previews\ Dec 14, 2011 at 10:01 am

Binary Domain Preview


Many words have been written about the status of Japanese developers and their games. The discussion on the status of Japanese games and the shifting nature of the industry has almost become pedantic. It’s not for a lack of trying, for some of the biggest developers in Japan are working hard to create games that can appeal to their homeland and to tastes abroad.

One genre the Japanese continue to struggle in is shooters. From first person to third person, a solid traditional shooter doesn’t seem to come from Japan. Sure, the Resident Evil games and Shadows of the Damned was pretty good, but those are far from a traditional shooter.

That’s what makes me so interested in Binary Domain, a game from Sega spearheaded by Toshihiro Nagoshi, known for his work on Super Monkey Ball and the Yakuza games. Binary Domain looks and feels like a traditional cover-based third-person shooter, and it has a decidedly American feel. More than anything, it is dripping with very distinct Japanese elements. Could this mashup of cultural norms work? It might.

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Binary Domain takes place late in the 21st century, in a modern world where global warming has forced water levels higher and higher. Large portions of the population died in these floods, which cause problems twofold. First, cities needed to be rebuilt, often in skyscrapers standing on the corpses of the flooded underbellies of the cities. As a result, since there was a smaller working class, so there was no one to build the cities. So, governments had to turn to new robots to rebuild major cities. Like any post-apocalypse future, these robots have started to revolt, so a multinational defense agency is formed to squash any robot insurrections.

If this wasn't complicated enough, there are problems between the two biggest robot manufactures. Bergen is the American agency, controlling 95 percent of robot sales. They didn’t get there in the most ethical fashion, paying off government leaders and possibly stealing information from their nearest competitor, the Japanese Amada Corp. This competition has left the Japanese company feeling bitter toward Bergen, and Japan in general is now very protective of their borders, even as their nation collapses internally with seedy underbellies of Tokyo given over to Yakuza, child soldiers and scavengers, and drugs and prostitution.

Further complicating the state of the world are beings called Hollow Children, or advanced robots designed to look like and believe they are human. The suspected source of these Hollow Children is Amada Corp and their genius head researcher. After a Hollow Child goes crazy at an American political event, the robotic defense squad called IRTA sends their best into Tokyo to solve this problem.

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That’s where we are introduced to Dan and his partner Big Bo. Stereotypically gung ho Americans, these guys are quicker heard and not seen, and when I was introduced to the game, they had already battled a gigantic mech. Escaping from its second wind for battle, the two slide down a gigantic dam wall, and they enter a road going into Tokyo.

Of course, this is a shooter, so the duo is quickly assaulted by robotic enemies. Binary Domain follows standard shooting mechanics, with Dan and Bo able to hide behind cover, use grenades, blind fire, and all of the standard shooting mechanics. Enemies don’t seem terribly bright, but they do pose a bit of a threat, and the combat doesn’t seem bad. I do think it’s silly and dated that grenades are defined as separate equipable weapons, but it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.

What makes Binary Domain shine a bit is the customization players can do. Ammo shops are located all around stages, and Dan can purchase ammo, weapons, and nano upgrades for himself and his squadmates. Each character has a small grid representing their potential upgrades and nano upgrades modifying their health, defenses, and offensive abilities; more can be obtained and laid into this grid. It’s a bit of a puzzle placing these nano upgrades into this grid, but it’s the point to limit how many upgrades a character can have.

After working our way through the roadblocks, Dan and Bo are saved by former MI6 members Charlie and Rachel and are introduced to Chinese intelligence Faye. The five move forward to Shibuya, where they are assisted by Yakuza in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo. Here, people are mostly ignored by the rich and affluent of upper Tokyo, but the people seem to be taking care of themselves. With Dan and his squad trying to meet their French member inside Tokyo, they need to get in, and the only way is by jetski up the old subway tunnels. After a firefight inside a dance club, the squad moves forward into subway tunnels, taking care of robots on the way before escaping onto the skis.

That’s where my demo ends, and I have a few feelings from this section of the game. I find all of the characters to be fairly interesting, if nationally stereoptypical. The facial animations are actually quite good, if a little ugly in a way that seems to work. Unfortunately, I think Binary Domain struggles in the level design. I don’t know what it is about futuristic games by Japanese developers, but the stages here don’t look that great, just fairly generic and grey. I’m reminded of last years Mindjack, which isn’t a great thing to say. Hopefully later stages look a little better.

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The oddest and most interesting feature in this game is the voice recognition. With the Kinect or any microphone, players can actually interact with Dan’s squad mates in combat or in story-based plot conversations. It’s a potentially interesting idea, allowing the player to order, lead, compliment, or curse out players and NPCs. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect system, as I found the voice recognition to be a little forced. Hopefully the squad ordering mechanics get tightened up.

My favorite use of it is interacting with the squad mates. Designed to replicate multiplayer gameplay with a single player mode, each of the squadmates--Dan’s American partner Big Bo, Faye from Chinese Intelligence, Charlie and Rachel from MI6, and a French member--have different opinions of Dan. Depending on his actions and discussion points with them and others, you can influence their opinion of you. It’s kinda cool, although it does feel a little light.

One thing I like about the various squadmates is that they are unique with special personalities. Even with a short amount of time, the non-American members proved to be interesting and capable.  All of them are slightly stereotypical, but it’s interesting to see a game taking place in Japan from an American’s perspective by a Japanese developer. It’s an exercise in cultural norms, that’s for sure.

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One element that is pulled from any Japanese RPG is the party system. At various parts in the game, Dan can choose two members--and only two--to fight with him, while the others form a second team that goes off and does something else. Since each member has their specialties, it’s like building a team in an RPG, and with the character customization, upgrades, and equipment, it feels like Final Fantasy in menus, but with a third-person shooter in battle. It’s pretty neat.

Finally, Binary Domain has a competitive multiplayer mode. It plays out like many other multiplayer games, although I don’t think people will be playing it for a long period of time. All of the expected modes are here, from control point modes to capture the flag modes. Stages tend to be on the small side, and I did discover that spawn camping is a bit of a problem. That said, the single-player will be where people get the most enjoyment out of Binary Domain.

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All in all, I’ve found Binary Domain to be a technically interesting shooter with some mechanics that concern me to appeal to the American and Western audience. There are some neat ideas at play, but I’m hoping some of the more awkward areas, like the grenade toss or the voice orders, can be tightened before the February 14 release date.

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