Saturday, 14 January 2012

Perfect Dark Zero

Dated Xbox 360 first person shooters. It's what gets me through the day.

Here's one for the two remaining Rare(ware) fans. Perfect Dark Zero, Xbox 360 launch title from late 2005. So classic, it would make the most classic car feel a little bit sad.

And humanity as a whole.

You have to admire an Xbox 360 game that doesn't run in HD. Granted, most titles don't run in what is considered "full HD", but to put yourself in a position where you're not taking advantage of one of the console's major selling point takes some balls.

So, Perfect Dark Zero - how far the mighty have fallen. Once set for release on the GameCube, PDZ found its way on to the Xbox 360 as a launch title. It was a simpler time - as a species we still weren't sure if we could make first person shooters for video game consoles, but nevertheless this was greeted with critical acclaim from the gaming press. I wonder if they'd say the same today.

PDZ stands as a prequel to Perfect Dark, a late Nintendo 64 oddball loved only by hardcore Nintendo fans. A "sequel" of sorts to the iconic Goldeneye 64, Perfect Dark was considered by some to be an icon of made-for-console FPS gaming. Of course, it pre-dates Halo, and therefore pre-dates console FPS standards, but many still feel it's one of the best Nintendo 64 games out there, despite its high price tag and reliance on the Nintendo 64's expansion pack.

I was a fan of Perfect Dark a few years ago, but only because I was told to be. Like so many titles of that era it sought out pleasure by being difficult, and I lacked the patience to deal with what the latter half of the game had to offer. Levels became too dull for my liking and you always felt you'd be let down at some point by the controls, so even though on a technical level it was superior to Goldeneye in many ways, the dingy, blurry corridors just didn't convey that same sense of magic to me as the low polygon Pierce Brosnan.

But in fairness, I was never likely to see the appeal of Perfect Dark, as by the time I got to have a go, it was very much past its sell-by date. I don't hate the game, but I don't consider it a timeless piece of Rareware engineering like Banjo-Kazooie, and I can't say my life would have worse had I skipped it. I admire the idea of pushing the Nintendo 64 to its limits, but I admire the idea of buying a Dreamcast instead a lot more.

Despite some glory on the Nintendo 64, when Perfect Dark Zero was released, it had no followers. Most of its fans were backing the GameCube, and Xbox lovers were waiting for sequels to Halo. As such, PDZ was seen as a "hold-over" game by many - a strong enough launch title to justify the 360's existence but nothing more. These days you'd be forgiven for forgetting it even exists.

As a prequel to the original, no longer is Joanna Dark a well-trained single woman fighting the menopause in a man's world - now she has wristbands and a permanently gormless look on her face. It's progress! It's a brighter, prettier and arguably more playable game than its predecessor, but it's unlikely to win any awards these days as it simply wasn't built to last.

Perfect Dark Zero has a squeaky Joanna Dark running around in the future trying to dismember bad guys and save the world. Like the original, it's a mixture of action, stealth and tedium, but it's presented in more up-to-date attire along the lines of a Serious Sam or TimeSplitters game. You're given objectives to complete, some of them optional, and it leads to a reasonably fun experience with quite a bit of mileage. It's just that it is difficult to deny that had it been released on the GameCube, it would have been a lot more comfortable.

Like the N64 game (and Goldeneye for that matter) there are three difficulty settings for each level in PDZ - "agent", "secret agent" and "perfect agent", representing easy, normal and hard, respectively. In my infinite wisdom, I originally made the mistake of picking the middle option, thinking that with experience in the original and many other FPS games, a middle-of-the-road policy would provide me with the right balance.

Four levels in and I wanted to quit. Switching the setting to the easy removes the concept of challenge altogether. Oh dear.

Much is wrong with Perfect Dark Zero, but it is this option alone which takes the cake. Play on easy, and you will likely walk away happy - you'll find the game a bit primitive and you won't die very often, but you're unlikely to regret your purchase. Play on normal, and you'll be tearing your hair out, fighting the controls and physics and you'll develop a loathing for human beings. It's better not to class it as a difficulty switch, but rather as a "good game" switch - on the wrong setting Perfect Dark Zero will emerge as a horrible experience, on the right one you'll have a good time. One's opinion can change dramatically thanks to this switch, so... watch out... I guess.

Perfect Dark Zero's gameplay stems from both its N64 predecessor and the "two gun, regenerating health" world of Halo and chums. It has a system in which your maximum health decreases under heavy fire, but one where you can also recover by avoiding further damage. This, to me, seems like the better system to use in FPS games than regeneration-only, as it stands as the best of both worlds. Just a shame that nobody agrees.

What makes normal mode a pain is that the chances of receiving permanent damage are far greater than on easy. As an agent, you'll be taking on armies of AI drones without much trouble, but as a secret (or heaven forbid, perfect) agent, two sniper bullets to the face will have you killed instantly. The difficulty curve is consistently shallow, you're essentially picking between hilariously easy or borderline impossible - it truly is a major flaw and needs to be raised many times.

But lo, there many other flaws to keep it company. Like for example, the story, which is a complete mess and frequently gets in your way. Most of the cast of characters are disposable and annoying, with their voice actors were being too close to their microphones while recording their lines. It's not too great on the ears, even less so when you consider much of their dialogue passes through old, low frequency analogue radios. The music may be fine, but unfortunately in between finishing the game and writing this review I've forgotten what it sounds like, leaving me only to say that it wasn't memorable.

Initially you are joined in your adventures by irritating father "Jack Dark", a man who spends his portion of the game dishing out useless advice and getting shot and/or captured. On the radio is Chandra, the worst character to ever be voiced in a video game, who can't comprehend events on the ground and is in a constant state of panic. They both die. I was pleased.

But later you start working for Mr. Carrington and some dunce called Jonathan, so you're never quite free from a father figure. You eventually find yourself fighting super-powered Chinese businessmen and even squeakier women, and at this point Joanna's learns the ability to blurt out lines of embarrassing dialogue to keep the family tradition alive. It's as if two competing stories for the game were merged together half way through the development cycle, with the initial few missions having no bearing on the latter few. It's all completely redundant and needless to say, the original was much better in this regard.

Perfect Dark Zero acts as the logical upgrade to that original, but aside from borrowing a few features from Halo, Rare seem to have neglected many of the improvements made in the genre between Goldeneye (1996) and the then-present day (2005). For example, you can't jump, and by default the Y axis of the right analogue stick is reversed. Shooting an enemy in the leg has the same effect as shooting them in the chest, and there's no such thing as auto-aim (and yes, that includes the slightly-automatic aiming seen in Halo).

The heads up display is neither pretty nor helpful. The indicator telling you which direction the pain is coming from doesn't work too well, even though Goldeneye pioneered this concept, and the radar is a waste of screen real estate. Like stupid FPS games, you don't automatically switch guns once you run out of ammo either, so it's as if the developers weren't quite sure how to make a first person shooter, even though this was their third attempt... and they had five years to make it.

Perhaps more importantly, enemies refuse to die. In many games, it takes no more than one shot to the chest to put someone to the floor, but here, several pistol shots at point-blank range are needed to take down a man in a shirt and tie. We can accept that miss Dark wears very little on occasion and isn't killed instantly either, but bullet proof skin clearly comes with the trade. One of the primary roles of an enemy goon is to be executed, but the game doesn't seem to like that concept. Perhaps, ironically, it's a misogynist and just likes to see Joanna's blood. Who knows.

The idea of tough enemies is nothing new, but this stems well beyond the realm of possibility. No matter what distance you fire from, you'll always need to shoot a man three-to-five times with a gun before he keels over. It accepts head shots as one-hit kills, but as this is reliant on an analogue stick for aiming, head shots are not a common thing. Also if they're wearing a helmet, head shots are an impossibility, and of course towards the end everyone suits up for battle, rendering this tactic futile.

Possibly also worth noting is that because it doesn't technically run in HD, it might be harder to actually see heads.

Unlike the original Perfect Dark where you would glide across the floor and take out enemies golden gun style, here you're forced to engage in firearms battles with every single person you encounter, and the harder the difficulty, the more enemies there will be. Often you can't use stealth tactics either - a simple misfire can lead to a dozen people letting off steam in your general direction, including those who can see through solid objects. It's very difficult to aim for heads while a fist is hitting yours, and there's no way to shake the AI either to the fists won't stop.

Eventually you stop having to rely on pistols and can bring out the big guns, but again, if you're not playing a perfect game, you stand very little chance of getting to this point unless you're running on easy mode. It's a far cry from the original, which built up the difficulty gradually over time and was generally much better at keeping things balanced. PDZ is reasonably balanced in other areas though - you get stealthy missions, you get "protect the idiot" missions and you visit a wide variety of locations, but weirdly the game seems less varied than its predecessor, and there's not much incentive to go back and beat the side quests either.

Also, even though it's a the main focus of the game, wielding a gun isn't exactly Joanna's specialist skill. The reload times are often horrendous (and frequent), and the clunkiness of the character can lead to many cheap deaths. Though I think the design of Joanna Dark has vastly improved over the original game, Rare do her no justice by making her slower, stupider and significantly more annoying than before, but we can at least be thankful that the laws of physics are kind to her.

Conversely, enemies sometimes stop listening to Newton and find themselves being propelled about the place after enduring painfully slow deaths. A glitch, but one that has neither been spotted nor patched after six years.

As you would expect from Rare, the level design and audio direction are top notch. There's a lot to explore, meaning it doesn't have to be a straight line to the end, and the scenery appears to have been lovingly crafted by talented artists and designers, rather than thrown together randomly like many games these days. There's some interesting settings and much to appeal to the average Xbox user, but it all goes to waste simply because the game can't live up to modern standards.

On the plus side, it brings forward a N64-style deathmatch mode, where in true Rare fashion there are a million different settings, several large maps and up to sixteen players running around at once. This stuff is great, bar the fact there's no music to accompany it (did they forget?), but it's little consolation when so many other games have similar multiplayer options too. I think it's likely people will look to Halo 3 for a more up-to-date multiplayer experience of this nature - Perfect Dark Zero is comparatively average than many these days.

In conclusion, Perfect Dark Zero is a bit hit-and-miss. It's a challenge (for the wrong reasons) if the difficulty is ramped up, but if you're used to modern shooter standards you could be disappointed here. Either way it's an extremely cheap game these days, and as a result many of its problems can likely be overlooked. Not one of Rare's best, but certainly passable.


  1. I played this game for a little from my friend's console. It was very nice experience. Graphics and weapons are really amazing.

  2. one of the biggest selling points for perfect dark zero is local coop multiplayer. your review didn't cover that at all.