Thursday, October 01, 2009

Review: Darkest of Days

A guest review this time, once again from occasional contributor Psyclone -

If there is anything both incredibly sad and unfortunately common in the gaming world, it's wasted potential: games that look promising only to be ruined by rushing towards a deadline, ideas that sound good on paper but just don't translate well into an actual game or developers that have great ideas but not the talent or resources to create a game that does those ideas justice. Darkest Of Days, the debut game of Iowa based developer 8monkey labs, seems to be all three of those things; a game with an amazing premise that manages to fail on pretty much everything else.


You play as Alexander Morris, a soldier fighting in General Custer's army in the Battle of Little Big Horn. After you get an arrow to the leg, witness Custer's death and are just about to bite it yourself, a portal appears and a guy in a fancy space suit "rescues you" (it's kind of confusing: the guy gets an arrow himself, tells you to hurry and you suddenly go into the portal despite being paralyzed a few moments ago, but never mind), whisking you away to the 22nd century. You awaken in the (apparently one room) HQ of an organization called KronoteK. See, due to a paperwork issue concerning an early transfer, Morris was considered an MIA in the conflict, and KronoteK seeks out these MIAs due to their "recruitment" having a minimal impact in history and thus can be given a second chance at life researching and protecting history. As soon as Morris in brought up to speed by KronoteK higher up "Mother" (shown only as a pair of eyes in a computer monitor); the latter informs him that the organization's founder, Dr. Koell has gone missing and at the same time, disturbances has been appearing all over history, placing vital individuals in harm's way, requiring Morris and his new partner/mentor, Agent Dexter to aid in resolving the situation. It is also quickly established that said disturbances seem to be connected to another group of time travelers, known only as "The Opposition"...

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well, that constitutes about 70% of the story and the rest goes downhill from there. While the premise would allow immense variety by featuring several individuals to save all across history, the vast majority of the game (about 3/4 to be precise) involves you rescuing TWO guys, one from WWI and another from the American Civil War. Apart from two missions in Little Big Horn, one in World War II, and one in Pompeii the entire game (consisting of X missions) takes place in these two time periods. The plot justifies taking so long to rescue these two idiots by throwing an enormous amount of plot bullshit your way, ranging from beaming in several kilometers away for some reason, the two guys being needed to deliver vital-to-the-success-of-the-war stuff, to mistaking the person you're meant to rescue for his twin brother. To make matters worse, until the very end, we are never even TOLD what significance to history these guys have, making you feel like you're going on a wild goose chase.

And then there are the endless illogical elements in the plot, of which the arrow thing in the beginning is only the first: if KronoteK is so worried about preserving history, judging by Mother's reaction to the Opposition's first attack, why do they allow your mentor to give you several future weapons, going so far as leaving one in a farmhouse full of hostile soldiers? Morris was rescued by having the time bubble appear ''right in front of him''. Why can't we do the same with the other guys? Why does no one pay attention to the Union soldier who seems to appear out of nowhere from time to time and obviously isn't part of the unit mow down Confederate soldiers with a weapon looking, sounding and firing like nothing ever seen before yet panic at the sight of people with the same weapons yet wearing space suits? Why is there a mission where you're accompanied by two redshirts who go missing after the zeppelin they are piloting crash and are completely forgotten about once Dexter tells Mother a fib about them being fine and sure to come back soon? Why does the leader of the Opposition occasionally kidnap you between time trips to tell you that KronoteK are the bad guys yet sends you back every time to mow down his flunkies by the dozen? Finally, why does all of this culminate in an ending so abrupt, pointless and anti-climactic that it makes you shout "What was the point of all this?" The mind boggles.


The core mechanics of the game are standard FPS stuff: no fancy cover system, you can only carry 2 weapons at a time along with grenades, and each one has a (rather weak) melee attack for close quarters combat. The first gimmick the game introduces is the use of weaponry appropriate to the time period of the mission you're on: therefore you'll be using stuff like the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the Mauser C96 pistol in WWI; and the Springfield Musket, Henry Rifle and Colt revolver in the Civil War, amongst other weapons. While the weapons of WWI and your brief jaunt in WWII (more on that in a bit) are pretty decent, for most of the Civil War portions you'll be stuck with the nightmare that is the Springfield single-shot musket. Yes, running around with a gun that only fires a single bullet before having to go through an excruciatingly long reload process is fun for a while but it gets old VERY quickly. And yet that is the gun that 95% of all enemies are carrying so you'd better get used to it. Add that to the terrible AI of the game and you have some hilarious moments, such as enemies standing in the middle of an open field shooting at you, then reloading for about 5 seconds while you take out your sidearm and shoot them in the head. Or, if you have no other weapon handy, get involved in the Civil War equivalent of a quick draw gun battle, where you try to reload before the other guy does. It's as ridiculous as it sounds. Then there's the future weaponry: every so often Dexter will give you a future weapon whenever there is the need to perform "numerical adjustment" (as he puts it) to opposing armies. As fun as this sounds, most of the time he'll give you the futuristic shotgun or the futuristic assault rifle, which despite looking flashy are your typical FPS shotgun and rifle. In certain missions you do get access to cooler weapons (such as a weird rocket launcher/artillery cannon hybrid, an auto aiming machine gun and an awesome sniper rifle), but these are few and far between.

Speaking of reloading, another thing the game introduces is an "active reload" system: every time you reload your weapon, a circular meter indicating your progress starts filling up and if you press the fire button when it hits a green section along the meter, the reload process is immediately completed. However, if you miss, the gun jams making said reloading longer. This mechanic ends up being a godsend for most weapons (especially the musket) yet appears to be slightly buggy: every so often, instead of getting the "jam" animation, your character simply holds the empty weapon making you having to switch weapons and back again to be able to fire, in a matter that is clearly a bug, not a feature.

The final gimmick is blue aura enemies. These are people that while not apparently as vital to history as the (gold aura) people whose rescue is the focus of the mission, are still important enough to keep alive. What this means in gameplay terms is that they must be taken down by either shooting them in the legs or using a bunch of pebble-like devices called "chasers" that when thrown seek out these special enemies and give them an electric shock that knocks them out. Unfortunately, every so often these chasers, despite being supposed to come back when thrown will get stuck or you'll be forced to run away from the place where you threw them so there may be times when you have none available. Not to mention they have some trouble seeking blue auras when not in a specific range, so you may have to throw them several times.

But what happens if you kill these people? Well, sometimes (this was probably supposed to happen every time judging by the trailer. Yup, yet another bug) this causes a bunch of Opposition mooks to warp in, which, due to their better weapons and body armor, often cause your survival chances to drop. Not killing blue auras also gives you a bonus to upgrade points you receive at the end of each mission to upgrade your weapons (in clip size, reload speed, accuracy and rate of fire). Why these upgrades carry to every weapon you pick up is never explained but whatever. Time travel.

Now you must asking: is all this stuff placed inside a decent game? The answer is no: 80% of gameplay resumes to "Go here" and "Kill these guys". Sure, every so often you have to protect those ever-so-important NPC characters, but since they seem to be not only bulletproof but also have the ability to teleport near you if you go too far away, those "escort missions" end up being exactly the same as the afore mentioned "Go here" and "Kill these guys" objectives. Apart from a few decent set pieces (such as a jaunt on a zeppelin and a really atmospheric mission in a Nazi POW camp, the game's definitive high point), you have one of the most barebones shooters ever.

And if that wasn't enough we have some utterly bizarre design decisions: in one mission in WWI, mustard gas is released and you put on a gas mask. The mask ends up covering more than half the screen and judging by it's placement, you'd think they either didn't put the eye holes in the right places or that Morris is a cyclops. And then when you bring up the map, said map ends up being almost completely covered by the mask. That caused me to wander blindly for at least 5 minutes before realizing that the place where I was supposed to go to was the opposite direction of the way I was facing initially, which I could have easily verified if I could look at the map!

And then there's the invisible walls. Not only is there a game developer with the audacity to use invisible walls in this day and age, said walls are all over the place: not just the borders of the map, there are invisible walls around lakes, invisible walls around cliffs (despite the game having both swimming and fall damage), invisible walls around cliffs that you could easily climb otherwise, invisible walls in the middle of nowhere, etc. It seems that the only way to get around without bumping into an invisible wall is to strictly follow what the map defines as a road, in essence reducing the area show in your map to about 1/9th of the size.

And in the moments where you're actually shooting people? Most of the time it's pretty standard until the several times when the game throws a crapton of enemies at you, all of whom are capable of shooting you from really long distances without you knowing where the hell they are. Sometimes it gets so irritating that it just makes you give up and try running towards the next objective. And it works too, though it can bite you in the ass sometimes (one particularly embarrassing incident occurred when I, armed with only a Colt revolver and facing off against 30 Union soldiers made a break for it...only to face off against two armored Opposition members armed with machine pistols). As you can imagine, all of this makes for a very aggravating gaming experience.


There's really not much to say here. The soundtrack is pretty generic and repetitive, and the weapon sound effects at times make you feel as if you are firing BB guns or lighting firecrackers. instead of actual firearms. The voice acting is all over the place: the NPCs have pretty flat dialogue, Mother's voice keeps changing between accents, Dexter does a good job but his voice is COMPLETELY wrong for his character: he is supposed to be a New York firefighter who went MIA on 9/11, but he sounds more like a cowboy mixed with an Army veteran.


The developers have bragged in press releases and the like of their "Marmoset Engine", which allows them to render "Hundreds of enemies at once". Well, I can't fault them there: we do get a lot of enemies on screen at once and without any slowdown even on a mid-range machine. Of course, when the rest of the game looks like a PS2 title and all the enemies look the same with only a few different models here and there, that isn't much of an achievement. The textures are high-res but really repetitive. The level terrain looks incredibly dull and with hardly any points of reference, so you'll be stuck looking at your map most of the time (usually only stopping when someone is about to shoot you). The only exceptions to this are the aforementioned POW level and the final level set in Pompeii, which look rather neat but that ends up being too little too late. And even those levels end up being ruined due to the repetitiveness of the models: all of the great ambiance of the POW camp goes straight to hell once you find the guy you were sent to look the middle of a crowd full of models looking exactly like him.


Darkest of Days has some high points, but its merits in no way outweigh its flaws. It's quite simply a terrible game. It's so bad it's not even mock worthy: if there was an MST3K for games, this game would be the equivalent to Monster a Go-Go or The Beast Of Yucca Flats, in the sense that not even riffing can make it bearable. I know this is a debut game, but there is such a thing as aiming your sights too high and this what happens when you do. Recommendation: stay the hell away from this game. Darkest Of Days, indeed.

Grade: D.

Psyclone has, in the past, also reviewed Burnout Paradise for GBG.

1 comment:

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