Let me start by saying that Binary Domain (February 28, 2012) is big in Japan. Big I tell you. Japan has embraced this game the way that it embraced Brad Pitt, Kiefer Sutherland, and (may he rest in peace) Michael Jackson. Which makes you wonder, why wasn’t this game promoted for the U.S.?
I’m Big in Japan
Before we answer that question, let’s cover a little more about the game itself. Binary Domain, which released for both the Xbox 360 and PS3, is billed as a squad based third person shooter. In layman's terms think Gears of War with the ability to tactically deploy and manage a squad for your benefit.
This little beauty is the brain child of Toshihiro Nagoshi, whom you may recognize as the creator of the insanely popular “Yakuza” video game series. In an attempt to branch out from the series, Toshihiro formed his own studio, Yakuza Studios, and teamed up with publisher Sega to bring Binary Domain to life.
I have to admit, you have a proven writer/developer in Toshihiro. You have an innovative twist to gameplay. You have a proven publisher like Sega. You have a solid setting for a story. Mix it all together and what do you get? Cereal with no milk. Peanut butter with no jelly. Spam with no mayonnaise. For me this was all the ingredients of something great, but one element short of satisfying.
The story in Binary Domain is solid. The year is 2080 and robots have become a staple in our everyday lives. Somewhere around 2040 there was a “New Geneva Convention” that established international policies with regards to robot research, creation, and use. In addition to the establishment of the policies, an international force of peacekeepers was established to investigate and deal with breaches of said policies. Teams of these soldiers are affectionately referred to as “Rust Crews.”
You enter the scene as (I swear I am not making this up...but I am totally saying it in my best Forrest Gump voice every time) “Lieutenant Dan” Marshall. His team is called to action when a robot is discovered going crazy at an American robotics company. The problem is, the robot has skin, human features, a human face which it tore off in rage, and absolutely no prior recollection it was a robot.
The making of lifelike robots has been banned under the “New Geneva Convention” and is strictly forbidden. These robots are referred to as “hollow children” in the world of 2080 and scare the living piss out of the public.
As such, Lieutenant Dan and his Rust Crew are dispatched to Japan to bring in the leader of the most powerful robotics company in the world for questioning. I thought this would be easy. I mean really, a weekend in Japan, some good sushi, maybe a baseball game and some manga for the plane.
Well no. Japan of 2080 has become an isolationist utopia. Their advanced robotics have improved quality of life for most while plunging the ruins of old Japan into squalor. Add a giant fortress-like wall around the island and absolute shit tons of angry security robots and you see where you could actually develop a plot here.
So okay, they got me with the plot. The cut scenes and animations were captivating. The story was excellent at the beginning and I got totally sucked in. Spray some Blade Runner ambiance around and add some Battlestar Galactica Cylon plot twists and I was foaming at the mouth. It didn’t hurt at all that visually the game is top notch. Then the gameplay started.
Blinded By The Light
You begin outside the seawall, swimming your way into Japan with your teammate. As my buddy is telling me we have to stay stealthy and sneak around sentry robots, I notice that my wetsuit/combat armor has huge bright red glowing lights making a “V” down the front and back. Now I know this is a minor thing. Still, a huge fucking glowing “V” on your armor? How, in the hell, are you supposed to sneak by anything? What idiot designed this outfit? If you are into the game and suspended disbelief, you have to wonder how the robot isn’t seeing you with a giant “V” lighting you up like a retarded superhero.
If you have not yet suspended disbelief and are looking critically at the game, you have to wonder what sort of crack they were smoking during a production meeting at Yakuza Studios when they decided the stealth outfit should have red safety lights up and down the chest. I knew this didn’t make or break the game. But, much like finding your silverware is filthy after sitting down at a nice restaurant, I was anticipating fail.
After an initial orientation session gameplay began. My initial thoughts were, “Hey, this is just like Gears of War!” My subsequent reactions were, “Hey, this is just like Gears of War after I drink a fifth of tequila!” “Hey, this is just like Gears of War on peyote!” “Hey, this is just like Gears of War but without those exploding turkeys!” While the basic controls are the same, they are not nearly as well executed as many other third person shooters.
The controls felt clumsy and sloppy. My character didn’t snap crisply to cover and I often found myself struggling to get out of or into cover in the middle of a firefight. I can’t figure out why but they decided to change the cover button if you are mantling or climbing something. So instead of just pushing “A” and directing the action with the thumbstick, you have to remember that if you are going into cover or down you press “A”. If you are climbing or going over, press “B”. Wait for the popup dialogue for ladders and switches, unless your name begins with a vowel. Every second Tuesday we reverse them just for fun. It was not “intuitive” as they say.
One of my biggest complaints about the basic gameplay is that many times I had no idea where to go. The objective in the corner would just say something like, “Activate the elevator.” Meanwhile, I am in a room the size of Epcot center with eighty doors on two floors. No less than three Terminator model 3 cyborgs are trying to leg hump me and I have no idea which of these space age doors is the actual effing elevator. I don’t know if this was a realism thing or if HUD markers garner exorbitant tax rates in Japan. I would have had better luck just going to the shopping mall and having a marker pop up, “Buy purse for wife.” Sure, easy, no problems here.
Hasta La Vista, Baby
I will (begrudgingly) admit that the attention to detail on the regular grunt robots is awesome. These humanoid bastards come at you like spider monkeys on cocaine. As you fill them full of lead, parts go flying. The assault rifle rounds seem to connect solidly and bits of armor and electronics litter the floor. You can shoot the legs out from under them and actually see the trail of parts as you chew through their armor and they go stumbling face first onto the ground. Sometimes I like to stand near them as they pull their dismembered torsos across the floor towards me. I like to yell, “But you ain’t got no legs Lieutenant Dan!” Sometimes I jump around as they try to grab my feet and throw in a, “I’m not touching you!”
This ended though when it came to bigger robots and “boss” battles. I think it is a cultural thing with the Japanese. I had to face a giant robot whip scorpion, a giant robot spider, a giant robot hawk, a giant robot gorilla, a giant robot crab, a giant robot cobra on a motorcycle, a giant robot jellyfish, a giant robot star nosed mole, well you get the idea. It was getting on my damn nerves. 2080 and we can create robots that are indistinguishable from humans. Technologically superior in every way. What do we find to be the most efficient form for a security robot? A star nosed mole. Seriously? What is next? Meet our new Annihilator 5000 droid. We modeled on a meerkat. Okay, suspension of disbelief...officially offline.
Just to rub salt in the wound, most of the bosses are not just hard to beat, they are Japan hard to beat. If you have ever played games like Tekken or Ninja Gaiden, you know what I mean here. I would get repeatedly beat down unmercifully before I even knew what happened. But to fully appreciate the frustration of the situation, we have to talk about the game’s centerpiece. Voice activated squad commands.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Being able to talk in plain English, (or Japanese, or Spanish, or eight other languages) to your squad was the novel cornerstone of this game. I approached the claim with a skeptical eye. I had seen it tried before and have yet see it actually work.
I patiently went through the “training” process to get the game acclimated to my voice. There are ample settings to tweak and tune background noise, recognition thresholds, microphone volume, and anything else you can think of to adjust. I even found a complete list of words the game recognizes so if you are having trouble with it recognizing a particular word you can fine tune it. Just as a side note here, I was happy to see “Fuck!” and “Shit” in Binary Domain’s vocabulary. I tried to add “Tittyswivelers” and “Shitpumpkins” but it was for nought. You are stuck with the words the game comes with out of the box.
While everything worked in testing, it failed miserably in gameplay. In a quiet room for the tests and setup the game made easy work of translating my voice commands. In the middle of a firefight where I am trying to sandpaper the anus of an angry cyborg gorilla, not much comes through the mic that is recognizable.
I have a Dolby Digital surround sound system in my game room. When playing a spiffy modern game, I like to hear all the spiffy modern digital effects. Even turning my system volume down to the point that it sounded like a boombox with dying batteries didn’t improve the voice recognition.
I would scream, “Cover Me!” to my team member and he would just say, “Huh?! I can’t understand you.” I got so tired of him repeating the phrase I finally turned the microphone off. Thankfully the game gives you the option of disabling the voice commands all together and using a popup list of canned responses to handle dialogue.
To be fair, I decided to try again with the voice recognition with my Turtle Beach headset on. Isolating the game sounds did the trick and the voice commands worked reliably though still not great. So, if you plan to only play this game with a set of gaming headphones on, you are good to go on voice commands. If you play with a regular Xbox 360 wired or wireless headset, you may as well be trying to scream your grandmother’s kielbasa recipe to a friend while laying under the running engine of a Boeing 777.
It’s Always Been a Matter of Trust
Speaking of not hearing me, let’s take a moment to talk about the “trust” system. Binary Domain incorporates an “innovative trust system” in which how you earn the trust of your team members effects the way the game plays.
Ideally, if you keep telling your friends to charge into a pack of wild cyborg dogs with a can of oil strapped to their taint, they will eventually just quit listening to you. Contrarily, if you tell them to hang back and have a martini while you take out an entire brigade of cyborg wolverines, they stroke your ego and are more likely to listen to you in the future. Allegedly, the more they trust you, the more they will offer “helpful advice” on how to solve certain problems or fight certain battles in the game.
While a set of headphones salvaged the voice commands, there was no saving this horrible addendum to gaming. The trust system just flat out sucks. There were times I lost trust just because I didn’t accomplish a task quick enough. Of course, I didn’t accomplish the task because the game gave me no indication of where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do, but why nitpick. I lost trust because the game didn’t understand me. In addition, I lost trust because I didn’t agree with absolutely everything the character said.
I am paraphrasing but it would go something like this:
Bo: “We do all the dirty work while they just sit back in Geneva and call the shots. We are probably walking in a trap again! We should just say screw this mission before we get ourselves killed.”
My choices : “Yeah.”, “No Way”, “Shit”, “Good Job”.
Lieutenant Dan : “Yeah.”
Bo: “Hey, that’s no attitude for soldiers like us to have. We are never going to get through this mission if you are constantly thinking about giving up.”
Well, fuck me sideways with a chainsaw. Really Bo? Either he is a complete psychotic or is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. You just said give up! As I am cursing out loud I watch my “Bo Trust” go down. Bo says, “Nice day!” If you want to get the trust up, you had better agree. If the hail is pounding dents in the car and cat just blew away in the gale, you had better tell Bo that it is the nicest day you ever saw.
She’s a Brick and I’m Drowning Slowly
Given these issues, let me jump back a bit to how difficult the bosses are. The scene is this: A large mall atrium. Almost completely devoid of cover. An escalator is in the center but is blocked so there is no exit. A handful of couches are scattered about. There is a lot of ammo laying around.
Lieutenant Dan has his trusty assault rifle. He is facing down a twelve thousand pound angry cyborg gorilla. The only vulnerable spot on the gorilla is it’s technicolor pulsing brain. The gorilla has the ability to charge across the entire width of the atrium in about 1.5 seconds. Getting hit by the gorilla is an instakill and puts you in a “last stand” survival mode. You have only three health packs to revive yourself.
So, there I was with my team members for this chapter. There was saucy French Cowboy robot, pouty but cold Chinese sniper chick, and of course the brash American brawler. I am on the floor, bleeding out after using all three med kits. I am screaming into the mic, “Help me!”
Bo : “Do you need help buddy?”
Lieutenant Dan(Me) : “Yes! Emphatically YES! I am in definite need of assistance!”
Bo : “Let me know if you need help.”
Lieutenant Dan(Me) : “Bo, get the lead out. Honk Honk, Blarg blarg. Warning, team mate down. I am in desperate need of assistance!”
Bo : “Man, I just don’t understand you.”
Lieutenant Dan(Me) : “Cain, Help!”
French Cowboy robot : “Hah ha. Oui oui monsieur. I am on my way!”
French Cowboy robot walks up to me, slowly tries to revive me, and gets steamrolled by the cyborg gorilla. After another 20 seconds of trying, Bo revives me. I run away from the scene as he gets steamrolled by the gorilla. I am running around like there was a can of oil taped to my taint. I desperately beg my team to shoot, dance, kabuki, yell, beatbox, something, anything to distract this freaking giant monkey so I can shoot it in the head.
My team runs directly to me, bringing the ape behind them. I get steamrolled with the entire team and it’s game over.
So much for tactical. So much for squad based. This is more a squad based tactical Benny Hill sketch. If there were someway to trade my Rust Crew in for say, a pack of rapid lemmings, or maybe a small group of exploding penguins, I know I could have done better.
Try as I might, I couldn’t earn complete trust of anyone (have to let that achievement go) because seemingly random actions would degrade my trust. I couldn’t effectively command the squad in combat. I couldn’t effectively deploy the squad. I couldn’t even get the dang game to listen to me all the time.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about multiplayer.
The game does come with a multiplayer mode. It includes a variety of game types but only four maps. Also, the weapon acquisition and leveling in the multiplayer has to be done between rounds which makes for lopsided games in the beginning. Add a four person co-op horde type game mode and they at least made an effort at including MP capability. I wouldn’t count on enjoying though unless you are a rabid fanboy of the game. If you are a rabid fanboy of the game, you probably enjoy other things that will preclude you from having the time to play multiplayer, so, there you are.
All in all, this game would have been better as a movie. I found the story very compelling and it kept my interest. The game is visually provocative with scenes of the futuristic urban jungle and it’s seedy under side. The gameplay mechanics are flawed but solid enough to allow for an competent play through. The failed voice command system, failed trust system, and promulgation of insanely difficult to defeat bosses knock this game out of the “Buy It Now” category.
I Think I’m Turning Japanese
So why didn’t we see more marketing and promotion of this game in the U.S.? I think because the game is distinctly Japanese. All the things that this game does right, are the same things that are the hallmarks of a great game in Japan. Compelling story, visually provocative, adequate gameplay. The stuff that failed or fell short is stuff that most Japanese players could overlook.
Let’s face it, the blockbusters get everything right (or almost everything.) Here in the U.S. though we are more likely to love a game with tight, enjoyable gameplay and a crappy story. In Japan, actually to be more specific, in Toshihiro Nagoshi’s world, the story and the way its told are the backbone of a great game. Maybe the folks at Sega know this and decided not to bother promoting it in the U.S.? Maybe they thought we wouldn’t appreciate the artistry? Maybe they thought a menacing star nosed mole was beyond us?
I would definitely pick this game up for an entertaining story, a solid 10+ hours of single player game play and an easy 500+ points to your gamerscore. I would not pay full price though. Definitely add it to your rental list. If you see it in the bargain bin or used for $25 or under, snatch it up. It costs at least that to go to the movies anyway.
About the Author
Eric “Walladog” Buwala lives, breathes, and embraces the lifestyle of the grumpy gamer. Crotchety beyond his years and cynical beyond his waist size, he spends most days starting sentences with “I liked it better the way it used to be” and “remember when...” Amazingly, he lives in Ohio with his wife, who inexplicably has endured his presence for over twenty years, seventeen of them as his spouse. His two children, ages 7 and 14, refer to him as the “Very Grumpy Bear” and the “Angry Wookie” respectively. He holds a private pilots license, advanced scuba certification, and an enlarged liver. He retreats to his cold, dark, damp man cave frequently enough to maintain a ten-thousand point addition to his Xbox Live gamerscore each year, but still cannot find a game he won’t complain about.