Reviewed on XBOX 360
“The keyword we have in mind for this project is ‘Life.’ I wanted to make something that will be accepted by both the Japanese and Western markets, and this fundamental theme is something everyone knows but which the full extent of can be difficult to grasp.”
-Toshihiro Nagoshi, Head of Yakuza Studios, on the story of Binary Domain
When thinking of the word “binary,” it is natural to think not only of the number two, but of a sense that the “two” is restrictive and permanent. This is perhaps in large part because of the word’s most common usage: binary code, is a coding system comprised of just 0 and 1. It contains only those two numbers, and, when coding, you have to choose one or the other. Similarly, outside of the realm of computer coding, we are often told that there are only two facets to something, and that one must win or be chosen over the other. While that’s certainly one way of thinking about the word, there is another definition that focuses not on two, but three:
Binary: (of an operation) assigning a third quantity to two given quantities, as in the addition of two numbers; a whole composed of two.
In other words, “binary” can refer to taking two things and using them to something something newer, better. It’s about getting “the best of both worlds.” It’s saying that there is a cake, you can have that cake, and damn it, you can eat it too.
Binary Domain, released on February 28th for the XBOX 360 and the PS3, was created in the spirit of this definition. The game is published by SEGA, but made by the same people who originated (and continue to develop) the Yakuza franchise. Inspired by the very popular yakuza films genre of Japanese movies, the Yakuza series consists of action-adventure games that focus on the yakuza, or Japanese Mafia. The first installment, Yakuza (2005 for the PlayStation 2), was written by famed Japanese crime novelist Hase Seishū and developed by a team led by Toshihiro Nagoshi, who had already made a name for himself with the successful Super Monkey Ball series. When Yakuza was released it received both critical acclaim and commercial success in Japan. The game was praised by critics and fans alike because it had an excellent story that was skillfully translated into a game with innovative direction and gameplay. In other words, it was a whole composed of two.
Since then, the Yakuza game series has grown into a widely successful franchise that has not only spawned 3 sequels, but 3 spin-offs, several books, and a full-length feature film as well. Despite this success, however, the series failed to garner a significant fanbase in Western markets. So, in August of 2011, Toshihiro Nagoshi got his A-Team together and created Yakuza Studio, with the binary purpose (sorry, I couldn’t resist) of continuing to make quality games (including more additions to the Yakuza series), and growing their global audience, particularly in the West.
While one might reasonably have assumed that their first foray into the international gaming market would be a continuation of the series after which the studio itself is named, it was announced shortly after Yakuza Studio’s formation that their first official game would be a third-person shooter, titled Binary Domain.
This was surprising for at least two reasons. First, the folks at Yakuza Studio had little, if any, previous development experience with third-person shooters (they actually had to create their own third person shooter engine to make this game). Second, the video game market, especially in the West, has an extremely strong pool of developers that are well-established at producing successful, quality games that are either pure third-person shooters (Gears of War) or incorporate the third-person shooter format well (Mass Effect).
When asked about why they decided to make a third-person shooter at all, let alone make it their first official game, it is clear that Yakuza Studios did not make this decision on a whim. Nagoshi said that not only did they see the third-person genre as the biggest window of entry to as many gamers as possible, but that they did their homework and identified what areas the genre “lacked.” Specifically, they pointed out that while their games are well made, many Western developers can’t “create a deep or compelling story.” In short, Yakuza Studio believed that Binary Domain would possess what many games in this genre were missing–the ability to combine a deep story with a well-made shooter to create a better, more well-rounded game.
Ok. So the transfer student who’s good at karate just challenged the entire wrestling team to a fight. On the first day of school. After calling them all a bunch of sissy ballerinas. But was the new kid able to hold his own?
Binary Domain takes place in Japan during the year 2080. You are Dan Marshall, an American member of an elite special-ops “Rust Crew” with your partner, “Big Bo” Roy Boateng. Your mission is to covertly infiltrate Japan, rendezvous with other Rust Crew squad mates from around the world, shoot a LOT of robots of every size and kind, and then track down Yohji Amada, the mysterious owner of a large and powerful robotics corporation which is accused of creating “Hollow Children”–robots covered in layers of living cells so that they appear like real human beings. Worse yet, these Hollow Children grow up not knowing they are anything but normal human beings. (A taste of this was included in a trailer for Binary Domain in which a man not only rips his own face off, but then asks why he has a robotic interior.)
There are 3 levels of difficulty: Cakewalk, Rust ‘Em Up, and Survivor. They are described not by how hard the enemies are but how familiar you are with third-person shooters. I picked Cakewalk originally just to see, but the controls and UI are identical to other third person shooters, so if you have even casual experience with the genre, there is no need to start any lower than Rust ‘Em Up. Plus, once you start a game at a difficulty level, THERE IS NO SWITCHING. Having been used to games like Mass Effect, which allow you to switch difficulties, I found this frustrating.
While it is primarily a third-person shooter, there are frequent times when it temporarily transforms to Quick Time events or a rail shooter. Rather than being annoying and gimmicky, however, I thought these were properly used as tools to help tell the story and convey the drama of the given situation.
Another thing to note is that the game uses auto-saves ONLY. This was frustrating during the first chapter because they didn’t seem to happen that often; but, after that, the auto-saves became more frequent. In any case, be warned.
One of the ways Yakuza Studio is trying to revolutionize the third-person shooter in Binary Domain is with what they’re calling the Consequence System. You can communicate to your squad mates, either through commands during battle or in personal conversations throughout the game, using voice recognition (which can be done either with Kinect or a normal XBOX microphone or headset). Your commands and responses will either raise or lower their trust in you, which will affect their behavior in battle (i.e. make them more or less likely to listen to your commands). Unfortunately, I found the voice recognition to be seriously flawed. First, I had consistent problems with the voice recognition not, you know, recognizing my voice, especially during battle. On the other hand, sometimes when I wasn’t talking, the microphone kept picking up things (either the sounds of the game from the tv or whatever else) that resulted in my character giving random orders or saying offensive things that pissed off my team. It got to a point where I simply turned off my microphone and only turned it on to give an order or respond to someone. While I encourage you to try the voice recognition–and perhaps sit farther away from the tv than I did to see if you get different results–you can also turn off voice recognition and use the controller to choose your responses. Additionally, the word choices are mostly single words like “Yeah,” “No,” or “Damn,” which, without any context as to how my character would convey it, are too simple and thus misleading and confusing when deciding what to say. Finally, while your responses to the other squad mates before or during a particular battle clearly affect their behavior and willingness to follow your commands in that battle, their opinion of you seems to revert immediately back to normal once that battle is over (in other words, what happens during these conversations doesn’t have any bearing on the next battle). While this isn’t really a “flaw,” I would like to see the effects of the Consequence System be extended for a longer period of time throughout the game to give your choices greater meaning.
That being said, it is refreshing to see something new in a third-person shooter like the Consequence System, and when it worked correctly it was very fun to play around with. Another fascinating aspect of the system is that your squad mates will provide you with supportive and/or critical comments either during or after battle, depending on how much–or how little–you contributed to the team’s victory. If you sit by and let everyone else do the work, expect someone to call you out on it (and then wait for you to respond) when the shooting is over. This was refreshing and fun to have in the game (that is, until the voice recognition didn’t work, or the one-word answer I chose didn’t say what I was thinking it would). Overall, I felt that the Consequence System is a fantastic new addition to this game and genre, but it definitely needs some work.
The system for purchasing weapons and other equipment works fine, but is a little weird. You receive money depending on how much damage you do to your robot enemies, which you then use at little ATM-style weapons caches that are conveniently and hilariously located everywhere, including inside someone’s personal truck at one point. Also, after using one of these little booths, it will do a roulette-style game that will play a jingle and pop out a grenade or ammunition if you win. Adorable!
The game’s score was effective; it fit the game and the various situations well, but it was not particularly memorable.
I’m no expert on graphics or design, but I was pretty impressed with Binary Domain on that front. There was clearly thought put into the design of future Tokyo, which includes futuristic solar panels and wind generators…and large screens advertising Cup of Noodles. No, seriously.
The robots were designed brilliantly in that they not only came apart in millions of pieces as you shot them (and you get more credits the more pieces you pick off and/or destroy), they also react appropriately to the injuries they receive. If you shoot a robot’s leg off, it will hop towards you while shooting. If you shoot its head off, it will shoot everything, including its evil robotic brethren. If you shoot its legs off, it will crawl towards you and try to kill you with its bare hands (which is REALLY creepy). And so on. This added a level of spontaneity to the battles that I really enjoyed.
Your rifle has an energy blast secondary power, but aside from that, there are no weird or unique weapons (like a Lancer or Needler) in the game. You can, however, pick up or purchase other standard “human” weapons, like a shotgun or rocket launcher, at one of the friendly neighborhood WMD ATMs. Be sure to routinely purchase upgrades to your main assault rifle, though; upgrading your signature weapon makes watching millions of pieces of bot fly everywhere like a Fourth of July celebration while you mow those bastards down exponentially more gratifying.
The one aspect of the game that I was most impressed by, besides the story, was the quality and specificity of the game’s motion-capture. Whereas in many games every character does the same 3-5 things to do, each character in Binary Domain had their own unique physical idiosyncrasies, including ones as subtle as eye movements and eyebrow raises. I wouldn’t be surprised if multiple professional actors were used for this work, as opposed to 1-2 random staff members doing movements and voices for all of the characters (nobody in Binary Domain took an arrow to the knee). While there were some funny but questionably cartoonish accents on some of the people of Japan, the voice acting by the main characters was also strong. By the way the line delivery perfectly matched what a character was doing physically at that moment, I’m guessing this was done by the motion-capture actors as well–perhaps all at the same time to allow them to really get into character. Whatever they did, it worked, and I really appreciated their attention to detail.
Yakuza Studio worked with writers from the UK to help with making Western characters speak and sound real to ensure accurate portrayals that wouldn’t offend people. The characters play to classic stereotypes, but not only do they often acknowledge the stereotypical behavior in one another or themselves (which makes it much more believable), they all have distinct character arcs that, over the course of the game, reveal complex characters who are far from simple stereotypes. While some of the dialogue was a little corny, I thought it was very well-written and believable overall.
The multiplayer mode seems to work fine, but there wasn’t anything unique or memorable enough to make it a viable contender with other multiplayer shooters out there. That being said, this game is not about the multiplayer–it’s about the campaign mode (which runs about 8ish hours and doesn’t feel too long or too short) and the story it tells.
So how was the story anyway? Hasn’t the whole “humans vs. robots” thing been done already?
I think the story was thought-out, thought-provoking, and pretty damn compelling. Look, I haven’t seen every movie about fighting robots, so I’m not going to try to measure how original it was, but the “nothing is original” argument can be applied to anything. Yes, the relationship between man and machine has been done. But as technology continues to evolve (am I the only one freaked out by Siri?) it’s a topic that will continue to be relevant and ripe for reinterpretation. Plus, there is much more here than man vs. machine. The story raises philosophical questions about financial and global inequality, power, climate change, consumerism, and the very notion of what it means to be human. What’s really gratifying is that all of these issues aren’t just forcefully crammed in the game in the hopes that you’ll think it’s “deep” just because it’s disjointed and confusing as hell. It’s done in a thoughtful way that challenges the player to think, yet still makes sense and feels like one coherent story. Additionally, while many games and movies have had men fighting machines, Binary Domain, as the title suggests, addresses the relationship between man and robot in a truly binary way–one that not only looks at the separate and conflicting “two,” but the whole comprised of the two as well. And by “whole”–this is as close to a hint as I’ll give–I ain’t just talking about that guy who ripped his face off. They added to what was old to create something fresh and entertaining.
Finally, the game does not provide satisfying resolution or definite answers to the issues and the questions raised–and that’s good. The game feels like the opening statement of a debate, and I think this was done intentionally; not only do they want people to play this game and talk about it with friends afterwards, I think they’d like to make sequels to this game that delve further into the subject matter and characters. While there are no official plans for a sequel, I will say that they certainly left the option open, and Yakuza Studio has a strong track record of making quality sequels. Considering that Toshihiro Nagoshi was announced as SEGA’s Chief Creative Officer the day after Binary Domain was released, I would say that it is certainly a strong possibility that this story is just getting started.
Final thoughts: The force is strong with this one, and while it’s not a Jedi yet, it’s really damn close and worthy of your time and money. This game has its flaws. The voice recognition system was frustrating, but at least can be turned off. The Consequence System is an excellent idea, but would have been better had the answer choices and the severity of the consequences been refined to be more in tune with the complexity of the story the System is meant to complement. I was a little thrown off by relatively minor details like the auto save and not being able to change difficulty mid-campaign, and there were a few times where, for whatever reason, the game just didn’t feel as polished as a major franchise game. But let me be clear: none of the game’s flaws are deal-breakers, and the good soundly outweighs the bad. This is a fantastic first step for Yakuza Studio and one hell of a first–and, I’m hoping, not last–chapter to this story. It’s also a shot in the arm to the third-person shooter genre and a shot across the bow of anyone who would dare think that the notion of developing complex and compelling stories for video games might have died out with the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy.
I could see myself playing this again a second time to make sure I didn’t miss any of the finer points of the story (or just to shoot the shit out of some robots), but besides that–and considering the “meh” multiplayer–I don’t feel the game has a lot of replay value. That being said, it’s still worth buying the game to enjoy and, in doing so, encourage developers to keep making games like this. Why they thought it was a good idea to put this (or any game) out one week before Mass Effect 3 was released is beyond me, but if you have any money left, I’d say buy it. That way, you can trade it in later. Go on–have your cake and eat it too; it’s better that way.