Binary Domain Playtest: Looks Can Be Deceiving
On the surface, Binary Domain doesn’t look particularly unique. The main character, Dan Marshall, is an American soldier with futuristic armor, a deep voice, and some cheesy one-liners. His allies, a robot-exterminating unit called a "Rust Crew," are your standard collection of racial stereotypes. You have Big Bo, the black heavy gunner who says "a’ight" every other sentence, Charlie and Rachel, your cynical British professionals, the stoic Chinese sniper Faye, and Cain, the French robot with the neckerchief and machine pistol.
Binary Domain isn’t as much Michael Bay as it is late-80s/early-90s cyberpunk anime. However, you might not see that at first. The game opens on a dark and stormy night in 2080 as Dan and Bo try to sneak into the now-isolationist Japan. "Hollow Children," robots designed to look and act human (and unaware that they are not), have been discovered in America, a direct violation of the new Geneva Convention. These robots are incredibly advanced, capable of aging and practically indistinguishable from a human being. The UN decides that the only robotics company capable of creating these Hollow Children is Japan’s Amada Corporation, and the allied countries send in soldiers to capture the man they think is responsible. Of course, Japan’s police force catches wind of this and decides to send in armies of robots to stop them.
The opening of the game only really focuses on the soldiers and the legions of mass produced robots they have to destroy. Admittedly, the destruction is fun. Enemy robots are armored, their protective plating shattering off of them in a beautifully chaotic fashion as you fill them with bullets. At first, this is a long ordeal: Dan feels very weak and squishy in comparison to the hordes of robots he has to fight. Cover is vital. It takes some time to tear off a robot’s armor, and even longer to remove a limb or head.
That said, removing limbs and heads is where the gunplay gets strategic. For instance, certain robots will carry riot shields, exposing only their feet. Your job is to divorce one of those feet from the robot’s body, causing them to fall forward onto their shield and crawl towards you. A few more bullets or the butt of a gun will destroy them. If you take an arm off of a sniper, they’ll draw their sidearm and change their attack pattern. My personal favorite is to take an enemy’s head off (accompanied by a lovely "ding!") and watch them start firing on their teammates. It also helps thin an enemy crowd, because often the enemies you behead will be behind the enemies using cover and can take them out if you’re lucky.
Because you generally have to take two pieces off of an enemy to kill them, you’ll often have tons of handicapped enemies crawling after you or chasing you with pistols as you dart from cover to cover. This is where the upgrade system comes in handy! Each piece of armor you take off of an enemy rewards you with a few credits with bonuses for dismemberment, decapitation, and melee. These credits can be used at conveniently located weapon vending machines to upgrade Dan’s main weapon (an assault rifle) and the abilities of his current teammates. While you might not feel the impact of the upgrades immediately, you’ll notice that enemies’ heads will start popping off with a bullet or two instead of half of a clip by the end of the game.
The first chapter or two are devoted to teaching you how to effectively destroy your enemies and manage your teammates (all human members of the rust crew at this point), but the environments you’re locked into at first are some of the cleanest ruined cities I’ve ever seen. Then you start running into the people who live underground.
Underground Shibuya is a seedy mess of darkness, neon, and fetishes. Yakuza and hookers roam the streets, free of police or government intervention. This is the first moment that the game slows down and the Yakuza team’s roots shine through. You’re given a chance to talk with your teammates (and even the random passersby) without the fear of combat. The camera zooms in and becomes restrictive, but that makes things more intimate. There isn’t much to explore, but the game lets you take in the underground city and the atmosphere thereof. This break (and the accompanying cutscenes) are where the game starts going a little crazy.
While everything before this point is dark, sterile, and basic-combat-oriented, but Shibuya introduces the yakuza-movie-obsessed Mifune, who offers the Rust Crew a route into upper Japan where the Amada corporation is located. Naturally, this information costs the crew millions of dollars and the route involves high-tech jet skis. Japan’s police force, however, has other plans, and sends FULLY-ARMED FIGHTER JETS to stop our jet-ski-riding heroes.
As the planes start firing missiles and dropping mines to destroy Dan and friends, Rachel, the British shotgunner, shouts out, "This is just like a movie!" as if to clue the player in to the developers’ intent. As I dodged rockets and ran over an enemy robot with my jet ski, I thought to myself, "No, it really isn’t." Films often take themselves way too seriously for something like a battle between a jet and a few people on jet skis. No, no, no. If anything, this reminded me of the days where you could make grim and gritty animation about people riding motorcycles in space.
You see, in a lot of ways, Binary Domain reminds me of all the weird anime I watched in the 90s. Shortly after the jet ski segment, the Rust Crew finds itself in the middle of a sewage treatment plant fighting small robotic monkeys. Why are there robot monkeys in a sewage treatment plant? What purpose do they serve there? Why are they attacking when other service robots are content to just ignore Dan and his friends? These are the kinds of questions Binary Domain doesn’t care about. Robot monkeys are cool, being attacked by airplanes while on jet skis is cool. These sorts of things seem to be born of the same mentality that produced anime titles like Bubblegum Crisis and put Christian imagery into Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Perhaps the wildly oscillating quality of the voice acting added to that feeling. Because the game is set in Japan and involves people from many different countries, Sega had to figure out ways to distinguish Japanese characters from native English speakers while keeping the game in English. Unfortunately, they couldn’t seem to decide on how to do so. Some characters are simply left in Japanese (generally when it’s Japanese people talking to other Japanese people), some just have an American accent, and some have actors with American accents trying to speak in a really stereotypical Japanese accent. Coupled with some of Dan’s cheesier jokes and the game’s stranger moments, the game feels a bit like a dub out of the 90s.
While I’m amused by the cheesy brilliance of the game, it’s the fact that it’s all wrapped in an interesting story that cements its anime tone to me. I can’t discuss what makes it good without spoiling the game, but Chapter 5 in particular puts an interesting spin on the often-used Blade Runner story. If a machine is indistinguishable from a human, how should humanity deal with that? What if the machine can help humanity evolve? Sure, the characters might take a while to develop, but it’s an interesting story in an interesting world divided between utopia and ruin. It just so happens to be surrounded by crazy moments.
Since we’re on the topic of crazy moments, I can’t end this playtest without making some mention of Binary Domain’s bosses. While the connections to the anime of my youth are pretty blatant, I want to make it clear that this is indeed a game that knows that it is a game. Each boss does something different than the last one, both mechanically and visually, despite the fact that all of them have specific glowing weak spots to shoot. While I don’t want to spoil them too much, one of my favorites parts is when the game changes the usual run-around-and-take-cover boss format and modifies it into a rail shooter on a Tokyo highway—complete with missiles to shoot down—against a boss who seems to be constantly skating and flipping towards you.
It’s also probably the only game in which you’ll ever be able to fight a giant, multicolored chandelier/security system with robotic tentacles, so that’s got to be worth something.
Food for Thought:
1. Binary Domain supports voice recognition via whatever microphone you plug into your console to play multiplayer stuff with. While I thought giving orders and answering questions with the mic was more fun and a bit less fiddly than using a controller, the game seemed to have some challenge distinguishing "Cain" from "Faye." Considering that there’s a certain section of the game in which they’re locked into your party, that’s pretty annoying.
2. When you have the option to choose your team members, it’s impressive how well your choice of soldiers is integrated into the story. It never feels like you have the "wrong" characters for any particular scene.