April 13, 2024
Mankind is on the verge of extinction as the Legion rise in Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance. The Finger Guns review:

2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate movie wasn’t quite the fiery spark to reignite the Terminator franchise, to say the least. I never watched it myself, having given up on the modern movies post-Genisys. The lore behind Dark Fate, however, had an intriguing alternate take on the universe following Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Unlike Terminator 2 though, which reached near peak cinematic quality, the franchise has a less-than-perfect catalogue of video game entries. There are some decently good entries (Terminator 3: Redemption and Dawn of Fate come to mind), to middling ones, like Terminator: Resistance. Either way, a whole lot of Terminators, but strangely, never a great strategy title, in a post-apocalypse world ripe for some RTS action.

Travelling through time to rectify this grievous error comes Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance. Commanding the remaining forces of America’s military in intense and realistic real-time tactics gameplay, it has the chassis to match even the T-800 in its prime. Can the legend of humanity’s greatest threat translate into a threatening and demanding tactical showpiece? Let’s find out.

A Legion’s Fate

If you haven’t watched the 2019 movie, you may be forgiven for not knowing why Skynet is nowhere to be seen here. In this timeline’s version of events, the rise of the machines led to Legion setting the armies of cyborgs upon the world, not Skynet. Judgement Day never occurred, thanks to the efforts of our favourite thumbs-up melting hero (yes, I still cry at that scene, leave me alone).

Consequently, you take up the role of one of the surviving captains of the US military who survived the machines’ ascent to supremacy. The world isn’t destroyed – yet – but Legion are gaining ground ten years on, and humanity is fragmented into factions. The story for Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance is pleasantly adept at casting an interesting group, with contesting loyalties and intergroup politics.

The campaign sets up a continual, ongoing war against the forces of all things red-eyed with aplomb. Things are bleak, scavengers are rampant and rival groups both cooperate and betray with equal abandon. Characters are well-voiced, the stakes feel earned and Slitherine uses the Terminator backdrop with finesse to set up a variety of interesting mission compositions.

As a fan of the wider lore of Terminator, Dark Fate – Defiance delivers the kind of gritty, brutal reality a war against a relentless foe like Legion would present. Not least because the various heroes units you can add to your ranks in the campaign can swiftly meet their metallic mortal coil at any moment. No John Connor’s or Kyle Reese’s here, Defiance showcases the heroics of the off-screen resistance fans have yearned for.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

Come With Me If You Want To (Barely) Live

So, what do the developers get so right in the campaign department I hear you ask? That’d be the overworld mechanics you must navigate successfully, to have any chances against the homunculus troops. While the Legion forces are still in their Windows XP era of software, they’re upgrading… rapidly. Before you even consider taking them on, you need resources, soldiers and weapons.

Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance therefore has you managing supply counts, squad ammunition and health, vehicle maintenance and all manner of trade. Almost everything in your army is as fragile as a biker gang rocking the leather jackets Arnie desires, so constant replenishment is essential. Travelling to locations across the USA requires supplies, and things can go wrong, so very wrong.

The Terminator universe has always been set in the tone of faint hope within a siege of hopelessness. Your supplies are nearly always depleted. Often you’ll need to disband groups or rearm only your best squads, in a desperate compromise to move forward. Whatever you leave behind in a mission is gone for good. Whoever you lose along the way, including hero units, are also permanently defeated.

I had a very good time attempting to strategise my way to the end, clawing to the small victories wherever I could find them. For some, this pressure and constant feeling of stress will frustrate the experience, but it adds a significant layer of tension to your missions when you deploy. There are allied factions to appease, resources to plunder and a constant dread of falling short, but are you willing to be reckless to continue your mission? Your campaign may just depend on it.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

The Ex-Terminator

Once your boots are on the ground, you’ll be taking on a realistic military sim in many ways. Cover is king in Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance, and ignoring this rule will see you snuffed out of existence sooner than a time distortion. Buildings, for example, have layers of cover, grades of degradation and squads will manoeuvre within them to gain line of sight.

Every unit, vehicle and troop type needs ammunition, while tanks and helicopters require squads with the relevant driving proficiency. Between getting supply and fuel trucks around, lugging your stationary artillery with tractors and keeping your soldiers stocked, there’s a lot to think about. That’s before you even get to your relevant strategies for handling Legion forces.

Is it realistic and immersive? Without a doubt. Setting up an anti-tank unit in a derelict, decaying building and spectating as they shred Legion vehicle after vehicle is the perfect encapsulation of guerilla warfare in the Terminator universe. When the systems function effectively and you command your small army to victory, it feels like a real win. You’ve battled tooth and nail, and acquiring new squads, keeping troops alive and recovering say, a tank, for example, is oh-so satisfying.

Which makes it maddening when Dark Fate – Defiance conspires like a bad time loophole to ruin things. Wayfinding for units can be abysmal far too often, with them getting caught on walls, running in place or just charging out into the pulse rifle of an encroaching tank. It’s not uncommon for units to inexplicably miss targets they should be hitting without issue, and while the cover system is wonderfully realistic, it can lead to painful battles of attrition at its worst.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

Objectives Don’t Feel Pain… I Do

Once you’ve managed to get your head around unit management and the cover system, you can take on the missions themselves. Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance’s level structure is shockingly good. The tutorial missions have you rescuing survivors, taking out convoys and holding a base against overwhelming odds. As the story progresses, you’ll then visit new locations across the now fragmented USA.

A mission may start out with a basic “collect supplies” or “eliminate this” focus, only to throw in numerous variables. Opportunities may arise to work with other factions – with conditions, of course – or you may be unexpectedly ambushed and thrown to the mechanical wolves. Side objectives give you hints at alternative courses you can take, but be warned, you’ll not always have the time, or means, to do everything.

One mission in particular has you attempting to infiltrate and dismantle a hostile Cartel faction. Do you go all stealth until the very end, turn another faction against them or hack into their deactivated machines to make them hostile? You can do all of these, or none if you so choose. Which offers up a significant amount of both creative problem-solving to reach victory and replayability value to see how other branches can boost or hinder your success.

Some levels, however, do have problems. Said Cartel mission is fantastic, right up until the stealth infiltration leaves your two hero units stranded against 4+ vehicles on their own. Unexpected reinforcements you never could have prepared for can all too commonly ruin a perfectly executed plan, and the difficulty spikes are egregious in places.

An RTS like this shouldn’t typically rely on huge amounts of save-scumming to reduce 30-40 minutes of lost playtime, but Terminator: Dark Fate Defiance positively demands it far too often.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

I’ll Be Back… For Skirmishes

So far, I’ve centred mainly on the campaign and story, which raises the question, “what about skirmish and multiplayer?”. A good query, one worth addressing. Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance features both of these modes, though they’re as bare-bones as the early Terminator chassis’ coming hot off the production line.

At launch, there are only four skirmish maps available, with four 1 vs 1 and three 2 vs 2 options available in multiplayer. It’s… not a great deal, truth be told. Having the opportunity to play as the three different factions (Movement, Founders and Legion) is compelling, especially having the chance to command the machines to humanity’s extinction.

What’s here is solid enough, with capture points to take and gifting reinforcement points to call in new units as the match progresses. I found it just a bit underbaked and unfinished, sadly. Once artillery can be called upon, the maps are so small they can effectively signal the end of the game if used efficiently, and the AI has a tendency to turtle up instead of pressing its advantage.

In my yesteryears on games like Battle for Middle Earth 2, I probably spent upwards of 100 hours just in the skirmish mode alone. Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance’s multiplayer and skirmish offerings don’t offer that kind of potential depth as of right now, but there’s a very good foundation to develop this hunter-killer into a truly terrifying force of nature. Provided it’s nurtured well post-launch, that is. Cyborgs have feelings too, you know.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

The Clothes, The Boots, No Motorcycle Though

In spite of the design and gameplay quirks, Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance looks the part, smashing the feel of the Terminator universe. This game is dressed to impress, like an Infiltrator unit before it unleashes unholy armageddon on an unsuspecting resistance bunker. As I mentioned earlier, hopelessness permeates throughout every inch of this world, which feels spot on.

A small handful of the maps have that iconic, futuristic greyed out and destroyed look, capturing the sense of post-apocalyptic despair wonderfully. When rockets hit buildings, chunks will crumble and decay in real time, exposing your troops to the laser-infused elements. Even the designs of individual units, Legion machines and landmarks look superb, perfectly in keeping with the universe.

At its best, Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance’s graphics and look offer an unparalleled immersion into the desolate future we all wanted to see more of after watching the first two movies. Due to following the Dark Fate events, we’re also treated to desert environments and less decimated urban areas, allowing for a welcome change of colour palette and pace, too.

In terms of performance, the game ran as smoothly as the shiny dome of a T-1000, which was pleasing. No crashes and very few actual glitches were a welcome surprise. There is the odd objective that can be finicky to activate and the UI isn’t always as informative or helpful as it could be, while pathfinding issues can be immersion-breaking at points. Nothing like seeing your “hero of the resistance” mounting and unmounting a wall like Kyle Reese creating his son in the past.

Terminator: Dark Fate - Defiance review

Defying Judgement Day, And The Odds

Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance is being sold at a relatively budget cost of £33.50 and I feel that’s a perceptive decision. The campaign is fleshed out superbly, with interesting missions and hard-as-nails replayability. The presentation of the Terminator universe offers hope within the anguish and when you overcome the machines with minimal losses, there’s nothing quite like that feeling of victory.

Having said that, the other modes – skirmish and multiplayer – have barely been developed. Thrown out into the world like Skynet being given the keys to the nukes, it can only end in disappointment or disaster. The metal alloy frame is there, but it needs the fleshy overlay to really sell that this isn’t just a metal husk masquerading as a human.

If the developers can fine-tune some of the difficulty balancing while continuing to upgrade this cyborg menace, it’ll have plenty of legs to take it into the future. Or the past, whatever it’s into. Whether you should buy Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance depends on your taste towards Terminator. If you love all things John Connor related, it’s a no-brainer. If you want a bit more longevity for your RTS buck, it may be worth holding out your resistance cell until reinforcements from the future arrive.

Taking on the Dark Fate universe with ease, Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance offers a gritty, at times brutal, realistic RTS experience, with a standout campaign mode and wonderful immersion into the Terminator world. However, the skirmish and multiplayer modes are lacking the firepower to ignite a full resistance, coupled with some callous difficulty balancing. Even so, hope for humanity remains even in the darkest moments, and the future isn’t written yet, so let’s hope the developers can make their own fate by building on this excellent foundation. 

Terminator: Dark Fate – Defiance is available now on PC (review platform).

Developer: Slitherine Ltd.
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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