Binary Domain Review
If you’re looking for a swift verdict, today might just be your lucky day. For despite protestations of choice and consequence, squad combat tactics and a narrative delivered through gameplay, Binary Domain is simply this: a Japanese Gears Of War, done well.
All the idiosyncrasies are there. Levels tubular to the point of predictability, a cocky hero with a heart of gold and – naturally – a quite unspeakably stereotyped black man, who despite becoming the lynchpin of the world’s elite tactical force has all the grammar skills you’d expect of a Baltimore corner drug dealer. For shame.
Indeed, concerning ourselves with issues of gameplay alone for a moment, the extent to which Binary Domain beatifies Epic Games’ trilogy inevitably leads to massive initial disappointment.
Put bluntly, it is an homage to the adventures of Marcus Fenix and friends in the same way shoplifting is an homage to fine food. Though the foes have become all carbon fibre and metal alloy, their templates come stamped with the seal of Cliff Bleszinski.
Crawling enemies that creep with speed and explode at close range. Simian brutes who gallop and attempt to repeatedly melee. Heck, it even shares Gears’ propensity to construct insignificant dead-ends, designed specifically for the purpose of ‘hiding’ power-ups.
So the backdrop is an intensely familiar one – augmented by signature Japanese customisation features that actually interfere with what it’s trying to do – so why do we love it so?
The French robot will quickly become one of your favourites.
Our answer comes through an even mix of genuine narrative intrigue, utterly satisfying baseline gunplay, plus more insanity than you can fit in a polka-dotted cocked hat that also doesn’t exist.
Borne of Toshihiro Nagoshi, the man who once thought encasing monkeys in plastic spheres then piloting them towards numbered targets was a sane thing to be doing with his adulthood, it’s little surprise to see Binary Domain bamboozle the mind.
Not through its basic contrivance you understand – a well-worn Frankenstein narrative upon the nature of a world part-populated by robots indistinguishable from mankind – more its ability to twist harder than a 1960s teenager. Besides, of course, boss encounters about as spectacular as one could fathom within a futuristic real-world setting.
It’s a notable shame, given what is to follow, that the adventure starts off in such horribly low-key fashion. Arriving through the depths, Solid Snake-like, to land upon a Toyko sea wall in the year 2080, Rust Team operative Dan Marshall is embroiled in conversation with teammate Roy “Big Bo” Boateng how best to proceed.
Through one of the greyest tutorial levels we’ve ever seen, we learn they’re just one arm of a covert international operation, looking to haul in the director of a megacorporation for his violation of Geneva conventions.
The specific crime? Creating robots – to date only a source of cheap labour – that both look and behave like real human beings. As a side note, we also learn at this point that more generic humanoid automatons are terrific fun to smash, dissolving into dozens of shards and limb fragments at even the slightest touch of a bullet.
To look at it, it’d be difficult to distinguish from Gears Of War.
A ham-fisted allegorical racism plot develops from this point on, rendered charming by a commitment to being knowingly naff, plus some cute characterisation touches.
Industrial cranes that come alive to attack, for example, that still do you the courtesy of playing the chimes they’d normally use when reversing.
Droid security guards furnished not as ultra-efficient neutralisers of intruders, but to match the elderly retired cop archetype, complete with rubbish batons.
A French robotic party member, distinguishable immediately by the bandana lazily draped around its neck. All of which (and much) more will guarantee you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Binary Domain’s extensive narrative sections unfold.
However, Nagoshi’s desire to create a videogame whose story takes place during action sequences alone remains unfulfilled. This is due to some rather unnecessary meddling with the Western shooter archetype.
Primarily, this concerns Binary Domain’s headline employment of both speech recognition and a karma system – both of which amount to little more than a gimmick.
As far as chatting to your three party members is concerned, the linearity of play provides little reason to start ordering them in this direction or that.
As you progress, enemy variants ‘improve’ with additional armour plating.
Considering so much of the fight is spent methodically working your way through constricted tunnels – and that damage taken fades quickly over time – there’s little reason to engage with the system at all.
Quite often too, comrades will flat out refuse to obey your orders due to being embroiled in some tit-for-tat battle between one CPU controlled piece of code and another.
Basically, sharing identical problems with other videogames that offer squad order mechanics. What’s more, the code’s inability to distinguish a cough or sudden movement from Received Pronunciation leads to battles peppered with squad members yelling “what?” and “you talking to me?” Not at all like Robert DeNiro, either, sadly.
The chance to emotionally engage with characters through speech is similarly denied, confined as it is to pointed questions asked by party members every hour or so, the results of which cause an arrow next to their face to raise or lower, but have little effect on the battlefield.
Despite repeatedly (and creepily) professing our love for Dan’s burliest accomplice – freaking him out no end – he was never sufficiently disturbed to stop offering first aid in our time of need, or even remark upon how uncomfortable our feelings made him, outside of his direct response.
Naturally too, the game’s emotional turning point – which we’ll courteously refuse to spoil – proceeds as an entertaining yet notably non-interactive movie – one that might have benefited from the resonance a little chat might have leant it. Put simply, Binary Domain would have been slightly superior if speech had been simply omitted altogether.
Similarly, Nagoshi-san’s insistence on mixing overtly simplistic gameplay with a sequence of character upgrades quickly becomes a chore.
There’s still a very Yakuza feel to the cut scenes and NPCs.
At various narrative-relevant junctures, players are forced to divide the six principle characters into a pair of teams – one to accompany, one to leave behind.
All six can be customised as time progresses, utilising in-game currency to purchase overly complicated stat boosts, or more straightforward weapon upgrades.
This, too, presents several problems. Firstly, the upgrades’ bog standard nature leads players to believe they’re upgrading simply to keep pace, rather than achieve some tactical edge (doubly so, considering the linearity of Binary Domain’s level design).
Secondly, the opportunity to upgrade simply occurs far too often. Finally, the narrative limits your choices in ways that are impossible to predict, taking away characters you might have spent hours earning the cash to improve and by association bonding with, sometimes instigating lonesome boss battles with pre-determined loadouts.
While the result is mainly engrossing, you’ll often wonder what the point of all that faffing around was. Again, the experience would have profited from the act of removing this alone.
It certainly saddens us that Binary Domain delved to such gimmicky depths, though such harsh criticism is born of a desire to see its more impressive segments displayed more prominently.
The studio should have instead have worn its linearity as a badge of honour, drawing attention instead to a story of insane excellence and solid combat that impressively ups the ante later on.
You don’t criticise a good book because it’s made from the same paper as everyone else’s, and all that. While you may find yourself pointedly cursing the developer’s ham-fisted attempts to innovate, such anger will never fully eclipse its ability to tell an entertaining story.
The only question that remains – for the man who has already done monkey tennis – is where next?