Remembering Binary Domain

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Yakuza Team’s Binary Domain hasn’t made a lasting impression. The third-person shooter garnered favourable, but not glowing reviews upon its 2012 release (the PC version holds a 68 on Metacritic), but it seems to have been largely forgotten in the years since—a shame for something that, however imperfect, deserves far more attention than it’s received.

As rote as it seems at first glance, Binary Domain’s plot is its greatest strength. Its action takes place decades in the future, against the backdrop of a world where robotics technology has had to rapidly advance in order to rebuild nations ravaged by global warming. The setting seems to be made up of little more than boilerplate sci-fi conventions on its surface–there are gun-toting Terminator lookalikes, giant, anime-style mechs, and Blade Runner-inspired cyborgs called “Hollow Children”–but, as the story progresses, Binary Domain shows far more interest in exploring the implications of its plot elements than its pulpy exterior suggests.

Assuming control of a multinational squad—a “Rust Crew”—sent to investigate the breach of an international robotics building regulation, the player soon finds themselves taking part in events that will decide the future of human evolution. Binary Domain raises questions regarding how we define what constitutes life and what role humanity, given our failures to protect our home from the environmental devastation that backgrounds the game’s events, should play in the technologically-driven advancement of our species.

Without over-emphasizing its own intelligence, the story subtly highlights the dangers inherent to a society where massive corporate interests control the technology needed to maintain government, economic, and military interests. When the shit hits the fan, as it does toward the end of the game, its the poorest members of Tokyo society who suffer. Living on the margins of a technologically based city, their lives are based on the whims of the corporate entities who create and maintain the very foundation of their country. Binary Domain is a game about robots and international conspiracies, sure, but it never loses sight of how these topics actually impact everyday people.

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If all of this sounds overly ponderous, it’s important to note that Binary Domain’s campy tone keeps it from ever becoming too self-serious. The Rust Crew is made up of soldiers from Britain, the United States, France, and China and, seemingly unable to resist itself, the developers indulge in the most obvious cultural references they can imagine. The Americans are referred to as “Yanks” at every opportunity; the Brits are composed of well-spoken professionals who disdain the protagonist’s reckless behaviour; a French-developed robot wears a red bandana around its neck and peppers its speech with Francophone haughtiness. Then there are the moments of slapstick humour, the development of trademark one-liners for each squad member (“holler if you’re dead!”), and the high melodrama of a dying soldier asking for one last cigarette as plaintive strings play out his final moments. It’s an incredibly stupid, but very smart game and all the more charming for indulging both sides of itself so completely.

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The level design, too, is consistently imaginative. There’s a tremendous commitment to structuring combat encounters that make the most out of a shooting system that largely boils down to popping in and out of cover and blasting robots apart with assault rifles. One fight involves taking down enemies at the top of an escalator, attempting to keep their attack at bay while automatically moving upward. Another sees two squadmates shooting down flying robots from inside of a monorail train as they swarm in from both sides. There are very few dull moments, the game moving from one idea to another at a rapid pace. Though the tactics implied by a squad control menu never become important enough to care about, picking and choosing companion soldiers based on their different combat strengths can greatly alter the nature of a given battle. It’s a game without any superfluous moments, made by a studio that seems nearly overburdened with interesting concepts to implement in its work.

 

All of this is to say that it’s unfortunate that a game like Binary Domain–a highly novel, thoughtfully designed shooter–never found a larger audience. In a landscape of sequels and reboots, it’s rare to find a wholly original title released with so much confidence in itself. The imagination behind Binary Domain‘s narrative–and the high quality of its level and combat design–more than warrants a look and hopefully, with time, it’ll find the praise that escaped it when it was first released.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Paste, VICE, Playboy, and The Escapist. He is a co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.

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