With the respected Yakuza series under their collective belts, the team at Sega’s new Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio shifted gears in creating Binary Domain. This squad based third person shooter escapes from the present, looking into the not-too-distant future where the rising sea level has decimated many of the major cities in the world and robotics technology has advanced to the point of autonomy. The setting is imaginative, but well within the boundaries of possibility leading to a distinct connectivity between the world laid out within it and the player experiencing it.
It begins in the year 2080 when a man walks into the largest robotics company in the world, Bergen Corporation, demanding answers and threatening those within before revealing the source of his bewilderment by tearing a piece from his face to reveal the mesh of metal and circuitry beneath. He is what is termed in the game as a “Hollow Child”, a cyborg, unaware of their origins and clothed in living cells to make them indistinguishable from humans. Afraid of the implications of such beings, their creation was banned by the New Geneva Convention in the 2040’s, leading to the inevitable questions of who created it, for what purpose and how many more there are. The government convenes a meeting with Alexander Bergen who reveals that the only other company that has the resources and ability to create such an abomination is Japan’s Amada Corporation and, as a result, the International Robotics Technology Association dispatches a RUST Crew to the isolationist Tokyo to put an end to the creation of any more such abominations and take its President and CEO, Yoji Amada, into custody.
It is Dan Marshall, one of the two American members of this task force, that you will take control of, first to rendezvous with the international members and then to begin the operation. The world that the team has created is absolutely engrossing, bringing questions of ethics to the forefront, but also dealing with, to a lesser extent, xenophobia and racism. It is convincing in its realism, giving weight to these questions and displaying a higher level of intelligence than is seen in the narratives of the vast majority of games. These are all a part of the overarching themes, displayed primarily in the cinematics, with only the last of those listed having any role whatsoever while actually playing. Unfortunately, the plot of the game does not reach to these same lofty heights, being driven primarily by the incidental scenarios that lead to ever greater odds that are so popular among developers. It is driven by action sequences, which culminate in boss battles that are sometimes oddly placed. It leads to certain revelations, some of which tie back to the ideals of the narrative, but there remains a dissonance between these two key aspects. Furthermore, as is becoming ever more common, Binary Domain contains a poorly executed romantic subplot that fails to make the player believe in any possibility of the connection and these combine to make the immediacy of the story feel altogether lacklustre.
Unfortunately, this same feeling is transferred to the gameplay. At its core, Binary Domain is a functional shooter but nothing really spectacular. The shooting has all the impact that you could desire but is tempered by the way that aiming and movement can oftimes feel slow and somewhat clunky. Furthermore, the game seems to have trouble registering a difference between when you want to duck in behind cover and execute a combat roll. It’s not usually a great hindrance, but it does become frustrating on Survivor difficulty. The standard gameplay is broken up at infrequent intervals by extraneous action segments adding a certain charm to the title. The first you experience, for example, is a harrowing slide down the Seawall of Tokyo in which you have to slide from side to side in order to avoid superheated pipes. These offer a very different experience from the rest of the game, and are as competently functional as the rest.
Populating certain areas of the game are boss battles, and these range from the inventive to the derivative, but all take advantage of the tactical destruction of enemy units to excellent effect. The bosses throughout are quite daunting as a result of the combination of size and inspired design, as well as a general lack of specific event scripting and their inherent difficulty.
I mentioned tactical destruction of enemies a moment ago and this is one of the more interesting ideas when it comes to the core gameplay. As your adversaries are, for the most part, combat oriented robots, destroying different parts of their bodies results in an alteration in tactics for them. Destroying an arm, for example, results in them switching to a handgun, while taking off their heads sees them turn on their own troops. The AI for them is pretty standard, being mostly scripted. Some enemy types will charge forward, while others will take potshots from cover, making the game feel quite pedestrian compared to others that inject a sense of excitement into the battles by doing away with predictability. A plus for Binary Domain is a wide array of different enemy units that are introduced in a staggered manner throughout the entirety of the game, with a few previously unseen types being introduced even within the last hour. This is made better by the level design constantly throwing new obstacles in the way as it ranges from a carefully constructed corridor shooter, while opening up to larger areas that force you to take note of your surroundings and enemy positions. In contrast to this, verticality is rarely used, taking out an element that could have furthered tested players, but without the easy ability to jump to higher levels, its absence can be excused.
There are still a few core elements of the game that have yet to be touched on, one of which is the squad elements. As you progress new characters will be unlocked as the plot brings you in contact with them and you have, at several points, the option of choosing a team of two to accompany you. Each character professes to have their strengths, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference who you choose at tactical efficiency is hardly altered. You take place as leader of the team at all times and are capable of giving orders by holding down a shoulder button and pressing the appropriate face button. It is a good idea, but the options are necessarily limited by the interface and genre. This is no strategy game, so there’s no ability to test out more advanced options such as flanking and placement of troops, but the system functions as advertised. The same system can be utilised via voice chat for anyone with a headset, but I never had the opportunity to test this out. Keeping in the same vein, much was said about the trust system, which was professed to have an effect on the way the characters react to you, but this has been highly exaggerated. It is true that, if you lose the trust of your team, they will not fight as effectively, or follow your orders as willingly, but doing so is not easy. You have to play the part of an A-Grade prick, choosing ridiculous statements and actively trying to shoot them to achieve any such thing. It is far too easy to improve that bond as simply taking out enemies is one of the key ways to do so. Also, like that of your enemies, the AI of your teammates is far from exceptional as they do like to stray within the path of your bullets, and into oncoming fire if you don’t dole out your orders.
The trust mechanic is one of a set that incorporates light role-playing elements into this game. Besides it, there is the ability to upgrade your primary weapon at electronic stores that are dotted fairly liberally throughout the levels. It’s a good option to take as battles become more hectic as the game improves and being better able to deal with the swarms of enemies is a boon. You can also elect to upgrade those of your allies if you so choose, but this is only worthwhile if you rely on them, or stick to certain team assignments. The other feature is that of Nanomachines. These are sometimes found about the environment, but are more commonly purchased from those aforementioned stores. These have a range of effects from improving your health and defence to allowing you to carry more grenades and first-aid kits, but don’t have any huge impact on the way you play the game. You assign them to a three-by-two board akin to the inventory system in the likes of Diablo, but without the ability to expand it, you really do have to know what you want to improve. The idea is interesting, but pales in comparison to a similar one that was incorporated in The Third Birthday last year.
Being built upon what seems to be Sega’s go-to middleware engine, Criware, the technical aspects of Binary Domain pass with a push. There is nothing that sets the graphical presentation above the industry standard outside of the creative designs. To be sure, some of the game does evoke a presence of the Tokyo that you may be familiar with via film, television and novels, but most of it is dominated by a sterility and starkness that is in contrast to what we have been conditioned to expect from this setting. There is a broad spectrum of colour to be found in this adventure as you travel from the lower, rubble-strewn and flood wracked portions of the city to the glorious upper levels and the aesthetic, I thought, was rather pleasing throughout. Furthermore, there is a constant source of new environments, few of which can be seen to be a copy-and-paste effort from earlier portions of the game, meaning that there is always something new to look at. In short, the design is phenomenal, but is let down by mere competence rather than brilliance in the amount of pixels being pushed. The only exception to the greatness of the design comes in the user interface, which is bland and uninspired.
The sound is among the better parts of the game as the soundtrack is quite good, backing up the action in a subtle manner, but often being drowned out by the ambient effects. All of the bells and whistles are firmly in place, but the real high point has to come from the voice acting and, by association, the scripting. As already mentioned, the Rust Crew is a multinational unit and this is reflected, not only by their accents, but also by their manner of speech, and this, I felt, was recreated in a beautiful way to show the divide between the different races. You really do get a sense of where these characters are from simply by the way that they speak, which is a feat rarely attempted, and even less frequently met with any degree of success. It is a triumph.
Binary Domain is a game of measured accomplishment, clothed in high ambition. This ten hour adventure is made up primarily of high points, but is dragged down by small, almost petty, things. That being said, if it grabs you, it really will draw you in on the strength of this fictionalised future and is the kind of game that may just be enough to keep you wanting more. A second play through is certainly warranted, if only to try out different character assignments in order to hear a variation on the exchange of banter, but I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it to anyone that isn’t appreciative of third person shooters as it contains very little to change your mind on the merits of the genre.