I was always taught not to judge a game by its cover. That’s a good rule too, because Binary Domain‘s box art is terrible. Piggy-back rides, a dopey facial expression, and a tacky overall feeling don’t bode too well for the game inside of these dorky packaging. Oddly enough, Binary Domain defied the expectations that the box emanates and is a legitimately good game.
In the far flung future, robots have almost become another race. Besides toasting bread and keep our food cold, they’ve been mass produced to help rebuild the cities after global warming has caused massive flooding. I guess Al Gore was right.
However, some robots have been blending in well within the human crowd. Dubbed “hollow children,” these cyborgs are indistinguishable from regular humans from the outside as their metal parts only show beneath their skin. Confused and holding a gun, one of the hollow children holds up Berta (one of the leading robot manufacturers) exposing their true race while causing confusion on what company created these outlawed hollow children.
Signs point to Amada, the other big robotic technology leader, being behind the illegal production of hollow children. The IRTA acts on these suspicions and sends a few soldiers (read: you and your squad) to bring in Amada’s CEO for questioning.
What starts out a simple extraction missions evolves into a story with plenty of tension and ethical gray areas. Questions regarding the humanity of these robots and whether or not they should be accepted carry a fair bit of weight within this world and reminded me of the quarrels regarding the Geth in Mass Effect 2. Do they deserve to be left alone? Or should these man-made atrocities be terminated? I found myself internally bickering on what I thought was wrong or right based upon what I was given. Opinions from the game’s characters also change over time and differ from person to person, further selling that illusive moral gray area I find so satisfying. Morals regarding robots is a particular subject I find fascinating and Binary Domain surprisingly delivered a thoughtful story regarding such a touchy topic.
Almost immediately you are dosed with heavy amounts of cheese. The first two faces you get introduced to are major cornballs, which would include your character Dan and your initial squad mate lovingly referred to as Big Bo. These boneheads open up with dorky line after dorky line, but they do so in such a fantastic way that actually makes them endearing people.
I began just laughing at them but as the story progressed, I noticed that their initial cheesiness resulted in me having a genuine bond with them. These two guys have surprisingly well realized character arcs and grow to be more than the innuendo laced gags weaved within the game’s first act. It began as a joke, but they quickly became some of my favorite characters in recent memory.
Other squad members have noticeable progression although through different methods. Faye, the attractive female sniper, starts the game as a total bitch dead set on shutting everyone off in favor of just being a hard ass. The British soldiers, Rachel and Charlie, both are strictly business at first as well. After a few missions, they begin to open up by virtue of the situations they are thrown in and through their shockingly well delivered dialogue. Hell, there is even a French robot with an adorable accent and another squad mate who ditches a firefight to go relieve his bowels. I had a deep emotional bond with the rest of my crew and some of the heavy moments made me realize that. Few shooters have style, but this one has it is spades.
Oddly enough, if by some reason you don’t like these soldiers, you can make the feeling mutual. By performing well in battles and responding to their questions in a way that they’d agree with, you can either slowly gain or lose their trust. As a gameplay mechanic, if they trust you enough, they’ll follow orders and stay in line. It seemed innocent and fairly shallow until it bled into the narrative portion of the game.
The story can actually splinter depending on how high certain squad mates trust you. By picking your favorite team members, you inadvertently alter the events by gaining the trust of those specific people. Person A may do a certain action, leaving Person B to do another… if Person B is still alive or if Person B is even trustworthy. Depth like this wasn’t something I was expecting but became an aspect that I appreciated. It felt like the people I used most in the missions actually had an effect on the story. Speaking of effect, it was reminiscent of Mass Effect 2 in the way that the squad mechanics work.
The mentioned squad mechanics are actually pretty basic. They can engage the enemy, cover you, or advance when you give the command, but the difference is how you shout your orders. If your headset is hooked up, you can do you best impression of a battlefield general and direct you squad around how you see fit. I wouldn’t say it is even necessary (the basic ones can be done on with buttons), but it does free up some buttons and is a novel way of giving commands.
Such a feature isn’t exclusive to commanding your allies around these environments. Part of your moral meter builds when you talk to your squad mates. They’ll either ask you a question of make a plain comment and await your simple response. You can even compliment, insult, or swear at your team and they will have custom responses for each situation. The voice recognition tech isn’t that impressive or reliable (they’d “respond” almost every time I would exhale in some cases), but the sheer fact that I can actually tell Big Bo that he did a good job (which yielded a response) made this trite feature worth having.
Time is more often spent busting caps at many robots behind waist-high walls; something the game handles quite well. Cover is responsive and the Dan feels pretty nimble on his feet. Shooting feels great because of how the guns pop and how they affect the scrap heads they are aimed at. Robots disintegrate into many pieces when they are taken down, which looks superb and is oddly gratifying. A light upgrade system adds just an extra oomph to the shooting, lending some sense of progression. To be clear, it doesn’t really do much that hasn’t been seen, but most of it is solidly done.
Well, except for those boss fights. Every robotic titan is gigantic in size and designed to look menacing, but fighting them doesn’t match up to their visual prowess and set pieces they provide. Bosses soak up bullets, which isn’t always an issue, but some can have unfair, nigh unavoidable moves. Dodging serves infantry combat well, but it isn’t up to the level required for some of the attacks Dan faces. The framerate can also slow to a crawl in most of these moments, reinforcing the fact that they probably should not be in this game. I wouldn’t say they are terrible (mostly due to the fact that you can be revived), but they are easily a chink in the armor.
For a game set in setting practically asking to be boring, Binary Domain looks pretty sharp. The robot designs easily take the cake, as their simple, elegant design was refreshing along with the boss robots, all of which looked badass. Character models are serviceable, but their animation and facial expressions stand out as more impressive. Environments almost seemed doomed to being repetitive, but I never found myself bored with my surroundings. There are plenty of unique places to visit and I found most of them great looking.
I could actually see Binary Domain repelling some people after their first impression. If their cheap bravado and campy jokes don’t rub you the right way immediately, most would assume the next nine hours might just seem like a generic robot shoot-a-thon with an awkward battalion of misfits in a drab future. Initial impressions can be deceiving because Binary Domain caught me off guard and became much more than that. With an unexpectedly long and deep story with a tacky, yet delightful, squad infused with some enjoyable cover-based third person shooting, Binary Domain rose well above my admittedly low expectations. Unlike most foods I eat, I’m glad Binary Domain came with extra cheese (just like this stupid joke).
+Quirky, interesting story arc with a goofy but lovable cast of characters
+Solid, if standard, cover-based shooting
+Voice commands, although tacky, are novel and kind of funny
+Subtle decisions can affect the plot
-Voice recognition is spotty
-Framerate gets choppy when the screen fills with too much action
-Most boss fights, while impressive in scale and detail, are frustrating
Final Score: 8.5/10