Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Blue Omega
Release Date: Q4 2008
I really want to like Damnation. For one, it's the product of the self-made, can-do spirit of PC game modding. The title that would become Damnation began life as an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod, which was actually entered in the Epic Games' first "Make Something Unreal" contest. It came in second place, behind Red Orchestra, which is currently available on Steam. The current, retail Damnation is running on the latest version of the Unreal Engine but otherwise is in the spirit of the original mod, a steampunk adventure set in an alternate history where the Civil War has lasted into the early 20th century. The single-player campaign puts an unusual emphasis on verticality, leaping, and other platform-like elements as part of gameplay, and this carries over into the multiplayer component.
For the multiplayer demo, six journalists were pitted against each other in the King of the Hill rule set. To win in this particular variant of King of the Hill, you have to climb up to a very high platform surrounded by a blue aura, and stay within the aura for a certain amount of time to build up "King of the Hill points." The game ends when 10 are acquired. Other players can become the King of the Hill by successfully climbing up to the platform and killing the current king, then staying alive long enough for control to pass to them.
Strategy can get more complicated than this once a player has mastered Damnation's admirable climbing, jumping and swinging controls. You can use the A button to make jumps automatically, with your character intelligent enough to grab onto ledges, horizontal bars, or railings instead of falling. Holding down RB while jumping allows a character to jump after getting a running start, or (oddly) to prepare to make very long jumps when dangling from a railing. A player who doesn't want to climb up for a shot at being king can use a series of daredevil jumps to reach a hidden platform in the corner of the map, and then wall-jump up to grab hold of a hard-to-see ladder that allows you to access what is truly the highest platform on the map. From there, you can grab a sniper rifle and camp out, hitting players on the top platform who have no idea what is happening, or grab hold of a cable that is impossible to see while on the king's platform and climb hand-over-hand until you hover above him. From there you could ideally draw a gun and then shoot the King to death, drop down, and huddle behind cover until you're king.
I say "ideally" because the first thing that seems obvious about Damnation's array of weapons (except the potent sniper rifle, which scored one-hit kills) is that they don't do much damage. Not once did I observe any player managing to take out another with a pistol, and even fire from machine gun and shotgun equivalents is soaked with alarming ease. The only damage that enemies seem to have a hard time soaking well is melee damage, triggered by the X button, which in Damnation's case involves merely punching the foe. Enemies who can take a dozen bullets to the chest will go down rapidly with three or four solid punches to the face. After a few rounds, virtually all of the players at the event started ignoring their guns in favor of running, jumping and punching enemies. It was not unusual to run into players who were circling each other at melee range, whirling in circles as they threw rapid-fire punches, trying to score the blows to give them a rapid kill. Someone behind me, laughing at the spectacle, mentioned the phrase "third-person puncher" as a more apt genre descriptor for Damnation. I seized the King of the Hill's spot by running up and punching him, and lost it to someone who ran up behind me and punched me in the back of the head while I was fighting someone else entirely.
Aside from the imbalanced melee damage and the difficulty of obtaining the sniper rifle, the unusual control scheme seems to figure into some players' decisions to play Damnation as a game of mega-punching. While you fire guns with the right trigger, as is standard in 360 shooting games, you have to keep the left trigger depressed in order to keep your gun out. Releasing the left trigger results in you immediately putting your gun away and going into melee-ready combat mode. The rationale behind the control scheme is obvious: By having your character put his (or her) gun away when the left trigger is released, the game makes it easier to engage in the crazy climbing and leaping on tall vertical levels that is Damnation's calling card. That said, having intense firefights with two trigger buttons depressed is uncomfortable at first, and the immense inherent strength of melee attacks dissuades a player from trying to adjust.
Where Damnation didn't disappoint even a little was in visual quality. The graphics are as sharp as one would expect from an Unreal Engine title, and the very strong sense of design does a good job of communicating the game's fun premise. In multiplayer, players can select from a variety of different character "templates" to play as, including a character who looks a bit like a cowboy wearing Boba Fett's jetpack, a hooded and armored character who feels a bit like a post-apocalyptic Altair from Assassin's Creed, a ninja-like character in a black bodysuit, and a girl who totes an enormous Gatling gun and appears to have some sort of mechanic arm. The tower areas that make up the map area are exquisitely rendered, with all the weather-beaten details of the aged metal standing out in relief. Likewise, individual character designs do a good job of feeling "other" without becoming unpleasant or alienating.
The environment of the map used in the King of the Hill battle is a hulking industrial skeleton, great towers of metal platforms jutting into the sky with no "ground" beneath them. Failing a jump in Damnation multiplayer means instantly dying and respawning. This mechanic didn't seem to dissuade gamers from trying out dangerous jumps once they were comfortable with the jumping controls, but did seem to result in quite a few players deciding to "play it safe" by sticking as much to solid ground as possible. Hopefully not all Damnation multiplayer maps will use the "bottomless pit" option, and instead give players more of a chance to immediately begin climbing again after taking a fall.
Still, there's a certain charm to Damnation's world of weather-beaten towers and cleverly concealed ladders. The pace of gameplay is rapid once players get comfortable with it, and unlike some multiplayer King of the Hill match variant rules, the Damnation King of the Hill never resulted in long, dull stretches of a single character dominating while also being somehow unable to win. There was constant back-and-forth from various players who wanted a shot at being the next King of the Hill as much as the actual king fighting for his territory. Matches tended to end quickly, in around five minutes, or rapidly degenerate into various would-be kings destroying each other from afar. When so many third-person shooters settle for multiplayer that is little more than a desultory deathmatch implication, Damnation's attempts to innovate are like a nice cool breeze wafting into a room suffering from a broken air conditioner.
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