Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: November 22, 2005
At every new console launch, there is always one must-have title which stands out from the rest and defines the next generation of gaming. Four years ago, that must-have game was this little ol' first-person shooter called Halo, a standout title that single-handedly made "Xbox" a household name. Well here we are four years later, eagerly awaiting the release of Microsoft's new home console, the Xbox 360. Among the launch titles are sequels to well-established game series, such as Project Gotham Racing 3, Call of Duty 2, Quake 4, and EA Sports' lineup. Microsoft's biggest-selling title to date, Halo, is nowhere to be seen, but hoping to fill that void is another well-known FPS, Perfect Dark Zero.
The question foremost on every gamer's mind: "Is this the new Halo?" The short answer: no. PDZ is a completely different game and shouldn't be compared directly to Halo.
Perfect Dark Zero is a prequel to the classic and highly rated N64 game, Perfect Dark. You play the role of Joanna Dark, a bounty hunter in training, as you work your way through a series of missions to stop no-good scum. The backstory is really not all that interesting, even by first-person shooter standards, but making things worse are the voice acting and cut scenes. Some of the voice acting is very well done, but there are plenty of times when you can't help but laugh at some of the characters' horrible accents. The script itself is laughable at times, and not necessarily in a good way.
The cut scenes in PDZ are all done in-engine and lack consistency. Some more than adequately get the job done and move the story along in a nice, clean matter, while others are totally over the top and so bad that they're funny. One example of the latter takes place after you finish the second mission of the game and corner the main bad guy in his office. It appears that you have him in your grasp, but he then does a Matrix-style backflip and appears to float out the window (he's supposed to be diving out, but the animation is really bad) before spinning in mid-air and landing safely on his feet a few floors below. With cut scenes like this and the questionable script, it's really difficult to take the game'ss story seriously, much less get emotionally wrapped up in it.
While this may seem like things are not looking too good for PDZ, the gameplay comes in and saves the day. It's not without its flaws, but it's quite good overall and helps to make the game quite fun. As you get ready to start a mission, you are greeted by Chandra, who will walk you through the objectives and give you more background to the ongoing events. You are then taken to a weapons load out screen, where you can select from the different weapons and gadgets you've found along the way. This is nothing like the complex equipment load outs you will find in games like Ghost Recon; PDZ's is very basic and doesn't really require too much thought. Taking a page from Halo's book, you are limited to how much stuff you can carry. You can get away with carrying a few smaller and medium-sized weapons, but large weapons like a shotgun limit you to only one additional small weapon. Many of the weapons such as the classic RCP-90 return from the original Perfect Dark, but since this is a prequel, quite a few are actually prototypes of the weapons found in the original, so they differ a bit in look and feel.
The gameplay itself is a lot like GoldenEye and the original Perfect Dark. Its pace is a lot slower than Halo and thus requires a lot more strategy. There are plenty of times where you can run and gun, but almost all missions require a degree of stealth. There are some missions where the game is over if you are detected by an enemy. More commonly, if you are spotted by a guard, he'll radio for backup, and instead of having to take out a few enemies, you now have to contend with 30.
It really pays to take cover and sneak around carefully, and aiding you in that bid is the ability to use most items as cover. When you move close to a wall or other object, the A button flashes on the screen, letting you know that you can use it as concealment. The game then goes into a third-person perspective, which allows you to stay covered while you look around the environment. You can quickly pop out from cover and take aim on the enemies by hitting the left trigger button, and as soon as you release the left trigger, you duck back out of harm's way.
You are not the only one who can use cover, though. The AI in Perfect Dark Zero is above average and knows its surroundings well. They often will take cover behind whatever is available and pop out to shoot a few quick rounds in your direction before heading back to safety. When you are faced with multiple enemies, some will take cover while others will attempt to flush you out by flanking you. Additionally, the enemies can see when you reload and will notify their friends that you are "out of ammo" and rush your position. This unique mix of stealth, strategy and action works quite well and makes for a very fun and enjoyable playing experience. The game balances these nicely, and each mission offers a good combination of the three.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not without some flaws. Looking and moving around the environments is a piece of cake, but problems and frustrations arise when you have to aim at a moving target or one that's above or below your elevation. The controls really lack a smooth, precise movement when you are lining up your shot so when you try to aim at an enemy, you oftentimes end up aiming too far to the left, right, up or down. You can hit the top left trigger to go into "aiming" mode, which makes things easier to hit when you are standing still, but you simply move too slow in that mode to use it in real firefights. What you're left with is a slightly more controlled form of randomly spraying gunfire all over the level. There are sensitivity options that you can tweak, but while they make you turn and look faster, they don't actually fix the problem by offering you any more control over your aim. This is really a shame because the game would be a lot more fun if the controls weren't an issue. As they are, PDZ is still very playable, and most of the time, you can still take out enemies without too many problems.
While the single-player campaign lasts a good while and is a very fun experience, Perfect Dark Zero is packed full of multiplayer modes. The game supports four-player split-screen, as well as two-player, split-screen co-op, but the heart of the multiplayer is its online play over Xbox Live. Supporting up to 32 players, PDZ features some great multiplayer modes that are split up into two main categories: Deathmatch and Darkops. The Deathmatch mode of play features your standard game types such as FFA Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CTF and Last Man Standing. These play pretty much the same as other games, except with the slightly slower pacing. Vehicles make an appearance here in the forms of a jetpack with a mounted machine gun and a hovercraft that is a great for transporting players or teaming up with a buddy to man the guns, like the Warthog in Halo.
Darkops is a round-based multiplayer game that has a much slower pace when compared to Deathmatch. This mode features several gameplay types, but they all follow the same main rules. In what is sure to be labeled as a rip-off of Counter-Strike, at the beginning of each round, you have a set amount of money with which to buy weapons. The amount of money you get is based on how many people you killed and what objectives you've completed. In most of the game modes in Darkops, you have only one life per round, and once you die, you sit out until the next round. This really makes things much more tactical, and the game does indeed play a lot like Counter-Strike. The big difference, however, is the fact that the damage is nowhere near as realistic as CS. Players can take an insane amount of shots before finally going down, although well-placed headshots will drop people in one hit. The only two issues I had with the multiplayer were the same problems I had with the aiming controls in single player and the insane amount of damage you can take before finally dying. Hopefully, the developers can release a small patch to address these issues, as they only need slight tweaks. Even with these flaws, PDZ's multiplayer is still a good bit of fun, and while it's definitely not the best online 360 title, it's easily at the top of the list.
Graphically, a lot of people have bashed PDZ for not looking "next-gen," but that couldn't be further from the truth. PDZ definitely looks next-gen and looks a bit better than some of the recently released high-end PC games. PDZ is filled with advanced effects such as parallax mapping and high dynamic range (HDR) lighting. The textures look quite stunning and are some of the most detailed out there, so why do a lot of people say that it doesn't look next-gen? Rare has opted to go with a more anime art and design style, rather than a purely realistic one, so while the game is technically impressive, many don't consider it to be "next-gen" because of the slightly more cartoony art style. In any case, the game is a true sight to behold; regardless of whether or not you are a fan of the art direction, you still can't help but be impressed with the graphics.
There aren't many problems to be found in the visual department. The game runs at a steady 30 frames per second and has no real in-game slowdown. For whatever reason, there is some slowdown in the cut scenes, even though they can often be less impressive than the actual gameplay. Also, Rare really went overboard on the specular shaders, and most surfaces have a wet plastic look to them, but it's not that much of a eyesore. While there are many good animations in PDZ, some clearly needed more time and could have used some work. One example is when some enemies run around and look like they're floating across the ground. The animation is not that bad, and it doesn't detract much from the rest of the visuals.
I tried my best to not to compare Perfect Dark Zero to Halo because in most ways, they are two completely different games offering two divergent experiences. I will say, however, that Halo is a far more polished game. There are areas in Perfect Dark Zero that come close to reaching the same level of polish, but it comes up just short. On its own, PDZ is a good title that does a lot of things right, and it makes a great launch title for the Xbox 360. It's not the masterpiece that everyone had hoped it would be, but I don't think anything could have ever lived up to the surrounding hype. If you're a fan of first-person shooters, chances are that you'll find a completely enjoyable experience in PDZ.
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