I did warn you all that I would occasionally leave my RPG comfort zone for something a little more faster-paced and visceral. Sega’s Binary Domain is a near-future (2080! Mark your calendars!) third-person shooter that follows a “Rust Crew” – a SWAT-like task force from a multinational organization called IRTA that monitors and enforces a global law that prohibits human-like robots – as they traipse across a Tokyo that’s been largely devastated by the rising sea level caused by global warming. They’re on the hunt for Yoji Amada, a rogue Japanese robotics manufacturer that has evidently been creating “Hollow Children” – a group of robots that wear an ersatz human skin and are incognizant of their own mechanical origins, sort of like Rachael the Replicant from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
In fact, a considerable amount of influence in this game seems to come from the movies. Creator Toshihiro Nagoshi takes a leaf from fellow Japanese game developer Hideo Kojima’s (of Metal Gear fame) book in how he uses popular movies as his muse for much of the narrative beats and set-ups in his games. That’s not meant to be pejorative, however, as he does this as every bit as adroitly as Kojima, putting his own unique spins on rather goofy American action movie tropes. With Binary Domain, we have clear allusions to Blade Runner (the hidden people robots, previously utilized by Kojima for his seminal work Snatcher for MSX and PS1), the I, Robot movie (much of the regular robots’ almost Apple-like design), the Terminator series and AI: Artificial Intelligence. That isn’t to say Nagoshi didn’t draw from literary sources as well; there are also many references made to Isaac Asimov and his legendary laws of robotics, including the Frankenstein Complex – though many of the automatons you meet seem to disregard the “do no harm to humans” rule.
The strongest source of inspiration comes from Nagoshi’s earlier and perhaps more notable work with the Yakuza series. The Yakuza games are also guided somewhat by the movies that inspired them and a recent foray into third-person gunplay for the series (in its non-canon Dead Souls spin-off) seems to be a lead-in to this new IP from the developers. It’s rather telling that at one point in the game, you’ll fight some disturbing prototype Hollow Children that move and act just like the zombies from Dead Souls.
As for the game itself, there’s plenty of non-story elements with which to vouch for it as well. All of your enemies are mechanical, with a significant range of different appearances and functions – most are militaristic in nature, either as fodder grunts or massive machines of war, though some are repurposed from more mundane tasks, such as a scorpion-like crane lifter robot. An aspect the game frequently plays around with, especially with its bosses, are the immense size of some of the robots. An early foe is an enormous spider-like robot that was originally built to fight off warships on the massive seawall that Tokyo is now enclosed in. Though the game is rife with a few unfortunate “convenient rocket launcher” set-ups, these bosses are handled quite well, excepting a few that have too much health that drag their battles on a tad too long.
I should clarify what I said earlier about this being a visceral shooter, since there’s clearly not much in the way of gore. What I’m referring to instead is the amazing visual and aural feedback you get from pinging bullets off a robot’s outer core, as shrapnel will fly off on every successful hit. You can clearly see the damage you’re causing and the deteriorating state of your opponent with every bullet. Sounds grisly, but keep in mind that there is nothing to separate the robots you’re shooting with the tin cans you might practice on – these robots are revealed to be utterly without conscience or empathy, unlike a few others that might raise question marks, so there’s nothing holding back a squeamish player. What’s more, the game has a bit of fun with some of the unique characteristics of the robots – a head shot is no longer an instant kill, but rather a means to disable and confuse a robot into attacking its companions. After playing this game and marvelling at the range of cool enemy ideas on offer, I did wonder why more games don’t use robots for their innumerable antagonistic forces. Maybe the Star Wars prequels have turned everyone off?
Binary Domain’s other major distinctive feature is the team trust aspect, as well as being able to communicate them verbally with a microphone and rather temperamental voice-recognition software. The way you answer your comrades’ questions and display your prowess in battle will either raise or lower their trust in you, which in turn is dependent on how willing they are to accept your commands. They may not acquiesce with you asking them to put themselves in danger to cover you, but if you’ve taken the time to impress on them your ability to lead, they’ll follow you to Hell and back. Maintaining a high trust level with everyone is also instrumental in getting the best ending available. It’s a master stroke in rewarding players for displays of amazing skill and displaying empathy towards their myriad companions both, and yet another example of the game’s stellar feedback.
The game isn’t perfect though. The AI of your companions is rarely what you’d call hypercompetent, as they’ll often either ignore the enemies or get themselves into a critical state and will even walk in front of you while you’re firing – the resulting friendly fire knocking down their trust slightly. It’s aggravating, but more or less expected in these squad-based shooters. Your comrades are also a collective bunch of mildly offensive cultural stereotypes, which may speak more to the deliberately daft action movie veneer the game wears than anything else. You have a sarcastic Brit, boisterous Americans, a taciturn and serious Chinese sniper and a polite yet slightly condescending French operative. They’re fun characters to spend time with, but they’re not going to be winning any awards for cultural sensitivity any time soon.
Overall, I found Binary Domain to be an utter delight. I’ve played enough third-person cover-based shooters to become thoroughly enervated with the format several times over, but Binary Domain offers enough to set itself apart. It drags a little, sure, but like its contemporary Vanquish (by Platinum Games) it’s filled with so many minor triumphs that it is elevated above its Western-style asinine action movie conventions. Speaking of which, it’s entirely possible Sega’s making fun of Epic Games with this game. Given its quality, I think they’ve earned the right.