California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Binary Domain

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April 1st, 2012 at 9:01 am

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Binary Domain box art
Binary Domain

Release Date: February 24th, 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows
Developers: Sega, Devils Details
Publisher: Sega
Genre: 3rd person cover shooter
ESRB: M for Mature

CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆


A Movie in Search of a Video Game

The future scares a lot of people. Not just because of global warming or bubbling political tensions, but because with every passing day comes a new form of technology so incomprehensibly advanced that the modern public ruminates with horror over what might come next. Cameras hidden in every living room, fridges that know we eat too much dairy – the possibilities touted range from concerning to imbecilic. But these quibbles are small fry. What really gets people going, what really adds fuel to the fire of fear, is the creation of synthetic life which imitates its organic creators with such impunity that it is impossible to distinguish the two. A true artificial intelligence that does not just mimic life but lives. This is something which forces people to ask not just what it means to be alive, but what it means to be human. The scrutiny of one’s own existence is not something many are comfortable with.

Binary Domain

The face of the future is not a pretty one.

Binary Domain portrays such a future; a world in which technological development has become so advanced that among humans walk robots which look to be of flesh and blood, which have real memories, lead real lives and possess no knowledge of their true origin. Beneath the skin of these Hollow Children beats no heart, but as they are gunned down one by one throughout the game’s narrative it is called into question who the real monsters are in this story. You take up arms as ex-Army anti-mech Yankee boy Dan Marshall, just another tough guy working for the International Robotics Technology Association “Rust Crew”. If it has wires, you shoot it before it shoots you. You don’t need the flashbacks to know that Dan walks into frame with a chip on his shoulder. Whether you’re expected to carry that chip too isn’t made clear, but you’re pulling the trigger either way.

Upon the discovery of the Hollow Children, your Rust Crew task force is sent into Japan’s seedy underbelly in order to infiltrate the Amada Corporation, the stronghold of robotics expert and suspected Hollow Child creator Yoji Amada. It’s a covert operation – get in, find evidence, take Yoji alive, get out. Stealth and discretion are an absolute must – but this is a cover shooter game, not Metal Gear Solid, so that plan gets shot straight to Hell and soon every mechanoid in the vicinity wants your organic innards for lunch. This is all much to the chagrin of one of your comrades, who often demands to know if anyone else even knows what covert means – but no one has the heart to tell him that he’s stuck inside one of the most disappointing shooters of the year, and that his observant remarks are one of the game’s few saving graces.

Binary Domain

Protagonist Dan Marshall, referred to by his team as “Too Noisy.”

Highly character driven, the game is focused on building a successful rapport with your teammates in order to succeed in missions and topple enemies the size of skyscrapers. It is unfortunate, then, that the communications system is implemented so poorly you can never be sure whether you’re bolstering a comrade’s resolve or telling them to stop being such a downer. Utilizing real voice commands, the game allows you to plug in a microphone and shout things like “Sure!” and “You fool!” at the television, demonstrating just how out of touch developers are with the average gamer. Playing video games has become socially acceptable in the last decade – talking to them has not. It remains an awkward and embarrassing experience. Using verbal commands isn’t compulsory, but your alternative – pressing a phrase associated button – is still hampered because the limits of the voice recognition force all responses to be short, meaningless outbursts rather than anything of real substance. So when a character laments to you that she feels crowded and claustrophobic in one of Japan’s underground slums, you can either shout “Sure!” or “Damn!” in her face, with no real idea of what you might actually mean. If you get lucky, she extrapolates something positive from your outburst and decides that you are a trustworthy and upstanding friend. Sure!

Your own verbal explosions aside, the scripting of the support characters is tight, believable and humorous. Between stellar voice acting and facial animations that approach LA Noire in terms of realism, Binary Domain successfully crafts you a team of real people who you slowly grow to care for (even if you can’t always find the words to tell them so). There is unfortunate pandering to racial and cultural stereotypes, and it is often hard to discern whether its all intended as a good natured jibe or whether the writers really do think that all Americans are stupid, that the French say “Merde!” in Monty Python accents and that everyone in England is an uptight Oxford graduate. These grievances aside, each team member still holds enough of an individual personality to be believable, even if they carry semblances of a caricature.

Binary Domain

Multiculturalism and cultural sensitivity do not necessarily walk hand in hand.

Binary Domain brings to the playing field everything that is expected of a modern day title: stunning graphics, a gripping narrative and some monumental set pieces. However, while Sega was busy polishing the dialogue and reading up on their ethical imperatives, they forgot one key element: that they were making a game. As a cinematic experience it is unrivaled by some of Hollywood’s best blockbusters, but the minute the cutscenes end and you’re asked to take the reigns again everything falls apart. I am a vocal supporter of strong narrative in modern games, but not at such a cost. Maneuvering the battlefield is a clunky, blundering process – an inexcusable issue in a fast paced cover based shooting game. There is an apparent disconnect between player and avatar, with every firefight feeling like a desperate battle of wills rather than a coalition of his firepower and my thumb sticks. The team member AI is guilty of not once but twice pushing me out into the open and refusing to let me get back behind cover, getting me killed and then having the gall to reprimand me for falling in combat. This issue is symptomatic of the fact the cover system itself is underdeveloped and poorly implemented, often hindering the player rather than aiding strategy.

These problems render the game close to unplayable. Bearable only in one to two hour bursts, it is insulting to the gaming community that Binary Domain has been released to such a positive critical reception. The best script in the world cannot salvage broken gameplay, and for every minute I spent engaged and involved with the story I spent ten more clawing my way through dull, unnecessary combat. This is gameplay in its worst form – a mere means to an end, a shuttle between each plot point, something to be endured rather than relished. While the boss sequences are epic in scale and ambition, they suffer severe pacing issues as objectives become confused, team mates shouting delayed and contradictory advice over the sound of your impending death. “We gotta take off the armour!” shouts one, before “Shoot the legs! That’s the weak point!” says the other, and you compromise by hiding behind a wall trying to regenerate your depleted health because they were too busy giving advice to do anything useful. These encounters are punctuated with gimmicky jet ski, water slide and swimming segments which have no place in any self respecting shooter title. It is simply a mess – but more than that, it’s a massive shame.

Binary Domain

Talking it over isn’t really an option.

Binary Domain smacks of brilliance gone wrong; of missed opportunities and cut corners. It could have been the best action film you saw this summer, it could have found its place between I, Robot, Bladerunner and 2001 on your DVD shelf. While it doesn’t offer anything revolutionary it’s still a solid addition to the Artificial Intelligence canon and deserved better than to have poorly executed shooting sequences jammed in at every turn. Video games deserve writing and acting of this quality, yet in Binary Domain’s case the developers lost sight of a game’s ultimate purpose: to entertain through interactivity. But this is not a case of being pulled from the action in order to show off a flashy cutscene, something of which many games are guilty; it is a case of the action being so inherently terrible that the moments lacking player agency end up being the most powerful. The play element is overridden by the pursuit of cinematic greatness, to the point where you wonder why they bothered to make it a game at all.

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Binary Domain Trailer

  • http://www.spelkriget.se Malmer

    Interesting read. I’m currently at the final boss and I can’t put down the game (except for sleep/work). Love it. The gameplay is really fun. I don’t see why you had such big problems with it. I agree the dialog system is way too rudimentary, but it does give the sense of choice and consequence, which I like, even if it is quite basic.

    But all in all I really like the gameplay and the story. I was so much expecting certain events to happen, since it all seemed so generic. Then the game surprises me and actually comments on what I was expecting to happen. Nice touch. And I love the bosses.

    It does, however, need some polish in certain areas, but I fell for the gameplay, expecting a bad plot. But the plot won me over aswell. A solid game with a weird conversation system, that even when it fails manages to bring depth to the game.

  • http://www.spelkriget.se Malmer

    Forgot to say. Well written review, even though I don’t share your opinion of the game.

  • http://www.varoonix.net Jeremy Brown

    Hi Laura,

    Great comprehensive review you have here.

    I have to agree with Malmer, it definitely could use polish in some areas.

    I’m not one for mechanized games, but the story is interesting and the character (in my opinion) are nicely developed.

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