Upon first glimpse of Binary Domain, you’d be forgiven for a shrug and a disinterested facial expression. Dudes in armor carrying assault rifles, attaching their backs to flat surfaces and leaning around them to blast robots in ruined cityscapes. Whoop-de-doo.
Beyond the unexciting surface however, Binary Domain presents some very good arguments for why you ought to care about it: First of all, the pedigree behind the game is highly respectable:
Much of the creativity responsible for the ever-loved Yakuza series are developing it, promising for the quality of the narrative. Second, Binary Domain has some legitimately cool tricks up it’s sleeve (more on those later). Finally, the aforementioned wall-hugging, robo-blastin’ action looks to be reassuringly solid, surpassing most of its cover-based shooter peers.
Binary Domain is set in a 2080‘s Tokyo where robots make up a large part of society, both as servants and as regular citizens. Trouble starts when so-called “hollow children” – ‘bots that look and act indistinguishable from humans, and think themselves to be one – start appearing around the world. Robots like these are strictly illegal, so a black-ops team consisting of the player and his squad-mates is sent into Tokyo to infiltrate a corporation suspected of producing hollow children. The metropolis is divided into halves, the post-apocalyptic slums of the undercity, and the clean, utopian overcity. As one might expect, the game will take you through both.
The demonstration I was shown featured a three-man team composed of average Joe-Soldier, Sniper-Girl, and a preposterous French gentleman robot fighting their way into the upper city, gunning down security bots in an attempt to get through a train-station. This black ops team is apparently so deeply “black” that even Tokyo’s security forces are unwarned of their arrival, meaning they must be blown to bits in the name of greater good. And get blown to bits they did, courtesy of cool hit location-specific damage.
Shoot a bot in the legs, and he’ll crawl towards you, blow one arm off, and he’ll be unable to reload, score a headshot, and their electronic brains will fail to tell ally from foe, targeting every animate object in sight.
Speaking of electronic brains, the enemy AI seemed unusually clever, using squad-tactics such as covering allies taking point, as well as being wary to stay in cover. Enemies also reacted convincingly to rough and sudden amputation of limbs by means of machine gun, drastically changing tactics depending on whether legs and arms were in place.
However, Binary Domain’s most interesting quirk was neither the robo-destruction nor the AI, but the trust system, a cool take on the morality/conversation systems found in other games. Instead of only influencing the direction of the story when making concrete choices and selecting dialogue options, moment-to-moment combat will push the narrative in different directions, specifically with regards to how your team-members view and treat you. Revive them when they get downed, lead the way upon request, and play cooperatively, and they will return the favors. Disregard their pleas for help and cooperation, and you will score less assists and more kills, boosting your XP for character-building purposes, but sinking your allies’ trust levels.
In addition to being affected by your performance in combat, trust will also be influenced by navigation traditional dialogue trees, exemplified when Sniper-Girl complained about Joe Soldier’s dickish behavior during a firefight. Shrugging her complaint off with an arrogant remark, her trust level fell even further. A cool touch is that the different characters you will have in your squad as the game progresses will react differently to various kinds of behavior. Some might trust you more for constant aggression and lack of helpfulness.
As western as all this squad-based cover-shooting and tactical robot dismemberment sounds, Binary Domain is distinctively Japanese outside moment-to-moment combat. For example, the story, like other high-concept Japanese videogame stories, is rendered with ridiculous melodrama, quirk and heavy-handedness (check out the story trailer to see what I mean). This was apparent in the aforementioned complaint from Sniper-Girl, who’s tone and wording sounded nothing like how you’d imagine a professional special-ops soldier to act. Not to mention, one of your teammates is a robot with a cartoony French accent and gentlemanly mannerisms dropping lines like “A worthy opponent, a most formidable enemy!” and ridiculously over-congratulating you on being great when his trust level is high.
But if you, like me, can stomach and even appreciate this kind of quirkiness mixed with heavy melodrama about the human soul and whatnot in your third-person shooters (in other words; if you enjoy Metal Gear Solid), then the story should be right up your alley.
It’s true that the core gameplay in Binary Domain is not revolutionary in the least but compelling storytelling and some neat tricks combined with good execution of tried and true gameplay has in the past produced some fantastic games. And so far, Binary Domain seems to be fulfilling all the above criteria.