Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review: Damnation

Platform: Playstation 3/Xbox 360

Developer: Blue Omega Entertainment

Publisher: Codemasters

# of Players: 1 – 2 (Co-op) 1 - 8 (Multiplayer)

Rating: M (Mature)

Score: C

Codemasters' latest entry into the action game genre certainly offers up some innovative gameplay concepts and an interesting mix of steampunk and western-inspired visual elements. However the overall execution falls short thanks to some major quality issues. Developer Blue Omega Entertainment has expanded its award-winning Unreal Tournament 2004 mod, Damnation: Hell Breaks Loose to a full game, but despite the updated elements it still feels more like a halfway decent Unreal mod rather than a top-drawer release. Problems aside, there is some fun to be had here provided you're willing to deal or overlook with the game's flaws. Like too many games of this console generation, most of these issues probably could have been addressed with a patch. But at this point, it's hard to say whether or not this will ever happen.

The plot has something to do with an alternate past that puts Terminator-like robots and the aforementioned steampunk/western-inspired technology into a post Civil War mash-up of sorts. There's an evil corporate head named Lord Prescott that plans to use his army to take over the country, psychic Indians, big iron motorbikes and plenty of ridiculously over-sized real estate to navigate as the game progresses. The latter element makes up the best part of the game thanks to the flat storytelling presented in the cut scenes along with the somewhat weak scriptwriting that lacks any emotional depth.

Take away the big set pieces and Damnation plays out like nearly any generic action game. Plot points happen mostly in lengthy, action-packed (yet strangely dull) cut scenes, some of which should have been playable sequences that could have elevated the game significantly. You're introduced to square-jawed lead character Hamilton Rourke and a small group of freedom fighters along with a few main enemy types, but the writing really doesn't do a good job of making these guys and gals interesting. There are a handful of actual plot surprises, but since it's hard to care about the characters, it's harder to be shocked by any of the big revelations.

Where the game really shines is in the crazy level layouts and the manner in which you get from point A to point B. Yes, these massive architectural set pieces don't make much sense in the real world, but as you get into the wall-jumping and pole-hopping, there's a certain rhythm that just falls into place. The jumping sections aren't all that difficult and despite the huge maps 9with no compass feature), it's impossible to get lost. Should you miss a jump and fall to your death, you'll magically reappear at the jump point and get to retry until you get it right. There are also a few puzzles that involve pushing statues around, but these feel lifted straight from one of Lara Croft's adventures. More (and more varied) puzzles would have been welcome, because frankly speaking, the combat in the game just doesn't cut it.

Gun battles also hearken back to the Tomb Raider era (circa 1996) and just like Lara's adventures, traversing the environments is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than fighting enemies. The AI here is either nonexistent or too erratic to be believable and the targeting system feels too loose overall. Average baddies take way too many shots to kill and the game makes up for this flaw by making gun-toting troops dead-shot accurate up close. Trying to play the game as a simple run 'n gun will get you gibbed in no time flat by Prescott's PSI troops should you try to get the drop on a shotgun-toting goon. Unlike dying while jumping, you're sent back to the last checkpoint should you buy the farm in combat. This can be good or bad, depending on where you died, as you'll need to fight the same enemies that did you in until you reach the next checkpoint.

Oddly enough, it almost feels as if enemy placement was an afterthought, since they tend to be grouped in certain spots or only pop in after a checkpoint and a second or three of loading. The developer must have realized the troublesome AI would make for some pretty vexatious combat, so early in the second level, you learn to use “Spirit Vision” to see enemies behind walls or other objects. Since the power has unlimited uses and with a sniper rifle, it almost feels like cheating. Zap a new area with the power and you can take down most enemies with a head shot or two before they even notice. Even if they do become alerted, don't expect much of a fight. PSI troops will run straight (and sometimes right past) at you, dodge back and forth right into your line of fire or do nothing but loop in circles.

You'd think your AI allies would help out considerably during combat. Unfortunately this isn't the case at all. In the more crowded firefights, you'll often spend a few too many minutes watching your AI teammate(s) trade shots with equally blind enemies. Your partner(s) may eventually kill off a few foes, but the game really wants you to do the majority of the shooting. Your allies also have the pesky tendency to get killed off multiple times thanks to their awful pathfinding skills when under fire. You have the unlimited ability to revive them, which ends up becoming a chore when they continue to run into instant death, forcing you to put yourself in harm's way as you deal with threats solo. Playing the game with a buddy in co-op mode works much better, although you'll both have to be into the game and its quirks for maximum enjoyment.

The mostly fun motorbike sections are fast-paced bits of fun when they work properly. You'll run into oddball spots where you're supposed to fall off the map and die horribly, but thanks to a well-placed boost, you're able to blast awkwardly up walls and save your bacon. You can also get off the bike in some spots to shoot it out with enemies, but you'll generally end up getting killed and sent back to the last checkpoint unless you're a crack shot. On the bike, your AI buddy certainly isn't a crack shot in these sections – they'll shoot off hundreds of rounds, but it's more up to you to run down enemies than rely on the AI marksmanship.

As for the presentation side of things, it's a mixed bag. The normally reliable Unreal engine-powered visuals end up like most non-Epic developed games that use the engine. Everything is more stylized and looking very much like its coated in shiny plastic with Rourke, his crew and the major villains sporting the requisite buff physiques and eye-catching gear. Naturally, the ladies sport mega cleavage and combat costumes that look as if they're straight out of a Cinemax After Hours sex flick. There are only a few enemy types, but none really make you jump out of your seat other than the Terminator-style robots and later, some zippy mutant types. Since mechanical enemies don't show up in Spirit Vision, you'll probably take a rocket or two up the rear until you figure out how to deal with them.

Textures range from adequate to blandly painted on, sometimes within a few feet of each other. You'll really notice this in the bike sequences should you dismount mid-run or in the game world proper if you explore a bit too much. Since you're supposed to more or less stick to the pathways the game gives you, you're not supposed to notice the blurry or patchy elements. But if you're the exploring type like me, you'll see what's behind the curtain a wee bit too often. At times the game looks like a current gen game, at times it looks like an Xbox game running in not so high-definition. If this were a launch or launch window title, it would have probably be a bit more acceptable to the graphics hounds out there. But with so many games going for flash first and foremost, what's here is less than spectacular.

While the animations of characters navigating environments is well done (particularly when you nail the movement controls), your AI partners have the nasty habit of getting a case of the jitters under certain conditions, disappearing from the game screen entirely, not moving or running straight into enemy fire. During one sewer level, my AI partner decided to not follow me at all, leaving me to deal with a few packs of fast-moving mutants until I reached a faraway checkpoint. You'll also see the AI climb through you on ladders and in one later map, actually run off and hop into a glitchy area that shouldn't even be accessible – oops. I managed to work my way to this area after some work and promptly fell through the map back into another part of the level I couldn't get out of, which forced me to reset and start from my last save point.

The sound production also suffers a bit too much here. While the music is decent, the sound effects and voice acting come off as they've been recorded in one take in someone's living room. Whether you're watching a cut scene or listening to characters speak, there's no feeling of spatial depth to all the noise going on. Weapons clatter away, big cannons fail to impress and some of the non-interactive moments really fall flat because you never feel immersed in the aural part of the experience. For comparison's sake, I dug up the “old” Xbox game Shadow Ops: Red Mercury from my library and replayed part of one level. That game still stands out as having superb sound design and overall sound production that's better than a nice chunk of current-gen releases.

One thing that actually works regarding the vocal performances are the outrageously amd intentionally funny PSI public service messages that promise yummy potted meat, free water for slaving away in the mines and other humorous bits. These messages are pumped throughout the game world in select locations and once you stop shooting to listen up, actually break up the monotony of the flat gunfire and occasional death yells. Online multiplayer was pretty lonely the few times I logged on, but I did play a few deathmatch and co-op matches with a few players who mostly complained about how unfair some reviews were or just flat out blasted the game because they paid full price for it. Of course, I didn't mention I was reviewing the game, but at least I'm willing to be a lot more constructive in my deconstruction of the game's problem areas.

Despite all my complaints, I'm actually going to recommend at least renting the game for the buy-curious player. The massive maps and exploration elements reminded my of the underrated Galleon, an Xbox exclusive that got shafted by critics and some less than open-minded gamers. Granted, Damnation isn't nearly as fun as Galleon, but you can clearly see the spark of a greater game throughout. Given Blue Omega's fate, the game also recalls Blue 52's Stolen, another ambitious effort that actually killed its development house off when it failed to move in anything resembling significant numbers. One other thing that probably came into play was Capcom's upcoming Dark Void, which looks to do what Damnation does but far better with faster-paced gameplay, flying sequences and a superior game engine.

While far from perfect in its current state, Damnation will most likely find its audience among gamers that like the concept and easy to grasp controls yet don't demand complete perfection from everything they buy or rent. There's definitely enough inspired moments here to fill a potential sequel, but only if that finished product is a great deal more polished than what's on display here.

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