It's been close to six years since Joanna made her first appearance on the Nintendo 64 in 2000. For almost six years we've been teased with rumours, E3 tech demos, editorials and the like. And for almost six years, die-hard fans such as yours truly, have been glued to the Internet in anticipation for any new insight into Joanna's next-gen offering. Well, the wait's over. Perfect Dark Zero is here. It's in my Xbox 360 as we speak and it's got a lot to live up to.
It's no easy task to create a sequel, or in this case, prequel, to a game that has, since its release, been declared as one of the top 100 games of all time. Talk about pressure. And maybe that's why Rare decided to skip a generation with the series. The original was chock-full of gameplay features, including a multiplayer mode to die for, a solid story dwarfed only by the game's visuals and stellar musical score. For the most part, Perfect Dark Zero lives up to our lofty expectations, with a slew of new features, a sizable single-player campaign, one of the best co-op modes to date, and more weapons than you can count on your own two hands. It's by no means the killer app we were all hoping for, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a must-have launch title.
Perfect Dark Zero chronicles super spy extraordinaire Joanna Dark's first missions as an agent, and takes place well before her work with the Carrington Institute. Alongside Joanna is her father Jack Dark, who seems to get himself in more trouble than not, and the ever-so-helpful Chandra, who provides the team with field support and the occasional pep talk. The story proves to be one of the single-player campaign's biggest let downs: The cutscenes appear mish-mashed together without much thought and certainly without much closure, there's an assortment of plot holes to be found throughout and there's really no reason to watch the intro and outro sequences as they provide little in terms of fleshing out what isn't there. Adding salt to the wounds is the borderline cheesy voice acting by just about every cast member in the game, sans Joanna.
Though the narrative clearly took a dive during the game's development, gameplay remains faithful - almost too faithful - to the original. There are three difficulties to choose from - with an unlockable fourth - that vary quite a bit it terms of challenge and objectives. Agent mode keeps the objectives to a minimum and is really just for casual gamers looking to breeze through the campaign without much difficulty. Secret Agent provides a moderate challenge while adding in a few new objectives to the mix. Perfect Agent provides the most challenge, forcing players to memorize enemy positions as well as the layout of the level in order to have any chance of survival.
'It's almost as if the game can tell when you're on the verge of a mental breakdown...'
The missions can be pretty easily categorized, being either all-out combat, stealth, or in some cases, a mixture of both. The combat levels provide the most entertainment, usually spanning vast landscapes like level four's rooftops, while the stealth levels are, well, not very fun at all. Take the second level for instance: The objectives aren't very clear, enemies have no trouble spotting you behind what little cover there is, and once you're spotted it's pretty much game over. If you do get lost, depending on the difficulty level, the game does tend to show you the way via waypoints. I'll admit, when I first heard about the waypoint system I was a bit of a skeptic, but after playing the final version, I'm glad it was included. It's almost as if the game can tell when you're on the verge of a mental breakdown because you can't figure out where to go next, and to keep you from leaving, it shows you the way.
However, the irritating stealth missions could have been less of an annoyance if Rare had decided to implement a better save system. The game usually saves at the midway point of the level, forcing you to replay large portions of the game over and over again until you get it right. This is especially a tiresome affair on the latter levels, where your allies jump head first into rockets and machine gun fire, subsequently ending the mission.
The AI proves to be the single-player game's biggest deterrent. Both the enemy and ally AI behave exactly like they did in the N64 version - no squad tactics, no teamwork, and no strategy whatsoever. In other words, once an enemy has spotted you, they open fire and zigzag from side to side to avoid your attacks, and that's about it. The enemy movements are so sporadic and quick that it's actually quite hard to get a clean shot off.
Furthermore, you can literally abuse the Goldeneye tactic of rounding a corner, turning around, and waiting for the enemies to pour in for some easy kills. Similarly, you can run into a room, shut the door, and wait for the guards to rush right in to your line of fire. And as I mentioned before, the later levels in which you escort allies are mind-numbingly frustrating because the characters walk right in front of the line of fire and rarely, if ever, take cover.
Despite the weak AI, lackluster story, and poorly designed stealth levels, Perfect Dark Zero has plenty of shining moments. For example, the game has some of the best weapons ever to grace a FPS, and quite a few of them will be easily recognizable by fans of the original. Better yet, each weapon has a secondary, or sometimes tertiary mode, to keep the action from getting too stale. You'll even be able to carry weapons over to different levels ala Hitman, which is extremely helpful during some of the later missions.
In fact, to an extent, the weapons are what makes PD0 such an enjoyable experience, because let's face it, there isn't really anything new here that we haven't seen already. But that aside, the weapons have a sense of overwhelming power, that when combined with the large environments, oddly placed explosive barrels, and hordes of mindless thugs, create some pretty intense situations.