Binary Domain: Review

Brilliant: another cover-based third-person-shooter set in a science fiction setting where a bunch of square-jawed stereotypes take on insurmountable odds against robot enemies that were once our friends and are now out to annihilate us. How very Will Smith.

And sweet SEGA, look at that cover art. Look at it! It’s as if some Heavy Metal artist was told to produce a homoerotic piece, dialled it in and left an enthusiastic intern to colour it. Remind me why I’m bothering to play Binary Domain?

It's as if they didn't want to sell any copies at all.

Wait, this is Toshihiro Nagoshi’s newest project? The same man known for leading the Yakuza series and a die-hard tanning salon fanatic? Sorry, what was that – it’s also actually pretty good?

Excellent. Another Arcadian Rhythms review where I don’t get to shit on a project.

Initial impressions of Binary Domain’s shell are exactly as I described above. Having watched early trailers and listened to the derision directed towards it I had only hoped that it would be a hilarious car-crash of a game. It looks like Gears of War swathed in neon blue; so visually uninspiring and mechanically conformist that it is easy to dismiss the game outright as another Mindjack clone with the interesting multiplayer replaced by a voice command system. (Ed: people are cloning Mindjack?! They must’ve been, well, mindjacked.)

However Binary Domain has a lot going for it thanks to following the Halo ethos – it doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking but everything it incorporates from other games has been refined to the point that it is hard to fault.

The cover system and shooting model has been seen before. These are common ‘verbs’ used in a whole slew of games but in Binary Domain they have been polished to spit and shine, and that is worthy of praise. After playing games like Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, Uncharted and Killzone I don’t think people appreciate how easy it is to fuck these things up, and so Binary Domain goes under-appreciated as a result. The fact that you shift seamlessly between cover with the game adapting well and interpreting clumsy button presses favourably is something that should be celebrated rather than ignored.

That and giant robots, can it be stressed how much we like giant robots?

The same goes for the feedback when shooting your enemies. Taking out a robot enemy’s gun arm will see the automaton scrambling for the lost weapon with its one functioning limb; taking out its legs will result in it crawling towards you. The best result is a headshot, which causes the robot to turn on its co-insurgents, giving you a much needed distraction and a tactical edge. Dismantling a cadre of opponents is gratifying and the game’s attempts to create arenas to do so is a step up from the last Gears of War. The game makes an experience that should be generic into a lot of fun.

The accusation has been levelled that this game is soulless – another Japanese attempt at selling to the Western crowd – but this is only fair if you only look at the cover of the game, its overtly butch protagonist and his awful stereotype of a buddy. This narrative setup changes as the story progresses; certainly it starts out as a simple ‘Bros against evil robots’ tale but the game takes some interesting turns – for what it is worth – as it progresses. The game genuinely tries to explore what it is to be human, with robots expressing emotion and understanding the concept of death while struggling to rise up against their oppressors. At the same time there are bizarre side stories about societal conflict within Japan that mirror Nobunaga-era Japan with class segregation being slowly stamped out as technology is embraced, as well as a cop buddy drama that is jammed into the main storyline while the military are running amok in Tokyo. I am not saying that all of this is coherent but, in terms of grounding the game in a storyline more interesting than pretty much anything other than Deadly Premonition, Binary Domain finds its place.

Seemingly from an entirely different game, you are encouraged to wander around and talk to people at certain points

Likewise the level design and aesthetic is very well done. It may rely heavily on the Blade Runner style but that is something that it is clearly trying to emulate alongside the film’s message. In terms of game design, an early encounter with a bipedal robot (seen in the demo) is a great showcase. There are multiple ways to defeat it and the tactics employed make you feel as if you are adjusting dynamically to the threat (even if it is quite heavily scripted the game never pauses to let you realise that). Clambering through debris in order to eventually jump onto the robot’s head and shoot out its processors works in a fist-pumping way that few other games succeed at. The game rarely repeats such encounters and keeps each one feeling unique as well as instilling a real sense of danger – the game will kill you if you don’t react quickly enough.

While I feel that Binary Domain is able to handle itself well in the sea that is the cover-shooter market, it is unfortunately the one thing it tried to use to distinguish itself that ends up working against it.

In theory the idea is that you interact with your teammates using voice communication; as you move from point to point you bark out orders, praise or criticism and depending on the relationship you have with them it will influence their response. In smaller areas where you are left to walk around and explore you can have conversations with them that will influence their opinion of you and ultimately change the course of the storyline depending on which characters you have become friends with. Some might die, others might reappear and save your life. The problem is that the voice commands are awful. In the ten hours I played I could never get the game to pick up chat from the headset reliably. I tried going through the voice tests multiple times, lowering the volume on my television, talking in an American accent: nothing helped. Given that how you treat your compatriots can influence the game’s ending it was frustrating to see the game treat ‘no’ as ‘yes’ in moments that affected my relationship with my teammates. It only became worse when Binary Domain began to interpret gunfire from the game itself as voice commands.

The bodged voice commands leads to miscommunication that can be unintentionally funny

This function went in the opposite direction of its intended purpose. Instead of immersing you it divorces you from the experience at hand and, as result, I would recommend utterly ignoring it and using the button commands instead.

Binary Domain will have its detractors for not doing enough to advance the genre, with its most defining characteristic being a bit of a non-event due to poor implementation. Don’t let that dissuade you, as it is more than worth your time and there are moments that will most certainly surprise you.