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.
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.
Joanna's repertoire of moves has also been upgraded to include both the roll and cover maneuvers. By hitting the A button, Joanna can put her back against the wall, or whatever object you're next to, and pop out to fire a few quick shots before returning to cover to reload. This tactic is by no means a gimmick; taking cover is often the difference between life and death and can give you just enough of an advantage to get through some of the more difficult areas. The roll move, with its seamless transition from third to first-person, isn't as vital to survival as taking cover, but still comes in handy near the end of the game where you can't simply run from point A to B without being pelted by a barrage of bullets.
The object of the most debate has been the game's visuals, which admitingly, aren't all that impressive, that is until you hook the 360 up to a nice HD display. The larger levels in particular are, at times, drop-dead gorgeous. The ability to shoot off a guard's body armour is super cool and the enemy animations are superb. But that's the problem; sometimes the game looks great, while at other times it looks very so-so. Your jaw might drop during one level, but during the next you could swear you were playing a regular Xbox game that was simply wearing a shiny set of clothes. PD0 sports a heavy amount of gloss, which is the case with quite a few of the first-generation titles (NHL 2k6 comes to mind), that seems strangely out of place in the outdoor environments. Moreover, some of the characters look surprisingly badly modeled and lack the kind of detail you'd expect from a next generation title. Still, explosions look superb, the motion blur as you aim is stunning, and weapon models are exquisite. Had the game looked consistently great it would have been amazing, but as it stands it's just a good looking game.
Perfect Dark Zero excels in the sound department. The up-beat techno and rock tunes are seriously nostalgia inducing and sound like something straight out of the original. And indeed, some of the tracks are variations of music from the original - most notably the menu screen score that pays homage to the Perfect Dark theme song. The weapon and explosion sound effects are equally as impressive with each gun having its own distinct sound that, with the right surround sound set up, can shake the entire house.
Now, what would a Perfect Dark game be without a robust multiplayer mode? And this is where PD0 excels the most. Players can play co-operatively both on and offline, play together in team killcount, or solo in regular killcount. Capture the flag - a multiplayer favourite - is available too, along with a plethora of game modes designed specifically for PD0, such as infection (my personal favourite), or sabotage. Each mode is unique and offers players a wide variety of objectives to complete. Multiplayer matches are hugely customizable too, which means that you'll constantly be finding new setups that work great.
Even with 32 players duking it out at once, the game runs smoothly with only a minor chug here and there. And the bots, well, they're in a league of their own. Try playing against 15 bots at the highest difficulty setting. You simply cannot go for anything other than a headshot. There's no jumping in the game at all, and this works especially well in multiplayer. It just makes the whole experience more enjoyable when people aren't constantly bunny hopping around the map, making the game more about your skill at aiming than it is about your jumping ability. Other games cater for that market, and it's great that PD0 has set itself apart from them.
The multiplayer mode's biggest downfall is its lack of vehicles to drive, with only two, the jet pack and the hover tank, to be seen. You've also only got six maps to play in - a number which we can only hope will increase in the future with downloadable content. Furthermore, for some reason, the multiplayer modes can get pretty glitchy. I've seen bots get stuck in walls, players float away as they're killed, and well, you get the picture.
As a rule I like to play through games thoroughly before casting judgment. But PD0, more so than any other game I've played in a long time, is a game where you need to pump in some serious hours to get the feel for it. It's not a game that can be judged based on first impressions and I'll be the first to admit that during my first few hours with it, I wasn't all that impressed. However, after many long nights, plenty of bags of Doritos and about three gallons of Pepsi, I can finally say that I thoroughly enjoyed playing this game. It's not the Xbox 360 killer app we were hoping for and it's got a number of problems that I would have liked to have seen dealt with before its release, but that doesn't change the fact that it's fun as hell to play. If you can forgive its shortcomings, and bask in its multiplayer mayhem, you'll have no trouble finding the diamond in the rough.