Binary Domain 360
I’m quite partial to Toshihiro Nagoshi’s colourful game making history, so it was a rare and seemingly baseless moment of doubt that occurred when Binary Domain was first announced. Maybe it was my less-than-stellar experience with its sibling-in-style, Vanquish, which I found to be an unevenly paced, rowdy man-fest, or perhaps it was my general dismay at the “western/global appeal” mantra that seems to come out of every other Japanese game developer these days. At any rate, the veiny arms and cover-tastic gun tooting didn’t inspire confidence, but, as the trailers became more worthy of contemplation, I recalled the qualities that help make the Yakuza games so compelling. In fact, from the confidence and steady handedness of the core gameplay to the subtlety and sobriety of the storytelling, Binary Domain retains most of the qualities you expect from Yakuza. It is obviously quite a different game however.
The story of Binary Domain kicks off when an armed man walks into the lobby of American robotics company Bergen, shouting and screaming, eventually tearing off a bit of his own face revealing robotic innards. The man is quickly gunned down, but the mere existence of a robotic organism indistinguishable from a human was in itself a direct breach of new international law, whose “clause 21” states that research and development of such technology is a big no-no. Speedy investigation into the matter pegs Japanese robotics company “The Amada Corporation” and its founder Yoji Amada as prime suspects, and a special strike team – the “Rust Crew” – is dispatched to apprehend him covertly. You take on the role of Daniel “Survivor” Marshall, who begins the game paired with his Rust Crew buddy Roy “Big Bo” Boateng.
In terms of core mechanics and character control, Binary Domain is a third person shooter similar to Gears of War. You do the usual cover taking, cover vaulting, blind firing and roadie running on the usual buttons. In fact, the most impressive thing about the game in this regard is how well it stacks up to the standard setter even without any particular gimmicks attached, by simply providing a sturdy, responsive framework.
In addition to this effective core gameplay, shooting enemies is so satisfying that you will actually invite the occasional wave-based encounter. They are all of the robotic variety and respond differently depending on where they’re shot. You can slow them down by going for their legs, after which they crawl towards you Terminator style, or you can disarm them – in twice the normal sense – by targeting their arms. Also, the old trusty headshot – highlighted by an eventually addictive sound cue – actually turns that enemy against its allies, effectively making a bullet to the head into a strategic component of battle instead of the usual go-to way of simply destroying enemies the quickest. Instead of blood and gore, these mechanical foes get visibly torn apart in an incredibly satisfying way, first being stripped of their exterior plating, then gradually having their parts chipped away at before crumbling all together. It sounds like a hollow promise, but Binary Domain finally makes shooting robots as inherently gratifying as shooting a dude. Actually, in retrospect, I guess that mainly sounds horrifying.
Occasionally, you’ll control various vehicles or machinery, but these instances are usually brief and inoffensive and mainly help vary the pace of the game. There are also some very sporadic, light quick-time interactions, but even those are made with a levelheadedness, giving you a flexible prompting system that gives you ample time to get your bearings and react. There are also bosses to tackle, and those are based on location specific damage as well. Figuring out how to hurt a boss can be a drawn out process, however, and there were definitely a few battles where I grew a beard or two simply evading and prodding bosses in various places for yonks.
Its rock solid shooting mechanics are a pivotal strength, but Binary Domain’s most commendable strength resides in what makes it truly unique. It’s rare for a game’s hook to actually be meaningful in the end, but Binary Domain’s hook manages to be simultaneously where the game excels and where it gets a little wonky.
There is an RPG sensibility that envelops Binary Domain. It’s reflected in the way you improve your character’s basic stats – health, damage protection, reload speed, etc – with “nano machines” bought from special stores littered throughout the game, and it’s reflected in the way you upgrade your main weapon to do more damage, be more accurate, carry more ammunition and so on. Where it gets palpably RPG-esque, however, is in the squad management, which often asks you to pick who you want to roll with at set points in the game. The chosen characters in turn develop “trust” in you – or not, should you cock things up a bit – and this system eventually makes you genuinely care for how your squad mates fare on the battlefield. If you’re prone to gravitate towards a particular set of characters, it’s rewarding to be able to keep those at your side, and even more so to get a tangible sense of bonding.
But the trust system also involves the surprisingly ambitious voice command system. Wait! Come back! Stay with me. Okay, so Binary Domain employs a voice command system to give you control over your squad mates in battle. It’s never about minute control, however, and consists mainly of sweeping orders like “charge” or “fall back” as opposed to targeting specific enemies or any real needle threading like that. In addition to this practical application, you can also compliment or criticize either your team on a whole, or individual members by stating their names first. Your squad mates will also make inquiries or provide statements to which you can reply or react accordingly, and this all feeds into their opinion of you. That opinion is represented by a trust gauge on the status screen, and in practice this will affect how well they respond to your orders, how willing they are to help you out, and even have an impact on story beats – sometimes determining the fate of a character all together.
The voice recognition and rather expansive list of available commands – thus at least the perceived dynamism of your responses – lend a strangely intimate and personal feel to Binary Domain. There’s an (admittedly somewhat sad) sense of approval in winning the affection of these virtual characters, and that’s somehow emphasized by its chosen type of interaction. Now, the reason you were reaching for your coat and hat at the mention of voice commands is still perfectly valid. The biggest chink in Binary Domain’s snazzy future armor is the sometimes inexplicable interpretations of what you’re trying to say.
Some of this can surely be attributed to my somewhat rudimentary grasp on English pronunciation, but that doesn’t account for its proneness to mistake one word for another, sometimes making some baffling leaps to do so. At one point in the game, a character lamented the passing of his friend, expressing hopes that he’d be remembered fondly, and I tried to comfort him, using one of the readily available responses “hang in there”. The game was utterly convinced that what I really said was a stone cold “no.” Now, not even in my darkest English speaking hour do I manage to get “hang in there” to sound like “no,” yet the game insisted that’s what I meant three checkpoint loads in a row. Finally, I just said “yeah” instead even though it wasn’t on the “suggested” list during the conversation, which the game and the character gladly accepted, and we grew a little closer.
The voice command stuff is exactly that double edged. Should you opt out of it entirely, it strips available commands down to a bare minimum of battle directions and replies that it maps to the four face buttons on the controller, and the dynamism of the faux “social” component is all but extinguished. It is, ultimately, worth playing with the voice stuff enabled and to champion through the occasional odd issue. You haven’t really played Binary Domain unless you accidentally shoot a guy, he goes “wtf!”, you say his name, he goes “yeah, what!?”, you go “sorry”, he goes “…sure.. it’s okay.” and his trust gauge stabilises.
You have, however, totally played Binary Domain even if you never touch its bare bones multiplayer component. There’s nothing offensively bad about it – building on the same sound mechanics as the main game – but the framework is clunky and sloppily thrown together, having you stare at a non-skippable result and stats screens and waiting in before-a-match limbo for ages. The maps are cramped and barely seem plotted out as multiplayer levels, usually just dumping the two teams on two sides of a semi-large space, resulting in a quick firefight ending the match in a quarter of the time it takes to load the next round. It was difficult finding people to play with – perhaps speaking more to the rather modest sales of the game than the multiplayer component’s lacking appeal – and my time spent trying to find a match was willingly kept rather brief. The Horde-like “Invasion” mode, then, is certainly more enjoyable, letting you team up with three friends to defeat waves of enemies. While presented through the same awkward interface as the other multiplayer modes, this at least capitalises properly on the aforementioned strengths of visceral robot murder.
From a visual design standpoint, Binary Domain’s inspirations are quite obvious, and that familiarity makes it a little too predictable to surprise, but it’s still a tasteful and confidently designed world. The robots animate beautifully, giving them a truly spindly and mechanical quality, and they fall apart in convincing and satisfying ways when shot. The characters themselves may not look unique at first glance, but they actually have distinct features that make them memorable even though they’re dressed in somewhat typical action man garb, carrying typical action man guns. Occasionally, a combination of simplistic geometry and somewhat flat lighting conspires against the game and gives it that barren, weirdly plastic look to it that seem to follow Japanese shooters around a little, but it’s rarely a factor, and many of the locations are both beautiful and quite evocative. Though I’ve heard stories of frame rate issues in the Playstation 3 version of the game, I encountered none such on the reviewed 360 copy. It all trotted along at a snappy pace, even as I got all up in the grill of a hulking, stomping boss.
One of the real heroes in making the shooting of a robot feel good is the sound design. Not always the case due to the deliberate arcade stylings of Japanese action games, guns all have a satisfying physicality to their various blaps, pows and blams, and even your footsteps have a nice thump to them when you leg it. It’s also nice to find that the voice acting is solid across the board. After the Yakuza games dodged all sorts of localization bullets after the first one by being subtitled only, finding that Binary Domain has zero problems maintaining its storytelling integrity is quite a relief. It also uses its heritage and setting well by having interactions between Japanese characters be voiced in Japanese, lending the game a welcome sense of place, easily lost when you’re dealing with these iPod-esque surroundings.
Music doesn’t fare as well, however. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it; it’s that you can barely hear it at all. The balance between sound effects and music is downright odd, keeping the volume of the music so low at times I could have sworn there was no music at all. Especially during the more dramatic moments, only barely hearing the music swell up almost threatens to deflate the scene. It’s odd and bears mentioning, but certainly not a deal breaker by any means.
Binary Domain can be chalked up as another unassuming video game hit from Nagoshi’s Yakuza Studio. Their storytelling chops ensure that we’re clued in on the stakes early and you’re given a tangible goal from the outset. That momentum is kept nicely throughout, and the finale wraps everything up beautifully, giving you a satisfying sense of closure. The combat never gets old, introducing slight variations on enemy types and setting up boss encounters along the way, and the sprinkled contextual scenarios spice up proceedings and prevent the game from getting stuck in a rut.
The voice recognition may not be as dependable as you’d like, but, coupled with the trust system, it remains a nigh-essential part of the Binary Domain experience, and should at least be given a thorough, fair shake should you play the game. And you should! Binary Domain – almost by Sega tradition at this point – was released between other, higher profile games in the same genre, and it is undoubtedly doomed to be overlooked and underrated. There is a very enjoyable action game here, wrapped in a well plotted storyline populated with likeable characters and powered by a simple-yet-genius system to make you actually care about who you fight alongside, managing what other shooters struggle to accomplish after entire trilogies. Whatever niggles it’s burdened with do little to put a dent in that fact.