Developer: Blue Omega
Release Date: Q4 2008
It's not really difficult to trace the development of shooter games to certain landmark titles. Once Half-Life got big, you started to see the inspiration of its story line and level design trickle into other games on the market. Once Halo hit, the idea of a regenerating health bar instead of the Doom-style medpaks took over, and Gears of War popularized cover movement and squad tactics that had normally been the dominion of super-realistic titles like Rainbow Six. Damnation is pretty clearly a post-Gears of War title, but it isn't really fair to call it a knockoff, because while it's heavily inspired by Gears of War, it's actually trying something quite unique. According to Codemasters, Damnation isn't just a shooter. It's a vertical shooter.
Damnation is set in an alternate timeline. Due to unexplained events, the American Civil War never ended. Instead, it continued to escalate, sparked on by military-industrial robber barons, who continued to pump out new technology in an attempt to maintain their stranglehold on the wealth of the country. The worst of these was a robber baron named Prescott, who by the 1900s, has turned America into his own private fiefdom, complete with an army of mercenary soldiers equipped with the finest weapons to roll off the Prescott assembly lines. You're put into the shoes of Rourke, a skilled gunman and leader of a group of rebels who are seeking to stop Prescott and put an end to his reign of terror once and for all. It's no "Casablanca," but the alt-history Civil War setting adds a neat visual flair and allows for a bit of freedom compared to the usual dank city or space station locales that most shooters choose to populate, which is quite important due to the vertical shooter concept.
The term "vertical shooter" may tend to make you think of games like Ikaruga or 1942, but Codemasters has something different in mind for Damnation, which is a third-person shooter built around the idea of battling on a vertical, not a horizontal, plane. The result is something not too far from Prince of Persia meets Gears of War. The basic gameplay is quite similar to what you'd see in any modern TPS title. Anyone popping into Damnation from Gears of War will find a lot of familiar aspects here. You can only hold two weapons at a time and switch between them at will, with the weapons we saw in the demo being made up primarily of shooter mainstays like the machine gun, sniper rifle and shotgun. The health system is straight out of any modern FPS, with a regenerating health bar that slowly recovers as long as you're not taking damage. As you can tell, Damnation's basic gameplay doesn't exactly turn the shooter concept on its head, but this is where the idea of vertical shooter comes in.
The twist comes in the fact that Rourke and pals are significantly more agile than their counterparts in Gears of War or similar titles. They can scale walls, hop over pits, shimmy up and down poles, and even slide down ziplines to get where they need to go. This makes getting from point A to point B a bit more of an involved process than the rather linear progression seen in most shooters, where jumping seems basically worthless for actual movement. However, your acrobatics in Damnation are not limited to travel; in the demo we saw, the heroes were capable of using these abilities to get into the second or third stories of buildings, allowing them to flank opponents, or simply get out of the line of fire. The controls from these acrobatics looked exceedingly smooth and easy to perform, and moving from gunplay to acrobatics seemed to require no effort at all.
The demo level involved Rourke and his team exploring the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to reach and destroy a bridge that was far off in the distance. It actually was a fairly interesting level, requiring his team to slowly make its way across tons of gaps by climbing buildings, swinging from flagpoles and discovering ziplines to cross over impassible chasms. The only problem with the demo is that, well, it didn't really show off the vertical aspect that much. While there was certainly some climbing and platforming involved, I'm afraid I never really got the feeling that it was more about climbing up than moving forward. To be fair, the developers assured me that this demo was only part of the first level, and the later stages in the game where two or three times larger and far more vertical.
In a vertical battlefield, a map would be almost useless. The overlapping layers would make it basically impossible to tell exactly where friend or foe was without causing the map to become a jumbled, overcomplicated mess. Thankfully, Damnation has a rather nice way of handling this. Rourke has access to an ability called Spirit Vision, the source of which is not yet explained, but it can be activated at the press of a button. Spirit Vision is a pretty basic concept, and not unlike what you've seen in games like Assassin's Creed. Activating it turns the entire game world into a ghostly see-through experience, with various enemies and allies surrounded by glowing auras. Using this, you can look around to get a clear idea of where everyone is on the battlefield, even without a map, and it also will provide hints as where to shimmy off to next.
Damnation will also boast a fully realized multiplayer mode. Although Rourke is the main character, another player can actually hop in and take control over one of the other members of his team at any time. According to Codemasters, this can either be done via split-screen or online play, not unlike Gears of War, with both characters being able to communicate and work together to defeat enemies. While Rourke's Spirit Vision ability is supposed to be related to his backstory, the developers mentioned that in co-op mode, both characters will have access to it, so no worries about your poor soldier being restricted because not being a magical cowboy. Sometimes the plot has to take a backseat to gameplay after all.
Graphically, Damnation was a pretty nice-looking game. The environments were large and detailed, and it was quite neat to see the team reach the bridge and be able to look back over the entire canyon it had just traversed. You can even spot the point where the team had started the demo. The weapons and characters had a nice visual Western-steampunk flair to them, which helped set them apart from most of the other third-person shooters on the market. I can't tell you how nice it is to have a cowboy main character as opposed to yet another identical marine in a power suit. Most impressive is the sense of scale. Everything feels correctly large, and if the vertical shooter aspect plays out as well as they promise, it should be a jawdropping sight when you actually come across something suitably large that needs to be climbed.
The Damnation demo only showed off a small part of the first level, and while we saw a lot of potential in the vertical shooter concept, the arena they chose to demonstrate wasn't overly good at showcasing exactly how a vertical shooter was different from a classic shooter. The ideas involved, however, are quite interesting, and if the later levels of the game pan out, Damnation could end up being a darn interesting addition to the rather bloated third-person shooter genre. It's a title worth keeping an eye on, and once actual assets are available from the later levels in the game, we should have a better idea of what exactly make a vertical shooter so special.
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