Bear with me for a little bit: I’m going to tell you about Defragmented, but in order to do so, I have to tell you about something else first.
Have you ever seen the film Unforgiven? There’s this famous scene at the end where Clint Eastwood walks into a bar. The viewer experiences a moment of chilling revelation where all those old Sergio Leone westerns are echoed, but at the same time, cast aside. It will be different this time: Clint is not young. He has grey in his hair and scars on his face. The viewer is caught between the hyper-realism of the drama they are watching and the distinctly meta nod to every other western that has ever been. You’ve seen this before, kid, it almost seems to whisper. You know what’s about to happen. Only one thing can happen when a man walks into a bar in a western movie. But this time, you can sense it’s going to be different.
Clint squares up to some pretty godless gunfighters, men who have committed terrible crimes he has come to avenge, all packing firearms and blades. It’s just Clint and his shotgun. Inevitably, one of the gunfighters goes for his weapon. Unlike in every other movie, Clint doesn’t get there first. The other guy is faster and his weapon isn’t as unwieldy as the shotgun. But Clint isn’t caught off guard. He is not fazed by anything. He calmly goes down to one knee so the bullet passes over his head and lets off a round which shatters the enemy gunfighter’s leg. A shootout ensues. Apart from the odd grimace, the odd twitch of the lip, Clint is emotionless throughout, turning, ducking, firing shells with mechanical efficiency, until finally, in what must be less than 30 seconds, he is the only one left standing in the bar. It’s a spine-tingling scene – because this hero whom we’ve seen display such passion and righteous anger throughout the film suddenly knows the only way he will walk out of that bar alive is by keeping his head. Even when the bullets are flying, men and women are screaming, the stink of blood on his coat and boots and hands filling his nostrils, he must not flinch or waver or falter.
Playing Defragmented is rather like experiencing that final hair-raising gunfight over and over again… except there’s a relentless synth track playing. Instead of an old-town bar, we’re in the far future city of Entropolis: a cyber-punk dystopia reminiscent of William Gibson’s visionary world in Neuromancer. Perhaps most important of all, it’s disturbingly unclear whether the guys you’re shooting are as awful as the godless criminals that Clint puts down with such awesome level-headedness. If one thing is certain in this game, it’s that like Clint, you have to keep your head. But boy, that’s the hard part.
Defragmented is a perfect title: the world of the game feels like it has been assembled from half a hundred sources. Humanity has scorched the sky, blotting out the sun, leading to crop-death and energy failure (The Matrix) but the most brilliant scientists have constructed a method of harnessing the smog which covers the earth into renewable energy. Thus, cities can be built underground that are infinitely powered (Caves of Steel) but claustrophobic. There is a blend of eastern and western cultures in this place (Virtual Light) but also new divisions between those who wish for humanity to reach the next step of evolution through cybernetic bonding (Deus Ex) and those who believe we are best to clone humanity’s most brilliant minds, culling the rest, so that Entropolis is entirely populated with the most enlightened and intellectual (The 6th Day). This science-fiction jigsaw is in no way a bad thing, because Defragmented still manages to get away with feeling like its own thing. Perhaps it is the finishing touches of a quasi-anime characters and that wild-western feeling which distinguish it from other cyber-punk titles.
Either way, what works is that the dialogue and narration (though at times, a little lacking in subtlety) constantly leave you on the edge of understanding what is going on in the city but never fully there. You start as an immigrant, unsure of your future or societal place; even deep into the story you are still unsure. “Nothing comes from worshiping the dead,” someone tells you in a moment of strange profundity and all you have done throughout the game is leave trails of corpses.
You are brought under the wing of the mysterious museum curator cum vigilante Mai Vermouth, and a sense of indebtedness to her leads you to carrying out her dirty hits. It seems pretty obvious that your targets, members of the thuggish Bitter Pills gang, are a threat to human evolution and puppets of a dictatorial government. Destroying them is right. Only, it never feels right. And the fact the game gives you no choice heightens that feeling of wrongness in an effective way. Like the main character of the story, your arm is being twisted into doing something you are not really sure of, completing your immersion in the story.
This narrative is told through text boxes which appear over two-dimensional character portraits and backdrops reminiscent of the original Metal Gear Solid’s codec calls. There is no voice acting, but none is required; the artfully written synth music is the glue that holds this relentless game together. It runs through the narration and all through the missions. It never stops. In fact, it is slightly maddening in a way that you imagine a city like Entropolis would be. When you start playing the actual missions the music changes, adding bass, drums, heavier synth, becoming a rave tune which beats the tiredness out of your body. This is perfect accompaniment to the explosive gunfighting in the missions.
The missions themselves are rendered three-dimensionally but the camera sits at a near bird’s eye view, making the corridors and hallways into a kind of labyrinth you must tactically navigate. You can change the facing of the camera with Z and X, giving you more optimum visibility. With the space bar you can peek in the direction your character is facing, allowing you to see if anything is waiting for you at the end of the corridor. Once you have mastered the camera, the controls are simple. WASD to move. Mouse to aim and left-click shoot. You have three weapon slots to cycle through weapons (1, 2 and 3 keys) and three abilities dependant on your class (4, 5 and 6 keys). Your class will largely determine your play-style through the game. Railrunner’s (another neat reference to Isaac Asimov’s universe) are the rogues of this sci-fi universe, focused on stealth, the element of surprise, and scoring those epic critical hits. Cyberzerkers are the tanks: meat and bloodshed. The Ascended are a cybernetic hybrid, and play with their own unique style.
The devs state the action is “super fast-paced” but that is actually an understatement. It’s lightning fast. Blink and you’re dead. Planning is essential. And what’s more, it’s impossible to play the game with any honour. Fight dirty. It’s the only way to get through. Over 80% of my kills involved shooting someone in the back of the head. The tutorial even tells you: shoot first or they will. Brutal. I love it.
At times, the game can be too fast and relentless. The music becomes like slow erosion on your soul. Each mission has a unique soundtrack (some of which were written by artists who worked on the zany electric tracks in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon). While at first the music pumps you up, there is no way to change these songs and if you are struggling to get through a mission you will hear the same track’s chord progression over and over again. At times I had to play the game muted just to give my senses time to recuperate. In addition, there are humungous difficulty spikes which mean you almost certainly will get stuck on one level or other. From taking out a few rooms of pistol-toting gang members you go to assaulting an entire complex full of laser-brained psychopaths. While it feels epic to be thrown against such odds (and refreshing to find a game so challenging early on) it means hours of head-bashing the same level trying to discover the best way to do it. One miscalculation and you have to start the entire level again. Sometimes, these miscalculations are not even your fault. Different weapons have different “accuracy” stats, a percentage chance of hitting, which means occasionally even if you aim on-target the blast won’t damage your opponent. Even a perfectly executed raid can go awry with the luck of the dice as laser zips past your opponent’s head. When they fire back they almost never miss.
There is an impressive amount of work in the range of guns and their functionality. Unlike most shooters, their stats are available for comparison (the RPG element of the game coming to the fore). Rate of fire, damage per shot, ammo capacity and reload time all are factors you must take into consideration. Though this makes for an involved and in-depth gaming experience, with genuine thought going into which weapon is best for which scenario, it also is a downfall of the game, because however high a weapon’s rate of fire, it is reliant on how fast you can click your mouse. The disjoint between RPG and shooter makes some of the gunfights slightly awkward in this respect. I often go for single high-damage weapons (especially as a Railrunner, because they have higher critical-hit chances). This means that I often line up a perfect shot and fire only for the weapon to miss. I am surprised it has missed because I had lined the shot up perfectly and forgot there is an RPG mechanic to the game. I then forget to click the fire button a second time for long enough to die in a hail of laser beams. You might perhaps think this is simply my ineptitude, but it feels like the game devs should not have extended the RPG element of the game to include a gun’s accuracy because it detracts from the intensity of the game as a shooter and inhibits the player’s progress artificially. Players with much steadier mouse-hands than me will not be able to get through certain segments because no matter how precisely they angle the dot-sight of their gun, it won’t matter. This makes the game less about skill and more about grinding to level up your character and purchase new weapons.
Yes you heard correctly, you can level up your character. In fact, there is even a limited character customisation at the start of the game (male/female and skin colour). Each class has two talent trees much in the same vein as an online MMO but with a unique enough slant to keep you guessing what will be available next. Though this is a fun dimension to the game, it is a shame it feels like it is at the cost of the raw shoot-out dynamic which, at least to me, is where the heart of the game should be at.
Overall, Defragmented is a fun and engrossing game (hours will fly by as though you’re in a cryo-sleep). It has a mostly wicked score, a cool world and explosive action sequences which make you feel like you’re inside of a movie on a bad trip. It’s not the best shooter ever made or the best RPG ever made, but the hybrid set in the cyber-punk universe is intense and captivating. At times I wished for the game to give me more emotional involvement (this game could have benefitted from taking on board a Metal Gear Solid-style storyline), elevating the stakes of the gunfights further. Even without this narrative involvement, I still found myself on the edge of my seat and that’s the mark of great game-making.