Thursday, 1 April 2010

Review: Perfect Dark (XBLA)

I was pretty excited to find that Microsoft were releasing the original N64 version of Perfect Dark for XBLA. Having played Golden Eye relentlessly for the best part of a year back in 1999, the chance to finally have a playable version of its spiritual successor was too much to pass up, and an opportunity Rare should have taken advantage of a long time ago. Not least of all because the first Perfect Dark was a superior game to the 2005 sequel and 360 launch title - a game which felt barely like PD or Golden Eye at all - but also because it had so much potential, simply marred by an uncontrollable framerate held back by the constrains of the humble 64bit hardware it was running on.

You, know. I never actually played Perfect Dark when it first came out on the N64, instead sampling it’s flawed delights a few years later, after the Dreamcast had died and during a period in which I was hell bent on expanding my ‘retro’ collection, picking up titles I’d missed along the way. I first played PD around a friend’s house, and was left with distinct flavour of distaste in my mouth afterwards.

Although the game featured much larger level designs and more involving mission objectives, it was also almost completely unplayable for the most part. Slowdown seemed to occur within the slightest hint of more than two enemies appearing on screen, whilst at the same time, the developers though that it would be a great idea to include all kinds of nifty transparency and reflective effects, all to the determent of having a remotely smooth experience.

For the 2010 XBLA release, Perfect Dark has been given a full HD make over with a number of small graphical tweaks and upgrades. The game is rendered in 1080p and now runs at a solid 60fps, without incurring any slowdown or damaging framerate drops at all. It does this in all modes, including the rarely seen 4-player split-screen multiplayer mode lacking from most FPS’s of today.

Some of the game’s textures have seen a resolution upgrade, looking cleaner and clearer as a result, but not so much so as to take away from the slightly blurry look associated with N64 titles in general. The visual effects have also been given a small dose of polish, using more accurate shader effects for all the game’s reflective surfaces – real-time reflections and specualr highlights, rather than just the moving textures seen on the N64 game – whilst also adding in a few other subtle graphical touches. Like in the N64 original, lights can be shot out, gunfire and explosions illuminate areas dynamically, and lights can be shot out to create darkened areas.

What you have here is a fully authentic conversion of the original game, but with all the graphical improvements necessary to make it a completely playable experience – for the most part anyway. The framerate in particular, makes running around and gunning down baddies really good fun for the first time, whilst also bringing to your attention the sometimes dated game design, which has a real tendency to grate on you at various points through the game. This sometimes ruins all the hard work Rare have put into the title in creating a larger and more complex design, fearuring more thought provoking mission objectives, which require a greater degree of planning to overcome compared to those in their previous N64 FPS.

Perfect Dark’s gameplay is comfortably versed in the old-school nature of game design. There is a slightly open-end feel to the whole thing, leaving you free to roam around the levels making your own way to mission objectives, whilst at the same time, the game stubbornly refuses to tell you how they might be accomplished. You won’t find any hand-holding, instead often finding yourself meandering along various rooms and corridors either trying to find the item or person required to trigger the next objective, or just trying to actually find out how to complete said objective without mercilessly killing everyone who gets in your way – which leads to failure many a time I can assure you. Locked doors and dead ends are a plenty, which might leave anyone unfamiliar with the mechanics of decade old first-person-shooters rather lost and confused.

It’s not unusual for the game to require you to keep certain enemies alive in order to make progress through certain stages. However they are never pointed out to you, and in many cases you will probably kill one of the few people required to open a select door to progress, or who holds the item or information you might be after. Most of PD’s mission design is largely trial and error, requiring lots of repeat playthroughs in order to sometimes figure out what is going wrong, or how you should be approaching a certain situation. It is unforgiving and frustrating at the same time, but also slightly refreshing in the sense that it feels more realistic to be dropped inside a foreign complex without any sense of direction, having to track down you intended target based on pretty meagre intel.

Sometimes though, the game will fail your mission due to you accidentally blowing up an item needed to complete it, or because you failed to defend the right target from being assassinated, despite the fact that the target in question, nine times out of ten, is barely recognisable from all the other civilians.

It’s these things which frustrate, showing you how old and creaky the game’s tired and worn design has become. However when these sections are played through again, perhaps for the second or third times, it becomes a wholly more enjoyable experience. Like to a lesser extent with Golden Eye, once you know what to do, and how to do it, you can spend more time in having fun completing mission objectives than instead wondering around working out what they are and why you just failed them again for the third or forth time.

A lack of a directed nature hurts the game badly, but that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a lot of fun to be had from it. It just means that you are going to need a much greater amount of perseverance to get to that point. At the same time the varied mission structure – which changes the level significantly depending on what difficulty setting you choose – keeps things interesting, especially when an empty room on the ‘Agent’ setting becomes a secret laboratory on ‘Perfect Agent’, which you are then tasked with destroying.

The physics and overall gameplay mechanics whilst dated are still pretty cool to look at for the most part. When shooting enemies in the leg, they will limp around the level until you decide to pop them off; shooting someone in their arm will make them drop their weapon, sometimes putting their arms up and allowing you to give them a good smack around the head; shoulder hits will disable enemies, whilst a shot to the head yields an instant kill. They can also get staggered from being hit, clutching their wounds, or simply kneeling over and dying right in front of you.

In terms of Multiplayer options. Perfect Dark is loaded with modes for both Online and local action. Every mode that supports more than one player is also fully playable online, making the deal so much sweeter. In total there are 6 different game modes, 16 maps, and 43 weapons, with the option to include bots to make up additional players if there aren’t any around. This can be done for both online and local matches keeping things interesting and upping the intensity by having more players on the scene. Split-screen makes a triumphant comeback in XBLA PD, with up to four players battling it out on a single console and TV screen, all the while the framerate doesn’t drop from it’s original 60fps update.

Now if that sounded good, PD also goes further than most FPS’s today with its range of multiplayer options. Along you the campaign and a competitive modes, you also have a Counter-Op mode, which sees one person take control of the enemy characters as the other player attempts to complete the game. You also can play through the standard Campaign mode in two players co-operatively, which can make working out what to do in the missions easier, but also thinks harder at the same time, as if one of you makes a mistake it’s mission over for both of you.

Disappointingly online play comes with a hitch. In all game modes and matches I played online there was noticeable lag. Sometimes this wasn’t particularly bad, and in these cases it worked really well for the most part. However, I was unable to find a single match that didn’t have some form of lag attached to it, which is a bit of a let down considering that it’s by far the biggest draw with this updated version of perfect Dark.

For the most part, Perfect Dark is an antiquated shooter with some particularly clever level design, hindered by the trial and error nature of many of its objectives. Having said that, it is still a highly playable fast and frenetic shooter, tense and particularly involving, it just requires you to adjust and adapt to its decade old gameplay to properly enjoy what it has to offer. Still, this is the first time that the game has been in any kind of playable state – outside of emulation of course – and whilst it isn’t as solidly constructed a game as Golden Eye, particularly with regards to the single player campaign, it is a pretty competent shooter which excels greatly in the multiplayer stakes.

If you’ve been longing for some repeat action in the same vain as that N64 classic, Golden Eye, than look no further. But be warned. Parts of the game have aged badly, and the confusing nature of the level design and mission structure will seem off-putting at first, certainly to those with a rose tinted view on what these games were like. Despite this, Perfect Dark manages to be a better all round package than its 2005 sequel, with original mechanics which feel like they should do with the reworked dual analogue controls, and a still fantastic multiplayer mode. Whilst not perfect, it is perhaps one of the last flagship titles, along with Banjo Tooie, in which Rare still showcases some glimmer of greatness, before sliding down into mediocrity.

Overall, Perfect Dark is worth picking up for fans of the original N64 outing and their other FPS success story Golden Eye. However anyone without prior experience of those titles and their stubbornly old-style method of trial and error progression, should probably avoid as they are unlikely to enjoy what they find. Multiplayer aside, which for a great offline experience, is worth every one of those 800 Microsoft points.


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