Binary Domain PC [Review] – Robot rock

4 May 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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Binary Domain’s PC port is proving to be quite divisive. Glance at the Steam forums for the game and you’ll find ongoing wars between the people who want to throw Sega in a ditch because it’s the worst port ever and those who seem relatively satisfied. The main points of contention seem to be over the keyboard and mouse controls, lack of mouse control in menus, poor field of view, resolution issues and a distinct lack of options in the game itself.

That last one is a fair complaint. To get Binary Domain atuned to your PC you’ll need to use the external configuration tool that Steam offers you each time you launch the game. In it, you’ll find all the graphics tweaks and resolution options, as well as ways to redefine the keys (crucial, as the defaults seem to have been written for someone with very flexible hands), fiddle with mouse sensitivity and change the in-game prompts from a 360 gamepad to keyboard. Yes, it’s a bit annoying that these things aren’t accessible through the in-game options, but taking the two minutes necessary to get things set up to my liking didn’t feel too troublesome.

The functionality of the keyboard and mouse controls are a more subjective topic, and things become murkier due to different expectations and differing equipment. I didn’t have too much trouble with it. Aiming certainly wasn’t as precise as it is in, say, Counter-Strike or something, but it also didn’t prevent me getting the ‘50 headshots’ achievement with relative ease (and no, I didn’t have auto-aim turned up). Conversely, after trying out the demo, fellow IncGamers writer Tim McDonald expressed amazement that I’d been able to cope with the controls. It’s obvious from this exchange that people are having pretty varied experiences.

A patch for the game has added field of view options, pseudo mouse control in menus (it doesn’t use a pointer, so it’s kind of rubbish) and improved mouse sensitivity options. The game still won’t play nicely with my monitor’s maximum display resolution, so there are sizeable black lines above and below the play area. It’s a port with some problems, but by no means the worst I’ve ever encountered (that’d probably still be Rise of the Argonauts).

The above will, hopefully, help you assess whether opting for the PC version of this game is worth it. You do, of course, get 60 frames per second (assuming your machine is up to it) and some anti-aliasing options, which are benefits for any title.

As for whether the game is worth your time on any platform, the answer is yes.

Binary Domain is a third-person cover shooter which realises that a key to retaining player interest is by introducing enemies that are satisfying to destroy. To that end, you’ll be battling a steady stream of robots and massive bosses who all share a common flaw: they can have bits and pieces blown off them with a few rounds of ammunition. Take out a robot’s gun arm and you’ll see the torso swivel as it moves to pick up another weapon with its functioning appendage. Blow off a robot’s legs and it will haul itself towards you with its arms. Remove its head, and the confusion will lead it to attack its fellow machines (rather handy in a group situation).

Bosses work in much the same way and are interspersed between the waves of regular bots and set-piece moments like jet-skiing through some sewers (it’s a videogame, of course there are sewers). Though the method of defeating every boss essentially boils down to ‘shoot that glowing bit’, the scale and variety of these set-piece fights (from giant robo-spiders to mecha-jaguars) means they’re always engaging.

The justification for all of this robo-bashing is that Japan’s Amada corporation is accused of breaking the Geneva Convention on the creation and manufacture of human-looking robots. These ‘Hollow Children’ don’t even know they’re robots, and one of them has caused a bit of an international incident in the United States. You play as Dan Marshall (no, not the Ben There, Dan That developer), a member of the ‘Rust Crew’ organisation set up to enforce robot law.

It’s a plot (and narrative) which borrows bits from Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, I Robot and, to an extent, the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Those aren’t bad sources to be cribbing from at all, and while Binary Domain can’t exactly offer the depth of humanity-searching found in Blade Runner, it does more than enough to provide a pulpy sci-fi story grounded in serious ideas. Much like Total Recall (another Philip K Dick adaptation) the philosophical musings take a backseat to the action, set-pieces and explosions; but they’re still there, nagging the driver about needing some snacks. Binary Domain is knowingly frivolous, but anyone taking issue with that should probably remember that much of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? concerned itself with Deckard’s quasi-religious visions and attempts to climb the social ladder by owning a real pet.

Characterisation of the Rust Crew members is largely there to serve the plot. We don’t get to spend huge amounts of time with these people during the nine hour campaign, so they’re created with pretty broad strokes. As a result, we get the burly army buddy (Big Bo), the cynical, world-weary Brits (Charlie and Rachel) and the Love Interest™ (Faye). Faye’s plot-line actually develops into something fairly interesting, but unfortunately it demands that she and Dan are first forced into one of those awful videogame relationships of convenience. Later, the team is joined by an acrobatic and versatile French robot named Cain who, despite being an AI, steals the show with his personality.

The English voice acting is consistently strong and manages to ‘sell’ some of the weaker moments of dialogue. Elsewhere, chit-chat between the team is relatively snappy and both the in-game and cutscene interactions are aided by some terrific character models. Conversations have a refreshing fluidity to them and include some particularly amusing facial expressions and body language.

Binary Domain tosses out a couple of new features to help distinguish itself from the other third-person shooters, one of which is more successful than the other.

Throughout each level you’re generally accompanied by one or two companions of your own choosing (at certain points you have no choice, but when you do the game does a great job covering all bases in the relevant cut-scenes). You can give these team members orders during combat, either through keyboard voice commands or (in theory) through a mic. It’s possible that a headset is more suited to this than a stand-alone mic though, because the vocal commands really didn’t work for me.

The more successful feature is that of ‘trust’ between your team members. Give them poor commands in combat or fail to live up to their expectations and trust levels will fall. Keep confidence high (usually by replying positively whenever they ask if you’ll carry on being awesome) and the team will believe in you. In order to get the ‘best’ ending, trust needs to be almost maxed out for every team member. This can be tricky, as friendly fire lowers trust and the AI companions do seem to love scampering into your line of sight. If one of your team doesn’t trust you, they may stop following commands entirely.

I’d have preferred the trust levels to have more impact outside of those two extremes (perhaps linked to branching moments in the story besides the very end), but if nothing else the trust mechanic gives you more opportunities to interact with your team and bother Charlie by declaring your love for him whenever possible.

Multiplayer includes both ‘Invasion’ (a basic ‘Horde’ survival mode) and a ‘Vs’ mode. Each one seems pretty much dead on arrival on the PC, although you can at least play Invasion on your own if you wish. Given that the strength of the game lies with the destruction of robots in conjunction with an enjoyable narrative and interactions with specific campaign characters, multiplayer seems a little superfluous in any case.

Binary Domain’s PC version cannot claim to be the definitive way to play the game, as it has enough quirks and laziness to somewhat overshadow the graphical benefits. However, this is a title worth playing on any platform. It’s a fun, frivolous sci-fi narrative with just enough strength of writing to provide some memorable moments of dialogue; satisfying combat and set-pieces; and a competent grasp of pacing. After some bad experiences with the genre, Binary Domain has convinced me that there’s still some value in cover shooters. This may turn out to be one of the cult hits of 2012.

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8/10
An adequate port of some gratifying robocide.
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