Imagine if Gears of War had been made by the highly talented Yakuza Studio team at Sega; all the hallmarks of a Western-style cover shooter combined with the kind of imaginative cast and Japanese-centric art style that the Yakuza series is famous for. Well, that image you have in your head, chances are, it’s exactly the same as Binary Domain – a highly entertaining, often beautiful and occasionally flawed attempt to bring the best of East and West together.
By taking the core design from Gears of War and copying its weapon load-out, roadie-run and, naturally, its all important cover system in an all but verbatim fashion, Binary Domain could have easily fallen into the dreaded me-too category. The fact that it was developed by a team as talented as Yakuza Studios meant that a disaster on the scale of the truly God awful, Quantum Theory was never likely, but there was certainly a chance of Sega ending up with a polished but nevertheless highly derivative experience on their hands.
Luckily, while the underlying similarities to Epic’s shooter do inevitably imbue the experience with a sense of Déjà Vu, Binary Domain’s genuinely interesting supporting cast, fantastic enemy design, brave attempt at voice-based commands and utterly gorgeous art design do more than enough to keep the game from being completely enveloped in Gear of War’s not inconsiderable shadow.
Based in a near future in which an army of super cool robots are taking over the world, it’s down to you as the gruff Dan Marshall and your international ‘Rust Crew’ to infiltrate a robot-ridden Tokyo where the scientific mind behind this Terminator-style coup d’état is supposedly located. While the actual core team, made up of American, British, Chinese and French squad members is largely driven by clichéd design and character traits, it’s the supporting cast that proves the real draw during the game’s slow starting but ultimately interesting tale.
While the supporting cast stealing the show wouldn’t usually prove a problem for a game of this ilk, due to Binary Domain’s emphasis on mid-battle chat between team members, it is as shame that your team, with the exception of the pleasantly entertaining French combat robot, Cain, are made up of largely dull, action archetypes. They aren’t completely devoid of charater, but for the most part, your squad mates pale in comparison to the infinitely more interesting supporting cast.
As for the voice command system itself, in fairness, it does work the majority of the time. You shout out one of the limited combat instructions – attack, hold, take cover and such, and chances are, your squad mates will respond as instructed. There were a few occasions in which the game seemed to inexplicably decide that I was no longer speaking English, but for the most part, the system works just fine. Of course, if you’re like me and don’t want to look utterly mental in front of your better half as you scream at the TV (I do enough of that while watching the football), you can use simple button commands that are easy to use and well implemented into general play. They may not be as immersive, but for the lazy sofa gaming traditionalists such as myself, the option to keep all actions control-pad-oriented proved very welcome.
On a technical level, voice commands in Binary Domain are certainly solid enough to support the concept; the real problem lies with the fact that the effects of your choices feel so painfully arbitrary. It is nice to have a bit of banter between your squad during battle and certainly points towards a future in which your character traits and your actions will have a subsequent effect on those around you, but in this case, while the idea is certainly sound, due to the lack of greater effect on the overall story arc, actions and decisions seem to have little impact beyond the most immediate of responses. It’s a real shame as the idea of having a genuinely affecting running narrative in a full on action game of this ilk is a great idea, one that I hope Yakuza Studios get a chance to develop in a potential sequel.
Still, despite the mild disappointment of the Consequence System, the good news is that pretty much everything else in the game is as solid as a rock. The cover system, while not quite as slick as the industry standard, Gears of War, is more than serviceable and never once proved an issue during any of the game’s many firefights. The weapons, while a little unimaginative, do feel weighty and responsive while also offering up a simple but effective upgrade system. The real stars of the show however come in the form of the game’s fantastic array of enemies. While the selection is both varied and hugely imaginative, it’s the way that they respond to gunfire that makes them quite so special. Rather than just exploding after a pre-fixed number of bullets, these robots fall to pieces as they are shot at with layers falling off under gunfire. Brilliantly, they also react realistically to the loss of artificial limbs with the high point being the sight of headless robots shooting at their own allies.
Not only does this look cool, Yakuza Studios have managed to intelligently integrate this into the game as a genuine tactical approach to battle. Blast off an enemy’s head and not only will it fire on allies, it will also force the other robots to deal with the new threat, allowing you the time to move in for the kill while they fight with each other. The game also rewards you additional credits for taking out as much of an enemy’s body before finally putting it down for good, allowing those with a penchant for destruction a few extra ammo clips and health packs when they arrive at one of the game’s many shop terminals. It’s not going to change the face of cover based shooters but the incentive to take a more accurate, measured approach to battle is a welcome one.
Beyond the brilliant enemy design, Yakuza Studios should also be applauded for their utterly believable and often breathtakingly beautiful vision of a near future Tokyo. Moving from the tunnels and slums of the outer city through to the opulence and splendour of the city’s core proves both a natural and genuinely enjoyable journey. Using the clean lines and solid colours that the company, and dare I say, the country’ is famous for, Binary Domain is imbued with that classically cool look that Western developers don’t seem to have a grasp on – put it this way, it’s a lot more interesting than the brown and grey colour palette that has become somewhat synonymous with the sub-genre.
The eight hour plus campaign certainly makes up the lion’s share of the Binary Domain package, but in fairness, the online offerings do deliver a varied and largely enjoyable selection of game modes to get through. The competitive multiplayer isn’t likely to keep you from the major online offerings for a great deal of time’ but the level design throughout is pretty solid, even if the overall package is a tad on the vanilla side. While the competitive aspect of the online experience will most likely prove a fleeting distraction, Binary Domain’s rock hard Invasion game mode might well prove a much more addictive proposition. Although little more than a re-named Horde mode, the 50 available waves deliver a brutal challenge for those looking to get the best out of the game’s extremely solid core mechanics. Seriously, if you’re going to get to the end of this gauntlet, you’re going to have to work as a team – lone rangers will be cut down rather swiftly.
Despite the vague sense of disappointment that comes with the underdeveloped Consequence System, Binary Domain is an otherwise hugely entertaining cover-based shooter that is made all the more enjoyable thanks to its colourful and imaginative art design and its consistently engaging cast of supporting characters. Sure, your squad are as boring as sin, but with a supporting cast this strong and a selection of enemies this inspired, it’s hard to get too upset about your dull as dishwater teammates. It may not be quite as slick as Gears of War, but my word, it certainly has it beaten in the personality department.
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