Perfect Dark Zero

Rare has had a long history of development but among the console FPS crowd, they’re probably most well known for their incredible take on the 007 film Goldeneye on the N64. That success would also help pave the way for their next FPS offering on the N64, Perfect Dark, which has garnered its own share of awards and acclaim setting up the question of when the next installment would be coming out. Five years and a few platforms later, Rare returns on the 360 with the prequel to their N64 shooter taking players into the past of its heroine in Perfect Dark Zero.

Perfect Dark Zero is an exclusive bail bonds contract for the Xbox 360. The version below was played on the Premium system with an HD.

The Dark Future

Zero takes place in the year 2020 beneath the shadow of a world where money talks and bullets sign the bottom line. The world is literally ruled by corporate powerhouse dataDyne and its CEO, Zhang Li, who have conquered the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere. Enter Joanna Dark and her father who run a bail bonds service, taking contracts to pay the bills and living life the only way that they know how. Chandra, their mission specialist and a hacker of no small skill, watches the action from behind her LCD as she gives tips and advice to the two as they follow their quarry wherever in the world it may take them. Of course, it doesn’t take long before things take a dramatic turn for the worse and before long Joanna will find herself fighting for more than her life.

Interface Matrix

Players that have enjoyed Halo will find that the controls are easy to get into. For those that haven’t, they take a little getting used to but before long you’ll be sweeping your way through the streets of Hong Kong in no time. The manual does a great job in describing the controls as well as providing some background on the key characters in the game and the arsenal of destruction that you’ll soon be wielding.

The left analog stick handles movement while the right stick allows you to move the camera. The directional pad is used to select weapons or gadgets, or holster what you’ve got if you have to ‘go friendly’ or simply feel like saving bullets while having your fists do the dirty work. The colored buttons are used to swap weapons, drop them to make room in your limited holster inventory, reload, or activate items that you might find. The trigger and shoulder buttons also get a workout, many times being used for alternate weapon functions or to allow you to aim down sights or zoom in between the eyes of hapless guards with your scope if you have one. The controls also allow Jo to perform a diving somersault, helping her to avoid intense gunfire or get through certain laser gates. There’s no jumping in the game but you won’t really miss it…too much. As a side note, Joanna can clamber over low walls or ledges if you just push forward against them.

During combat, you can also make use of cover with the “Action”, or “A”, button. This will allow you to hide behind barricades, crates, or just behind corners in one of the title’s more distinguishing mechanics. You can still aim with your sights using the right stick with the right trigger button allowing Jo to poke her head up or around what she is hiding behind to snap off a few rounds. You can also use a scope, if the weapon you are using at the time has one, as she stands out from behind cover to get a bead on an enemy. Keep in mind, though, that the longer you stay out from cover, the better your chances are for being a target dummy. For the most part, the cover mechanic works pretty well although it can get sticky in certain situations. One situation had me sharing a corner with an allied soldier, the two of us basically clipping through each other with my worry being that he might run out into my line of fire when the shooting started. Killing friendlies is a fast way to screw up a mission.

The weapons themselves look and sound great and you can tell that Rare spent quite a bit of attention on the arsenal that Jo takes with her and can pick up on her way through the game. The detailing on many of the weapons is extremely well done. Your arsenal ranges from simple pistols with scopes to rocket launchers and plasma rifles that can literally throw your foes back into walls or into the air with a well placed shot. Many of your weapons also have secondary firing options such as one allowing an automatic rifle to turn into a gun turret to hold off foes. In addition to what you can carry, you’ll also be able to mount gun turrets and ride in vehicles such as a hovercraft and a flying jetpack. Unfortunately, anyone expecting the kind of vehicular mayhem found in Halo or its sequel may be disappointed. You get to play around with the hovercraft in only one level and the jetpack in one other. As for the motorcycle mentioned in the press clipping, there isn’t one. At least one that I was able to get and play with. You can use these vehicles in certain multiplayer games, though, so if you really have the need to run people down in a hovercraft, there are games out there that will let you do just that.

Other tools that you will also have to play with include a codebreaker that can hack computer lock pads, a detonator that can blow up key pieces of equipment after you ‘solve’ a simple circuit puzzle to arm them with, and grenades that you can use to clear out rooms.

In between the missions, you have a chance to customize your arsenal. Some things, though, will have to be taken but in many instances you can choose to select what weapons you want to outfit yourself with when you start out. As you progress in the game, more weapons become available but you have to keep an eye on your inventory. You can only carry so many weapons in your limited space and only so many gadgets. Should you take grenades or dual pistols? Pick up the KSI-74 or keep the RCP-90 assault gun? It’s up to you. You might even throw out what you’re carrying with you in the middle of a mission, opting to pull that M60 machine gun from its turret and haul it around with you.

An introductory mission will take you through the basics of gameplay before throwing you to the wolves. The storyline arcing its way through the action is told in between missions through spoken dialogue and graphics in the form of a mission briefing for what is coming up. Voice work between enemies and from your own comlink also provide some of the background for why you are putting your neck out beneath everyone’s barrels. Fortunately, many of the game’s levels sport a mid-level checkpoint system in case Jo bites off a little more than her pistols can chew.

The Look of Things to Come?

The world of Perfect Dark Zero looks good…and just okay. Most of the textures themselves are rendered well with special effects adding just the right amount of eye candy to make the explosions and weapons look and sound just as violently vicious as they can be. Shafts of sunlight flicker in from above, glass distorts what you see on the other side, shadows from your running self are cast against the wall, explosions belch smoke and fire and gunfire blazes across a battlefield as tracers scream through the air…the artists have made sure that there’s a lot to look at here when the lead flies. The enemies also show a bit of variety as you progress through the game, ranging from your regular punk on the street to mercenaries and soldiers bent on killing you to collect their paychecks. If they’re sporting armor, it’ll fly apart and litter the area when you open up on them. They’ll also fly through the air from explosions or crumple to the ground, ragdoll physics working to keep your bodycount looking as good onscreen as it does in your end of level statistics. The rest of the visual presentation is also just as good, especially the dataDyne inspired interface and propaganda.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, however, some of the graphical detail and in-game geometry can be less impressive. One thing is that there’s quite a bit of overload with the specular highlights. Almost everything in the game has that polished plastic gleam. Even wooden planks on the pier have that funky plastic look to them. I know its supposed to be some kind of wetness in that case, but the effect doesn’t look right as it appears in game. And it’s everywhere. Lighting is also a mixed bag, with some of the characters looking flat in certain in-game cinematics or some rooms unnaturally bright in others. As for the level detail, it was also a mixed bag. Some levels were simply filled with breathtaking detail such as the jungle ruins and urban rooftops. And some of the areas can look a little bland. The underwater base highlights this early on, with great curved hallways and props connecting to low detailed rooms with bland textures and more plastic metal. Most of the character models look pretty good, but some of their animations on the field can appear kind of stiff especially when you see a lot of players gunning for each other in multiplayer.

As for the level design itself, many of the levels are open ended enough for you to pursue more than one method on how to approach your goals. Should you lead an assault from the left or duck into that open doorway and find out where it leads…hoping for it to take you above the action and surprise the enemy from behind? If you ever find yourself lost, a glowing waypoint system is available in the game to light up your way to the next objective and if you don’t want your hand held, you can always turn it off. Alarms can also be deactivated to buy you time and locked doors picked with a handy hacking tool that also doubles as a sort of mini-game just to keep you on your toes.

As for the sounds that will take you through combat and exploration, it’s a mixed bag. The music is a kind of techno mix that is fine for the action but not much more. I had to tone the music down in order to hear the voices of enemy characters and my comlink but I frankly didn’t miss it too much. It was adequate but nothing that you might find yourself humming to in the weeks afterwards.

The voice acting is another thing. I don’t know if Chandra’s accent was on purpose or not, but it was so thick that I had to rely on subtitles for the most part just to understand what she was saying which was, fortunately, provided in the briefings. The game also makes use of in-game chatter among Joanna and whoever else is with her and a keen ear is needed to hear what some of them are saying since it can easily get lost in the roar of gunfire. This last is important as it can tell you more about particular objectives or give you hints as to what you need to do next. For the most part, the voice acting isn’t horrid, but its not particularly inspired, either. However, none of the characters really say anything memorable aside from a few witty comebacks during boss battles that were quickly forgotten. This tended to leave me with the impression that Jo was some kind of weapons platform on human legs.

Voice acting really gets a workout with the soldiers that go after you, though. Most of them will chatter to each other and call out anything from insults to screams of pain. Most lines will get severely overused especially those that use the word ‘bitch’ bringing back memories of my time with Call of Duty 2 and the Russians yelling “fascist” every few lines. It can get tired. On the upside, there are quite a few in game conversations between enemy characters that can be pretty funny. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between and can tend to get drowned out by some of the ambient noise.

The More Things Change

For a console title, Perfect Dark Zero is filled with quite a few odd technical issues. During my playthrough I’ve seen corpses disappear in midair after shooting them in the distance and watching them tumble off the edge of a roof and a body bounce and ricochet off walls and through crates like a crazed Pong ball…stopping only when it went into the sky. One enemy trooper I took out was pinned to the door I had shot him against. When the door opened, instead of falling through, he was pulled into the wall with the door and disappeared. And even with a hard drive, the loads for the game felt as if they still took some time.

There was also the save system which felt like a throwback to the early days of console FPS titles forcing players to repeat sections of action if they happened to get killed near the end. We’re not talking bite sized chunks, we’re talking large areas filled with enemy soldiers and, occasionally, additional objectives. It isn’t so bad early in the game, but later on when the action begins to heat up, it can get annoyingly repetitive. With titles as Call of Duty 2 making use of well placed checkpoints, its curious why Rare decided on this particular mechanic when players craving a deeper challenge can always raise the level of difficulty.

There was also another odd issue with the mid-game saves such as if you happened to die after the mid point save and restore from there. If you’ve picked up a weapon since you started the level, you lose it if you return to the save point as you start off with the default arsenal that you customized or were assigned at the beginning of the mission. While it’s not something that is a game stopper, it may catch some gamers off guard who were expecting to respawn at that point with their health and weapons as they were at the time it saved.

For the most part, the single player story is nothing to write home about with a relatively weak narrative and generic characterizations for most of the key players in the campaign. This, unfortunately, includes the main character who doesn’t come off as…much of anyone at all aside from her appearance onscreen. The only character that had shown any real panache was the main villain himself, wonderfully overacted with gleeful abandon. And when a dramatic plot twist occurs later in the game, the surprise that should have been there…wasn’t. It just didn’t work, not when you had so little to really care about because of how generic some of the elements felt in their presentation. There’s also the ending which, compared to some others, is frankly one of the more disappointing ones that I’ve seen this year. I was certainly expecting a better denouement especially after given the intro video created for the title. Most the action in the game should keep players driving towards the end, though.

The AI is another sore point. While the enemy AI can be pretty aggressive and make good use of cover, angles of fire, and their own weapons’ special attacks, your allies can tend to display the kind of collective intelligence found among pebbles on the beach. They’ll run into your line of fire, many times getting killed in the process forcing a mission failure. Other times they’ll just charge blindly ahead and get massacred in the process. I’ve also seen them just stand in place while getting lit up with a hail of rounds before deciding that taking cover was a good idea.

The boss battles in the game are pretty much by the numbers, but there’s something of a lack of balance between them. One or two early boss battles can be pretty challenging, but the later ones can be cake walks which was surprising. They’re colorful confrontations for the most part, though, as these enemies spout insults at you allowing you to return the favor from time to time to force them to do something that may just give you the opening you need. This isn’t as exciting as it sounds, though, and if you’re quick on the trigger and can hold a decent aim it will be all you will really need.

And despite the title’s dark tone, forget about being stealthy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the jungle levels where Jo finds herself sent to later on. Enemies will be able to home in and aim right at you through the underbrush from a hundred or more yards away leaving you to wonder where the shots are coming from. Most of the plant life is just there to get in your way.

Multiplayer Mayhem

Okay, so you could care less about the weak single player. Fortunately, Perfect Dark Zero offers a host of multiplayer gametypes to satisfy your itch to blow away the competition. For those with the broadband connection along with the membership, Zero can be a lot more exciting online than it is off. The gametypes offered are split into two categories: Deathmatch types and Dark Ops. Deathmatch type games include Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Territorial Gains which pits teams against each other as they try to hold hardpoints on the map for as long as they can while trying to push the other side back.

Dark Ops allow players to purchase arms and armor at the beginning of the round with an initial bankroll of credits which may remind many players of Counter Strike. More credits are earned with successful objectives or frags and depending on what kind of game you are playing, death may mean that you won’t spawn until the end of the round. It’s a Counter Strike like game mode that quite a few players may like. The types of games played under Dark Ops are pretty varied and offer interesting twists such as Infection. Players start off as ‘uninfected’ and become ‘infected’ when they respawn from getting killed. Whoever survives until the end wins. There’s also Onslaught which pits teams of players against each other as one defends a hardpoint for as long as they can while the other continues to respawn in a never ending rush.

In addition to the two categories of gametypes above, if you have a friend online, the two of you can co-op your way through much of the game as you help each other to overcome many of the challenges in your way. If you want to familiarize yourself with the game maps or put in some practice before showing off your ‘leet skills online, you can customize an offline match and practice against bots.

Online play was pretty exciting and extremely easy to get into. Filters can be applied on your searches so you can narrow down what you want to do online, finding only those games that you want to mix it up in. Or you can let the browser choose your game with the Quick Deathmatch or Dark Ops mode which will drop you into a random game. Overall, performance was pretty good but I did notice that it can take a hit with a lot of effects going off at once in crowded areas. The overall action felt smooth and was a lot of fun to get into. Some of the more crowded games, such as one Onslaught session I had gotten into, had jacked up their player counts to 32 allowing sides to field small armies of gun toting mobs running at each other.

In addition to online play, your gamercard with your 360 also updates itself with your accomplishments in the game and can share them with a master list to see how you stack up against other gamers. You can see how well you score against others and check out the gamercard of the person who is the world leader to get an idea of who the top dog is. If shooting up your fellow player online isn’t enough, trying to polish your gameplay style in the game at higher levels of difficulty might be another angle that competitive players may enjoy.

Collector’s Edition

The Collector’s Edition of Zero comes with a second DVD that contains a theme for your 360 menus along with gamercard art that you can use in your profile. There’s also a video for Kameo on there in case you’re curious about Rare’s other offering for the 360. An art gallery is also available, although you’ll have to sit through the automated slideshow if you want to see the art instead of looking through it at your own speed.

The single “Limelight” is also available as it is also used in the game, highlighting work done by Kepi and Kat for Urge Productions. There’s also an excerpt from the novel Perfect Dark: Initial Vector from Tor Books available for reading. The CE also comes with a comic book that tries to give you some background on the characters and the plot and does a pretty good job in setting it up. As for the case, the artwork is well done and should be something that collectors in general will appreciate.

Dark Tidings

For a title that is supposed to be ‘next gen’, Perfect Dark Zero can be an exciting FPS providing exciting moments both on and offline but I can’t shake the feeling that parts of it feel somewhat behind the times. As many have already noted and for which I can heartily agree with, multiplayer is the strongest part of the title’s package and those with the broadband connection along with Xbox Live are certain to reap the best experience with it. It’s a pretty good package for that reason alone. As for the single player, it’s there, but the relatively uninspired story elements and somewhat dated mechanics may come as a slight disappointment to players in general hoping to see an early Halo.

Nevertheless, it still looks good for the most part, plays well enough to provide some exciting moments in the single player, and with Live support, there’s still quite a bit of fun to be found here. Its a worthy first effort FPS on the new console from Rare and players looking for a quick deathmatch against friends or for some co-op may find what they are looking for in the shadows of Joanna Dark’s past.

- World 1-1

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