Monday, June 25, 2018

A word (or several) of warning about "Defiance 2050"

The open-beta for Defiance 2050, Trion Worlds' MMORPG/Shooter, started in June 22, with the game launching officially on July 6, 2018. I jumped in, played a little and I have a few thoughts that I think I should share.

Full disclosure: I'm a major fan of the Defiance IP. Defiance started out as a game by MMORPG maker Trion Worlds. They got into a deal with the SyFy network to produce a TV show based on the game. The game and the TV show would cross-over with references to events taking place across both media and connected storylines. The deal fell through, but the show ran for three seasons (2013-2016, it was cancelled for budgetary reasons) and the game survives to this day with a small, but dedicated fanbase.

The original Defiance game (much like the show) is a title I whole-heartidly recommend. It's a persistent online shooter with MMORPG elements, Destiny and Anthem years before either of these games were even conceived. It has a low skill ceiling, but it's challenging at the appropriate moments, it has decent-enough gunplay and tons of content backed by interesting lore (the TV show helps in this regard).

Defiance 2050 is a "relaunch" of the original game. This means that it's not a sequel or a reboot, it's literally the exact same game, with somewhat higher-fidelity textures and effects and several gameplay tweaks (particularly in regards to leveling and character progression). This isn't a terrible thing in and of itself, but Defiance 2050 is the laziest, most obscene cash-grab I've seen since the last time Todd Howard tried to sell me Skyrim for the umpteenth time.

For one thing, the game is woefully unoptimized on PC. They call this "open-beta", but make no mistake; with the game launching in a little over a week, this is pretty much its final state. It's unlikely they'll do much to fix performance until then. There are constant stutters and freezes and the framerate drops well below 60 in open or populated areas.

The updated visuals are easy to see in certain areas. All textures are higher resolution, particularly on character models. There are also more complex lighting and shadow effects, richer skyboxes and better LOD.  They certainly did work quite a lot and the difference is clear; but the game still doesn't hold up to the standards of this generation. The original game had to work around the limitations of the previous generation, but in doing so it had to rely on some stellar art direction. It's the old game design blessing-in-disguise: the limitations of the MSX gave birth to Metal Gear, the limitations of the Playstation gave birth to Silent Hill's iconic fog and so on. The limitations that the original Defiance had to deal with made the game world look like a post-apocalyptic hellhole with interesting environments, thanks to the careful use of fog and low lighting effects. The new one looks cleaner, but also far less interesting and far more conventional.

The biggest problem is that when performance drops, it drops hard. The game becomes significantly less playable at anything below 60fps, with massive stutters and screen tearing. The major differences between "low", "medium" and "high" settings are the complexity of lighting and shadow effects, as well as the draw-distance. Interestingly, the original game performs exactly the same on my system; meaning, both games hit 60 and stay there in Medium Settings and both games drop to 40 in High Settings. This leads me to believe the big problem isn't the effects or the textures, but rather the draw distance. Ultimately, the Defiance engine shows its age and it's yet another reason why they should've done a new game on a different engine to compete in the market.

 Comparison shots: Defiance 2050 different settings presets in order: Low (top), Medium (middle), High (bottom)

Perhaps this problem could've been avoided, if either game offered a more elaborate Video Settings menu. Much like the original, Defiance 2050 only offers three presets; no way to change shadows, antialiasing, textures, Anisotropic Filtering, Lighting, Water and weather effects, draw distance and so on. The game will decide them for you based on the preset and if there is this one setting hidden behind it that guts performance on your system, well, tough luck.

Nice remaster, Trion Worlds.

Comparison Shots: Defiance (top), Defiance 2050 (bottom). The starting area has been cleaned up in the new version. The original game features similar environment in other areas of the game world.

On the subject of performance, the servers continue to be an embarrassment. Long loads, constant lagging and disconnects. Again, though they've dubbed this period "open beta", the game is ready for launch and their servers should absolutely be capable of handling the load. It should be noted that the first Defiance has server problems as well (the game would often disconnect me in the middle of missions or even story cinematics), as does the company's flagship title, RIFT. Trion Worlds' services have been lacking in terms of reliability for a long time now and they don't seem to be improving.

As for the game itself, there is nothing much to say. It's the same Defiance, only worse. The gunplay has been slightly tweaked, but it's hard to really see, because of the aforementioned performance issues. The early game seems more "challenging", but not because the enemy AI has been in any way improved; enemies still follow the exact same patterns as always, either standing and shooting (occasionally switching positions) or charging mindlessly until you drop them. Instead of any substantial improvement in their (serviceable) behavior, the developers merely increased their health bar by a little, meaning you need a couple of more shots to drop them.

The biggest gameplay change is the progression system, which has been streamlined to a more traditional leveling experience. The original Defiance had gear, over classes. Instead of choosing one single role in the game, the player was given 5 different, fully customizable loadouts. Each loadout could be geared with different weapons (primary, secondary, grenades, "spikes" and so on), EGO abilities (one of four), one vehicle, Cyberig and appearance. The player could change on-the-fly depending on the situation and the more they used each weapon and weapon type, the better they got at handling them.

All of these are gone now. In Defiance 2050, the player picks one class at the beginning of the game, which comes preloaded with only one EGO power (though the developer claims you'll be able to unlock more). With each new level, you get to spend a skill point on one EGO perk from the heavily redacted EGO Skill Tree. Loadouts still exist, but their only utility is surface customization. Because of the new system, using weapons unsuited to your class will reduce their effectiveness, making them a liability (and ultimately useless to you).

The original Defiance is extremely good about offering players weapon and gear customization. You can have a fairly traditional loadout, like a handgun and a sniper-rifle, but there is nothing stopping you from having another loadout with a rocket launcher and an alien energy weapon. There are many ways to create many different and unique load-outs. As you progress through the game and learn the different factions of enemies and their tactics, you can build different load-outs tailored to each of them. This realistically can't happen in the new version.

There are other small changes, such as the crafting system, but ultimately the biggest issue is the new progression system.

 Comparison Shots: Loadout Screens, Defiance (top), Defiance 2050 (bottom)

The game chat, which seemed determined to white-knight the game with every other breath, were very quick to point out that Defiance 2050 "isn't the same game", but that it was made to accommodate a better free-to-play experience. The original game launched under the "buy to play" model and only changed to free-to-play later. Because of this, they argue, the original was never really suited for the f2p experience.

Bollocks to that I say; the original game has a robust in-game store and a purchasable version that includes all DLC released over the years. Any f2p user can log in and play the vanilla content as it was intended, with minor limitations that keep any sense of "pay-to-win" at bay.

Defiance 2050 will offer all original DLC for free for everyone (why the hell wouldn't it), but the f2p version will only have the Assault Class available. Any additional classes will be behind a paywall, which instantly screws with the balance of the game in the team and endgame content. With the inescapable overabundance of Assault Class players, setting up a viable team to tackle the bigger Arkfalls will be a chore.

There is already a Founder's Pack for 50 bucks, which unlocks everything (and which will be replaced by something else once the game launches) and offers some insubstantial "goodies". I'm not certain what further monetization will look like (the store has been disabled during the beta) and I don't want to be presumptuous, but I'm still flabbergasted they found this project worth pursuing.

Trion Worlds has a very bad record dealing with and respecting its customers. The ArchAge community is better-suited to attesting to this, but everyone who has ever played any of their games can certainly admit to raising an eyebrow with some of their decisions over the years.

Defiance (2013)

Most importantly, though, Trion Worlds are coming off as a lazy, money-grabbing company. When Blizzard finally announced World of Warcraft Classic in the last Blizzcon, Trion Worlds introduced RIFT Prime for their WoW clone. RIFT Prime isn't even "RIFT Classic"; it's the same game as RIFT, running from the exact same client, just under different server rules. They claim that since so many players were dissatisfied with the cash shop, they removed a lot of the services from the store and made them available for free; as long as you pay for RIFT Prime's monthly subscription service. Meanwhile, none of the later changes to the game mechanics were amended (particularly the streamlined leveling system), the game plays the exact same way and it's locked in one server accommodating hundreds of players, which buckles under the load.

Then, Destiny 2 gets its expansions and Anthem is nearing release, so they announce Defiance 2050; only they don't do a sequel to their 2013 game, but instead take a knife to the original game's gut and just throw a new coat of paint on its carcass to hide the scar. They claim it's free-to-play, but with the changes to progression and crafting, any hope of getting the most out of the game's core design requires spending at least 50 bucks to unlock every class in the game.

The only good idea they've had in regards to this is that they, reportedly, don't intend to shut down the original Defiance any time soon. The game hasn't received meaningful content updates in a while, but it's still regularly supported and this isn't going to end. Keeping this in mind, I can't see how Defiance 2050 is in any way an attractive prospect, at least on PC. Both games currently have the same content, the new version of the game looks better, but not impressively so and the original version has (comparatively) far more complexity in terms of design and player choice.

More importantly, Trion Worlds is walking down a path that's anything but consumer-friendly. For the established fanbase of Defiance, Defiance 2050 is nothing short of utter mockery. With the lure of somewhat updated visuals, they expect (or at least hope) the people that have spent hours upon hours in the original game will switch over to a dumbed-down version, in which they can't even import their characters from the previous version. Despite the first Defiance not losing support any time soon, it won't be getting the updated visuals on PC, even though there is literally no reason not to.

Furthermore, original players who have spent money on the game only get some "special currency" (through the "Valor" system) to spend in Defiance 2050; we don't yet not know what they'll be able to purchase with that currency, but I doubt it will be free access to all the classes that they've spent years playing. These people are asked to spend another 50 on top of all the cash they've already dropped on Trion Worlds, just for the right to gain access to the full arsenal of the exact same game they've been playing since 2013. I don't think it was a random decision to lock even the special currency behind completing "pursuits" in the original game. It's not enough that you've bought the original game; the only way to gain Valor is to complete as many pursuits as possible, before switching over to the new version.

As for new players, they won't have a point of reference for Defiance 2050 and they may grow to enjoy the game. The core content is still as good as it was, after all and the pew-pew in Defiance has always been and still remains very satisfying. But from my perspective, they'd also be far better off picking up the Gold Edition of the original game on sale (it drops as low as 80% off), which includes all the DLC. It's more complex, more interesting and it performs better. Defiance 2050 is bad, anti-consumer business practice in all its glory. Playstation 4 and XBOne users may be hard to dissuade, because of the lack of alternatives, but for everyone else, please don't reward companies that set out to screw you over. Defiance 2050 deserves only one thing and that's an abortion before it pops out of the womb. Failing that, a shotgun to the mouth will suffice.

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