It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. By that account, Binary Domain is a doting love-letter to a number of film and videogame influences. Make no mistake, you’ve seen this sort of game before. It’s a squad-based shooter, its environments dotted with places to take cover. We have a science fiction setting and a robot menace to quell. But don’t be put off by the derivative nature of both the plot and gameplay. Binary Domain has enough to call its own, and its story rises above the characteristic clichés of the genre. It’s often at odds with its ambition, and lacking the polish of truly great games, but Binary Domain is a satisfying palate cleanser for the year ahead.
Any fan of science fiction will find Binary Domain’s themes familiar. In tomorrow’s world (or 2080 to be precise), robots are our source of menial and manual labour, yet are also the foot soldiers for the corporations who created them. They are dependable, but above all, expendable. And this makes them perfect cannon fodder for your trigger-happy fingers. Strip away the armour of your robotic foes, and piece by the piece you reveal their fragile exoskeleton. Get behind cover and blow off a robot’s leg and “it” will crawl hopelessly towards you. It’s in these moments you can cackle with laughter. They’re only machines, right?
But Binary Domain quickly reaches for a moral grey area, introducing the idea that some robots are manufactured disguised as humans. Dubbed “hollow children’, these machines don’t realize they’re no more flesh and blood than the clanking robot stacking boxes in the scrap yard. It becomes an interesting narrative cornerstone that informs the rest of the story, though it doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise: one of Binary Domain’s pre-release promotional videos dealt directly with the idea. Nor is it an idea unique to the game. Ridley Scott, take note.
Still, whether it smacks of Blade Runner or not, the story does do its source material justice, expanding on the core idea in what proves a gripping tale of robot ethics. Key to the plot’s punch is the way it’s told. The cutscenes are remarkably well made and the characters express themselves distinctly. You play as Dan, the face and voice of a thousand stereotypes, partnered (at least initially) by his African American sidekick Boateng. Bo is a dollop of NFL brawn in army hide. But they play off one another well.
Make yourself heard
Binary Domain features microphone support. Essentially, you can issue orders to your teammates by barking at them… using your own voice. It’s a neat idea, though in practice, it falters on occasion. There is a system in place that tracks whether it can recognize what you’re saying, before you go out and issue your commands in the game proper. What you get to say doesn’t differ greatly from “yeah”, “no” and the odd swear word, though it does add a nice layer of tactical immersion to the squad battles. When the game picks up what you’re saying, it works a treat — but this doesn’t happen as often as you’d like. In the end, it can be safely played without a microphone, via on screen prompts.
These national stereotypes soon come thick and fast. After an initial foray through the swamped depths of Tokyo (sea levels have risen: the future is bleak), Dan is squared off against the charmless Britain, Charlie. Dan and Charlie are polar opposites, but it’s not a relationship that ever comes to a palpable tension because Binary Domain is so adamant you make everyone happy. As your squad increases in size, introducing the apple of Dan’s eye, Faye, and a host of other faces and nationalities, you’re able to pick and choose the team at your side. Technically, your actions then influence the sway you have over your teammates, but bar actively searching out your human allies during battle and unloading rounds into their backs, they’ll do what you ask.
Mass Effect this is not. In theory, your actions have a bearing on the story, but it’s frustrating that the developers never fully commit to the idea. During rare moments of downtime, you can chat to your teammates. They’ll pose you questions to which there is always a right and wrong answer. Agree with Faye on the plight of your situation and she’ll warm to you. Scold Bo for his boyish inclinations and he’ll take delight in your seriousness, a blinking blue arrow indicating he trusts you more. Even if you go out of your way to say the wrong things, your performance during the battles proper will generally assure you of good standing in the eyes of your comrades — and when it’s so easy to win their favour, what’s the point of the system in the first place?
Granted, a few cutscenes do play out differently based on whether individual squad members trust you or not, and the end of the game can be altered slightly. But do you want to take the time to shoot Bo purposefully in the back every five minutes to ensure he distrusts you? This is a story that seems pre-determined at heart, and it’s a good story at that. It’s just a shame that the matter of choice is not pitched on an even scale. In Binary Domain, there’s a right ending and a wrong ending, and it steers you at all costs towards the right one.
You might think that Binary Domain gets weapon customization right. These days, it’s practically a pre-requisite. And, initially, all seems well and good. Dan’s primary weapon, and the primary weapon of his teammates, can be upgraded via quasi-vending machines scattered around the maps. But this option doesn’t apply to any other gun you might happen to pick up during the game. Strange restrictions like this abound in Binary Domain. Take the art of upgrading Dan’s health, melee power and reload speed. Nanopieces can be bought and placed in individual slots, but it’s such a half-hearted dip into the RPG pool you wonder why the developers even bothered.
When the game leaves behind its half-baked attempts at customization, and concentrates on the action, things improve. The robots themselves come in varying shapes and sizes, but they’re all covered in armour that can be picked apart. Take off a robot’s right arm and it’ll hunker down to pick up the gun in its left. Shoot off its legs, and as aforementioned, it’ll crawl along the ground. Best of all, strip away the armour covering a robot’s head — then sever it from its neck — and it’ll blindly fire upon its allies. These are touches lesser games simply don’t pull off.
Early sections of the story are also spliced with variety. You might jump into the murky Tokyo sea and swim to a nearby tanker, perform a QTE sequence, then jump back onto dry land and proceed as per normal. You might stumble upon a giant robot, and be forced to clamber atop it, keeping your balance as you kill it off. The action, paired with a new squad member around seemingly ever corner makes the first two chapters of Binary Domain engrossing indeed.
Binary Domain ships with a multiplayer component, but make no mistake, this is not where the crux of the game lies. Sadly, the singleplayer campaign is devoid of a co-operative element, so if you’re wishing to engage friends, it’s restricted to online only. The multiplayer modes smack of modes we’ve seen done in other games elsewhere, and there’s very little substance to your battles. Having both human allies and opponents is a neat change of pace, but lacks the concussive solidity of the singleplayer foes. It’s a good way to eek out an hour of two extra from the game, but not the reason for making a purchase in the first place.
But the middle stretches of the game are a slog. Here the story takes a backseat as it builds towards its conclusion, and the game falls into a predictable pattern. You extinguish wave after wave of enemy, boss after boss, principally on your own: for no rhyme or reason, your teammates seem to switch off midway through the game. Faye, for instance, would simply stay behind cover until I’d done all the work and cleared a path to the next exit. Even repeatedly ordering her to get her ass in gear didn’t work.
But when the story gets going again, so your teammates perk up, and you’re willing to forgive Binary Domain. It might not be the stuff of literary kings, but it’s such a rip-roaring and entertaining ride you’ll clamour to know what’s going to happen, and there are enough forks in the tale that you’ll buy into its shocks. It’s not simply a story about Dan; it’s a story about the other characters too, and the visuals are good enough to further immerse you in the action on screen.
It cheekily borrows from the best the world of science fiction has had to offer. Yet truly great games are able to refine and improve a workmanlike formula. Binary Domain ultimately feels as if it’s pandering to schizophrenic expectations. It aims for the stars, incorporating a jack of all trades mentality, but in a market crowded with third-person shooters, this lacks the quality to stand out. In the end, it’s more I, Robot than Blade Runner — an enjoyable romp, but far from a classic.