Binary Domain's narrative is dominated by conflict. There's the central battle between humans and robots in a future Tokyo; there's the fish-out-of-water unease of this group of western soldiers entering foreign territory; there's even ideological debate between the British and American members of this clandestine cabal sent to arrest a genius scientist making 'hollow children', self-aware robots that are convincingly human.
But the most significant culture clash is the one between East and West. Binary Domain might be a game developed in Japan, but with its cover-based shooting, linear story-driven campaign and online multiplayer modes, its production has clearly been shaped with an eye on the larger overseas market. It's a game where you'll pump hundreds of rounds into an enormous enemy mech, to polite encouragement from a French robot named Cain: another conflict, a moment of silliness to defuse the tension from a ferocious firefight.
And they are ferocious. We're often told that shooting humans is more psychologically satisfying than any other enemy, but Toshihiro Nagoshi and crew do their best to prove otherwise. The robots - and there's a pleasing variety here, from surprisingly hardy grunts to slow-moving heavy gunners and nimble snipers - are relentless, advancing with the red eyes and eerie calm of a Terminator. The faster ones will dart in and out of cover, peeking around to loose off a few rounds. As you hit them, their carapaces gradually crumble, revealing their glowing innards. It's satisfying to finish off such a satisfyingly reactive foe; more so than many of the human enemies I've sent ragdolling to their deaths in recent years.
Meanwhile, the guns have a real kick - literally. Protagonist Dan's assault rifle suffers from heavy recoil, forcing you to shoot in sharp bursts, though it's loud and meaty enough to be a reliable mainstay, which is handy as it's the only weapon you can upgrade. The sniper rifle is probably the pick of the support weapons, though the wonderfully noisy SMG is a personal favourite. An infinite-ammo pistol is something of a last resort, while the shotgun isn't worth bothering with, bar one stage where you face the equivalent of robot zombies in close quarters.
That rather unnerving sequence is one of many set-pieces that propel the narrative, particularly in the middle third where the thematic elements of the story give way to non-stop action in what amounts to a series of chases punctuated by the occasional combat bowl. It moves at a hell of a lick, particularly during a stretch where it seems you're battling a new boss every fifteen minutes, but it gives itself a little too much to do in the closing chapters, where some story strands are wrapped up too neatly and others end up over-simplified. The final chapter of this ten-hour campaign is heavy on exposition, with a real Scooby Doo moment as the antagonist describes his cunning masterplan.
It's a shame, because early cutscenes set the tone for a tale that has something to say about the nature of playing god and what it means to be human - not to mention dabbling in issues of race - but too often it pulls its punches. You sense that Nagoshi is holding back a little, tempering his traditional storytelling approach thanks to commercial considerations. Some will be pleased that his Yakuza excesses have been curbed, but you sense that Binary Domain is often most interesting in its longueurs; the action is reliably solid, and occasionally spectacular, but it's in its quieter moments where it differentiates itself.