertain me and at the same time bring up some kind of emotion? At first glance, Binary Domain‘s characters are pretty generic and stereotypical – there’s the big-talk American guy and his comic-relief friend, the hot girl that players will be rooting for Dan to hook up with sooner or later, the sarcastic and blunt British guy… the list goes on. And yes, you’re probably thinking, “What does this guy see in that?” I was thinking the same thing too. It’s their banter, their relationships, that really make the characters shine. It’s great to see characters with this kind of chemistry, and in a video game, no less. The fact that Binary Domain‘s control system makes players feel like they’re part of this gang, well, that’s the icing on the character cake.
As Binary Domain‘s story progresses, so will players’ enjoyment. It won’t be just for the character revelations, the emotion, and the cringe-worthy back-and-forth, but for the journey the game actually takes them on.
Binary Domain is a wonderfully written tale. Apart from the wide range of well-developed characters, everything that happens within Tokyo of 2080 is solid. From the epic battles to the beautiful cinematics, Binary Domain runs like a well-oiled machine. It is slick and neat, and despite a few hiccups in cinematics (such as returning to gameplay just to knock down a door only to show another cinematic), it’s easy to lose yourself in the game. Binary Domain‘s writers hail from all around the world, much like the game’s characters. Tsuyoshi Furuta, Anthony Johnston and Tom Jubert have worked separately on some of the biggest games of recent years, including Dead Space and Yakuza: Dead Souls. It’s great to see such a polished game from three different writers – it’s clear that they work well as a team, and this is reflected in the game’s sterling plot.
Multiplayer modes are probably not something that most players will have even considered by the time they’re deep into Binary Domain‘s story, but they are available.
Although there’s nothing special or unique about them, these modes are enjoyable, especially if you want to take a break from the high-octane and emotional campaign.
Binary Domain’s multiplayer is split into two modes, effectively survival and team games. Both will be instantly familiar. Similar to Gears of War 2‘s Horde mode (not Gears of War 3, due to the lack of turrets, bases, or any kind of goals), survival mode will let you team up with some friends to take down wave upon wave of hostile robots. At first, I have to admit I wasn’t impressed – this part of the game seemed slow, and not nearly as well thought out as the campaign. As I continued playing, the latter feeling remained, but I found myself enjoying the steadily increasing difficulty, not to mention cooperating with real players.
The second mode consists of a wide selection of classic game modes, from team deathmatch to free-for-all and the like. There’s little to say about these modes – they do what they say on the tin. Enjoyable, yes, but they’re not why Binary Domain was made. Multiplayer is all well and good, but when a game offers you such a solid campaign and story, it’s hard to go back to mindlessly shooting other people just because “the game told me to”.
The Final Verdict
Binary Domain is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve been given by a major release in a long time. Even if your expectations are already high for this game, you are sure to be absolutely blown away by what Binary Domain has to offer.
The game offers a rich story that players will thoroughly love to discover and explore, with characters who hit the nail right on the head in terms of connecting with the audience. Binary Domain‘s chapters all have a very cinematic quality to them, with beautiful cutscenes that break up the action and allow deeper insight into the people and Tokyo of 2080.
The same can be said for Binary Domain‘s gameplay. It works perfectly: from its controls to its command system, players will have nothing to get frustrated about. Everything has been thought out well, and there is no denying that the game’s designer and writers have made in Binary Domain an entrancing world just waiting for players to explore… and shoot up.