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Binary Domain

Squad shooting's tomorrow, played for laughs

Non-player characters are a limp-wristed bunch, aren't they? Oh, they'll talk a good talk in cut scenes and dialogue, but when it comes to the moment-to-moment of gameplay, they'll kowtow to your every foolish whim. Order them out into crossfire, and they'll jump to with nary a reproachful look. Instruct them to engage scary bearded freaks of nature in melee combat, and they'll rush out like it's the Charge of the Light Brigade.

And if you want to engage with a world, invest in the fiction, that's totally rubbish. Having the last say on everything is stupefying, not empowering. In order to feel like you're achieving something, dedicating yourself productively to a goal, you need resistance. You need the game to fight you, not lie back submissively and think of the motherland. You need a sense of give and take. You need friction. You need Binary Domain.

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Sega's latest is a squad shooter with backbone, a game whose supporting AI personalities aren't afraid to hit back. It's a touch contrived, knowingly ridiculous and one of 2012's most fascinating new IPs. Here's a quick example to start us off.

Meet my squad mates, Faye and Rachel. Faye's a Chinese ice-and-beauty queen, her delicate features accentuated by that classic, ever-so-delicate Oriental strand of loose hair. Rachel isn't quite as easy on the eyes, with her brow wrinkles and flaring nostrils, though her exquisite Queen's English is worth the odd shiver. And me? I'm an objectifying pig who spends every other moment training the camera on Faye's perfect arse, and the most disturbing thing about all this is that Faye and Rachel know it.

As we set off through the detail-heavy ruins of a Japanese city, eyes peeled for signs of robot infestation, Rachel asks me pointedly why I chose her and Faye to be in her squad. "It's obvious," rejoins our porcelain-skinned comrade. "He's a sleaze." Flustered, I try to diffuse the situation by confessing roguishly (via a left bumper pop-up) to my own Daily-Star-reader tendencies. Result: explosive outrage, and a pair of strobing downward arrows. My squad's already low opinion of me is now quantifiably lower. Oops.

And the consequences could be more severe than an employment tribunal. Faye is our sniper, her symmetrical cheekbones complimenting a surgical play style, but now that I've rubbed her the wrong way she might just forget all that and blind-fire from a corner instead, sullenly ignoring my frantic requests for covering fire. As for Rachel, her shotgun and rocket launcher make her a natural front-liner, but in the circumstances nobody could blame her for moping to the rear. I'm going to have to tread carefully. I need these people. I need their respect.

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Thanks to an inspired three-game deal with Platinum Games, Sega's recent action releases are like carnival mirrors, distorting familiar mechanics and devices to brilliant effect. Vanquish, for instance, took Gears of War's cover-to-cover gameplay and strapped on rocket skates, marrying Epic's calculating layouts to Bayonetta's frenzied flexibility.

Binary Domain does something similarly twisted to Mass Effect 2. You've got minions, two in play at once, those minions can be upgraded using stat-buffing nano components, and they have character arcs you'll (hopefully) excavate over time. But they won't sit back and let you make the first move. They'll judge you. Constantly. Send them repeatedly into crossfire, and they'll come to distrust you. Make inappropriate jokes and they'll roll their eyes at you. Ignore their suggestions in combat (offering to draw the enemy's fire with a hologram decoy, for instance) and they'll resent you.

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