Friday, May 23, 2008

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! Review

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!, developed and published by My Game Company.
The Good: Simple controls appropriate for a range of skill levels, non-violent gameplay for all ages
The Not So Good: No unique features, very limited weaponry and gadgets, can be quite difficult, dying returns you to the start of the level and the game doesn’t prompt to load a saved game, no in-level autosaves
What say you? This family-friendly platform game lacks innovation: 5/8

Platform games have been around for quite a while: historians estimate the genre started in 145 A.D. with Super Ptolemy Brothers. From there, faster computers have produced better graphics and 3-D worlds in which to jump around and avoid enemies. While the genre is certainly more popular on those dreaded consoles, the PC has seen its fair share of platform games, and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is next in line. Taking a spy’s viewpoint, Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! follows a secret agent named Dirk Dashing (coincidence? I think not!) in his crusade against E.V.I.L. in snowy southern Germany. Will Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! advance the genre forward with new and exciting features?

The graphics of Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! are simple at best. While the backgrounds are nicely detailed, the character models are sparsely animated and look like 2-D sprites floating against the background. Special effects are few: only some gas from grenades and some weapons flying through the air. Some of the buildings are somewhat detailed, but the environments in each setting become repetitive. You can have a 2-D game that still looks good, so the lack of distinctive flair in Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is disappointing. As for the sound, it is limited as well. The game does have some good spy theme music (however it does loop quite often), but the effects are meager and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! never feels like you are in a semi-realistic environment rather than playing a game. More could have been done with the presentation of Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!.

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is a very conventional platform game. The story is a classic spying cliché: get diamonds back from an evil organization. The game has a forced sense of humor that is funny on occasion; I think the developers were trying to hard in naming the organizations (G.O.O.D. and E.V.I.L.) and the levels (Snow Pain, Snow Gain and Forgive Me, It’s Not My Vault, to name a few). The game comes with a good number of levels (30) that will keep you busy for at least a day or two, if you play straight through. The controls are simple enough where anyone can play Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent!: you can use they keyboard or a gamepad to move, jump, enter buildings, and throw grenades using only the arrow keys, spacebar, and control. Also appropriate for all ages is the low level of violence: grenades simply put enemies to sleep rather than causing bloody, fragmented death. Most of the levels have you disposing of enemies, jumping on platforms, flipping switches, and moving the occasional crate to access certain locations: very standard stuff. Dirk Dashing (Secret Agent) also has a PDA that displays mission objectives and in-game scores; this is better than cluttering up the screen with a permanent HUD.

The main problem with Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is the lack of unique features. First, Dirk is only equipped with two weapons: grenades and (later) a grenade launcher. Where are all of the cool spy weapons and gadgets? You do have some temporary power-ups like x-ray specs and shoes with springs, but these are given at very deliberate times (usually right before you need them). This really limits your strategic options and makes playing rather boring: all you need to do is lob grenades at people and move on down the level. There are a couple of alternative methods of stunning enemies without using up your ammunition that essentially entails causing them to run into things (they don’t stop moving immediately if you jump), but this is still not a substitute for more varied gameplay. Getting cash during the game (by picking up coins, bills, rings, and credit cards) has no point: you can’t purchase or otherwise unlock new weapons, and getting a high score means nothing other than simply having a high score. You can collect 100 apples for an extra life, though.

The other problem with Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is the lack of checkpoints: dying sends you back to the very beginning of the level. On top of this, the game does not automatically save your progress, so you have to constantly exit to the main menu and go through the save process every couple of minutes. The game also does not prompt you to load a saved game if you lose a life. At least the enemies are still sleeping when you restart through the level, otherwise you might be caught in an endless loop. The AI, I think at least partially by design, is very dumb: they move towards you in a straight line and shoot if they are equipped with a weapon. Despite this, I found Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! to actually be quite difficult, since the enemies have weapons you could only dream of. You have to be very careful, moving to the exact distance where you can see them but they haven’t been triggered to shoot at you, and then lob a grenade. This repetitive gameplay is not exciting or original, which makes playing Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! a drag.

Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! is too conventional. While the game is certainly fitting for a diverse audience, the gameplay is bland enough where most people will get bored after the first couple of levels. Part of being a secret agent is having cool toys to play with, but Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! really limits your strategic choices due to the inadequate weapons at your disposal. Add in very elementary AI and the lack of checkpoints, and there isn’t anything new or better that Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! offers in the platform genre. At this point in computer gaming, you need to have some sort of hook that draws new players in, and Dirk Dashing: Secret Agent! certainly lacks that. People who enjoy simplistic platform games (and others who aren’t as picky as I am) will find straightforward gameplay geared towards a wide audience, but most of us can avoid this featureless title.