Defiance could be a Borderlands MMO

What if you could take the shoot-and-loot action and colorful humans-and-aliens world of Borderlands, and mix it with the persistent progression of a multiplayer shooter like Halo and the high player count of an MMO?

Trion Worlds is attempting to provide an answer to that question in the form of Defiance, its upcoming massively multiplayer online shooter — which, by the way, is tied to a Syfy TV show of the same name premiering in April 2013, two weeks after the game launches. So how does the studio plan to pull off this ambitious game?

"We've kind of pulled in talent from a lot of different game companies," Jamie Wolfcale of Trion told me at a press event this week. Defiance will be the first title from Trion's San Diego studio, which has developers who have worked on games like Borderlands, EverQuest and Trion's own Rift. The Syfy series will serve as the chief storytelling aspect of the franchise, but that doesn't mean the MMO is devoid of narrative elements.

That's actually where the game and the TV show cross over in the most direct way. Wolfcale played an early cutscene featuring the series' two protagonists, Jeb Nolan and Irisa, in which they interacted directly with the player before driving off. (The game features the actors' likenesses and voices.) The MMO is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, while the series takes place in St. Louis; the show's characters begin on the West Coast in the game, and end up in Missouri in time for the series premiere. The idea, according to Wolfcale, is to give players two weeks to become immersed in the fiction of Defiance, to build a connection with its re-terraformed version of Earth and the seven races of aliens who now populate it along with humans.

Wolfcale teased plans to reward those with a deep investment in the game and TV show. He offered the example of a top player being name-dropped on the TV show, something a die-hard fan would really love. "They're supposed to enrich each other," he said.

a top Defiance player might be name-dropped on the TV show

Defiance's non-cutscene components offer a wide variety of experiences. You can traverse the game world on foot or in a vehicle such as an ATV, which can be spawned just by pressing the up button. These sequences may be interrupted by dynamic events called Arkfalls, a self-explanatory name in the Defiance universe: alien vessels called Arks orbit Earth, and pieces of them occasionally fall to the planet's surface. An Ark's crash site serves as a beacon to attract all the players in the vicinity, who gather to fight massive creatures spawned when the alien fragments slam into the ground.

While roaming the Bay Area hills, you may also come across teams of players engaged in fierce battle with each other. That's what Trion is calling Shadow War, Defiance's open-world competitive multiplayer experience. Shadow War games have players capturing and defending points spread out across the game, and if you see a match taking place, you can join in on the action with a few presses on the D-pad. Trion wants to keep players out of menus and lobbies, Wolfcale told me.

More traditional, "instanced" player-versus-player modes are also available, if you just want to play something like team deathmatch with up to 32 players in a match. Even those game types eschew lobbies; you'll queue up with the D-pad menus, and then get pulled into a game when enough players have joined. Trion plans to "flatten the power levels for PvP" modes, according to Wolfcale, just to even the playing field somewhat and allow new players to compete with those who have spent hours unlocking weapons and abilities. The studio wants to ensure that success is tied to skill, said Wolfcale.

Unlike games with disparate campaign and multiplayer setups, any gear you pick up in Defiance — weapons, abilities, outfits — can be carried into all modes. So whatever mode of play you choose, you'll be earning upgrades that apply to your entire experience.

None of this would matter if Defiance weren't fun to play. But the third-person shooting on offer feels good, with weapons that pack a punch and enemies who go down after what seems like a sufficient amount of damage. There's no cover mechanic here; Defiance is very much about staying on the move.

Trion is displaying an impressive, Insomniac Games-like level of creativity when it comes to weapon design. One alien-made gun allowed me to fire darts that caused large, bulbous pustules to form on my target — boils that quickly covered my enemy's body and exploded, killing him. You'll find weapons lying around everywhere after firefights, and you may even pick up guns that can't be used yet because they require you to be at a higher level. Special abilities such as buffs to damage and speed provide further character customization, in addition to the option to modify weapons.

Defiance seems to contain all the elements that MMO fans enjoy (an engrossing world, the allure of loot and compelling PvE and PvP situations), as well as serviceable combat mechanics to bring in third-person shooter players who might be turned off by the fantasy tropes so common in the massively multiplayer role-playing genre. Regardless of the business model Trion chooses — Wolfcale said the company hasn't figured it out yet — that wider appeal will ideally give Defiance more legs than the typical MMO.

The ties to the Syfy show are a bonus, and when I asked what would happen if the series were canceled, Wolfcale told me that it wouldn't seriously affect the game.

"Both products are designed to stand on [their] own two feet," he said.

Defiance is set for release on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in April 2013.

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