The "Yakuza" series is one of the most underrated franchises globally. It's story, character dynamics and renovations of typical brawler conventions are all amazing reminders of just how intricate and fun video games can be. With the franchise taking a shooter-style vacation this year with "Yakuza: Dead Souls", it's development team focused their efforts on a new IP with their signature flair for character and narrative, all on top of the increasingly-tired third-person shooter market. That new IP is "Binary Domain", and it's here to prove that Japanese developers not only can hold their own against Americans when it comes to action games, but surpass the gamut of them.
"Binary Domain"'s plot unfolds similar something by authors like Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison. In the early 21'st century, i.e. present day, humanity's downfall began. Global warming peaked and the economy collapsed, resulting in a one-two punch of cataclysmic events. The earth flooded, destroying three-quarters of the world's major cities. Only the corporations and governments with abundant resources could survive such an event, and conveniently, the most well-off ones were in the United States. This led to America becoming an international superpower by default. In order to rebuild the world which was now pretty much it's oyster, the government and technology corporations began to construct robots that could get the job done faster and more efficiently than the weary masses could.
However, this came with a price. Soon, the concept of intelligent robots who truly believed that they were human was brought to the table. This was an immediate threat, and thus the President of the United States put into motion the New Geneva Convention, which forbade any type of fully-aware robotic entity. But in 2080 a humanoid robot breaks into the building of the top robotics manufacturer in the world and attempts to kill the president of the company. That robot, known as a "Hollow Child", was built by a rival Japanese corporation, and was in violation of the new Convention. To put an end to this threat, the US Government sends two Special Forces operatives into Japan, which is being ravaged by these thinking machines. Their mission is to topple the corporation and take out any enemy robots along the way.
These two soldiers are the two most enjoyable protagonists I've played with in a game since I met agent Francis York Morgan in the 2010 cult masterpiece "Deadly Premonition." Their nonstop banter is very reminiscent of that shared between the protagonists of the "Army of Two" series, except in this game, the dialogue feels more natural and not overly wrought. It's like the best buddy cop movie imaginable, only set in the future and with armies of humanoid death machines out to kill said buddies. Killing wave after wave of enemies never feels tedious with these two guys around for chemistry and laughs.
Then again, the excellent dialogue isn't all that makes shooting these baddies special. Yakuza Studios implemented a damage system similar to the one found in the "Dead Space" series. Killing robots isn't only a matter of pointing and shooting, but rather a strategic and methodical takedown of each squad. Shooting the legs off of a robot stuns then, but they'll quickly crawl around and start shooting at you again, making a nuisance of themselves in a firefight. Blasting the head off of one fries their optics and brain, causing them to shoot at anybody, including fellow bots. Tearing through the chest is straightforward, but takes more time. How you handle each opponent is an integral part to "Binary Domain", making it more enjoyable than your average "Gears of War" clone.
What also makes each battle more enjoyable is the character relationship system, which not only affects dialogue, but character behavior on the battlefield as well. Depending on how you choose to react in battle, how you respond to questions, and your gameplay style in general, the AI partners will change accordingly. With other characters added to your party later on, you have to be conscious of how you treat your fellow fighters. One response may please a certain partner, but irk another. This will change their willingness to follow orders and help you out in the middle of a fight, so it's not just a throwaway gimmick to keep people interested. It's an important facet of the game, and one that more developers should definitely use in the future.
Visuals in this game are top-notch. While they never reach the level of something like, say, "Modern Warfare 3", they're certainly nothing to scoff at, something to be expected from a developer who accurately rendered contemporary Japan in the "Yakuza" series. The character models are impeccably rendered, and the scenery is fantastic after the first hour of gameplay kicks in. The futuristic Japan put on display is a true feast for the eyes, and a blast to barrel through and blast enemies in. Comparisons the aforementioned billion-selling shooter and other major action franchises are unfair, really, because "Binary Domain" has more originality bleeding out of it's designs than anything to come out of Infinity Ward, DICE or Epic Games.
What some might notice, though, is that the shooting mechanics are rather basic. They're a more raw-bones version of the "Gears of War" school of TPS games, and while that's certainly nothing bad, it may come across as not "innovative" enough. However, keep in mind that everything works the way it ought to, and the shooting mechanics are perfectly adequate. Same goes for the upgrade system which is basic, yet adds more noticeable firepower with each weapon level than most other systems I've worked with. It's a nice little component to an already nice game. Basic mechanics being fairly typical is nothing to complain about in this day and age, however. What most gamers look for in a game is originality in concept, design and execution as opposed to distinct moving and/or shooting mechanics. By this standard, "Binary Domain" is a roaring success.
However, it should be noted that by typical standards, this game is not perfect. In comparison to blockbuster games, it's graphics could use more detail. When held up against major shooter franchises, the mechanics could perhaps be a bit more fluid. And when put up against writing by studios like Rockstar, the banter might come across as cheesy or contrived. But in spite of these potential minor gripes, this game is hardly possible to dislike.
It makes me disillusioned with the current game criticism system that a game like "Binary Domain" is awarded a 6 or 7, while a game like "Battlefield 3" is awarded a near-perfect score. BF3 has a campaign that is utterly dull, a contrived war story punctuated by explosions and firefights with mechanics that are aped from many other FPS games. The redeeming feature of the game is it's multiplayer, which in truth should be a knock off on a score, not *the* reason to buy a game. In contrast, "Binary Domain" has tight controls that aren't anything revolutionary, but makes up for it with sheer creativity in AI interaction, narrative progression and feasible visions of what a robot post-apocalypse might look like.
Instead of sticking itself inside of a box and doing one thing that everybody on the market is doing, Yakuza Studio threw dozens of unique ideas behind "Binary Domain." There is absolutely nothing else like it on the market; it's a wonderful experience, with breathtaking action sequences and moments of true humanity among the cast. With way above-average graphics and sound backing it, this excellent concept work hits every sweet spot that a game should. One of my favorite critics, Jim Sterling once said that a game should be judged on "how often it made you happy, how much you laughed or became excited, and how you long you spend thinking about it after it was finished." I could think of no better standard to judge "Binary Domain" by.
Overall: A- (9.0, Excellent)