Friday, October 02, 2009

Darkest of Days Review

Darkest of Days, developed by 8monkey Labs and published by Phantom EFX.
The Good: Intriguing premise, weapon upgrades based on performance
The Not So Good: Bland shooting, very linear level design and highly scripted missions, inconsistent AI, lacks multiplayer
What say you? A novel plot partially compensates for flat first person shooting: 4/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
One of my favorite science fiction shows was Quantum Leap. Maybe it was Scott Bakula's overt rugged sexiness, but the premise was intriguing and there was rampant cross-dressing, so it’s win-win. Dr. Sam Beckett striving to put right what once went wrong is similar to Darkest of Days, except this game has plenty more guns. About to die in Custer’s Last Stand, the main character is recruited to take place in history’s famous battles, protecting important figures that are being killed off by some unknown force (probably the Evil Leaper). Sounds interesting, but how does it play?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Darkest of Days features a mixed bag of graphics. I found the textures to be quite nice on the PC, with a high level of detail on weapons, people, and environments. There are also some nice effects from weapons, most notably the smoke from a fired gun, very visible from the zoomed-in perspective. The engine also seems capable to render large numbers of enemy troops and maintain an acceptable frame rate, similar to Mount&Blade. Even with the good texturing and some nice effects (the aforementioned gun smoke, shimmering water and the time travel sphere), something still feels “off” about the graphics of Darkest of Days. I think the reason is twofold: the animations look like everything is moving in slow motion, and the level designs are unrealistic as they constantly funnel you down obviously linear valley paths. The sound design is acceptable: dramatic music with average voice acting, and period-specific battle sounds that are convincing enough. While Darkest of Days does not compete with top-notch first person shooters, the game compares favorably with a more budget-level game. Too bad Darkest of Days isn’t at a budget-level price.

ET AL.
The best part of Darkest of Days is the story: you are recruited from the Battle of Little Bighorn to fight throughout history, putting right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that the next leap…might be the leap home (or something like that). The sixteen levels of the campaign cover four time periods: the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Pompeii, the American Civil War, World War I, and (of course) World War II. You typically have a choice to select the next mission from each time period (once you’ve progressed far enough). Each mission takes place in a very large map that is also astoundingly linear: Darkest of Days does not give you any strategic freedom, restricting you to obviously linear paths (through the use of invisible walls) towards the next objective location. Each level takes about a half-hour to complete, so in total Darkest of Days will occupy about eight hours of your time before you are finished with it. Because the game lacks multiplayer of any kind and the levels are so heavily scripted, there is no reason to play Darkest of Days for a second time. The title does have clear objectives, assuming you are close enough to the checkpoint. It can be confusing in spots, though, as enemies magically spawn seemingly out of nowhere. I went too far once past a hill and found myself inundated by enemy troops, for example. This amount of scripted action has its place and can be effective if done well, but Darkest of Days does not deliver the required level of realism. Darkest of Days does not allow you to save your progress at will, but the game utilizes very frequent auto saves (like every two minutes or so), so you will never have to repeat a significant amount of action.

Darkest of Days equips you with a selection of period-specific and futuristic weaponry to dispose of those pesky enemy units. You are given a primary (usually a rifle) and secondary (usually a pistol) weapon, though you can pick up any weapon from fallen soldiers if you have a preference. In addition, you can man artillery (with no aiming reticule) and chasers are used to incapacitate enemies without killing them. Reloading involves a quick time event, where you must time a button press, much like kicking field goals in the Madden series of football games (you might have heard of them). Weapon selection is kind of weird, as mouse wheel down will always select your chasers, while mouse wheel up will cycle between your primary and secondary weapons. Also, friendly soldiers don’t flinch when you are disposing of enemy units with a modern assault rifle or rocket launcher; I’m obviously not expecting Darkest of Days to adhere to ultimate realism (you are time traveling, by the way), but it’s still unintentionally hilarious. You are also given upgrades (rate of fire, reload speed, clip size, accuracy) depending on how many “important” blue-aura enemies you spare. In general, the shooting is quite bland and generic: you are given semi-automatic weapons that are deadly accurate, no matter what time period they are from. If you have the aiming reticule on an enemy unit, they will die with one shot. The only difference between the weapons is rate of fire and reloading time, since they are all so unrealistically accurate.

The generic shooting of Darkest of Days is made worse by the lackluster AI. The enemy infantry makes things really dull as they mostly stand motionless behind partial cover, once they magically spawn at the pre-determined time. It seems like their movement is pre-scripted and does not react at all to your position or strategy, making replay value extremely small. The AI will use cover unless they are scripted to do so, and sometimes they ignore you or don’t shoot at all. They are also quite inaccurate, and the game only becomes difficult when you are up against a large number of enemy units. Your AI allies are equally incompetent, leaving you to do most of the killing. In addition, AI allies keep killing the blue people you are not supposed to kill! Thanks a lot, jerk! The poor AI and generic shooting make Darkest of Days a forgettable experience despite the promising narrative.

IN CLOSING
Darkest of Days takes a great idea and doesn't do enough with it. The sixteen mission campaign is long enough (certainly not a brief three hour travesty), but the level design (and the action itself) is so extremely linear that you are never given anything in the way of tactics. The chosen variety of settings, covering Pompeii through World War II, tend to become repetitive (with the exception of the first) with unorganized skirmishes and lots of running between checkpoint objectives; at least the action is fairly constant. The objectives are clear enough, but only appear on your HUD when very close, requiring you to constantly refer to the map that covers the entire screen. Once you are finished with the campaign, there is no reason to replay Darkest of Days, thanks to the aforementioned linear level design and lack of multiplayer action (which could have been really cool, either in a cooperative or competitive setting). The period weaponry retain the slow firing speed and reloading of their real life counterparts, but are unrealistically accurate; this concession does make the game less frustrating, as you will always hit your mark if you put it in the crosshairs. Upgrading weapons by not killing important people is a neat dynamic ruined by allowing your AI allies to shoot them anyway. The AI, both friendly and enemy, is incompetent enough to make Darkest of Days really bland as a whole: your allies can barely hit anyone and vice versa, meaning you spend 90% of the game lining up stationary targets partially concealed by cover: not exactly scintillating gameplay. Add inconsistent graphics and you have a game with promise that fails to deliver.