Binary Domain is a third person cover shooter that has the gall to not insult my intelligence, but to respect it instead. In fact, it has the audacity to challenge my mind along with my thumbs in a the way that good science fiction does. It asks what is like human nature as represented by an individual, a society, and a species without condescending to the player by offering blatant and clear-cut choices but, instead, by weaving its questions into the very nature of the conflict that you are engaged in.
It is the year 2080. You play as Sergeant Dan Marshall, a member of the international Rust Crew hailing from the United States that has been sent into the flooded streets of Tokyo to bring in Yoji Amada, the founder and head of the Amada Corporation, for violating the “New Geneva Convention” on robotics. He created robots that can pass for human called Hollow Children, which are so convincing that they don’t even know that they are robots themselves. The opening sections of the game reveal all this information in well paced, well crafted scenes in between action sequences that concern getting past security and the floodwalls. It sounds like a standard opening to another generic third person action shooter, featuring enemies that are security robots instead of zombies or soldiers. And you’d be right, but thankfully Binary Domain moves forward with its premise.
The opening chapters are rather standard fare as they introduce you to a number of the game’s elements and get you caught up on the history that the game is built on. Eventually you and your AI controlled partner reach a lull in the action and see kids picking through the scraps of a battlefield that you recently fought on, and it is then that you understand that Binary Domain is going for something very different than what the typical shooter might be all about. Technically, while you do have the blessing of the international community and the “New Geneva Convention,” you are trespassing foreign military personnel on sovereign soil. Whereas other games of the genre would hand wave such a problem away, Binary Domain features an entire subplot devoted to the issue.
Eventually you meet up with the rest of your international squad, members from Great Britain, France, and China. And can I just mention what a relief it is to have your squad mates be actual people instead of ciphers spouting badass clichés. After sequences of high action, conversations begin between you and the members of your squad in which you are presented with dialogue options. This plays into a loyalty system in which the more that a member of your squad is loyal to you, the better that they perform and the more likely it becomes that they will help you in battle. But as a consequence, this system helps you learn who these people are and what they are about, so that when you are in battle alongside them, that connection in the face of adversity is heightened and strengthened alongside the more abstract elements of the loyalty system.
Most players’ experiences with standard third person action combat is with that which we have become accustomed to in a game design world that has developed in the wake of Gears of War. You take cover behind chest high walls and pop out to deal with enemies or enter melee combat with them when they get too close. Then you advance, rinse and repeat. The enemies here are robots, however, and therefore, there is a narrative explanation why they can take so much damage. Parts or limbs fly off when subjected to the damage produced by your guns, but they don’t stop until their core is destroyed. Headshots remove their ability to tell friend from foe and losing their legs make them slower in advancing on you. There is also a tremendous amount of variety in the enemies, from the various grunts and other attackers to the big show-stopping boss battles. They are an inhuman enemy put right in front of you — something you can easily understand and shoot that drives home the difference when comparing them to a Hollow Child.
During combat, part of the feedback that you get for having a high loyalty rating is verbal reinforcement from your allies. You feel more like a badass based on your allies’ encouragement than any grim and gritty milieu ever could deliver, but this too is not just there just for the sake of it. Marshall’s aggression and violence is a core part of who he is, as shown through flashbacks and his actions during play. In the end, the game forces these tendencies to be examined. Both the character and the player have to look at what he has been doing on principle and then take those observations to the logical next step.
That’s what Binary Domain is about. It is about the people affected by the circumstances around them, not only the members of your squad and the villain, but those of the underground resistance or of those with underworld connections or those of the police and the citizens just trying to live their lives. All of them have their own motivations, personalities and set of morals. It’s a game that asks, “who are you?” not through presenting moral choices, but by representing a vast scope of different people.
Binary Domain is a third person shooter with a brain, and it rewards you for having one too. There is so much subtle character development and world building, not just in the quiet moments of conversation, but in the very heat of battle as well. It takes what games consider standard and rote and integrates them with these more subtle moments in order to create a deeper, more multi-faceted work.