First Contact: Binary Domain.

A number of people whose opinions I respect, assure me that Binary Domain is a game worth playing. Specifically in regard to its combat mechanics, narrative, and themes.

While playing the first hour I took some notes. The reason the notes only cover the start of the game is that I have since restarted twice in an attempt to understand why my reaction, as shown by the notes, is so predominantly negative. I have yet been unable to reconcile my experiences with the praise lauded upon the game. It is not simply a case of not liking a competent game as much as others, this has occurred before and will again, rather I am concerned because I think Binary Domain is a genuinely badly designed game, one that makes mistakes in interface and encounter design I had thought long solved.

So what follows are my notes, as taken while playing, with some additional clarifications, to help see if I can make sense of why it provoked such a negative reaction. I have changed the order in which I took them as certain points are better explained in light of others.


I’ll start with what was actually one of the first notes I took.

Actually about as funny as it thinks it is.

It’s rare to find a game that’s genuinely comedic, and all too often action games swing the other way becoming overly self-serious, Binary Domain manages to find a tone that feels much closer to something like Beverly Hills Cop than I was expecting. It’s a brash action game and knows it, the script has yet to try to be anything else.

Why is A vault over cover but B climb? (Xbox 360)

This confounded me when I first played and I still don’t have a handle on it. The B button is nominally the “Interact” button, except when it isn’t. The A button will enable you to take cover and then vault over or dart around that cover, but B is required to climb up onto something, except when that something is a ladder in which case the A button is required. Operating a device in the world requires the B button however if that device is a control panel for a crane you cannot exit the crane interface by pressing B you instead have to press A.

Why give the character a voice if he’s not going to vocally respond? Conflict with voice input probably.

This seemed confusing at first until I remembered the game has an option to response to spoken voice commands. For that reason I can understand not having the character voice those comments as that would be redundant and potentially confusing. For players who are not using voice commands it’s jarring having the protagonist speak freely only up to the point at which you are given control of what he says. I can see this becoming a non-issue very quickly.

Off putting lag\acceleration on movement controls. May need to lower sensitivity.

This is probably my biggest complain: I cannot hit anything consistently. I am either wildly overcompensating or sluggishly dragging the cross-hair into position depending on the sensitivity setting. I’ve been using dual analog controls since the era of Halo: Combat Evolved but playing Binary Domain I feel like I’ve never touched a controller before. This is the main reason I restarted the game, I had hoped that more time with it would help me grasp the nuances of the controls, unfortunately that has yet to happen.

All the weapons so far sound incredible similar and you need to fire them a lot, soundscape is muddled cacophony.

A minor complaint initially but when combined with the next it makes the soundscape of Binary Domain a variation on a small number of weapon and impact sound effects, all of them similar and after an extended combat encounter I wanted to rest my ears.

You’d think they’d have chosen ammunition that does some actual damage against robots.

I appreciate that it is the start of the game, but every enemy I have encountered takes several seconds of sustained fire to destroy. It was pointed out to me that my approach should be to attempt to target vital parts of the enemies and so disable them, or turn them against their own. With the controls the best I am usually able to do is position the crosshair on the center of the enemy’s body, the degree of fidelity I would need to perform head-shots consistently is one I am unable to achieve.

Very aggressive enemies for a game with such a limited range of melee, or other close combat, options. Enemies will close and flank you with little you can do to stop them. Repositioning requires you to exit cover, so you expose yourself to those enemies ahead of you.

Enemies have a tendency to close range rapidly and either attack directly or move behind you. The former is frustrating as there are few options to deal with enemies in close range, the latter is almost always lethal as repositioning in combat to deal with enemies attempting to flank you will disengage you from cover therefore opening you up to attack from the front.

The focus button rotates the player to face the target not just the camera.

Like Gears of War there is a button to focus the camera on an important event or location. In Binary Domain it does not just turn the camera, it turns the player as well. This has led to me getting killed on at least two occasions.

Cover is almost exclusively perpendicular to the line of advancement you can’t flank enemies while remaining in cover. Nor can you move move between cover as fluidly as other cover shooters, it’s a first generation cover shooter closer to Mass Effect 2.

The layout of the levels so far have been unidirectional, with the AI advancing down a line directly opposite your direction of movement; except when airborne enemies spawned in behind you, but that is an entirely different complain. Cover is predominantly perpendicular to that line of advancement, allowing you to take cover from direct incoming fire. There has rarely been cover positioned parallel or at an angle to the direction of movement. Such cover would allow you to reposition to flank approaching enemies or deal with those enemies that have run past you. A good example of the type of space that I’ve yet to see in Binary Domain can be found at the end of the first level of Gears Of War. Exiting the prison Marcus and Dom enter a patch of ground dotted with low walls positioned both perpendicular and parallel to their direction of movement, Locust are positioned throughout and the layout allows for multiple possible routes through the space while remaining in cover. You can position yourself opposite the Locust and engage them directly or you use the space tactically moving around to flank them.

Doesn’t feel as fluid and responsive as Gears of War, or in fact Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

This is tied to the previous comment regarding my difficulty aiming, but is more concerned with the basic movement either out of or between cover. In those rare instances where such angled or parallel cover does exist there are no options to shift position to it without leaving cover, you cannot move around corners while remaining in cover the way you can in Gears of War, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These factors make moving in any direction other than directly forward inadvisable, limiting your options to staying put and shooting everything as it approaches  – hoping you can destroy them before they run past, and thus outflank you – or advancing directly towards the approaching enemy and engaging them at close range, the options for which are limited.

Not everything that looks like cover is.

Compounding my previous complains are objects or elements of level geometry that in another game could conceivably provide cover but in Binary Domain do not. This is particularly egregious on the roads approaching the Sea Wall and again on the far side. The road surface is frequently split and buckled, with some sections of road higher than others. While you can climb up these sections, you cannot take cover behind them, despite them being close, if not identical, in height to the low walls and blocks that do provide cover.

10 Days Earlier…

When this cutscene occurred I was disappointed it was not the opening of the game, it at least offers a stronger context for my actions than that provided initially and though the voice acting and script can be a little peculiar on the whole it was largely entertaining. The premise itself is one I have seen before though that doesn’t mean it is an uninteresting one. My fear is the given the nature of the “Hollow Children” either the player character, one of his squad, or the character he has come to Japan looking for will turn out to be one.


It is possible some of the specific control problems I have are because I have not understood the information the game has provided me, however if this is still the case on my third encounter with the opening sections of the game some of the fault must lie with the manner in which the gave conveys that information.

Some of the problems I have might change as I progress further in the game, something I fully intend to do exclusively because of the positive comments I have heard. If I was unaware of such comments I would have abandoned Binary Domain at some point during my second time through the opening sections; so far I see nothing that has made me want to continue, rather the game has been frustrating and overly punishing.

A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.

Love.

“What happened to that nice young girl you brought home last year..?”
“She was not a young girl mother, she was only two years younger than
me.”
“And you’re still my little girl. Now don’t avoid the question. She
was lovely and she had a thing for you anyone could see that.”
“… It wasn’t working. We decided to go our separate ways.”
“I see, and who’s decision was that exactly?”
“Mother… I don’t have the time to discuss my love life, put Dad on.”
“Never have the time…”
“Mother…”
“Fine…”
“… She only wants what’s best for you, we both do.”
“I know Dad…”
“And that Michelle really was a lovely girl, attractive too…”
“Dad…”
“I know, I know you don’t want to talk about it… But there’s so little you can talk about.”
“It’s the Alliance Dad, you know what it’s like.”
“It’s not easy for us sometimes, honey, especially not after what happen during the Blitz.”
“You don’t need to worry about that Dad, we made sure those bastards paid…”
“Jaina! I didn’t raise my little girl to talk like that.”
“… I’m sorry Dad. Look I’ve got to go, we’re about to… Well I’ve got to go.”
“OK, honey, now remember your mother and I love you, so you watch your back out there.”
“I love you too Dad.”
“… And give our love to Michelle.”
“Mom…”

– From the communications log of Commander Jaina Shepard, SSV Normandy, 2183 CE.

Living with your mistakes.

Structurally Mass Effect 2 is built around the concept of recruiting a team to participate in a ‘suicide mission’. Each new character recruited has their own  specific quest line, a part of their lives they feel compelled to resolve before committing fully to a task that may lead to their own demise. These loyalty quests become available after a character has been with the player’s crew for a predefined length of time and their successful completion causes that character to be considered ‘loyal’ to the player; unlocking new abilities along with a palette swap costume change.

Personally I find the former a useful addition, and the latter a little difficult to swallow, it does not help that the costumes changes lead to your party looking like the Halloween Goth Power Rangers.

Conceptually these loyalty quests offer some of the most interesting situations in the game, and in some cases their implementation pushes against the traditional boundaries of a BioWare title. Though one loyalty quest in particular seems  full of unfulfilled potential. One of the last characters it’s possible to recruit, the asari Justicar Samara, is on the trail of an Ardat-Yakshi, a serial killer who murders her victims during what is for all intents and purposes sexual intercourse. Samara’s loyalty quest involves the player agreeing to act as bait for the Ardat-Yakshi, Morinth. As thematically dubious and clichéd as the concept of a female serial killer who literally uses sex as a weapon is, the concept of the player acting as bait for a dangerous predator is one loaded with possibility.

Entering a club unarmed and alone, the player, as Commander Shepard, is tasked with attracting the interest of Morinth in the hope of being invited back to her apartment where the trap can be sprung before the Shepard herself becomes the next victim.

Unfortunately the dramatic and gameplay potential of such a sequence is quickly undermined, it doesn’t take long to realise that failure is unlikely. A player would need to go out of their way to create a situation where they could fail absolutely. I’m not actually sure failure is a possibility, it would take a concerted effort to select the wrong option and it might simply just delay success even if the player tried.

As rich with potential as the concept of serving as bait to trap a predatory serial killer is, the manner in which it is implemented and its resolution leave it feeling shallow and rushed. It could have become a much more meaningful aspect of Mass Effect 2‘s narrative if it had been possible for Morinth to spot the trap and escape. Shepard had put themselves in mortal peril to help Samara and therefore would have shown they were worthy of Samara’s loyalty, and so the quest line itself would be completed, if not resolved as Morinth would have escaped to kill again.

The lack of impact this loyalty quest has on the rest of the game is more disappointing because Mass Effect 2 already uses a variety of techniques to track changes in the state of the world. News reports, emails, and the reactions of characters help to keep the player informed of the consequences of their actions; the structure is already in place for the player to hear about other murders committed by Morinth after escaping the player’s trap. The possibility of Morinth surviving her encounter with Samara and Shepard could also be carried through into Mass Effect 3 adding to the already strong sense of investment players have in Shepard through the continuity of choices made throughout Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

A founding principle of the design of Mass Effect 2 seems to be the concept that the player’s choices must be the final deciding factor in any situation. Resolution of a quest is not about a player’s ability but about which choice the player makes: Paragon or Renegade. I can understand why this is desirable for the main quest, I can’t honestly condemn anything that keeps people playing when they might otherwise abandon a game unfinished. However Samara’s loyalty quest is optional, allowing the player to fail and yet continue with the main quest seems to have more dramatic potential than simply required the player to select between the standard Paragon and Renegade options once again.

Several years ago I played the FMV adventure game Spycraft: The Great Game, despite the obvious flaws of such a format there was at least one specific incident that stays with me. During the final few hours of the game, the player is presented with what appears to be a side quest (At the time I my understanding of game design wasn’t well formed enough for me to realise that the inherent nature of FMV games means very few non-essential elements can be included) to locate and recover a stolen nuclear warhead due to be traded to a terrorist organisation.

There are several parts to this side quest: the player is required to capture an arms dealer; obtain the information necessary to persuade him to divulge the location of the trade (Including information about the names and location of his family); and finally to attend the trade and either through force or guile recover the nuclear warhead. At each of these stages it’s possible to fail, and though you are reprimanded for your inability to recover the warhead, the main plot continues and you are told that another team will be sent in to recover the warhead. The assumption is that this mission was secondary to the main plot which involves the assassination of the President of the United States, and that failure of the player’s part is problematic but that eventually the warhead will be recovered by other means.

However this assumption is one that comes back to haunt the player at the end of the game regardless of how the player resolves the main quest; which in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 2 comes down to a binary choice. If the player has failed to recover the warhead, during the closing sequence a news report from outside the United States Capitol is interrupted when a nuclear device is detonated in Washington D.C. dramatically undercutting whatever success the player may have felt upon resolving the main assassination plot.

The consequences of failing to trap Morinth do not need to be as abrupt, but certainly it could be powerful to hear reports of further victims, and her presence as an active force in the galaxy could carry forward into a dramatic confrontation in Mass Effect 3.

There is narrative and ludic power in requiring players to live with the consequences of their actions, it seems a waste for this potential to go unfulfilled. Will Wright has said, justifiably, that video games can actually make players feel guilty, and surely fundamental to that sense of guilt is having to live with your mistakes.