Binary Domain’s poor sales can be partly attributed to a shift in the games industry that mirrors the current Hollywood studio model. There, mid-budget releases are declining, as producers focus on tentpole blockbusters and teen comedies. Any that do slip the net are invariably afforded so little marketing support that they stand little chance of success. The same goes for games: all the money is in blockbuster console titles and social and mobile gaming, while the middle continues to feel the squeeze. Support for Binary Domain was almost non-existent, and so it limped into the charts before apologetically retreating from view.
Many dismissed the game as a me-too cover shooter from a Japanese studio desperate to appeal to a western audience. There is some truth in that, but timing was a factor too: this is a crowded genre at the best of times, and Binary Domain hit western shelves two weeks before the launch of Mass Effect 3. Nor should it be ignored how hard it is to make an accomplished thirdperson shooter. Many western studios have tried and failed: one need only look at Terminator: Salvation or Dead to Rights: Reckoning for evidence of that. Binary Domain’s systems were held up against the likes of Uncharted and Gears Of War, and found to come up wanting.
Protagonist Dan Marshall may not snap into or out of cover as efficiently as Nathan Drake or Marcus Fenix, but his enemy is much more interesting than Gears' meat-sponge Locust or the rent-a-goons Drake guns down with genocidal glee. Salvation may have struggled to make satisfying videogame Terminators, but Binary Domain's are fine substitutes, relentless, unyielding foes that will not stop, ever, until you are dead. They’re uncommonly reactive opponents, diving for cover when you pull out a sniper rifle and flanking when you’re dug in, and they come in several varieties that force you to adopt different approaches to survive.
They’re adaptable, too. Shoot any other enemy’s arm off, and that’s usually enough; here, there’s an eerie, unnerving calm to the way your foe sinks to one knee to pick up the weapon that fell when their limb did. Blast off their legs, and they’ll continue to drag themselves forward. Few players will complete the campaign without suffering a jolt of surprise as a prone robot, carelessly ignored, lurches forward to wrap its metallic fingers around Marshall’s leg.
What makes them such satisfying opponents is the feedback. Quite apart from blasting off a limb or a head – the latter of which is particularly useful as they're rendered unable to tell friend from foe, opening fire on their mechanoid allies – simply spraying rounds of fire into an enemy's torso scatters pieces of its protective carapace across the environment. Better still, you’re actively rewarded for doing so: the incentive for a headshot is a healthy helping of experience points, though you’ll get even more for demolishing them piece by piece. The weapons, while ostensibly an uninspiring selection, are a joy. SMG rounds buzz angrily like a swarm of metallic wasps, while the pump-action shotgun proves a delightfully uncouth way to deal with the gymnastic ninja-bots in the closing act.
Yet the gunplay is but one side of this intriguing culture clash. Though the story takes its cues from western sci-fi like Blade Runner and I, Robot, it’s leavened with a dose of eastern flavour. The mission might have a single, propulsive objective, but Binary Domain’s narrative is more thoughtful than that of its peers. It’s not above taking time out for some character beats, whether it’s examining the grudging alliance of the two groups of soldiers, or the ideological issues of their quest. Its cutscenes unfold in the same unhurried manner you’d expect from the team behind the Yakuza games, although they’re a little leaner, ensuring the pace isn’t allowed to drop. Its characters might veer toward cliché, but they’re better conceived than most.
What, then, was the problem? Few could surely complain about the thrilling boss battles, which rival Vanquish's hulking foes in scale and execution. Its bloodless multiplayer – a contractual obligation if ever there was one – is an issue, though that doesn’t explain the criticisms of the campaign. True, its voice recognition is sketchy, but button-controlled squad commands afford you a degree of tactical responsibility.
Perhaps, then, it was a case of expectations being dashed, the game’s trust mechanic hinting at an eastern rival to Mass Effect rather than a broadly linear shooter with light role-playing elements. Yet though the trust system may not have wide-ranging narrative ramifications, consistently strong or weak decisions have a clear impact on team-mates. We’re familiar with the idea of choices shaping storylines, but it’s refreshing to witness a tangible change in AI dynamics – even if it’s a team-mate refusing to heal you because they think you’re a pervert.
That the command menu sometimes offers you a choice between a four-letter profanity or a declaration of love is Nagoshi at his most mischievous, and it’s this eye for the ridiculous that helps give Binary Domain a stronger sense of identity. If for the most part it seems like a calculated tilt at the western market, it’s determined to maintain the blend of the real and the outlandishly fantastical that is the Yakuza games’ stock in trade. Few western games would ever introduce a character like Cain, a camp French robot apparently programmed by the writers of ‘Allo ‘Allo, nor a set-piece where several soldiers hold off waves of attackers while one of their number attends to the call of nature.
For both good and bad reasons, it feels like a Dreamcast-era title: it’s a little rough-edged with a few underdeveloped ideas, but at the same time it has a personality that you sense is sometimes focus-tested out of its contemporaries. It’s an intriguing culture clash of east and west that demonstrates the best of each region while having picked up a few bad habits from both. Mid-tier? Sure, but it’s that unusual alchemy that makes games like Binary Domain worth cherishing while they’re still around for us to appreciate.