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Defragmented / 20th of February 2016

Some games like to utilise the format or mechanics of other games in order to make their gameplay better, many games these days actually do this. From taking entire new genres to innovative gameplay or storytelling mechanics, the aspects that have been borrowed from other games can make a new, original IP superb if done correctly. Sadly, Defragmented - and its developer, Glass Knuckle Games - do not accomplish these things and rather left me wanting in a variety of ways, so let’s analyse what I didn’t enjoy about my time with this new indie release…

Defragmented is a top down, cyberpunk, shooter with RPG mechanics, and yes that is a lot crammed into one game. The story itself is quite similar to Deus Ex with you joining a rebel group that wants to make cyber augmentation the future of humanity while a shadowy organisation aims to clone the rest of the human elite into making a type of master race. The concepts of this game are certainly interesting and help to bring social commentary on topics such as how we humans treat the planet, the benefits of cybernetic-augmentation and it even asks “are those that you are fighting alongside actually good people?”. The problem I find with the story however is the way it is presented to us. The best way I can think to describe how the story is told is to relate it to dating simulators with a static text background and one or two cartoon characters appearing every so often to give exposition dumps in-between missions. I can understand the fact that not everyone can have stylish cut scenes or voice acting, but the sheer amount of names and locations that were being thrown at me (including every action my character made, which gave me no feeling of control over my character) turned me off of the story and instead just became another reason to go to another set of rooms to shoot people.

The presentation is very much in the style of cyberpunk, with a mix of dystopian and modern looking areas, an aesthetic choice that is also clearly found within the backdrops to the text-based scenes that separate missions. Unfortunately, within the gameplay itself the areas tend to look just a bit like bland, blocky areas that only contain a set of switches and doors. Though I do appreciate the attention to detail that the developer made when it came to the objects in each area’s milieu – these help superbly to tell us where we actually are at any given time, such as showers in bathrooms or tables in kitchens etc - I couldn’t help but feel that this would have been a great opportunity to have datapads or something similar hidden within the areas for you to explore. Such objects would have been able contain some of the exposition in regards to the world around you, rather than the game just straight up telling you about it between missions. It would have helped to make the world seem more interesting as you learnt more about it and would have made me actively want to search around the levels a lot more. It is an opportunity missed, in my opinion.

The soundtrack too is also a bit disappointing as, while it definitely fits the theme of cyberpunk with its mix of techno and other electronic styles, I swear it sounded far too similar, to the extent that you wouldn’t be wrong to think it sounded almost as if the music looped. Compositions that changed depending on the theme of the area you went to, or if the developer had at least added some sound effects to go along with the background noise, might have helped immensely in this area, but unfortunately, even this is nothing compared to Fragmented’s biggest weaknesses.

The gameplay itself is a very odd mix of styles, taking the lightning fast and brutal difficulty of Hotline Miami, and mixing it with the loot grabbing and weapon rarity features of Gearbox’s Borderlands series, it makes the action seem fast and inhumanly unforgiving at times. The RPG mechanics (which I swear seem almost lifted straight from Borderlands) give you a choice of three classes and several skill trees to add hard earned points to, these, after a certain amount of investment has been made into the available skills, see the next set of abilities unlocked. I chose the ‘Ascended’ class as it sounded the coolest and started with energy weapons, what’s not to love? The problem I found, however, is that a lot of my abilities were pretty much useless and instead I had to focus almost exclusively on the shooting aspects.

Perhaps it was just the type of class I picked, but many of the abilities were of no help whatsoever. One of them sounded useful; it was a shield which blocked bullets from enemies out in front, but what the game didn’t tell me is that the shield actually blocked bullets that were fired from around a twenty-degree angle from both sides, meaning that if you were being shot directly from the front, the shield was actually useless. Maybe the skills developed more as I played through the story, but from the start, it never really engaged me. The actual shooting mechanics too are almost unfair, with enemies having sightlines that, as soon as they spot or hear you, seemingly known exactly where you are at all times, and when it takes just take a few bullets to kill you, you’re often dead before you even get a chance to react. I can’t count however many times I have faced an enemy on the other side of a door who, as soon as I opened it, would spin 180-degrees around and immediately open fire, seeing my character left for dead within a few seconds. Unfair doesn’t even begin to describe it. I feel this game would have hugely benefitted from either a fleshed out stealth or cover system that allowed you to hide, shoot around corners or such like, but as it is, it’s just shoot first (and hope your bullets actually go where you aimed) or be killed. Luckily, you’ll be glad to know, you respawn quickly so at least it took that positive aspect from Hotline Miami.

So in the end, Fragmented is a bit of a disappointment. It definitely has huge potential and I think that if Glass Knuckle introduced a few more mechanics and revamped its way of telling the story, this release could actually be pretty great. Whether the team will take these criticisms into consideration is not known, but I implore them to take heart, for with just some tweaking, they will surely have a vastly superior product than the one they currently do now, so all is certainly not lost. There’s undoubtedly a great deal of heart and soul in this game, it’s just difficult to see it through its many quandaries.
Jack McKay
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