The Rust Crew is the least covert of all covert op squads.

Binary Domain hooked me on its concept from the trailer. I liked the idea of a near-future game that dealt directly with the consequences of the development of A.I. and the bizarre outcomes of human-robot conflict, merging, etc. Basically, it looked like a more militaristic, action-focused version of the same ideas as Deus Ex. Turned out that Binary Domain has more in common with Battlestar Galactica or Blade Runner than Deus Ex though. There a lot of interesting ideas about artificial intelligence and how humans cope with a post-A.I. world sprinkled throughout the bromantic, banter-heavy plot and the world-building is one of the game’s strongest features. But really, it’s got to work as a game too right? Binary Domain is a really solid 3rd-person shooter with some very sharp graphics, tight controls and game-flow, and a decent story. Usually you only get graphics and gameplay, but Binary Domain offers the complete package. I won’t say that the game introduces much in the way of new concepts. The closest it comes is a sort of Mass Effect-lite dialogue system and the sparsest of RPG elements to add a modicum of strategy to which characters you use and how you use them. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a game that seeks more to do the best possible version of a familiar genre than to reinvent it. Binary Domain is as accomplished a 3rd person shooter as you could want, but the real draw here is the well-developed world and story.

Sometime around 2080, Terminator-like robots start going crazy when they figure out that they are robots. Over the preceding 30 years, they’ve infiltrated some pretty high levels of military and government leading to a concentrated effort on tracking down their origin and putting a stop to the people responsible for their production. In the 2040’s, a New Geneva Convention was formulated to deal with world policy for robotics and A.I.’s. Making robots that look like humans violates Clause 21, giving the IRTA an excuse to infiltrate Japan and arrest Yoji Amada, the suspected inventor of these “Hollow Children” robots. The international team, called a Rust Crew, heads into the country and battles its way through hordes of robots to reach their target and the truth about the Hollow Chidren and Amada itself.

Dan Marshall sort of looks Japanese to me.

Binary Domain might best be described as a high concept action movie with all the usual tropes and cliches, though more heavily framed with Western sensibilities than Japanese. Because it’s longer than any movie, the cliched characters sometimes get to rise above themselves a bit. Though it’s all pretty familiar if you’ve ever played a videogame or seen an action movie, there’s still a certain charm to it, derived mostly from the confidence and swagger of the game’s script, world-building, and the Grade A voice acting.

You play as Dan Marshall, a seemingly typical action movie hunk. Dan doesn’t like robots and coins the term “scrap-heads” which he repeatedly uses throughout the game. Other characters say it too. It is as clunky as it sounds and doesn’t work at all. Still, Dan is a pretty likable character. He’s brash but charming, sort of a Han Solo type. You also have some degree of control over how he treats his squad, but the story is essentially linear and Dan is always Dan even if you make him treat Charlie better than Bo or vice versa.

Faye and Dan have that bickering, semi-hostile flirting thing down pat.

At its heart, Binary Domain is actually a bit of a love story. One of the squad is Faye Lee, a Chinese IRTA operative who fits the “cold ruthless sniper” stereotype to a tee. Dan takes a quick shine to Faye and there’s this great bit of dialogue, one of the best scenes in the game actually, when he and Bo first meet her, hinting at her resemblance to a Chinese (presumably) porn star. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be based on a real person or not. There are tons of nods to old movies (characters named Kurosawa and Mifune, references to Blade Runner) and shit in this game, so it’s possible. The love story doesn’t really take center stage until more than halfway through the game as Faye’s origin comes into question and some huge revelations about Hollow Children and what Amada is really up to come to light. When this all comes to a head, Faye and Dan’s burgeoning affair becomes an integrated symbol of the game’s theme.

Rather than being a simple anti-robots story (ala Terminator),Binary Domain manages to (sometimes accidentally, I think) be more complex. Dan really hates robots but is forced to evaluate that as he comes to rely on Cain (the French robot and surprise Rust Crew member… and the best character in the whole damn game). And when the truth comes out about Faye, a truth that’s less obvious than what you’re thinking right now, that takes a further step. Meanwhile, we learn about all kinds of abuses going on in the corridors of power which shade things in Japan as much less straightforward than they seem. Ultimately the relationship between man and machine is presented here as one of conflict, but there is some nuance that surprised me in terms of who is right and who is wrong and exactly what the nature of that conflict is. As you blast through robots, you know you’re destroying “just machines” but Hollow Children are something else entirely and the game never does the really obvious thing, which would be a twist that Dan is one, and so you’re left as an outsider trying to figure out the morality of slaughtering these beings who are not responsible nor aware of what they are, but who can be used any time by their creator(s) to wreak havoc in spite of themselves. This is like if a bunch of Boomers were unleashed into the world and it makes for pretty horrifying, ethically ambiguous subject matter. The game is sometimes cartoonish about it, but there’s just enough maturity to keep it all interesting.

Cain is the best, but he disappears from the game toward the end and it’s really irksome that they don’t confirm what really happens to him.

As you go through the game, you wind up working with a variety of people from all over the world. Dan and Bo are the resident Americans and they are brash, loud, and somewhat obnoxious. Then there’s the Brits, Charlie and Rachel, who represent the “uptight leader” and “hardass butch femwarrior” tropes while spooling out cliche British words and phrases. Then there’s Faye and Cain who fare a bit better, and the two Japanese squadmates: Shindo and Kurosawa. It’s nice that you get some Japanese guys on your side, showing that not everyone in Japan is blind to the issues of Amada’s technocracy (there’s a lot of poverty in the slums beneath the huge, uber-futuristic mega-city). Kurosawa is interesting because he’s a cop, around throughout the game in pursuit of Dan’s team. In the end, though, Amada’s bullshit forces Kurosawa to take the side of the Rust Crew but you don’t get him for long. Shindo isn’t around for much of the game either, but a highlight is the bickering between Shindo and Kurosawa, long-time adversaries, as Dan gets put in the middle while they all try to escape one of Amada’s traps. How Kurosawa reacts to Shindo’s exit from the game is a really nice touch and sort of redeems the low use of both characters.

It’s sort of stuff like this that makes Binary Domain transcend its cliches, cartoonishness, and the more cringe-inducing scenes and dialogue.

About time I talked more about the gameplay though, eh?

Sometimes you fight REALLY BIG ROBOTS!

Binary Domain plays a little like Gears of War with you usually needing to just spray bullets at enemies to make them die. All of the enemies are robots, and there are many different kinds. Every so often there’s a sequence where you’re firing from a vehicle or fighting a giant robot boss. My favorite is the building-sized Spider pictured above, but all of the bosses are breezy and fun. Breezy and fun is sort of the point of the combat in this game, especially if you focus primarily on upgrading Dan’s main gun. As you pull off strings of “kills”, your squad mates will love you more and congratulate you. Early on, the game is harder and you’ll end up getting chastized for being shot too much or for lagging behind.

Upgrading your team is a minor feature of the game. It seems like it was intended to be core, but there’s sort of an interface barrier as customizing the nanites that give attribute bonuses is clunkier than it should be. Guns are easier but since the squad A.I. doesn’t seem to work well, your best bet is upgrading Dan primarily and taking everything out yourself. It feels cooler too. There’s a variety of weapons, but most are just slightly dressed up versions of stuff you’re already familiar with. This is sort of a shortcoming in the game. There was definitely an opportunity to include some interesting weapon ideas, or at least designs, as this game takes place 80 years from now. It’s a bit of a nitpick, of course, as is the fact that you never get to pilot one of the cool American combat mechs you see later in the game. You do, however, get to temporarily remote control a walking artillery platform and it’s neat while it lasts.

One of the best action sequences in the game comes fairly early on and was featured in the demo.

Binary Domain‘s curtain doesn’t pull back until fairly close to the end. At that point, some interesting ideas about the development and consequences of true A.I. are explored. It comes a bit late and, were I the writers of this game, I’d have started seeding it into the game earlier. That said, it takes some doing to get a died in the wool futurist and tech enthusiast like me to sit up and pay attention. I thought that Amada’s breakthrough of using suffering and pain to drive the evolution of intelligence was very interesting, for example. Also interesting is how the “evil plan” that Dan et al are trying to stop is actually one of synthesis, one that has beneficial implications for humanity. There’s a bit of uncertainty about whether or not stopping this plan is the right thing, or even possible, though it’s clear that the individual responsible is definitely needing a good stopping. For good measure, there’s a trademark Japanese end-game villain shift which has a side-effect of introducing some humorously weird parodying of America(ns).

All in all, Binary Domain is the rare game that is very good at what it does and deserves to be played by those who bemoan the lack of solid shooters not called Call of Duty or Gears of War.

And seriously: bad-ass French robot with a neck scarf.