Eight years ago, Rare made a first-person shooter for the Nintendo 64 - Goldeneye - that was so good it single-handedly justified buying a Nintendo 64. They then tried to make a game that would justify keeping your N64 instead of hawking it for a Playstation. While the original Perfect Dark was a fine shooter, it lacked the golden touch, was never revived on the Gamecube and ultimately became a highly-decorated footnote in the annals of console shooting.
And now, it's back. With a brand new console comes brand new hopes, and Microsoft is praying Rare can spin code into gold one more time with Perfect Dark Zero. This most anticipated of launch titles doesn't quite live up to its hype, but if you own an Xbox 360, you would certainly be justified in buying this game. Delivering a playable single-player campaign, an even more playable cooperative game and imminently playable online content in pretty fancy packaging, this isn't the second coming of James Bond, but it is the second quality shooter starring Joanna Dark.
The story begins when a fat scientist's research gets zapped into your father's head. For the rest of the game, you have to save him from himself while fighting Chinese sadists and super-criminals. Indeed, the plot is as thematically disjointed as its heroine is double-jointed, bouncing to and fro from Hong Kong nightclubs to gunfights with laptop-wielding desperados. But for all its incongruity, it follows a formulaic pattern: bad guys steal a secret, you talk to the guy who made said secret, then foil a plot to destroy everything. Naturally, everybody you need to talk to is hanging out at this or that heavily guarded high-tech facility.
Navigating such labyrinthine buildings to interrogate secret-keepers and kill masterminds is the name of the game. From a gameplay perspective, this entails trying to sneak in, failing, and culling your way through endless firefights while scrambling from point A to point B. You'll hide behind doors and cover to cheaply pick off the swarms that ceaselessly flock your way, and then scamper along the glowing, arrowed path the game helpfully places on the floor.
While the formula is simple, its execution can be tricky because the mission objectives are frequently as opaque as the plot. It's like you're trapped in a cryptic maze, and every time you diverge from the main path an alarm sounds, drawing the locust-like enemies to your location. With twenty guys shooting at you, it's hard to remember what you are supposed to be doing or where to go. Instead of figuring out smart ways to pass rooms and sneak through levels, you're usually reduced to hanging out at doorways and blasting the enemies as they try to run through.
And the enemies, like lemmings, just can't wait to be the first one down. Sometimes they'll duck and find cover if you're shooting at them, but if you sit quietly for thirty seconds, they'll come a runnin' to your chokepoint like the dumb, virtual animals you know they are. Rare turns the tables on you by sending endless waves of them. At times, if you want to get from point A to B, you just have to bite the bullet and fight through a gauntlet of well-armed enemies.
This is not good design. The mission objectives are confusing enough in the first place, without mobs of enemies at every turn that may or may not ever stop coming. The only shred of sanity in all this chaos is the glowing blue path on the floor explicitly showing you the way to your next objective. It's the only thing in the single-player campaign that makes any sense. Following the blue arrow isn't just a good idea, it's the whole campaign.
But it can only take you so far. A surplus of alarms and dearth of information usually leads to a lot of trial-and-error play, like in Splinter Cell, except that Perfect Dark Zero lacks any Save option, replacing that with a single checkpoint in the middle of each level. Since death means going back to the beginning or midpoint, you won't be inclined to take tactical chances or experiment with novel approaches to sticky situations.
Which is a crime, because you have all sorts of tricks up your sleeve, or rather, inside your weapons. Every gun in the game can do more than just shoot. Some make you invisible, others show the locations of every enemy on your radar, and one even generates a hologram you can use to lure enemies out of hiding places. Instead of limiting you to a set number of firearms, each gun takes up a certain number of inventory slots, of which you have four. Picking up and dropping new weapons is handled just like in Halo, and dual-wielding is also possible, although you can only dual-wield weapons of the same type.
While the subtleties are sort of lost on the underwhelming single-player game, online play really shows off the great control. The basics have you running around and aiming with the L and R sticks, standing or crouching with L3, shooting with one trigger, zooming in with the other and combat rolling with the Left Bumper. Aside from running and gunning, you can take cover behind crates or around corners with the 'A' button. This allows you to look down corridors or over obstacles without being seen. From here, popping out and smoking approaching baddies is as simple as aiming and pulling the trigger. This would seem to give all the advantage to snipers and those defending choke points, but several of the weapons' neat little features can undermine cover campers.
The hologram is probably the best. With this, you can edge a holographic image of yourself around a corner like a noob trying to line up a good sniper shot. Meanwhile your friend, who is in cover against the same wall you're hiding behind, will watch for enemies enticed by the illusion to poke their heads out before promptly relieving them of their domes. You can also shoot around corners with certain guns, toss flashbangs, throw ricocheting razor blades, plant mines, or turn invisible for some pretty deep tactical possibilities, in spite of the otherwise simple play mechanics. In the neatest twist of all, you can go unarmed and swipe other players' weapons if you have room in your inventory for their gun. Going unarmed has some obvious drawbacks, but creeping up on a foe before stealing their gun and turning it on them is seriously stylish.
Of course, such maneuvers are most fun online because humans feel shame and NPCs don't. Online match types are split into two groups: Deathmatch and Dark Ops. Deathmatches can be played in Free For All, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Territorial Gains (capture victory points) varieties. If games are short on players, the spaces can be filled with bots; killed players respawn in a little waiting room where they can grab any gun they want before they're teleported onto the battlefield. There's never any down-time, but the games are a bit less exciting than Dark Ops matches.
Dark Ops matches take several rounds and have pacing similar to the seminal Counterstrike. Killing players, winning and generally doing positive things for your side nets you cash, which can be spent on guns, gadgets and armor in between rounds. The most typical game types are Team Deathmatch and a game in which each team takes turns trying to blow up the other's property, but the weirdest and most interesting are the Infection and Onslaught games.
In Infection mode, some players start as skeletons with only a wimpy hand gun, while the rest get whatever armaments they can afford. Any time a human player is killed by a zombie, they join the horde, while the living attempt to survive the horror for a predetermined amount of time. Onslaught is similar, having one side defend a small base with full weaponry, while the other side assaults them with pistols. The pistols side can respawn, the defending side cannot, and the match goes until the defenders are dead or time runs out. While neither of these play types is terribly original, they are again reinforced by all the cool gadgets that come with your guns. Mounting a sentry cannon to take out the pistol-wielding masses in Onslaught is a great strategy, while the hand gun horde, in turn, can creep around the stronghold's defenses and look for weak sections of wall to blow open with their handy detonator packs for new, unguarded entrance points.
You and a friend can also play through the entire single-player campaign cooperatively, online or off, and one to four players can engage in four way split-screen matches. The co-op mode works surprisingly well due to the fact that many of the single-player missions have Joanna and some other character attacking the same objective from different directions, and the second player simply takes over for the NPC in these instances. The campaign is also a lot more interesting when played with a friend because you have more room to strategize with two players.
Whether you're running from hordes of NPCs in the campaign or chasing down humans as the horde in Infection, Perfect Dark Zero flexes its next-gen visuals even while striking some really awkward poses. The framerate never stutters, the characters are well textured and shaded, and the environments are crisp looking. This is definitely a better looking game than anything you'll find on a current-gen system.
But those same environments are a little too futuristic for their own good. For example, if you're searching for a computer lab, the blue arrows will eventually lead you to a crazy black room full of neon lights and daring architectural angles. You'll swear you're at a rave, the game will swear you're in a computer lab, and you'll both be right. The creators went to so much trouble making everything flashy and hip, they forgot that some things need just the opposite treatment.
Instead of getting all progressive with their offices, the guys and gals at Rare should have put more work into the multiplayer character models. These avatars run like Zoolander (tons of horizontal head and hip movements) but lack his fashion sense, sporting only the dullest, monochrome uniforms. Joanna Dark, on the other hand, looks like a whorish game-show host with her sassy do, shiny lipstick, and eternally exposed midriff. Stylistically, this game is all over the place, even if it sports all the latest and most expensive visual tech.
The music is catchy and futuristic, though, and the sound effects are full of good explosions, shooting noises and retarded exclamations from your enemies like "She's got a gun!" and "She shot me!" - yet more proof of the game's terrible A.I.
Don't think that Perfect Dark Zero isn't a smart purchase, though. It may not shatter the mold of first-person fragging, but it's got tons of good content, providing enough lasting gameplay to get you through the inevitable post-launch drought. This assassin isn't perfect, but it still hits its mark.