Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Essentials #13: Perfect Dark

When GoldenEye 007 came out on the Nintendo 64 in 1997, it was a revolution, introducing a generation of console gamers to the first-person shooter genre that had previously been reserved for PC players. It paved the way for such titles as Halo and Resistance, and in this age where console has effectively become the go-to platform for even the FPS genre, its legacy is undeniable. While I arrived to the N64 a little too late to get caught up in that frenzy, I did spend a lot of time with its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark.

Released in 2000 for the N64, Perfect Dark improved on virtually every aspect of developer and publisher Rare's earlier GoldenEye 007. While many key staff members from the old team left Rare in the middle of Perfect Dark's long development cycle, the final game still clearly retained GoldenEye 007's basic design and interface. The single-player mode was broken up into seventeen distinct stages of varying objectives, with many missions requiring a stealthy approach. To compensate for the less precise controls of a gamepad compared to a mouse-and-keyboard setup, limited auto-aim guided the player's gun toward targets, while the R shoulder button activated a manual aim system that allowed for precision shots. Anybody who'd played GoldenEye 007 would have found the feel and structure of the game to be instantly familiar.

Released at the end of the console's life, the title pushed the N64 to its limits, requiring use of the RAM-doubling Expansion Pak to access most of the content. One of the most graphically impressive games of its generation, it was only hampered somewhat by framerate issues, as things could become very choppy as the system sometimes struggled to keep up with the action. But most noteworthy were probably the fully-voiced cut scenes. While the audio may have been somewhat muffled, the amount of dialogue the game included was still remarkable, considering the cartridge format's ROM size limitations.

Dispensing with the Bond license in favor of an original IP that might let the game better stand on its own, Perfect Dark starred Joanna Dark as an agent of the Carrington Institute, an espionage organization defending the earth in a secret struggle with the sinister dataDyne corporation. For the first half at least, the game provided a thrilling story akin to a Hollywood action film, featuring a cinematic, adult-oriented narrative unlike anything else on the N64. Unfortunately, the plot would take several silly turns en route to its laughably stupid ending. The story was sufficient to support the gameplay, but, ultimately, it was still just as fluffy as most on the N64.

As a video game heroine, Joanna Dark failed to achieve the status of a Samus Aran or Lara Croft, and Rare, eager to amend that, decided to give her a brand new look--an uglier one, in my opinion--for its next installment. Some players accused her of being a Lara Croft clone, but aside from her English accent, which was easily explained by the fact that Rare was a UK company, she bore little resemblance. The real problem with Joanna Dark, I'm convinced, had to do with the first-person perspective.

Joanna Dark was an attempt to craft a charismatic character in a genre that, by its nature, couldn't support it. Unusual for an FPS player character, she actually had a clearly-defined identity and many lines of dialogue. However, these elements disappeared during gameplay, as the perspective meant you couldn't even see the main character you were playing as. Nor, looking at most of the promotional screenshots and footage of just a hand holding a gun, would you have gotten much sense of an actual character. It's an issue inherent to the genre, which is why, I feel, it has produced few legitimately compelling player characters. Of course, the whole idea behind the earliest FPS titles was that you were playing as yourself. I'm not sure how much of the genre's predominantly male audience would have identified with Joanna.

One notable feature of the title was the Carrington Institute itself, which served as the main hub for all activity within the game. The solo missions and multiplayer modes were all initiated from a computer within the institute, but the player could also walk away from the computer and freely roam the building. One could go to the training room and run a few simulations or, alternatively, head to the firing range and test out one of the many guns in Joanna's arsenal. Hinting at the wealth of content in the game, these diversions constituted modes unto themselves, providing plenty of challenges to test the player. But the best thing about the Carrington Institute would not become evident until late in the story mode, when one stage had the enemy attacking the base. By that point, it had become like a home, not only to Joanna, but to the player as well. Instead of stumbling down one unfamiliar corridor after another, you were actually able to fight the enemy on your own turf.

Perfect Dark's biggest improvement over GoldenEye 007 may have been its addition of a cooperative mode, which allowed two players to play the story mode via splitscreen. The second player would control Velvet Dark, Joanna's sister who had no lines, never appeared in cut scenes, and was never mentioned by anybody as even existing, which she most likely didn't, as far as the canon was concerned. Nor did the game really bother to give her a distinct role in any missions. For the most part, she was just a second gun who followed right behind or alongside Joanna at all times. This lack of acknowledgment of an entire second agent certainly furthered the disconnect between story and gameplay, but the fun of playing with a buddy made it worth it. Whatever the inadequacies of the co-op play, Perfect Dark was a better game with it than it would have been without it, and it's nice to see that the feature has since become more common among today's shooters.

I vividly recall one particular mission that began with Joanna having to acquire a stewardess disguise in order to infiltrate a base housing Air Force One. In the single-player game, you would have to knock out the real stewardess on her way to the base, then take her uniform and wear it into the building, where the receptionist would acknowledge you and release the electronic lock on the door to the base interior. As it turned out, even in co-op, there was only one disguise available. This presented a major issue, as it left no way for the second player to fool their way into the base. If the receptionist or any of the guards saw Joanna or Velvet approaching without a disguise, they would immediately sound the alert and bring an abrupt end to the mission. Since that was where the entire rest of the stage took place, this seemingly meant that the second player would have to be left behind to do nothing.

Eventually, I came up with a plan that, though it sounded ridiculous, seemed to me to be the only solution. The first player, as Joanna, would enter wearing the disguise and get them to unlock the door. Then, rather than continuing through, she would turn around and knock out the receptionist. At that point, Velvet would rush in and incapacitate all of the guards in the room, while Joanna stood between them and the alarm. Because the guards were actually good Americans that were just not privy to the truth of your clandestine operation, you weren't allowed to kill them. As a result, my strategy required a lot of punching of guards who would themselves not hesitate to shoot. Even after we pulled it off, the plan seemed so impractical that I doubted whether Rare itself had even played the mission in co-op and noticed the problem.

More peculiar was the "Counter-Operative" mode, placing the second player in control of the enemy forces, while the first player, as Joanna, proceeded as normal through the single-player missions. As with the single-player game, a stage would end either with Joanna's completion of all mission objectives or with her death at the hands of the enemy, the latter becoming the second player's objective. If the second player's character died, which was likely, given the meager health and weaponry of the enemy characters, the game would automatically reassign the player to a different body a la the agents from The Matrix. If necessary, one could also take a suicide pill, included in every enemy character's inventory, to force immediate reassignment. The unique mode bravely sought to give context to a versus mode, but, while the idea was good, the execution could have been a lot better. For the first player, the presence of a human opponent undermined the stealth elements. The second player, meanwhile, often faced long stretches of inaction, because many stages started Joanna far away from any enemies. And since there was no incentive of narrative progression, playing it simply wasn't very rewarding for either player. As a result, the mode was nothing more than a novelty.

GoldenEye 007's most popular feature was its four-player versus mode, and Perfect Dark brought it back with many improvements. In addition to supporting four players via splitscreen, the game allowed the inclusion of up to eight bots, whose abilities could be fully tuned to the player's specifications. The six modes of play also allowed extensive customization of winning conditions and weapon selections. For me, the multiplayer provided a good opportunity to use the seldom-seen yet awesome Farsight sniper rifle, which allowed its wielder to zoom and fire through walls. It reminded me of the teleporting bullet trick from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "Field of Fire." Aside from that, I honestly found the choppy versus play to be fairly intolerable in both GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, so I won't speak at length about it. I did nevertheless appreciate just how feature-filled it was, as was the game as a whole. While no one aspect of the game was perfect, the sheer quantity of modes and options really made it feel complete.

So it is with some irony that I must confess that I never completed Perfect Dark. I made it to the last stage, lost a few times, and then gave up. While far from being the most difficult video game I've ever played, it was distinctly old-school in some of its design choices. Although each mission's objectives were spread out fairly evenly throughout the levels, these goals did not correspond to checkpoints. If Joanna died at any point in the mission, it was game over, and the player would have to restart from the beginning of the stage. In co-op, a player got a limited number of respawns so long as the other player was still alive. But the punitive design really never frustrated until the final stage.

The missions saw a drop in quality that corresponded exactly to the decline of the story. The more realistic human foes of the earlier spy-themed stages gave way to the reptilian Skedar aliens, who were just cheap and annoying. The last stage specifically was guilty of two sins that I consider to be the absolute worst in FPS level design: (1) enemies that lie in wait, presumably indefinitely at improbable spots, to ambush you when you arrive, and (2) enemies that spawn mid-stage, sometimes right behind you, to ambush you. Did I mention that most of the Skedar were invisible, requiring use of the infrared goggles that reduced the game's visuals to just two miserable colors? Maybe I could have given the stage another go and succeeded. But I had frankly become so disenchanted with the story that I no longer cared enough.

Like many of Rare's works, Perfect Dark has not aged gracefully. Both its look and design are dated compared to modern shooters. The single-stick control would be particularly hard to go back to, though I would argue that the deep center prong of the N64 controller, simulating a pistol grip, provided the most satisfying trigger of any gamepad ever, even if it had to be held lefty. Still, it's definitely my favorite Rare title. It was the best console FPS of its time, a title full of great ideas, even if they all showed blemishes on close inspection. Up until that final stage, the single-player action was a great ride. Even if the story faltered at the end, it was one of the first titles to show me the cinematic potential of video games. The co-op was great fun, albeit it could have been more thoughtfully implemented. The Counter-Operative mode didn't really work, but perhaps it will inspire a future game to do it right. As the first FPS I really enjoyed, it remains, to this day, the game that I measure all other FPS titles against.


Czardoz said...

Despite the awesome voice acting contained on a Game Boy Color cartridge, Perfect Dark for GBC was no good. And Perfect Dark Zero is, so far, a sickening game with a few fun aspects scattered about.

The apple has fallen very far from the tree.

Czardoz said...

It's been years now, so I can't guarantee the accuracy of all the details, but as far as I remember, I bought this game when it had gotten dirt cheap on I figured it was a known and celebrated title, so why not. I can't remember where I bought the expansion pak, probably also on Who knows, maybe it cost more than the game itself.

I don't think I had played any other first-person shooters (maybe observed some on PC), unless you count Faceball 2000. I didn't know what to expect from Perfect Dark. But right from the get-go, I was blown away. Great opening cinema, engaging voice acting, and probably the most immersive experience I'd ever had playing a video game. I still remember the Chicago stage of the game, with the techno-meditation soundtrack, the rain, the tunnels - that was a watershed moment in video games for me. Also, the awesome "lights out" stage.

What I remember most, though, is a two-hour headache I had after one intense session. I didn't realize that some people got nausea/dizziness from playing FPS games. I literally buried my head in a pillow and lay in bed for two hours, feeling like part of me was dying (and that was the lucky part).

Yes, the final stage was a shambles, and the final boss a disgrace, but all is forgiven when I remember that this was a game that sent me to sick bay for two hours, and when I felt better, all I wanted to do was turn the game back on and keep playing. If that's not love, I don't know what is. Best FPS ever.

P.S. I always liked Joanna more than Samus!